In 2008, the unknown Das Racist suddenly burst onto the hip-hop scene (as well as the blogosphere) in a big way with what became an Internet meme: the addictive “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”. The tune was a hit of sorts in cyberspace largely because, as with anything that goes viral, it seemed like a joke, the kind of thing you would forward onto friends who appreciated LOLcats humour. For those who missed it, the conceit of the track was that you had a bunch of Indian-American rappers (which, unfortunate as this may seem, seemed like a gag in and of itself) talking on their cell phones to each other while they were high on weed in a Queens fast food franchise and had no clue where the other party was, even though they were in the same restaurant. That, in and of itself, was funny in a Cheech and Chong stoner sort of way, but then there was the paradoxically catchy and annoying lyrics, which repeated over and over, “I’m at the Pizza Hut / I’m at the Taco Bell / I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” It seemed like a bunch of frat boys pulling a prank, which may explain the burst of ubiquitous popularity that the song received, but there was strangely something deeper at work here, which may also have something to do with its zeitgeist baiting.
In many respects, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” speaks to the vast saturation of consumer culture in America, and, on another level, posits that everyone is lost within the overarching franchising of all things pop – particularly when it comes to the level playing field of the Internet. Perhaps for that subconscious reason, the song struck a nerve, and with the addition of two free Internet-download mixtapes (2010’s Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man) this Brooklyn group became the toast of the hip-hop town, particularly in the hipster community. Indeed, with their encyclopedic raps about all things low-brow and high-brow, the duo of MCs behind Das Racist – Himanshu Suri (a.k.a. Heems) and Victor Vazquez (a.k.a. Kool A.D.), with perfunctory contributions from Ashok Kondabolu (a.k.a. Dap) in music videos and live performances – carved a niche that was one-part comedy and one-part astute social commentary. If anything, Das Racist, which takes its name from the amalgamation of a homage to early ‘90s rappers Das EFX and the catchphrase “That’s racist!” from Wonder Showzen, didn’t even feel like hip-hop. It was as though the group leaned heavily on the indie rock side of things, by ironically (in the hip sense) sampling the decidedly uncool Billy Joel (“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”) and the Doors (“People Are Strange”) as backdrops for their machine-gun-paced rhymes.
Now, Das Racist has released their first bona-fide record, or at least the first one the group wants you to pay for, in the form of Relax. The predominate thing you can say about the album is that the humour, while it’s still there, is a little more muted. Das Racist clearly want to be taken seriously or at least to make money. There’s no irony lost that the group is releasing the disc on their own aptly-titled Greedhead label. As a result, Das Racist has crafted a disc that is probably going to polarize fans. You’ll still want to love the group for their clever rhymes and name checks of all sorts of pop culture (or sometimes indie friendly) luminaries from Lady Gaga, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, Carly Simon, My Bloody Valentine and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, but you’ll find yourself balking at the album for its full-on embrace of the tropes of standard hip-hop. That is to say, Das Racist is now concerned about the bling, as well as, a little more uncomfortably, treating women as playthings and vapid airheads in equal measure.
What’s more, the sound of the group has changed. Rather than writing dippy club anthems that you can sweat over, the group is now crafting Public Enemy-style air-raid siren blasts of noise that you can use to rattle the windows of your neighbours as you blare the tunes from your Jeep as you drive by. The production is garish and loud, which sometimes comes as a detriment to the witty wordplay and banter, which you’ll have to strain your ears to sometimes hear. In a way, Das Racist is trying to be the hip-hop equivalent of the genre-mutating Radiohead, which isn’t merely some kind of backhanded comment. The group actually briefly quotes some of the lyrics to “Fitter Happier” on one of the songs here, “Happy Rappy”. Changes are definitely afoot, which is largely evident from a first glance of Relax’s album cover – the couch that the group sat on gracing the art accompanying their two mixtapes is on fire in the background.
The biggest change, as alluded to earlier, is that the group is now trying to cash in on the success of their viral hit song and two mixtapes. On “Brand New Dance”, they rap: “It’s a brand new dance / Give us all your money”, as well as bragging, “I got a credit card / I got a million dollars / I got a baby bird / I only feed her candy”. What’s more, on the title track there’s, “These days, I’m mostly focused on my bank account / I ain’t backing out until I own a bank to brag about.” “Get that money,” goes a throwaway line on “Happy Rappy”, and on “Middle of the Cake”, the group is practically rolling around in greenbacks on the floor with the line, “Money is money is money is money is money.” That line pretty much sums up the raison d’être behind Relax: make cash, and make it as fast as you can. It seems like such a preoccupation, it’s distracting.
