THE FIRST TIME Das Racist ever performed ‘Michael Jackson’, the first single from their much-anticipated debut album Relax, was at Columbia University’s Bacchanal Spring Concert on 30 April earlier this year. The picturesque, grassy quadrangle in the centre of campus was packed with thousands of students and walk-in concertgoers from the grittier neighbourhoods beyond the university’s walls, and the Brooklyn-based trio was notching another step on their improbable journey toward rap credibility: opening up for the west coast rap legend Snoop Dogg.
I was standing stagefront when Das Racist’s Himanshu Suri (aka ‘Heems’) announced the song; a distinct hush of anticipation fell over the crowd. Within moments, the band exploded across the stage, frenetically yelling the song’s catchphrase into their mics: “Michael Jackson! One Million Dollars! You feel me? Holler!” Just one scant minute later, the audience had taken up the refrain, and the callback spread all the way to the back of the crowd, hundreds of yards from where I stood—a few thousand people hollering, and I was doing the same.
But before they had even begun to captivate the audience with their music, and make us dance uncontrollably at their feet, Das Racist had first made sure to ruffle the feathers of the elite crowd that stood before them, filling the air with palpably awkward and uncertain murmurs. “This is the most collegiate shit I ever seen,” Heems said when he had first walked onto the stage. With an expression that made it seem as if he was smelling something putrid, he continued: “You look like a Tommy Hilfiger ad.” He proceeded to greet the Ivy Leaguers with a “shout-out” to Queens College and Stony Brook University, both decidedly public institutions. The audience was thoroughly confused, and it only got worse. A couple of minutes later, Heems tried to lead the students in a chant of “I will drop out of this demon university”. I looked around and noticed several furious faces.