Kush Arora :: From Brooklyn to SF
I first heard about Kush Arora a few years ago from our common friend Dhruva. Formerly part of Dhammal, Dhruva had just moved to NYC to start SubSwara. Then in June 2006 on a day off from gigging, I met another ex-Dhammal member in San Francisco, Maneesh the Twister (also in the throes of starting a new nightthe now-award-winning Surya Dub), who raved about a certain dreadlocked Punjabi from the East Bay named Kush Arora. Maneesh mentioned something like "you're gonna love it... he just takes everything you expect from bhangra and flips it on its head." OK. Interest piqued.
So, armed with Kush's first two releases, 2004's "Underwater Jihad" and 2006's "Bhang Ragga," on my ipod, I killed the 2-hour train journey back to Sacramento, digging the juxtaposition of scenery and music. The Bay Area plains gave way to the Sierra Mountains while post-diasporic, pan-hemispheric sonic worlds tunes like "Koi Ne Bole" and "Dhol Warrior" were built, deconstructed, re-assembled, and dubbed into oblivion in my ears. Easy Listening this wasn'tnor was it your basic bhangra remix of dhol over a reggae acapella. This was something really fresh; the dark, militarized version of the same elements that, under sunny skies and palm trees, make up Chutney music.
I was hooked. Obsessed, even. I didn't necessarily like all the tunes, and some of the soundscape pieces felt a bit disorganized. But this level of uncompromised artistic vision in a musical language that was, and continues to be, very much a part of what I createit was absolutely brilliant.
And more than a little terrifying.
When the 2006 tour ended, I returned to NYC and began collaborating on a few fresh dubstep tunes with Dhruva. As part of our process, we would send unfinished tunes to a bi-coastal round of regulars for their input-including Kush. This led to a series of immensely long, intense, and ongoing email and IM conversations as Kush and I nerded out to production techniques, critiqued each other's work, offered input and generally acted like blabbermouth sonsofbitches. Thus, through this convoluted history is how I came to know the songs that would become Kush's most recent record, "From Brooklyn to SF."
In general, the touchy-feely hippie in me acknowledges that it really is a wonderful thing to watch an artist grow, from approaching excellence to actually inhabiting it, getting inside it and transforming it. The badass, results-wanting NYC'er in me is glad that Kush has created a sound that is deeply personal and emotive, and very intense. It's a logical progression: over the years that Kush has been on my radar, his work has moved from a powerful but often cluttered collection of disparate elements: dhol rhythms, spacious sound design, Jamaican dread bass and dub elements, ragga vocals, glitched-out drums and percussion, and leftfield arrangements, into an intensely efficient and lithe mixture of the same. The thesis creates the synthesis, and we've got something new. BRAND new. I can safely say that there's no other record out there that sounds like "Brooklyn to SF."
From the time that unmastered versions of these tunes started appearing in my inbox, to when I saw the album artwork of Kush surrounded by the MC's featured on it, it was clear that Kush was on a path towards a very defined work; he's even said so much in interviews and podcasts. The songs, from the opener "Seed Haffi Grow" feat. Brooklyn-based MC (and SubSwara resident) Juakali through his Punjabi collaboration with singer Gurmeet, "Mitra De," are largely vocal and completely accessible to anyone with even 5 minutes of exposure to Jamaican dancehall. Building on the ever-deepening rhythmic connection between modern Punjabi bhangra and dancehall, "2 Finga," with Juakali on the vocals, is an absolute scorcher: rapid fire ragga vocals over a thumping riddim of jhummer dhol, tumbi, subbass, found sound and 808 drums, It's more like Brooklyn to SF...to Kingston...to Port au Spain... to Jallandhar. Completely different in its sonics and character, but equal in intensity, are "Open Shop" featuring Blacksmith and "Music a mi Culcha," a slice of ragga-bolly-dub featuring Blacksmith and the fire-voiced N4SA.
As the spring of 2007 gave way to summer and Kush's new songs were finalized, Dhruva and I found ourselves in the great position of putting together a 30 minute set for a soundclash on Maryanne Hobbs' experimental show on BBC Radio1. It took seconds for us to agree that "Surf's Up," Kush's collaboration with Luke Argilla on guitar, had made the cut. It's a stunning work, showcasing all that's right about dubstep as a platform for future music; a hypnotic, evolving drumtrack with bass both above and beneath it, while Argilla's dubbed-out surf guitar, Kush's santoor work, bansuri, and oceanic soundscapes take the listener on a breathless journey. It also absolutely slays dancefloors, as the tune moves from guitar arpeggios to lethal bass riffs and gives big speakers a run for their money. It's perhaps no surprise, then, that Kush released this as the 1st single; alongside his collaboration with Maneesh the Twister and Gurpreet, "Surf's Up," and "Boss Strut Dub" done with Process Rebel. Titled "Dub Elements: Ocean," it's pressed on gorgeous maroon-and-black vinyl.
While the fact that Kush has accomplished a great record is without question, in my eyes the importance of this release goes beyond quality, aggressive dance music with desi overtones: this is a landmark in international music, further proof after MIA and baile funk that 'world music' is not all nicely-drawn Putamayo CD's and yoga classes. This is music that acknowledges a world of struggle, and the need to create/fuse/refine art not only in spite of struggle, but equally alongside it. I don't think I could recommend it highly enough.