In addition, Das Racist fall prey to one of the traps of hip-hop music, showing off their lyrical prowess when, in the past, they let the rhymes speak for themselves. Now, we get the boast “I’m fucking great at rapping” on “Michael Jackson”, and that’s before the group members begin complimenting themselves on their acumen on the mic: “Kool A.D., you good at rapping / Yo Hima, you good at rapping / Yo Victor, you genus Latin / Yo Hima, you Eric Clapton / Yo Victor, we going platinum.” Consider that three years ago, the group was more concerned about finding themselves in a fast-food joint as opposed to selling a million copies; the transition is, well, a little disconcerting. (It continues throughout the disc. On “Selena” we get: “I’m the fucking best / Best rapper alive, I swear to God man.”)
However, the most egregious thing about Relax is that it falls backwards in that time-honored rap tradition of misogyny in the lyrics, or at least a preoccupation with women as mere objects – which would be funny coming from Das Racist considering that on previous mixtapes they were so geeky that you doubted their ability to get laid. Here, one line goes “Kumbaya bitches / You flash us, flash you / Funk us, funk that / Burn air, vacuum / Now there’s a hot sauce for that ass, babe, Achtung.” An eyebrow-raising and decidedly uncharacteristic guest rap from Detroit MC Danny Brown on the song “Power” goes, “And she deep throat / And she licked my nuts / That’s the combination of licking dick suck”. Then, of course, there’s a bit more light-hearted song here called “Bootie in the Air”, which should be pretty self-explanatory. For those who need lyrical proof, you get: “She got her booty in the air / Like her booty was a cloud / And when her booty clap / Her booty clap loud.” That’s not the only place where women are portrayed as objects. On “Punjabi Song”: “Everybody fuck around, shut the fuck up / I can’t even hear what you’re saying, girl / Shut up ... / Yeah, girl, stick your butt up / Shake it all around.” And that’s not to speak of what appear to be a few slurs here and there against “fags” and “lesbians”. This is a startling change from “Coochie Dip City” from Shut Up, Dude, which was more of a nerdy profession of wanting sex than actually getting it. I’m not saying that Das Racist should be asexual; however, Relax at times comes off as angry and mean-spirited. There’s no humour in that.
Sonically, Das Racist, at times, reference other indie and hipster-friendly bands. “Girl” sounds like a mutant cross between a TV on the Radio song and Vampire Weekend (which is likely not coincidental considering Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij produces “The Trick”). “Selena” even conjures up the spirit of the rock-based Beastie Boys. There are also some nods to the group’s cultural background, with the bhangra chanting on “Punjabi Song”, courtesy of Bikram Singh, and “Michael Jackson” sounding quite utterly Bollywood. Overall, there’s a harder edge to the material here, which speaks to Das Racist’s bar-raising in terms of being perceived as not being a joke or novelty act anymore. What might be surprising, then, is that “Rainbow in the Dark”, which originally appeared on Shut Up, Dude, makes a reappearance on Relax, a bit of recycling that only serves to remind listeners at just how good Das Racist could be. There are boasts on that track, but they’re not quite so in your face. The song is dense, full of all sorts of agreeable pop culture references from White Castle to Don King to Donkey Kong Country. So when Das Racist muse, as they do, on closing track “Celebration”, “What can I give you that you would actually need?”, I would have to say more deceivingly simple rhymes that wind around like a labyrinth and contain hidden multiple meanings – rather than just blathering on about being the greatest rappers (you’re not) and wanting money (which you may or may not get).
On Relax, Das Racist, at worst, deliver an album that tries too hard to sound like every other rap album out there. Where once they might have been subtle in criticising the predomination of pop culture, Relax shows Das Racist wanting to now be a part of it. In doing so, Das Racist has traded in the currency that made them so special, and they now sound utterly pissed off in their modus operandi. They’re just bitching about the fact that while they may have Internet fame, they don’t have any money. Cry me a river. If that still sounds appealing, realize that unlike Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man, this is one where Das Racist is passing the tab over from themselves directly to you. In that sense, then, the joke is no longer in the Das Racist lyric sheet. Instead, it seems to be firmly planted on the listener.