Hello! I’m Himanshu Kumar Suri, also known as Heems or Hima, from Das Racist. A couple of times, I have been called “one of those Taco Bell/Pizza Hut guys.” We were asked by Rob Harvilla, who interviewed us this summer, to write a piece about “how ‘Internet fame’ looks from the inside.” At one point, he typed the following and it appeared in our Gmail: “rough sort of timeline of your year.” He summarized the piece as “Our Year as a Meme.”
Our trajectory from Das Racist to “the Taco Bell and Pizza Hut guys” occurred as follows: We made a song called “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” With a beat from Aries Noise (myspace.com/ariesnoise), and vocals and effects recorded by Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, the song took literally the time to record that it takes to play: one microphone, one take, one vocal track, and a lot of improvisation. We utilized repetition in the song. We utilized repetition in the song. We were happy with the song when it was done and used the best beat we had for it because we realized it had a lot of potential. Victor, Dap (our hype man), and I never really looked at each other and thought, “This is it,” but I think Jason and Molly from Acrylics were hanging out as we recorded it, and they had a lot of nice stuff to say about it. We immediately put it up on MySpace along with the four other songs we recorded that night, and that was that.
Eventually, the song caught the attention of popular [insert genre] musician Dan Deacon. A more playful remix version was made. We were written about by “tastemakers” Pitchfork (as “Best New Music”), “tastemaker” Perez Hilton, and “tastemakers” MTV News. A girl who ignored me in high school reached out to me through the Internet. Print publications like The Village Voice, The New York Times, and New York magazine wrote about us as well. No one that ignored me in high school mailed me letters soon thereafter. Twitter became popular. At a Brooklyn Book Festival panel discussion, author Jonathan Lethem and author Mary Gaitskill discussed it; Mary, apparently, briefly “rapped” it. I mostly read South Asian authors, but I was told those people are “cool.”
We did a lot of interviews. We were repeatedly asked whether the song was some kind of thesis or joke-rap. Not one interview failed to pose that question. Many of the interviews directly referenced the most immediate interview published before it. I thought most of the interviewers were “cool” until I’d read one or two things that irked me when the piece would run. I’d try to chalk it up to their editor so I wouldn’t be a total dick when I’d see them at a bar or something the next week. One interview, for example, took about three hours of our time over two days: We really got into the crux of who we are and the music we make and why we make it. And then the piece came out. Most of the article discussed how I was (temporarily) banned from a bar for some drunken antics that took place the week before, and the title called us “smart stupid” guys or something. We played that venue a week later, and the Times wrote about it. My parents didn’t read that one, I think. They’ve been pretty supportive as I’ve softened the “I’m not gonna be a doctor” blow over the years. We were also in a December issue of Rolling Stone India, and they dug that.
Several of these interviews led to publications asking us to write wordy things that would be sent out to the Internet or printed in magazines. We got to review records like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . Pt. II. Victor had a cartoon-off with the New Yorker. We played local shows. We wrote a rebuttal to an article in the New Yorker about the alleged death of hip-hop, complete with several haiku. We played more local shows. Our rebuttal to the New Yorker was mentioned by the “death of hip-hop” guy on his New Yorker blog, and a show of ours was mentioned in a later issue. We headlined Bowery Ballroom without an album out and played a big CMJ show. The day we played that CMJ show, I was laid off from my job as a consultant. I was relieved, if anything.
Almost all of this was made possible because of the Internet! For every tree that grows in Brooklyn, a band grows on the Internet; there’s typically a 43 percent chance that the band growing on the Internet also happens to grow in Brooklyn. We have been called “joke-rap,” “comedy-rap,” “novelty-rap,” “parody-rap,” “hipster-rap,” “retard-rap,” and a couple of other similar hyphenated words I can’t recall. We have also been described as “stupid,” “smart,” “clowns,” “geniuses,” “dumb,” “deconstructionalist,” “children,” “existential,” “inane,” “transcendental,” “terrible,” “brilliant,” “charming,” and “shambolic.” Initially, being called “joke-rap” was frustrating, but eventually I learned to disregard it. We’ve since written some raps that address critics and have rapped them on our upcoming mixtape.
Sometimes, I fear that “music journalism” on the Internet functions like the Bad Boy Records roster, in that press darlings eventually become as disposable as G-Dep or Mark Curry. Or Loon. Ain’t that Loon with the Muslims? Some have compared us to a band called “LMFAO” that I’ve never heard. I understand this is a bad thing. One time, someone also compared us to Andy Samberg. I know this is a bad thing. Though for every couple of times someone says something disparaging, someone else will make a Beastie Boys “Cooky Puss” comparison. That’s pretty dope.
Overall, I’d say the year was fun. Thanks, Internet! One time, I even got free clothes. A couple of times, I got free soup dumplings. 2010 will see us putting out an EP, a mixtape (or two), playing some shows outside of New York (including SXSW), and hopefully releasing a full-length album by year’s end. “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” and the Internet in general have been both good and bad for us, but I ain’t mad. In fact, I LOVE THE INTERNET.
