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DJ Rekha: The Pioneer Of Underground Bhangra

"Her unique sound has fused Bhangra music with some traditional hip-hop."

31/08/2016 11:25 AM IST | Updated 02/09/2016 6:27 AM IST
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DJ Rekha has been known for introducing North America to the beats of Bhangra music and started a movement that has swept the country. Her unique sound has fused Bhangra music with some traditional hip-hop. She has worked with many artists both mainstream and in the South Asian community, creating some great tracks. Despite making the waves with Americans, Rekha still finds time to work as a DJ in her monthly Basement Bhangra events and tours around the country to spread her love of music. I got a chance to sit down with her at her work space to talk about her humble beginnings as a DJ and some stuff she’s been working on.

First off, I want to say thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Let’s start by talking about how you got into the music business. Can you give us a bit of your background in music?

Well my cousins used to live in New York. They grew up in India. I grew up here. We had a common interest in music. We had different musical backgrounds. We saw some kids in our community putting together a DJ crew and we thought that we could do it too. And what really sparked me was when my mom went to England, she brought back the cassette tape by the singer Malkit Singh. It really excited me and a few years later when me and my cousins were getting to know each other – I heard that same singer’s voice like remixed, mashed up, spiced in with other stuff and that was the first time I encountered hip hop samples with Punjabi vocals and the music really excited me. My cousins and I – we just put our nickels together and you know – without tremendous forethought, we just sort of started a DJ crew and one thing led to another. A lot of my first round of gigs were for people in my community, volunteering to do any kind of gig. I got involved and caught up in a lot of activist spaces in early college and a lot of those early gigs were for fundraisers and that was sort of the community of folks that came up with. So in making the music or in learning to become a DJ, I also felt like there were a lot of conversations around the culture in the music and I felt very comfortable talking about that. So in tandem with actually being the DJ, I’ve always been, I would say reluctant but just, sort of, like someone also has talked about the culture - what DJ culture does for production.

What was the one gig that got you on the map as a renowned DJ?

Well, when you build an artist’s career, some stories have that moment when you get discovered – and some of those are like fabricated past the point of discovery. I think for most people it’s a series of trial and error. And what feels like really important one day may not matter the next day. So it maybe the first time somebody asked to interview me. And you know as time goes on, you realize it’s part of the work that you’re doing. I think what was really changing for me was, there’s no one moment. I think there are moments. So after my cousins left I started working with this guy, DJ Joy, and within a year of working with him we were playing at Summer Central Park, Summer Stage and I still think that’s a big deal. And that was literally twenty years ago when I got written up in the India Abroad, which is a weekly delivered to Indian households. That was a moment, because it felt like a sense of arrival. By then I’d already been covered in major media in terms of like musically. I think starting Basement Bhangra, which is a monthly party that I still do, seeing that thing explode was like finding a home. I got to create a space that defined my musical tastes and my ethics on how people should gather and that catered to a certain audience and being able to develop this other part of me which was really centered around South Asian sounds infused with electronic music inspired by a scene in England that created a space for others within our community. I think when those two co-exist, I think that’s an important part of my career. There are always these things that people latch onto that I feel like personally are not as important but they read well. They read well to parents and it’s a constant, you are on a constant campaign to prove to your parents that you are not wasting your time. Or that you have value because they want you to just be steady, stable or make money. And as I’m been in this for a while the first time you get mainstream media recognition is something to talk about or for me personally it’s like certain gigs, like getting Wyclef on a track or you know realizing like - I don’t know why. I mean I did a gig with Kid Capri at the Bronx Museum. I’m sure he has no idea who I am but watching him be so excited and singing the songs and stopping the music and really interacting with the crowd in a real like old school hip-hop style. I think that was a very defining moment for me in terms of like putting performances on but it’s hard to say, I don’t.

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How did your parents take it when they found out you took on this profession? Were they supportive at first?

