Written by: Justine Wildöer
Back2back DJs: becoming independent by going corporate
Talking to Rakesh Kanhai (32), Amsterdam-based DJ & producer
Early on, he wanted to work with music – or make music work for him. Rakesh Kanhai was fourteen years old when his brother rang him up, saying he couldn’t make it on time to his gig at science museum NEMO. So what do you do, when you’re still in high school and your only experience in the music industry is loading up your brother’s Suzuki Shift with the turning tables? You take your chances, swallow your nerves and get on stage. Artists often claim to remember when, how or why they decided to start a career in music, and this was his. Wiping away his anxiety-sweats and ignoring the fact that the entire turn-up was definitely older than his classmates he would be in school with again the next week, DJ Kesh’ first show went well. He realized he had found his talent and this was want he’d want to be doing: making people dance and enjoying themselves on his music.
It may seem difficult to start a professional career at such a young age, so perhaps it was luck that made him run into a well-known Dutch rapper at a metro stop, one year later. Lange Frans and young Kesh got to talking about one of Frans’ newly discovered talents that he’d just signed under his label. Yes R would prove a much-promising artist slightly later on and Frans urged Rakesh to join the production team on a large national contest. Suddenly, he was faced with questions as what a price-winning show must look like, what decisions you take in order to achieve success and how to balance the life of a DJ with being a teenager. Of course he took the opportunity. And of course, they won.
However, coming from a large family with two brothers and two sisters, it was never really up to Rakesh to decide whether or not to go to university after graduating high school. It was just the way things went. Plus, at a time when money still grew on trees and the Dutch government paid students well, just for studying, it was a financially sound decision. His brother and friends, with whom he’d later on form Amsterdam Sound System, understood. Don’t get him wrong – if he could go back, he’d have dropped out. He can’t, though, and looking back at his greenfield-student time, he does feel that he’s learned to think more critically. One major setback, created by this period where he isolated himself from the music industry, was that he had to start from scratch when he graduated from his master’s degree. He started working for a major sales-corporation, always feeling removed from his music-bubble in which he functioned best. When his situation finally pushed him to feeling like a sell-out, he quit his job and discovered the existence of the DJ School Amsterdam. Turns out, the music industry doesn’t dislike some corporate experience. He was hired as a teacher and marketing director, came to the discovery that there were studios for rent in the school building and immediately told his crew about it. At last, Rakesh was back on track. He and his brothers started a new DJ act called Amsterdam Sound System and suddenly, he found himself providing fellow-artists with career consultancy. Slowly but steadily, it became clear that his talent was – still is – to make people feel safe around him in letting their creativity work. His network once more expanded, the Jimmy Woo allocated a regular evening to him and he found himself hosting corporate events more often than before.
So, what the heck. Why not make a move with that? Having set up corporate events for among others H&M, NIKE, Calvin Klein and Uber, he and his former intern Jesse Dikker decided to expand on this. As of this week, Kanhai and Dikker are reclaiming their independence from the big labels with their new business B2B DJS. The business-to-business provision of musical identity comes with a huge network, through which they will be able to offer sound, light, hostesses, choreography and every possible essential, in translating what corporations want to be and exhibit. Once a rooky that temporarily lost his connection to his dreams and aspirations, Rakesh kept on going and found his way.
Surrounded by talented students and some of the best-known Dutch artists from the hip-hop scene, he was constantly trading off his preference for remaining independent, with the need to provide his living. To use his own words, the music industry goes beyond “I scratch your back, you scratch mine”. It forces you to look your component in the eye and specify which part of their back it is where they want to be scratched exactly. In guiding- and working together with several of his younger peers towards a successful career in the business, it’s become his aim to cultivate critical reflection, overall awareness and autonomy.
His word of advice to young prospect superstars: don’t let them fool you in signing any deal. Build up your own social profile, use whichever tools available in forcing people to get to know you. The 21st century leaves chances up for grabs, if you know how to spot them. He doesn’t regret the times that he sold his efforts for too little in return, but he does regret it when upcoming talents are mal-informed. Developing a means of living out of music is difficult, but not impossible. The same goes for remaining independent. Don’t forget: you can’t actually lose your cultural capital. Your legacy will always be yours. It’s just a challenge to make money out of it.