LA Supa'Star Bhangra DJ Sandeep Kumar!
Sandeep will be playing this month at NSB!
How long ago did you decide to attack the turntables and mix music? Also, as a DJ I notice you approach the turntable unlike most world music DJ's, which leads me to believe you come from a more house and hip hop background. Is this true, or the reverse?
I’d say it’s true, I got into the idea a long long time ago, honestly probably when I was around 6 or 7. I had some older cousins who were DJ'ing so they got me hooked. They used to make me mix tapes of old hip hop like Run-DMC and NWA with their scratches and tricks in between. That was around the late 80's when the DJ and Hip Hop culture was really starting to get going so it was an exciting time to be around. At that young I didn't really understand the music or what was going on, but I really looked up to my cousins so it was kind of a monkey see monkey do type scenario. I was always around them so as they progressed more into house music and turntablism I followed as well. Eventually I got into Bhangra in the early 90's around when Bally Sagoo really blew up and the UK thing was picking up. Then the U.S. hindi remix scene hit with DJ's like Lil' Jay and TS Soundz in the mid 90s and that's kinda where I felt most comfortable. That music really related to me because it was fusing the hip hop/DJ culture with the traditional desi stuff I grew up listening to. I was around 12 or 13 at the time and started making my own mix tapes using tape decks. I never gave them out to anyone, it wasn't like a big endeavor or anything, just something for me and my sister to listen to in the car. I recently found a few of those old tapes and archived them into digital format that I'll probably post on my podcast or something, its really wierd to listen to something and realize it was made about 13 years ago, it makes you feel really really old. Eventually I got into mixing on vinyl which also happened at my cousin's house and a few years later (around 18) I bought my own decks and went full force at it. When I got my decks I honestly never really bought any bhangra or even hip hop for that matter, at the time all I wanted to do was mix house music. Around that time I met Jay Dabhi; he and I got along because we were both into the desi thing but still strong house heads. He was doing Indian and non-Indian parties on a regular basis and told me I should just do Indian stuff as well since I would pick up on it quickly and probably do well considering my background. So I definitely come from a house and hip hop background, which is different from a lot of world music DJ's. A lot of them are really good producers who can't really take what they do in the studio on the road for a liveshow that makes sense to the crowd so they wind up DJ'ing. It's a very different approach from someone like me, but it's not uncommon producers to make good DJ's. They both have a good ear for music and an overall vision for what they’re trying to accomplish musically.
Though you play Bhangra, you seem more on the level of pushing house and electro sounds with an Indian twist. What other DJ's are you into that are producing and playing a similar set and style of music. Where are you able to find the style music you play, or are your sources only from producers you know?
Honestly it's been really difficult finding DJs and producers that are into the type of house/electronic I'm into. Most Indians aren't really into house so the really good house tracks I get are usually by house DJs and producers who just happened to have an Indian/ethnic sample in their track. Also a lot of world/electronic stuff that's made is by people who come from more of a world music background then an electronic music background, so it sounds more like world music then electronic. Again I come from the opposite background, in addition to being big into the DJ thing, I've a huge synth and electronic music equipment junkie. I try to learn every program under the sun and am constantly tweaking away on my synths, so I'm really into the roots of getting electronic music to sound right, so when I hear world musicians try to play it off like it's true house music or drum and bass it kinda annoys me. But I'm constantly digging trying to find stuff that fits what I'm trying to do. There are a few people that come from the same mindset and their music shows. To name a few : Jay Dabhi, Sharmaji, Delhi2Dublin, Tej Gill, and a few others. As far as sources go, there's no real secret source, I just spend a LOT of time searching like I always have and every now and then you find some amazing stuff. The online music store thing has really changed it though, before I used to spend hours and hours in music stores trying to find tracks but now I browse around on iTunes or Beatport and I've got access to so much. The amount of music I search through on a normal basis is rediculous, my "unsorted music" folder on my computer at any given time usually has about 200 tracks in there and I keep another one just for house music that's about the same. Having roughly 400 tracks at any time to go though is rough, but when I get to play a set it's exactly what I want it to be it makes it all worth it. Also I try to make my own mashups and remixes whenever I can, it makes sense to make your own stuff exactly how you want it instead of spending forever trying to find what you're looking for.
How is the Asian-Bhangra scene down in LA? Is there a demand for Bhangra within the city, or more isolated to the Desi scene like a lot of the cities in the US? What is your favorite city to play, and what make the scene there the most fun?
