Consider Das Racist
Since we’ve been considering the hipster here at PhD Octopus, I thought it might be fitting to analyze the interesting case of Brooklyn-based rap group, Das Racist, recently profiled in the New Yorker. On a superficial level, the group seems to exhibit a number of hipster-like qualities: they sport kitschy thrift store clothing like Mickey Mouse wife beaters and Bill Cosby sweaters. They make music videos based on 8-bit video games from the 1980s such as Tetris and Double Dragon. They seem to eat, breath, and sleep a brand of passive-aggressive, self-effacing irony associated with hipsterdom, and they reside in what is likely the hipster capital of the United States, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Using the hipster label to describe Das Racist, however, says next to nothing about the group’s actual music. In the course of this past year, the trio has released its first two albums Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down Man, which are both smart, funny, and politically-inflected. They rap about everything from the Simpsons, to Anthony Bourdain, to “reading Frankfurt School treatises that turn the average man into fetuses.” They also rap about smoking on doobies.
For all their casual pop-cultural references and jokes about smoking weed and drinking (and while Luce might nominate me for one of Andrew Sullivan’s Poseur Alert for saying so), Das Racist also manage to infuse their work with a self-consciously post-colonialist aesthetic pulled from the pages of Edward Said, Gaya Spivak, and Arundati Roy. (Authors the group’s two lead writers, Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez probably read while living in a Students of Color for Social Justice themed dorm at Wesleyan in the early oughts.) On their track “Ek Shaneesh,” they not only reference the above writers, but take their “subaltern” experiences as dope-smoking second generation East-Indian and Cuban-Italian Americans and place it at the center of the national story: “I am a pick-up truck, I am America”:
While Das Racist’s obvious humor helps ensure that their politics never come off as preaching, it also makes their intentions easy to miss. The group initially gained attention with their viral video “Combination Taco-Bell and Pizza Hut.” Originally cut as an afterthought, the song developed into something of a frat boy anthem. It’s doubtful that many of its listeners considered Suri’s later reflections that when one visits a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, “The space is transformed by a corporate language from one single physical space to a number of illusory spaces. These spaces serve to expand the illusion of choice. The space has been recontextualized. It’s comparable to covering walls with mirrors to make a room appear bigger.” Whatever it’s ultimate significance, more likely than not, many young men in college dorms sang along to the song once or twice and thought it was hilarious.
Regardless of whether their politics get through clearly, the group can rap. Their style ranges from a stream of consciousness craziness to some of the more standard hip-hop one-upmanship. On their track “Rapping 2 u,” Suri rhymes that, “Matter fact, all my boys in bands and shit/rappers mad, cause they got Costanza dicks/you know, like the show Seinfeld/Michael Richards make my fucking mind melt!” One of the great things about the group is that even with their rhyming proficiency, they also feel comfortable mocking hip-hop conventions, such as the common tendency for rappers to record vocals using fake patois.
All this to say that labeling a group like Das Racist “hipster rap” often shows a critical laziness at best, and smug superiority at worst. Just cause someone looks like a hipster, doesn’t mean you have to hate.