“Who’s that? Brooown!” Das Racist as Queens Rap

This is lightly-edited transcript of a paper I delivered at the 2012 IASPM-US/EMP conference at New York University.
 
If the Internet is to be believed, the music of Das Racist can simultaneously be categorized as stoner rap, thinking man’s rap, slacker rap, nerd rap, hipster rap, political rap,  joke rap, meme rapfree association rap, rap for white kids, multicultural rap, ironic rap, post-ironic rap, and even post-post-ironic rap. While these categories aren’t mutually exclusive, this categorical clusterfunk points to the most common trope regarding Das Racist—that is, that they defy easy categorization. As one online commentator asks, “does this band want me to dance, to laugh, or to join a protest? Can I do all of those things at once?” DR themselves label their music “a little bit of column A, a little bit of column B” on the track “Don Dada” (the title itself is a mashup and puns on the art-world mothers of the mashup) with Himanshu Suri aka Heems shrugging off efforts to untangle the knots: “you can try to comprehend it, dawg, why bother.”
 

Like many contemporary musicians, DR treat genre boundaries as a constraint or as a joke. On their Reverb Nation page, DR parody the profusion of hyphenated genres, describing their own music as “weed edge/Hare Krishna hard core/art rap/freak folk music.” In 2009, Kool A.D. (Victor Vazquez) responded to a 2009 New Yorker piece declaring the death of hip hop by noting that “genre[s] are loose collections of tropes that have no inherent meaning…a construction whose analytic use is primarily economic in nature. The study of genre is largely the study of marketing.” Why bother, indeed.
 
But in a rare departure from this critical attitude, on the track “Selena” (Relax, 2011) Heems rejects the “hipster rap” label by suggesting another label: “Homie, this is Queens rap / hear it in my voice every time the kid Heems rap.” These lines are followed by a shout out to his former residence on Cherry Ave.—a street almost no one outside Flushing, Queens is likely to know—followed by the autobiographical detail “my grandma just moved out / she knows this child that gets guap and fly high.”  These verses are unusually candid, bereft of snark or twisty language games. Here as elsewhere, a borough-based notion of identity doesn’t inspire parody or deconstruction, suggesting that maybe DR is OK with an identity rooted in geographic locale.
 
 
While Kool A.D. is of Afro-Cuban and Italian descent and hails from the San Francisco Bay area, both Heems and Dapwell—aka Ashok Kondabolu, the hypeman and “spiritual advisor” of Das Racist—were raised in Queens (they are both of South Asian descent, ethnically Punjabi and Predesh, respectively). Despite DR being based in Brooklyn, the borough of Queens is the most common geographic point of reference in their music:
 
 
In each of these lyrics Queens is not only name-checked but also projected into the mythic terrain of hip hop through a series of call-and-responses—interweaving descriptions of Queens with quotations, citations, and samples from songs by Ghostface Killah, Clipse, Kool Fashion and Beatnuts, and Nas. There’s an inspired humor to the juxtapositions—while Clipse describes cooking up crack in Virginia, Heems’ only crime is stealing a book by celebrity chef Tony Bourdain. But at the same time, to my ears at least, the vividness of the imagery, however absurdist, gives a strong sense of place and their place in it—whether walking Queens Boulevard, whipping up some food, hanging out on the street corner or in Heems’ room.
 
The affection DR have for Queens is on full display in the digital short titled “Das Racist on Queens.” In a walking tour led by the trio, Heems and Dap make wisecracks and share memories of their home neighborhoods and childhood years—visiting an Indian supermarket in Floral Park, an old middle school, a Hindu temple, and a Flushing Dosa Hutt. This adherence to what Murray Forman calls the “extreme local”—a common lyrical strategy in hip hop—extends to DR’s politics as well. Nehru Jackets, the solo mixtape released by Heems, is only downloadable from the SEVA NY website with donations requested for the immigrant-rights community-based organization. Currently SEVA is fighting a redistricting battle that threatens to have Richmond Hills (a neighborhood dominated by South Asians and West Indians) gerrymandered into seven different voting districts.
 
This extreme local identification extends to Queens-based hip hop. DR calls themselves “the new Kool G Rap,” and it’s doubtless the Corona, Queens rapper helped inspire their verbal acrobatics, kaleidoscopic imagery, and occasional hardcore references. Moving from northwest to southeast Queens, another touchstone is A Tribe Called Quest, and not just because of a flipped lyric like “Hey Tanika, nice to meet ya.” In the lead-off song on their first mixtape, “Who’s that? Brooown!” DR loops a glitched-out sample taken from the Tribe posse cut “Scenario”—flipping Charlie Brown’s name-check into an amusing riff on ”brownness” as a racial label. Also, a more recent nod to Tribe is heard on the Gordon Voidwell remix of “Relax” that replaces the original backing track with “Electric Relaxation,” the cover art mashed-up to match. Coincidence or not, both A Tribe Called Quest and DR took shape when two members-to-be met at a Manhattan magnet high schools where they commuted. Add to this their common roots in eastern Queens, duo-rap format, humor, call-and-response interplay, innovative musical palette, and observational lyrics, and the Das Racist-Tribe connection becomes all the more clear.
 
