Arun R says his diverse background made him a top DJ
Arun R has been moulded into a top DJ by a diversity of influences
If you're at all partial to Hong Kong's nightlife, you've probably seen Arun R behind the decks. For more than a decade, the "hardest working DJ in the East" has been spinning several times a week at spots across the city, distilling a broad palette of influences into multifaceted, house-driven sets that have made him a firm favourite among clubbers and fellow DJs alike.
Arun - full family name Ramanathan - traces the eclecticism of his sound back to his upbringing: he was born and raised in Hong Kong to a Keralan father from Penang, Malaysia, and a Sindhi mother from Tangier in Morocco. "Growing up in that multicultural environment was such an influence. My family is very open and laid-back. It puts me in a unique place," the 30-year-old DJ says.
His music-loving father was particularly important in shaping his tastes. "I was influenced by the idea of what he did as a teenager," Arun says. "I used to find musical paraphernalia related to his teenage years, like big, fluffy headphones. And I used to go through his collection, which included a lot of rock, soul and funk."
It was natural, he says, that he settled on house, a genre that comes with influences aplenty and enough sub-genres to fill an encyclopedia. "House has influences from so many things. I've never thought 'I'm a house DJ, so I'm going to play the same thing all night every night for five years.' I just couldn't imagine that," he says.
"It may just be that I'm easily distracted. I go through all sorts of different sounds; even in an hour, I might move between three different styles."
This approach has not always gone down well in a city that can sometimes prefer its musical genres sharply defined. "It's getting better in Hong Kong, but I think pigeon-holing is stupid. It's just ego-tripping; it doesn't matter. When it comes to the nightlife of Hong Kong, I wish people would ditch that."
Arun caught the DJing bug aged 16, in a rather unlikely location: on a cruise ship in the US, where he was on holiday with his family. The ship had a small nightclub, where he met turntablist and hip-hop producer DJ Rectangle. "He let me go into the DJ booth and see what he was doing, and it completely blew my mind. It was only when I got home and searched for him that I realised who he was. After that I got hold of some decks, and I just experimented. I'm still experimenting."
Arun's first love as a DJ was the sound coming from the Bedrock label owned by the DJs' DJ, John Digweed. "Since then I've gone in all sorts of directions, from Asian underground to breaks to hip hop, but I fell back into house."
Arun has opened for everyone from big names such as Tiësto, Paul van Dyk and James Lavelle to his favourite, Mark Farina, and has played more or less every venue in town, as well as across the mainland and India, and other locations including Bangkok, Bali, Tokyo and Seoul. But his favourite spot is the one where he now has a residency, Central's Oma (formerly Midnight & Co, and Yumla before that).
"Playing at Oma has been a real revelation for me," he says. "It's such an opportunity for a DJ. I feel blessed to be one of the resident DJs there. Yumla was a place I used to go to watch other guys play. Now I'm one of those guys, and it's a real privilege. Taku [Hirayama, Oma's music director] has reshaped the music policy in that place to really let house music breathe."
The enthusiasm of Oma's crowd has helped to rekindle his love of DJing, he says, which for a while he admits he lost. Mainly that was the result of overworking: between 2011 and 2013, he was spinning three or four nights a week while holding down a full-time job as an events organiser and co-running a bar, Hush, in Central.
"I'll be honest, I burnt out," he says. "Running a bar is tough. It was a big learning curve for me. It made me learn what makes a place successful, and appreciate what it takes to put good food and drink in front of me - and to beat the landlord," who in Hong Kong, will almost inevitably respond to any bar or restaurant's success with an immediate rent hike.
Arun still works as an events organiser and DJs at least twice a week, but he's given up the food and beverage business for now, although he'd love to have another try. "F&B is really important to me," he says. "It's about feeding your soul. A chef's got a message to put out there, just like a DJ has."
In 2013, Arun moved to London, taking a year to develop his music production skills. But he also spent time working on the land in northwest England. "It was one of the most beautiful things I've done in my life," he says.
"Coming from Hong Kong, to appreciate something like that was a real revelation for me … I have a newfound love for Hong Kong. It's an incredible organism."