by Collier Meyerson
The connection between NSR, Dash Speaks and Das Racist seems tenuous. The three bands performed under one roof at the “Almost Famous Showcase” NYC. Sure, as the showcase implied, each group is “almost famous,” but was that enough?
After listening to his recordings, it is clear that the stage is this bagel enthusiast’s Eden. From the beginning of his set NSR fuses—memory, nostalgia and charm—tenets of hip-hop that newer artists of late abandon. NSR’s buoyancy and humor about being a white rapper who loves his Jewish upper west side roots inspired laughter from the audience throughout his set. But it wasn’t until he performed “The One” that we experienced a certain vulnerability from him. This standout song, with singer James Kinney whose remarkable voice (that bears a resemblance to Darien Brockington’s) is a universal story about the potential, resistance and confusion to falling in love. As he and Kinney locked eyes with ladies in the audience they threw up their pointer fingers and rocked “could you be the one, one, one, one”. Everyone followed suit, like it was the diamond at a Jay-Z show. He either had people under some sort of “Simon says” spell (not in the Pharohe Monch kind of way) or this self-proclaimed Adrien Brody look-alike (not in that sad Holocaust movie he was in kind of way) kills it (not in the Shug Knight kinda way).
Afterward, the dashing Dash Speaks took the stage, his first big show since debuting Geography that turned out a palpable response from the audience. His set revealed a layered and brutally honest marriage of his knowledge and curiosity about the world and his location inside (or in some cases) outside that world.
A more verbose style than NSR one had to really be attentive to catch the nuances that tie Geography together. His fourth song, “Tonight” was a fire remix of Lykee Lee’s original. The song is a “day in the life” type of track that addresses his seemingly incongruous nature—the hip-hop head, the intellectual and the party dude—he seeks to reconcile. The crowd threw their hands up and rocked with him as he spit “In the tradition of the delta of the longest river in the lower 48…Like the Russian Army/ soldiers in Grozny/ reading Walter Rodney/ sippin vodka tonic as I’m juiced as BIG prolly/ hoppin out the hooptie / listenin’ to Juicy.” Who is Walter Rodney and where the fuck is Grozny (Chechnya, actually) It’s the perfect verse to sum up his performance — he goes over your head to chill in the outersphere with the intellectuals in the crowd who get those references but he’ll always come back down to earth to listen to Biggy in a hooptie with his peoples. Some might call it elitism, but I think it’s just Dash Speaks rocking to the beat of his own (remixed electro) drum.
Das Racist (the “Barefoot Contessas” of the night) ambled onto the stage (like Old Man River minus the weariness of being enslaved) with baroque African headpieces and salwark meez’s. In their hands were vats of rice and beans that they threw at audience members. Nah, that was a lie. The dudes danced around the stage like carefree dunces but as they ask in their first song “who’s that brooown”—“what has brown done for me lately”—- those browns’ performance ended up doing a lot.
The eternal Das Racist question: are we heady-white-liberal-arts-graduates “dudes good or are we charlatans,” “are we resisting hegemony,” and “are we resisting hegemony by listening to them?” Their live show only answered one probing query: they’re unabashedly impervious and they’re never going to answer those questions. Rhyming from their own truths, careful not to fall into the trap of many performers of color having to speak on behalf of “the” community.
Throughout their set the audience was in stitches as they meandered around the stage picking up heavy, expensive sound equipment—much to the chagrin of angry looking soundmen. Their good time was viral, people swaying to jocular, upbeat songs of weighty substance. Their third song of their set, “Shorty Says” best exemplifies this classic Das Racist rule of inserting serious social commentary sneakily via funny beats, sounds and voices. The bearded and (truly) racially ambiguous Victor rhymes “Shorty said I look like Devendra Banhart/ Shorty said I look just like Egyptian lover” and later “Shorty said I look like Osama plus Obama.” Like many of their songs, laundry lists of names made the audience laugh and simultaneously reflect on personal racial and cultural projections. But that’s not what they’re trying to accomplish. If you’d ask them if that was their goal they’d probably say: “Shut up, dude.”
The three groups’ sounds are as different as Book T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. Oh wait, identity. They all talk about that a lot. Identity is a strong function of the three acts and though each brings it in a strikingly different way, it’s clear to see they are all cut from the same cloth—New York.