New York Nightlife Legend DJ Rekha Brings ‘Basement Bhangra’ Back to Summer Festivals
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New York Nightlife Legend DJ Rekha Brings ‘Basement Bhangra’ Back to Summer Festivals

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

The legendary New York producer, party host and activist returns to the stage this week for “India Week” at Lincoln Center, a five-day event of comedy, dance, music and more at 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 took place downtown from 1997 to 2017. The events provided a space for South Asian sounds, but also stood out from the desi crowd for their size, inclusivity, and queer-friendly nature.

In 2017, Malhotra left the city’s club scene to pursue graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leaving a gap in the nightlife calendar that Basement Bhangra had anchored for two decades.

This is Malhotra’s third return to the studio after a break 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 organize these DJ nights than someone who’s been doing this 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 music played on individual wireless headphones—featuring artists who complement the day’s program.

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

“The connection between Indo-Caribbean music and music coming from South Asia is not highlighted enough,” Malhotra said.

In front of the Bhangra basement

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

It was there that their long-standing love of music became a profession.

Local South Asian promoters began hiring Malhotra and his crew for events, renting out popular clubs on bank holidays or holiday weekends when the normal audience would travel out of town to play their mix of Hindi film music, pop and house music.

“Back then, there were guidelines not to play hip-hop, not to play bhangra,” Malhotra said. “Bhangra is low-class music, it’s taxi driver music; and hip-hop is thug music.”

Today, it’s hard to imagine a time when hip-hop wasn’t welcome in clubs, but that was before the genre became fully popular, says Malhotra.

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

Around 1996, Malhotra recalls, a chance performance at an Indian dance event at Hunter College led to their big break. After Malhotra brought in the popular Canadian bhangra group Punjabi By Nature from Toronto for a show at Hunter College, which was followed by a successful run at SOB, the famous venue asked Malhotra to come up with the idea for a regular night.

“Basement Bhangra” was born.

“Indian culture in the West has always been presented through the prism of classical music and classical dance,” Malhotra said. “In my opinion, bhangra is music and dance; it is populist and equally important – why is it not recognized as a form?”

The internationally renowned event, which ran for 20 years, launched DJ Rekha’s career and became a fixture in the New York club scene, both within the South Asian community and beyond.

“The idea was to move forward and really evolve bhangra and hip-hop so that we could somehow get into the Top 40,” Malhotra said.

As Basement became a platform for bhangra and remix music, 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 MIA, a British pop star of Sri Lankan Tamil descent.

In the mid-2010s, after a combination of external factors and the unfortunate decision to move the party from SOB to Le Poisson Rouge, “we felt a bit of a decline in the party’s popularity,” Malhotra said.

They made the decision to end Basement Bhangra in 2017, with one 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 a field didn’t necessarily translate into a career, Malhotra returned to New York to rediscover his calling just before the pandemic struck.

After the creators of the Netflix series “Never Have I Ever” asked them to DJ on Instagram for its premiere in April 2020, Malhotra began hosting regular online pandemic parties.

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

“I don’t feel like doing monthly club nights anymore, it’s too much,” Malhotra said. “But an annual concert that taps into the vitality, the energy, the social aspect of the event… that’s something I think I could keep doing.”