In a track off their recent album Relax, Das Racist MC Himanshu Suri (aka Heems) raps, “Trap raps, let em free, they always come back to me. The Internet told me that that’s called love, I’m on the Internet cause I’m an Internet thug.” Even though Suri rhymes tongue-in-cheek, there are granules of truth within the verse. In 2008, the group’s single “Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell” put the Brooklyn-based trio in the spotlight after an overwhelmingly successful reception from blogs and music forums. Since then, Das Racist have established themselves as one of the most prolific groups in independent hip-hop.
Recognizing the window of opportunity that “Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell” had opened for them, Das Racist reacted with a series of mixtapes.
“At that point when we came out with that song, it was a bit of a novelty song. We put out two mixtapes afterwards,” Ashok Kondabolu (aka Dapwell) told me in an interview. “It was a concerted effort, not to distance us from that song, but to make sure that people knew that we could rap legitimately and came from a rap background.”
The group’s first mixtape, Shut Up, Dude was a 17-track critical success, especially as the group had released it free to download.
“We had to expose people to as much of our non-novelty song music as possible. We couldn’t really sell records off the strength of that song [“Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell”], so it would have been difficult selling albums at that point,” Kondabolu said.
Releasing Shut Up, Dude for free was not purely to build credibility in the hip-hop scene either, as Kondabolu told me, “It’s just a way of having more people listen to the music, and then there will be more touring and booking opportunities in the future if you can build a fan base through free music.”
With Shut Up Dude and Das Racist’s second mixtape Sit Down, Man being released four months apart, the trio fought to maintain a level of consistency in their music and art. In their top 50 albums of 2010 list, Pitchfork wrote that, “If it were allowable, we could’ve just put ‘everything Das Racist did this year’ in this slot.” The shout out from Pitchfork was in reference to the host of culturally dissecting blog posts and increasingly satirical interviews that the group had participated in, including an interview with The New York Times’ Deborah Solomon in which they referred to themselves as “Proto-postworld pop.”
When I asked Kondabolu if Das Racist had any concerns at the time about being seen negatively by the media, he told me, “We weren’t particularly worried about that; it was more of a question of, not integrity exactly, but if somebody asks me a question about something, I am going to answer it truthfully. “ He continued on to say that, “The real problem is if we stop producing interesting art and just rely on being interesting people, that would be a bad situation.”
As a group of independent artists, Das Racist is always trying to remind the public that they are artists in every sense of the word. “We do a good job of constantly creating content, whether it was new music or videos or art to make sure that once we had some position as a band that people were paying attention to, that we didn’t fall out of the spotlight or whatever you want to call it,” Kondabolu said, speaking about Das Racist’s formula for maintaining relevancy as an independent group.
It is obvious that Das Racist understands the formula for building and preserving hype around a project. With a free music distribution model and a consistent and provocative media presence, their first studio album, Relax was met with overall positive reviews, including an 8 out of 10 score from Spin.
In four years time, the trio has built a reputation as some of hip-hop’s most self-aware and engaging artists. With the majority of independent artists going unnoticed, Das Racist is a vivid example of the power that viral sharing and the free market can have on new artists.
I asked Kondabolu if appealing to a web audience was part of their plan, to which he responded, “There was definitely no larger plan associated with that. I think that no one can be fully aware of or underestimate the luck involved with something like this. “
You can digitally download Victor Vazquez’s, aka Kool A.D’s mixtape 51 here and check out the group’s web series “Chillin Island” here. Kondabolu also does a podcast called CHITTU CHATTU, which I highly suggest you listen to here. Keep an eye out for a project from Suri (Heems) and Harry Fraud in the future, as well as Kondabolu’s EP Winky Taterz out June 2012.