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DJ Rekha Does it All

Aug/29/2022 / by Abhay Dandekar
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A heartfelt conversation in reflection on the 25th anniversary of the iconic Basement Bhangra NYC club night movement, between podcast host Dr. Abhay Dandekar, and music artist, producer, curator, activist and educator Rekha Malhotra, also known as DJ Rekha.

They ran the vibrant, soulful, inclusive and comforting community experience at the party known as Basement Bhangra. From performing at the Obama White House in the historic Women’s March on DC, to serving on the board of Chhaya CDC, to economically empowering South Asian New Yorkers, DJ Rekha is navigating it all without a roadmap.

Did the pandemic serve up any major lessons as a DJ?

Oh, yeah. Most DJ’s had to learn how to pivot to live streaming really fast. Technologically, how do you make your iPhone have good quality – soundwise. The audio/video out of your phone to a quality broadcast signal to learn about that, technologically. Luckily, my good friend and colleague Eddie Stats, found a really simple kind of cheap solution of this old school PC game converter that allowed for it. Then just DJing in your home, to people literally all over the world, and trying to engage in some way and also read comments. That was definitely the most concrete pivot skill thing I had to learn quickly.

When you’re doing a live performance, when you’re in front of an audience, you learn to adjust and improvise. Was this somewhat similar?

I don’t plan my sets as a DJ. I’m really about the crowd. So that was hard. So I was talking a lot on the microphone, which I don’t like to do. But I felt that was necessary. I just kept doing it on Sundays and did it for four months in a row every Sunday. And it was so much like creative freedom, to the point where I started planning out different sets ahead of time, styles of music I wanted to get into, so that was fun. It was hard to not have an audience in front of me. I don’t plan, you know, I vibe on the crowd. So when there’s no crowd, it’s hard to vibe.

It’s been 25 years since Basement Bhangra started. I’m always curious about what people were doing or thinking just before such a momentous and iconic experience began.

That was just a certain time in the history of our community, in terms of a critical mass of young people of South Asian descent. Gathering in different spaces, art spaces based on Bhangra is one of many things that started around that time. South Asian Women’s Creative Collective started at that time. I mean, 1997 was sort of kind of a moment in itself. I was fortunate enough to have a community of friends who were like-minded, artistically minded, politically similarly minded. When it was started, it was when you were that young, you don’t think what’s gonna happen later. It’s appropriate for its age, but it’s hard to have the arc. New York is sort of a transient place. People come for a few years to go to school or professionally, and then they move on, or their job brings them here or something. And I think all those different combinations of things kind of fueled that moment.

Was it a surprise? Why was Bhangra so uniquely singular in mirroring that community and bringing the community together?

I wasn’t poised for anything in terms of Bhangra. The reality of Basement Bhangra’s inception or its creation was to defy community norms. The norm was that Bhangra represents low-class Punjabi working class people. “It’s brutish; it’s not sexy. We don’t want that kind of music. We don’t want hip hop, because it’s ‘thuggy.’ Don’t play that at that time. You know, keep it Top 40, Keep it Bollywood.” This is sort of also representing a hegemony amongst the community of North Indian-minded cultural dominance, which is still the case. So within that, the opportunity came to come up with a new concept. The music I was attracted to, mostly came from the U.K. We still had connections there having been born there. My parents lived there for a while. And just being a New Yorker and loving hip-hop, I think this is a unique situation of access to style of music, loving DJing lock stock and barrel as an art form, not just as a tool to get private wedding gigs. You know, I think all those things sort of coalesced. For a long time within the community, we all have our biases, you know, not to mention things like colorism and casteism as well, which is still there. So that’s kind of the story: “Don’t play black music. Don’t play cab-driver music.” And I said, “Well, I’m going to actually play both.”

In that timeframe when perhaps there was no real roadmap for this as a South Asian American DJ or an artist. When did you realize the air of self-trust and confidence that, “you know, I have got this?”

Never. Still not. Nobody gets it. To me, there is no roadmap, there still isn’t a roadmap. I stopped Basement Bhangra after 20 years, and then I went to get a master’s in comparative media. Who does that? I don’t know. I think when I was in school after Basement Bhangra, it was for the first time in 20 years I knew what I was doing for the next two years. There was something extremely comforting about that. Every year for the last 20 years, I didn’t know if this thing would keep going. I didn’t know when this bubble gonna burst –  or are we done? Are people gonna show up? Is it over? It’s hard to get around that feeling. I had somebody that was doing bookings for me for a while and they were like, we need to forecast. I’m like, how do you forecast people’s moods? To me it’s putting science to an art that is a challenge.

As a DJ do you constantly have to just be cognizant of what your audience’s appetite is, and then tailor what you’re doing to that?

I have to. Some DJs don’t care. And for some, it really depends on the context. I would say you should rock the dance floor, no matter what the situation. To me, that’s fundamental, but from the scale of a private event to a festival, that’s sort of the range of how you really have to pay attention and take directives. My goal is to connect with people on the dance floor. I want to engage them in a way that they feel good about, or that they can connect with. The arc of how people consume is often dictated by cultural norms and technology. I used to have to pick up a record from a crate, pull it out, put it on a disk, a turntable, lift up the needle and find it. Now it’s done in two seconds, so you go through music faster.

You’re a South Asian American music icon. What are some responsibilities you’ve accepted in that role?

At some point, I turned the corner and said, well, I’m older now and it’s my responsibility to help and mentor people in any way I can, and be open and generous. Because I didn’t have that doesn’t mean I can’t give it back. That’s part of community. It’s also being ethical. In entertainment, there are a lot of people who are thirsty. They’ll do anything… Then being responsible in terms of the content and how you create your art. So I think those are the things that I feel responsible for. This titling (as an icon)…, that’s PR copy.

You’ve been an engaged activist for empowerment and representation. In that spirit, when someone experiences your music, or comes to a live performance, maybe they’re listening to your work for the first time. What do you hope they walk away with?

So there are people who are full-time engaged activists, I’m not one of them. Of course, there’s a basic level of representation of being out there and doing things and occupying spaces. In terms of playing mass-consumed music, that in and of itself, is not necessarily empowerment or activism of itself, especially content-wise, but in creating spaces, there have been times to use and leverage the art for the other. I tried to do that where it’s appropriate and tasteful in a way that doesn’t force you.

Do you hope that people when they leave a party or a set, are thinking about not only the music, but also about who you are behind the music?

I just hope when I am amplifying or highlighting causes or things that people are taking action. I don’t think coming to a party or me DJing should make them [think about me]. I hope they were like yeah, that was fun. That was a good dance. That was a good experience.

Abhay Dandekar is a doctor, a father, an American, and an Indian. He has had conversations about life from every angle navigating the South Asian experience and shares stories of people and their purpose. He hosts the podcast “Trust Me… I Know What I’m Doing”

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