Requiem for a Heems: An Obit for Das Racist

Vazquez_post-racist_utopia

On Monday, Salon informed the public that one of rap’s most innovative groups had agreed to call it quits. That’s right, Himanshu Suri (Heems) told audience members in Munich on Sunday night that the fat lady had sung. “You guys wanna know the secret?” Heems teased. “Alright, so I’m going to do some Das Racist songs, but Das Racist is breaking up and we’re not a band anymore.”

It all started with a massive joke.  Das Racist amassed Internet buzz and notoriety with the 2008 hit “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” in which Heems and Victor Vazquez (Kool AD) shout “I’m at the Pizza Hut!  I’m at the Taco Bell!” over an infectious beat and 80s video game zips and zaps.  The song relates the ridiculous story of trying to meet at a fast food joint on Jamaica Avenue while both narrators chat on the cell phone (“I don’t see you here dogg!”).  It seemed like the epitome of a throwaway meme, two hipsters riffing on how funny it is that two crappy fast food places merged and two people could get lost there—all with generous dollops of Atari swizzle.  Indeed, more than a few people dismissed them as little more than overeducated joke rap. “Thank god,” noted one Gawker commentator upon hearing of their break up. “The amount of attention they got for their fuckery made them the NYC hipster equivalent of a British boy band with the pre-teen set.” Yet, the group and the song were much more than that. The fact that they met in one of the rougher corners of one of the world’s most diverse places, Jamaica, Queens, suggested there was something more than just a joke one forwards and forgets.  That’s 50 Cent country.

Okay, so Das Racist did exist in the alternative rap universe—a space filled with backpackers, hipsters, bohemians, and others. Yes, many of these people are white, but few rappers poked at race like DR did.  Binaries didn’t suit them. “Hima and I are two weird, socially awkward brown dudes,” Vazquez told New York Magazine in 2009, “and we deal with that awkwardness by taking drugs and telling jokes.”  Accordingly, antics like impromptu and unsolicited drunken performances of Butthole Surfer songs in Williamsburg bars proved more common than one might imagine.  Their interviews, though not as scattershot and postmodern as those of fellow rap enfant terribles the Beastie Boys, often bounded around race, dismissing it, embracing it, and ultimately breaking it apart again. “I’m all down for purposefully alienating white people to a degree,”  Dapwell once noted. “But after a point, I feel like a clown because that’s not real—race isn’t real—and I don’t want to make it more real by constantly harping on it. Even though I love doing that, and do it all the time.”

Barbara Fields is judging us

Barbara Fields is judging us

As we often ask ourselves here at ToM: what would Barbara Fields say?  The venerable Marxist professor would no doubt appreciate Dapwell’s assertion that “race isn’t real,” but she may be less enamored of DR’s musings on whiteness and ardent embrace of a brown identity.

Das Racist approach this idea of otherness in a way that feels both playful and provocative, asserting their identities in a way that both reinforces their individuality and goofs on their stereotypes.

Nate Patrin, July 2, 2010

Almost no rap group has grappled so directly with questions of race, otherness, and identity, particularly the conflicted sense of self experienced by people who are neither black nor white in America. While the new Kendrick Lamar may be a dazzling  album, it traffics in fairly typical narratives grounded in Compton and South Central Los Angeles.   Even among alternative or “conscious rappers” like common or Talib Kweli, few really engage the dynamic of racial hybridity like Das Racist. Despite their apparent connection to such alternative rappers, they self consciously bristled with the category. Heems once told the Village Voice that he purposely chose beats that fans of Kweli would hate.   With that said, rappers like jazz-curious El-P still show up on Sit Down, Man, so they poked and hugged simultaneously.

In Das Racist’s music, class, race (“Black cop black cop black cop / you don’t even get paid a whole lot”), and consumerism (“Watch the gap, mind the gap, fall into the GAP”)  slam into each other like atoms in a Swiss supercollider.   Take “Hugo Chavez,” from their first mix-tape, Shut Up, Dude:

What’s really Indian, I don’t feel American. That’s probably why I be mixing up the medicine / somehow the spice game remind of the crack game, remind of the rap game

Was the spice trade inherently Indian? Was the crack game inherently American? Aren’t they both products of a sort of imperialism – one external and one internal? How much is this kind of discomfort driven by broader economic forces? One of the greatest things about DR is the way they jumbled up such weighty socioeconomic themes with shout-outs to academic theory (Eddie Said and Gaya Spivak), trashy pop culture, and hip-hop braggadocio.

Me and Maya Angelou playing Double Dutch, got a bubble butt /Said I liked you too then smoked two Dutches, that’s a Double Dutch my dude /I really like her views yes you could say Angelou’s my muse.

