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The Scarlet & Black

Das Racist To Visit Grinnell’s Combination KFC and Taco Bell

If you can only name one Das Racist (DR) song, it is undoubtedly “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” and that is more unfortunate than the inability of emcees Victor “Kool A.D.” Vazquez and Himashu “Heems” Suri to locate one another in the Jamaica Ave fast food Duopoly. While giving the Brooklyn-based trio national attention (the third member is hype man and “spiritual guide” Ashok “Dapwell” Kondabolu, brother of Comedian Hari Kondabolu), their self-described “fast food idiot song” lacks the often complex, witty and hilarious lyrical structures found in so many of their best verses.

In fact, on “Rainbow in the Dark,” which directly follows “Pizza Hut” on their debut mixtape “Shut Up, Dude,” Kool A.D. packs an Arrested Development yacht-load of puns into four short lines: “All the cholos saying ‘Mira el joto’/Just because I rock the second hand Versace/Wash me, watch me/The second hand couldn’t even clock me.”

Their second, more politely titled mixtape, “Sit Down, Man,” brings even more frequently impressive rhymes over a range of beats by noteworthy producers, including Diplo (M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes), Boi-1da (Drake’s “Best I Ever Had”) and Sabzi of Blue Scholars, sampling everyone from Kraftwerk to Japanese artist Minmi to the Days of Our Lives theme song.

Though many (including Suri) consider Vasquez the better rapper, Heems can just as easily impress a careful listener as on the standout “Amazing,” where he ties physics to Harlem rapper Max B’s favorite phrase in only two bars: “I ain’t wavy, man I’m an ocean/Basic unit of life, Heems is a photon,” or by punning about his superiority as a rapper through artificial sweeteners, “These rappers wack as the movie Wackness/They saccharine, but they not Equal!” on “hahahaha jk?” And that is just the tip of the DR reference iceberg, which ranges from W. E. B. Du Bois (“W. E. B. Du Bois/ We be the boys) to Shaka Zulu (Chuckin’ Shaka Zulu type-spears for ears) to Clipse’s “Virginia” and No Reservations (I’m from Queens, man/Ain’t shit to do but cook/ Watchin’ Tony Bourdain/Plus I copped his book).

These two commanding mixtapes were released just six months apart in 2010, after which DR toured extensively. Then, in September of 2011, they released a proper album “Relax” to mixed reviews. The album certainly deviated from precedent, containing a straight up pop love song in “Girl” and a rather generic party song in “Booty in the Air,” both finding Kool A.D. singing instead of rapping. Since then, both Heems and Kool A.D. have released their solo mixtapes with the latter’s featuring almost only crooning.

Concert-wise, this changes little. I’ve seen Das Racist perform in Iowa City twice, both before and after the release of Relax and the shows were very similar. Both started with trademark opener “Who’s that? Brooown?” Both featured three clearly intoxicated performers and perhaps most uniquely, both saw heavy use of a “White Demon” sound byte repeatedly triggered using an MPC, often stuttered to “W-W-W-W-W-W-White Demons.”

To overlook the role of race, as many (white) critics have, including Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen, who misattributed a Heems line to Kool A.D. and failed to entirely correct it when called out, ignores a critical part of Das Racist’s music, and even their name, pronounced as though the “Th” of “That’s” was pushed together to form a “D.” Both Suri and Kondabolu are Indian, while Vazquez is half black and half white, according to Hari. But according to The New York Times and The New Yorker, he is of Italian and Cuban descent.

As a white male during the show, I felt a range of emotions from amusement, considering the group’s penchant for humor, to a certain awkwardness that stemmed from my inability to entirely separate myself from that label. These three brown men are not afraid to make white members of their audience uncomfortable. At one of their earlier shows in New York City they announced, “If you’re white and from the Upper East Side, go home! We don’t want you here.” Hari Kondabolu commented on this aspect of their show in his SPIN profile of DR, “it means more when there are minorities there to see privilege being flipped for a moment.”

DR’s lyrical relationship with race often revolves around subverting stereotypes (“You can’t smell me? I’m stinking!/ I’m Hindu Kush I’m Hindu Thug/ I’m drugs, I’m drums, I’m dubs, I’m love) playfully mocking whites (“White people love me like they do Subarus” and “Older white women say I’m very articulate” and “We’re not racist, we love white people! Ford trucks, apple pies! Bald eagles!”), as well as references to cultures outside White America.

Despite the prevalence of race in their songs, Suri downplays it by claiming, “I don’t think about [DR] in the context of trying to figure out American racism or institutional racism. … Everyone says we talk about race, but I just talk about being Indian.”

When DR takes the stage on Saturday, they will be loud, energetic, chaotic but controlled and most of all, fun. There will be no awkward silences between songs. Instead, their charisma and beats will compel an audience regardless of drunken stage antics. Plus, a little white guilt never hurt anyone.

Das Racist will be performing Saturday, April 7 at 9 p.m. in Gardner with opener Juke Joint.

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