Shut Up, Dude/ Sit Down, Man
Victor Vazquez has what you’d call a fat beard. Sometimes, the beard gets a little grizzly—it shrooms out on the sides. Sometimes it’s trimmed closer to his face. He has long, curly black hair that he occasionally clips up on top of his head. He often wears glasses. He likes tank tops. He slouches. When he smiles, he looks a little goofy. He raps laconically, like he’s holding back. He punches the ends of his words. His dad is from Cuba and his mom is from Italy. His dad is black, his mom is white. He’s from San Francisco.
Himanshu Suri has a round, clean-shaven face. He’s got some chubby cheeks. He also has what you’d call long, curly hair—but different. It’s a shorter cut, where Victor’s hangs down at his shoulders. Sometimes it covers his forehead. He doesn’t wear glasses—at least, not in public, or not as often. He plays it straight more than Victor. When he laughs, it’s like he’s trying to hold in a hit. He raps full-voiced, punching the beginnings of his words. His parents are from India. He’s Indian. He grew up in Queens.
Victor Vazquez and Himanshu Suri look nothing alike, though one of the narratives following their group, Das Racist, is that people get them mixed up all the time. Misidentifying who rapped which verse is one thing—lazy, maybe, but understandable. On record, both guys seem more interested in the sounds of words than their meanings. They construct rhymes around poetic devices, rather than vice versa, and shoehorn in references from everything to Neutral Milk Hotel to W.E.B. Dubois to Martin Lawrence. Their vocal differences aren’t as pronounced as, say, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. In person, though, getting them mixed up—like The New York Times’ Deborah Solomon did in a recent interview—is a little more loaded with meaning. Victor Vazquez and Himanshu Suri look nothing alike, except that both dudes are brown.
Das Racist dropped two excellent mixtapes this year. The first one, Shut Up, Dude came out in March and, along with a series of low-budget videos, helped prove that Vazquez and Suri had more going on than they let on with last year’s (still incredible) novelty hit, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” Shut Up, Dude is front-loaded with knockout songs—an A Tribe Called Quest riff followed by a Billy Joel riff followed by the hit followed by a track that showcases the group’s actual rap skills followed by a concept-joke song with some hidden substance followed by a spot-on Ghostface satire followed by “Shorty Said (Gordon Voidwell Remix),” which is probably their best song. But Shut Up, Dude is also ragged and messy—the beats sound resolutely homemade, and Vazquez and Suri spend a good amount of time fucking around.
Both albums market Das Racist as a smart dumb group—able to out-literary-reference anyone, but content to wordlessly sing along to Billy Joel songs—which may be why ”Hahahaha JK?” has become their emblematic song: The chorus goes, “We’re not joking/ Just joking/ We are joking/ Just joking/ We’re not joking,” and it harkens back to the popularity of “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” when people didn’t know if these dudes were real or not. But that doesn’t really capture the essence of the group. They are serious, AND they’re not. The jokes are a major part of Das Racist, sure. They use humor to comment on hip-hop culture while immersing themselves fully into it; they have a profound sense of irony; and they juxtapose high and low culture in interesting ways. Even the Days of Our Lives sample driving “Hahahaha JK?” has a high/low culture axis built into it: Days of Our Lives is a populist show about rich people.
But, like most good comedians, Das Racist spend a lot of time picking at cultural scabs. Fittingly, their most fascinating subject is race. They appropriate no less than two phrases from A Tribe Called Quest, turning them into statements about race. On “Who’s That Brown?,” which lifts its title from Charlie Brown’s “Scenario” verse, Victor Vazquez opens Shut Up, Dude with a verse comparing himself to Elvis Presley and Larry Bird—two white dudes known for excelling in black arts. “Shorty Said” flips a line from “Electric Relaxtion” into a chorus that goes, “I like ‘em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian/ It really doesn’t matter ‘cause it’s all the same” Then, Suri lists people that girls have compared him to—Latin dudes, white dudes, black dudes, and Asian dudes. They compare themselves to Puerto Rican cousins, even though they’re neither related nor Puerto Rican. “Fake Patois” lists people who’ve pretended to have Jamaican accents—Jay-Z, Jim Carrey, Bad Brains. They equate Snow with Shaun Bridgmohan, which means that anyone familiar with those two figures will have his brain fried.
That’s what’s subversive about Das Racist—with their music, they eliminate distinctions between race; between joking and serious; between love of hip-hop culture and the ability to make fun of it. They do this precisely in order to call attention to the distinctions. The distinctions are important. Defining one’s self is important. To these guys, Das Racist is about deconstructing culture as much as it’s about honoring it—and that goes for hip-hop and race equally. You can’t begin to define a culture until you begin to recognize its intricacies, its ironies, and its contradictions—and on Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man they depict American culture better, and funnier, than just about anyone. “I am a pick-up truck,” Vazquez raps on Shut Up, Dude’s “Ek Shaneesh,” “I am America. I am America.”
-Marty Brown, 2010