Das Racist is a New York City based rap group composed of members Himanshu Suri and Victor Vasquez.
Tell me a little about how Das Racist came together. When’s the record coming out?
Hima: We just kinda work on songs when we get time. We’re pretty busy with the other band and I’ve got a real job so it started as a fun thing to do.
Victor: We don't actually have a planned release date for our album, our PR people sort of made it up.
Hima: Yeah, we said we were gonna put it out on the anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation…that got sent around.
Victor: So people are like, when is “Shut Up, Dude” coming out?
Hima: “It was supposed to drop two months ago!”
Victor: Shut up, dude.
What made you attracted to one another, artistically?
Victor: (Pause) I was his RA in the Students of Color for Social Justice dorm. I got kicked out for a minute, lost my job, but then we were friends after that.
Hima: You got your typical college party cipher going on and some dude-bro will holler like, "yo, let’s kick a free style!" I’d be like, shut up, dude, I’m trying to spit some game here. But then eventually out of those ciphers it became clear that we liked rap and the same type of shit, had a similar outlook on things and decided to do one or two songs together, and every now and then we…it’s a pretty quick process for us. It’s like, go into the lab, joke around for two hours, spend 20 minutes on a song, joke around for two more hours, spend 20 more minutes on a song.
Victor: One take Hov. We’re kinda like Drake at Hot 97 reading off the BlackBerry, reading off someone’s laptop computer.
Hima: I actually spit off of my blackberry in the booth. Vic can't use his laptop anymore cuz our hype man spilled beer on it. We’re doing a YouTube TV show with our hype man who was also in the “Chicken and Meat” video, Dap, he makes an appearance, called “Chillin’ Island.” It’s just us kicking it on lawn chairs introducing segments of us kicking it on lawn chairs in other places.
So Das Racist is pretty unlike anything I’ve ever heard. What do you attribute that to?
Victor: I think both of us are a little hesitant to do something that sounds…
Hima: We never wanna do shit that people have already done. What musician does?
Do you feel like you’re filling a void, an artistic gap or is it more natural than that?
Hima: The whole thing, whether it’s recording or playing the live show, it just kinda comes up. It’s not something preconceived, at all. All art is an extension of a persons personality and our shit is some pretty straightforward identity art. There's an artist, Siona Benjamin, I'm very fond of. She grew up a Jew in India (they exist!) and so her art will be icons from hinduism, islam, judaism all rolled up into one. Instead of a sari-clad woman smoking a hookah she'll have a long straw leading into a Coca-Cola can for example. She takes mughal miniatures but does them in a very modern way. I like to think of our stuff as that. For me it's these Indian influences, American influences split between growing up a rap dude and then becoming a more rock dude - queens vs. liberal arts school, corporate life vs. music life, etc. etc.
Victor: When I heard (KIR)LEIF’s shit, I was just like, I’m going to change how I rap. That dude, specifically. M.I.A. did that too me too. MF Doom did that too me too. I think that like, MF Doom versus CanOx or something, of that whole group of "weird rap" folks, dude stands out.
Hima: MF Doom, Cam’ron and Ghost are like the three MCs I think our shit ends up sounding most like. They're not necessarily our top 3 by any means, though they're on "top" lists of ours but in terms of the product that comes out of us, that’s the triad.
Victor: In terms of the beats, it’s a lot of electro…
Hima: Yeah, we were really kinda into electro a while ago. Not so much anymore.
Victor: A lot of people make a rap beat and are like, “I wanna make this a rap beat.” The idea that you have to make a rap beat a "rap beat" is from the get a flawed way of thinking about it…there’s a lot of amazing shit coming out right now, like that Mario track. It’s not like a traditional rap beat but it’s on Hot 97. A lot of shit Wayne did you wouldn’t think every single person is the United States would be all about but they were.
Hima: A reason we’re drawn to the electro is because it’s a good way to undermine any kind of straightforwardness. “Oh, we can dance to this.”
Victor: Not on some "Spiritual, lyrical…"
Hima: Like that dude today who wrote about the crowd last night, some people were laughing, some people were dancing…
Victor: That’s kind of a good look. I’ll take it.
Have you been happy with the critical reception thus far?
Victor: We didn’t intend for shit to happen. Especially “Pizza Hut/Taco Bell,” everyone really feelin’ that song. My man Los from my old hardcore band in the bay, The New Earth Creeps, and who has done some production/collaboration with folks like A-Trak and Atmosphere… When we did those five tracks I sent them to him, and right of the bat, he was like “Pizza Hut/Taco Bell” is gonna be big.
Hima: We were kind of talking about how the popularity of that track sets the rest of our shit up in a way. Gives us a little more freedom…
It’s your “Creep.”
Hima: (laughs). Yeah, every band has that one joint that they eventually get tired of. I don’t think we’re there yet. But it sets it up in a way where we can kinda do whatever we want.
Victor: It’s set the bar low in some respects, but it’s not like it’s not us. It doesn’t like, not reflect us. The general sentiment about it seems to be like, oh, this is funny but there might be other shit going on…it’s almost like…we talk about this a lot.
Hima: We’re almost burnt out on talking about it.
How do you deal with the realistic aspects and financial hardships of the modern music business, forcing yourself to balance several things at once outside of your music?
Victor: I think anyone that doesn’t do it because they don’t really want to, whoever doesn’t take the time despite everything, they probably shouldn’t be doing it. Actually, it’s too easy to actually have that attitude, that's on some wack "bootstraps" shit that I'm wary of… I don’t necessarily know if that’s always true...
Hima: I think a good short answer is “immigrant work ethic.”
