Ahmad Ajam aka maDJam has been forging a name for himself in the Middle Eastern dance scene for as long as anyone can remember. Yet surprisingly when that same name is brought up, no particular sound springs to mind. That’s due to a very simple and rational explanation, and that is that maDJam is a multi-talented chameleon. Some might argue that Ajam is one of the first people in the region to build a massively successful career off of DJing alone, and even achieve superstar status with it. If you gather all the party-goers that have witnessed Ajam do his thing, you’ll find that their accounts of the sets they’ve heard vary greatly.
Many have seen him warm up for Armin van Buuren and David Guetta, playing all sorts of raging trance and EDM. Some have seen him set the tone with melodic, progressive tunes ahead of Sasha and John Digweed. One group of people confidently claim they’ve seen him play techno on a terrace in Sinai, another would claim they’ve heard him play an extended house set in a dark room somewhere in Beirut. All these accounts wouldn’t be so much contradictory as they would be complementary. You see Ahmad seems to cherish one thing above genres, and that’s crafting a party. He wants to spread smiles on the dance floor regardless of the type of party or crowd. Now while many self-proclaimed dance music connoisseurs and snobs might frown upon maDJam's approach to dance music, the success he’s managed to achieve and the respect he’s garnered from his peers seems to keep them at bay.
Now he is the proud owner of two of the finest venues in Beirut (Skin City and Off & On), a Pioneer ambassador to the Middle East, Smirnoff Nightlife Exchange curator and headlining everything from the biggest stages to the most intimate clubs. It seems like maDJam managed to cross it all off of his bucket-list two decades into his career. So you’ve spent a lot of time earlier in your career opening up for some massive names, some who play styles similar to yours and some who are completely different. What makes a great warm up set in your opinion?
A warmup DJ is not the headliner DJ, no one will leave before the main act starts. It takes a certain balance of sustaining a growing crowd arriving to the venue without boring them or taking the energy up too high, and that all derives from being humble. I’ve had hundreds if not thousands of experiences doing warmup sets and all depends on who the headliner is, that determines the flow of the earlier set.
Probably the hardest is doing a warmup for John Digweed as he likes to “reset” the crowd when he begins so carefully selecting the right tracks and mixing them in a suspenseful sequence without upstaging is really a challenge. The easiest is any of the trance DJs like Armin as he will start at a higher energy level so a few bangers are required in the build-up to him taking over. Again it all comes down to delivering a quality warmup set by being down to earth and yet not losing your own credibility as a DJ.
Today you tour more parts of the Middle East than most DJs, you’ve seen the clubbing landscape of the region change and grow over two decades. Tell us about a place that you’ve been recently that seemed like a promising prospect for the regional dance music scene.
Oh I’ve seen some of the craziest bits in the regional scene, even if I were to describe them it won’t ever be able to paint the full picture. I will be honest in saying that pre 2011 we were on a roll in the Middle East - clubs popped up all over, sponsors backed up most of the big events and things were moving in the right direction beautifully. It took a few years after the Arab Spring for things to resume, though in a different path. Before both the mainstream and underground were very healthy and at one point almost merging together. Now they are separated again with the commercial being on one end of the spectrum and the underground the opposite side. The main 3 cities are (in alphabetical order) Beirut, Cairo and Dubai - each have a thriving underground scene as well as the “champagne/table service” selection of clubs. There are other less consistent cities that do have occasional outbursts of festivals and pop-up clubs, but there is no determining how long they’ll survive. One of the biggest surprises over the last decade is Saudi Arabia’s underground scene - I can’t elaborate too much but in the end everyone needs an escape from their daily lives/routine and you can only imagine the level of production that goes into some of the less known spots in our region.
Tell us about your two clubs in Beirut, what inspired you to open venues of your own? Were you trying to fill a certain gap in the Lebanese clubbing demand with Skin City and Off & On?
Beirut has just the right amount of clubs for people to fill on weekends. Though some brands have grown significantly over the years, the cozy club (150-400 capacity) was lagging behind. Both our clubs in Beirut have something for everyone - Skin City is a rooftop with a floor underneath that starts at sunset and goes on till sunrise. People can pre-party, come mid-stream or join for the afterhours. By having three different atmospheres, one on the roof and two rooms on the 6th floor, no one ever gets bored. Deep & tech-house? On the roof… disco/funk? Red Room… RnB? Meanwhile in the black room…
So it's like being in a multi-zone house party - our company name is in fact 'Penthouse' cause that’s what the venue was originally built as before we converted it. Off & On is mainly after hours with 150 capacity, unisex toilets (yup!) and probably the most intimate DJ booth in Lebanon. We’ve had several guest DJs come multiple times and they all love the energy as the crowd are right there in front of you hi-fiving and doing shots together. The DJ booth really projects all the energy along with minimal lights and the Void Acoustics Air-Motion speakers.
As a DJ since the age of 10, do you remember your first gig?
Oh yes, I’ll never forget the first gig and most of the thousands that have followed it since 1992. First party was my twin sister’s 13th bday party at home with about 80 of their friends over and I had my music on cassette tapes, cued up on a Walkman then loaded into a double-deck player. Within a few weeks their friends invited me to their parties and requested to “bring the boom box.” The evolution was natural and I’m always thankful for the way it all came together with my first residency the following summer, though I was under-age the DJ booth was next to the kitchen so no one really saw me as the managers would sneak me in from the service entrance. It’s been a plethora of everything from sport events, weddings, pool parties, concert openers, and warm up sets ever since - I still love every bit of it.