Of course not! Why would they be? I mean it’s a mixed barrel with parents or deep relationships I think. I started in a very gender safe space – I started with younger brothers and cousins and I started out doing events, family parties with multigenerational – birthdays, weddings. At a time in the community when this industry and just internationally in any industry, the private event industry or the wedding event industry was not developed. People now – the scale of events, it’s kind of like the hybridism of consumerism. And then it took me a long time to finish college probably because I was DJing. They weren’t supportive but I kind of did my own thing and you know I think they take credit more so than they deserve to. “Thanks for nothing. Oh you want a discount now?” They come once in a while and just act like royalty in the corner and say hi to people they don’t know.

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You’ve mentioned this, but you got to work with some mainstream artists like Wyclef Jean and a some others. What was that process like working with them?

I mean it’s a story. It’s like I wanted someone on this track. I knew somebody, I mean this guy Papa Jube, who’s an old school producer. He used to run Rough House Records, he’s a Haitian, and he had a lot of connects. Wyclef was not on my radar for this song, so I don’t know if he was the right fit. I also thought it might have been out of my reach but Jube is very close to him. There is a moment and I still think that there is, like especially for people producing South Asian tinged music. It’s like I need somebody to feature on the track to elevate the song. And I think that I’ve heard really shitty samples of that. And I know of cases where people have paid a lot of money for real garbage and then the artist isn’t invested - they’re just paid to play. With this, this was more of a personal relationship; Wyclef had been to the party. He was familiar with the space. He’s a showman, he likes to be on, he’s a guy who wants to be on a big stage. He wants to be everywhere all the time. There are some artists who wanna get paid – it just depends. Because I’ve met him once or twice before, it was easier and it was just certain circumstance. Then it was like he’s ready now come to the studio. “What do you mean now? I don’t even know where I am. That was my co-producer. OK. Now’s the time. Oh shit. Let’s just drop everything here and let’s just go and it was very quick.” We basically worked with him and then we have a relationship so then the next time we work together, he did something on David Letterman. He was doing the Indian thing so he got me in to be his DJ. And another friend of mine, Neel Murgai, was actually brought on to be the tabla and sitar player – it was an experiment at best. I mean that’s just one instance – part of it is and you know the funniest thing about that whole transaction with him recording the opening verses of Basement Bhangra Anthem was like, I got some sort of somewhat successful folks of South Asian origin that have had mainstream success point blank ask me how much should you pay him – and the answer is zero because it was done on the strength. And that’s genuine like connections – that’s how artists work. “You want me to be on your stuff, you’ll be on my stuff.” When there’s business to do, yeah of course! But you know, that particular thing - that’s how it was. And it’s not like when I did David Letterman I need session fees – it kind of worked out. 

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And is it different working with not just the mainstream artists but also with South Asian artists like Hard Kaur and Panjabi MC?

