Post-modernism was slow to come to rock music. Indeed, it wasn’t until the late 80s-early 90s that rock finally became comfortable mixing the high and the low, finally allowed itself to become humorous and self-deprecating. Hip-hop, by contrast, is fundamentally post-modern. Cutting up old songs to construct new songs, using the record itself as an instrument: these methods are emblematic of the post-modern project. All of which is a very pretentious way of saying that hip-hop is by nature fascinating, thought-provoking, and fun. Early records like Paul’s Boutique and 3 Feet High and Rising are full of the kind of hyper-referential, base-to-brilliant language endemic in “post-modern works.” These records took themselves seriously as art without taking themselves seriously. Of course, about 10 years ago hip-hop began to take itself very seriously (for better and for worse), but in the last few years, winking irony has found its way back into the music through the likes of MF Doom, Odd Future, and, perhaps more than anyone, Das Racist.
One would expect a fairly complex mix of high and low cultures from a rap group featuring two Indians from Queens and one Cuban from San Francisco who met in a dorm at Wesleyan, and the only rap group of which I am aware with its own fan fiction. After releasing two excellent free mixtapes last year, the group set out to record their debut full-length Relax, released via Greedhead just last week. The record is full of complex rhyme schemes and bone-rattling beats, but what strikes the listener first is the sheer volume and variety of arcane cultural references. Or, to put it another way, it leaves you thinking, “what the hell are they talking about?”
That’s what I thought, anyway, so I did some research. Below, I bring you a breakdown of some of the record’s more intricate and puzzling references. Feel free to listen along on Spotify or anywhere else you can find the record. And I promise: no more footnotes.
1. Relax– “A local institution/Life of the party/With him and at him/Brown Chris Farley/ Kalapani Kalidasa/Vijay from Pyassa/Wiles out at night/Can’t breathe through his nostrils”
This line comes from Himanshu Suri, aka “Heems;” it is the first of many references to Indian culture that mystified me; it is not an exaggeration to say that said culture represents a gaping chasm in my knowledge base (in which, I imagine, I am not alone). It is also the first of many seamless transitions between Western and Eastern pop-cultural references, a hallmark of much of Das Racist’s music.
There are three characters in this line. You all know you Chris Farley is; there are few comedians in the past 20 years who more deftly strode the line between laughing “with him and at him.” The other two are Kālidāsa and Vijay, both poets; you’ll note the oh-so-postmodern comparison of comedians and poets. Kālidāsa was a 4th century poet who wrote his works in Sanskrit. One of the greatest artists of antiquity, Kālidāsa has been praised for his expert use of upamā, or similes, figures of speech on which most of modern hip-hop happens to lean heavily. Vijay is a character from the 1957 film Pyassa (or The Thirsty in English); he is a struggling poet whose poems are sold as scrap paper and who ends up in a mental hospital. Ultimately, he runs off with a prostitute. Grim!
As for the term “Kalapani” that modifies “Kālidāsa,” it translates literally as “black water;” the term originally referred to an Indian taboo on crossing the sea, which left individuals separated from home and family. When many Indians emigrated to the UK around the turn of the 19th century, they were subsequently referred to as “Kalapani;” typically these were servants accompanying their British masters. Nothing to laugh with or at there.
Das Racist – “Relax”
4. “Middle of the Cake” – “Pocket full of loud, yeah I got that Fran Drescher/I’m straight up out of Queens but ain’t no tech up on my dresser/Just a bunch of dusty books and a statue of Ram/Or Hanuman, a big framed poster of Veerapan”
If you had blocked out actress Fran Drescher’s excrutiating whine circa 1999, I apologize for dragging it back into your consciousness. In any case, she is loud, and she is from Flushing, Queens. She is also the United States’ Public Diplomacy Envoy for Women’s Health Issues and a survivor of endometrial cancer, so I’m going to stop making fun of her now. Ram (or Rama) likely refers to the ancient Indian king regarded as Vishnu incarnate, although perhaps it referes to the DC Comics character based on said king, which exists. Hanuman is another incarnation of the divine of whom some quite large statues have been built. Veerapan, a more contemporary and non-religious figure, was a high-profile kidnapper, mass murderer, elephant poacher and ivory smuggler who was killed by Indian police in 2004. Like many in the rap world, he didn’t care for snitches.
