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4 September 2009

Song of the Summer: Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell”

The autumn doesn’t officially begin until late September. But let’s be honest, emotionally speaking, it starts after this Labor Day weekend.

And I just realized I never announced my official song of summer. Well, whoot, here it is.

What makes this song simultaneously retarded and awesome? Seriously! I think it’s the kind of thing that makes life worth living another day. And I am pretty much 100% serious.

A bit more food for thought on why I like dumb music & why I like smart music. (I hope I don’t have to point out that Das Racist’s music falls firmly in the “dumb” category.)

I will try to limit myself to three points:

ONE: When I listen to this song it makes me smile & note how it puts a laser like target on the redonkulousness of a phenomenon in the vernacular retail shopping experience which no one really pinpointed quite so well previously. (Unless there’s, like, a Tracy Jordan bit about those combo stores I’m missing.)

TWO: By contrast, when I listen to music like that of Nico Muhly it makes me think very deeply about language and meaning and communication. These, of course, are more rarefied areas of human experience, and suitably subtler shades of formal craft are required to make the work successful. (To restate: Artistic commentary about combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell franchises require less complicated tools than artistic commentary about how we tell stories and assemble notions of the self through language.)

THREE: It’s alright for a person to love music that tickles only one side of their consciousness. It’s alright for music to not be a 7-layer burrito dip of meaning, significance and catchiness. Sometimes a dog is a dog, and a cat is a cat, and you can love them for that.


Of course, music that tickles both sides (the need for humor, the need for thought) makes me even happier. I think the Dirty Projectors qualify, and it’s why I love Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom.

Along those lines, this is what I love about Elliott Smith & the Beatles, too. Though neither is explicitly about intelligence or “smarts,” both artists possess a formal genius, plus an extreme realization of a musical aesthetic, along with a realization that the whole enterprise is inherently goofy & a good time & must sometimes break. Maybe that’s why I’m still obsessed with Crass too?

I’ve heard a lot of people in my circle complaining about how stupid Das Racist are, how useless, what an affront to “real” music. My question to these people is this: Why is it that the three rock critics left in this world seems to be obsessed with pinning down cats for not being dog like enough, and dogs for not being cat-like enough?


Okay, actually, I think that’s more than three points. But here’s a final one, after the jump….

Just because something is simple — as Das Racist’s, erm, masterpiece certainly is — does not mean it was easy to make. Compare “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” for example, to the duo’s previous effort “Chicken & Meat.”

There’s no contest. Somehow, the fast food song is inspired yet the “Chicken & Meat” song — similar subject matter included — just falls flat.

You can read more about the duo in this recent interview they did in with the Village Voice. Here’s my favorite quote:

    “My name is Himanshu. I am 24 years of age. I hail from the borough of Queens, New York. Queens is America’s most diverse county. My parents flew to Queens from India in 1980 on an Air India Boeing 727. I now reside in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Williamsburg, Brooklyn is not very diverse. I am a Cancer, Pisces rising. I like watching television, listening to television, listening to the radio, listening to television on the radio, watching television on the Internet, and watching the Internet on a television. I also very much enjoy listening to Hot 97 on the radio. I like reading books that brown people write. My top five favorite poetic devices of all time are repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition.”

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. On 2009-9-4 Josh K-sky said:

    I’ve heard a lot of people in my circle complaining about how stupid Das Racist are, how useless, what an affront to “real” music

    What a terrible circle. I’m so sorry.

  2. On 2009-9-6 victor said:

    sure a dog is a dog and a cat is a cat but would you argue that a artistic commentary about a dog requires more or less complicated tools than artistic commentary about a cat? i would hope not. they’re simply different, no need to qualify that difference. the repetition of “the only tune my fiddle would play” accomplishes different things than the repetition of “i’m at the combination pizza hut and taco bell” but claiming that a fiddle has more authenticity/poetic significance than a fast food restaurant is sacrificing critical vigor for nostalgic/romantic/culturally biased notions about what reality is.

  3. On 2009-9-6 Alec Hanley Bemis said:

    Huh. This is an interesting & engaged comment. Thanks for that.