I mean you know these are people, so Hard Kaur and Punjabi MC are two people that I’ve had extremely long relationships with – like we’re going 15 years deep. So I think, there is no way to generalize artists but I’ll make some generalizations. You know it doesn’t matter who you are, you can be a dick at any level. Some people are nice to work with. Some people are not. Some people are comfortable in their talent. Some people are not. Hard Kaur – I met her when she was like 16. I was in England. She came up to me and said, “British accent yeah, yeah this that rapping.” I completely dismissed her, didn’t think of it because I don’t think British people can rap. Then I heard a song she did with this guy Baba Sehgal, a producer I ended up getting to know. She actually worked with Jube too. I mean, we just developed a relationship and now we know each other and I have brought her on a few times tp New York. Panjabi MC, I was the first person to bring him over to New York before he made ‘Bach Ke’. He told me that was the first time he went on a plane for a gig. It’s because, as one of the hats I wear as a curator its like being smart – not being smart, but just liking things and finding out how to present them. And M.I.A., I was one of the first people to buy her records in the States in 2005. When I was curating Center Stage, it’s like, “Who do you want to bring? And I was like, “Oh you know whatever.” And then she started to ramp up to management and Fader was onto her. Fader really broke her out and it just happened that you know it was like a combination of luck and circumstance. So in a history of things, yes. M.I.A.’s first major show I presented it. In the scheme of her career, it’s a drop in the bucket of what she’s done but, there have been a lot of artists that I like and their music and they’re just fucking assholes. They’re terrible people to work with and their entitled. There’s a lot of tension when you’re booking South Asian artists that have a lot of success in their community and them wanting to be paid like they’re doing some rich person’s wedding. It’s not really what I do. And then, this happens in other communities too. I know it happens in like certain Arabic communities like these people are famous in their world and they get hired top dollar. You’re trying to break them out into these spaces that they’re not used to, their economics don’t really work. You can’t, I mean you can’t pay them – I mean there are artists that I’ve wanted to do work with that I have just never been able to because they don’t get the context, they’re not trying to drop their price or make it accessible because I’m doing it in a New York City nightclub. They don’t care. Its like pay me or nothing and that’s just how it is. 

So you started this whole underground bhangra music movement. How do you find the time to go to these shows and then at the same time being able to work on other projects?

There is not really a lot of shows in New York, especially not now in 2016. I mean, in terms of like finding time to do things, that’s just part of the hustle. I do it with a radio podcast, I find time right before it’s due to get it done somehow. It’s just creating a life you. It’s like you figure out when you need to do things. Some shows require a lot of prep. Some don’t. You know there’s been various points in my career where I’ve been teaching college level classes and that takes a chunk of time, or working on projects that are more labor intensive working in theatre, doing sound design or just having just a flurry of gigs and various places. You just kind of figure out what’s important – I mean that’s just the work-life balances. It’s not structured; it takes a lot of self-discipline and organization. I mean it feels different now, maybe it wasn’t, and it’s just the amount of the necessity and the noise of social media. My audience is so varied in terms of demographic and age and how they access information. Its like the labor that goes in to doing that, into trying to clear personas or create things that are interesting in those different formats. I find that it just takes away from the work of the art to be honest. You know it’s a pain in the ass. 

Besides New York you’ve also toured LA and London as well right?

I’ve played wherever. Wherever people want you - so yeah. I have played in almost every major city. I have played in various places. 

And the White House! Let’s not forget that. How did you end up getting that?

There you go. Those are one of those gigs that people latch onto – significant moments. I mean you know there was an Asian-American reception. Kal Penn was the liaison, I know Kal and it went down and that was that. I mean, I was invited to the event. I had been to the White House once before and then I did it one more time after that Easter Egg Roll. Brutal call time, you had to show up at 5:30 to play for people waiting to get in line to get into the South Lawn. A gig’s a gig, you gotta go when you go there. I mean many of my colleagues are at this point because of the Obama Administration; we were fortunate enough to play there. Like there’s been a strong Asian American liaison presence in the White House. So, various events and people have been programmed which is great.

With social media already growing, has that really helped you to grow your fan base?

I have no idea. I mean, maybe? I don’t know. It’s like some events, a shit ton of people come out. I think there’s a lot more South Asian, European artists and options now than when I started so there’s like in fact more noise and more competition. I think social media or the way people access information – it’s harder to stand out. So, I mean I’m sure more people know about me, like the numbers will eventually keep climbing. You know if I add all the touch points it probably looks good as some business proposal to somebody about something. I don’t really know. I mean, it’s sometimes a great way to meet people. People tweet at you, they don’t know you. One click for your venture and a lot of interviews come that way, sometimes gigs come that way. So it’s cooler in some ways. And when someone’s says, ‘How do I get to you?” I don’t know how because I’m reading and manning my Twitter. And I have someone doing admin stuff to manage some of it but it all points to me. So yeah, I don’t really know. I mean I think like the pressure to produce interesting content. It’s not natural to me. I don’t want to share everything. I like being the dark source of the music you’re not necessarily like, in front of the spotlight doing – 

Like how somebody would discover you in a pile of records?