The scene in LA is huge, one of the biggest I've seen. There was a really big synergy of DJs, producers, music stores, promoters, and artists around 2001-ish that sparked a buzz that's still going strong in LA. It was just so connected. We used to do CDs, shows and things of the sort that really kept the interest going. From there the next generation of kids were so into bhangra that they've taken it above and beyond what we thought would ever happen. Bhangra competitions and the teams involved really get a lot of attention. Before it was us Djs that used to get flown around the country, but now teams like Kalsa Junction, Sher Foundation, and NBA travel more then I do. From a Djs standpoint you can see it on the dance floor, before I used to play more fusion/hip hop sounding bhangra that would mesh well with mainstream club music and people would dance to Bhangra almost the same as they would to hip hop, but now when I play bhangra in LA you see a lot more intricate and traditional dance moves. We definately got a lot more going on then your typical "screwing the lightbulb" moves. It's great to see though, I haven't really seen any other ethnicity that has the youth as into their culture then we do. Where else can a guy dance around in a skirt with a buncha men and have that be considered manly? It's pretty badass when you think about it, the pride of the culture not only surpassed people's expectation of how to dress and act, but redefined it.
The desi scene in LA is kinda wierd. LA is known as a city into image and looking cool, rather then just going out and having a good time. So within the desi scene people are either "Too cool to be Indian" or "Too Indian to be cool". Outside of the desi scene, non-Indians are definately into the music. Cheb I Sabbah always sells out shows here, I once saw him play at the Getty Center in front of about 3,000 non-Indians. I've also seen Nitin Sawhney and AR Rehman play at the Hollywood Bowl in front of crowds of upwards of 20,000 people, so it's one of the few cities where the interest has grown outside of our community.
As far as my favorite city, that's a tough one to answer. A lot of cities are changing right now so you don't really know what's going on till you get there. Also the desi thing has been around for a while and so now desis are starting to get over it. Actually, I wouldn't say they're over it, but it's been around long enough where people aren't as excited that something Indian is going on. Also, desi artists aren't really doing stuff that's as high caliber as what people like Jay Dabhi and Bally Sagoo did in the 90s, and if there is the one or 2 artists, it's not enough to keep a whole scene going. On the more fusion side, people like Sharmaji, Dehli2Dublin, and Non-Stop Bhangra are brewing a new U.S. underground scene that is really exciting and worth getting into. I couldn't say what city is my favorite, there's just a lot of gigs and scenes that I'm blessed to be involved in.
What makes it a great gig for you when you go somewhere new to play? What was the favorite party you have played in the past, and what made it stand out?
Main thing that makes it fun is the crowd, if it's a crowd that doesn't mind dancing all nite and leaving the club sweaty and smelly then we'll have a good time, if it's one where people wanna show off their Versace and Louis Vuitton while sitting in the corner being served overpriced bottles of liquor, and spend the whole nite trying to put on a fashion show then we have a problem. Also if the crowd is open minded that's great too, like I said before I spend a lot of time trying to find tracks so if the crowd is willing, I'll introduce them to some new and interesting things. I come from an old school mindset regarding DJ'ing where it's our job to search out new/interesting stuff and spread it to the people, not be at the mercy of pop charts and radio playlists. I definitely make it a point to play at least 1 or 2 tracks I know no one at the party has heard, just to introduce something new and challenge myself as a DJ. It's not always easy to do, especially since a lot of people come to the parties I do demanding to hear stuff they know, but after going through what I go through to find music it just wouldn't make sense to be a jukebox.
I don't think I have one favorite party, but there are 2 that probably tie, those would be the nights I did with Cheb I Sabbah at Temple Bar here in LA and this weekly I used to do at this place called Moomba in LA as well. Both had a similar flow musically, I'd start off the night with some "Asian underground"/chillout stuff similar to what you'd hear on a Buddha Bar CD, just to set the mood while people are having drinks and just walking it. Then get into the house stuff I like to do that's got an ethnic twist to it, people don't usually dance to this stuff but it raises the energy level and gets people ready to party. Finally at the peak and into the end the night off get into Bhangra/Bollywood/HipHop and anything else interesting that would drive the crowd nuts. Honestly it's not something that couldn't be done elsewhere, when I played Beats without Borders in Vancouver that place was right along the same vibe, as was Non Stop Bhangra in San Francisco, it's just that when I get hired to play out of town I'm usually hired to do the main time slot, so I don't get to do the interesting stuff to warm up the night.
You are about to return to NSB, can you give our readers your perspective on the party we have cultivated. Having played at NSB once, do you have a different idea of what to pack for your set based on what you noticed from the last trip? I know Dave Sharmaji said after his first time out he realized exactly what the crowd wanted, do you feel you got a better grip or already knew what was up?