The song works on several levels, making fun of rap’s tradition of sexual essentialism  (Maya Angelou’s “bubble butt”) while also holding the literary reference close (“I really like her views, yes you could say Angelou’s my muse”).  Indeed, DR’s genius was to take the fussily pristine, often deadly serious world of conscious rap (everything from Kweli to the Roots to Aesop Rock) and make it fun.  They could talk about Taco Bell, weed, and “swinging my salami at any prom queen that want me” while invoking serious ideas and issues, all to a beat that actually rocked.  They sounded less like the school-marmish didacticism of an Immortal Technique and more like the hip-hop that appeals to folks other than earnest backpackers and the indie critics who like to rail against mainstream hip-hop’s crassness and commercialism.  DR brought a sense of humor to conscious rap and a sense of conscience to joke-rap.

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They called us joke-rap, we kinda weed rap / We just like rap, we don’t need rap/ could get a real job, only rap weekly / I don’t need rap, told you rap need me!

These lines from “Rapping 2 U” capture Heems and AD’s sensibility perfectly: couching hip-hop swagger (“I don’t need rap”) and cultural critique in a dodge that it’s all just stoner humor, a big lark.

Despite the breezy focus on weed and fast food, it’s hard to separate Das Racist from the post-9/11 era, in which American culture demonized people of color (the ticking time bomb/monster terrorist of 24, the ludicrous talk of Obama as a “crypto-Islamic” Manchurian candidate) at the same time that Asian and Middle Eastern characters became the must-have accessory in everything from LOST to The Office.  As a collection of brown skinned young men (Kool AD is Cuban/Italian American, and Heems is Indian), the members of DR likely found themselves stopped for “random searches” by the TSA more than once while on tour.  In fact, one could argue that DR’s raps, while certainly inflected by race theory and cultural studies, are as much about citizenship as they are ethnicity or skin color.  Lines like “Model Minority, no Dinesh D’Souza” or “Catch me in a van of Pakis getting lupid” certainly get at this issue.

What counted as citizenship in Das Racist’s world?  ToM has actually wondered about this in the past, noting how DR equated whiteness with Americanness and Americanness with consumerism.  The hyper-referential quality of DR raps can induce dizziness, but they often cited the blandest and most generic of consumer culture to discuss race and nationality: “We’re not racist, we love white people!  Ford trucks, apple pies, bald eagles! Yeah, Cheetos, Doritos, Pringles, Kraft Singles, Slim Jims, Sierra Mist…”  Here white is mainstream; it is the norm, the most boring and bland but also associated with things consumed by the majority—the most popular chips or soda represented being white and American, with the implication that anything different was the minority, the exception, the aberration.

This way of framing identity situates Heems and AD outside of the black/white dynamic, not making ethnicity or race about oppression or persecution necessarily (i.e., to be black/brown is to be disadvantaged, suspected, mistreated) but in terms of difference.  Many brown people in America can relate with this feeling of not quite identifying with Chuck D when he says “A cell is Hell, I’m a rebel so I rebel” or enduring the violent precarity of “driving while black,” but still sensing that one is apart, not the norm, regarded differently or viewed askew.  This is what brownness means in the music of Das Racist, and they articulate an emerging sense of brown identity shared by many people who find themselves distinguished from white and black America and mistaken for everything from Puerto Rican to desi to Inuit on a daily basis.

Understanding what brown identity means for DR is central to understanding their music and its resonance in early twenty-first century America.  Once pushed to the margins, missing in American schema that was either black/white or black/white/red/yellow, brown people have increasingly asserted their own identity in the last decade or so, retaining their more or less specific group identifications (Venezualan, Cuban, Arab, Pakistani, Egyptian, Hispanic, Iranian, Indian and so on) while realizing a greater sense of shared experience and interest.  Das Racist captured this sense of political subjectivity more than most artists, recalling the process described by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their 2004 Multitude:

Race is just as much a political concept as economic class… Neither ethnicity nor skin color determine race; race is determined politically by collective struggle. Some maintain that race is created by racial oppression, as Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, claims that anti-Semitism produces the Jew. This logic should be taken one step further: race arises through the collective resistance to racial oppression

Hence Dapwell’s astute observation that race does not really exist, in spite of the fact that race is so much the subject of Das Racist’s music.  To be brown means just as little as to be black or white or red or yellow—they are just colors in a Crayola box—but it still means something, something that Heems and AD and anyone with brown skin who has visited an Alabama Waffle House at 1 in the morning has sensed and understood.

