Himanshu Suri, Das Racist
Not expecting a discussion about Postcolonial literature with a songwriter, are you? But if you've really looked into what Himanshu Suri and Das Racist are about, this should not be surprising.
Here's the problem with labeling Das Racist "joke rap." Sure, they have funny songs like "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell." But some people assume that because Suri and Victor Vasquez write humorous lyrics, they can't also be socially conscious artists. But the two ideas aren't mutually exclusive. The world of performing arts is filled with people who deliver serious messages about race or class and who are also pretty funny. People like Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, and Chris Rock. Even people like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, who didn't discuss race and class as much, had plenty to say.
My interview with Himanshu Suri of Das Racist was not about joke rap. But if you want to read about his songwriting process, his fiction work, the influence of Postcolonial literature on his life, and what it's like as a South Asian rapper, read after the video.
Take me through the creative process involved in Sit Down, Man.
We produced very little on both mix tapes. Most of it comes from either friends or, in the case of Sit Down, Man, there were some heavyweight hip-hop mainstream producers involved. The first part of the creative process always involves picking a beat. On Shut Up Dude, we were much more into electronic music. I think were were more interested in the intersection of electro and hip hop, production-wise, and we played a little more with reggae. On Sit Down, Man, we went for the closest we could come to making a rap record.
As far as writing the material itself, on a song like "Shorty Said" from Shut Up, Dude, we might talk to each other while we are writing, and we'll play off each other. But most of the time we write separately, not in the same room, into Google Mail. Just log into Gmail and compose, then go through the drafts when we are done. I tend to write more in the studio. Victor does too, but he has a larger book of rhymes. He writes more than I do. And we don't really talk about what we are going to rap about on a song when we write it. We do our own thing, then come together. By virtue of being somewhat similar people aesthetically and working together, we both try to impress the other two people in the room. That's where things converge. We do very little writing together, though.
So we send the lyrics to a smartphone, stand in front of a microphone, and read it off the screen. We did Sit Down, Man, which was twenty songs plus eight we didn't include, in about 2 1/2 or 3 weeks. A lot more time went into picking the beats and miming the production aesthetic we wanted. It rarely takes us more than an hour to complete a song. It can often be quicker, depending on whether we have something written or if we are going to write in the studio.
How much do you go over in your head the lyrics as you write?
I'm still trying to get comfortable with that, because I'm coming to rap from a freestyle perspective where I come up with things spontaneously with groups of other people. I never really wrote or recorded. When I would write, it was mostly fiction or non-fiction, the more traditional genres. I've always had trouble writing rap, but I think rapping with someone who has a similar aesthetic has been good for me. It's made me write more.
When I'm writing now, I'm trying not to make it sound like my words are running through a machine. It's not an aesthetic that we tried to develop, but looking back, I see a confluence of influences. It's very much 21st century, internet, ADD, mass of information without necessarily decoding it. I'd like to move a bit in the opposite direction: blowing it up a little bit so that you can look back and make sense of it.
A lot of the way we write is a product of the time we are in and the source material we have. There's a lot more source material for our generation, given the internet.
What other creative outlets do you have?
Victor and Dap are much more visually artistic than I am. I dabble a little bit in visual arts. But we all do everything. We both enjoy writing fiction. To really be an artist, you can't just do one thing from a creative perspective.
We have a literary agent and are trying to find time in our hectic schedule to write and publish fiction. One of the things we've done is write for Village Voice and looked at interviews as another form of media that's not that different from a song. A lot of the interviews we've done have been in written form, so we find comfort in writing them in ways that are not too different from writing rap.
How does writing fiction bleed into your rap lyrics?
A lot of the fiction I write is much more rooted in my South Asian heritage than my music is. There are parts in my rap where I might allude to South Asian poetry, but I don't really get to delve into that too much. In some ways, rap is limiting compared to other music. There are so many words, and you have so much room to develop thoughts, but that's also more difficult because you have so many words to explain something that might not be that complicated.
Fiction is a much better way for me to tackle my feelings about being a working class South Asian American. There really isn't much representation of that in Postcolonial literature. There's people like Jhumpa Lahiri, but she's talking really about upper middle class South Asian American culture. Which is why rap makes sense for me: it's within that class I am a part of, the class I am speaking about. I don't think a lot of people would really read a short story I wrote about feeling weird about a guy at a convenience store speaking to me instead of to my mom when I'm a seven year old, because my accent is more American than hers. That's the type of thing that's much easier to convey in fiction, but the trade off is that it reaches fewer people than a rap would.
