Das Racist (pronounced like "that's racist") are the class clowns of New York underground hip-hop, the smart guys at the back of the room who could probably take over the world if they wanted to but are largely content to hang out and crack each other up. They don't take anything too seriously, themselves included, but they deliver some seriously funny, sharp, and provocative commentary on pop culture, identity politics and consumerism in postmodern America.
After releasing two critically-acclaimed mixtapes — 2010's Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man — for free download, they're getting ready to roll out their first real, pressed-on-plastic, sold-in-stores album. Relax climbed into the iTunes Top 100 after its digital release on Friday and is available today on CD and vinyl from the group's own Greedhead Music label.
We sat down with Himanshu "Heems" Suri, Victor "Kool A.D." Vasquez, and highly caffeinated hype man Ashok "Dap" Kondabolu to talk about "Brand New Dance," a track from Relax that starts out as a loopy send-up of Rick Ross-style gangster rap braggadocio and ends up just plain loopy. There's some lackadaisical dirty talk from Victor about a girl named Candy and her three sisters, a part where Heems compares himself to a family of child actors from the sitcoms Smart Guy and Sister Sister and a line about otters Heems now claims to regret. Oh, and a disconcertingly catchy hook sure to lodge itself deep in your brain.
"Brand New Dance" also features guitar-heavy production from long-time Das Racist collaborator Patrick Wimberly (of Brooklyn indie rock band Chairlift), the result of an experiment with a new aesthetic they call "slacker rock rap." It's not the group's favorite track on the album, but it's a microcosm of the willful weirdness and wise-ass wit that define their style.
Getting these guys to talk about anything for more than a few seconds without veering toward the nearest punchline is nearly impossible, and don't expect them to let you in on the joke once they get there. We may not have walked away with many straight answers, but we did gain some insight into the group's creative process — and their comedic chemistry — as well as their thoughts on rockism, the ambivalent nature of "cross-over appeal" and the inherent strangeness of making music for money.
Why do you want to talk about "Brand New Dance"?
Himanshu Suri: You said to pick a song to talk about, and there were fourteen to choose from.
Ashok Kondabolu: I wrote and performed the song in one take. I was under the influence of Codeine cough syrup. I woke up two days later and the song had worked its way into the final track listing of the album. I was completely cut out of any of the splits, and I haven't talked about it because they told me if I ever told anyone they would kill me. But I ain't scared of you anymore, man! ... To be completely honest? I am scared a little bit.
Victor Vasquez: Dap's freakin' out on caffeine, we gotta walk him home.
AK: I had half a coffee. I've already surpassed my caffeine quota for the day.
HS: We like that song, we think it's a cool song. We wanted to talk about the "slacker rock rap."
That's your "new thing," right? What is that?
HS: It's like rap-rock, right? We were trying to go the Limp Bizkit route with the rap-rock.
Seriously, though. Why "slacker rock rap"?
HS: I wanted to play around with the ideas of "slacker rock rap" or "prog rock rap" or "psychedelic rap." I was listening to a lot of Pinback and Spacemen 3 and Royal Trux, and I was like, "How can we make hip hop more like this?" You know?
Earlier on in the recording process we were more trying to construct a weird sound than we were thinking about what was gonna come out. I remember thinking about being a group that has a lot of fans who also like rock, and dealing with rock-ism constantly as rappers. Like a lot of the people who might write about us or might work in the stores that should be selling our records would be like, "Rock'n'roll! Rap is stupid!"
Mike [Finito, Das Racist producer] called it "The best rap song ever you might hear on KROQ."
AK: There's a guitar in it. You can get a cross-over appeal with that guitar. [laughs]
Tell me about that guitar sound.
HS: Patrick Wimberly from Chairlift recorded and mixed our entire record and gave it that spacey feel.
AK: Pat played that guitar live, right?
VV: It was a bass.
AK: That gwa-nanananana --
HS: — that sounds like a bass guitar? It was a bass, yeah.
VV: I think he Varispeed-ed it.
AK: White people are very powerful! They can do anything!
