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How Yousef Mastered The Art

Yousef talks to Mike Boorman about the dedication and professionalism that helped him make it.

Jimmy Coultas

Last updated: 13th Nov 2014

Image: Yousef

Yousef is one of the few DJs around these days who actually made it off the back of being bloody good at it. As well known as he might be for his Circus nights, Circus Recordings label, and his own productions (which have included two albums), it was the unbelievable turntablism that made people sit up and pay attention.

His first big break was when he won the Muzik Magazine Bedroom Bedlam mix competition in 1997, and within what seemed like almost no time at all, he became the UK trailblazer for the percussive, jackin' house sound that swept across the scene and introduced us to the likes of Onionz & Joeski, DJ Dan, and Ian Pooley (there is no better example than the below mix from the time).


Yousef presents - 21st Century House Music 084 (28 December 2013) [Mixmag Winter Warmer 2001] by Chemicalgroove on Mixcloud

A decade and a half on and Yousef is still packing out venues all over the world, as well as some of his favourite haunts from down the years, including his own Circus on Saturday November 29th alongside the likes of Patrick Topping and Matthias Tanzmann, and Uber's Eighth Birthday on Saturday December 6th, who have been booking him from the start.

One of the reasons why he has managed to stay relevant to the fans who were there at the beginning, as well as to new generations of clubbers since, is his sheer dedication. As dextrous as he might be behind the decks, it is the power of his preparation and studious knowledge of the art that has got him where is today, so we picked his brains about what he does to prepare, and what he learned from his heroes in the early days... 

You've always come across as quite a deep thinker, with a very intense concentration and strong attention to detail - certainly not a jack-the-lad caner when you're DJing.

Where did this come from? Can you see it in your parents or have you trained yourself down the years to get into a certain mindset?

I have been pretty much flying solo since I was around 14 - coped with all sorts of very difficult home life turbulences and came from a pretty tough and pretty broke background to be honest. I’ve had all sorts of shit to deal with from a very young age, which means I appreciate things.

So yes, I have trained myself to make the most of things and that includes appreciation for what I do. I had little guidance and certainly no discipline as a child so I make the most of the moment and put all my efforts into things I enjoy.

Having no safety net I think made me better at my chosen vocation - there is no choice other than to be the best you can be and make it work.

When you walk into a DJ booth just before your set, what are the main things you think about?

I’m pretty easy going and happy as a person but I take my work/the gig pretty seriously. I want the kit to be correct, the sound to be solid, relaxed and not over cooked. I want no DJ liggers in my face, as I’m there to be the best I can be for the crowd, I always want to perform.

I’m not arsed about drinks or DJ drugs - I’m there to choose the best records for the crowd that are in front of me and use the best technique I can to deliver the best show I can. I hate it when anything unnecessarily gets in the way of me doing my job the best I can.

That said, I’ve been DJing for so long I’m pretty much ready for any eventuality! Pre-gig I think about the selection of music I have with me of course, and try to cultivate a path I may go down musically that will fit with the vibe in the room... that’s the skill of real DJing for me. Be prepared, but don’t have a plan.

Do you have a particular routine you go through, in the lead up to a set?

I just make sure I’ve checked through a list of music for the gig via Rekordbox and have some new music to play - it’s essential to be excited to play some new beats! I try to relax in my hotel room where possible, so I’m ready and rested for the gig as I want to do my best.

Do you remember songs in your collection as parts of batches? i.e. "this song goes with such and such song" etc.

I never prepare my sets but, rarely or occasionally I use the odd same mix now and again. I’ve usually only discovered it while playing out recently so it’s cool. The way I play, very busy on three decks, it’s pointless to try to plan things. I have to follow the vibe of the room, aim to make people feel good and let rip too.

When you were practising mixing for hours on end when you were a teenager, beyond an obvious love for the music, what kind of things were in your head motivating you? Was it that you'd seen other performers but you knew you could do better?

I would listen intently to DJs like Roger Sanchez (who we also spoke to this week) and Derrick Carter, and ponder how they were layering the music they played, or how they worked three copies of the same track, double beating, or triple breaks, or no breaks.

I was always of the idea that the DJ was in control of the music and learned the skills to do what would be called "live editing" today, but using two to three copies of the same vinyl track, cutting it up, but keeping the groove. I wanted to be better and to be able to do the tricks my heroes could do, so I would see a trick done in a club and go home and stand in my room for 10 hours or more until I had mastered it. I wouldn’t let it get away!

Who was the first DJ you saw or met where you thought 'that guy's a proper pro - he knows what he's doing' and beyond just their selection of music, what was it about them that you admired particularly?

Sanchez, I’ve seen him play at Cream back in the day and he was literally on a different planet to the other DJs that played at the club at the time. He was TOTALLY in control, playing nasty beats, slipping, cutting, two three copies of a track, owning the room, playing super underground but still with such an electric atmosphere, a real technician, he blew my mind.

Prior to that of course was Carl Cox, but only on mix tapes... what that guy could do with three decks used to spin me out. I would go home and think about what they had done, and trying to figure out how they did it, and then get on my decks for 10 hours… you know the drill…

And likewise, what was the producer/engineer that you met that inspired you the most, and what was it they did that struck you?

Mark ‘Blakkat’ Bell for sure. We had loads of mutual friends like Doc Martin and Onionz and the Liverpool crew like Paul Kane so I got to go over to his studio in Blackpool (of all places). He was and IS the master. He made a lot of the early cuts for Felix Da Housecat and then produced "Fix My Sink" in Blackpool for Sneak (hear below), he is the don and I’m happy to say he helped me out in the very early days, taught me loads and still does.

We are super close now and in fact released a collaboration on Desolat not so long ago. His technique was pretty organised and the quality of his mix downs, even to this day is untouchable - he is literally an unsung hero of the UK house scene, a real legend.

Yousef's monthly house extravaganza hits Liverpool on Saturday 29th November with Ten Walls, Matthias Tanzmann, Patrick Topping and more at the Arts Club (follow the ticket box below), with the London residency at Egg London alongside Matt Tolfrey on Saturday 15th November. For all other Yousef gigs head here.

Like this? Try Patrick Topping: Well aye, ne bova and pure legends.

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