Just east of the 405 in Sherman Oaks, Sanjoy Deb is sitting in a cavernous studio, rolling through a trove of unreleased tracks. One has a heavy U.K. garage influence, another has a grinding electro feel, and the last is an electronic reggae tune with an Eastern backbeat. Each track could comfortably nestle between pop singles from The Chainsmokers and Major Lazer on mainstream radio, but the American market has been slow to embrace the 24-year-old producer's eclectic and occasionally exotic music.
“I started learning music at a very early age,” says Sanjoy, who goes professionally by his first name. “My mom was a singer. She was the person that put me into music. I learned Indian classical music, then tabla, which is an ancient indian percussion instrument. [In Bangladesh] every cultural event is tied to music. Every weekend there is stuff going on, and there’s music tied to all of that.”
Sanjoy was born in the early 1990s to two East Pakistani Hindus who had suffered through the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Once Bangladesh gained its independence from Pakistan, the predominantly Muslim nation became a hostile environment for Hindus, and in 2004, when his family decided to seek refuge in America, they were forced to surrender their life’s savings to Bangladesh’s corrupt government.
“A couple of years before I moved here, 9/11 happened,” Sanjoy recalls. “I was excited and scared. The news talked about how America was racist against brown people. A lot of hate against America was building up in those [Eastern] nations.”
The family formed new roots in San Jose, and Sanjoy spent his teen years deciphering American culture while cultivating an identity as a musician.
“Freedom of speech is really big here, which we didn’t have back home. I just remember going to school and not understanding anything. Not understanding the culture. We used to have to stand up every time a teacher walked into the class, to show respect. I did that and people just laughed at me.”
In his youth, Sanjoy’s musical education at gurukul, an Indian trade school, was rigid and militant. Once in America, he adopted a more liberal perspective and had a difficult time adhering to his high school band’s Western style of play. He rebelled against his instructors and insisted on infusing their pieces with Eastern rhythms. After six months in the school band, he was asked to relinquish his drumsticks. “I should not have done that,” Sanjoy reflects. “I was being an idiot. But that’s kind of what my sound is now.”
Without access to music at school and with an inadequate understanding of the English language, Sanjoy turned to a secondhand laptop and used Acid Pro to mash up Bollywood tracks with early-2000s EDM. He brought his experiments in musical fusion to local Bangladeshi-American cultural events and finally connected with his community.
His local influence expanded while attending San Jose State when he gave his mixes to UC Berkeley’s Indian dance team, which performed classical dance routines that flirted with American hip-hop. Over time, Sanjoy's mixes caught on at colleges all over the United States, and students gave them to friends back in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The Sanjoy name began garnering demand, and he often was asked to perform at the events’ afterparties. He quickly learned how to beat-match with help from Bay Area club DJs, but it wasn’t enough for the college student. He had experience making beats for amateur rappers but wanted to release his own music.
He got his first break with his bootleg remix of “Chammak Challo,” a song from the soundtrack of the Bollywood film Ra.One that featured Akon singing in Hindi. “Two days after it released, [I] cut out all the vocals, put Afrojack’s 'Takeover Control' behind it, and the mashup gets massive. It’s playing all over India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Everywhere.”
The success of the “Chammak Challo” bootleg gave Sanjoy the idea of bringing his fondness for Western dance music to Bollywood. But he was still an unknown producer from San Jose, so he had to bluff his way into the business. “I called them up pretending to be a white guy, trying to get in touch with Sunidhi Chauhan, who was like the Rihanna of India at that time,” he explains. “We figured out that these singers go to specific studios to record in Bollywood all the time. So if you’re a studio engineer, you see these singers on a daily basis. We reached out to the studio, pretending to have a lot of money, pretending to have a project coming in from Hollywood and saying we’d like to record with them, but we want this singer.”
The ploy worked, and soon Sanjoy was presenting his original music in India. For two years, Sanjoy wrote music for Bollywood, honing his production skills and acclimating his mixing techniques to accommodate the vast array of Eastern instruments from his childhood.
“It was like being a part of a machine. It was very limiting in a way because they were never my records. But I got to meet every singer, every producer, every music director possible. They knew my music because it was different from everybody else’s. I was the dance guy.”
Sanjoy recently reduced his Bollywood workload and walked away with a large collection of exotic instrument samples that he now implements in his original music. He isn’t attempting to bombard the Western airwaves with an Indian sound, but likes to subtly display how his culture’s untapped rhythms can complement and progress popular dance music.
His recent single “OBVI,” featuring American Idol’s Elliott Yamin, exemplifies his ambassadorial tactic by supplementing a progressive EDM sound with a traditional Indian shuffle in the backbeat. The influence is faint but provides a nuanced rhythm that is scarcely explored in contemporary dance music.
“We’re seeing [Bollywood] everywhere now,” Sanjoy says. “Like with Major Lazer and DJ Snake in 'Lean On.' You see them tie some worldliness to their music, and it’s so much more exotic to listen to stuff like that. I think culture was missing from the radio, and now it’s coming back.”