 
With wide-ranging inspirations like A Tribe Called Quest and G Rap, the legacy DR taps into is one of the sheer diversity of Queens rap—think Run-DMC, LL Cool J; Marley Marl, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shante; Eric B, Beatnuts, Organized Konfusion, Black Sheep, Mobb Deep, Nas, Lost Boyz, Ja Rule, 50 Cent, and Nicky Minaj just for a start. While the hip hop history of every New York City borough is diverse, it’s doubtful any of them can beat the category-spanning, crazy-quilt quality of Queens rap. This tradition of diversity lives on in the current underground in Queens, both style-wise and in the diversity of the musicians themselves. What’s more, with many new artists there’s a strong loyalty to the idea of “Queens rap” as a distinct category—the veteran group Children of the Night recently released an album called Queens Revisited, and 18-year-old Bryant Dope just dropped a mixtape called Queens Kids. Other artists who insert Queens into their rhymes include Elmhurst native Homeboy Sandman; Definite Jux-signee Despot from Forest Hills; and former chef and Flushing native Action Bronson.
 
Just as punk rock began when four bored misfits from Forest Hills, Queens made up their own alternative-realty notion of what a band sounds and looks like and stands for, so too goes Queens hip hop. Despot, in a recent interview, says that this sense of local identity is bred in large part from isolation, “pretty much no matter where you are in Queens you feel pretty removed from everything, people never want to go out there…I think that makes the experience unique.” In an email interview with Elmhurst MC and producer Willie Velazquez, he goes on to argue that isolation has made the borough a breeding ground for new talent: “We’ve got a lot of undiscovered talent just walking around…you meet a lot of people who rhyme just to rhyme which is refreshing from the generic crowd with only record deals in mind, who emphasize images and always have a camera out for Twitter.”
 
This sense of local identity may also be bred by a certain underdog quality. According to Nasty Nigel from Children of the Night, despite the borough’s pedigree, “everybody shits on this borough.” In response, he says “I’m doing this for fucking Queens. We’re all doing it for Queens,” going on to explain “the way people judge shit now [is based on] if you’re this big, tough guy and if you make certain music…Queens has always made great music but there’s a stigma…I could care less if Queens is the hardest borough.” Implying that Queens rap is “soft” is odd for a borough that brought us Kool G Rap, Nas, Mobb Deep, Capone & Noreaga, Ja Rule, and 50 Cent.[ii] But maybe it’s the sheer diversity of styles, ethnicities, and points of view that subvert hip hop masculinity for some, where “masculinity” is not associated with open dialogues and mutually-supportive relationships.
 
With Queens rap inhabiting multiple crossroads, it follows that the borough has served as incubator for some of the most transformative trends in hip hop history. Hollis, Queens’ own Run-DMC (the first rap group to go gold, platinum, and multi-platinum, respectively, with their first three albums) not only changed the sound of rap music but also brought it to suburbia, ultimately transforming the pop culture landscape of the US and of the world. Russell Simmons—brother of Joseph “Run” Simmons, manager of Run-DMC, co-founder of Def Jam, and head of Rush Communications—may be the single most important individual in turning hip hop into a national and global big business.
 
If Queens helped turn hip hop into a national and international conversation, it also brought the dialogic potential of rap music to the fore with the advent of the battle record. No doubt, one-on-one or crew-vs-crew battles were already in full effect in its hip hop’s earliest years in the South Bronx, but it was the Queenbridge-based Juice Crew that initiated both the “Roxanne Wars” and “Bridge Wars” that transformed this call-and-response competition onto wax and made it a pillar of rap music to this day.
 
The crucial point: it was in Queens that this dialogic, culture-made-at-the-crossroads aesthetic was translated into sound. According to pretty much every hip hop historiography, Marley Marl (of the aforementioned Juice Crew) was the inventor of sample-based production. While he didn’t invent the digital sampler, Marlye Marl was the one who flipped how the machine was used—sampling records instead of live musicians, turning the sampler into a creative tool instead of hiding it away in the back of the studio. With the invention of sample-based production, hip hop artists were at last able to translate the cut-and-paste aesthetic of the early turntable DJs to recorded sound—creating sound collages and musical dialogues across the terrain of hip hop and recorded music as a whole.
 
