It's not often that the Middle Eastern music scene sees someone making a massively successful career off of DJing alone, and forging a name such as the one Ahmad Ajam aka maDJam has made for himself. Some argue he is one of the first in the region to reach superstar status as a DJ. Yet when the name is brought up, no particular sound springs to mind. That’s no accident, but a clear intention: maDJam is a multi-talented chameleon. 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 DJs like Sasha and John Digweed. One group of people confidently claims they’ve seen him play techno on a terrace in Sinai, another swears they’ve heard him play an extended house set in a dark room somewhere in Beirut.
These accounts aren't so much contradictory, as part and parcel of maDJam's scene. Ajam 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 achieved seems to keep them at bay.
I was under-age but the DJ booth was next to the kitchen, so no one really saw me and the managers would sneak me in from the service entrance.
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. Two decades into his career, it seems like maDJam has managed to cross it all off of his bucket-list. 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 and say 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 beautifully in the right direction. 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 on one end of the spectrum and the underground on the other.
Longest sets have been around the 12-hour mark and usually happen a few times per year
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 lesser 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 after-hours.
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 high-fiving and doing shots together.
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
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. My first party was my twin sister’s 13th birthday party at home with about 80 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. I was under-age but the DJ booth was next to the kitchen, so no one really saw me and the managers would sneak me in from the service entrance. Ever since, it’s been a plethora of everything from sport events, weddings, pool parties, concert openers, and warm up sets - I still love every bit of it.
Do not expect DJing to make a living for you.
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 I would 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. My only restriction at weddings is to keep the Arabic selection to an absolute minimum. I personally can’t get jiggy with Arabic, but I 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, and the darker sounds come out. 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 my mind, get some rest in between. There was one week a 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. It's 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.
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 fully free.
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 (although some would probably say the opposite). The more variation I go through, the more thankful I am for whatever challenges arise. Personally, whether 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, then when they try to play elsewhere it’s like they're still stuck in that one club.
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, because we know if someone is phony right away. Do not expect DJing to make a living for you. I only know a few full-time DJs that are also happy about it. A few others just fell into a trap and can’t get out of it, and they're 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 fully free. It's the truth, and there's no denying it. 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.