Victor: (laughs) yeah. Also the fact that we genuinely want to do this and we would be doing this even if no one was paying attention to it. We were doing this for a while before anyone paid attention. And if people stopped paying attention, we’d probably still be doing it. It probably would be better actually, because we wouldn’t be feeling all this pressure.
Hima: Sometimes I kinda like the idea of not even putting a record out.
Victor: We actually kinda talk about the idea of giving all our tracks away for free.
Hima: The actual making of the music isn’t time-consuming at all. We would be kicking it, in that respect, anyway.
Hima: Adderall helps…I got that health insurance!
Do people ask about Das Racist at your office, Hima?
Hima: Yeah, a few people know about it, mostly just joking about “Pizza Hut/Taco Bell.” Them and a lot of people also like suggesting song ideas? Which I think is strange. I wouldn't tell a rock musician which emotion in his relationship he should write a song about.
Is there a blueprint or a vision for what you want Das Racist to be?
Victor: But what band ever plans exactly what they wanna be? But we’ll see what we can do.
Hima: Yeah. Blueprint 1, 2 and 3. We want Das Racist to be Jay-Z.
Das Racist really tackles a lot of different styles and takes on some rather unconventional rap beats, where does that come from? It’s also somewhat DIY…
Hima: When I kick it with people that record rock music I’m just like, fuck man! You gotta know every little thing, the timing, 40 tracks…
Victor: But there’s also like, punk recorded music, that’s all recorded in one take, maybe three mics, leaving in mistakes and noise and feedback. I feel like we take that aesthetic and apply it to rap. I feel like Beastie Boys definitely did that…a lot of earlier rap is basically like punk rock in that sense too, Rammellzee, De La Soul, KMD, etc.
So it’s democratic?
Victor: Yeah. Punk rock was literally cheaper instruments, a cheaper means of production version of rock, post-punk was like a cheaper means of production version of prog rock…
Hima: We came in and broke it down…
Victor: Yeah. And rap was a cheaper means of production version of disco and funk.
The idea of sampling, taking all that work that this large well-oiled machine has produced and you repurpose it, you get the most out of that labor. I feel like a lot of people get intimidated when they’re making art…like art has to be a certain way, and I have to aspire to this, come with these pretenses, and it’s like, oh, I guess I have to do this. You never have to do anything. Do you, but do you in a critical way, think about who you actually are. “Do you” is actually complicated advice to follow sometimes.
There’s a big “tongue-in-cheek” element to your music? What do you attribute that to?
Victor: I attribute a lot of shit to the Internet. Most things.
Hima: We were kind of talking before how we are products of the age, we have access to everything. So it’s kinda like, you don’t listen to just one type of music, don’t just read one type of literature. I think a lot of music out there reflects that.
Victor: I think music has tended to diversify itself…all these “authentic” pockets of music, all cultural pockets due to globalization are forced to interact and interpret each other…like Muddy Waters was a sharecropper till he was 33 and when he moved to Chicago he brought his brand of country blues music (which was already an amalgamation of African styles and European styles) and brought that to a city where those two styles of music had converged in a different way (larger bands, louder instruments, a smoother, more "urbane" sound) by virtue of the act that the environment was different (more people, louder clubs, more access to various technologies, etc.). Industrialization didn't just effect commerce but culture too. Advances in farming technology put Southern rural black people out of jobs and caused a large influx of those people into cities to find jobs in factories; these people brought their culture, their music. Country blues mixed with Big band jazz music became electric blues which became rock and roll, and this is all because of the industrialization of the States which made the States less regional and more of a national culture. That’s why rock ‘n’ roll is so synonymous with what America is. You can see that same gesture being played out on a global scale with instances like Jay Z, Weezy, Kanye, and T.I. getting on a track sampling M.I.A. or Esau Mwamwaya doing a track with Vampire Weekend or basically all of Diplo's career.
Hima: If you go back to the idea of DuBois, double consciousness, black and white, Indian and American, you pull from those influences, and with the Internet, you can live in any world you want. Gumbo type shit—you can grab what you want and toss it in.
Victor: We paint spiritual landscapes on a canvas with our words! (laughs). No, but like we have a lot of varied, disparate or even contradicting influences and we’re just trying to figure out how to reconcile that. I feel like a lot of people talk about hipsterism and irony when they talk about us…irony, at it’s best, is being compassionate. At it’s worst, it’s basically being a dick. But irony is a legitimate means of critical analysis, you really can access real feeling and truths with an ironic lens…it’s actually an effective way of understanding a world as complex and contradictory as ours.
In the past few interviews we've had we keep mentioning that Langston Hughes poem "Laughing to Keep from Crying." Also that Madonna song "Laugh to Keep from Crying." Also that Smokey Robinson song "Dance to Keep from Crying."
Hima: It’s kind of a cliché.
Victor: But it wouldn't be a cliché if it weren't a basic truth. Basically we just try to make tired old clichés like that sound new so people pay attention to them again. That's kind of what pop music is, just this constant restating of clichés in a way that's novel enough to pass as new... Not just pop music but all art actually. Jun'Ichiro Tanizaki wrote about how art always contains an element of nostalgia and melancholy, pining for an idealized past or an idealized future. Like that Roxy Music joint "More than This."
There’s a Melville quote about art being melancholy in general.
Hima: It’s like that song “Everything is Everything.”
Victor: Lauryn Hill.
This is some original content…I need that every day…I want to do no reporting, just create content.
Victor: I just wanna kick it. That’s the second album, “I Just Want to Kick It.”
How do you transition from “Shut Up, Dude” to “I Just Want to Kick It”?
Victor: Well, they’re kind of the same actually. I just want to kick it, and to help me kick it, I need you to shut up.
Hima: Conjoining twins. You know the review’s going to be like, no, why don’t you guys shut up!
—Das Racist Interview