So why did all of these innovations happen in Queens? Is it mere coincidence? Maybe. But given the substantial body of hip hop scholarship and everyday discourse supporting the idea that hip hop culture is uniquely wedded to space and place, there may be something more at work. Rap songs constantly mention specific locales—not just cities but neighborhoods, street addresses, and individual landmarks. What other popular music in the US is as fixated on constant reference to place and precise geographic coordinates? Likewise, the politics of hip hop is often a politics of place. The power dynamics inherent in claiming, moving through, occupying, or restricting particular spaces, including aural spaces, were a major factor in sparking hip hop in the first place, and today these same concerns are articulated by rap artists from locales around the country and around the world. It follow, then, that the unique cultural geography of Queens—a geography formed out of multiple crossroads—can not be ignored. In the terms set by hip hop culture and music itself, the role of place must be examined.
 
In their 2012 book Pax Ethnica, reporters Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac write that “as New York City is to the US, so Queens is to New York”—heterogeneity to the Nth degree. Or as Queens rap artist Homeboy Sandman put it to me in an interview: “Everything you can find in the entire world, you can find it in Queens.” Comprised of over 50 neighborhoods that range from urban to suburban in feel—spanning from the largest housing project in the world on its Western periphery (Queensbridge) to the suburban Nassau County-bordering reaches of Floral Park and Little Nick, with some neighborhoods accessible by subway and other requiring the Long Island Railroad or a car to be reached—Queens is defined by its geographic diversity and its polyglot character. The 2010 census counted 138 languages spoken with almost half its populace born outside the U.S. Rivaled only by London on the global stage, Queens if by far the most linguistically diverse county in the U.S.
It was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that led to the influx of Asian, Latino, and Caribbean immigrants who have “remixed” Queens. With JFK airport as the new Ellis Island, new immigrants settled in the midst of past waves of immigrants, often staking out specific neighborhoods.
 
By the end of this century, it’s predicted that Americans of Asian, Latin, and African ancestry will outnumber those of European descent in the United States as a whole. But in Queens neighborhoods like Elmhurst and Corona, this tipping point was reached long ago. In 1960, Elmhurst-Corona was 98% white, falling to 67% in 1970, 34% in 1980, and 18% in 1990. It’s this ahead-of-the-curve quality that led Roger Sanjek to title his Queens ethnography The Future Of Us All. As the host of two major World’s Fairs in the 20th century, the site where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted by the UN, and the birthplace of a legal doctrine (the 1657 Flushing Remonstrance) that anticipated the religious freedoms of Bill of Rights by over a hundred years, one could say that Queens has been on the leading edge of ethnic diversity and tolerance of difference for centuries.
 
If this sounds somewhat utopian, it is and it isn’t.[iii] Whatever Queens’ unique merits, there are still conflicts arising out of aversion to change, competition over resources, and tensions between and within immigrant communities (especially “communities” that weren’t communities before they arrived in the US). Also, Queens is part of a city that has a long history of making life difficult for its most marginalized immigrant communities, and a country where xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment are not uncommon. Housing, employment, and economic biases that exist in Queens exist within this matrix. Other dimensions in the matrix include the War on Terror (and the War on Immigration) that turn any profiled person of color into a potential combatant, as well as the ongoing gentrification and corporate redevelopment of Bloomberg’s New York—an encroaching “geography of nowhere” captured on DR’s breakout hit, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.”
 
 
While some people heard the 2008 song as a stoner anthem about two guys who couldn’t find each other at a fast food franchise, and others called it “a postmodern deconstruction of hip hop…one part manic Baudrillard and one part gonzo Weezy,” what’s missed is that it’s also a song very much about Queens. After many call-and-response repetitions of the refrain, Heems and Kool A.D. learn that they are both at the Pizza Hut/Taco Bell on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, a face that still doesn’t help them find each other. Even if Queens is a paradise when it comes to international cuisines, fast food franchises are also a common site, especially in the more suburban-like reaches of eastern Queens dotted with generic strip-mall architecture. In this setting, corporate combo restaurants exist as a processed food doppelganger to the ethnic fusion restaurants in the borough.[iv] Once again, Queens exists at a crossroads between two extremes, with a landscape defined both by the “extreme local” and the extremes of late capitalism. DR constantly plays with the slippage between these two landscapes—alternately depicting their orienting and alienating qualities.
 
