After two genre-redefining mixtapes, a great album, and a year of solo releases, Wesalum rap outfit Das Racist is over. Waaaagh! Heems (Himanshu Suri ’07) offhandedly announced the split at a concert last week in Germany, and it’s since been confirmed by bandmates Kool A.D. (Victor Vasquez ’06) and Dapwell (Ashok Kondabolu) via various Internet sources.
Suri and Vasquez met here in 2003 when they lived on the same hall in 200 Church. Acquaintances during college, they soon discovered that they were pretty good at rapping. With a beat by Kalif Diouf ’11, their 2008 breakout single “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” had everyone asking the same questions: are these guys kidding? Are they even rappers? Are they smart? Should we be paying attention? The video for “Rainbow In The Dark” cleared up a couple things: yes, they were smart, and yes, they were pretty funny.
While their first mixtape—Shut Up, Dude—only furthered speculation about their rap group/postmodern-experiment status, their second—Sit Down, Man—saw their mindgames transition seamlessly into a bumpable rap album with big-name producers and guests. Also among the more listener-friendly elements was a more comprehensible articulation of the band’s racial themes. With a name like Das Racist and songs like “Who’s That? Brooown!” and “Fake Patois,” race was clearly among their concerns, but early listeners could be forgiven (or maybe kicked, depending on your point of view) for seeing it as just another element in the band’s tapestry of esoteric references and stoner jokes. “Sit Down, Man” had more lines like “White people, play this for your black friends/Black people, smack them,” but despite that and the higher production value, everyone still felt like they were part of something new, raw, and special by listening to it.
That all changed with 2011’s Relax, which was very different from its predecessors. The couch from the first two album covers was now on fire. So were the beats and the tone. The first lines on the album are, “White devils like it/I’m having coffee brought to me by white devils’ sidekicks.” Relax is an incredible album, but within a poppier and less funny context than the first two mixtapes, the band’s confrontational aspects (like their cuh-razy Conan performance) contained more than a hint of aggression. Songs like the title track, “Power,” and “Shut Up, Man” sounded like a band at odds with what they saw as their core audience and what its music meant to them. And despite murmurs of a new album, that was the last we heard from the group as a whole, until…
While heartbreakingly premature, the split isn’t too hard to figure out. Based on their recent solo mixtapes, Heems and Kool A.D. are headed in very different directions in response to the fame that neither of them saw coming. Many fans of the band’s early “so Wes” material were surprised to learn that Heems had worked on Wall Street before the group’s genesis; however, as he gradually switched the focus of his verses away from berserk metacultural vomit to more traditional hip-hop bombast, his stated artistic and economic goals solidified into a coherent identity. His first two mixtapes, Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom, have come even further than Relax toward the rap mainstream while keeping his Indian heritage and racial anger at the forefront.
On the other hand, Kool A.D.’s solo career has stayed firmly in the realm of the hyper-referential Dadaist experiments of Das Racist’s early songs. His first semi-high-profile mixtape was the eyebrow-raising The Palm Wine Drinkard, and while songs like “Titties Out” and “Girls and Women” were fun, they weren’t really rap at all. His follow up, 51, is a great Bay Area rap album that alternates between hazy, nostalgic beats and more energetic slaps by local legends like Young L and Trackademics. Kool A.D. has said in interviews that his favorite poetic device is repetition, and well, that’s what he does. Who would have thought that mumbling “Manny Pacquiao” over and over again would make a good hook? The lazy chill of 51 came up right against the abrasiveness of Nehru Jackets, and the gap between the duo suddenly became clear.
The breakup is tough to take, but it makes sense. The solo stuff hasn’t been as good as “Shut Up, Dude” or “Sit Down, Man” thus far, but now that they aren’t tethered to each other, they have the freedom to surprise people again. Whatever they do next, their legacy as resuscitators of legitimate hip-hop is already assured, with the recent boom in alternative New York rap directly traceable to Heems Greedhead label. So dry your eyes, Wesleyan; there are probably plenty of bizarre hijinx in the future.