Interview: ORIGINALS… Seamus Haji
In recent years, London-born Seamus Haji has become one of house music’s most celebrated producers and remixers, heading up the Big Love label and holding residencies in seminal nightspots such as Pacha and Eden in Ibiza and Ministry of Sound.
As part of our ORIGINALS series, 909originals caught up with the Camberwell native to delve into the tracks, clubs and individuals that helped shape his career over a more than 35-year period.
Over to you, Seamus…!
Q. Tell us about your upbringing, and how you first got into music?
My dad is Indian and my mother is from Belfast. I grew up in London – mainly in south London, in Camberwell.
I think for me, watching Top of the Pops when I was 10 years old and seeing The Specials and The Police for the first time… that was something that got me excited about music. I started buying singles at around the age of 10. I guess what I liked about it was that it was quite dancey, that ska sound.
Because I am mixed-race I like the whole vibe of ska because it is about bringing black and white people together. I would have classed myself as a ‘rude boy’ back then; I wore the right clothes, Fred Perry, all of that.
But then, in 1982, two things happened, which made everything change – The Specials released Ghost Town, their last single, which pretty much marked the end of the whole 2 Tone ska revival. And that was the same year that I became aware of hip hop and electro funk coming through from New York.
That was really the next musical movement that blew me away.
I remember seeing Buffalo Gals by Malcolm McLaren on Top of the Pops, and it was the first time that we saw people dancing to hip hop; breakdancing, body popping and all that. The next day in school, everyone was trying to emulate it.
We had no idea it had been going on in New York since the 1970s – it was this while movement that we knew nothing about. It was an exciting time.
Q. When did you develop an interest in becoming a DJ?
DJing always seemed like a really hard thing to get into because you had to get all the equipment, Technics 1200s and all that, and nobody had any money at the time.
I used to listen to Dave Pearce on Capital Radio quite a bit – tuning in on my clock radio when I was supposed to be sleeping. At the same time you had Tim Westwood on a pirate station, then, LWR. I used to make lots of mixtapes, taping stuff off the radio.
There was a real art to making sure you paused the tape before the DJ started speaking. I remember when I was 14, going on 15, one of my best friends at school made this mixtape where he combined a record player and a tape deck, and was literally editing the tracks as he taped them on to the cassette.
I was really impressed, and I tried to mimic him, doing my own ‘pause button’ mix with a hi-fi system and a separate portable tape player that I plugged into the microphone socket. Sometimes I brought a belt drive turntable into the mix, with no pitch control – you had to manipulate the speed with your hands and hope nobody noticed.
It sounds really primitive, but it was like having two decks and putting together a mix… in your bedroom! There was one summer holiday where I got grounded for several weeks, and that’s when I started to practice scratching – again on this little belt drive turntable.
When I was about 16 or 17, there used to be a lot of illegal parties around south London where they used to play soul music. They would call it an ’empty’ – an empty flat that you went in to, had a party, and moved out again.
At one party, not too far from Camberwell, these older guys had a soundsystem with Technics decks – I had never touched Technics before, but I was invited to take over for a few minutes.
The guys that were there were mixing using the crossfader, they didn’t even attempt to mix the two records together, so when I went up, I picked out an instrumental and an acapella, and put the two together, scratching away. On the strength of that, they asked me to join their soundsystem, and all I did was mix two records together!
That was in 1985, and at that time, you had a lot of soundsystems operating: you had the Wild Bunch, in Bristol, who ended up becoming Massive Attack, you had Soul II Soul; Norman Jay had his Good Times soundsystem. London was really this big melting pot of old and new music.
So I started playing a mixture of hip hop, disco, funk; it was all mixed up together. I used to call myself ‘DJ Slick’!
Q. How did you get into house music?
I started working in a record shop, Ram Records, in Camberwell – nothing to do with the drum and bass label – and that’s when I was exposed to tracks like Armando’s Land of Confusion, stuff by Juan Atkins and Derrick May, and the early acid house records.
That’s when it all started to really kick off; after Ram Records I got a job at Red Records in Soho, and that’s what really got me into the scene – in Soho you were really in the middle of it all.
I had a younger brother that was going to all the big clubs, Shoom, Spectrum and the acid house parties out in the countryside. But for me, I was more into places like Delirium in Deptford, where the Boilerhouse Boys used to play, and High on Hope in Dingwalls, with Frankie Foncett and Norman Jay. Also the Watson Brothers at the Astoria in the West End.
There was certainly a more DIY attitude around then, with the parties we put on, we used to do the flyers by hand. You didn’t need to set up a record label either, you could press a record a literally sell it from the back of your car. When I used to work in record shops, you would be all the time buying white labels from people to sell on, and some of them would cross over into the pop charts.
Q. At what stage did you decide to try your hand at production?
I remember in the early 90s a friend of mine saying that I should buy some equipment, to look into making my own tracks. I probably spent too much money – about £3,000 – and picked up a mixing desk and an Akai 950, as well as some keyboards and drum machines.
I was messing around with it for a year or two, trying to learn the craft, and then I met Paul Waller, who was already producing and programming for various artists.
I went round to his house, and he told me he had a remix to do for Lisa Stansfield, on Little Bit of Heaven. The next thing I know, I’m there with him in this big professional studio with an engineer, and we did this remix. And that was the start of it.
Q. Your released your first track under the Sonz of Soul moniker, Race of Survival, in 1995. How did that come about?
I met Steve McCutcheon at the Satellite Club in London, around 1994, 95 – I was resident DJ there. Steve had already made some dance records with Darren Pearce and Jon Jules, under the name Undercover. Those were a bit more UK house, and I was more into the US style of house.