Speaking of orienting and alienating, I now turn in this last brief section of the article to race. In the lead-off tracks to each of their two mixtapes, DR use the color brown and its various hues as a catchall for their racial identity, or at least, others’ perceptions of (and confusion over) their racial status. In “Who that? Brooown!” and “All Tan Everything,” DR treat race in typically playful, politicized, and subversive fashion. In “Shorty Said,” Heems and Kool A.D. run down a list of public figures they’ve been told they look like, ranging from Devendra Banhart to “Slash with no hat on,” from “that dude who cuts [my] roses” to “the dude from Passion of the Christ.” With two members of South Asian descent and a third of mixed Afro-Cuban and Italian ancestry, DR doesn’t slot easily into typical North American discourses around race.
 
Even the label “brown” resides very much at a crossroads, both in terms of being multi-dimensional and in terms of its liminal ambiguity. As a catchall for people who aren’t easily categorized in unilinear black & white racial terms—the Other to more familiar and easily-identifiable Others—“brown” can include Latinos, South Asians, Middle Easterners, and many other groups besides. Even compared with other racial labels—all of which are biologically dubious of course—trying to figure out the outer limits of “brown” in terms of skin pigmentation or social hierarchy is nearly impossible.
 
Despite its ambiguity and contingency, the “brown” label has real-world implications. Witness, for instance, the many reports of confused identity following 9/11, leading not only to unjustified attacks on people from the Islamic world, but also Sikhs, other South Asians, and even Latinos. A family member and close friend of the DR camp describes the aftermath of 9/11 in the following terms: “Post-9/11, brown people had this force pushing us together. It’s like we’re all being looked at with fear and suspicion, we’re all being targeted.” Given that so-called brown people are stereotypically linked with two of the greatest moral panics of our time—illegal immigration and terrorism—and that the two fastest growing populations in the US are Latinos and South Asians, the label takes on more significance. For instance, the passage of the notorious anti-immigrant law Arizona SB 1070, will almost surely be used against other people of color since, based solely on appearance, it makes all people with perceived brown skin a potential target.
 
Closer to home, a 2012 survey found that “South Asians [in New York City] encounter profiling so routinely that many have altered their behavior in an attempt to avoid additional scrutiny…73% reported being questioned [by law enforcement] about their national origin and 66% reported being questioned about their religious affiliation.” Another example of drawing equivalence between and demonizing brown peoples was the US military’s use of “Geronimo” as a code name for Bin Laden when he was apprehended and killed. In the words of Heems, writing on guernica.com, this effectively “[tied] the execution of a Muslim, our new ‘enemies,’ to that of a First World hero, our original ‘enemy’.” Based on such incidents, some have started to advocate fighting bias by accepting and flipping the racial label “brown”—uniting Latinos, Asians, and others in a common cause. With the popularity of a group like Das Racist, the first high-profile hip hop group to include South Asian and Latino members—and blogs such as Brown Pundits—there could be the seeds of an activist movement in the making.
 
In conclusion, the critical response to Das Racist is not unlike the US public’s response to the shifting racial dynamics of America. Just as DR defies easy labels, the already-oversimplified oversimplified categories of black and white are being confounded by a massive infusion of “brown.” The Future Of Us All is country that will look, and sound, an awful lot like Queens already does—or, for that matter, like multi-ethnic California. To which Heems, Kool A.D., and Dap might reply: “relax.”
 

[ii] Even Run-DMC was considered “hard” early in their career; they were the first major group to wear “street” fashions and the first major act to strip away funk and disco elements from rap’s sound. A 1986 profile in Spin has Jam Master Jay declaring “before us rap records were corny. Everything was soft…none of them was hard-hitting street jams.”[iii] On one hand the per-capita crime rate in Queens is lower than in most American cities and neighborhoods—a fact that goes against received wisdom on immigrant communities and ethnic-based conflict. Along 74th street in Jackson Heights, people whose origins are in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh co-exist with scant evidence of longstanding and bitter regional conflicts, at least to an outsider’s eyes. But here I emphasize “outsider’s eyes,” namely mine as a privileged white guy and only-three-year resident of Elmhurst in the vicinity of Jackson Heights. To begin with, there’s much more at play than distinct national identities in South Indian communities but also hundred of different ethnicities and a whole slew of other identity markers. Along these lines, in one published interview, Dapwell describes being a bit of an outsider growing up in Floral Park—not because he was South Asian, but because his neighborhood was dominated by Keralans and Punjabis, but his family is Telugu. Outsiders can only imagine the maze of affiliations and allegiances that Latino-Americans, Caribbean-Americans, and other broad-based hyphenated groups must navigate in the city.

[iv] Perhaps unsurprisingly, adult diabetes and obesity are 3 to 8 percentage points higher, respectively, compared with Manhattan.
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One thought on ““Who’s that? Brooown!” Das Racist as Queens Rap

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