Photo: Press (Hagan)
Hagan is a versatile producer and DJ. Taking cues from Ghanian music, playing music in church and the heydays of UK funky, he is now at home in many genres, seamlessly navigating between highlife sounds, hard-hitting gqom or house in all its different shapes and forms. Having just released a new EP on Mr. Mitch’s Gobstopper label, he also contributed to a slew of compilations and collaborated with a wide range of artists. His mix for our Groove podcast is densely packed and full of good vibes.
How has the past year been for you?
This year has been rough to say the least. Coming into 2020, it felt as if everyone wanted 2020 to be a pivotal year for achievements and it seems as if the pandemic has halted some of those plans. It’s been a year of revelations in all areas of life for me, especially when it comes to what’s going on in the world and those around me. With that said however, not everything has been so bad. One of the objectives I set myself this year was to show a level of consistency I hadn’t before when it came to releasing music. I’ve managed to stick by that by having a regular flow of music coming out at a good standard and with labels I have high respect for. It set the year right releasing a two-track EP with Future Bounce just before we went into lockdown. That was followed by my summer single, “Tropics,” on Enchufada and another track, “Splash,” on Club Djembe. A few months after a remix I produced for a band called Afriquoi on the French label Mawimbi was released and my collaboration with Sango, “Espírito Santo,” on his album with Soulection later in September. That brought me to my second EP of the year, Waves, that came out the same day as Sango’s album. The release on Gobstopper has received so much great feedback and has probably been the most experimental EP I’ve dropped. Lastly, I dropped my track “Coastline” with Python Syndicate that brought out another side to the sound. When it comes to music, it’s been a blessing of a year.
As a teenager, you discovered Rinse FM during the heyday of UK funky, a style that had a lasting influence on you. What drew you to that particular kind of music?
UK funky has a lot of elements reminiscent in African rhythms; a strong focus on percussion, vocal chants and upbeat grooves. When I was a teenager, I learnt how to DJ through shadowing my uncle and following him to hall parties where he would play. Through years of shadowing and hearing him play Ghanaian hip life, I started to study the drum patterns, how to control a crowd and eventually took over. When UK funky started to become the dominant sound of the streets in London, it reminded me of a fresh and innovative variation the music I used to play. It felt like a fusion of UK, Caribbean and African sounds. My passion for the sound grew by watching clips of it being played at raves. At the time I was 16 and I was seeing its huge impact around my age group. However, seeing clips of people reacting to it at university events and the energy it created felt brand new and special. When I started to playing drums and percussion at church, again, I found similarities in the drum patterns heard in UK funky, especially when we were in the praise section of the church programme. I’d say a combination of musical events led me closer to that genre and it was exciting to feel its energy on the dancefloor
How did your first steps behind decks look like?
The days with my uncle were like aprolonged training period. He taught me how to really read a crowd which was valuable for me when I started by myself. After the lengthy training I received, I joined a group called City Bros where we started DJing at BBQs, birthdays and a few bars when I turned 18. These were dope times and each of us had our speciality, mine being UK Funky. We managed to build a local name for ourselves but went our separate ways when we went university. That experience coupled with my time with my uncle set me in a good space to DJ at university events where I was known for my UK funky sets. It was here that I really started taking producing further and released my first track, “God Bless House,”which circulated heavily in the university scene. Good times!
As you’ve just mentioned, church was very important to you from a musical perspective. What were the key lessons that you learnt about music there?
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to play music in a group. Producing music is fun and I love how producing is like having a blank canvas and creating something from scratch. However, I value and respect the art of playing with other musicians, time keeping, the spontaneity that come from solos, the reactions from the congregation and the learning of basic music theory. All of these skills helped me when I started producing as well and there’s a part of me that wants to go back to those days, if I’m honest. Mainly because of the talented musicians you connect with and way it helped to understand music theory, which I’ve not been as consistent with as I’ve grown older. It unlocked a part of me that can’t be fully expressed from just producing music on my computer.
During a trip to Ghana in 2018 that was captured in the Yenkyi Taxi mini-documentary, you have been working with percussionists at Accra’s Vivivi Studio. Your recent Waves EP on Gobstopper picks up on that. What do these traditional forms of Ghanaian music mean to you personally and what role do they play in your music production?
Even as young is age six, I knew I loved percussion, rhythm and traditional music from Ghana, but it wasn’t until I started unpacking why that is when I attempted to start piecing my musical identity together. Some of these things I’m still learning but these traditional forms of music play a significant part in Ghanaian culture. The art of communication was expressed through drums and the drums play a crucial role in traditional events such as funerals and general storytelling. I like how much of a powerful role the drums play. Essentially they’re not just instruments but tools to establish connections. The same is said with highlife music. The reason I enjoy listening to highlife and hip life so much is because of the memories that are retrieved. It takes me right back to my childhood and attending hall parties where I’d catch up with cousins, aunties and uncles. I try my hardest to concentrate on ensuring my drums are felt in my tracks. They don’t necessarily need to be the loudest elements, but they need to have character, be different and have life. I try to give my percussion a lot call and response moments too.
How do you approach programming your beats in your studio – how does your working process look like, what inspires you?
