DJ Rekha sits at Café Mogador, looking like a music mogul. In one hand she’s got her regular cell phone; in the other, she gets a call on her Treo from Punjabi MC, perhaps the biggest Bhangra artist in the world, ringing in from India the day of the bombings in Mumbai. He’s an old friend, having played at her long-running party Basement Bhangra back in 1998. Rekha wants to use an exclusive track of his on her upcoming mix CD for Koch Records, called DJ Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra, a long-overdue representation of her popular event, held the first Thursday of every month at SOB’s. If the rest of the world isn’t already listening on XM Satellite Radio (which has broadcast the party live since December), it’ll finally hear the tunes New Yorkers have enjoyed for almost 10 years when the disc comes out this fall.
“Nine,” clarifies Rekha. “In India, once you turn 20 they say you’re in your 21st year. Basement Bhangra’s nine, so we’re in our 10th year. It just depends how you look at it.”
Punjabi MC calls back a few minutes later to give Rekha the go-ahead for the track, and she hangs up, pleased. When she’s not DJ’ing at Basement Bhangra or her other successful monthly, Bollywood Disco (held at Canal Room the last Thursday of every month), she’s also a politically active artist—throwing or playing benefits for Katrina and tsunami victims, staging anti-Bush parties during the Republican National Convention, and getting involved with popandpolitics.com and Break Through (online at breakthrough.tv). Add her musical skills and friendly, open-minded charm, and you have one of the city’s true treasures.
Fly Life: How did you pick the tracks for the CD?
Rekha: The record’s going to have a lot of the people that played at the party over the years. It’s gonna have a lot of dancehall flavor, hip-hop touches. But the exciting thing to me is that it’s not a world music record, it’s a dance record. The same way baile funk is dance music, the same way grime is dance music.
Eugene Hutz says he had that same “world music” problem.
Yeah. He’s a good model, I really like what he does. With Eugene and Balkan Beatbox, there’s an energy about that kind of music. It’s not anthropological, it’s not a specimen of a culture. It’s about a moment that is now, that references or incorporates traditional music but also has modern aesthetics embedded in it. And it’s time that we stop making those differentiations. Does it make you dance?
What do your parents think of you DJ’ing?
Well, I kind of lied to them for many years. I started with my male cousins, so it was like some cute little family bonding activity. And then I was still struggling to get out of college, and the first time I quit my job, I didn’t tell them for like five months. I pretended. One time I even met my dad for lunch and I left home in a business suit. They’re like a lot of immigrant parents: “Why risk it? Do something stable.” But they also accept it. They’re very supportive now. This party, for whatever reasons I still don’t understand, somehow caught a lot of media attention early on, and that meant something for them and gave them some sense of validation. There was a write-up in Newsday, which is the Long Island newspaper. I remember when that happened, that was one of the first things that convinced my parents. The real benefit of this is not having to wear Indian clothes at family functions.
Basement Bhangra’s stayed in one place; it hasn’t really moved around.
Well, I fortunately have a really good relationship with SOB’s. I’ve been preempted once, by Celia Cruz, which I gladly gave up my night for. But outside of that, clubland sucks. It’s hard to get a space where the venue gets what you’re doing musically. Now it’s like, if you don’t have a bottle crowd . . . I mean, I could have a bottle crowd, but I don’t want to. I don’t want those pricks at my place. I don’t want anyone who’s dumb enough to buy a bottle at my party. Can you quote me on that?
What was it like to see Bhangra and Bollywood blow up after you had started?
There was definitely a little like, “I told you so.” I remember the exact moment that I heard “Beware.” I was in England that winter, and I heard the song blow up on the radio in England without the Jay-Z. It was really exciting, but it’s England, you know? Things that get big there never make it here. And then I remember I was getting on the Triborough Bridge and it came on the radio and I had thought that if they were going to play it here they would edit out the Punjabi lyrics, because it’s really easy to edit it out. And I heard it on Hot 97. The Hot 97. I had to pull over. I had a lump in my throat. I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it.
In the late ’90s the East Asian scene seemed like it was going to blow up with Talvin Singh and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. What happened?
It’s like electroclash. Everyone’s excited, people hype this moment, the press gets behind it, the tastemakers get behind it, people buy it a little bit. Bhangra has a long history of this happening. Poor Bhangra music in England for the past 20 years has been the next thing and then almost not, the next thing and then almost not, next, almost not, back and forth and back and forth . . .
It’s like when drum ‘n’ bass tried to merge with hip-hop to go mainstream.
It’s gotta be organic. It’s very hard to force those things. The success of it all used to be more surprising, the whole success of Indian-ness as a cultural phenomena, everything from Deepak Chopra to yoga to this music. It’s not a spike. It’s more integrated, in subtle ways. Like before it would be a big deal if you saw anything Indian anywhere. And now, it’s like, ‘Oh, big deal. They’re playing some lounge track in a bar.’ Or ‘Big deal, there’s an Indian character on that reality show,’ America’s Next Top Model or whatever. It’s not as much of a shock. I think that just means that we’re here to stay.
Research Assistance: Elizabeth Thompson