A fierce feminist, gifted musician and popular DJ, this India-born triple-threat is at home on a lit dancefloor, alone in a quiet studio, or performing for a White House gala event. With lots of exciting gigs and projects coming up, now is the time to spice up your life with DJ Tikka Masala!
Thotyssey: Hi Tikka! So, the damn Grammys are coming up this weekend already… any hopes or predictions?
DJ Tikka Masala: Lemonade feels like it’s going to win–because Beyonce doesn’t know it, but she’s the queen of the dyke bar.
Ha! I’m sure she knows it. Is Beyonce your biggest request in the booth these days?
It changes week to week, but Beyonce has saved my life many times when the dance floor seemed to be getting bored of me. Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki, Prince and dancehall classics. Also, Michael Jackson is a unifying force.
That he is! So, we can get back to music in a bit, but first thing’s first: where’s your hometown?
I was born in Kolkata India, but I grew up in Franklin Township and in Princeton, NJ.
Wow, you’ve been around. What was the first music you grew up loving?
I grew up studying Indian classical vocal music. My family in India is a music family–they build harmoniums.
Then in my early teens, I picked up violin and guitar. My parents had a lot of old Bollywood around, and were really strict about the music I was allowed to listen to before my teen years. Lots of Indian music, mostly stuff before the 80’s.
I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV or listen to pop music; they thought all that was garbage, and would get in the way of serious musical study. And now I’m a DJ [laughs]! Classic. But I also work as a composer, so it’s all there.
Best of both worlds!
How did you eventually discover pop music?
Well, when my folks moved to Princeton, we landed in a town with arguably the best record store in the country. I had a mixtape penpal relationship with a friend from camp who I was head over heels in love with. That made me fix the parents’ old record player and just start exploring cheap (and amazing) albums from all eras–for the purpose of making really good tapes for my friend, out of songs she’d definitely never heard, or just picking songs everyone seems to know but doesn’t remember the artist. I don’t know how to explain the methodology there, the but the tapes had stories weaving through thematically for sure.
That went on for 2-3 years, I think. I became a good selector. We’re still tight.
Oh lord, kiddies these days will never know the power of the thematic mix tape! When did you start DJing?
2004, after moving here from the Bay Area, where I met an awesome global music producer and DJ named Cheb I Sabbah. I came here for grad school, but if I had chosen to stay out there I would have been working with him. [From my blog, here is] a letter to my [late] mentor.
That’s very beautiful! It sounds like he put you on a very important path. When you’re spinning at clubs, can you easily move between Western pop and Indian/Eastern genres, or when you go one way is hard to get back to the other?
I always have both things going on at the same time inside of me, even though I’m making choices about what the people in front of me want to hear. I do this for 18-30 hours a week, so I understand well how to balance my needs with what keeps a room together.
I do throwbacks and Top 40 for Henrietta Hudson, where I mostly work, so I’m current with new stuff and also grounded in vintage.
People also hire me specifically for Bollywood, sometimes. There’s a party called Sholay that I work for sometimes, that’s strictly South Asian music.
Also, I got to DJ the White House because of the Bollywood. They called me in 2010 to DJ their Diwali party, which was a trip. The Obama administration was special. Trump wouldn’t even know what Diwali was.
Amazing! God, how much do you miss Obama and Biden?
A lot. They changed the cultural landscape of this country. After 9-11, America really needed them.
Do you have any hope that we’re gonna get through these next four years with anything good intact?
I think this change is begging people to care in active ways that can feel inspiring at times. I am concerned for the well-being of everyone this administration deems to be unworthy, though: elders, disabled folks, immigrant folks, people of color, queers, women, children and poor folks. Artists, too. I’m worried for a lot of the people who keep showing up for me on the dancefloor, for sure.
It’s definitely a time that calls for strength in all of us. I notice that you are very observant of people on your floors, and you seem to regard them with a lot of love. Is DJing a way of connecting to people for you?
Oh, definitely. I love being in a room full of people enjoying something together. it’s unifying and inspiring to find common ground in music. It’s very easy to feel inspired by the results when I’m doing my job well.
When did you first start DJing in queer spaces?
My first gigs in New York were in queer spaces; I started off working for the burlesque and circus communities. First residency was Murray Hill’s Amateur Burlesque night at Galapagos Art Space when it was in Williamsburg.
Eventually, I started my own queer dance party called That’s My Jam. Now I’m a resident DJ at Henrietta Hudson, the last dyke bar in Manhattan. I’ve worked in queer space all along.
Lots of people have different opinions about this, but what’s your view regarding why there aren’t more lesbian bars in the city now?
I never went into a lesbian bar (in New York) before working for Hens for a private event. I think queer space is decentralized now, because of social acceptance and online dating–and a lot of bars were capitalizing on a niche audience for a long time there. It happens with South Asian community parties with no competition, too.
