DJ Rekha (born Rekha Malhotra) is widely credited with having pioneered bhangra music in North America. In 1997 she launched Basement Bhangra, a Thursday night party at S.O.B.’s on Varick Street in Manhattan. Basement Bhangra, which is still going strong 11 years later, has been largely responsible for popularizing bhangra in the New York City club scene and beyond. Basement Bhangra has been called “the best known desi party in America.”
DJ Rekha has been called “New York’s Best DJ” (New York Magazine) and the “queen of bhangra and hip-hop fusion music” (TimeOut New York)—though she takes issue with the term “fusion” as you’ll find out. The New York Times has called her one of the most influential South Asians in the United States.
A political and social activist, DJ Rekha believes that pop culture is an ideal platform for promoting social change. She has led workshops across the country and recently taught a class on South Asian pop culture at New York University. She also arranged the music for Sarah Jones’s Obie- and Tony-winning one-woman show, Bridge & Tunnel.
Her 2007 album Basement Bhangra was nominated for a PLUG Independent Music Award in the category of “DJ Album of the Year.”
When you started DJing in the mid 1990s, you faced two huge obstacles: One, female DJs didn’t really exist, or at least weren’t getting to play the clubs. And two, clubs weren’t playing Indian or Pakistani music. How did you deal with those barriers?
Actually, when I started, there was a South Asian party scene beginning in New York, but those parties were in rented venues, not in the clubs. So they were sort of private events. Whereas being at S.O.B.’s, which is a known music venue that has its own marketing and publicity, it sort of automatically appealed to a broader audience.
In terms of being one of the few women at that time, I didn’t really think about it. I just did it.
Did you listen to much Indian and Pakistani music growing up?
Yeah, my parents listened to Bollywood soundtracks a lot, so that music was always around me.
Tell me about how you started DJing with your cousins when you were a kid.
My cousins lived in India and then they moved to New York. And we began building a friendship over music. We went to a cultural event where one of the cousins was performing a dance, and there was a DJ from the community, and we didn’t think he did a very good job, and we knew we could do better.
We had a lot of connection over music. My cousins had their musical past from India, and I had grown up on hip-hop and contemporary American music in New York.
We didn’t think much about it—we just put our nickels together, and next thing we knew, we bought some equipment and we volunteered to do somebody’s party, and one thing led to another.
You’ve said that gender roles were in play when you worked with your cousins.
Yeah, I was older, and they were the boys. They did the technical stuff and I did the managing and the administrative stuff.
And so when they went back to India, you started doing the technical stuff?
How did Basement Bhangra come about?
I promoted and DJed a one-night event at S.O.B.’s. The event went well, and S.O.B.’s asked whether I wanted to do a regular night, and we came up with the idea for Basement Bhangra.
I’ve heard you say that you dislike the term “fusion,” which is a term that many people actually use to characterize your music. Why do you dislike the term?
“Fusion” is problematic in the same way that “assimilation” is. The term carries this notion that you put two things together and you lose the originals. And that it’s a neat package of A + B = C, and I think that things are more nuanced than that. There’s this assumption that there’s East and there’s West. The reality is that what’s considered “western” borrows from the “east” and vice versa.
The template for a bhangra track is basically constructing a hip-hop track. So there’s a lot of dismay about hip-hop producers “stealing” bhangra elements, but the opposite has been happening for a long time. It’s more of a dialogue, and more interactive, and more a continuum, than people acknowledge.
Along those same lines, you like to use multiple disciplines on-stage: percussion, on-stage dancers, visual imaging on screens.
A lot of producers work that way. You want to create an experience. You have a choice and a responsibility to put things into the music that make sense. I’ve seen events where they’re just throwing everything together that’s slightly Indian. Classical music and this and that … I think it’s got to make sense.
When I go on the road sometimes I’ll get an offer at the last minute. Often like, hey, can this drummer play along with you? And I’ll say no. Some other DJ’s will say yes, bring it on. I say no because I’m very picky. If I don’t know the percussionist, I don’t know what vibe we’ll have, and without rehearsal I don’t know the skill level.
