Not many groups receive a Best New Music rating from Pitchfork before they even get signed, but Das Racist aren’t your average hip-hop group. Sure, their biggest hit is called “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” but for every reference to pot and fast food they lay out a surprising connection to brainy subject matter like Gayatri Spivak or El Greco. And just like their name suggests, they like to talk about race. From deconstructing Sasha Frere-Jones’s article that declared hip-hop dead to engaging in a Cartoon-Off with The New Yorker‘s Farley Katz, they frequently contest what they call “the white authority of journalism,” even if they have to resort to haiku.
This Friday marks the group’s first performance in Minnesota, which ironically takes place in Northfield, a town known for a knockoff cereal factory and a primarily white, Christian college. I chatted with Das Racist member Himanshu Suri about everything from Lynn Hirschberg to Malt-O-Meal.
You guys seem motivated to inspire actual constructive dialogue about race in America. What challenges have you faced with that?
One funny thing I was thinking about is when we don’t get a gig with some kind of corporate sponsor because they see what they think is “Das Racist” [German, the racist] and they think the name is too racist so they end up taking it off the bill. Why shouldn’t three colored people be able to be in a band that talks about race? We fall victim to racism essentially because of our name alluding to racism.
Do people have an aversion to talking about race? Do you think they ever just write it off as you guys joking?
I think people know we’re not joking when it comes to talking about race. Some people think we’re joking about rap music, which is insane.
You guys have commented on the white authority of music journalism in America. What do you think of Lynn Hirschberg torching the reputation of M.I.A. in the New York Times this year?
I will say that it was the most bad-ass thing to put [Hirschberg’s] phone number up on the Internet. The timing, coming out the same time as [M.I.A.]’s record, was stupid.
What do you think about people saying that now that M.I.A.’s rich she’s sold out?
Just her experience as a woman of color, on her scale…talking about immigration and WikiLeaks [is notable]. She’s the only person I care about who’s talking about that. I don’t give a shit if she’s living in Beverly Hills. I’m doing that shit so i can live in Beverly Hills. You don’t make much money doing this shit, so if you can, do it.
A lot of your lyrics rapidly switch from high-culture to low-culture references.
I just think poop jokes are funny. Every form of my sense of humor has to be some kind of smart [or] witty. It’s hard for me to not rap about dumb shit.
Your mixtape Sit Down, Man was rated Best New Music by Pitchfork. Do you think Pitchfork’s Best New Music label holds more or less clout than it used to?
I wouldn’t know what it used to have. I’m not sure what it has right now.
Has it affected you guys?
I don’t think it’s affected us much beyond the week that it might have happened. Things move so quickly on the Internet. It gets your attention immediately, but you have to have a good project and do what you do to maintain that level of interest. There’s so much music being made and distributed quickly. [Pitchfork is] definitely the trade magazine of music; it has some kind of clout.
You went from working on Wall St. to becoming a hip-hop personality in a short time period. How did the culture of your initial job influence your music?
For me, that was more about making money. As much as I rap about things, you know, my race, I also rap about money. I’m still doing this band and trying to make money doing this band. I don’t think I am a different person now than I was then either.
Does your success with mix tapes make you guys feel less pressure to go about your career in the traditional “get signed, make an album” vein?
We would like to get signed but no one’s ever signed us. We just put it up the only way way we know how. We’re working on music ’cause we always do and at some point we’ll package it up. Everybody makes mix tapes as far as rap music goes. It’s just what you do.
Have you ever had Malt-O-Meal cereal?
No. That’s the part of the city the show is in?
Yeah, it smells like cereal.
That sounds cool.