Given his ultra-laid-back persona in the Brooklyn hip-hop unit Das Racist, one might be forgiven for assuming that Himanshu Suri’s primary goal in life is fashioning bongs out of beer cans in between catatonic viewings of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It doesn’t exactly come as the surprise of the year, then, when the evidently blurry-eyed MC picks up the phone in New York City sounding like a man who is either half awake or almost asleep.
Get Suri warmed up, though, and it becomes evident there is a lot going on upstairs, no shocker considering that he met his fellow Das Racist MC Victor Vazquez at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, one of the most exclusive schools in the United States. The indie rapper goes from bored-sounding to instantly engaged the second talk turns to Vancouver’s South Asian community. Pretty quickly, it becomes obvious that Suri’s knowledge of Canadian South Asian history doesn’t start and end with the first time Russell Peters headlined Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
“Canada has a pretty interesting immigration history—wasn’t there a ship with 100 Indian people that they wouldn’t let into the country so that it remained in a bay for a year?” he asks. “The Komagata Maru, wasn’t it called? That shit is insane.”
Suri’s facts might be a little bit off—376 passengers from Punjab, India, arrived aboard the Komagata Maru on May 23, 1914. Vancouver authorities forced them to remain onboard, until ordering the boat out of British Columbian waters and back to its departure point of Hong Kong on July 23.
Even if Suri doesn’t get all this correct, he obviously knows more about local history than 99 percent of Canadian passport holders. And that’s a heads-up that, as much as Das Racist was initially notorious for an idiot-savant ode to fast food known as “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”, the group is aiming higher than giving perma-stoned high-school dropouts a good giggle.
The group’s 2010 online release, Sit Down, Man, is an ambitiously dense fusion of cheeba-blazed beats and samples and slow-mo wordplay that swings from purposefully abstract to carefully calculated to offend, the latter primarily in the interest of making folks think. Check out the Jay-Z–sampling “All Tan Everything”, where Das Racist bemusedly notes that white people weren’t made for this world with “You can’t even go out in the sunlight/What good is that?” Or the more-stoned-sounding-than-Snoop-Dogg funk jam “Fashion Party”, which heads out to the Hamptons so Das Racist can take on white America with lines like “Yes I’m tannin’—Taliban chic/Shorty said I look like a Taliban freak.” In case such highlights don’t make it clear, race is very much on Suri’s mind, to the point where he bristles when asked what his parents think of his chosen career in underground hip-hop.
“You mean what did my parents want me to do jobwise?” he asks. “I don’t know why that’s relevant. It’s a question that only Indian or Asian artists get: ”˜What do your parents think?’ It’s like asking a Vivian Girl what their mom thinks of them playing drums, you know?”
Except that in this case it’s a valid question, not because of the colour of his skin, but because Suri didn’t enroll at Wesleyan with the goal of becoming a smart-ass MC. The rapper studied economics, and then, after graduating, worked as a headhunter and advisor with a New York financial-services firm. By all accounts, the job—which Suri eventually quit—was a lucrative one until the bottom fell out of the American economy in the wake of the subprime-mortgage crisis.
Office life would also prove strangely inspirational, convincing Suri to utilize both the creative and the business sides of his brain, rather than being content to wear a suit for the rest of his life. Growing up in Queens, he’d been fixated on rap from a young age, ever since he first noticed Nas stickers stuck on basketball poles at the local playground. Hip-hop would become the soundtrack to his childhood.
“If I listened to the Smashing Pumpkins in, say, the seventh grade instead of Nas, that would be something out of the ordinary South Asian identity in New York,” Suri says. “You don’t listen to rock. But listening to rap was normal for me and everyone I knew.”
Even while building his business acumen at Wesleyan, he never forgot his roots. And while he found himself in a straight job after graduating, he soon discovered that he wasn’t alone in his love of hip-hop.
“There was another dude that I worked with there, an Indian dude, who was a rapper,” Suri says. “He’d found success in India, where he had a single out with a popular Punjabi singer. Everybody I worked with thought of that dude as the rapper—they didn’t even think of somebody like me being the rapper. But having him around, that would push me.”
Funnily enough, office life would prepare Suri for Das Racist, as it taught him all about the importance of connecting with people.
“The job was more about hustle than actual market dynamics,” he says. “It was about networking and how charming you could be. It was about who you know.”
These days, Das Racist—which also includes hypeman Dap (aka Ashok Kondabolu)—has gotten to know plenty of people, with big-name producers like Diplo and El-P among those who helped out with the tracks on Sit Down, Man. The trio has also found major fanboys at media outlets such as Spin, MTV, and Pitchfork, all of whom have lauded the way the group’s MCs raise serious issues while seeming not to give a shit about anything. Sounding fully awake now, Suri stresses that he is indeed far more serious about his art than he’s given credit for.
“There’s always been this weird push and pull between the underground and mainstream, but in the past I feel like rap was much more fun than it’s become as of late,” he says. “I hope to bring a bit of fun back to rap with my friends. As young people of colour of the Internet generation, we have a lot to say. I don’t think we have an organized plan of what to say—I just thought more we could speak of our experiences, and if it resonates with someone in a way that other musical experiences haven’t, then that’s pretty nice.”