No South Asian Fusion website would be complete without mentioning the great that launched it all. DJ Rekha is the pioneer who started Basement Bhangra and Mutiny. She is currently the most respected name in South Asian sounds. She was worked with a wide diaspora of musicians; from Wyclef to Priyanka Chopra - all the while doing informational panels, dj gigs and interviews all over the world. She's also been doing a podcast, since 2011, on BTR Today. Their description of her is spot on - so I have shared it here wholesale!
Bhangra and Beyond is a weekly music show hosted by DJ Rekha, a cultural instigator, recognized worldwide for being one of the first DJs to merge classic Bhangra sounds into the language of contemporary electronic dance music. The first 40 minutes of the show is comprised of Bhangra tracks, both fast and slow, classic and new. The style of Bhangra -- which is a form of Punjabi folk music and dance coming from the region divided by India and Pakistan known as Punjab -- is contemporary and produced for a global dance floor. Rekha shares her deep knowledge and personal connections of many of the artists featured in this segment. After a break, the remaining 20 minutes provides the listener with a deep dive into the analogue and digital creations of a DJ who has spun numerous genres in venues across the globe. Featuring South Asian-leaning bass, this set sometimes finds itself showcasing everything from A Tribe Called Red (mistaken Indian identity intended) to Diasporic Rapper over folk music to dubstep renditions of Sub-Continental Tropical Bass.
She recently did an extensive interview for Butter Chicken Podcast that pretty much covers her music career from the beginning to now. I would highly recommend everyone listen to that.
Here we speak on a few "follow up" questions about her history and what's in store for the future - hope you enjoy.
Gaurav: So my plan was for you to be the first person that I interview for this "relaunch" that I am doing. But, when I started researching you...you get interviewed everywhere! You're out there already...so I am trying to figure out what else ask you about!
Rekha: *laughs* Well you don't necessarily have to ask me about anything new. But, honestly I don't think people know the depth of what I do.
Gaurav: So yeah that's what I wanted to focus on - because people talk to you about Basement Bhangra, people talk to you about Mutiny, you do a lot of information panels, you talk about other artists...but I wanted to focus on something new, something about you, because you don't talk enough about yourself!
Rekha: I know I'm too under underground!
Gaurav: You end up talking about the movement and everyone else you're trying to push but not yourself! Actually so let's just do that first; I heard that you are studying at MIT - what are you studying there? Let's talk about that first.
Rekha: I'm doing a master's in Comparative Media Studies. It's a two year program. I'm halfway done and I have to write a thesis.
Gaurav: Okay, so what's the thesis gonna be on? Pretend I'm your mentor here and tell me what's the thesis gonna be on.
Rekha: Actually, I just had my thesis advisor meeting today. So this is perfect.
Gaurav: So this is this is new information from today?
Rekha: I mean it's not completely new. The program is constantly asking you: What is your thesis going to be on? You're constantly discussing it with them - from when you apply, to when you get in to, I'm sure, when I finish. But, my thesis is evolving right now. I'm going to be doing a set of ethnographic interviews on different People of Color female DJs and looking at how that compares to what the perception of DJing is as a cultural phenomenon.
Gaurav: Meaning that it's not seen as a female thing to do?
Rekha: No, no, it's not about a female thing. I'm just curious about DJing as a cultural practice among POC women like how they do it, how they perceive it....you know it's a work in progress! I think this is where I have to work on my description a little bit!
Gaurav: So, I'm putting you on the spot? Got it!
Rekha: I need a better way to describe it. People have a lot of preconceived notions about what DJing is and I'm curious to know that. I have suspicions about what those notions are and I know from my own personal experience that there's more to it but, I want to speak to women who are actively in the art and interview them on their cultural practice, on how they do it, what it means to them and how that's different than what's perceived. Part of that is about reviewing what's already been written on DJing and DJ culture and then talk to these people and write about it.
Gaurav: Okay so um...
Rekha: Does that make sense?
Rekha: Wait, don't ask me too many questions...I haven't done the work yet!
Gaurav: Ha! Ok ok, don't worry I won't put you on the spot too much here! Actually since you're doing it up in Boston and I know that you just did a gig at Boston University in October...any plans to take that further? Any more coming up?
