Producer Spotlight: Yousef
Producer Spotlight: YousefSeptember 21, 2023
Liverpool-born DJ, producer and promoter Yousef Zaher has long been a part of house music history, but in May of 2021, Zaher – who writes and performs as Yousef – became a part of national history when his club night Circus was picked to host the first club nights in the UK after over a year of restrictions as part of the government’s Event Research Programme (ERP).
“It was myself and my business partner Rich knocking on the door of Liverpool Council, maybe eight, nine, ten months before the party actually happened, making the suggestion that at some point, the UK will surely by definition, have to restart events.”
“We had three weeks’ notice, we got a phone call to say, look, the government has sanctioned this, we would like you to give it a go, and you have to pay for it yourself. So we had to book it in just a few days.”
But Yousef’s musical journey began long before the world-changing events of 2020. He has had a career spanning over 20 years with countless highlights behind the decks, in the studio, and behind the scenes at Circus Recordings.
To celebrate the release of his new Beatport Sounds sample pack, Circus House Music, we sat down with him in his studio to ask him a few questions.
How did you first get into music?
I guess it depends how far back you want to go. Even when I was in school, I really wanted to get into the acid house and rave scene when it was in its infancy.
At the weekend at school I would disappear to go to fledgling raves – amazing places like Shelley’s in Stoke – when I was super young, way too young to get in. It was an incredible formative experience seeing people like Carl Cox, and even The Prodigy live, and they were among their first-ever gigs.
Later down the road, when acid house hit Liverpool, I’d go to places there. But then, most importantly, it’s when Cream started, and that’s when I started to understand the authentic message of house music a lot more just by going every single week and seeing the American DJs who turned my ears like David Morales and Tony Humphries, Roger Sanchez, Derrick Carter – they were the people that really turned me on to the authentic house sound.
Of course, even in Cream, it was a full range of music across three rooms, but it was just being introduced to people like The Dust Brothers – now The Chemical Brothers – Andrew Weatherall, DJ Harvey, people like that were back in the annex.
Of course, most importantly, Paul Bleasdale was the backbone of everything that happened in that club musically. And for me, as I’ve said lots of times, he was one of the most important DJs in Liverpool’s history.
Do you have a first memory of when you noticed things really started to take off for you?
I think it’s been well documented that at the very beginning of my endeavours to become a touring DJ. I won a competition in the now-defunct magazine Bedroom Bedlam DJ. That set me off on a path where I got gigs at Ministry of Sound, which went really well. And then Pacha in Ibiza, which went extremely well.
I was telling somebody about it a few days ago. I had two copies of “Rock Shock” by Roy Davis Jr. and another track by The Buffalo Bunch and I was just mixing it up on three decks, doing my thing. The room at Pacha was going absolutely bananas unbeknown to me – I just thought it was normal. When I came off the decks, there was a whole range of agents and promoters and managers and everybody wanting to get a little piece of me – I had no idea that this was the beginning of the rest of my life.
That night, I went off and had lots of fun and on Monday I went back to my normal job – I literally worked in the children’s underwear section as an assistant. And little ones catalog. Don’t miss those days. But the phone calls came and I was made resident at Ministry Of Sound pretty quickly, and I was signed to the Ministry Of Sound agency. God bless Amy Thompson for looking after me and supporting me back in the original days. But yeah, man, that whole weekend or week in Ibiza in 1998 literally changed my life.
What’s the story behind your own club night, Circus?
Really, I was lucky enough to get the call up from Cream to be a resident. Short backstory – I was going there every week for seven or eight years, I was religious every week. But then I won the DJ competition and the irony was, I was now unable to go.
I was off playing Renascence and Ministry of Sound and playing gigs around Europe and my Saturdays were taken. But obviously, I wanted to be playing at Cream because that was always my dream. And when I say dream I mean that literally, I couldn’t sleep some nights imagining what I was gonna do when I played there. Eventually, Jim King and James Barton asked me to be a resident of Cream. That was fantastic.
I was there for a few years, but what was happening simultaneously was the music in the main room was becoming so far and far away from what I was doing in the annex — which is like underground house and techno — and eventually, we decided to do my own night at Cream.
It was going to be called Circus because I was at a party in Miami in a penthouse, and it was going crazy. I was DJing to everybody and these people from all over the world, all walks of life, and it was just kind of total chaos – it really felt like a circus.
We were about to start our night Circus at Cream, presented by Yousef, but unfortunately, Cream closed. I got a phone call from one of my long-serving business partners and best mates Rich McGinnis, who suggested that we continue doing the Circus idea together. We found a venue that was run by his girlfriend’s dad at the time, we put a few hundred quid in each and we just started. Fortunately, the first night at the Mask Arts Club – now called East Village Arts – was a real success. People from the Annex, my audience, came with me and we’ve not really looked back. We’ve kept on pushing away just between the two of us ever since day one. It’s now over 20 years and, of course, we’ve had lots and lots of crazy moments since.
What’s the future for Circus?
The future for Circus is to just continue to just try and do the best and most creative events that we can manage. Obviously, we’ve got the responsibility of looking after our staff and all these things so we need to make sure that the events work. We love the fact that we are able to support a range of artists across the city and beyond. We like it when major names come to play for us – the energy after those events is just second to none.
For me, it’s been like an unexpected 20-year journey. I thought it would be five years, ten years. Now it’s 15, 20 and beyond. So it’s very, very much established. But again, we just want people to have a good time and feel safe. That’s a good thing to touch on because the levels we go to ensure safety in the city now are literally second to none nationwide. It’s something that I’m really proud of, the journey might be slightly more complicated to get in, but once they’re in it’s safe and I find that’s something that I really take personally.
Finally, are there any artists you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
I guess I would like to collaborate with more of my DJ peers. I’ve done that quite a lot over the years. I’m 80% to 90% of the way into my fifth album, which is very much a collaborative process but largely with musicians and lead singers rather than electronic music producers. Maybe there should be a bit more of that. I’m not sure
I’m always trying to be creative and move forward. I think that sometimes there can be a bit of a disconnect between my musical output and my DJ sets, so I’m trying to connect those dots a little bit more. I’ve just released an EP called the Tools EP, which is very clearly just DJ tracks. But when I do an album, it’s listened to from start to finish, so people know me for a range of things. I’m just trying to make sure that the dots are connected a bit more over the next one if you like.
Yousef’s Circus House Music sample pack is now out from Beatport Sounds, and available on Loopcloud. Check it out here.