The knock on underground hip-hop has always been that it's not sufficiently "fun." Hip-hop radio stations routinely light up with requests for crass, chorus-driven ditties (often of the Southern variety), while alternative rappers are too often dismissed as humorless and boring.
Sure, most people can agree that Mos Def and Sage Francis have skills. But intellectual, dyed-in-the-wool lyricists like Planet Asia, Elzhi, and Kam Moye have been nearly blacklisted in the hippest corners of the critical establishment. Many heads say their work puts too little emphasis on the concepts of flow, wit, and swagger, often sounding stiff and didactic as a result.
Enter Das Racist. In the post-Kanye era, these Long Island knuckleheads are an appealing package. Their mixtapes (Sit Down, Man and Shut Up, Dude) juxtapose self-deprecating asides and reference-packed wordplay with distended hooks. They're smart and hip enough for Brooklyn Vegan readers, yet their tracks are banging enough to entice drunk clubgoers. They rhyme about sexual and narcotic debauchery familar to fratty college kids, but they're beloved by hip-hop purists. In 2010, British newspaper The Guardian even heralded the trio as their generation's answer to Slick Rick.
Das Racist are scheduled to perform Tuesday, November 1, at Crescent Ballroom.
All this raises the question: Is Das Racist leading an underground hip-hop renaissance?
To be fair, the group is "underground" only in the most liberal sense of the word. With a Rolodex that includes collaborators as diverse as Diplo, Boi-1da, Dame Grease, and Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, Das Racist is a favorite among all walks of the industry. They have been featured prominently in such highbrow journals as The New Yorker and the New York Times. This fall, their video for the lovably raunchy "Michael Jackson" amassed impressive traffic on MTV.com. There's no denying Das Racist is gaining traction in the mainstream.
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In many ways, though, the group has helped inject new life into a subset of experimental hip-hop that hasn't regained its mojo since Definitive Jux folded almost two years ago. As assiduously postmodern as Das Racist purports to be, they're really a throwback to yesteryear — namely, the early 2000s, when chutzpah-drenched albums like Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein and Eyedea & Abilities' First Born shaped the zeitgeist of outsider culture in their images.
Das Racist's most distinguishable influences — new album Relax shares musical DNA with Kool Keith, MF Doom, El-P, and Timbaland (circa "Indian Flute") — are even weirder. Like its indie-rap ancestors, the group creates a cacophony of distorted lo-fi sounds that still resonate as bizarrely musical. The Bollywood-inspired "Punjabi Song" is one of the most surreal spectacles to be captured on record this year. Tracks like "Booty in the Air" and "Girl" likewise tap into the skeevier end of dance music, with thrumming, narcotic synths that for all intents and purposes could have been arranged during a marathon coke-and-ketamine bender.
It bears noting that the men of Das Racist take clear delight in the insidiousness of drugs. "I'm eating Ritalin and steak," raps Heems on "Middle of the Cake." (How does one enjoy food on Ritalin, exactly?) On "Brand New Dance," Kool A.D. flaunts his side hustle, pushing OxyContin. Most hilariously, "Power" features a verse from Danny Brown in his usual pill-gorging, dilated-pupil state.
They aren't the first rappers to speak plainly about excess drug use, of course. But unlike the mealy-mouthed hipsters and granola boho rappers situated next to them on collegiate playlists, Das Racist never fake righteousness. They are as playful as they are smart. In an underground rap scene that has grown all too pious, Das Racist have done something truly novel: they've decided to just enjoy themselves.