He asked me to come in to do a remix for someone – I think it was for Lindy Layton – and I remember I was doing the drum beats and this track just emerged out of it, that I thought was too good to give away.
So one day in the studio, there was this singer called Stephen Granville, who had the most amazing falsetto voice; he had previously done a cover of Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel. He came up with some lyrics for the track, and that gave rise to Race of Survival.
I remember it took some time to come out – there were issues with Stephen’s label – so I gave some acetates to Tony Humphries and the late Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson, and they both played it off and on for about a year. By the time it was released, everyone as asking for it!
It really gave me insight into doing more than just remixes, seeing a production project right through to the end.
Back then, the biggest influences on my career were people like Roger Sanchez, Masters at Work, Todd Terry and CJ Mackintosh – they would work with major label artists and really transform the songs. I had a lot of work to do to get up to that standard.
Q. The first release under your own name came out in 1996, Big Bang Theory. How did that come about?
I was resident at the Satellite Club in London in the mid-90s, and was DJing under the name ‘Seamus’ – I always thought my name was a bit strange. But around that time, I started to do some work for Muzik magazine, and DJ Mag and things like that, and the name Seamus Haji was starting to get out there.
So when I did the Big Bang Theory record, I thought ‘sod it’, I would do it under my own name. It was the first time I had done something like that.
Not long after that, I was offered a job as an A&R man, around 1998. It was for Slip n Slide, which was my favourite UK independent label. That was how I got more and more into the inner workings of the industry.
Q. You also had the chance to work for Simon Dunmore at Defected?
Yes, I was at Slip n Slide for about a year and a half, and Simon headhunted me for the new label he was putting together, Defected. It was a no-brainer for me, because he had been running AM:PM, and already had all the artists I wanted to work with signed up for the new label.
It was an amazing experience, not just from an A&R point of view, but also from a DJ perspective, because I had the chance to play in Ibiza for the first time. I had been playing at places like Back to Basics and Ministry of Sound since the mid 90s, but when I went to work at Defected, it was a massive leg up.
The one thing was, though, that I didn’t have much time to make music, which was a bit frustrating. So around 2002, I put out another record under the Big Bang Theory moniker, and it did pretty well.
Defected at the time was doing brilliantly, it had just had a number one record with Roger Sanchez’ Another Chance, and lots of tracks in the pop charts. So I had to make a choice, did I want to keep doing what I was doing as the label got bigger and bigger, or did I want to try something new?
I decided to leave, and within a couple of months, I had set up the Big Love label.
Q. Was it a difficult environment in which to set up a new record label?
Things were changing. You could already see that things were going more digital, that maybe we weren’t going to be playing vinyl for a lot longer. At some point the illegal downloads kicked in as well. But it was definitely an exciting time to set up a label.
Q. Did you have a business plan in mind when you started the label?
Ha ha, absolutely not! When I left Defected, I didn’t have anything lined up, I just wanted to DJ and produce. I went into my back catalogue and updated the Sonz of Soul record, and pressed up some white labels, and it started doing really well. And then my wife said, ‘maybe you should open up a label?’
I probably had around £2,000 in the bank when Big Love started. We didn’t have the ability to sign people from big labels at the start, so I started putting out records under different names, like Dave Lee did with Joey Negro. I didn’t want everything to go under the name Seamus Haji; although the record shops would know it was me.
Either way, that helped raise awareness of the label, and soon we were able to attract artists from other labels. Big Love was up and running.
Q. The label really came into its own with your cover of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life in 2004. How did that come together?
It was a strange one that. I came across the acapella of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life around 2002/2003, and at the time there was this new sound coming out of Germany and Italy, which was being dubbed ‘electro house’.
That took me back to the early 80s, when you had this electro funk coming out of New York. I really liked it, so I did a version of the track in this style, and pressed a few white labels. I think I gave it to Mark Knight, Deep Dish, Nic Fanciulli and a few others.
Myself and Paul Emmanuel did a version of the track that was a bit more edgy, and then Cedric Gervais did a version that found its way into the hands of Erick Morillo.
Long story short, Pete Tong ended up hearing it somewhere, and then all of a sudden it was played on Radio 1, and it just took off. It became the biggest selling white label in Ibiza that year, and kicked off a bidding war among the major labels. The funny thing was, it ended up being a big hit around four years after I originally put it together.
Q. In terms of the label, you haven’t stuck wholly to house music, and have tried to mix it up a bit; you had the Soul Love offshoot, and projects like Electro Love. Why did you decide to do this?
With the label, I wanted to bring in different inspirations, it wasn’t just about having the one sound. Other labels these days are a lot more genre specific, but then you have labels like Toolroom, which are going down a lot of different paths.
For me, it’s important to take inspiration from what is going on at the time. I’m not going to do drum n bass one minute, and then techno the next; it’s all under the house umbrella. But it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open to new sounds.
Q. You’ve also done your fair share of pop remixes, an area that many other DJs might not go into?
I have, and they have been very lucrative! But it’s not the case that when I do a remix I spend all my time playing these remixes in my DJ sets.
It’s difficult to find a balance: I think if you’re 21 years old and want to remain super cool, you have the ability to say ‘no’ to certain things. But I have bills to pay, and it’s hard to turn down these sort of opportunities.
I always like a challenge, and if people that are into pop music end up listening to more house music, that can only be a good thing.
But I think that I’ve been through all that now, and I’m going back to my roots, and what Big Love was about initially – producing quality house music. There are a lot of things in store for 2019; it’s going to be a busy year. I’m looking forward to it.
[Thanks again to Seamus for the interview. You can find out more about his latest releases and upcoming gigs at www.seamushajibiglove.com.]
1 thought on “Interview: ORIGINALS… Seamus Haji”