DJ Kuttin Kandi is one of hip hop’s most respected female turntablists and a member of several DJ crews, including Fifth Platoon and Anomolies. Raised in Queens, New York by Filipino parents, Kandi learned how to DJ as a teenager and has been competing publicly in DJ competitions for the past seven years. Her work has appeared on a variety of record labels, including Asian Improv Records, which released her track “It’s About That Time,” on a CD to benefit the annual Asian Pacific Islander Student High School Motivational Conference at University of California at Santa Cruz. Kandi is currently based in New York but competes in DJ competitions around the country.
How did you first get involved in DJing?
There were so many people I grew up around who were DJs. I had a lot of influences. My first musical influence was my father. He wasn’t a musician, but he loved music. We would spend the weekends listening to music together. He had a great record collection. Throughout high school I was into music and I started meeting DJs around school. I had met so many DJs-- a group that did freestyle, another group did hip hop, another person that did house music. I always wanted to learn how to DJ but I couldn’t afford my own turntables. I was 16 and I was trying to save up. I was learning how to DJ at my friends’ houses, but it was difficult because I couldn’t take the turntables home with me. I would go to their houses to practice everyday. Eventually I got my own turntables when I was 18. I had meet Rho (Roli Rho of Fifth Platoon) and I started learning more and more. When I finally had my own set, that’s when I could really start to learn. Especially with Roli being in my life, he was a really huge influence in my DJ career. He was one of the best DJs I knew. I knew other DJs that were good, but when I met Roli he was more than good; he was the best. I wanted to do what he was doing; I wanted to be as good as he was. When he started to compete, I wanted to do the same thing… Even when I didn’t have my own turntables, he pushed me to learn by myself because you really have to learn by yourself. You can’t lean on someone. When you’re up there DJing, you can’t ask anyone for help.
Do you feel that people see you as Roli Rho’s girlfriend rather than a DJ in your own right?
In the beginning it was like that. When I first started, I didn’t tell anyone I was learning to DJ. I didn’t want anyone to make fun of me. It was intimidating to be a female DJ.
Does it upset you that you’re often billed as a “female DJ” rather than just a DJ?
There are times it frustrates me, when I feel like if I were not a female it would be easier to get things done. Or sometimes I wonder, “Did I get this gig because I am a female?” It has its advantages and disadvantages, but altogether, I try not to let it affect my music or how I work as a DJ. [The "female DJ" label] annoys me a lot of times, but it also makes me happy a lot of times. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people by being a “female DJ.” I’ve gotten to work with a lot of women who I felt a bond with as a female DJ and I know I wouldn’t have that bond if I were a male DJ.
Has being Asian American been a barrier to your success at all?
I can’t say there has been a lot of racial tension in the hip hop [scene]; it’s just not like that at all. I know spinning at hip hop clubs [being Asian] was a problem in the beginning of Roli’s career. But it’s really not like that now. If you got skills, you’re going to get in there. As for the industry itself, I really can’t tell you. There hasn’t been enough of the Asian American community in the industry, but Asian Americans do exist in hip hop. They’re just not well known. No one has ever said to me, “you can’t do a gig because you’re Asian.” I have never felt that. I did feel that people were surprised. People said, “Oh, you DJ? I don’t know that many Asian DJs that spin hip hop and play the music that you do.” If I tell them my whole life story and how I started, then they understand why I DJ. But you are seeing a lot more Asian DJs out there now, like Q-Bert. If people know about them, then they’re not surprised that I’m Asian and I’m a DJ. Now it’s even becoming more of a stereotype for Filipinos to be DJs. No one has ever told me I couldn’t do it. Even in the hip hop industry, they’ve accepted us and I’ve been invited to play at many important gigs. The underground hip hop scene has always been very welcoming of us. Some people say hip hop is a black thing, but it’s not even like that.
Growing up in Queens, was hip hop culture always a big part of your life?