Rekha: No, that was a one time booking. I mean, I've gotten offers to do other stuff here but I'm really trying to focus on school so I'm cherry picking my gigs. School is a full time concern and I've had to turn away some very great opportunities painfully. There have been some celebrity weddings.
Gaurav: Wait...celebrity weddings? Can you share? Name drop a bit?
Gaurav: Come on??
Rekha: Not yet...not yet...maybe wait for a little bit more time to pass.
Gaurav: Well you have to accept one or two and we can blow up your spot.
Rekha: I was literally like: "that's during finals I can't then!"
Gaurav: They called you and you literally said: "I have finals then. I can't do this"?!?
Rekha: Yeah! I mean ultimately it was good for Bally Sagoo!
Gaurav: What? He's doing it instead.
Rekha: It already happened. The wedding already happened.
Gaurav: Oh, you're kidding. All right now after we finished this, I'm gonna have to go look that up. (Dear reader here's my suspicion. )
Rekha: You can do that but that's all I am gonna say!
Gaurav: So for the Boston University thing the timing just worked?
Rekha: Yeah, I mean, it helps that I'm here. I know, the person curating it. It is someone I've worked with in the past. They basically put together a whole lineup for Boston University and wanted to create a free world music arts festival, for two days. So there's going to be a number of different acts and bands and I'm just one of the artists involved. They wanted to close it out with a dance party. Then I get on a plane the next morning and go to LA.
Gaurav: Are you doing one in LA?
Rekha: I'm doing a gig in LA. It's at Twilight on the pier in Santa Monica Pier. They are doing a series and that's the last date of their summer series. So that's gonna be a fun weekend. It's going to be a great show. It's a free show. I'm doing two sets. As far as I know, Vidya Vox is doing a whole live band thing. Red Baraat is doing the same. And then a local DJ crew, Discostan, is also performing.
Gaurav: Wow, that sounds like a fun show! Ok, since you name dropped some artists; in the last few years there's been all these new artists that have shown up and are just doing their thing, Vidya Vox, being one of them...So have you started working with any of these people, are you doing any kind of production work?
Rekha: No, my production stuff is always slow and late! My main production right now is that I do a weekly podcast on BTR. There I showcase a lot of new artists. But also, I guess, the last big show that I did was Basement Bhangra at Summer Stage; the finale. And, despite saying I'm not going to do parties anymore I did produce a night in New York called Ronak with Ateef Ateeq. And, that was fun because again, that was putting me back in the curator seat. It was a good lineup of artists with Anik Khan. It happened to be the same weekend he dropped his record. He did a guest appearance there.
Gaurav: Oh yea I have seen some of his videos on youtube.
Rekha: I think he's a house hold name now at least among the Desi New Yorkers!
Gaurav: Well I know of him but truthfully if it wasn't for YouTube and SoundCloud I think I'd be completely out of touch!
Rekha: Definitely with technology and with the way things are disseminated, it definitely helps things spread faster and quicker.
Gaurav: So, do you feel like it's gotten easier to curate new music now?
Rekha: No, because my standards is still pretty high. There's definitely more out there and yes the game has changed in that the old way was to literally go to stores, look and strike up conversations with the people there. That's how I discovered MIA's Galang. I was in Detroit, went to one of their legendary record shops and I did what I do wherever I go, especially in a store that I'm not even that familiar with, and I said "Do you have anything that sounds ethnic or Indian or tribal." Literally those are the descriptors I used! They said "well we just got this record" and I listened to it and it blew my mind! That's how you discovered music.
But now I'm discovering music on things like Bandcamp and SoundCloud. It takes a different kind of energy and work. Yes, getting stuff from people directly is actually easier. But I do feel that the same challenges are there today as when I started Basement Bhangra. Which is that there's too many dudes, it's too bro culture, there's still an insular feeling around bookings (talking specifically about Bhangra) and some of the younger artists look for big paydays and checks. They're not all invested in building something as a community space or recognizing something that has potential. That's not true across the board but it's pretty prevalent.
Gaurav: But you have to agree, it has definitely gotten easier with YouTube and SoundCloud. You can just throw up your videos and if you have something good it might catch on.
Rekha: Yeah, but now what has happened is that these artists have to do a video for every song. And some of the videos are just not good! They're terrible. I mean, it's funny. We have a hang in Cambridge we go to, a bunch of folks get together and we go to this place called Punjabi Dhaba and they always play Punjabi music videos. And it's unbelievable how identical the videos are to each other. You know, not to say that the music is so original between songs but this is the problem with youtube.
