Das Racist’s Politics of Dancing (at the Pizzahut Tacobell)

By Channing Kennedy Sep 03, 2009

That’s them on the right. I turned on ‘Show Related Videos’ to prove that this is a real song. Das Racist are an NYC post-post-ironic rap duo, notable for infectious melodies and stupid-cum-Dada lyrics. And unlike most avant-novelty rap acts, they’re not two smirking white guys; they’re a smirking Indian guy, Himanshu, and a smirking half-white-half-Black-Cuban guy, Victor. From what I can tell, their race comes up much more in their music journalism coverage than in their music; judging from the bait-laden band name, they knew that would happen from the start. I first heard of Das Racist back in May, when Abhi at Sepia Mutiny predicted that their internet hit "Combination Pizzahut Tacobell" was "going to become a favorite of desis of all ages." (I’ll leave it to you to decide if I’m hipsterly noting my familiarity with the band, or if I’m hipsterly noting my readership of Sepia Mutiny.) And then I forgot about them for a while, until I came across this interview with them in the Village Voice. There’s a lot of gems that point to an understanding of bohemia’s conflicted relationship with race — unwarranted discussion of whether NYC hipster enclave Williamsburg lacks diversity or is just segregated; Victor’s ‘good hair’; the noting of how fortunate it is that ‘Hindi’ and ‘hipster’ share an initial letter, rendering unpronounceable a pejorative portmanteau equivalent to ‘blipster’, followed by mention of the sociopolitical context of Indian hipsters wearing hipster clothes made in sweatshops in India. The real meat of the article, though, shows up when the guys are questioned alternately on their authenticity — first framed as ‘sociopolitical context,’ and then as ‘street cred,’ something always in contention for those rappers deemed ‘ironic.’ Instead of buckling under and cracking a joke (much), Victor and Himanshu take an opportunity to strike a blow against artist authenticity itself, alluding to its roots in race roles.

Did you immediately conceive of it as having a sociopolitical context? Are you commenting on American over-consumerism and corporate proliferation? Is this a joke that everyone thinks is a graduate thesis, or vice versa? H: EVERYTHING WE DO HAS A SOCIOPOLITICAL CONTEXT. THIS IS THE BURDEN OF THE MINORITY MAN. DID YOU KNOW THAT 1/3 OF ALL THREE-YEAR-OLDS IN URBAN AREAS ARE OBESE? I’M ALMOST POSITIVE I READ THAT ON THE INTERNET. V: WHY ARE YOU VALIDATING THE FALSE DICHOTOMY OF JOKES VS. SERIOUS SHIT? WHY ARE WE TYPING IN CAPITAL LETTERS?


Your PR materials insist that you "have a great deal of street cred." I am frankly skeptical. Can you elaborate? H: Rick Ross was a corrections officer, Ice Cube was the son of two college professors, Tupac was a theater kid in high school, Drake was on Degrassi, De La Soul are from the suburbs. The Clipse, Andre 3000, and Kanye have written and spoken openly about not having street cred, etc. I just mentioned like a dozen people with one biographical note about each of them that goes against the archetypal understanding of them, but I still didn’t actually describe who they were. These were all real people with long and complex lives who made/make real and effective art that has had an impact on black people and white people, rich people and poor people, Americans and the rest of the world. Bob Dylan was a college-educated Jewish man singing like a dustbowl sharecropper, and he got booed offstage when he went electric for sullying his folk purity, as if he had any to begin with. Do people get mad at Martin Scorsese for making gangster movies even though he hasn’t "lived the lifestyle"? I’m not arguing that context is useless for understanding art—on the contrary, there is no way to understand anything without context. My argument is for a less static and qualified idea of what "purity" is.

Das Racist doesn’t lay it out in so many syllables, but they’re in a unique position to point out how the questions represent two sides of the same race-role coin. Rappers of color — Black or Latino, to be specific — are either A. noble idiot thugs with street cred, or B. humorless intellectuals whose politics weigh a ton. Clever is OK, but ‘silly’ is not an option, unless your name is Shock G (it’s not). Even intentionally stupid, three-word dance songs are validated as part of a Scene or a Tradition — b-more, trap music, baile. White hipsters can rap silly and have gone to college. They’ll have no street cred, but they’ve got the option of being silly — nobody questions their artistic motives beyond wanting to be popular at parties. Another benefit of race neutrality, even in a ‘raced’ scene like hiphop — you’ve got carte blanche to have a good time without consequences. So what to make of Das Racist, who use their educated-hipsters-of-color status to provoke unspoken expectations about race and authenticity? Their very presence on the scene requires processing, and then they gotta go make silly rap music for fun? What’s the punchline to "white hipsters rap about fast food like this, but Indian / half-Black Cuban half-white hipsters rap about fast food like this"? According to Victor and Himanshu, Das Racist is a vessel to make "some jokes—mostly about race, though not necessarily consciously—over dance music that would serve to undermine it so Talib Kweli fans wouldn’t like it." I’m down with that. Our conversation about race roles, cultural ownership, and authenticity are too important to leave to lecturing backpackers. Half of those guys can’t even dance.