When DJ Anjali and the Incredible Kid take the stage at Wonder Ballroom on New Year's Eve, they'll be celebrating their 18th year of playing records together. Anjali Hursh started out with little fanfare, but her exuberant playlists have become one of the most beloved mainstays of Portland nightlife.
We sat down with her in October for a conversation about women of color in Portland's music scene. This is the extended version of our interview.
Don't miss Anjali and the Kid this New Year's Eve with Reyna Tropical (the side project of Savilá guitarist Fabi Reyna), Brown Calculus and Casual Aztec.
Q&A with DJ Anjali
April Baer: Where did you grow up?
Anjali Hursh: I actually grew up just outside of Portland, mostly in Clackamas County, and all those little towns around Oregon City. My parents moved a lot. When I was about 6, they divorced and my mom remarried and we moved to Tucson for a couple of years and then I moved to Philadelphia for four years and so I spent my early teenage years actually like in Philly and just outside of Philly. We lived in Roxborough, which is pretty gentrified now, but this was 1985. I'd never been surrounded by so many kids of color. It was amazing.
Baer: How did you start DJing?
Hursh: I was working at Powell's after college, the mid– to late-'90s, and my DJ partner, the Incredible Kid, we worked together. He worked in the Spanish section. I worked in the art section and we were both really involved with the unionizing effort there — a lot of meetings, lots of walkouts. In addition to all this radical organizing, we were also partying a lot and throwing benefits. The DJs were always a couple of my boy coworkers running the soundtrack. I was mostly just miffed about it and [thought], "I should be up there." I was really into Brit Pop at the time and slowly started sneaking South Asian music into my sets — mostly like old Bollywood or Asian underground. Bhangra came later. So that's how I started just playing house parties in North Portland.
Baer: How were you sourcing your records at that point?
Hursh: So, you had to go to the Indian grocery stores to get music and that's kinda when my partner like really got hooked. He was like, "Where are you finding this music?" I started taking him to the Indian grocery stores all in the west side, Hillsboro or Beaverton. Eventually we both started traveling to New York to buy records and CDs and also Surrey, British Columbia — the Punjabi suburb outside of Vancouver. In Jackson Heights and Queens, there were, like, 10 CD stores. Now I think there's one that's struggling to survive.
Baer: You were doing so much work just to bring your community this music.
Hursh: It was just an obsession. That's part of why I stay up so late every night. It's for the community, but it's for me too. It's like helped me navigate my identity.
Baer: Were there any other people of color you knew who were DJing around that time?.
Hursh: I don't think so. I mean it's very much like a white boy DJ scene. I was honored to DJ some early queer parties back then. I have to shout out DJ Zanne and Puppet was there and Harmony was there. There were some women and women of color. And Sissyboy [the legendary queer drag collective].
Baer: There's a whole dance culture in cities that have more of an Indian-American and Pakistani-American community. But you were in the scene when this was happening. What was it like to sort of be performing that role?
Hursh: In other cities, I found that those scenes were very mainstream, like, South Asian Top 40, very much Bollywood, all the big songs. And our approach is more we'll play the songs if we like them. And so I definitely heard from some Desi kids that were like, "We love your party because there are white kids here too, and we want to party with everybody." And then other Desi kids were like, "Yeah, we want an exclusive space." And so they wouldn't come. When we first started, there were very few South Asian kids, and that would kind of break my heart. Now it's completely different. If you come after 11, it's mostly brown kids. Everybody knows the songs.
Baer: Was there a point at which you started to notice other culturally specific DJs popping up?
Hursh: That's a more recent trend. I really think the explosion is because of the equipment. DJ equipment is so expensive. Now, most people do have maybe a computer at home, so you can download songs and create a set. I mean you could even take your phone [to the club] if you were desperate enough.
Baer: Do you ever get out to see like Noche Libre or other groups?
Hursh: I totally was at the last one. And it's funny, I've actually given DJ lessons to several of the women in Noche Libre. I just feel like I've accumulated so much knowledge that I am so happy to share with young women. It's lonely out here. You go to the club, and pretty much every lineup is all dudes. We get booked in other cities like Vancouver, BC, Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, but in Portland, not so much. That's part of why we throw our own parties. If I waited around for other promoters to hire me, it wouldn't really happen. That's another reason why I think I've had such a long career, because I throw my own parties.
Baer: How are you feeling about the state of your practice right now?
Hursh: A lot of my friends I think are maybe more practical and they're like, "So what's your like your plan for what the next thing is?" And I'm like, "There is no plan! This is the plan! I'm going to be 60 in the club!"