Heck, I'd read it.
I know someone like you would, but that's the problem with being a working class South Asian kid who went to a school like Wesleyan. I was surrounded by people who would read it, but until I was 18 I wasn't around people who would read it. So what's the point of talking about this experience if I am framing it to people who are not working class South Asian? It's kind of like putting the experience on display, whereas rap is a much more efficient way of targeting the people you are sharing the experience with, rather than letting it be an outsider's perspective looking in. That's a large problem when you engage in Postcolonial critique: you are jumping out of the community to look at it, then after a while you are no longer a part of it.
Who are some of your literary inspirations?
I am a big fan of Salmon Rushdie. I loved Junot Diaz's book Oscar Wao, and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Also Jhumpa Lahiri, Sam Selvon, Michael Ondaatje. Postcolonial literature more or less. And Bukowski and Burroughs for fun.
Do you read much poetry?
I used to be much more into poetry than I am now. Shiv Kumar Batalvi is one of my favorite Punjabi poets.I read a poem for Amiri Baraka in college once. That was cool. He came by and a couple of students got to read for him. He's definitely an inspiration. I like a lot of African American poets. It's weird, because in most respects I relate to the South Asian end of things, but I like African American poetry a more.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
I am pretty difficult about it. I only write when I have to write. When inspiration strikes, I'll keep a mental note of something I think is clever or witty and I'll throw it in a line later, so I have to remember a lot of things. If I was more organized, I'd have a notepad. I don't really like writing my stuff. It's usually when I'm in the studio and I have a beat in front of me. Victor has already laid his vocals down, and I know I can't procrastinate anymore.
What sense do you engage the most when you think about topics?
Rap in large part is about how many different ways can I talk about how cool I am. And so that's always the driving force. We consciously avoid talking about things in too straightforward a manner. We don't approach it meaning to say anything specific, but by virtue of who we are and what we think about, its going to come out in the creative process. It's very cathartic: these are the 80 or 90 things running through my mind, and these are the 10 things I am gong to use from that list to toss into places between the spots where I talk about how cool I am.
How do you know when a song is done?
Because the beats are done, all we have to bring to the table is vocals. We might fool around a bit with the beat, but the typical rap format is 16 bars, hook, 16 bars, hook, etc. Wit the first album, it was like, "I got 26 bars. Now Victor, you do 32." It was a conscious abandonment of structure entirely. One of the things that has kept us on people's radar has been our habit of writing and recording a song in an hour, then immediately throwing it on MySpace. There was constantly new material. A lot of rappers are perfectionists, but I don't know if we are lazy or that we see art as just an open-ended thing. Or maybe we believe that there is beauty in the mistakes: sometimes we'll make an error and like the result.
How do you get inspired to write?
There is never any constant effort to be writing. It really is such an identity-laden product to begin with, with so many words in a song, literally seven or eight times as many words compared to most songs. So you learn a lot about the writer. Much of it for me is about what happened that day, since I do so much writing in the studio. A lot of people who make rap music look at us and say, "Oh, these kids are having fun. This is what rap music used to be about in the 80s." Or they think we are making jokes. Which is funny, because we are talking about a genre in which there never were any rules in the first place.
Our inspiration to write is reflected in the fact that there are three people on the couch on both those cd covers. Ours is almost a form of performance while hanging out. It happens to be in rhyme form over a beat, but if you go to a live show, this is the way my two best friends and I interact. This is what we think about: race, art, literature, women, weed. Like, "This is how I vibe with my two friends, so let's do it on record." At its core, this is couch music. A lot of times there might be a TV in front of us as source material, or there might be a book we are discussing. But this music is just a form of conversation we are having.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
I worry about that more now, with the success of the second record. I do think about if what we write will be as good as the last. But worse than writer's block, I worry about being formulaic. Even in talking to you about the process, I am forming it, and that scares me a little. I don't want to get stuck where I feel like I have to cover, say, nine things: three from rap, three from pop culture, and three from TV. I don't ever want to get to a point where I am like, "Ok, gotta give the people what they like. Gotta give 'em the references." More than writers block, I am worried about how it sounds when it comes out of my mouth.
How much do you revise your lyrics?
I don't really revise because I am always under the gun in the studio. I am always rushed. I would rather have a small panic attack each time I perform it than have to worry about it at that given moment. Moving forward, maybe that's something I should think about. Laughs