Sound in the balance

Pub date July 9, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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"Anger is an energy," sang John Lydon in the Public Image Ltd. tune "Rise." San Francisco electronic artist Kush Arora harnesses a similar combustible force in his live shows and on the three full-length recordings that have made him an established club fixture and touring act. "I try to do something different with music and express the frustrations of the youth in this country," says the affable 26-year-old Haight District resident, who performs with Chicago’s MC Zulu July 13 at Dub Mission.

Arora’s ragga-techno fusions have struck a chord with audiences from the Bay Area to New York, while monthly hybrid live/DJ sets at Club Six’s Surya Dub night have earned him a broad audience that includes dubstep heads, bhangra fans, experimental electronic admirers, and grime listeners. It makes sense as the former Montessori School teacher has always balanced different cultures.

Born in San Leandro and educated in Orinda’s leafy suburbs, Arora ingested death metal, punk, and experimental-industrial sounds, as well as his family’s Indian and Punjab music, learning traditional instruments like the single-stringed tumbi and algoze flute. His music experience increased after interning at his uncle Aman Batra’s Manhattan hip-hop studio Sound Illusions, and later working for sound-editing software company Arboretum Systems.

In high school he formed an experimental band called Involution, which he helmed for six years before launching his solo noise project Clairaudience in the early ’00s. But it was while attending a 14-month audio recording course at Emeryville’s Ex’Pressions that he learned a signature skill: recording live vocals. "When I was writing songs for my first album [2004’s Underwater Jihad (Record Label/Kush Arora Productions)], I wasn’t impressed with my own work or where electronic music was at the time. It wasn’t badass enough," explains Arora, who also felt there was a lack of high quality, vocal-based dance music in the Bay.

Soon Arora contacted and tracked stateside Punjabi singers and ragga MCs, including Chicago’s MC Zulu, Trinidad’s Juakali, Jamaica’s N4SA, Los Angeles’ Wiseproof, and San Jose’s Sukh and Sultan. "I wanted to work with people who were dangerous and different, especially vocalists who didn’t fall into their music’s niche or category," Arora says of the often confrontational and political artists he’s recorded on full-lengths like 2006’s Bhang Ragga and 2007’s From Brooklyn to SF, both released on his Kush Arora Productions imprint. The albums brought club bookings far and near.

Over the past several years Arora has played large Indian gatherings, small IDM shows, underground warehouse events, raves, and the monthly Non-Stop Bhangra party in San Francisco. His performance breakthrough happened in 2006 at DJ Sep’s weekly Sunday-night reggae party at the Elbo Room, Dub Mission. "That changed my whole presence in the city," he says.

Arora believes his family’s roots in the often-volatile Punjab region between India and Pakistan breathes through his music. "That’s why I like bhangra. It has an element of aggression and sadness," he reflects, acknowledging that those also are traits he looks for in his vocal collaborations. "The artists I work with have a real tug-of-war between good and evil in their lives. My music is their redemption and my redemption in a fateful balance." *


Dub Mission on Sundays, 9 p.m., $6

(Arora and MC Zulu on July 13, $7)

Elbo Room

647 Valencia, SF