The primary goal of those truly astute comedians who center their acts around observations on on race and racism is to extract some degree of deeper understanding from their audiences. For them, there is no greater offense than crowd ambivalence. The disappointment in audiences’ failings is the reason Dave Chappelle divorced a fifty million dollar contract and fled to Africa to save his sanity. It’s the reason Chris Rock’s early stand-up routines were philosophically based in a contemptuous rage for the world and many of the people sitting before him. And it’s the same reason Das Racist (composed of three well-educated men of color) allow themselves to fall into lackadaisical stage performances at shows where, it’s important to add, the audience is typically composed of white, college-aged males who are all too eager to repeatedly chant the chorus to “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” but not consider why the song is so devastatingly funny. If Das Racist concerts were frequented in the majority by folks of color, it’s certain you would see an entirely different display of the trio’s very substantial rap skills rather than the lampooning they derive from the attendant status quo.
The three members of Das Racist, MC’s Heems and Kool A.D. and ever-present hypeman Dapwell, are the greatest hip-hop comedians working today, and the modus operandi revealed in their two 2010 mixtapes, Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man, was a delirious blurring of the line between hip-hop music as it’s commonly practiced and rap as performance art. For those critics who found themselves baffled by the question, “Are they serious?” the group has become an albatross of sorts. It’s one thing to immediately call foul on an outfit like Insane Clown Posse who obviously have no problem with exploiting themselves (and their audience) for the greatest financial gain possible, it’s another thing altogether when Das Racist manages to operate in a way that stimulates both the funny-bone and the rap acumen detector of heads who really know. This group often treads on hallowed rap ground (that nebulous realm called “realness” you hear so much about) and they do it so well that it can’t possibly be a joke. At least not all of it.
Relax is Das Racists’ official debut album and if you’re accustomed to the crew’s steez on Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man, it will sound familiar. And if you’re an obsessive tinkerer of iTunes playlists like I am, you’ll find that it’s not hard to construct a superior album from the group’s sprawl of online material that came before. That’s not to call Relax a disappointment, it’s just to say very little stock should be put in the phrase, “Das Racist’s official debut album.” It’s also more evidence that specific criticism directed at Relax’s fourteen tracks isn’t as important as the ongoing narrative of the group itself, something you might call: The Das Racist Corollary (more on that in a minute). Sure there are signs on Relax that the group is evolving. For example, the tongue-in-cheek hook on “Brand New Dance” where the boys deadpan, “It’s a brand new dance / Give us all your money / Everybody / Love everybody,” suggests a crew ready to turn their underground hustle for identity capital into some very tangible corporate scratch. There’s real advancement of skill too, especially from Heems who is simultaneously DR’s best MC and also its most aesthetically lethargic. His autobiographical verse on the title track is the most revealing and focused he’s ever sounded. It’s hard to imagine the rapper spitting this serious while checking his email and swigging from a bottle of champagne on stage, two things I’ve witnessed him do in person.
Indeed it’s hard to know exactly what these guys are getting at without seeing them do their thing live, and it’s especially difficult to locate the social nuances in a track like “Michael Jackson” (Relax’s first single) without watching the accompanying video — it should be noted SSG Music’s Nikki Benson deconstructed it quite well, here. Their ability to send-up club anthems and Bollywood soundtracks (“Booty in the Air” and “Punjabi Song”) and then turn around and rap their fucking asses off (the basic but thunderous knock of “Shut Up, Man” which also features a fierce turn from El-P) is enough to confound and delight overly-pensive listeners. For those lulled into complacency from having to think too hard over the question “Are they serious?” it’s enough to just smoke something and sing along with the group at shows, the place where The Das Racist Corollary is most acutely realized.
For Heems, Kool A.D. and Dapwell, it must be a surreal experience standing on stage in front of thousands, rapping and telling their jokes, but knowing the majority of folks don’t understand, or, worst of all, don’t want to understand simply because a natural immunity has afforded them the convenience not to. In the event you encounter a monolith as intractable as white privilege there is really only one thing to do: turn the joke on the monolith itself. When Das Racist show open disdain for white folks in their audience, calling them “White devils” and such, they’re only being partially facetious. When Heems joked on “All Tan Everything” that white people can’t even go outside without getting “the skin cancer,” it wasn’t just a goof but also a boast of the advanced philosophical and physical states shared by people of color. This crew gets its pathos from the same fundamental state of being as Public Enemy, Dead Prez, Boogie Down Productions and other equally unfunny hip-hop groups throughout history who find their drive within the same complex of inequity. Das Racist are just channeling their anger differently. They’re also more forgiving then their rap brethren because comedy is, by way of its nature, a more inclusive platform than say, music videos in which group members wield guns. In other words: White people aren’t scared of Das Racist.
In the end The Das Racist Corollary can be reduced to one of hip-hop’s monumental ironies: If a safe place were to exist for performers of color, where a true expression of self could be practiced without judgement or pretension, you would think it would be on stage or on a record, places where the artists themselves are responsible for the curating and where the audience is voluntarily visting, presumably with an open mind. Turns out, in hip-hop, that’s not the case. There are plenty of genre tourists. Das Racist know this and they allow the knowledge to inform their reaction to those at cross purposes with the music’s intentions. In a CMJ review of Das Racist’s February 3rd show at New York’s Highline Ballroom, the writer says the concert “was like watching a party that you weren’t invited to, and weren’t willing to leave or actually join.” That’s a fairly inaccurate take on what Das Racist is about. Their party is open to everyone. The folks who find themselves standing quizzically on the outside are the ones who haven’t truly opened the door to the amusement.