Das Racist is not your typical rap story

Boston Globe, September 23, 2011

NEW YORK – Back in the day – that is to say, a couple of years ago – Himanshu Suri held down a suit-and-tie job channeling executive talent to Wall Street. That was before he became Heems, full-time rapper and music entrepreneur and one of two MCs in the absurdist and now extremely hip rap trio Das Racist.

“I had a lot of loans to pay for going to this stupid expensive college,” says Suri, now dressed in typical Das Racist garb: sneakers, below-the-knee shorts and a blue tank top covered, despite the summer heat, by some kind of shapeless red fleece. His eyes and hair display the look of someone for whom getting out of bed is a salient achievement.

As for the “stupid” college, Suri means Wesleyan University, where he met partner MC Victor Vazquez, a.k.a. Kool A.D. Later, after their ultra-goofy 2009 song “Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell” became a hipster sensation, the pair added Ashok Kondabolu, a.k.a. Dapwell, who went to Stuyvesant High School with Suri. Kondabolu’s role in Das Racist, which plays at the Middle East Downstairs on Wednesday, is amorphous but essential: hype man, dancer, agitator, and semi-straight man when the silliness gets too extreme.

On this day, the three are marinating on First Avenue, having just spent two hours DJ-ing rowdily and uncensored, for East Village Radio, the Internet station that broadcasts from behind a tiny storefront window in New York. Gnawing on a prosciutto-and-truffle pizza, Suri picks up the story of his corporate days.

“I was a headhunter,” he says. “I was hiring traders, sales people, portfolio managers who dealt in emerging markets, like Argentine debt and [stuff], and also commodities like oil and gas …”

Vazquez interrupts. “Did you see `American Psycho’?”

“Yeah. That was about me.”

“I feel exactly like that movie in a lot of respects,” Vazquez announces. “He’s actually killing people. It’s about ambiguous morals and what money does to you.”

The conversation heads off on a tangent. Iconic finance-world movies – “Wall Street,” “Boiler Room” – are listed and compared. Somehow, this leads to an unprintable discussion that has to do with various forms of sex.

The ADD vibe of the exchange, plus the irreverence, rudeness, and underlying smart-kid body of knowledge, are characteristic of Das Racist. Their brand-new album, “Relax” – on Suri’s Greedhead label, which marks the first time they are selling their music instead of giving it away for free – continues the compulsive dropping of endless arcane references and free-range jesting of their 2010 full-length mixtapes, “Shut Up, Dude” and “Sit Down, Man.” But that is also who they are in person.

“This is how we hang out,” Suri says.

“It’s a lot of sentences that start, `Imagine a dude,’ ” says Vazquez. “Like: `You know what would be crazy? Imagine a dude …’ “

Everyone dissolves into giggles.

But here’s the thing about Das Racist: They may be annoying – try setting up an interview time with them, let alone keeping the talk coherent – but they’re good. Vazquez and Suri are excellent rappers, more than a cut above the backpack rap nerds (black, white, and other) who typically emerge from privileged schools. Kondabolu’s shtick as a hype man and third wheel is one with a proud hip-hop history.

The music is good, too: layered, inventive, and well made, with star producer Diplo along with Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend and Anand Wilder of Yeasayer all contributing tracks to “Relax.” Das Racist even once recorded a song with cerebral jazz pianist Vijay Iyer.

As for the songs, many, in Das Racist fashion, double as provocations. The ridiculously catchy “Michael Jackson,” on the new album, is no reverent tribute but a glitchy mash-up driven by the repeated chant of “Michael Jackson! A million dollars! You feel me?” and accompanied by a phenomenal, outre video.

Elsewhere on the album, “Booty in the Air” might or might not be a satire of Southern hip-hop sex odes. The hard-charging “Power,” featuring Danny Brown and Despot, who are also on Wednesday’s Middle East bill, has an unflattering line about “white dudes from Boston” that should make for an amusing moment at the Cambridge show. And loose talk about race is everywhere.

That last element is a thread so central to Das Racist’s oeuvre that it also gave the band its name, a play on tiresome cries of “That’s racist!” Pulling back the often thin membrane that separates critical talk about race from self-parody is for this trio an instinctive specialty.

Now, of course, they claim to repudiate the name. “We all hate it,” Kondabolu says. “I don’t like the way it sounds to my ears. And a lot of times, people see us on the street and they’re, like, `Racist!’ “

“It yields a lot of wack jokes from people,” says Vazquez. But they say they also hate bands that change their name, so Das Racist they will remain for now.

And that’s OK, because whether they like it or not, Das Racist is making its own little contribution to America’s endless wrangling with origins. Vazquez, who is black, Cuban, and Italian from San Francisco, and Suri and Kondabolu, Indians from Queens, inhabit an ambiguous brown zone from which they can issue wry commentary based on experience while also remaining detached and ironic.

And while the musical references they mention in conversation come straight from the hip-hop lineage – Ghostface, Jay-Z, Drake – Suri also brings up his love of Indian movies, and a track on “Relax,” “Punjabi Song,” features a bhangra singer from Queens, Bikram Singh. Even Vazquez, who says he’s often mistaken for Indian, cracks a joke about the radical Hindu right wing.

But dwell too much on the Indian aspect or the group’s pan-racial appeal, and Das Racist swat that topic away, too, like all the others.

“The food and the women are good,” Kondabolu says of growing up Indian. “The rest of the culture – terrible.”

“It’s always nice to see brown kids at our shows, and say, What up,” Kondabolu adds. “But I don’t like anybody, so it’s like, get away from me. Figure out your own [stuff]. I was a loser, and then me being a loser became cool …”

He loses his train of thought. “What?”

Vazquez concludes for him. “Don’t do drugs, kids.”