It would be easy, of course, to dismiss DR’s posturing about race, ethnicity, and politics as just that.  These are two Wesleyan grads who grew up middle (or possibly upper middle) class and who majored in English and Economics.  One worked in the financial sector before rapping about “flipping in the ghetto on a dirty mattress” and his “pops who drove a cab.”  They can namecheck gruyere and roquefort and Jeff Mangum; AD can boast to be “the second Latin rapper to like the Beatles,” acknowledging both his familiarity with white middle-class culture while positioning himself slightly outside of it. They reach into the immigrant and minority experience to tell stories, even if they are not quite their own.  Of course, rock, rap, and country have a long history of artists taking on the points of view of working people and outlaws to sing from their perspective—everyone from Jay-Z to Bruce Springsteen have been questioned about whether the tales they tell are really their own.  This is a time-honored practice, even if the sense of grievance or marginalization does not entirely square with the artists’ privileged background.  In a telling story, journalist David Shapiro yearned to identify as a white Jewish male with DR’s own sense of otherness and persecution in America, despite the fact that he was, as far as anyone could tell, a beneficiary of whiteness.

i tell Himanshu that before they made everyone take their shoes off at the airport, they made me and my dad take our shoes off at the airport, and he laughs, and i am trying to indicate to him that there is an aspect of Das Racist’s paranoia about being treated differently for being brown that i feel too but it is hard to say something like that directly.

Everyone wants in on the exclusion/persecution game.  It is hard to tell whether a Jewish or Latino or Arab American systemically experiences prejudice that anywhere approaches the hardship and suspicion attached to blackness in America, but Das Racist has ventured into this largely undiscussed and unexplored terrain of color, ethnicity, and identity in their music, even as they joked about pizza, Michael Jackson, and “booty in the air.” It is a real experience and one felt by many people who are neither (or not quite) black nor white.  In their brief life, Heems and AD and Dapwell tapped into a rich vein of experience that many Americans have felt in the twenty-first century.

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Half Urkel, half Urquelle

In some ways, DR’s take on identity reflected what academics like Robin Kelley call “polycultural citizenship.” If multiculturalism has caught flack for leveling differences and erasing real inequalities between groups, the polycultural variant, according to Sunaina Maira, gets at something else. “[B]ased not on the reification of cultural difference that multiculturalism implies, but on a complex set of political affiliations and social boundary crossings,” Maira says,  “this nascent polycultural citizenship is embedded in the messiness and nuance of relationships of different groups with one another and with the state, and allows for political, not just cultural resonance, based on particular historical and material conjunctures.”

In other words, this form of membership never assumes a pure culture, pure politics or pure hybridity, but rather acknowledges the tensions that comes from pluralistic society.  Maira carefully notes that it recognizes different inequalities and the prevalence of “anti-black racism” in dominant culture and between minority groups. Though Maira focuses on immigrant Muslim youth in post 9/11 NYC, her general premise works here; after all, how many Sikhs found themselves identified incorrectly as Muslims since then? Groups like Das Racist surf a shared pop culture, one that most agree has grown more inclusive and less white over the last two decades, while sharing share political experiences, that though not identical, help  inform their world view and align themselves with other marginalized populations.  Granted, as Mark Brilliant has shown us, minority alliances remain complex entities that in historical moments can be at cross purposes, due, no doubt, in part to the “different avenues of discrimination” and different methods of redress required to remedy said prejudices. Still, Das Racist’s idea of citizenship appears to give wide berth to diversity and difference.  As one DR put it in one memorable line, “You, you are not me.  Me, I am possibly me plus everything that is not me.”

In outer space, reading Frankfurt School treatises

This is the heart of the DR phenomenon, and why it is so significant in Obama’s America, where an older, conservative constituency vies against a younger, browner, blacker, more tolerant coalition.  In the video for a standout track from Shut Up, Dude, “Ek Shaneesh,” the members of Das Racist and their friends wander the streets of Queens, “watching Tony Bourdain,” “reading Rumi,” “smoking hash,” “drinking beer” and name-checking “Eddie Said” and Arundhati Roy.  As a black man in white briefs and a desi friend dance exuberantly in front of the flags of India and Israel, pictures of Arab and Asian immigrants cut in and out.  Das Racist intone over and over again, “I am America.  I am a pickup truck.  I am America.”  If elsewhere DR equated whiteness with Kraft Singles and Americanism with Sierra Mist, Queens turns out to be as American as any other place—or more so.  This is what it means to be brown in Bloomington, Brooklyn, Atlanta, or Des Moines today.  And as DR makes clear, it is to be American, despite all the noise.

Little known fact: The “letter that was penned by a kid from Princeton” in the song “Luv It Mayne” was actually written by ToM’s own Joel Suarez.

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