Behind the dhol dhamaka and halla gulla of every Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) sit-in and rally, behind the spectacle that makes all dance to the tune of party chief Imran Khan is one man: DJ Butt.
Anointed as the “official sound engineer” by none other than Imran Khan, DJ Butt — whose real name is Asif Butt — is a classic rags-to-riches fantasy: hailing from a low-income household, he worked his way to becoming a “millionaire,” a sought-after disc jockey and café owner.
Butt’s first meeting with Imran Khan was in 2011, he tells me, soon after greeting me with a hug as I entered his office in Model Town, Lahore. It was a life-defining moment for him. “Khan Sahib and I met for the first time in April 2011, a couple of days before his massive sit-in in Peshawar and discussed how we’ll go about it. I was given two tracks about the PTI, and the rest was up to me,” he says.
“Those are not any other instrumental tracks. They were finalised after a lot of research for all kinds of emotions. Khan Sahib agar drones ki baat karain gay to mein sad music play karoon ga. Agar unity ki baat karain gay to national song daal doon ga,” Butt goes on while showing me a folder in his laptop that had all the songs and clips he plays for the PTI. “People started crying when I played a sad instrumental track while Khan sahib was talking about drones and the people killed.”
Thanks to DJ Butt, PTI leaders manage to conveniently address large crowds. He is the man who sneaks in national and devotional songs during speeches: from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Junoon to Ataullah Eesa Khelvi to some tracks especially created by Yousaf Salahuddin. He even plays some of the music as we talk. This, he says, is a pre-planned strategy though no speaker knows at what point they’d be cut off.
Oh, and the playlist is not the same every time, mind you.
Butt is a larger-than-life personality. He sports long locks, and on the day I met him, he was clad in a white shirt, a black biker jacket and cowboy boots. A ‘DJ Butt’ pendant hangs from his neck, almost to emphasise his quirky nature. Not to forget his yellow-coloured Honda Civic, a parrot green Suzuki Mehran, and a red Siera — all with ‘DJ Butt’ number plates, parked outside the coffee bar.
Before I could ask him why he was so dressed up, Asif informs me that he has just returned from an appearance on a private channel’s morning show. We sat down on black and red rexine sofas, with multi-coloured disco lights hovering over us. I guess I underestimated the “office” of arguably one of the most popular DJs in Lahore. But clearly, DJ Butt loves his little kingdom — an office that doubles up as a coffee shop, named Butt Coffee Bar (BCB). The sound equipment business is booming: Asif Butt sells and rents out sound equipment, while his brother produces and assembles all equipment. All this has come with years of experience, and “meri maa ki duayen”.
Butt has his many mobile phones and a laptop, all set on the table in front of us. As soon as we’re seated, he Googles himself to show me how much he has been written about, and that “Google toh sab janta hai”. He has a Facebook presence, he is on Twitter, and he keeps a constant check on what the media is saying about him. He also shows me the morning show episode he had just returned from. The guy is quite tech-savvy, let me tell you. I was impressed, I must admit.
Things weren’t always as glamorous or expansive for DJ Butt. I recall seeing his shop from afar whenever I would visit the market as a teenager, since we used to live in the area some years ago. I decided to ask DJ Butt about his “very humble beginnings”. Turns out, DJing wasn’t the beginning of his story.
Asif Butt worked as a helper at a coffee shop in the same market in 1996, after which the owners sold the machines to the Butt brothers and they started their own little coffee corner called BCB. Asif was a typical Lahori youngster, biking around with his “gang of bikers” in the day and selling coffee in the evening.
“I used to play music at the coffee shop, which a lot of my customers and shopkeepers around liked. They encouraged me to become a DJ. Then there was a wedding where I was asked to play. I just took my entire collection from the shop, rented a music system, and played there. In no time, I had DJed at around 20 weddings,” he recalls.
“It was in 2004 that I bought my own imported system. That’s when “DJ Butt” — the company — was born. I had also mentored one of my boys by then. We had our own equipment, MashaAllah, and were doing weddings, parties, launches, all sorts of events.”
So, how did he clinch this ‘life-changing’ deal with PTI, I ask him.
“I was introduced to the PTI by a friend of Captain Hassan Bilal, an assistant of Imran Khan’s brother-in-law Saifullah Khan Niazi, a few days before the 2011 sit-in in Peshawar. Capt Bilal then set up a meeting between Khan Sahib and me, and that was the beginning of my journey with the PTI,” he tracks his path to instant superstardom.
DJ Butt says he has managed all of the party's big dharnas and rallies, from the one at Minar-i-Pakistan in Lahore to the recent anti-drone sit-in in Peshawar. “Log kehtay hain DJ Butt music kyun bajata hai speeches nahi sunnay deta (People ask me why I play music and not let them listen to speeches). But Khan Sahib became very popular because of this trend.”
We are interrupted by a call on DJ Butt’s mobile phone, that he cancels, and visibly distracted, offers me something to drink. Not being able to resist the urge, I tell him that since he runs a coffee business, I won’t leave without sipping the coffee they brew.
Satisfied with my response, Butt turns to the March 23 PTI rally at Minar-i-Pakistan.
“Mera 14 saal ka career aik taraf aur vo din aik taraf,” he says, with a glint in his eye. For Butt, that one day gave him recognition of a lifetime. He then summons one of his “chhotas” and asks him to bring another of his many laptops, on which he shows me pictures of the Minar-i-Pakistan rally.