VV: I know. They got crazy magics. [laughs]
When you made your mixtapes, your writing process was very spontaneous and rooted in freestyle improvisation. I gather you would often lay down your parts and immediately put tracks up for download without really listening back to what you'd recorded. Did that process change in making your first "real" album?
VV: It's still the case.
HS: I dunno, I listened to this one a bunch after it got mastered just to kinda sit with it and see which parts I got embarrassed about. There's about three parts that I still don't like hearing. But that's not bad for an album of fourteen songs of more than sixteen bars each.
I hate that random two bars [in "Brand New Dance"] where I go "...scholarly crime blotters and trees / Me on the beach, semi-aquatic like otters be." It was a real space-filler. A real two bars of face-spilling. It's cool to say, though. "Otters." Right?
AK: The beat was made first, and like, how many ways can you rap over that beat? If you "went in hard" it would just sound like a mish-mash. You had a good line after that. "If you see me on the street don't bother me."
HS: Yeah, somebody [on Twitter last week] already said, "Hey man, I won't bother you if I see you on the street."
AK: And you were like, "You already are, my friend."
VV: "You already illegally downloaded my album. So you did bother me, man."
HS: When we made something before it would just be like, immediately throw something up on ... Myspace.com? Remember that?
VV: Yeah. Goin' straight to the top!
HS: And then we were like, "Let's collect these and put them out."
VV: Should we get rid of our Myspace?
HS: No way. Love the Myspace. I've found some great beats on Myspace.
VV: For real?
AK: Hima co-discovered Soulja Boy but got edged out of getting credit for it.
HS: Yeah. And Justin Beiber. [laughs]
Victor, on your verse, it sounds like you actually flub your first line and then immediately do it over. Why did you decide to go with that take?
VV: 'Cause I'm a true artist, man.
HS: Yes, we're very lazy.
VV: Extremely lazy.
HS: Incredibly lazy. Even when someone else is behind the computer. It sounds cool, though, right?
When you do it live, you even repeat the "flub" part verbatim. You're just going to keep doing it like that?
HS: Yeah, it's fine.
Forever? For the rest of your life?
VV: Not forever. [laughs] Oh god.
AK: [raspy old man voice] "If you see me on the street don't bother me."
A lot of your songs, especially on Relax, involve a level of meta-commentary on the commercial nature of pop music, particularly the idea of pop as a grift or scam. How does that factor in to "Brand New Dance"?
VV: It's pretty straightforward. "It's a brand new dance, give us all your money." And then you need something to rhyme, so you say, "Everybody love everybody." White people can get behind that, right?
HS: Yeah. Hipsters, hippies ...
AK: It's an ill way to pander.
HS: Anytime we say anything we have to immediately say something to counteract it --
VV: — so that our music says nothing at all.
HS: "Give us all your money, but hey, love each other!"
AK: "You gotta love each other 'cause we ain't got no love for y'all."
HS: You always gotta make sure you say a lot but don't say anything at all. That's really what music is about.
VV: That's what anything is about.
AK: You gotta pass the heavy lifting on to the listener.
HS: Pop art, you know? We're trying to make a pop art masterpiece. We're taking over Keith Haring's Pop Shop space and just selling the record out of there. Yo, and we're selling it. We're doing it all ourselves. We're literally making the packages with our bare hands.
VV: We chopped up that Maybach and now it's gonna be in our Pop Shop. That's an "Otis" ref.
AK: We're like Keith Herring. ... I'm so hungry.
VV: We're just trying to make terrible, terrible, terrible stuff.
HS: Yeah. We're really trying to shake the fans off with this record.
AK: Half-assed pop music that will alienate everyone. (laughs)
HS: Oh and also this song's kinda sad. Peace out.
Wait — why do you think "Brand New Dance" is a sad song?
HS: A lot of songs on the record are a lot more poppy. I don't consider it to be one of them. I think of the album almost in two halves. Some of it's kinda darker and some of it's a little happier. I don't think any of its very straightforwardly one thing, but I think that song falls onto the unhappier side.
It's weird having to have money and make music to do it. I mean it's nice to make music to do it, but ... I dunno. That's how I really feel about that song.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.