Above the Radar Part II: Zachg, Danny Brown and Heems on hip-hop today

Kevin Foote/Senior Staff

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Heems of Das Racist is from “Cop Killer” Queens, he’s “Never killed a cop, though / More the type to burn a spliff and eat a bag of nachos / More the type to read a novel, maybe ‘bout Navajos.”

He is a frequent collaborator of Danny Brown’s and the two toured together last fall. Zachg, an aspiring rapper in the Bay, frequently tweets at the two, sharing links to his blog with Brown and recommending his own music video to Heems. Both rappers have yet to reply to those messages.

For now, Zachg is satisfied with having smoked out Brown after the latter’s show on Lower Sproul last week.

“When it comes to who might identify with our music, I think it’s a lot of the same people,” he said. The struggle right now is finding a niche in the way Danny Brown has. If live crowds and Twitter are any indication, Brown appeals to a diverse one: his free show attracted fans from all over the Bay. He has about 33,000 followers to Zachg’s 1,000, though the two share a similar palette.

“Of course that’d probably be like Ol’ Dirty Bastard,” Brown said, when asked which rapper of the past he would follow on Twitter. Zachg agrees that ODB would probably have some “radical tweets,” but Brown has reservations. “I wouldn’t really wanna hear ODB like ‘Yo, I’m about to make some cream soup’ or some shit…That’s why I try not to tweet like personal shit, like, I’m eating these Garden Wheat Thins, son!”

There’s a fine line between what’s human, what’s banal and what’s interesting online.  Zachg often find himself being too honest, despite the fact that conspicuous over-sharing can be what funds indie artists. Danny Brown embraces patronage from brands outside of the music industry in lieu of big label support. He’s constantly sharing photos of his personal style, which probably doesn’t hurt his partnership deal with Adidas Originals.

The idea of becoming a product is all part of the game for Zachg, finding “a way for me to be commodifying all this stuff”  without compromising his work.

“Only reason I rap is because of the environment I grew up in. If I grew up in your hood I would probably play guitar,” Danny Brown said, pointing at me. “Regardless of what I’d have been a musician… I’m not like ‘a rapper,’ I don’t think like that.” Circumstantially determined artistic expression is problematic for Zachg, who doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a rapper.

“I think unfortunately we’ve been fed a very slim slice of reality and told that it was the canon. Hip-hop doesn’t belong to anyone except human beings,” Zachg responded. He offers the Japanese electronics company Akai and the MPC, one of the first samplers, as an example. “Hip-hop may have risen out of a predominantly black social setting, but at a deeper level it came from people not having what they needed, and making due with what was there.”

Zachg’s master’s thesis at Tisch School of the Arts at New Yok University examined the roots of sampling in hip-hop. In his own music, he appropriates everything from Brian Eno to Madonna to Beach House.

Academia has served as a hip-hop training grounds for Heems as well. He met fellow Das Racist rapper Kool A.D. while the two were undergraduates at Wesleyan University, where Heems majored in economics and Indian studies. A rapper of Punjabi-Indian descent, he says he will always see through the lens of race.

“Like most diasporic people of color, my identity is schizophrenic as fuck. I would love not to think in these ways. It would make life a lot easier. It would make me a lot less crazy. I may even be more appealing to women,” he said in response to my questions on Tumblr back in 2010, when Das Racist was fresh off their first mixtape. But he’ll continue to write and make music, at least until he feels there is an adequate working-class, post-colonial South Asian American voice in the arts.

Race as inspiration and albatross resonates with Zachg. He traces his current mindset to his heritage. “It feels like as a people, Jews never settle in too firm because historically we never get to stay anywhere long,” he said. “We are an apprehensive people.”

Many take issue with supposed misogyny, homophobia and racial insensitivity in hip-hop. Heems has a theory about the third claim. “My constantly talking about race might pigeonhole me (in the eyes of) white people that feel uncomfortable because they don’t think of themselves as white people but just people,” he said.

Heems responded to my questions on Tumblr and Zachg was originally contacted for this piece on Twitter. The social media platforms are well suited for hip-hop, which often involves a distillation of concepts into pithy one-liners, the recontextualization of sounds and ideas and direct responses to new ones.

The site takes away the “action figure fictional character rappers from the past. They don’t exist,” Zachg said. It’s an increasingly important function as indie rap artists move away from the equivalent of wheat-thin rap to more complex material.