Das Racist Delivers Irreverent Sarcasm

Crimson Arts Interviews the Brooklyn-based rap group

This article about Das Racist almost never happened. I picked up this assignment last Saturday, April 14, and quickly emailed the group’s publicist, as well as its frontman, Himanshu Suri, known more colloquially as Heems.

Saturday night passed. No response. By noon on Sunday, the day of YardFest, I still hadn’t heard anything. At 5 p.m., when YardFest began, my email inbox sat inactive. At 6:30 p.m., when Das Racist took the stage, I still hadn’t heard from them, and at that point I didn’t expect to.

This wasn’t particularly surprising. It’s not that Das Racist refuses to talk to the press or actively avoids them; it’s that they have such a devil-may-care attitude that doing things like scheduling interviews takes more effort than they care to exert. Before their performance, Heems posted to the Das Racist Twitter account, “Harvard today. I am sleepy but I will rap. -H” (Coincidentally, the time of the post is exactly 4:20 p.m.)

A Das Racist set is—probably intentionally—the opposite of refined. Heems and his fellow MC Kool A.D. (Victor Vasquez) and their hypeman Dapwell (Ashok Kondabolu) put on performances that are not so much rehearsed showcases of skill as they are parties: the rappers are aloof, laid back, and seem like they are singing along to someone else’s lyrics rather than they are performing their own.

During the show, Heems spends half the time playing air guitar with his microphone. Kool A.D. picks up an equipment box clearly marked as belonging to The Cataracs and carries it around on stage like a boombox. Dap bounces around the steps of Memorial Church in blue, one-piece coveralls. Somehow, Kool A.D. ends up wearing Heems’ shirt and three baseball caps simultaneously, and at one point, Lakutis—DJ and long-time group affiliate—grabs a half-eaten bag of chips being offered to him from the crowd and unflinchingly proceeds to pour the bag over his head, because, what else is he going to do? Eat them?

At 6:50 p.m., in the middle of their set, Heems posts to his personal Twitter account, “Kid in the crowd look like @harryfraud. Tweetin while rappin. Harvard.”

But I still have no idea when or where I’m supposed to meet these guys. It turns out not to be an issue. As Heems leaves the steps of Memorial Church and makes his way back to his green room—a repurposed seminar room in Sever—I walk up and introduce myself, and he invites me to come along.

My first question is about where Das Racist got its name from. The more verbose answer to this question, as I’d gleaned from prior articles about the band, has to do with taking some of the seriousness out of racial commentary. But to me, Heems simply responds, “It was a stupid decision. We regret it.”

I ask how they thought their set went. “It was fun. Harvard knows how to party,” Heems says with a smirk. It’s difficult to tell if he is being genuine or sarcastic, though I suspect the latter. “I had a great time. This one half-Asian guy in the front crowd knew all the words so I walked up to him to give him a hug.”

I start to ask my next question. “Whenever they announce the artists for YardFest every year—”

“—Everyone gets upset,” Heems finishes, clearly aware of the predictable whining from the student body. However, Heems seems to think the anger is justified. “They’re probably right. We’re pretty overrated.”

“In what way?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll milk it up while we can,” he says.

By now, Kool A.D. has also joined us in Sever, and I ask if they have any other plans for tonight. Heems is intent on having dinner with his girlfriend and her mom, while Kool A.D. contemplates an invitation someone handed him for a party at The Owl Club later that night.

“After the show, someone handed me a thing for a party, but I might just go back to New York.”

Kool A.D. reviews the show with an apathetic grade of “All right,” and Heems is quick to chime in a sarcastic tone, “We thought it was great. Harvard is so fun.”

Later, hanging out in the green room, Kool A.D. starts drawing some characters on the blackboard. The first is a puffy-eyed man with rabbit ears smoking a blunt. The second is a cat with six breasts raising one of its arms in a waving motion. Content with his creation, he turns away from the blackboard, pauses, and then returns to the drawing for sole purpose of adding a vagina.

Both Heems and Kool A.D. say that “Rapping 2 U” is their favorite song to perform. “I like my verse on it, and I rap good,” Heems says. One of Heems’ rhymes on the track states, “They called us joke rap, we kinda weed rap / We just like rap, we don’t even need rap.” The lyric encapsulates Das Racist’s hyper-referential, racially- and socially-conscious style. It is clear from spending time with the group that they don’t take themselves too seriously. As for their self-proclaimed distinction as members of the so-called weed rap genre, I ask Heems if the group did anything to prepare, in a sense, for the concert. “Uh, nothing,” he says. “We did nothing at all to prepare. We don’t really care.”

Despite their apathetic demeanor and winking, critical comments during the show, the band seems to have had a pleasant Harvard experience. Earlier in the day, on the steps of Sever, Lakutis gives me his thoughts on the Harvard student body: “I think they’re hot as shit, and they’ve got an ass that won’t quit.”

—Staff writer Brian A. Feldman can be reached at bfeldman@college.harvard.edu.

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