By Brian Duricy
Hip-hop looks nothing like it did in 2010. The story of that evolution would be incomplete without the burned-too-bright whirlwind career of Das Racist. For a trio who used comedy and the ugly truth to address the endless dualities that governed their lives, Das Racist remains a true singularity. Five years later, we celebrate the release of one of music’s most puzzling and unique debuts—Das Racist’s Shut Up, Dude.
The group’s origin story is as well known as their music. Two hyperintelligent Wesleyan grads, Himanshu Suri and Victor Vasquez, teamed up with Himanshu’s Stuyvesant High School friend Ashok Kondabolu to release the audio equivalent of Spongebob’s orb of confusion, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” The immediate aftermath included a handful of song releases, a constant presence on the blogosphere, and a scorched-earth policy for anybody that took them too seriously. When it came to predicting the result of their debut mixtape, “nobody knew what to expect” didn’t cut it. It would’ve been like asking a fetus to discuss its future outside the womb.
A game that my sister and I have played for years is to catch the first words of a movie. Years after this game began, I took a class on Franz Kafka. The first week was spent decoding each word of the course’s title. Beginnings are privileged, and Das Racist started Shut Up, Dude with a war cry: “Who’s that? Broooooown!” No exegesis needed. This is music by and about the brown and overall minority experience in America.
When discussing their liminal status on the joking/not-joking spectrum, a common mistake was in equating their in-song humor with a lack of seriousness about the rap game. The humorous/serious dichotomy actually dealt primarily with their observations on race. Shut Up, Dude is full of lines that seem prescient in retrospect: five years later, Heems’ closing lines on “Nutmeg”’s second verse, “Shoot, shoot the township youth,” conjure somber realities about our present. The song that follows, “Shorty Said,” spoofs the idea that Heems and Kool A.D. look like any brown person, and worse yet, can be substituted for the myriad people of color whose references anchor the song.
As Vice Sports’ Tomas Rios explained to Jayson Greene on Twitter following Greene’s tepid review of Heems’ Eat Pray Thug (2015), “The line [between joking and serious] is imaginary.” Chronicling the experience of being brown in America, the “Shorty Said” phenomenon is at once a serious issue presented in a joking manner. At its core, identity is on the line. The line is imaginary, but had one ever existed, Das Racist quickly erased it.
Listening to the pre- and post-Das Racist solo works of Kool A.D. and Heems, the imaginary line separating their two styles also blurred during their time as a group. This symbiosis of styles brewed a mix as intoxicating as either on their own. “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” drilled the absurdity of mass-consumerism in the same unflinching way that Kool’s daily marker drawings of corporate logos and brand slogans saturate social media today. But as the mixtape became a true long-form project, Heems’ focus turned the long-winded Vasquez into a mastery of brevity: “Cop all of my Snapple at Staples” highlights capitalistic insanity as much as the minutes-long fast-food chant. In turn, we were blessed with Heems’ dual influences of Kool and Killa Cam when he dropped internal nonsense rhymes like “Boots true Ecco, too / His loose noogz, cuckoo.” Their lyrics never shrouded their infatuation with hip-hop, no matter how saturated with more important topics.
As a hip-hop release, Shut Up, Dude ranks third in their catalog behind Sit Down, Man and Relax, respectively, but those two releases lacked the mystical quality of newness that Shut Up, Dude still carries with it today. The depth of the mixtape permeates past the lyrics. The swirling of samples plucked directly from their nationalities weren’t used simply for their sonic merits but for the identity that they assigned to it.
Song titles paid homage to race while simultaneously exposing the ignorance of others—Kool A.D., from an early interview with staythirstymedia, divulged that “the sample comes from an Indian movie called Ek Shahenshah. The producer, Like Magic, mistyped it as Ek Shanish in the name of the Logic project and later on we wrote it as Ek Shaneesh on some Western Misinterpretation Of Freaky Oriental Shit (WMOFOS).”
We finally heard what a directed project from hip-hop’s pranksters would sound like, but each listen was less about the laughs, more about the thoughtful ruminations on race. In a genre obsessed with authenticity, Shut Up, Dude is one of hip-hop’s most autopoietic releases. Sadly, a lot of the group’s observations hold as true today as they did five years ago.