Butt then narrates the PTI’s journey to Waziristan, and how for the first time, he had managed nine trucks of sound equipment. He says that it was the first time he used a self-developed wireless system, through which he controlled all the equipment by just sitting in the “General’s Truck” (referring to the vehicle he travels in with all the equipment for a rally).
“PTI has given me so much respect, recognition and appreciation for my work that I’d always be grateful to them,” he says shyly when I ask him if he has ever got a response after a successful rally. With a twinkle in his eyes he then tells me how his “whole life changed” when after the Peshawar event, the very next day, he got a call from Khan Sahib himself, saying, ‘Butt, mein tum se bohot khush hoon (emulating the signature IK style). Tum ne mera jalsa kamyaab kara diya (I’m very happy you made my rally a success). Aaj se tum meray official sound engineer ho’”.
Another call disrupts our conversation. Once again, Butt declines the call.
DJ Butt then proudly tells me how he played the national anthem and had the Pakistani flag waved at a PTI gathering in Quetta where “they don’t hoist the national flag or play the anthem. I did all this.” However, he goes on to say, this was also his most difficult event as it rained for six straight hours, followed closely by the one in Lahore on March 23. He then shows me pictures of what happened before and after both the rallies.
In fact, DJ Butt has pictures of each and every event he has graced with his presence: before, during and after. And he keeps showing me pictures (some on his Facebook page) of whatever we talk about: PTI rallies and sit-ins, Dr Tahirul Qadri’s rallies, Metro Bus Service launch, and so on. What amazes me is his memory: he remembered the exact dates of all major PTI events he had managed.
But then what of the Metro Bus Service launch, I ask, confused about his political leanings. Who did he support — the PTI or the PML-N? He cuts me short with “PTI, who else?” But almost instantly, remarks that he was never into politics and doesn’t even want to be.
“I have been working for a long time. I also worked with PML-N. But I was never appreciated. Once I even got a call [from someone in PML-N] taunting me about paying so much attention to PTI. I told him they were giving me business, paying me good money, so what else would a man from a poor family want? I had limited popularity as a DJ earlier, but now, after appearing on television during PTI rallies, I’ve got double the recognition. I have numbers of all major party leaders: Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Jahangir Tareen, Aleem Khan, Imran Khan Sahib. Some even call to appreciate me after an event. This really encourages me. I can say I’m a PTI family member now.”
Is he exclusive to PTI and is he allowed by the party to work for anyone else?
DJ Butt cites the case of Dr Tahirul Qadri — a man he had first worked with in 2007, managing sound engineering for a mega rally at Minar-i-Pakistan. This was DJ Butt’s first experience of managing a mega-event, which he claimed, attracted almost 200,000-300,000 people.
Dr Qadri rang him up again during the (in) famous sit-in in Islamabad before the polls, pleading “mera gala baith gaya hai aa k sambhalo.” Butt had little choice but to turn to his party for advice.
“When I asked for permission from the PTI about doing the event, I was told, ‘tum aik dukandar ho, businessman ho. Tumhe jo paisay day, us k liye kaam karo (You’re a shopkeeper, a businessman)’. So I work for everyone, whoever pays me, of course.”
Has being affiliated with the PTI got him more work? A straight ‘no’ shoots the reply. “People stop and ask me if I’m DJ Butt, but that’s it,” he solemnly says. “PTI gives me enough work, and I already have a lot on my plate, so I also have to refuse some clients.”
Amazingly, he says, he has received calls even during live rallies because his name and number are plastered on the dice on stage and it’s all over the TV. He is still among the most in-demand disc jockeys in Lahore. He also travels to other cities and countries for ‘special clients’ who want him to assemble their equipment or advise them, or even play at their weddings.
Butt remains a man inspired by innovation and the love of his craft, sound engineering. “DJ Butt jo introduce karata hai vo cheez brand ban jati hai,” he boasts, explaining how he started using a special kind of microphone that no one else in Pakistan was using at that time.
Experience of event management has taught him much. After his first few events, DJ Butt — the professional and experienced manager that he is — ensure that he has six to seven back-ups for everything. “The crystal clear audio you hear on television is because of me and my equipment. If a wire doesn’t work, I’ll use wireless. If wireless doesn’t work, I’ll use a wire. So I have back-up for everything every time, and all this I’ve learnt with experience and setbacks faced earlier.”
Butt has also been taking classes and courses from teachers in Thailand and China since 2008. Once he absorbs technical knowledge, he returns home to train his men, deliver lectures, administers written and oral tests, and makes them practice for a couple of years.
Any worries or problems, I ask him.
“Imran Khan Sahib ke jalsay pe Imran Khan sahib hi bachatay hain,” he quips and shows me a picture of how he had covered his speakers with a large panaflex with a picture of Imran Khan on it. He adds he suffered a loss of Rs2.7 million. “Khan Sahib called me the next day, asked how much the loss was. He reimbursed all of it.”
I’m tempted to ask him who he feels delivers the best speech, besides Imran Khan, of course. “Shah Mehmood Qureshi Sahib. The rest mostly copy Khan Sahib,” Butt says with a laugh.
Of course, there is always DJ Butt’s playlist to cut a leader off if he doesn’t impress.