Sunday, November 21, 2010

Das Wrong

I just read Sasha Frere-Jones' (what?) book report? bruised fan letter?--can't rightly call it a review, because SFJ doesn't actually grapple with any particular album or performance--well, his thing in the current New Yorker on Das Racist.

Let it be known: Das Racist is one of my favorite bands at the moment and probably the smartest, funniest hip-hop duo (really, a quasi-trio) to come on the scene since Outkast. That's no idle comparison either. There's something about the adenoidal, pesty kid brother, punch-lining of Himanshu Suri that compliments the meandering, 4AM free verse of Victor Vasquez in a way that gets any real hip-hop fans' pleasure neurons firing in a way they maybe haven't since they first heard "Two Dope Boyz in a Cadillac."

The group deserves the kind of closer attention, analysis, and respect SFJ gave Big Boi in his review of Sir Lucious Left Foot earlier this summer. I take issue not only with the way SFJ makes Das Racist out to be some kind of anarchic, humorless, counter-everything (even--gasp!--counter-SFJ) punks, but especially his inability to assess the group's value outside of the ultra-reductive binary of insider vs. outsider, punk vs. mainstream.

"In fact," Frere-Jones writes, in what I imagine must have been a drooling, palm-rubbing moment of syntactical revelation, "the band's best-known song, its 2008 debut, 'Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,' is the kind of thing Das Racist might make fun of." Actually, no it's not, Sasha. If you mean to say that its ensuing popularity is something that Das Racist might make fun of: OK, we'll give you that. But to say that the song itself (an arch, absurdist, self-aware take on a very particular kind of American cultural monument, which, by the way, resists being discussed in the terms I've just used for it) would be the butt of a Das Racist joke if it hadn't been made by Das Racist is a tragic misreading at best, or a disingenuous dig at worst. SJF's criticism suggests that Das Racist hate for hate's sake, that they have no real aesthetic or moral concerns, that they, in essence, see the world in the same reductive insider/outsider, punk/mainstream paradigm that SJF himself seems to see things.

And it gets worse. Later in that same paragraph, SFJ writes of "Combination": "It is not hard to imagine a bunch of wobbly college kids yelling along." This is meant to imply that a scenario in which fans (i.e. college kids) are appreciating Das Racist's music would be totally contemptible to Das Racist. It is a glib, borderline nonsensical sentence that succeeds in insulting no one, except maybe anyone in college. Actually, Sash (can I call you that? Sash?), do you know why it's not hard to imagine a bunch of "wobbly" coeds yelling along to a Das Racist track? It's because they already do that. And that's part of Das Racist's point. It's not very hard to get the Taco Bell and Pizza Hut joke. That's kind of the beauty of it. We're all complicit and bearing witness to the absurdity, and, most irritating of all, we know that you get it too, Sasha.

I think, SJF's own hurt feelings are the weird minor chord playing throughout this piece, the chord which starts coming on louder and getting more pronounced as soon as we learn early on that he was once called out in an online article as "one of the white dudes [Vasquez] takes issue with," which, if you click through, you'll realize is a very reductive take on Vasquez's thoughtful, though very self-righteous essay.

In the end, SFJ comes across less like a music critic seeking to assess the value of his subject's material, or even like a music historian trying to place Das Racist in some sort of hip-hop lineage or context, to acknowledge their absurdly high hip-hop IQ, or even like a market-researcher trying to discover what new fan base the rise of Das Racist might herald the emergence of. Instead, this embarrassingly reductive, dismissive hit piece (which should not have been published on a personal blog, let alone beneath the monocled gaze of Eustace Tilley)--this instantly anachronistic take on one of the most exciting, innovative acts to come around in years--reads more like the petty vengeance of that very serious kid in class, the one who loves dishing out opinions and jokes about everyone else, but who shrivels up when he gets clowned one day by the funny, smart, stoner kids who don't take themselves so seriously. And that bratty serious kid hasn't forgotten that time the funny kids made fun of him. In fact, he's been waiting for that day when he could take a few hundred words out in his national magazine to put those "outsiders" in their place. And by the way: yuck, did you really call them that, Sasha? You know they met at Wesleyan, right? You know that their whole "outsider" stance is part of the joke, right? Tell me you know this, Sasha?

Hip-hop is alive; it's SFJ and reviewers like him I'm worried about. Can they really not understand the layered, idiosyncratic satire of a group like Das Racist, their seductive meld of highbrow and lowbrow, Dipset and Descartes, of backpack rap and Louis napsack? Or are they unwilling to admit, even if it might put their job security in question (which isn't the case for SFJ, who just got a new second gig working for Citizen Kane 2.0, aka Big Rupe, aka Mr. Murdoch) that these Das Racist motherfuckers are on to something?

I don't like getting on my blog-podium (blodium?) to criticize critics, but I fucks with Das Racist, and I feel a physical kind of revulsion at seeing lazy, ego-driven writers who aren't nearly as talented, funny, or relevant as their subjects taking up prime airwaves on the FM dials of the cultural conversation to push something eerily close to an agenda down are unwilling gullets.

To end this regrettably cranky post on an up-note though, let me close with one of my favorite riffs from Das Racist's latest mixtape, Sit Down, Man:

"I'm on the block like street meat/
Call me Dwight Shrute the way that I eat beets/
No beet farm, just pharm beats, smarmy/
A muthafucka try to harm me/

True Story Scale: 10


Bryan said...

This is well done.

I didn't know they met at Wesleyan. It makes me like them in a way it doesn't make me like MGMT for the exact same thing.

Who's that, Brown?

Mik A. said...

Ha. Forgot about MGMT, B. With our liberal arts pedigree, I feel like we should have started a rap group instead of the New York Inquirer. Maybe there's still time. Can you rap?

Bryan said...

If Edgar would get his head out of his ass and edit the two-year-old sound tracks he has at his studio (with himself, Ravi and myself singing the would-be neo-soul classic "Hot Water"), you'd have your answer: absolutely not.