By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
By Ray Cummings
By Nicholas Pell
Brooklyn rap duo Das Racist really need no introduction, not because you already know everything about them, but because, at the moment, there's only one really important thing to know: They are responsible for the song "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," which deftly locates the fine line between stupid and clever, and snorts it. It consists, essentially, of two guys repeating the line "I'm at the Pizza Hut/I'm at the Taco Bell/I'm at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" until it passes from grating to absurd to hilarious to poignant to transcendent. It is either very, very meaningful or completely meaningless. Put it on repeat while you think it over.
Having listened to several of them—in some cases, multiple times—I can confirm that Das Racist have other songs ("Fake Patois" is pretty funny), but let's not complicate the issue here. Now available as a horn-blaring, exhilaratingly garish chase-scene remix by similarly sardonic Oakland pranksters Wallpaper., "Pizza Hut" is either the track we, as a culture, need right now, or the track we, as a culture, deserve—or both. Recently, I chatted with Das Racist over e-mail about it. Here is the vast majority of that conversation.
Who the hell are you guys? Names, ages, countries of origin, current residences, astrological signs . . . anything else you'd care to share in that vein would be lovely.
Himanshu: My name is Himanshu. I am 24 years of age. I hail from the borough of Queens, New York. Queens is America's most diverse county. My parents flew to Queens from India in 1980 on an Air India Boeing 727. I now reside in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Williamsburg, Brooklyn is not very diverse. I am a Cancer, Pisces rising. I like watching television, listening to television, listening to the radio, listening to television on the radio, watching television on the Internet, and watching the Internet on a television. I also very much enjoy listening to Hot 97 on the radio. I like reading books that brown people write. My top five favorite poetic devices of all time are repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition.
Victor: My rap name is Kool A.D., but my slave name is Victor Vazquez. Hima doesn't want to use his last name 'cause he has a real job and doesn't want his spot blown up. I don't have a real job anymore because my other band, Boy Crisis, got signed. I'm 25. I was born in San Francisco, California, and moved to Alameda, California, around my pubescent years. My dad was born in Cuba, and my mom was born in Italy. He's black and my mom's white, but I have what's known as "that good hair." Williamsburg is diverse, just highly segregated. I'm a Scorpio; I don't know what my rising sign is. I like all of the media that Hima mentioned. I like the joke he made about TV on the Radio. I like TV on the Radio. I like books by brown people, too. And books by white people. My top five favorite poetic devices of all time are repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and plagiarism.
So tell me about the genesis behind "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell." What thought process, and what substances, were involved?
V: The line actually comes from an older song of mine called "I Zimbra" (it's on myspace.com/ladieslovekoolad), and at one of our first shows, we were doing that song and then just started repeating that line over and over, and people seemed to like it, because people seem to like dumb shit. I know I like dumb shit. We did it in one take on the same mic in our friend's basement like a week later. There are always a number of substances involved.
Did you immediately conceive of it as having a sociopolitical context? Are you commenting on American over-consumerism and corporate proliferation? Is this a joke that everyone thinks is a graduate thesis, or vice versa?
H: EVERYTHING WE DO HAS A SOCIOPOLITICAL CONTEXT. THIS IS THE BURDEN OF THE MINORITY MAN. DID YOU KNOW THAT 1/3 OF ALL THREE-YEAR-OLDS IN URBAN AREAS ARE OBESE? I'M ALMOST POSITIVE I READ THAT ON THE INTERNET.
V: WHY ARE YOU VALIDATING THE FALSE DICHOTOMY OF JOKES VS. SERIOUS SHIT? WHY ARE WE TYPING IN CAPITAL LETTERS?
A newer track of yours, "Rainbow in the Dark," starts out with a riff on White Castle and mentions Big Mac Attacks, etc. Are you concerned about being pigeonholed as a fast-food group? Are there other niches/motifs you're considering?
H: Fast food isn't always bad. I like vada and gol gappas, halal street meat, tacos, and shit. If we're the best fast-food rappers out there, I'd be content with that label. Right now, the only competition we have are McDonald's commercials—both the ones with "urban youth" freestyling and that awesome Filet-O-Fish song—and that Taco Bell ad with the freestyling drive-through dudes that get sonned by the girl taking their orders. That one's dope. Nah, though, I'd like to think people listen to more than those two or three songs and get a feel for the three other things we talk about. There are at least three other things we talk about.