    Here Victor is referring to the Nico Muhly song “The Only Tune” which appeared on Mothertongue, an album my label Brassland released in 2008. It is a re-setting of the lyrics to an old folk song that Wikipedia refers to as “The Twa Sisters.” Alternate titles include “The Miller and the King’s Daughter,” “The Cruel Sister,” and “The Wind and Rain.”

    I wouldn’t say there was inherently more lyrical intelligence to Nico’s song than to the song by Das Racist. In part this is because Nico — despite being a fantastic writer — didn’t actually write the text. He doesn’t seem to have personal aspirations as a lyricist. Consider the fact that all the lyrics on Mothertongue are either borrowed (as on the collage of “Wonders”) or found (as on the half-remembered old phone numbers sung by Abigail Fischer).

    I do, however, think the organizing intelligence and variety of the music that Nico makes so far outpaces the music of Das Racist that it’d be silly to even engage a comparison. This opens up a much larger question about musical “intelligence” — something rather difficult to discuss as most of us have a much harder time understanding and discussing smarts outside of the verbal-linguistic realm.

    Viz notions of multiple intelligences: visual, spatial, emotional, bodily-kinesthetic, et. al. I’ll pass this one onto Wikipedia for now.

  4. On 2009-9-6 victor said:

    this also brings up the question of musical genre. rap music as a genre has more of an emphasis on lyric and rhythm and less on melody as its typically conceived in western music. this could lead to the misguided conception that it is less musically rich/complex/”intelligent.” if you listen to combination pizza hut and taco bell (the original, not the remix), you’ll notice it has no distinct “melody” and is arguably nigh atonal by western standards, but if you listen to it giving credence to the ideas proposed in the work and ideologies of artists like ornette coleman, sun ra, don cherry, coltrane, stravinsky, john cage, etc., etc., (and seen enacted later in punk/post-punk/”no-wave,” funk, rap, noise, experimental music etc. etc.) that melody does not need to have a hierarchical dominance over rhythm, that all sound is inherently “tonal” and western conceptions of melody can only describe a limited range in a vast world of sound that can (and should) be considered music.

    in my above comment i referred to the lyrics as an example of how context effects subject matter (and proposed that no lyrical subject matter is more *inherently* poetic than another) because the content of the blog entry seemed to concern lyrics and language more than the other aspects of the music. but i think the whole “dog = dog / cat = cat / no need to make an qualitative judgement about dog vs. cat” argument still applies: “combination pizza hut and taco bell” is a song made more along “rap” aesthetics and “the only tune” is one made more in the “folk” tradition. (those terms are vague and not very useful but the general gist i’m trying to get across is that these are two artists working within different “traditions” or “genres” with different sets of references.)

    being an apparent admirer of nico muhly (and presumably his musical tradition and its cultural references) you are more likely to catch and appreciate those references (and therefore appreciate the music more as a whole) but just because you can’t find or recognize any “intelligent” or interesting reference points in the music of das racist, doesn’t mean there are none. for example, the das racist song “chicken and meat” posted on this blog contains lines from (or directly referencing) krs-one, lee “scratch” perry, kanye west, the banana boat song, kmd, jay-z, m.i.a. to name a few in this song alone. These cultural references are different than those of nico mulhy but no better or worse, no smarter, or dumber. again it’s cats and dogs.

  5. On 2009-9-6 victor said:

    also pizza hut taco bell was produced by leif (who is temporarily not on myspace? but still searchable on hype machine and other places on the internet) who is a scholar of experimental music and dance who has written extensively on sun ra and koffi olomide.

    and i notice now that i forgot to conclude that first run-on sentence paragraph but basically “but if you listen to [combination pizza hut taco bell] giving credence to [the noted ideologies considered oppositional to traditional ideas of western music] you might have more success finding something significant in it.

    i believe that there is no music that “only tickles one side of [one’s] consciousness,” but that various contexts provide a listener with the means of tickling their own consciousnesses from within. end of the day, you can like something or you could not like something but when start describing the thing you like as objectively/universally “smart” and the thing you don’t like as “dumb” you create value judgements that tend to crumble under the scrutiny of reader from a different context.

  6. On 2009-9-7 Alec Hanley Bemis said:

    Hey Victor,
    Thanks again for such a deep engagement with my BLOG post. That said, I think you may be reading a bit too much into what I said — and certainly misreading my tastes and musical interests.