Yes, since I was a kid I was always around hip hop culture and it has influenced the way I grew up. I lived in two different worlds. I was born in Elmhurst, Queens and my mom moved us out of the neighborhood when I was five or six. I wasn’t that old, but I was still aware of my surroundings. We moved to Fresh Meadows, into a quieter, more [affluent] neighborhood. It’s a really nice quiet neighborhood with a Jewish community, but I was going to school around the projects. I also always wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to tell the kids in school exactly where I lived. But it was the same thing here in the Jewish community. I’ve lived on two different sides of the world, living in the Jewish community and trying to fit in there with my white neighbors and then going to school in the projects and trying to fit in there too. I saw a different side of the world.
I had a lot of nice neighbors, but there were also some punks who would throw things. They started with everyone in the neighborhood, but they picked on my family more, and I know it was because we were Asian. I remember walking to school with my grandmother and they would make comments.
I have experienced a lot of people asking me how I grew up listening to so much hip hop, but I was around it so much….
How has the Filipino community responded to your work?
At first none of the adults knew what I was doing and no one was that supportive. It’s not that they didn’t want to support it, they just didn’t know who I was. They weren’t really involved in the youth community and didn’t understand what was going on [with hip hop]. When I started voicing my opinions and listening to the adults, then they listened to me. It’s a two way street. It has to work both ways. The younger generation has to listen to the older generation and vice versa. That was the problem amongst the youth and it still is. It’s a generational gap and it’s also a gap between the more traditional Filipinos and the less traditional Filipinos. It works that way within the whole Asian American community…. I have experienced that some adults didn’t want to listen to what I was doing. Some adults judge hip hop on what they see in music videos.
Do you think that there’s a feeling from the older generation that Filipinos should try to be a “model minority,” assimilate more with white culture, and not align themselves with hip hop or African American culture?
Yes, I think a lot of times people feel that way but they are starting to change their minds when I educate them about the positive sides [of hip hop]. There are adults out there that want to be involved. For example, recently I DJed at a Filipino parade in New Jersey. I was so excited about it because they contacted me and it was really nice to know that an adult wanted a hip hop performance. I approached the Filipino independence day parade in New York City and they weren’t too happy about the idea of me [performing]….
I also want the adults to know that [hip hop] is not just a youth thing either. You have people who are 40 years old who are involved in hip hop. And I’m 25 years old now; I’m not 15. I do represent the youth. A lot of the Asian community makes me aware of that. I represent the youth for a reason. You can use hip hop to be a positive influence on the youth, despite all of the negative things that are going around about hip hop. You can turn that image around and show them that there’s other hip hop music out there. I’m not trying to say that Jay-Z or Puffy aren’t hip hop, I’m just trying to say there is other music out there too.
Hip hop can be a positive tool. Hip hop is a culture, but it’s also a tool to reach out to people, a tool to express yourself. All music, not just hip hop, is a way to express your inner being, to let people know who you are inside. It makes people understand in ways they can’t understand through words. That’s what I think music is.
Occasionally you hear people say that DJing isn’t an art form, but to me it seems like it is the ultimate postmodern art form and a powerful metaphor for growing up in several different cultures. A DJ distills what’s useful from a song, pieces it together with a sample from some other song and creates something entirely new out of it, much the same way that your experience of growing up in Queens was one of distilling what’s useful from different cultures and piecing them together to form a new identity. Do you think this is an accurate assessment?
Definitely, that’s the message I want people to get. It doesn’t have to be a youth thing or an Asian thing, it’s just a people thing. It’s a way to express yourself and find freedom. Freedom from oppression, freedom from self; that’s what hip hop is. I want people to understand that.
Can you speak a little about all of the different crews you belong to? Why did you found Anomolies, an all female crew?
I had to really prove myself to be part of Fifth Platoon. I had to enter competitions. Fifth Platoon started in 1995 and I was dying to be part of the group. I had been around them and learned from watching them. Sooner or later, you want to be down with the crew. I couldn’t be unless I started really working hard. I had to pay my dues. After that, I met these girls that were going to a lot of hip hop events. This girl Helix, who was an MC, and I started working together. We formed a group in 1995 or 1996 and we just came together to show there is unity among women in hip hop.... We try to send out a positive message about hip hop that we’re not your typical female group. When it comes to females in hip hop today, you're either this thug or slut. We’re not like that. We’re just average women with our own style. We dress like normal women. We’re just us. The media and the record labels try to portray women as these two different [stereotypes], but we’re just ourselves.
Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell, Asia Society.