Has this been the greatest week of charity-inclined hip-hop in the history of Carnegie Hall? Last week Jay-Z played the famed venue to raise funds for United Way. Last night, Das Racist showed up for the annual Philip Glass-curated Tibet House Benefit concert.
They weren’t the only ones in the building. As it does every year, the Tibet House concert trotted out a potent hodgepodge of a lineup. A crew of Tibetan monks, rocking traditional robes and headdress but also Chucks and Adidases and clogs, kicked things off with a bit of mesmerizing guttural chanting. Laurie “Yes, I’m Married to Lou Reed But I’m Famous On My Own, Thanks” Anderson followed up with a spoken-word piece overlaid on an ominous keyboard and electric violin instrumental. It was about a Buddhist retreat in Utah she went on, one that was interrupted and overtaken by an Outward Bound/incest-support group. It, rightfully, got huge laughs. Then Antony, of “and the Johnsons,” joined her and sang a song about Hansel and Gretel, all grown up. (They live in Berlin now, and spend their nights drinking schnapps and gin. She works as a cocktail waitress; he’s had a part in a Fassbender film.) He wrapped things up by calling out “but there is a storm brewing” over and over and, because his voice is exactly as spooky in real life as it is on record, I had to fight off the urge to curl up into the fetal position.
More performers followed: dubstep heartthrob James Blake, animated, skinny-panted violinist Tim Fain, the Kathmandu-via-Zurich singer Dechen Shak-Dagsay. And then it was time for Philip Glass to introduce Das Racist. (For the record, he did mispronounce the first part of their name but, come on, it’s Philip Glass. We can let it slide.) I wasn’t quite sure if they’d be doing one of their own songs, or if they had whipped up something else for the occasion. The Playbill offered no support there. Their bio just read “Das Racist is a white guilt art project/science experiment/ponzie scheme piloted by @HIMANSHU, KOOL A.D., and The Honorable Prophet Dapwell. Their goal is to make a million American dollars.”
They trotted out — Heems and Kool A.D. in suits, Dapwell in a fetching flowing white kurta — with the support of a silver-leggings-wearing drummer and a legit four-person string section. Kool A.D. gave Philip Glass the handshake-hug combo. Heems asked everyone to “wave back at us. Do the two-hand wave.” And then they ripped into their single “Michael Jackson.”
When they did the same track on Conan, it was a consciously bewildering, low-energy affair that came complete with a Michael Jackson impersonator. It was a surreal moment. And while I don’t want to start any fights here, I think last night’s was weirder. The basic dissonance of where we were (and the fact that the place did not seem sonically equipped to handle rap music) was one thing. More important, though, was this: Dapwell never stopped air-humping for long. If he wasn’t air-humping, he was swirling his hands in full rotations, or looping his arms behind his back and through his legs and grabbing his ankles and trying to walk. Meanwhile, Kool A.D. was dragging his mic stand limply behind him, or dapping up the grinning string section as they were trying to play, or pulling out a giant American flag and carrying that around for a bit. At one point he flopped on his back at the edge of the stage and then caromed over himself; at another, he went and sat down in the front row. The white-haired gentleman in front of me was loving it.
There was more to come. Rahzel (who, I was glad to find, still introduces himself as “Rahzel of the Legendary Roots Crew” despite his years away from the band) shredded with a robot-themed beat-boxing display. Stephin Merritt played a ukulele. Lou Reed did the Velvet Underground’s “Beginning to See the Light” with the help of a mustachioed hipster guitarist and what may or may not have been an iPad with his lyrics on it. And at the end, everyone came out and sang Philip Glass a happy birthday (celebrations for his 75th year have been going on all year), and someone draped a white sash around him. Lou Reed, James Blake, and Das Racist at Carnegie Hall? Not a bad birthday haul.