Drummers like to play loudly. My sets are so spontaneous that I don’t know where I’m going to go, and I need to have a rapport with the drummer. I’m used to compensating for the lack of a drummer, so I’m playing really drum-heavy stuff. With a drummer I’m playing less of that stuff, because the drummer will play. So my view is, well if you wanted me to play with a drummer, I could have brought somebody I’ve worked with before.
On your MySpace page, your influences include several non-musical people, such as Milan Kundera, Langston Hughes …
Yeah, those are some of my favorite authors. I like to be engaged in disciplines other than music. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of my favorite books—
Do you prefer the book or the movie?
The book! Because you get inside their heads in a different way.
Yeah, that’s my favorite thing about Kundera’s writing, too.
And with a movie, it’s an adaptation, so they don’t do every scene. There’s so much going on with those characters internally, that when you watch the movie you have to infer it. When you read it, you can really understand it.
I discovered Langston Hughes in high school. I love his descriptiveness of the moment in time that he came from. Nick Hornby is a great writer, and he also writes a lot of music references into his stories. So many of his books have been made into movies [Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, About a Boy, A Long Way Down], but one of his best books has never been made into a movie and it’s one of the few with a female protagonist—How to Be Good.
How did you first meet Panjabi MC?
I met Panjabi MC because I invited him to DJ at Basement Bhangra in 1998. I had his album Sold Out and I loved it, so I invited him. We had an instant rapport.
We actually lost touch for two or three years, but then he came back into town to do a show with someone else and we met again. And then when the record [“Mundian To Bach Ke,” aka Beware of the Boys, aka the Knight Rider bhangra song] broke, I helped promote it.
Every time I go to England I see him, and we brought him back to Basement [Bhangra] for the 10th anniversary last year.
At first, your parents were not excited about what you were doing. How did they come around?
They’ve got bragging rights. Once they understood that I’m serious about this and that I’m making a living at it, they started to accept it.
And when I got written up in India Abroad, that was the clincher.
Do you get tired of being everybody’s spokesperson for bhangra?
I’m not the spokesperson for it. I’m just one person who can talk about it. I never want to be the spokesperson for a whole genre of music.
You do a lot of teaching, including workshops about DJing. What do you enjoy about that?
I like interacting with people. It’s cool to just talk to people and share knowledge and experience.
Another thing I like to do is a lot of museum gigs. Some of them are free to the public, and they have a lot of ages represented.
How did the NYU teaching gig come about?
Initially I was asked to be an artist-in-residence at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU.
Artists-in-residence can pitch an idea to teach, and I pitched a class on South Asian pop culture, which they liked and made room for.
Tell me about the organizations you’re involved with in terms of social causes.
I’m on the boards of two organizations now.
One is Breakthrough, which promotes human rights through pop culture. The idea behind Breakthrough is to take the most accessible means possible and use that to talk about human rights issues. They just made a video game about the post 9/11 situation; it’s called I Can End Deportation (ICED).[Editor’s Note: See “New Media, New World” in the Dec. ’07-Jan. ’08 issue of India Currents for more on Breakthrough and its founder, Mallika Dutt.]
The other organization I’m on the board of is called Pop and Politics. It started as a blog of a journalist friend of mine [Farai Chideya]. It’s become an interactive discussion site about politics and culture. We’re housed at USC [the University of Southern California]. We have a training program and we do different kinds of reporting. The larger goal is to get young journalists of color involved in the mainstream media.
Given your proclivity toward social activism, do you try to promote any messages or causes with the music that you play?
What I do is larger than the music that I’m playing. A lot of what I do is also about the event that I’m producing.
And in the course of producing that event, there are a lot of decisions that one can make, in terms of things such as accessibility, imaging, marketing, and any visuals we play on the screen.
The specific lyrical content of the songs is not literally political. Occasionally there is a song that resonates lyrically, but it’s more about creating an experience that is respectful of the culture it comes from.
Why is pop culture a good vehicle for social change?
Many people think that pop culture is vapid and without message, but I think that pop culture has the power to reach a lot of people. Those of us who are producers and who have an audience have a great opportunity to infuse what we do with the possibility of social change.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|