Interview with the New York-based DJ Kalkutta.
By Isha Roy
NEW YORK: The New York City-based DJ Kalkutta is a producer and songwriter too, who is a regular feature on Good Morning America. She has also accompanied several pop acts onstage for episodes of SNL, Ellen, The Tonight Show, Live With Kelly!, America’s Got Talent, among others.
Kalkutta rang in 2014 on Nickelodeon where she spun and co-hosted the network’s NYE special with pal Nick Cannon, and has opened for acts by Kesha and Lil Jon. She is also highly sought on the nightclub circuit, and has worked at the opening of an Andy Warhol exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as No.8, Catch and Riff Raff’s.
Born in Calcutta, India, Kalkutta was surrendered to a Mother Teresa-founded orphanage at just two days old. She spent the majority of her infancy there, until she was adopted by her American mother who gave her a chance at a brighter future in the United States.
After taking Music Programming classes at NYU’s Clive Davis Dept. of Recorded Music & the prestigious Berklee Music Conservatory, she was plucked from her studies to go on tour with artists like Cash Cash and Karmin as well as fulfill the demand for her presence behind the decks at parties in Aspen, Chicago, the Hamptons, Boston, DC, LA, Miami, Vegas, Sao Paolo, Anguilla, the Bahamas, Kingston, and Cancun.
These days she shares bills with some of the world’s hottest DJ’s- Questlove, A-Trak, Samantha Ronson among them. A visit from Prince during one of her NYC gigs as well as many events attended by The Kardashians have landed her mentions in Page Six, OK! Magazine, US Weekly, Cosmopolitan, SPIN, and The Daily News.
Kalkutta’s passion for music is paralleled by her love for fashion, and she loves to spin events for designers like Betsey Johnson, Nanette Lepore, Diesel, TopShop, Ted Baker, Steve Madden, and Adidas Originals. In addition to her roster of fashion clients, her list of corporate clients ranges from brands like Maserati- Ferrari, Axe and Red Bull to Microsoft and The Discovery Channel.
Kalkutta’s most successful release to date is a remix of Krewella’s “Alive”, a collaboration with Cash Cash that debuted at #6 on the iTunes Dance chart and peaked at #11 on Beatport. “New Americana”, which she wrote and produced for Capitol Records recording artist Halsey, will be the first of her songwriting to hit the airwaves.
The American Bazaar interviewed this modern music maestro who would love to visit India, sooner than later, as she puts it. Excerpts from the interview:
You’re a DJ, producer and songwriter, and have worked with some very big names in the entertainment and fashion industries. How did you get inspired to pursue this field?
I’ve wanted to be a producer since the 1990s. I fell in love with the music of Timbaland. Because I lived in the middle of nowhere and I was adopted by an American, I wasn’t subjected to a lot of Indian culture when I was young. The first time I had ever seen anything which was relatable to desi culture was in the music that Timbaland was making at that time. He actually sampled a lot of stuff from Bollywood and Arabic music which inspired me to become a record producer. At the time, I was in school for production and was getting fired from all kinds of waitressing jobs. Eventually my ex-boyfriend who had turn tables taught me how to DJ which I really enjoyed and ultimately took over my life.
What was the first big break in your career?
In our industry, I don’t believe in overnight success and anyone that gives you the illusion they are an overnight success has been working for a very long time to build a following and establish a name for themselves. But I think something that got a lot of people’s attention and press in the beginning of my career was when Prince came to one of my gigs and hung out for a couple of hours and spoke to me. That definitely helped my credibility.
Indian Americans growing up in America face many challenges, especially in terms of their social and cultural identity. You were born in Kolkata and raised in Wisconsin. What are some of the challenges you had to overcome in the Midwest and how did you overcome those challenges to get to this point in your career?
While there’s definitely a lot of racism in smaller Midwest cities, my biggest challenge was overcoming my own racial identity crisis. I thought I was black until I was 17. I had no idea I was Indian. I didn’t know any Indian people and couldn’t relate to the Indian culture. Growing up all my dolls were either black baby dolls or black Barbie dolls and definitely no Indian dolls. Where I grew up there no Hispanics, Asians or Indians…people were either black or white. Growing up with the skin color I have and fact that I had really curly hair, people in my community thought I was black and I didn’t know any better when I was little.
What was your first exposure to Indian culture? Have you ever been back to Kolkata?
My mom took me to a couple of Indian festivals growing up and to the houses of some Indian people she knew but considering I wiped my tongue off with napkins after eating Indian food we weren’t welcome back. Needless, to say I was not a fan of Indian food.
No, I have not been back to India since I left. While I have no concrete plans to go back, I would like to go back sooner rather than later.
Indian music whether it’s classical, pop, Bollywood, has been slowly making its way into mainstream American pop culture. How much of an influence has Indian music played in your work?
Timbaland’s music, which sampled Bollywood beats, was definitely an influence in my career. Outside of some popular artists like MIA, Punjabi MC, Ravi Shankar and AR Rahman I don’t really know too much about nor do I follow Indian music. I know way more American musicians who sample Indian music for the western market than I know of actual Indian artists.
What would you consider the most memorable event in your career?
DJ’ing on Good Morning America (GMA) is definitely an event that stands out because it’s one of the only times my mom has seen me DJ. It’s also great because my grandmother gets to see me DJ. My family doesn’t live in NYC and don’t get a chance to visit often so it’s nice to have them see me on TV. It’s also fun working on GMA because they have an assortment of some really cool guests.