V: Please don't use "If we're the best fast-food rappers out there, I'd be content with that label" as a pullquote.
H: Oh, yeah. Not a good look.
This song, along with the oeuvre thus far of Boy Crisis, seems to be polarizing to people: Some love it; some really, really hate it. Though that's not uncommon on the Internet, the severity, in your case, is pretty pronounced. . . . Is any reaction a good reaction? Are you striking a nerve?
H: All I wanted to do was make some jokes—mostly about race, though not necessarily consciously—over dance music that would serve to undermine it so Talib Kweli fans wouldn't like it. Also, "oeuvre."
Your PR materials insist that you "have a great deal of street cred." I am frankly skeptical. Can you elaborate?
H: My dude, we can take a walk around the corner right now. Pause.
V: Rick Ross was a corrections officer, Ice Cube was the son of two college professors, Tupac was a theater kid in high school, Drake was on Degrassi, De La Soul are from the suburbs. The Clipse, Andre 3000, and Kanye have written and spoken openly about not having street cred, etc. I just mentioned like a dozen people with one biographical note about each of them that goes against the archetypal understanding of them, but I still didn't actually describe who they were. These were all real people with long and complex lives who made/make real and effective art that has had an impact on black people and white people, rich people and poor people, Americans and the rest of the world. Bob Dylan was a college-educated Jewish man singing like a dustbowl sharecropper, and he got booed offstage when he went electric for sullying his folk purity, as if he had any to begin with. Do people get mad at Martin Scorsese for making gangster movies even though he hasn't "lived the lifestyle"? I'm not arguing that context is useless for understanding art—on the contrary, there is no way to understand anything without context. My argument is for a less static and qualified idea of what "purity" is.
H: Yeah, Officer Ricky opened a lot of doors for us. I wonder how much street cred Ludacris has also. Didn't he co-sign Ashy Rothz? That's, like, one street-cred-less dude co-signing another one. Twice-removed street-cred-less-ness, and 150,000 RAP records sold. It's 2009, man. But yeah, still, I'm saying, though, we could walk around the corner and handle this. Pause. I've been in three fights, man. THREE!
Is one of you the Hipster Runoff guy? Just checking.
H: The fuck is a Hipster Runoff? Is that a YouTube?
V: It's a blog. I just Googled it.
Are you seized with instant revulsion upon hearing the word "blipster"? Is there any other acceptable reaction?
H: I think it's dumb, but it doesn't offend me personally. Luckily, "hipster" begins with "H," and so I don't have to deal with some Hindu hipster hybrid word. "Indie-an" could work, though, if any of you aspiring journalists feel like writing a piece about all those Indie-ans in Jackson Heights wearing tight pants and bright clothes that are sold in American stores, but are created in the countries those same Indians used to live in and rock tight pants and bright clothes in on a daily basis anyway.
V: Yeah, I wouldn't say "revulsion," either, but I agree it's a pretty limited word for trying to figure out the significance of race in American culture.
I haven't yet had the pleasure . . . what's your live show like? I've heard tell of gags like call-and-response chants of "When I say 'call,' you say 'response' " and so forth. Is this performance art? Is "joke rap" a pejorative?
H: Our live show is a lot like the film Juice starring Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur. Or House Party 1 or 3—not 2.
V: All art is performative, and all performance is art. Existence is performance art. Everything is funny, and all jokes are serious. If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? I would argue that our live show is also like House Party 2.
Playboy.com offered "Pizza Hut" as a free download a while back and said a few nice things. The post got one comment, which reads as follows: "Is this supposed to be some sort of groundbreaking song? What is so great about this group and this song?" Care to answer?
V: I think a lot of people dig "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" in large part due to the fact that Yum! Brand combination franchises themselves are pretty ubiquitous but still absurd and almost terrifyingly prophetic—it's like singing about trains back when they were some new shit. You don't have to like it. This song is no more or less groundbreaking than anything else. What are you doing commenting on the Playboy.com message boards? Who are you?
H: Yeah, that guy was probably salty because he was trying to look at Internet porn and had to look at our faces instead. As for the joint, it's the best song ever made. It's a real problem in the rap game right now. I hope we're known solely for this song and none of the others.