5. Girl – “These days we need infinite rest/From Infinite Jest/Legs so long that’s an infinite dress”
Infinite Jest is the ground-breaking 1997 nov…oh, nevermind, you know what it is. Anyway, yeah, what I said earlier about post-modernism.
7. Happy Rappy – “Young Charles Ponzi, Wakka Flocka Fonzie/Sippin Don P’, Dong-la siege of Africa/Buddhist zooted, they write down my Agatha Christie mysteries/Offer Rick Ross, gold chain Mr. T’s/Open every cell at Attica, sellin’ Acuras, it’s a commercial/Room full of Draculas, big commercial”
Das Racist came into public consciousness through the song “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” a meaningless gag-rap if there ever was one. It might be difficult to accept, then, that their songs are filled with social commentary, but they are, and there is no better example than “Happy Rappy.” There is a clear message here, to my ears anyhow, is that popular hip-hop is essentially another vehicle through which white people exploit people of color. Hence the connection between the famed con-artist Charles Ponzi and popular street rapper Wacka Flocka Flame; hence the Acuras being sold to inmates at Attica; and hence (my favorite part) the reference to Agatha Christie, whose greatest-selling novel And Then There Were None, a work that generated millions of dollars, features the murders of ten criminals who “got away with it” on a place called “N***** Island.” Now that’s a room full of Draculas. Note that Siege of Africa refers to this article in Forbes India from 2009 that outlines the modern economic colonialization of Africa by China and India; this is almost certainly the first time Forbes India has been referenced in a hip-hop song.
Das Racist – “Happy Rappy”
8. Booty in the Air – “Booty in the air!/Booty in the air!/Booty in the air!/Shake it all around!”
Yeah, there’s not much to explain in this one.
10. “Punjabi Song” – “Young Amitabh, I’m a Don/Single Malt Neat, I prefer Oban/or that shit aged, twenty-five year McAllan/Mommy drunk quick ’cause she only eats salads”
I included this primarily because that last line is hilarious. However, we’ve also been a bit slow on our alcohol coverage lately, so for your information:
-a bottle of Oban 14-year scotch will run you 70 bucks
-a bottle of McAllan 25-year scotch will run you 650 bucks (!)
And, for completeness sake, “Amitabh” is Amitabh Bachchan, the star of numerous Indian films including 1978’s Don, in which he plays a powerful, Interpol-hunted crime boss as well as a look-alike of said boss named Vijay. Cf the previous reference to Veerapan. And also, for that matter, to “Vijay from Pyassa,” in which that Vijay’s identity is also mistaken for another. This is getting pretty self-referential. And confusing.
11. “Selena – “See me in Miami, 20 Cubans in a Dodge van/Do it for a large fan to Bart Vale/Said it before, I don’t care, I’mma star, man/David Bowie Starman/John Comforter — oh, fuck, I didn’t know how to say John Carpenter — Starman/Seminal work, Stanley Brakhage, Dog Star Man/Where we at, San Diego? Carmen/Suckers is butt, they need Charmin”
Talk about the mixing of high and low culture! In three lines group member Kool AD goes from a legendary experimental filmmaker to a legendary educational computer game to a legendary brand of toilet paper. These guys are clearly not gumshoes.
Das Racist – “Selena”
12. “Rainbow in the Dark” – “Catch me solving mysteries like Wikipedia Brown/It’s the future get down/We make a sound even if nobody’s around”
Solving mysteries like Wikipedia Brown…kind of like I’m doing in this column. OK, perhaps cultural references have become too easy to uncover and analyze in this era of easy information; certainly the future, the present, indie music, and this website are full of sounds when nobody’s around. Perhaps this is the inevitable endgame of postmodernism: a world in which every arcane fact is bound to every other arcane fact by a hyperlink, and yet there are still men staying up by the lonely light of a MacBook, trying to link them even further. That sentence might refer to Das Racist, or it might refer to Frontier Psychiatrist; the two are now forever hyperlinked. Now that’s what I call postmodern.
L.V. Lopez is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently previewed upcoming fall releases and reviewed Watch The Throne. He is quite self-referential, but more from vanity than irony.
This claim is justifiable, but I won’t justify it here. Mostly this was just an opportunity to insert a footnote into an article about postmodernism. So meta!