I think what’s amazing about dyke bars, though–more important than being about queerness right now–is that they are women-ran spaces, where lots of women get paid to work on a team together. Every penny that gets spent at a dyke bar is supporting other women’s lives. That’s not something people necessarily think about when they are figuring out what to do with their friends on a given night. Most queer events aimed at women don’t take economics of labor into account, and the bottom line is that, when you fill a space with queers, the people making the most money at the end of the night are not usually queers or women for that matter.
I’ve stuck to working for women-owned nightlife entities for a long while now, preceding working at the dyke bar. I think it’s important to pay women, and pay attention to what your crowd is actually supporting.
That’s a very good point, and one that’s often forgotten.
So speaking of Henrietta, you spin the “Homotown” party there on Thursday nights. How would you describe that night to the uninitiated?
It feels like a family. There’s music for many generations there. You’ll see long-time regulars, tourists, people celebrating anniversaries and birthdays. There are singles who are looking for love, couples coming in on dates, people needing a place to land after a rough week, and, really, folks from all over the world and many different economic situations showing up.
The musical selection is inspired by what I imagine, in three-four decades of local popular taste, the five boroughs sounds like. Since it’s a Thursday night, we know it’s a consistently populist and local audience.
A newer party you’re spinning Wednesday nights is down at Friends & Lovers in Brooklyn, “Cheers Queers.” You focus on dancehall, reggae and R&B there. What kind of audiences are coming to this night?
This night is actually a super-quiet thing right now. The bar is owned by a woman–it’s in my neighborhood. That event is about to make a transition to being a monthly Saturday early party. So, early in March the schedule is going to change with that one, stay tuned.
It’s R&B, Dancehall, and just really good songs from all over the world. That bar is allergic to Top 40, and it works well for Brooklyn. I love it there, and my favorite bartender and dear friend Justen Jilsson works with me, which is always a very special nightlife dynamic: When the DJ and the bartender really love and understand each other, the tone of the whole room shifts.
A lot. The drag queen community and I have always had a lovely relationship. I support their work so hard. I see them doing their femme labor, and creating these magical spaces that defy the negativity of the society that surrounds them, and I really feel blessed to be a dyke and a feminist who fits in perfectly with all these brave queens. They are feminists too, also fighting hard to be seen and heard in a society that doesn’t always respect or value their work enough.
Cheers to queens and all feminists in 2017! So, tell me about your compositions… what sort of music are you creating?
Well, I’ve been working as a composer for LAVA dance company, which is a feminist geology-based acrobatic/modern/circus/hybrid space. Sara East Johnson, the director there, pulled me in a few years ago when their company members started showing up at my parties and getting their lives. A lot of professional dancers have always showed up for me, but this group pulled me in and just invited me to make compositions for them, and over the years it’s accumulated to multiple scores.
It’s electronic music, samples, instrumental compositions, and really specific assignments tied to choreography concepts. I love them so much, I literally moved to the same street as them a few years ago. It’s a community that understands me, and vice versa. We have a 15-year retrospective show in early June, right around my birthday. It’s very exciting.
They are the strongest women I’ve ever met. We’re like Frida and Diego now: same street, different houses.
Is it a challenge at all to balance original composition with DJ gigs?
They are two completely different worlds. One is very solitary, the other is very social. The balance is actually really good for me, because I’m definitely a creative person that needs to generate work to feel good about my life.
I love sitting in a room alone full of instruments, just as much as I love being in a packed club full of women getting their lives together. It’s all symphonic in it’s own way; I always feel like a conductor or medium.
The past year, I’ve also been keeping track of all the posts from the DJ booth at [my blog] The Dyke Bar, so there’s a running log of all the stories I’ve seen there. I’m sure that’s going to start feeding in, too. Folks have asked me to publish, but there’s something else I have in mind. My background is in cinema studies and ethnographic filmmaking: Tisch brought me to New York for grad school, so I’m seeing a lot of cycle-completing.
Do you have a favorite DJing story so far?
[This one.] It’s about women. Also, the night after Trump got elected, a high speed motorcyclist and I got to know each other. There are so many good stories, it’s hard to pick.
And I’m sure there will be many more to come! So, what else is on the horizon?
Well, LAVA is having their 15-year retrospective in June, and I’m a part of that. Setting up a new monthly at Friends and Lovers, that’s a thing. And an art show in Spring, venue TBA, but in collaboration with a group called AOT Projects Salon, with a paper version of the stories from the Dyke Bar I’ve been collecting, and audio connected to the writing.
Sounds like a very busy and creative time for you! Okay, in closing: what is one thing that people might not get about being a DJ, but should?
Many of us are actually introverts/shy, and not the party animals you might assume. A lot of the DJs I know, who are actually good at what they do, are also some of the best listeners/therapists. I mean, I actively listen for six hours at a time when I’m DJ-ing.
The doctor is in! Thank you Tikka, for all that you do!
DJ Tikka Masala spins the “Homotown” party at Henrietta Hudson Thursday nights (10pm). She also spins “Cheers Queers” at Friends & Lovers, which is currently weekly Wednesdays (6pm), but should convert to monthly Saturdays in March (TBA). Click here for a full list of upcoming appearances. Follow Tikka on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Soundcloud.