Hagan's Afro-centric productions have become the DJ tools of so many. Here, he talks his passion for percussion, uplifting through collaboration and how to ignite the dancefloor.
Last summer, buried in rural Cambridgeshire, thousands descended on a bedazzling woodland to listen to the transcendental blends of Hagan, London’s foremost music fusionist. As part of Touching Bass’ We Out Here festival takeover, the DJ-producer stepped behind the decks and serenaded thousands with his heavy-hitting, global bass selections. He made it look easy, embracing the role of a journeyman and taking everyone from Ghana to Brazil, mixing GQOM with baile funk and more UK-focused sounds like funky and garage.
Building hype for his debut album, ‘Textures’, the performance felt like a defining moment. The project came out soon after, paying homage to international sounds and putting Hagan on a personal pathway of self-discovery. Interweaving the soul of Ghanaian highlife with Ama Piano’s rolling percussion, the record is an ode to the south Londoner’s place within the growing African diaspora. Few, if any, albums have captured this so intimately since.
Fast forward to 2023 and Hagan is continuing to push boundaries. His latest release? A four-track EP on Soulection White Label, which breaks new ground and incorporates tones far beyond his heritage. Standout tune “Good Food” embraces middle eastern arrangements, glazing them with layers of jazz and the rising producer’s signature drum patterns. The “Hagan Yenko” tag rings as a call to the dancefloor, but the record is far more expansive. From sweaty club spaces to more relaxing beach retreats, the project’s summery textures are to be enjoyed for any occasion.
As we keenly wait on Hagan’s next move, we sat down with the musical polymath to talk his journey from percussion obsessive to percussion pioneer. Tap in below.
You’re a self-proclaimed percussion obsessive. Where did this obsession start for you?
I’ve been passionate about percussion since I was a child in primary school. One of the earliest memories I recall was my mum buying a drum kit for my sixth birthday. That fuelled my love and interest but since then, various moments come to mind in retrospect: starting my own percussion-led band in primary school to provide the rhythm section for the school plays, playing percussion in the praise and worship team at church, travelling back to Ghana frequently as a kid and soaking in the music on the streets, and following my uncle across the many Ghanaian hall party functions as the secondary DJ. There are so many early memories I could list.
I read that you were exposed to music at an early age through church. How has religion affected you and the music that you make?
Gospel music is one of the purest forms of music. It gets me prepared for the coming week and acts as a way to neutralise my listening habits. I find it difficult to explain at times but praise and worship in the church is definitely what helps me to connect with God.
Ever since I was a child following my mum to church with my siblings, I was always drawn towards the music. Eventually, as I grew up, I started playing percussion and drums in the praise and worship team for a brief period of time. I always say those were some of the best days of learning music for me. There’s a unique and refreshing approach towards learning music in the church that’s really soulful, personal and community-led. A lot of the people you play with, you also grow up with. You’re taught to play by ear and the theme of improvisation plays a significant role. Naturally, as I transitioned into production, those traits slipped into my approach towards making music where I was confident with experimenting.
You were raised on the sounds of Pat Thomas, Ebo Taylor and many others. But who would be your dream collaborations?
That’s a tough one but if you’re talking about Ghanaian Afrobeat artists, I’d say Gyedu Ambolley, Pat Thomas and Santrofi. Outside of that, I now listen to a lot of music from Swindle, Sampha, Lil Silva, Kaytranada, Yussef Dayes, Venna, Juls, Inflo, Mansur Brown, Kabza De Small, Vigro Deep, Sarz, P2J, DoomCannon, Ezra Collective…the list is mad long and forever growing.
Congratulations on your new EP release for Soulection! Did you feel that you had to adapt your style to fit the record label’s sound?
Thank you and not at all! These were tracks that were already in the making, some even being tracks that didn’t make the ‘Textures’ album cut I released last October. I appreciate that the Soulection sound isn’t one-dimensional which allowed me to be free with whatever I sent them.
What would you like listeners to take away from the project? Are there any hidden messages that we should be aware of?
To understand how this fits within the Hagan portfolio of projects, you’ll need to go back and listen to projects ‘Forward Focus’, ‘Textures’ and then ‘Good Food’. In that order, you’ll hear the natural progression of the sound I was shaping. ’Good Food’ EP is a warm tape in general. Full of soul, bounce and rich instrumentation. The intention was to make sure that the colours for the artwork, press images and visuals reflected that too.
Kasaare’s Solo and Sheila’s Solo were named as such because, again, I wanted to celebrate the theme of collaboration. Working with musicians these past couple of years has uplifted my sound and built on the love I have for creating in general. Although both tracks don’t follow each other sequentially in the track listing, they are both linked through the call and response created at the end of Kasaare’s Solo where Sheila harmonises Kasaare’s sax parts.
Sheila’s Solo is actually a joint effort between myself, Sheila and Elias. I sent the track over to Elias in 2021 to write the horns that you hear on the track. Unfortunately our schedules clashed, and we couldn’t finish off what we had started. However, the top lines he originally came up with were too sweet! Once Soulection showed interest with this track, I had to finish off what we had started, but the tour life kept Elias on the road. That’s when I reached out to Sheila who was able to finish those lines and add the additional solo sections you hear.