It’s all about the feeling for me. In order to get into a zone, I’d listen to producers and musicians who inspire me in arange of genre from jazz, house, R’n’B, highlife, gqom, UK funky, afro house… the list can go on. After taking in some sounds, most of the time I’ll start of by programming some drums. Depending on the day, I may use my Ableton Push to play in some of the drums from custom kit I made for myself full of my favourite recorded percussion or I’ll use my keyboard and mouse to record the MIDI. I’ll drum a lot of the time on my knees to try and emulate how I’d play it live. A lot of the time I also record a lot of vocal adlibs, chop them up, resample, add effects and place them within parts of the arrangement that will help to give it a vibe. On other occasions I’ll have ideas that I’ve recorded randomly on my phone recorder, play them back and pick an idea that I can really see taking forward. I try to switch up the drum programming process as much as possible just to keep things interesting. Whenever I’m in Ghana, the process is a little bit different. I’ll try to link up with some of the percussionists I know there and record drums, guitars, koras, horns, and more samples in order to keep the sample bank fresh.
You have collaborated with a slew of artists, most recently Sango. What’s important for you when working together with others?
The most important thing for me is making sure there’s a genuine vibe. Forcing the collaboration will just end up with a track that doesn’t bring out full creativity from both sides. Freedom to communicate feedback and not be scared to start again is also another big thing. Having a space where we can both be comfortable with saying whether the ideas are good or require us to go back to the drawing board is essential. At the same time, I like working with artists and producers that are fully up for taking risks and taking the sound to another dimension. Showcasing the soundscape of both artists is also important for me. I like to work with people where they’ve distinguished a sound for themselves and by combining the sounds, we’d create something that pushes the music to an unheard space. I’ve seen those qualities in everyone that I’ve worked with so far, including the Sango collaboration, which was like a perfect fusion of sounds.
As you have already mentioned, you also have contributed a track to a recent Python Syndicate compilation dedicated to a reinterpretation of the so-called borga highlife genre. How did you approach producing the track “Coastline” within this frame?
This was probably one of the most challenging tracks I’ve produced so far because of the number of layers you hear in this, however the end result was certainly one of the most fulfilling. One of the producers I have great respect for is Juls. I try to study his use of percussion and space in drum patterns. I went into this thinking to create something off the back of listening to a lot of his music. I had a rough idea that started off with the drum pattern. I took my time trying to record the drums and finding space for the shaker groove, congas, rim shots and hand drums without making it sound too complex. Once that was complete, I decided to leave it for a few days and return to figure out the chords for the guitar strums. After I was satisfied with the progression, I had a vague idea of where the track was going, and the focus was to create something with a highlife feel with a dark bassline to contrast the smooth melodies. That was when I called my boy Alex to play the guitar and my boy Kwadwo to lay some the sax parts on this. That really brought the track to life and gave it that highlife and club feel. The title is based off a city in Ghana called Cape Coast, which is in the central region of Ghana. I’m still to visit that part of Ghana but when I think of that place, this is what I hear.
What was the idea behind your contribution to the Groove podcast?
I wanted to demonstrate what a typical Hagan set would sound like in 2020 – if clubs were open. This year has allowed me to sit back and listen to tracks I loved but wouldn’t necessarily play in my sets. So now I may start off my set from 115BPM as opposed to starting from 125BPM. It allows me to explore slower grooves and sounds alongside building up the energy gradually. I’ve got music from producer friends of mine like Scratcha DVA, KG, Citizen Boy, Tribal Brothers, and more. Taking you amapiano, gqom, house, UK funky, baile funk, and Hagan sounds.
Last but not least: What are your plans for the future?
The aim is to continue with the level of consistency I’ve managed to build this year. I’m going to try and keep the releases varied with collaborations, singles and a special project that I haven’t decided when will be released but it’ll definitely be sometime in 2021. I also want to start working more with vocalists and instrumentalists in order to strengthen my skills in studio settings. That’s a really big one for me.
Stream: Hagan – Groove Podcast 281
01. Toni Agape – Better
02. Gvijin – Trip To SA
03. VIP – AhomkaWomu (Hagan Edit)
04. KG &Scratchclart – Dirty Cash (Reprise)
05. Dengue DengueDengue – Ágni (Hagan Remix)
06. Gina Jeanz – Motion
07. Hagan – Coastline
08. SAY3 – Sankofa
09. Tribal Brothers – Mind Right
10. Culoe De Song – Poki Returns
11. Hagan – Tropics
12. Swing Ting – Drama feat Thai-Chi Rosè (KG Remix)
13. Citizen Boy – Hot Boyz
14. Hagan – ??
15. Scratchclart – Ammo (Feat Citizen Boy)
16. Lil Silva – One Twenty
17. Hagan – On Sight
18. She Spells Doom – Icy
19. Gafacci – Wabisabi侘寂
20. LR Groove – Format
21. TLC Fam – Izululama
22. Hagan – Waves
23. Sango – Três Horas
24. Sango – Espírito Santo (feat Hagan)
25. Scratchclart – X
26. Hagan – Ultra
27. Lil Siva – Nightskanker VIP