Bhangra, Bollywood & Brown isn’t a law firm. These are some of the key elements needed to understand one of the truly great and unique DJs this town. DJ Rekha Malhotra and S.O.B.’s are some of the best kept secrets in nightlife. Rekha’s basement bhangra party has been going strong for over a decade, and Larry Gold’s venue for almost three decades. They must be doing something right. It’s so strange that nightclubs like S.O.B.’s— and even joints like the Blue Note—aren’t noted when nightlife is talked about. Yet, these places have consistently provided great music and have been professionally run forever. Everybody’s always clamoring for a change. You really don’t have to go listen to jazz, although it has its moments, but bowling, bucking broncos and roof decks wear thin after awhile. Check out DJ Rekha. She’ll serve up some familiar, and mix in some strange, but it will all be good.
You’re wearing a Brown University t-shirt. Yeah it is, but I’m wearing it because I’m brown.
You’re a DJ who plays a really unique set.… My ideal set is what I call something from my bag of tricks. You know, I’m type cast and known for bhangra music which is a music that originally comes from India/Pakistan. It’s mostly been produced over the last twenty years in the UK. Now in the States, me and some of my other friends make original stuff…I do a party that I’ve been doing for twelve years at S.O.B.’s the first Thursday of the month called Basement Bhangra. But I also grew up in NYC, saw hip hop evolve. Got my dose of new wave from WLIR in Long island. So it all goes into the mix. Love hip hop, love Bollywood. So I play all of them.
Does house go in there? House does go in there. When I started DJ’ing, I bought a lot of house records.
I remember you were a house DJ, with a little twist. This twist is what we’re here for. What set you apart from the pack is that you’re proud to be Indian American. Absolutely.
Thus the Brown tee. Instead of just playing what everybody else is playing, you’re playing a music that has these ethnic influences mixed in. It’s a really interesting set, and you’ve done parties for me in the past. I think you’re a great DJ. Thank you. Your check’s in the mail.
So tell me the problems of sticking to your guns and being true to your school. Do some people want to change you? I think at this point, I don’t have that problem anymore. People know what they’re getting into. I think as a DJ, I can work in any situation and I’m mostly hired for what I know. I think early on, when I started out, definitely. There were definite problems and issues. Owners not realizing, sort of over-policing music policy. And it came from mainstream club owners, as well as people within my community that wanted to regulate music. The reason I started Basement Bhangra was because I had Indian promoters telling me not to play too much hip hop, which is just as problematic as a mainstream club owner telling me not to play that tribal shit, which I’ve gotten both sides.
Explain describing banghra as tribal… Anything Indian, or anything that they don’t know, that’s not familiar. So it comes from both sides. So even within my Indian community, I have people saying don’t play too much bhangra or Indian stuff ’cause that’ll attract cab drivers. So there’s a class issue with music. Clubs, there’s just a hot bed of politics and everything, and I think it all works itself out at the door and the dance floor. And the reason I started Basement was: it was a great opportunity to play mostly two forms of music that I really like that weren’t hot at that time. In 1997, when we started basement, we did not hear hip hop on mainstream radio. It was isolated to the cool black stations. It wasn’t on Z100 yet. And so that was the idea behind the party. So in terms of barriers to entry and all that, knock on formica, I think now the gates are okay. People know what I’m there for, and I don’t really have that. I think you definitely as a DJ tweak your set to your audience. Give them something they can relate to. Bring them on your side, play them something they know. You gotta bring them in. You gotta look at your crowd all the time. You can’t just take for granted what you know.
That’s exactly what I used to tell my DJs. As a club operator, I’ve never told a DJ not to play music or play a type of music. I hire a DJ, I generally know who I’m hiring, I let them do their thing. If I’m sitting there looking over their shoulders, they’re not going to be able to play. And I’ve never understood guys who did this. I’ve seen owners go into DJ booths, and I think it’s absolutely the worst thing in the world to do. Don’t hire them. If you can’t trust them, then they shouldn’t be in your booth.
Let’s talk about S.O.B.’s. Larry Gold has owned S.O.B.’s for, I don’t know how many…a hundred years. Almost near 30. 27 or 28 years.
When I talk about the great clubs, and I just did an article about the great clubs of new york, I forgot SOBS. And it was a mistake, because SOBs was one of the great clubs. It’s okay.
