Das Racist

Shut Up, Dude

(Mishka/Greedhead; 2010)

By Chris Molnar | 2 July 2010

There’s a special insta-Hell for comedy rap. Just take MC Paul Barman, who recently made a New York Times cameo showcasing his day job creating “personalized, hip-hop versions of the traditional Jewish wedding contract,” a mention that dispensed with his old career in about four words. The immortal line “my dandy voice makes the most anti-choice granny’s panties moist” has been out of print for years, the Times’ decade-old profile of Barman as a rapper on the rise seemingly forgotten. This particular injustice aside, any comedy rapper’s refusal to either pull a Paul’s Boutique (1989), demonstrating a hyper-awareness of the social issues and influences at the heart of the comedy, or just switch careers and start doing stand-up usually does indicate a special kind of unforgivable douchebaggery (hello, Scroobius Pip; I see you, Asher Roth).

Setting Das Racist—by all means gunning for that comedy rap dump—apart from their likeminded peers, Shut Up, Dude’s first single, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” approaches a kind of sublime, idiotic surreality, divisive along the lines of a Trash Humpers or an Awesome Show, Great Job!. The titular dilemma deepens throughout—with minimal change in cadence, slang, or vocabulary—the group’s conversational flow slowly morphing into a kind of stoned, post-structuralist Marx Brothers routine. But the easy charms of that song (singular in their usually verbose catalog) hide the kind of humbly brilliant boundary-busting that anchors this, the Brooklyn-based duo’s first mixtape. They take on Ghostface’s “Nutmeg” complete with Ghostface rasp, and if their flow isn’t quite as airtight—more cLOUDDEAD than Wu-Tang—the unflinching pop culture free association is still remarkable. That they pull it off at all is representative of a reverent streak that renders their running commentary on rap more admirable than insufferable. They don’t give a shit in the best possible way: never trying to push any of the buttons we knew we had, only trying to push ones that no one thought much about until Das Racist tried. What they do is “e-n-t-e-r-t-a-i-n-m-e-n-t,” as spelled out in the A Tribe Called Quest-sampling “Who’s That? Broown!”; that broad view of genre is maybe the smartest move a would-be gadfly could take.

Saul Bellow and Carlos Mencia both get lyrical mentions here, but there’s neither boast nor bite to Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez’s references. Maybe the most refreshing thing about Shut Up, Dude is how it sounds completely free of calculation. At this point in his career, Beck (another one-time joke-rapper) was writing songs like “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack,” ironically aimed at what Beck wanted anyway: to be famous; to be on TV. Perhaps a generational transition is at work in this case: when on the bouncy synth downbeats of “Don Dada” Das Racist namedrops some minor New York celebrities—“I shoplifted Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel / But I didn’t get caught like Kari Ferrell”—over plodding, stuttering synth, it’s more the work of a Flaubertian flâneur, wandering “up in SoHo” and ingesting the floating memes, than an indie darling desperately groping for notoriety-by-association like so much Pauly Shore made-for-Netflix cuts.

“All I wanted to do was make some jokes—mostly about race, though not necessarily consciously—over dance music that would serve to undermine it so Talib Kweli fans wouldn’t like it,” Suri told Village Voice. Their entire MO can be boiled down into the list of brown people they resemble on “Shorty Said” (Slash, Devendra Banhart, “That dude from Japan’s art / You know the dude who did the Kanye album art”), and in their cultural pinging they’re observational, even trenchant, without over-explicitly detailing the weirdness of being multiracial. Basically: skin color as metaphor for musical genre, conflated as the Ed Banger-ish beat and effortless raps drift away from reference points. They’re a smart alternative to navel-gazing MCs like Drake (who is of course dutifully listened-to on “Choochie Dip”), carrying the torch of trap-hop’s blissed out repetition but wedded to social commentary derived more from musical awareness than unflinching self-obsession.

Maybe the best point of comparison for Das Racist is the underappreciated ‘90s group Cibo Matto, whose similar lyrical themes—feminism, yes, but mostly race and food—also betrayed a love of silliness and repetition. “Chicken and Meat”’s chorus of “People in the street eating chicken and meat / People eating bacon all across the nation” is a dead ringer for the Viva La Woman (1996) breakout “Know Your Chicken” (“I know my chicken / You got to know your chicken”). But Cibo Matto’s oddness was often chalked up to a mishandling of English, the duo originally hailing from Japan, culture clash as bare and understandable as possible; Das Racist’s uppercrust bonafides (Wesleyan grads, like MGMT) and rap influence make such high-low supercolliding harder to write off, bringing up thorny class issues and enhancing their running commentary.

That total persona, the idea that one’s life, opinion, and art are totally inextricable, is Das Racist’s saving grace from the novelty bin, and when the second half of Shut Up, Dude starts to drag—like on the mumbly reggae ode to Arizona iced tea, “One Dollar Can,” or the too-quiet “I Don’t Want To Deal With Those Monsters”—it’s because their omnivorous, hyperaware scan of rap and pop culture professes a love for skits and asides as much as the “real” album stuffs. A mixtape with all singles or all perfectly constructed songs would go against their casual credo, their reliance on serendipity.

Das Racist have the chops to hit it big; the inexplicably viral nature of “Combination” even got them their own Times “up-and-coming-rapper” profile, just like Barman’s nine years earlier. But as the Times-referenced “listening to coke rap, listening to joke rap / listening to Donuts, listening to grown-ups / listening to Camu, listening to Cam too” line from “Hugo Chavez” suggests, there isn’t a genre they seem interested, above all others, in pursuing. So instead we have a fascinating album that attempts to write an impossibly new blueprint for rap: funny without trying to impress; proficient without having anything to prove; relevant without taking any particular scene seriously; imbued with a soulful sense of place—urban, disaffected, ethnic—but more interested in how that serves as fodder for jokes than in any big grab for meaning.