NSB is simply awesome, its the party I've tried to do in LA a few times but haven't been able to quite get there. I've played in SF a few times and there's kind of a barrier between the "Indian" parties and the more fusions stuff like what Dhamaal did. NSB breaks that barrier and provides what I think is the perfect middle ground. The first time around I didn't know what to expect so I kinda played it safe, but I now realize the crowd is really open minded and I can probably take things a lot further musically. I'm used to playing for really picky crowds so sometimes playing for a crowd for that's up for anything kinda throws me off, but when I know that going into it then it's a lot of fun and I'm usually glad with the end result. Another element that threw me off was the dance lessons in the beginning, that’s kinda the opposite vibe then I’m used to starting a night off with. There’s no warm up time or time to mingle and get acquainted, you guys get right to business and it’s strictly dancing all nite. 10P.M. at NSB feels like what any other party is like at midnite, Vikki does a great job orchestrating that whole thing and getting people going. I'm rite where Dave was also, when you guys first called me I didn't know what to make of it, but Dave had highly recommended you guys and he's usually right about these types of things. We're a small group of people all trying to do similar things musically so it's exciting when get to link up with other people devoted to the same things as us. This time around I'll be more prepared also, last time when I went to NSB it was a hectic time as my sister was having a baby. I literally got the call that the baby was born as I boarded my plane to get to San Fran and anyone who knows me personally knows how crazy I am about that baby, so my mindset was kinda rushed in trying to get back home to greet my new nephew.
What is on the horizon for Sandeep? I know you are playing some shows with Jay Dabhi, recently in Texas but what is coming up. You also play different styles of music along side drummers, is this something you see fully in the future for Sandeep?
I really couldn't say for sure right now, but I'm for sure going to be spending more time making music in the next few months, I've been busy trying to finish up school as well as building my studio and learning how to produce to the caliber I'd like. It's very similar to my approach with the DJ'ing thing, I spent a really long time learning everything I could about it before really going out there and doing it, and now I'm at the same place with production. Some of my friends tell me I've spent way too much time learning and setting up my studio, but in my head you only have one chance to make that first impression and when you already have a reputation to uphold, you have to come out strong, so I think I'm as there as I'm going to be. Sometimes you can spend forever preparing for something when in reality, as the saying goes, "ain't nothing to it but to do it"
Jay and I actually don't have anything planned right now, we rarely get to spin together, but he's my favorite DJ to spin with. We're just right on the same page which is rare for the both of us, he's one of the few I actually go back to back with. One of us will get a strong vibe going and once that vibe kinda starts to slow down we just pass the headphones to the other one and that one will pick the vibe right up. On the flip side, Jay's probably the best desi DJ in America, so doing a gig with him is kinda like having a wrestling match with Hulk Hogan as your tag team partner (well, maybe in the 80s, but you know what I mean). I've also done a few gigs with a good friend of mine who's awesome at the drums, Sim Grewall. Those gigs are a challenge for me because he's such a good drummer and most club music that I'm used to playing has some very simple, but heavy percussive elements which make it easy to dance to, but I've got to find stuff that gives him more room to do what he does best. The DJ/drummer combo is pretty popular right now, but most of the time the drummer is just playing the same drum beat as the song the DJ is playing, just live. We try to make it a little more challenging then that, we've done it a few times where he just plays over what I'm doing but it just kinda bores both of us, so we incorporate more stuff that makes it interesting for the both of us, a lot of accapellas, scratching, and drum solos, which in turn make it interesting for the crowd as well. I also play alongside some dhol players, but many times that's against my will. No joke, these people just show up to clubs with dhols and start jammin away. You can't really stop them because the dhol is so freakin loud so you're kinda stuck, very annoying. However I play alongside dholis like Dhol Nation and Shawn Kalsi often and it works well. I’ve done stuff with Ravi Drums in the past as well and he’s got an incredible stage presence. Dave Sharmaji's top on the list of drummers I wanna gig with though.
I like gigging with other musicians, but I realized part of the reason I've been doing it is because I had gotten so used to the way I would spin that I could do the same thing with another element on top. It like a juggler,for example, who let's say juggles 3 apples, after a while he gets into the motions of the 3 apples so you throw in a forth, and a fifth, and so on. Eventually that juggler is going to want to progress into juggling something more challenging. It had gotten so routine and would bore me so I'd want to spice things up. I had really polished that style of mixing, which is good, but at the same time I want to always be getting better. There's always room for improvement, I hate when DJs just give up practicing because they think they're good enough to get by, or they're so arrogant as to think they couldn't get better. So I've been trying to further things by spending time practicing trying to get better at what I do and incorporate more challenging elements, like scratching and effects. People might notice I've been doing more of that in my sets, which is a change and I do mess up from time to time, but it keeps things interesting and moves things forward. I’ve always admired artists that are like that, people like Sasha and DJ Qbert have that mindset, always pushing forward. What you saw them do 5 years ago isn’t what you’ll see them doing now. People always look at what they’re doing and consider it to be on another level, its not always polished and gets a little messy when introducing something new, but it’s forgivable since you trust them as artists. I hope someday people look at me that way too.