Just like Don Hills, underneath the radar, and some of these old school clubs that are still there, S.O.B.’s is there 30 years, it’s underneath the radar, and proud of it. It continues to push the envelope and play world beat music. And really cutting edge hip hop and neo soul. The soul village parties have been going on for a long time with different acts. They just did a show with drake. They have a series with Hot 97. They’re constantly breaking artists. That stuff also doesn’t get written about. They are known as a Brazilian club, which was the original intention. But it’s a really diverse musical power.
And Larry’s one of these guys, when you talk about the legends of nightclub…Larry’s old school and he happens to be one of the nice guys in the business. And he knows his music inside out.
You’ve been with him 12 years. In 12 years you go through lots of different changes in a party. Tell me the difference between a 1997 Basement Bhangra and today’s. ’97, it was a secret. It was small. It was mostly a lot of my friends who were artists, a lot more queer folks. People who were in the city.
When you say queer, do you mean gay? Yeah, gay. Gay and just activists, artists. I knew everyone personally in some way. And then over time, word got out to the larger community. And now we get people from all over. We get people that go to school, anywhere within a few hours away that drive down that are on bhangra teams. Bhangra itself has transformed in 12 years. And we get people who come in from out of town, who arrange their business trips around the party, and stuff like that. So that’s the difference. The original was definitely my inner circle of people, and people that I knew because I came out of an activist community. I use to do a lot of community work. And that was that community of people. And now you’ve got club kids, bankers, everything. And we also have, because of the rise of Indian culture in large, we have people who are curious about Indian culture that have seen the movies or are familiar with the sound that are also coming through that we didn’t have before.
I want to talk about the movie Slumdog?
Slumdog. Sure. Aziz Ansari, he’s on Parks and Recreation, he’s a comic, went to NYU. He says the funniest thing about Slumdog. He says, because he’s also South Asian, people come up to him and thank him for Slumdog, and he says: it’s great, ’cause he had absolutely nothing to do with the movie, and he wonders how white people feel everyday because they do so much shit.
Well, because of it, we’re suddenly aware of the slums of India and the problems they face. Have you seen an effect on you, or a need for your type of music, or more of a boost in Indian culture, as the result of an Academy Award for Best Picture? I mean, I feel like because I’m in it, I’ve seen this rise in Indian culture happen for the last ten years in so many ways. And this is definitely a watershed moment because this movie did win a bunch of academy awards. And it really shined a light on A.R. Rahman, the guy who produced the music. I mean sure, I definitely see a difference. But I feel like it’s part of a larger cultural movement that’s been happening, which even allows for it to happen, which allows for it to get places. And I think it’s because somebody like Danny Boyle made it, it doesn’t hurt. Even though they cast unknown actors, the director’s a known quantity, the music producer is a known quantity. Getting MIA in the soundtrack helps. The difference is I grew up in Long Island, and go to the mall. And I grew up where I had my second job ever. I’m at Abercrombie and Fitch, and I hear one of the songs from the movie, and I’m like this is so weird. I never thought in my lifetime I’d see that. I mean there have been other moments, and the thing about when you’re an outside community that sort of gets more involved in the American mainstream culture, it’s never one thing, it’s many things. There were moments that happened. In 2003, when the Jay-Z and Punjabi MC track broke on the radio…
An incredible track. …we thought, what the hell? The first time I heard it on Hot 97, I had a lump in my throat. I never thought I’d hear that. I mean, I’m the one that works in this thing and being on the front line and whatever, it’s so hard to break through, that moment was pretty significant to me. It was on mainstream radio, attached to a mainstream rapper, and it broke through. And even now, most hip hop DJs if you ask them, they have it in their bag. And we go out to a party and we get drunk, and we wanna hear a bhangra record, we’re like: “yo, can you play that song?”
Going back to that watershed moment, the music was universally accepted. It was just beautiful, great fun. Did it help you as a DJ who plays this fringe type music, did it make the audience more receptive or more broad? Where they become more familiar to them, or they would listen a little bit more to that part of your set? I ran that record. That record in particular I started playing in ’98 when it came out. I placed it in a Indian movie. An indie movie these guys… there’s a movie called AMERICAN DESI, which also had Kal Penn in it, ironically, who’s a second generation Indian actor who’s now working for Obama. It makes the conversation easier with people who are not familiar with the music. So, did it help me? It did help that I happened to be friends with Punjabi MC and brought him to NY brought him to New York years before the record came out.
So when are your parties? First Thursday of every month. And I do another party called Bollywood Disco.
Where’s Bollywood Disco? At the vault downstairs at Element. It’s more chill. Fourth Friday of every month.