    I won’t attempt a full reply to all your points because it would involve rebutting arguments I’m not even trying to make. Instead, some glancing points which might put a slightly different cast on my original post:

    – The funny thing about Nico’s music is that I don’t even find the most interesting aspects of it to be the way in which he engages the Western canon. Actually, I suspect his real gift is similar, in ways, to John Coltrane’s. Both strike me as improvisers who, at their best, are able to structure their free flowing ideas into a form that bears repeated listening. I suspect Nico comes to his music in much the same way as Coltrane or Philip Glass or Ravi Shankar do: a kind of ecstatic trance state that leads them to riffs & ragas which are later transformed into themes. (I will admit I am no musician, composer, or expert in Indian music, so I may just be talking bullshit here.)

    – Of the artists you mentioned Kanye West, Jay-Z, M.I.A, Coltrane, Stravinsky and certain recordings by Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra are very important to me, very much part of who I am in terms of my musical tastes. Actually, I’m planning a post that involves Jay-Z that, with any luck, will go up in the next week or so. One of the earliest pieces of writing about music I’m truly proud of is about Sun Ra. These artists are not secondary to me; they are essential.

    – I’m shocked to hear you say that the music Coltrane, Coleman & Stravinsky does not possess distinct melody. I guess that’s the popular wisdom about what made these artists revolutionary: their music was Shocking! Atonal! Unlistenable! The thing is, going back to their music years after its initial impact, what seems so amazing about them has less to do with the fact that they eschewed melody than that they re-tuned our ears to what scales & temperaments were acceptable building blocks for melody. Listening to much of their music — at least the music of theirs that I enjoy — I’m struck by how memorable, insistent, and powerful the repeated themes are. If that’s not melody I don’t know what is? Or maybe I just need to take a music appreciation class. Anyway, point being, continuing to hold up the myth that these people you mentioned make atonal music is kind of like saying the art of Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock is “ugly” when in fact, circa 2009, they look rather beautiful. The best artists make one reconsider the meaning of such words, they redefine terms like “ugly.”

    – Das Racist’s song definitely strikes me as more repetitious than Nico’s music. Maybe the repetition is what I’m considering “dumb.” Granted I don’t always feel that way. If Das Racist had thrown down with the kind of transcendent dub that Augustus Pablo made, I probably wouldn’t to accuse them of being stupid (in a good way — let’s remember, I think their song is dumb in a good way!).

    It’s Labor Day! I hope you’re getting to spend some time on a beach.

    Again, thanks,

  7. On 2009-9-7 victor said:

    i didn’t say that coltrane, coleman and stravinsky were atonal, i said that pizza hut taco bell was “arguably nigh atonal by western standards” and that in the light of the work and ideologies of artists like coltrane, coleman, and stravinksy, much of whose work and ideology expressed the idea “that melody does not need to have a hierarchical dominance over rhythm, that all sound is inherently ‘tonal,’ and [conventional] western conceptions of melody can only describe a limited range in a vast world of sound that can (and should) be considered music” then music that initially seems atonal or not melodically complicated can and should in fact be considered musical. so we’re in agreement on that. and i’m glad you dig those dudes, nice guys. and i like pollock and warhol too.

    i’m also glad you like jay-z but i was just trying to suggest that maybe you find das racist “dumb” because you don’t connect with much of the rap references. i didn’t say you didn’t like rap, just suggested that you might not have gotten a lot of the rap references that run through most of the songs.

    and i know you meant “dumb in a good way” but i’m wary of any proclamation of this band being dumb versus this one being smart. they are terms that are paradoxically at once both too vague and too complex to be useful in a discussion about aesthetics.

  8. On 2009-10-28 Anonymous said:

    There is perhaps a subtle but important difference between dumb things and musically clever commentary on dumb things in our culture.

    It might make you *feel* dumb when you find yourself buying avocados or sitting in traffic and saying “Immat the commmmbination pizza hut and taco bell…” to yourself.

    But that’s different from dumb.

  9. On 2009-10-28 Alec Hanley Bemis said:

    Your point is excellent MC Hihara — and stronger in its brevity than my back and forth with Victor who, if anyone is wondering, is actually Victor Vazquez from the group Das Racist.

    Just goes to show, there is a role for critical commentary in this world. You’ve made a point that we did not with all of our verbiage and huffing & puffing.

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