One night last February, Himanshu Suri—one third of the New York rap group Das Racist—took to his blog and began answering the many, many questions fans had sent him. White fans had apologetic questions about being white. Suri responded to each in what seemed like deadpan: “GOOD LUCK.” South Asian and bi-racial fans had complicated questions about identity and assimilation. Suri responded with what had begun to seem like sincerity: “GOOD LUCK.” After a few hours, new variations emerged: “I DUNNO.” “I’M SORRY.” “WHITE GUILT IS SUCH A DRAG.” Then, eventually: “YER KILLIN ME. CHILL OUT YALL.”
Evidently, this is what happens when you rap about the myriad weirdnesses of being brownish in America. Maybe it’s why Suri always looks tired: Imagine being constantly engaged in Serious Conversations About Race! The title of every Das Racist release so far is a phrase you might want to yell during those discussions: mixtapes called Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man, and now their first proper album—out in September on Suri’s own Greedhead label—Relax.
“I really didn’t know what to tell them,” says Suri over dumplings in Chinatown. “I’m trying to figure out a much more complicated thing over here—worry about your whiteness later!” He’s sporting a new beard and haircut but the same Panda Bear T-shirt he’s worn in most photos lately, as if he never has time to change. “If anything, being in this band has taught me it’s more than just race—race is just the part my brain seems drawn to thinking and talking about.”
Also laughing about: Das Racist’s approaches to both race and hip-hop thrive on the kinds of offhand jokes that aren’t actually joking. See, perhaps, “GOOD LUCK.” Or their name, Das (That’s) Racist. The track “Shorty Said” was a list of people that Suri and fellow M.C. Victor Vazquez, a.k.a. Kool A.D., have been compared with, from “a chubby Jake Gyllenhaal” (Suri) to “the dude from The Passion of the Christ, Jesus Christ” (Vazquez). In the single “Michael Jackson,” Suri boils hip-hop boasting down to its essence, “I’m fucking great at rapping!”
Suri raps as Heems and comes from an Indian family in Queens—as does his high-school friend Ashok Kondabolu (a.k.a. Dapwell), who serves as the group’s hype man and joke generator. Vazquez is Afro-Cuban and Italian, hails from the Bay Area and balances Suri with a much more alert, mischievous style. The two met at Wesleyan, and they still keep up a giggly dorm-room patter, in which jokes pass between them until a topic’s cashed—say, a riff on Baha’i (“the Girl Talk of religions”) or a hypothetical that ends with Kondabolu being controlled by rats (as in the movie Ratatouille). Full appreciation requires following the large number of their gags that are rap-nerd puns.
The same spirit reigned on their early recordings, but on Relax, Das Racist has ceased to sound like a lark; now the trio is flexing its skills, putting strange, funny, and surprisingly pop-friendly spins on perennial rap tropes like money, fame, and the music industry. It’s Das Racist’s first release that’s as good for dancing in public as for smoking in dark apartments, thanks to colorful production from both big names (Diplo) and collaborators from the Brooklyn indie scene (Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly). Suri rattles off a deadpan list of chart-topping “inspirations” for it—Black Eyed Peas, Flo Rida, Pitbull, Fergie.
The album’s also proof that they’re not being ironic goofs or, in their phrasing, “shitting in the temple of hip-hop”—just making refreshing use of a few good jokes to cut through the foggy way we usually think about identity. “We’re in a position where we can actually alienate people and make them think about race,” says Suri. “I’m a middle-class, educated, Indian dude. I can go up there and antagonize people, and if it doesn’t work, I go get a graduate degree. I’ll be fine.” At shows last winter, he’d ask all the people of color to come to the front of the audience and even ask all the white people to go home. Audiences consistently found this hilarious but did not exactly comply.
“I’m all down for purposefully alienating white people to a degree,” says Kondabolu in a mock-professorial tone. “But after a point, I feel like a clown because that’s not real—race isn’t real—and I don’t want to make it more real by constantly harping on it. Even though I love doing that, and do it all the time.” A little antagonistic ribbing certainly hasn’t prevented them from having white fans, enough so that they get picked on about it. “But you know it’s the white kid in the fitted cap who’s complaining about all the white people at the show,” says Suri. Then, laughing, another joke-that’s-not: “Besides, how am I supposed to make money off of just people of color?”