Gaurav: Ok so going back to Ronak, no plans to turning that into a regular thing?
Rekha: No Ronak is definitely an open ended project right now. My partner in that, Ateef Ateeq, is in Paris right now shooting Paris Fashion Week. So once he's done with that we're going to regroup and we're going to think about it. I mean, it's not necessarily just a party, we wanted to create a space for community - we wanted to create a space to get different kinds of people in the room. And I think that can manifest in many different ways. It doesn't have to be just like a party at night. It can be many things. I think we're open to exploring what that means.
Gaurav: Looking forward to what you have in store for us! So now I want to actually pick on you a bit. When I first started researching for this interview, I found out about your BTR podcast - I didn't realize you have been doing this since 2011? How come you barely talk about it!?
Rekha: Yea it's been, six years and I do it every week. Well the reason why I'm sheepish about it is because every week I'm doing it at the last minute, okay. I'm always thinking that the production quality could be better and that's my own insecurity around it. I mean I don't hire like a team of people and rent out studio space, I'm doing this all on my own.
Gaurav: But you gotta plug it girl!
Rekha: I do! I try, I used to put it in my email blast.
Gaurav: I will have to go back and look at the emails but okay tell me about it? Talk about the podcast.
Rekha: Well, it's mostly a music driven podcast. There's not much talking. I had one interview on there. And that was Nucleya. Maybe three years ago. Basically when I got asked to do the show. They wanted to call it "The Bhangra Show." I however, asked for more freedom. I said "why don't we do a 40-20. 40 minutes of Bhangra and 20 minutes of whatever." The rules on the station are that, I can't play stuff that's commercial and I can't play remixes or compilations. It's an interesting constraint. So I basically research Punjabi music for the first 40 mins and for the other stuff, the 20 minutes beyond section, it ends up being about artists I follow. I'm doing the same kind of curatorial work for both parts.
But the format of the radio show gives me different freedoms. There's stuff I'd play on the radio show that I wouldn't play live. I do program the sets with a DJ mind and it does have that flow to it but I can play the whole song. Compare that to when I'm DJing; there you can't play the whole song; people just don't have any attention span.
Gaurav: Which part of that do you enjoy more? The 40mins part or the 20 mins part?
Rekha: Actually you know the fun and hardest part of each show is that I have to come up with a title for it. The station asks that you give your show a title so I think that's the fun weird part. But regarding which part I like better, I have go be honest, I sometimes struggle with the 20 minutes part. I struggle with what to put in there because I don't like to repeat the material and for a long time it was different every week.
The Bhangra segment I play what I am feeling right now and I'll repeat a little bit more over time until I come up with newer stuff. Also there's another rule at BTR: we can't have more than three songs from the previous week. I don't necessarily agree with that 100%. Yeah, sometimes I don't realize it because I'm in my zone programming the show and I'm like, oh this goes with this and this goes with that but, then they come back with "nope can't have that song in there."
But, there's a lot of music coming out so I have my options. I guess not all of it's good. Quantity does not mean quality. Its not distinguishable - but I have options!
Gaurav: But, I feel like the production quality, though, has definitely gotten better. With all the tools that are now digitally available to everybody.
Rekha: Yea true, even as a home setup or a mobile studio setup I am podcasting with very little effort. You can get a pro sound.
Gaurav: Ok, so since you basically curating once a week name drop some artists that you're completely into right now.
Rekha: Lets see, Sidhu Moose Wala with his producer, Byg Byrd. That stuff's really good.
Gaurav: Oh yea their track So High is awesome!
Rekha: Yea! I love Garry Sandhu. I've been a fan for a long time. Jasmine Sandlas I think is good. Dr Zeus's new album is pretty solid. There's Jaz Dhami. There are also some good producers: Snappy, Desi crew. Then I like some of Parmish Varma. I definitely started following a lot of these people on social media in the last year to keep up, to find out more; You have to to be in the know. It's overwhelming sometimes!
Gaurav: Especially when you're doing it alone I guess
Rekha: That is the hard part. It is a little bit alone. I actually don't have anybody I can talk it out with.