You’re an iconic DJ, you’re a club owner, you’re sponsored by some of the biggest global brands and you’ve ran a successful radio show. Are there still things left to achieve for you or have you conquered your Everest?
Hahaha, nah no Everest for me - that would take a few months off, and that time is better spent traveling around for clubs and events. Now that technology has taken over the DJ world, I’m glad to be part of the Pioneer Europe (MENA side) team. I’ve been working with them since 2010 on developing rekordbox software as well as new products and upgrades. In order to help the DJ scene I also do workshops to help spread the knowledge both technically and mentally for the current and next generation to improve their skills/workflow. I tend to be the Middle East “Tech Support” for rekordbox getting calls/messages on the weekend from fellow DJs asking emergency questions - try to help them all whenever possible, because in my past a lot of DJs helped me get to where I am now - only natural to pay the good deed back.
Everyone knows you’re a versatile DJ with an incredibly broad range in terms of the styles you can provide. Is there a certain genre people would be surprised to hear you play?
So back in high school and college friends made me promise them to DJ at their weddings. I used to limit it to 2-3 per year but more and more friends are getting married - better late than never or something. I do play a wide variety of music at weddings, mainly our old school hip hop/RnB from the 90s which was my sound back then before transitioning into house & techno later that decade. Only restriction at weddings is to keep the Arabic selection to an absolute minimum. I personally can’t get jiggy with Arabic but can force myself to play a few tracks just for the aunties to dance a bit. Most of the weddings get real fun after the cake is cut and the older generation bounce - it usually goes back to old school hip hop or increasingly full-on techno! Yes, techno at weddings is the future!
With so many years in the business, what’s the longest set you’ve ever played? And what’s the most gigs you’ve ever played in a week?
Longest sets have been around the 12-hour mark and usually happen a few times per year, preferably at a private house/villa party. Being in full control for that long is awesome cause you really do project your mood as the sun goes down, night sets in, temperature drops a bit, so does the darker sounds. Music tends to get a little aggressive when my bladder fills up, have a friend secure a toilet for me to run to then, when relieved music could go happy/up-lifting. Again it’s a clear projection of whatever mood I’m in (and preferably no requests as that can piss me off easily - DJs all understand this feeling). Most gigs per week? Sometimes I lose count, but now I like to space them out more to not lose the plot, get some rest in between. There was a week few years ago in the peak of the summer where I did 10 gigs in 7 days (day/night/day/night/night/day/day). I lost 5 KG, had 30 Red Bull cans, only two meals and when it was all over I slept for 18 hours with scratches & cramps on my legs keeping the blackout curtains shut for 2 full days. Good to balance real-life and the DJ life, not to let one dominate for too long over the other or else the reality mixes with the dreams and you can really lose it. Health and sanity are super important!
So you’ve obviously seen an incredible amount of DJs perform throughout the years. Whose sets do you find hard to miss if you have the chance to catch them live?
There have been so many fantastic names that have been all over but I’m unable to see mainly because I probably had a booking on the same night or day after - knowing how hard-core the night/morning would be might not be fresh enough to perform at tip-top shape afterwards. If only physical time travel was possible, I’d go back to being 21 and do binge events nonstop to hear some of the world’s finest DJs. To be honest we have some of the best in our region that have blown me away more than some of the Resident Advisor Top 100. Plus some clubs and events rely on the international DJs to fill their clubs (due to fierce competition) there is less air-time for the local DJs. I’d rather go to an after hours club to hear our local heroes as it’ll be less crowded with no pretentious fake people. That’s one of the main issues now, the underground is “cool” so mainstream people are flowing into it but honestly have no clue what they are doing. They only come because their friend told them “this DJ playing tonight was amazing in Ibiza so let’s go.” Too much hype + expectation = less satisfaction. Go with an open mind, drop all expectations and you’re surely gonna have a much better time.
House parties, big clubs, small clubs, festivals, opening, closing...what type of party do you enjoy yourself the most in?
I enjoy ‘em all and love transitioning between them all. Like I could do a mainstream club in Dubai on a Friday then fly back to Beirut on a Saturday to play an after hours set that has nothing in common with the previous night. It’s going from one extreme to the other that keeps my sanity flowing (some would probably say the opposite). The more variation I go through the more thankful I am for whatever challenges arise. Personally if it’s 100 people at a mountain pool party or a big festival with 20,000 it’s the same adrenaline rush that I love and will always yearn for more of. Too much of the same thing becomes routine and that’s where the boredom sets in. I know certain DJs that only play in one club for years and years yet when they try to play elsewhere it’s like they are still stuck in that one club. There is no excuse to not have an open mind especially with technology helping us organize music in ways that were impossible 10 years ago.
Finally what’s your advice for an up and coming DJ in the region today?
Have an identity but don’t fake it. Don’t try too hard to fit into the scene, cause we know if someone is phony right away. Do not expect DJing to make a living for you, only a few I know are full-time DJs and happy about it. A few others just fell into a trap and can’t get out of it and are quite miserable doing the same thing over and over and over. There will always be someone younger, more talented and more eager than you who would love to fill your set time for a fraction of your fee if not then fully free. This is the truth, can’t deny it Paris Hilton. It is a lot of fun and the technology has made it much easier but always remain humble and help each other out. Don’t hate on others, especially your peers - the ones who’ve struggled through so much more to help our scene be where it is today. We are only around for so long, pass the information, spread the knowledge and have a good time. Oh and if you could produce or remix that’s a big bonus, but music is so interchangeable these days (especially with streaming) just make sure you have your own sound that’s different from anything or anyone else.