Das Racist played Highline Ballroom Thursday night to a sold-out crowd that, it became quickly apparent, did not know how to dance to hip-hop.
The entire show was pretty surreal—I have to say I have never been to a concert where the performers gave less of a show and less of a fuck. Onstage, the attitude was derisive and flippant; offstage, it was mostly confused or bemused. But it wasn’t a fiasco; that’s just Das Racist.
Das Racist bases its reputation on its detachment. The members maintained, through the lyrics and the brief, bizarre banter, that rapping came absurdly easy to them and that the crowd was a pack of sheep for paying money to see them dance around drunk onstage. Half of that was completely true—Himanshu Suri, the most talented of the group, was slopping around in a wasted haze when he wasn’t rapping up a storm—and the other half is arguable. Of the rapping members of Das Racist, Hima is the only one good at freestyle, and Victor Vasquez has a great delivery, whereas hypeman/other member Ashok Kondabolu aka Dapwell basically just rants over a beat. There was a white kid onstage who impossibly looked more soused than Das Racist themselves, and he occasionally rapped along, but mostly just sorta ambled about. Meanwhile, a video of old Aeon Flux episodes played behind them—maybe to emphasize the disconnect, but more likely because Das Racist just likes Aeon Flux.
It must have been a frustrating set for Das Racist, coming home from an international tour to a crowd of non-native New Yorkers and not-hip-hop fans watching them. The set really never got past, or approached again, the bizarre incongruity of a nearly entirely white audience half-mumbling “Who’s that? Brooooown!”
The members noticed the weirdness of the crowd too. “You guys are the most sexual crowd we’ve ever played to!” smirked Hima facetiously. “Everybody say ‘white people!’” The crowd murmured “white people,” and it was clear the energy level was pretty damn low, even during the sorta-hits of “You Oughta Know” and “hahaha jk.” Das Racist brought out underground hip-hop veteran El-P to sing a verse from Sit Down, Man’s title track, and a few people in the crowd cheered in recognition, but mostly nobody knew what the hell was going on.
But it’s hard to connect with a group that’s essentially just making fun of the crowd for their foolishness: Victor checked his phone onstage multiple times for emphasis, Hima yelled at the crowd to “Go home!” at multiple occasions, and Dapwell mocked the crowd for basically being completely composed of NYU students (which was probably true). The group was clearly having fun onstage, but it was like watching a party that you weren’t invited to, and weren’t willing to leave or actually join—so you were just watching, and the partygoers saw you watching. And it was awkward.
I’m not sure what came first: a drunk and in-jokey group coming out of a crowd’s disregard for their music, or a disconnected crowd coming out of a stubbornly dismissive group onstage. But whichever came first, each of those makes sense. What confuses me is why Das Racist is so popular with white college kids who don’t like hip-hop. Is it just hype? Or is there a masochistic thing going on here in watching a band that relentlessly lacerates the audience with astute and cynical (and probably true) observations about demographics and character?
Maybe it’s just that Das Racist is the only group around these days that doesn’t kiss the audience’s ass—that’s kind of refreshing, in a way.