Gaurav: Well, maybe now with Ronak - you'll kind of come back to that a bit? Ok actually talking about having a community to work with - Any plans to bring Basement back? I'm sure everybody asks you this!
Gaurav: A flat out no? absolutely not?
Rekha: I mean right now...absolutely not!
Gaurav: Okay, I'll bother you in a year after your thesis is done!
Rekha: No. That was done. Sometimes you just have to let things go and unless I feel confident that I can bring something new to it from a creative place, it doesn't make any sense to me...especially after such a big finale.
Gaurav: Okay, I think where my question comes from is that there's definitely a need for a positive space and I feel like you and Vivek (with Mutiny) provided that. You provided this thing that people could come to and feel part of something and I feel like there's a need for that again.
Rekha: There definitely is and I hope Ronak can be that one place. And, people are finding ways to create those spaces in different ways. Though, I also wish some someone else would do it; why is it my problem? Come on young people? I put my 25 years in this. By the way, you know, Vivek is my advisor, right?
Gaurav: Oh, at MIT. No I didn't! That's awesome!
Rekha: He's my advisor. So our joke is what we're doing is Middle Aged Mutiny.
Gaurav: Oh come on! Then you guys definitely have to do something in Boston.
Rekha: No! We go to Punjabi Dhaba - that's our community space. But actually there's Subdrift in Boston. Subdrift in New York and DC - those are legit spaces. I think there are community events and things that are building up, I just don't think they're as publicized in the same way. I think these organizations suffer because they are volunteer lead and they're at the whim of whoever's involved. It makes it hard for them to be consistent. And it goes through its ups and downs.
Gaurav: Truthfully though, a desire for community usually comes from political ideas and maybe I'm kind of old school now but it's as if the current artists are ignoring the politics and there isn't much political commentary in the vein of fundamental, ADF...
Rekha: Wait, What about Mandeep Sethi?
Gaurav: All right, you got me there!
Rekha: Yea, I think there are definitely artists that are doing. Look at Riz Ahmed. His work still sit holds up. He has become a movie star but MC Riz with the Swetshop boys had an album a year ago that was very political.
Gaurav: Okay. But, there are plenty of people that are not doing any thing political. It's almost like a fear of doing something that attracts too much negative attention.
Rekha: I'm not sure about that. I am not getting that sense. I just think artists have to do it from their own perspective. I do think there's other kinds of work happening that is not necessarily read or noticed. Take someone like Jasmine Sandlas. She's is a very fierce force; is doing things differently and gets a lot of shit for it. She's in control over her whole thing and she's blown up for songs that are different. She talks about her own experiences in a way that's authentic. It might not be "political" in a very overt sense but in a scene/genre of music that doesn't give women a lot of space I think that is political in its own way. I mean she was smoking a blunt at 5x on stage! One of the best things I have ever seen, she was so unfiltered. And it was so refreshing.
Gaurav: Ok that's all I had but before I end it, I have to say you were the pioneer that started everything for me and I cherish you for that.
Rekha: Aww thank you!
Gaurav: So at this moment promote yourself. Tell me everything that you were doing right now that's coming up.
Rekha: Ok well, everyone needs to listen to my radio show every week on BTR....rate and review it! I have the Boston gig, I have the LA gig then, I am going to be in New York doing a Flushing Town Hall on November 10 which is a Brar Diwali festival party that I am DJing. There's also a workshop the day before. Being in Flushing is a really intense for me because that's where we lived when I grew up from grades kindergarten to four and then I went to Queens College and that building is historic. The kinds of people that come out to that show are really interesting. And, I guess, for now that's it.
Gaurav: But you know - you don't talk enough about yourself! You gotta keep putting yourself out there!
Rekha: I know I have to promote myself more. But, I have to say, it's absolutely exhausting to put it out there. One of the things that I didn't like about doing Basement Bhangra or any of it was the promotion aspect. Everyone thinks that people just show up but it is so much effort behind the scenes and that labor is pretty exhausting. It's not very glamorous. The work of being an artist has so much labor there's invisible and now days there are so many different platforms that you have to be on.
Gaurav: But I have to say, I appreciate and I completely admire you for all the effort you have put into it! Thank you for that.
Rekha: Well thank you so much. Thanks for acknowledging it.
Gaurav: And thank you for giving me your time!
Rekha: Your welcome and Thank you. Take it easy.