Although it's hard to tell from Kush Arora's cheerful demeanor, the electronic music producer thrives on tension. Over the past decade, the 27-year-old has forged a distinctively bass-centered idiom rooted in dubstep, evoking the push and pull among sounds, genres, and cultures. It's a friction epitomized on his new seven-track album, Boiling Over.
The East Bay–raised, dreadlocked son of Indian immigrants augments his sonic experiments with aspects of his Punjabi musical heritage. His path to the dancefloor meandered through metal, punk, goth, industrial, and avant-garde, but he also learned the rudiments of Punjabi instruments like the stringed tumbi and the algoze flute. He refined his booming, percussive aesthetic as a punk band drummer and cultivated his subversive sound-design principles from his industrial projects. Before long, he applied these ideas to dubstep and started playing live at Indian parties, underground shows, and regular club nights across the country, and at popular local internationalist nights "Surya Dub" and "Nonstop Bhangra." Arora has also garnered airplay on such vaunted dub radio shows as Steve Barker's On the Wire on the BBC.
Arora has collaborated with revered American and British MCs — including Zulu, Juakali, and Warrior Queen — to produce two sets of powerful, vocal-centered dubwise bass music, From Brooklyn to SF and Dread Bass Chronicles. But the unnerving, all-instrumental Boiling Over offers the best idea of where he's going as a producer.
The new album extends the anxious vision of "dread bass" that Arora first cultivated on his 2004 debut Underwater Jihad. That quasigenre reflects less a hairstyle than the menacing style he has made his own. Like standard dubstep, dread bass is rooted in dub reggae's primary features — heavy bass and loping one-drop beats steeped in spacious reverb and echo. Arora tweaks the style with a truly agitated sense of noise, feedback, and metallic percussion, and collides it with the yearning tones of bhangra.
Boiling Over's tracks pit dubstep and techno rhythms against Punjabi melodies and industrial cacophony. Full of furtive minor-key string stabs and trilling drum fills, the album's foregrounding melodic parts battle swirls of audio detritus and oncoming tidal waves of rumbling, low-end feedback.
While cultural tension propels Arora's recordings, it has also challenged the producer in local music circles. Although he spent a short time inside the Asian underground scene, he believes sticking too firmly within a specific community is constricting. He nonetheless got caught up in identity politics recently when veteran S.F. world music DJ and producer Cheb i Sabbah heard Arora criticize Sabbah's music on the Solipsistic Nation Internet radio show. "I started off saying how much I respect the guy, but also said that I thought his music was whitewashed," Arora says. The comment led to an acrimonious e-mail exchange: "He essentially wrote that because I was honest about his music, I was dissing the musicians, and therefore the traditions of Indian music and everything I got from it. Ultimately, the whole thing was a little silly, and not really important in terms of why either of us makes music. I don't feel like I have a beef with the guy, really." Sabbah didn't answer an SF Weekly request for his version of the story.
In the end, Arora stays focused on the sonic culture clashes that keep his tunes on boil — which in turn keeps the Bay Area on the innovative dance music map, attracting bass-music heads around the world.