Oh, hey, Victor!
Hey, what up, Hima.
So, I Wikipedia’d the word “meme.” Apparently, a meme is “a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.” Its Greek root roughly translates to “something imitated.”
A publicity campaign for any product, be it a band, a fast-food chain, consent for an unjust war, or a sexy scented body spray can be understood as a meme, a threading of an idea into the psyche of a culture by means of repeated and varied reference. Implicit to the definition of a meme seems to be the participation of its audience in its own proliferation, from a fan doing a YouTube video tribute to “Single Ladies” to the rhetoric of a presidential speechwriter trickling down into an op-ed writer’s piece and slipping into casual conversations. Culture can be seen as a network of memes, and marketing can be seen as a means of monetizing/commodifying/capitalizing on those memes.
Yum! Brands is the largest fast-food restaurant company in the world, with more than 36,000 restaurants in more than 100 territories worldwide and more than $11 billion in sales in 2008. They own KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Long John Silver’s, A&W, a restaurant I have never heard of called Wingstreet, and a Chinese food chain called Dong Fang Ji Bai, or East Dawning, a name taken from a poem written by 11th-century Chinese poet Su Shi, who (somewhat ironically) wrote incendiary poetry about the government’s monopoly on the salt industry. I don’t know how many millions or billions of dollars have been spent to make “Pizza Hut” and “Taco Bell” the recognizable names they are today, but suffice it to say, much of the work for the “viral” potential of the song had been done for us by years of advertising. “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” is an infectious meme largely because it references a meme already proven to be infectious.
Our manager said something about how she spoke with someone from Yum! Brands who supposedly loved the song but felt the name of our band would be a “problem” for marketing. This is fortunate because my financial situation would not have afforded me the moral fortitude I would’ve needed to say no to money from Yum! Brands.
Rob asked us if we would describe “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” as a “protest song.” I don’t think we ever set out explicitly to write “protest songs” per se, but if people feel inclined to think of our stuff as protest music, I guess that’s fine. If there’s something we can learn from the U.S. Army blasting “Rivers of Babylon” for sleep-deprivation torture in Abu Ghraib, it’s that context is everything.
When you go to a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, you are at the Pizza Hut and you are at the Taco Bell and you are at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. The space is transformed by a corporate language from one single physical space to a number of illusory spaces. These spaces serve to expand the illusion of choice. The space has been recontextualized. It’s comparable to covering walls with mirrors to make a room appear bigger.
Legally, a corporation is considered a single entity or “person” comprised of a group of actual people. So in the same way that a corporate language can splinter a single physical space into a number of illusory spaces, so can it render a number of physical human beings into one single illusory corporate being. These people have been recontextualized. The onus of the collective actions of those human beings is not legally theirs, but is of that single being, the corporation.
In this light, it becomes a bit easier to imagine how some individuals in the Yum! Brands Corporation could absolve themselves morally from a sense of personal responsibility enough to allow for Yum! Brand’s alleged “sweatshop” labor practices protested by the Organic Farmers & Gardeners Union a couple years back, or to ignore any correlation between the growing successes of the fast-food industry and the more rapid increase of obesity and other junk-food-related medical problems in the developed world. Linguistic abstraction often works to detach people from their various ideologies and moralities. Another example of this is the Internet, an illusory space in which linguistic abstraction helps to provide the detachment necessary for bloggers and message-board commenters to get their needless/uninformed/etc. hate on. But whatever, to quote 504 Boyz, “Haters Gon’ Hate.” I’m not saying we need to get mad at language for its shortcomings, just saying we are what we say. Just saying.
Hype man’s Addendum: I’m Ashok Kondabolu, known to most as Dap or the “hype man” for Das Racist. As a hype man, it’s essential to bring the energy level of the crowd way, way down. This is a difficult task and requires an enormous amount of carbohydrates. Before a show, while my bandmates drink beer, I immediately start downing bowls of generic Frosted Shredded Wheat with an egg cracked on top of the fourth bowl. After the fourth bowl, I drink one lemon-lime Gatorade. This really pumps up my energy levels and allows me to really enjoy the train ride on the way to whatever venue is allowing us to play that night. In the dressing room, I usually play Enya or P.M. Dawn on my headphones. This allows me to clear my mind of all distractions, namely all the lyrics to Das Racist songs I’m paid $10 a show to remember.
We really want to bring the most unenjoyable experience possible to our fan base of tight pants, grifters, and shitheads—anything we can do to make people run to the bar while reminding them that they are participating in an ultimately degrading, debasing piece of performance art to whose significance none of us are privy, but which ultimately rests in the eye of a vengeful god that wants only destruction. I mean, give the people what they want, for Christ’s sake!