At one point during their set at Terrace F. Club this past Saturday, Das Racist announced that they would not playing “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” the song many in the audience had come specifically to hear.
“It’s a dumb song. You guys are too smart for that shit,” said co-frontman Himanshu Suri, known as Heems. Apparently, the audience didn’t believe him, since the front portion of the crowd gave the encoreless show a nightcap with their own rousing rendition over a looping outro beat. The band members, meanwhile, sequestered themselves in the Terrace kitchen until the club cleared out more.
I don’t know if what happened Saturday night constitutes a good show. On the one hand, Das Racist was the only group on the bill, their set ran less than an hour, they snubbed the crowd the single they wanted to hear, and all three members were visibly messed up, with Heems often taking part of a song to stare glassy-eyed at the back of the room. The small gourds that the group took from the fireplace mantle and insisted on handing out to the crowd (“Everybody gets a gourd!”) eventually ended up thrown by audience members or crushed underfoot.
On the other hand, they delivered a powerhouse setlist, with high points including “Rapping 2 U,” “You Oughta Know,” “Who’s that? Brooown!”, and “Amazing” (which features the magnificent lyric, “I’m in the future in Hawai’i ghostwriting for your favorite rapper”), and when all three members (Heems, Victor Vazquez/Kool A.D., and Ashok Kondabolu/Dap) were present in both mind and body, they were tight and energetic. Part of the joy of watching them comes from the way the three effortlessly play off of each other at a pace faster than interpersonal communication ought to allow, like improv comics. Unlike some past rap acts at Terrace, they were clearly having fun.
That fun may or may not have come at the expense of their audience. In their lyrics, Das Racist have taken skewering, subverting, and satirizing white hip liberal arts school culture as their bread and butter. At the Terrace club at Princeton University, they were more or less in the belly of the beast. Their response was to make fun of the audience to their face. At no point did the audience seem to chafe at this, or even apparently notice it.
“Scream if you’re gonna grow up to be an evil demon!” said Dap. The crowd screamed.
“Who wants to hear real hip-hop?” The audience screamed. Das Racist started a chant: “Real hip-hop! Real hip-hop!”, which the crowd picked up quickly and passionately. They were rewarded with what sounded like a classic rock jam, which Das Racist danced over, throwing in an occasional “Uh” or “Yeah.”
The band played the stock sample board jungle cat roar (second in ubiquity only to the FWAH airhorn sample, which they also played).
“Scream for the panther!” Screams. Roar.
“Scream for the cougar!” Screams. Roar.
“Scream for the tiger!” Lots of screams. The band then informed the crowd that it was all the same sample, and then berated them for being “so fucking dumb.” They did this twice.
At times they seemed almost overwhelmed by how much power the audience gave over to them. Having started a chant of “ILLUMINATI” after asking who in the crowd was “third-generation Illuminati,” the band quickly shut it down, commenting that it was too scary. The thing is, it was scary, and Das Racist is the first act I’ve seen at Terrace to actually acknowledge that. I’ve had to leave shows in the past because the automatic audience response to whatever they’re presented with was too much for me to handle. I’m thinking specifically of Jedi Mind Tricks in December and Immortal Technique last April, both of which push the boundaries of violent lyrical content (sample Jedi Mind Tricks lyric: “Listen, I ain’t gonna play no more/ Beat the faggot ’til he ain’t fucking gay no more,” which raises a lot of questions). At both shows, the audience screamed at all the right times, be it for killing cops or pretty much any of their sloganized political rhetoric. Neither made much of a secret of their contempt for the students in the crowd, but crowd didn’t seem to mind or notice.
It’s easy to write this off. On a Thursday or Saturday night, students want to get drunk and a little sweaty and bump and grind to some music. The alcohol and the atmosphere defuse political messages before they make it to their audiences, turning them into cues to make noise and keep the energy level up. That’s the easy answer.
The hard answer takes into account the students who yell “Fuck the police!” as they walk past public safety cars, who turn out in Pavlovian droves for the words Wu-Tang Clan, and who chant for “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” when they’ve been told that they’re too smart for it. I’m not exempting myself from this. We can chant “REAL HIP-HOP” all we want, but apparently what we want is just the posturing and the spectacle that hip-hop provides; the content of that spectacle is irrelevant.
Das Racist is one of the smartest and most subversive rap acts in the public eye right now, and they manage to hold this position without sacrificing any of the smirking playfulness that sugarcoats the commentary for easier consumption. Unfortunately, their audience on Saturday apparently just wanted the sugar.