Long Island, N.Y. may be home to legendary hip-hop groups like Public Enemy and EPMD, but while hip-hop was definitely on DJ Rekha's radar growing up in the L.I. suburb of Westbury, it was the numerous, disparate cultures in the area that had the greatest affect on her musical upbringing. “My town wasn't typical suburbia,” Rekha (née Rekha Malhotra) says. “There were Haitians, Caribbeans, blacks, whites. There weren't a lot of South Asians, though. I think we were it. But those influences and being in that environment completely informed me musically.” Her itinerant upbringing — the DJ moved from London to Queens at age 5 and over to Long Island at 10 — is evident in her music, a mix of hip-hop, dancehall and reggae all under the umbrella of bhangra, the South Asian-influenced style of dance that she's helped bring stateside.
After more than a decade building up the bhangra scene in the U.S., most notably at her monthly Basement Bhangra parties in New York, this year sees the release of Rekha's debut album of the same name (Koch). With the album — a combination of originally produced and licensed tracks — Rekha hopes to re-create the sweat-filled, dancefloor-friendly night on your home and car stereo. (In fact, many of the artists featured on the album have performed at the party at some point.) “The CD and my DJ sets are the same thing to me,” she says. “I wanted it to be this thing where if people can't come to the party, they can still experience the night.”
A major advantage to running a monthly party is the ability to road test material live before committing it to wax. While certain songs like Malkit Singh's 11-minute end-of-the-night chill-out record “Gur Nalon Ishq Mitha” were no-brainers (“I almost always play it,” says Rekha), other tracks were tested continually to see what received the best reaction. And to please the veterans as well as the newbies, Rekha added four new tracks exclusive to the album.
To many Western heads, bhangra took some time to expand past the provincial clubs in the UK and U.S. In the early '00s, when Panjabi's “Beware of the Boys” remix with Jay-Z was on every radio station in America and artists such as Missy Elliott and Timbaland were incorporating elements of the genre into their music, it seemed like bhangra was going to stay on the radar for good. But while its popularity ebbed and flowed, Rekha is hoping this disc will bring the music a little more shine: “I get all these e-mails saying, ‘This is great music. Where can I buy this?’ It's just me saying, ‘Here it is. You don't have to hunt around and buy bad world music compilations.”
For recording and sequencing of Basement Bhangra, Apple Logic was the tool of choice. “We recorded the album into Logic as a DJ mix because that's what [producer] Sunil [Sehgal] is most comfortable in. [But] I actually started learning on MOTU Digital Performer.”
Although Rekha started DJing with Serato Scratch Live about a year ago (“It saves my back,” she says), she's still down for the challenge of the vinyl hunt. “This is like a dictionary that's not alphabetized,” says a smiling DJ Rekha upon entering the basement of Long Island's Music Trends. Looking around the room, it's quickly apparent that what's lacking in organization is remedied by sheer quantity. The randomness of the records makes this either a crate digger's wet dream or worst nightmare. “When I look in a store, if I see anything that says ‘ethnic,’ ‘Indian,’ ‘global,’ ‘Arabic,’ any kind of nonsense like that, I'll pounce on it. The thing that you're looking for when shopping in a place like this is triggers like labels, producers etc.,” Rekha says. But, with precious time left before the doors are locked for the night, the DJ scrambles for those bangers. Don't worry. She's been DJing for a while. She's used to digging out classics quickly.
“I Specialize in Love” (Profile)
I was drawn to the cover because it was Profile records. They had a dance imprint. Friday nights, I used to listen to the mix shows, and I remember this being a huge hit. This is the reissue from '94, so now there's a bunch of mixes on it. The trick is to see if the mixes are any good. I totally remember rocking out to this. This reminds me of all those old K-Tel records I have.
“Cellular Phone” (V.I.P.)
I remember this one being a hit, but now that I listen to it again, it's still hot but not as good as when I first heard it. That's the whole thing about buying records, right? There's some connection because it's Bounty Killer, one of the top 10 reggae MCs of all time, so you think, “I'll take a chance.” They're into quantity, so you don't know what you're getting. But this song was definitely a hit. If I were spinning an old-school dancehall set, I'd spin this.
“Champion Lover” (Pow Wow)
I remember having this on a CD first. There's a version of this with a Shabba Ranks breakdown, but this version can go right into “Telephone Love.” It's got a nice dancehall-lovers' rock. This one was definitely part of my early reggae sets when I started DJing. It's just a great dance song. Timeless.
“Telephone Love” (Pow Wow)
I actually heard this rhythm on a bhangra classic that I still play. Somewhere along the way, I heard this and was like, “Oh, what?!” Reggae rhythms are sort of “of the people.” The thing about dancehall records is that they come out on 7-inch. To make [the tracks] DJ-friendly, people would re-press them as 12-inches so DJs would be more likely to play them. I find dancehall to be safe in a good way. Nobody doesn't like dancehall. It chills people out, and it's a really good groove. Sometimes you get booked for things, and people aren't there for the music. You'll play hip-hop to a certain crowd, and they'll get real angry. But reggae and dancehall seems to be good middle ground.
“Pump Up the Volume” (4th & Broadway)
This is one of the first 50 records I ever bought. I probably bought this at Mainline Records in Flushing [New York], which specialized more in house/dance music. I used to buy a lot more house records and play a lot more of it in my set. But over time, I phased it out. This was a song that was a 12-inch, but it was at 45 [rpm], so you have to remember. This one stands the test of time; it's just one of those “build” songs. If we look at this today, it's kind of like someone just noodling with different samples. This is totally a “bathroom” song where you can just put this on in your set and take a quick break.
I don't know what happened to them; they had some joints! They had this one song on the Above the Rim soundtrack, but it was never released as its own 12-inch. I remember going into the store and them telling me, “It's not out.” I was like, “What do you mean, it's not out?! Are you kidding me?”
“Brown Paper Bag” (Talkin' Loud)
I remember [New Forms] came out in 1997 and is still the best drum 'n' bass album ever. This is the second track off it and really captures the Roni Size sound. I love how it's dub-driven and funky but not mechanical-sounding.