The Small Town South Indian Boys Of New York
Through their guerrilla-esque caustically funny act, the Kondabolu brothers are adding layers of complexity to the image of the South Asian in the American consciousness
Das Racist’s Himanshu Suri a.k.a Heems and Ashok are childhood friends – they grew up in the same neighbourhood in Queens, New York and attended the same school, Stuyvesant High. Victor Vazquez aka Kool A.D., the third member of Das Racist, met Suri in college at Wesleyan University. Das Racist’s screwball character and punk ribaldry is streaked with a subversive, politicising causticity. The trio performs “slacker rock-rap” (“Brand New Dance,”) written in “otherworld new-speak” which is “half internet/half high school cafeteria shit” (“Power”). Their debut album Relax (2011) is an intelligent, unapologetic smack in the face delivered with oodles of street cred. Das Racist’s striking comment on American culture is incisive and potent, pounded with witticisms and loaded jibes. Parodying the T-Pains and Snoop Doggs of hip-hop, Das Racist scoffs – on songs like “Girl,” “Booty in the Air” and “Punjabi Song” – at the crass doggerel of hip-hop club hits. In some way these songs draw strong cultural parallels between popular hip-hop and bhangra (Punjabi pop). The immigrant experience is strongly assumed as it is a shared experience of all three members of the outfit. “They say I act white, but sound black/But act black, but sound white/But what’s my sound bite supposed to sound like?” Suri gripes on “Shut up Man.”
Hari struggles to define his brother’s role in Das Racist – what a hype man traditionally does and how Ashok is more than just the sum of these parts. “It’s hard for me to understand what it is that he does because it’s such a specific thing.When people think of the hype man, historically, it’s just this person who repeats things on stage and brings up energy and Ashok does parts of that too, that’s his job, but like, he is brilliant. Even seeing the three of them interact you can see how they feed off him, I hear my brother’s voice in the work even though he is not in it. I am like, ‘this is how Ashok talks and they are rapping and talking about things he talks about.’” Hari references this line Vazquez raps on a song off of their first mix tape, Shut Up, Dude – “I didn’t ask to be born/I don’t owe anybody any shit” – which was Ashok’s trademark line in general conversation. “My dream wasn’t to be a hype man in a rap group or be well known,” says Ashok. “For me personally, this is something that I do for money to an extent and I am not particularly proud of what I do and I don’t care if anybody knows that I do it.”
When I met with Hari earlier – over a slice of pizza post a gig of his at the Le Poisson Rouge – he went on about his brother’s erudition, Ashok’s ability to astutely intellectualise socio-political issues and make a compelling argument. At the time, I mistook this for the fawning sentiment of an older brother. Ashok proves Hari right – he speaks from a very informed space. As we talk about various issues he commands this Yoda-like sagacity without trying too hard. “I think my parents are obviously getting used to the fact that I am this somewhat publicly vulgar character and that people respond to it. But they also know that I am this incredibly articulate, intelligent person who’s gone on these hours-long conversations – obviously very one-sided – where I’ll be telling them how I feel about every single thing in the world, unsolicited, so they know I am not like an idiot, they just know.”
Before – for the lack of a better expression – figuring it out, Ashok dropped out of college and did odd jobs in New York like listing 15,000 cell phones individually on Craigslist for some Punjabi dealer who had bought the phones from China. “I have been a bumbling New York maniac for like a year, I had some ideas of doing social work which I pursued to like a very minimal extent. I just wanted to be able to have the time to do what I wanted to do and a lot of that stuff would end up being creative. So when I am left in the natural state, with now, some of the money and access that I have been granted, the minimum I have by being in this band, I am going to gravitate towards making weird TV/radio shows and doing weird art and interviewing strange, interesting people that I would not be able to meet otherwise. I just wanted the freedom to do what I wanted to do without having to wake up before maybe 10 a.m.”
One of the weird shows that Ashok has been working on is Chillin Island – a series of quirky webisodes which amp up the hype, weaving in and out of eccentric, remarkably idiotic and bizarre spells of crazy. The low budget, comedy sketch/talk show ties in absurdist humour, interviews and Das Racist on the road and in concert.
Hari believes Ashok is the funnier of the two. He is certain of it. When Hari prepares for his acts, it is work, while with Ashok it seems like more a tease, a way of life. Sample his tour diary – for the Brooklyn Rail – of Das Racist’s Australia tour (January 2012) online. Hari unwittingly feeds off Ashok. “For a long time, I don’t think I ever told you this, but my stage presence was very much me trying to mimic certain ways you say things, because the way I talk on stage isn’t quite the way I talk off stage,” Hari tells Ashok.