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DJ Rekha: Beyond Bhangra

The New York based DJ discusses how dance hall and hip blend with bhangra beats

Jessica Kilbane Mar 07, 2014
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DJ Rekha. Photo Courtesy Nisha Sondhe

DJ Rekha. Photo Courtesy Nisha Sondhe

The latest edition of Grime Riot Disco was at its groovy, overcrowded best last month where DJ Rekha performed the opening set for an enthusiastic, party-hungry audience, who for the most part, was unfamiliar with her music. Despite this, she brought the party to a frenzied high point with noticeable knack for keying in to her audience, keeping track of their pace and energy, changing her set every time the vibe shifted. The 40-something DJ is in her element when she’s at the decks – bobbing her head and blending beats, cutting across genres and mixing in drum and bass, pop, disco, hip hop and everything in between. Says the DJ, “Grime Riot Disco is a very special party and has a very particular crowd that’s open to different styles, and to dance. I was playing stuff that people could rock out to, but I wanted to bring in the hip hop element because I feel like India could always use more hip hop.”

Often credited with promoting bhangra music in the States, DJ/producer Rekha Malhotra, who is more recognizable by her stage name DJ Rekha, began her career in 1997 with a party at a club called S.O.B in New York. Seventeen years on, she has been inducted into New York City’s Peoples’ Hall of Fame, performed several times at the White House and taught courses on International Dance Music and DJ Culture and Practice at New York University. Unlike most artists, Malhotra is disarmingly candid about her work.  She says, “I think as you get older, it’s sometimes a challenge because you feel like you’ve heard it all before. As a DJ what I try to do is adapt to the audience, to mix quicker.”

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It’s almost a rite of passage for artists of ethnic origin to reprise their roots in favor of a more popular sound – which is most likely why Malhotra decided to do exactly the opposite. Says the artist, “I started [monthly club show] Bassment Bhangra for two reasons. Because I was told by other Indians not to play bhangra music and not to play hip hop – so I started a party where I could play whatever I wanted.” The London-born artist grew up in New York and immersed herself in the hip hop/dancehall music that flooded her part of the city in the Nineties, often visiting Indo-Caribbean clubs. She earned a degree in Urban Studies from Queens College and during those years, she began throwing parties to raise funds for organizations that helped South Asian minorities with domestic and civil issues, slowly building up a reputation and following. She became part of an underground movement that remixed Bollywood and bhangra, mashed up into a gritty, raw sound where the tracks didn’t blend properly. Says Malhotra, “My connection to Punjab is virtually non-existent; I’ve been to Punjab twice. I think identity is a tool of convenience. You are the identity you need to be in the situation that you are in.” Bhangra is only one of the styles that Malhotra plays though; she now adds a variety of genres to her sets now including even baile funk and Balkan beats. “My palette has widened and so have my sets.”

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During her talk at the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai where we met her, Malhotra traced  the evolution and cross-pollination of hip hop with numerous “exotic” elements, illustrating how dancehall and bhangra have beat patterns that blend together well even though they have completely different cultural origins. She demonstrated how sampling has always been a part of the ethos of hip hop, using examples such as “Big Pimpin” by Jay-Z which has a distinctly indigenous flute sample and “Get Ur Freak On” by Missy Elliot which uses heavy bhangra elements.

Malhotra’s atypical approach to mixing desi tunes within a western framework earned her an invitation to play at the White House in 2010, for U.S president Barack Obama. The artist, who had met with the President prior to her performance was singled out in his speech later that evening, “I want to thank DJ Rekha who’s been spinning a little East Room bhangra for everybody ”” mixing a hip-hop beat with the sounds of her heritage; making a uniquely American sound that may not have been heard in the White House before.” But Malhotra isn’t fazed by the President’s kind words. Speaking about the event, she says, “On one hand, one could argue that it’s something ground-breaking, that it’s different – and this is something happening in a different space. But one could also argue that it’s part of a marginalization, so it’s a bit tricky.”

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