I mean, I do what I have to do and that’s why Kid Capri was important to see a really good performance in a different way. But – I don’t know, it’s hard to answer that question.

Is there any particular producers or DJs that you’re currently following or has peeked your interest?

I was never good at this question because I listen to so many random things that I don’t even know what I want from it. Actually, I’ll tell you what – there’s a group from Canada called A Tribe Called Red and I think they’re amazing. And they’re actually going to play here in two weeks and I just love their sound, its raw, and it’s really good. Who else? Yeah I mean, I love Sandy Gold and – I do like a lot of it. I like sift through the Bollywood stuff that comes out. And actually Nucleya is one producer I really like from India. He’s landed on a Bollywood track or two. Alo Wala, the band I really like, Nucleya did a remix for them. I am trying to think of more – I can’t think of anything else off the top of my head. I mean, it’s so close to home I forget. When you asked me about music, people that are just comrades and friends, The Kominas are really great and there’s a DJ in DC called Ayes Cold, I really like her horsepower. So, it’s so close to me sometimes I forget. This is the stuff I am listening to; this is the stuff I am feeling. And these other people, I mean if they’re accessible, if I like their music I try to program them.

Well since you mentioned Bollywood, are you still keeping track of the music that’s going on over there?

Absolutely. I mean you were there. I have to. I’m a selector and a DJ so it’s a balance, especially like the event that you came to was a fundraiser. I have to make sure that it’s a balance between what people want, some sort of like mass appeal but within that to do something different like how do you distinguish yourself when you’re playing music that everyone has access to. What makes it different? So what can you do about that, how can you surprise people? How can you structure your set that makes the experience feel different than a wedding or something else? And I think that’s the fun challenge – its kind of like working in a medium where you know back in the day like especially with bhangra, I mean I would literally go to England to get records that no one heard of. Now we’re in a world where pretty much people have access to everything especially when you’re playing contemporary music. So how do you make it different, I think that’s always an artistic challenge.

You also started a company called Sangament. What can you tell us about that?

I mean Sangament is just a company. It’s just the idea that Sangament is, I mean the first iteration was some of the sounds the DJ crew and my cousins left then me and Joy formed a company and it was just kind of like a bookkeeping thing. The idea is that I, in various points of my career, I’ve done different things so there was a time I was doing marketing for record labels or consulting or I even went into event production for a short while because someone that was working for me was keen on that. I mean that’s kinda me, it’s not really being separate It’s just like what needs to happen to keep things from falling – it was just a name I made: Sangament Entertainment. The idea is that that is the umbrella that produces me as an artist the different branded effects.

DJ Rekha via Facebook

Is there any new music or projects that you’re currently working on that you want to share?

I can’t tell you that though, they’re really like so new that I’m currently working on something that I’m going to launch probably next year. Can’t really tell you about it because it’s top secret right now. It’s in development. Now next year Basement Bhangra is gonna be twenty years old so it’s a very big milestone and I will promise there will be something extremely special happening around that. That’s all I can say. So just look out for that. It’s going to be big but I am doing a show on September 22nd in New York and I’m going to be playing with them the following day with the Dhol Foundation.

Well before we end it here, is there something you want to say to your fans?

Keep going, keep listening. T-shirts on the way! New rounds of T-shirts coming soon. Support the artists you love, that’s all I can say.

Thank you so much for your time and I cannot wait to hear what new stuff you will come out with. Hopefully get that out by next year right? 

Yeah, yeah totally!

 

You can follow DJ Rekha on her website and these social media platforms:

www.djrekha.com

www.facebook.com/DJRekha

www.twitter.com/djrekha

www.instagram.com/djrekha

www.soundcloud.com/dj-rekha

 

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