NYC nightlife legend DJ Rekha brings ‘Basement Bhangra’ back to summer festivals

“Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in,” said Rekha Malhotra, better known as DJ Rekha, of their return to DJing. “I felt like Michael Corleone in The Godfather III.”

The legendary New York City producer, party host and activist is back on the boards this week for Lincoln Center’s “India Week” – five days and nights of comedy, dance, music and more taking place across the performing arts center’s Upper West Side campus.

Malhotra, who uses they/them pronouns, is known for creating “Basement Bhangra,” a monthly club night that ran downtown from 1997 to 2017. The events provided a space for South Asian sounds but also stood out among Desi parties for their size, inclusivity and queer-friendliness.

In 2017, Malhotra left the city’s club scene and began graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leaving a hole in the nightlife calendar where Basement Bhangra had been a fixture for two decades.

This summer marks Malhotra’s third back at the boards after a hiatus from DJing.

“They’re so connected to club culture and DJ culture,” said Jordana Leigh, Lincoln Center’s vice president of artistic programming. “Who better to help us curate these DJ nights than someone who has been doing the work for years?”

India Week runs through Sunday and is part of Lincoln Center’s larger “Summer for the City” festival. Each night ends with a silent disco – a dance party with the music played on individual wireless headphones – featuring artists that complement the day’s programming.

Sunday night closes out with a set from DJ Raat Ki Rani, a New York-based Trinidadian tabla player and producer who will be spinning soca, chutney and other global sounds.

“The connection between Indo-Caribbean and South Asian origin music is not made enough,” said Malhotra.

Before Basement Bhangra

Malhotra’s father owned a Pick ‘n Save in Midtown, where Malhotra began working informally at age 11. They eventually attended Queens College and became involved with activism in the wider South Asian community.

That’s where their lifelong love of music became a professional endeavor.

Local South Asian promoters began hiring Malhotra and their crew for parties, renting out popular clubs on their off-nights or during holiday weekends when the normal crowds were out of town to DJ a mixture of Hindi film music, pop and house.

“The directives back then were don’t play hip-hop, and don’t play bhangra,” Malhotra said. “Bhangra is low-class, it’s cabdriver music; and hip-hop is thug music.”

Nowadays it can be hard to imagine a time when hip-hop was unwelcome in clubs, but this was before the genre went fully mainstream, Malhotra said.

“New York has a history of policing music,” they said. “Jazz, bebop, hip-hop, there’s always something that’s a little too much.”

Around 1996, Malhotra recalled, a chance gig at an Indian dance event at Hunter College led to their big break. After Malhotra brought the popular Canadian bhangra group Punjabi By Nature down from Toronto for the Hunter College gig, which was followed by a successful set at S.O.B.’s, the celebrated venue asked Malhotra to devise an idea for a regular night.

“Basement Bhangra” was born.

“Indian culture in the West was always portrayed through the lens of classical music and classical dance,” Malhotra said. “My take was, well, bhangra is a music, and a dance; it’s populist and it’s just as valid – why isn’t this being acknowledged as a form?”

The internationally recognized party, which ended up running for 20 years, launched DJ Rekha’s career and became a staple of the NYC club scene within and beyond the South Asian community.

“The idea was to go ahead and really embrace bhangra and hip-hop, which was kind of just getting onto Top 40,” Malhotra said.

As “Basement” became a platform for bhangra music and remixes, DJ Rekha’s influence began to be felt in the mainstream. They were among the first to highlight tracks by Panjabi MC, whose “Mundian to Bach Ke” was remixed by Jay-Z, and M.I.A., the British pop star of Sri Lankan Tamil descent.

In the mid-2010s, after a confluence of outside factors and an ill-fated decision to move the party from S.O.B.’s to Le Poisson Rouge, “we felt a bit of a dip in the party,” Malhotra said.

They made the decision to end Basement Bhangra in 2017, going out with a final show at SummerStage in Central Park. Malhotra went back to school at MIT and earned a master’s degree in comparative media studies.

After realizing that a degree in the field didn’t necessarily translate into a career, Malhotra returned to New York to figure things out, shortly before the pandemic hit.

After the Netflix show “Never Have I Ever” asked them to DJ an Instagram Live for its launch in April 2020, Malhotra began hosting regular pandemic parties online.

They returned to SummerStage in 2022, and have continued performing at the festival ever since. On July 20, Malhotra will be on stage at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park for an event dubbed “Basement Bhangra Beyond.”

“I have no interest in doing a monthly club night ever again, it’s too much,” Malhotra said. “But an annual concert that nods to the vibrancy, the energy, the community aspect of the party… that’s something I think I could keep doing.”

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