DJ Rekha: from the basement to the White House

MTV Desi, April 27, 2011

Ah, Easter in America. Chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs, kids running around the lawn — and bhangra? Yes! At the White House, no less.

New York’s own indispensable Desi producer and all-around culture maven DJ Rekha has been seen at the White House a few times since Barack Obama’s election. Fresh back from an insanely early morning gig at the White House Easter Egg Roll, she shared her impressions exclusively with MTV Desi’s Siddhartha Mitter.

You’re kind of a White House regular now, eh?

I guess so! I’ve been three times and played twice. And apparently I was on a list for the State Dinner with Manmohan Singh but didn’t make the cut.

But you got to play at the Easter Egg Roll. What is an Easter Egg Roll anyway?

I learned this after during the gig. Apparently since Rutherford B. Hayes in the 19th century it’s been a White House tradition at Easter, with activities for kids. It’s the largest public event the White House does. People are let onto the lawn in batches. It’s a family affair, the First Family comes out, there’s live music, egg hunts, and tons of comic and cartoon characters — everyone from Charlie Brown to Scooby Doo.

So how did you decide what to play? And wasn’t it kind of early for a night owl DJ?

Yeah, the call time was 6 a.m. — the first set started at 6:45 a.m. I did three sets. They were supposed to be 20 minutes each, but they actually ended up an hour and a half each! At first I thought, I’d play songs with “roll” in them, like “Shake Rattle and Roll.” Songs that tell you to do things like throw your hands in the air – that’s an old DJ trick. And I dug deep into my previous life as a mobile DJ, thinking about kids’ parties, bar mitzvahs, that kind of thing. When the audience doesn’t know who you are you have to find common musical ground to draw them in. But I still had to put my mark on it and not just be a bar mitzvah DJ.

So were you able to Desi-fy it at all?

Oh, one hundred percent. All the way. It’s a captive audience, where can they go? For example after “Shake Rattle and Roll” and “Twist and Shout,” I played this song called “Twist,” it’s a contemporary song from a Bollywood movie. And between sets the sound man was playing my Basement Bhangra compilation CD. And I had my buddy Reena Shah with me, MC-ing, doing dance moves, being physical. She’s worked with me many times over the years, she’s like my hype man. She often does the dance lesson at Basement Bhangra.

So what the people really want to know is, did you meet Willow Smith?

Willow Smith was awesome! Backstage she had a bunch of dancers and handlers, so we weren’t really allowed to access her. But she had really fly hair. And she gave an outstanding performance, she’s full of energy. And before her show the Obamas came out and got in a prayer circle with Willow and her mother and brother and dancers and they all clapped hands, and that was great to see.

I know you’ve shaken hands with Barack a few times, so that’s old news. Did you finally get to meet Michelle?

No, I still haven’t met Michelle. But my father got to hear her speech and he loved that.

Wait, your parents were there?

Of course! We do this family style. It’s like my parents took me to the Easter Egg roll. They had a great time!

So in the end what’s the value of showing up at 6 a.m. and doing a gig like this? I guess you don’t turn down the White House…

It’s an honor of course. And for an artist it’s great exposure with new audiences. And I love a challenge, and it’s definitely a DJ challenge to play three long sets and make them kid-friendly. Every song I played I ran through and checked the lyrics. Some songs you think won’t be a problem but they have a curse word! But then others work great, that you wouldn’t expect. I played KRS-One’s “Step Into A World,” with the Blondie “Rapture” sample. And I’m thinking, if I’m playing KRS-One at 7 in the morning at the White House, it can’t be a bad day.