Su Real | Photo Credit: Sachin Soni
There’s a familiar narrative when we read about electronic music producers in urban India, or at least those who are reaching beyond the bounds of mainstream EDM. Often, they studied in the US or UK and brought back a bit of the zeitgeist with them. Sometimes, they simply benefited from regular exposure to the eclectic and international sounds they grew up with on their parents’ record player. It’s not hard to get them to talk about the international festivals they’d love to attend or to speak about Berlin as if it’s an electronic wonderland, with streets paved in gold and bass.
While India’s producers weave their global bass dreams, Suhrid Manchanda, 34, better known as Su Real, sits in a dark and smoky home studio in the deepest reaches of Delhi’s western suburbs. If you offered him tickets to a festival featuring all of his favorite artists, but he’d have to spend 10 hours on a plane and then sleep in a tent, he’d regretfully decline.
Instead, curtains perpetually drawn in his West Delhi lair, bits and pieces of production gear scattered across a massive table suggest chaos to the outside observer. But as soon as one of Su Real’s marathon production session begins, it becomes clear that each piece of kit has a purpose, even if the purpose seems to be spending an entire night obsessively playing with one synthesizer until it emits just the sound that’s going to characterize your next Su Real single.
But it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Though he was born in New Delhi, Su Real grew up predominantly in Malaysia and the UAE. But in 1998, Su Real set sail for McGill University in Montreal, an epicenter for unorthodox rock music. This is where Su Real started on the path that would, despite his best intentions, lead him to dance floors and festival stages across the subcontinent.
Playing in small time Montreal rock bands and working at the KCUT, the McGill University radio station, pushed Su Real to expand beyond the noise rock and post-rock sounds of bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, opening him up to reggae, hip hop, and electronic acts. But equally importantly, the time prepared him to step into a life on the scene when, after completing his undergraduate degree, Su Real began an MBA in New York City.
“I went to New York ostensibly to study,” he says, “But that was just a cover to get me through immigration and stuff.” Within a few months, Su Real landed himself an internship with World’s Fair, a now defunct label group that handled services such as marketing, publicity, and distribution for independent labels who wanted to focus on the music. Su Real managed to turn his familiarity with the then nascent music blogging into a full time position, eventually becoming the Director of Online Publicity, sharing an office with pioneering hip-hop label DefJux, promoting a posthumous J Dilla release, and working with artists such as Del The Funky Homosapien, Dizzy Rascal, Flaming Lips, and British Sea Power. “It was,” Su Real laughs, “a fucking shitload of bands.” But even as Su Real’s party star was rising, he began to become disenchanted with his work. “It’s a weird thing.” he observes. “When you have a dream or an ambition for a long time and you achieve it and then that’s the top of the ladder and you can’t keep going up. I wasn’t at the top of ladder, but I glimpsed what was. And it just seemed like more of the same.” Moreover, the mid 2000s were dark days for the industry; “It was kind of a depressing time to be in the music business,” Su Real explains. “We did so much work for so little financial reward. Because along with the blogs came piracy.”
Dealing with family issues and eager to get away from the temptations of New York’s rock and roll lifestyle, Su Real made the decision to decamp back to the motherland. “Someone told me India was still shining and there were opportunities here,” he jokes. “I said, ‘Fuck it, let’s go back.’ Everybody knows that if you’re already privileged and have a little bit of money in the bank, life can be a little easier in India.”
He adds, “I thought I was gonna go to the hills and smoke a lot of hash and do some yogi shit. Thought I’d do some work with NGOs. I just wanted to fucking get away from… the endless barrage of new content. I had enough of FOMO [Fear Of Missing Out]. YOLO hadn’t come around yet.”
But Su Real’s life back in India didn’t turn out to be quite the respite from madness that he had hoped. Not expecting to find a burgeoning electronic music scene in Delhi, Su Real was shocked to hear the groundbreaking sounds of DESU and BassFoundation at the then new Café Morrison. “I was just really getting my mind blown because I would never have imagined dubstep and weirder bassy things. I did not expect to see anything like that here,” he recalls.
But then, in a move that – one could reasonably argue – changed the face of New Delhi nightlife, Su Real heard about a new bar: “Someone told me about a little place that had just opened in some hidden away corner of town called The Living Room [TLR].”
TLR was the venue that – with Su Real overseeing event programming and working as the resident DJ for his legendary Disco 31 party nights – started the most recent round of Hauz Khas Village renewal. But being a bass ambassador to a small group of Delhi party kids has never been enough for Su Real, who is also well known for impressively curated mixtapes that range from genre tutorials (Trap and Twerk) to compulsively thematic collections, including a series of Halloween mixtapes and an encyclopediac four-hour and 20-minute paean to ganja.
Since TLR’s shuttering and reopening, Su Real has been working independently, both DJing and – over the past six months – spending long nights locked in the studio, refining his production skills. The investment has paid off, with a debut Su Real album, Trapistan, which released in November. The album, rooted in the hip-hop inflected electronic trap genre, takes stylistic detours into a bevvy of bass styles, a mix that is drawn both from Su Real’s taste and from the demand he perceives across the country: “I was – I’m gonna say it – the first to really play and push the genre in India. I felt those expectations from my friends and fans around me to do trap music with an Indian twist and help the genre expand. …I want to make something that makes sense for the crowds here. Something that has the westernized beats they love with the unforgettable desi touch.”
He points to Delhi-based dubstep producer Nucleya as a major influence in the production of Trapistan. “With Koocha Monster [Nucleya’s most recent EP], he just hit the nail on the head so perfectly,” Su Real says, a bit wistfully. “It really has that perfect blend of global bass culture but at the same time being so undeniably Indian. It’s beautiful to see kids just going mad to Nucleya when he plays.”
And so, back at the party and now signed to Mumbai-based KRUNK artist management and booking agency, Su Real is busy preparing for an album launch tour and shooting music videos for about a third of the tracks off of Trapistan. As he puts it, “I guess the yogi shit wasn’t really for me.”
As he ends the interview, Su Real jokingly makes a statement that’s both slightly obnoxious and probably true: “Whatever the next big thing is, you know Su Real heard about it before you.”
This article appears in the December 2014 issue of Rolling Stone India.
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