Each collaborator has added another layer of depth to the tracks. So big shout out to all the collaborators on the project: Elias Jordan Atkinson, Sheila Maurice-Grey, Michael Adesina, Kwadwo Asare Poku, Bright Osei, Tommy Khosla.
‘Cartagena Highlife’ was produced with the intent to combine the love I have for African and Latin percussion. I wanted to create something that also represented the memories shared between my friends and I during our trips abroad. As we get older, naturally our priorities and responsibilities change, meaning we have to be clever with balancing our time. The moments we do share together however are priceless and I wanted to remember one of the enjoyable trips we’ve had through music. During ‘Cartagena Highlife’, you’ll hear a key change half way through to emphasise the second major drop. That idea was sparked from one of the many conversations I had with Elijah during the COVID period for a separate project. His feedback has helped massively with keeping my transitions interesting not just on this track but many recent projects I’ve brought out.
A personal favourite of mine is “Good Food”. Can you tell us about how it came together?
This track’s journey to completion has probably taken the longest out of the four and was originally called ‘Ghost Mode’ (Don’t ask me why). I started the basic foundations of that track during COVID. At the time I was listening to a lot of Ragz Originale’s music and really was inspired by his sound design choices. I remember starting the track with the intention of creating sounds that were cold, icy and raw. That’s the melody you hear right at the start of the track which I then layered with a crunchy bassline and an ngoni, a West African Guitar. So that was my basic demo which was sent over Soulection two years later. Within those two years, I was simultaneously creating my album, so my sound palette was naturally expanding, taking in different styles of music, UK Jazz especially, and incorporating new methods I had learnt along the way.
I revisited the project and took the track in a different direction that aligned with my current thinking in 2022; a second section with horns and a South Asian sitar to respond to the West African ngoni.
The name ‘Good Food’ came after catching up with my manager and telling her how the session went. The only way I could really describe it to her was like when you’ve just consumed a tasty meal that you were satisfied with. It was only right to name this track and the whole EP that exact feeling.
You’re renowned for your beginnings in UK funky but nowadays play music across a broad spectrum. What similarities do you see in UK funky and the more Afro-centric genres you’re spinning today?
I think what unites all the styles I play is the strong rhythmic presence and percussive energy. You’ll find that in popular African, Caribbean and Latin music, the drum programming has similar instrumentation: congas, djembes, talking drums, bongos, shakers, maracas, cowbells and more. A lot of the music I produce and I’m drawn to is layered with syncopated patterns and most importantly, there’s heavy focus on groove. Those are the defining properties of Afro-electronic genres and UK funky. Whether it’s UK funky, afro house, amapiano, afrobeats, bossa nova, funk carioca, salsa, soca, calypso or any other styles derived from black music, there’s a distinct groove that brings these styles together.
What’s one song you’re currently playing in your sets that’s getting a great reaction from the crowd? Why do you think it’s resonating with people?
- Jorja Smith – “Little Things” (Bok Bok Remix) – This is doing damage right now. The original, produced by P2J, is already a smash hit. I think Bok Bok has been smart to keep a lot of the original elements and program new drums that slap harder for the club. I’ve played it in nearly all my sets since he sent it over to me.
- Ade Smilez x Way Kay Bw x Slim Tee – “Tour Life” – I cannot express how much this track ignites a dance when I drop it.
- Nelsinhu – “Yessa” – One of the best tracks to mix in and out of. The build-up puts the dance in a trance without fail.
- Hagan ft Aymos – “Sise Ntweni” – This is a straight tribal cut and Aymos’ spiritual vocals just cut right through the mix and speakers. It’s definitely one of the tracks I’m most proud of producing on the album.
Have there been any highlight performances you’ve played recently? Are there any venues or places that have stood out?
I’ve had a great run of shows this spring and summer, including Koko for 99 Ginger’s birthday anniversary which was definitely a key call-out. On top of playing at such a renowned venue, the atmosphere in front and behind of me was a special feeling. I’ll also add my set in Amsterdam for Diaspora to the list, purely because of the love their team and club Parallel showed me out there. It was also the first time some of my friends saw me play abroad so having the opportunity to share that moment with them was priceless.
The number one spot will have to be the ‘Hagan and Friends’ show in February at Jazz Cafe. That was the first time I had ever curated a show and the vibe was on point. What made it so special was that nearly all my people were there. That very moment felt like a visual representation of all the work my team and I had put into bringing the music to the levels it had reached so far. Another moment to mention was my recent trip to Worldwide Festival in Séte. I was playing to a completely new audience, who made me feel so welcome and free to spin tracks outside of my normal selections. I travelled there with some of my team and friends who were able to experience this with me.
What’s next for Hagan? Are there any other projects or ventures we should know about?
I’m working on building a live show for October – ‘Textures & Beyond’ at XOYO. It was a persistent thought I had whilst producing ‘Textures’ that the project would possess the richness and depth to be performed live. Similarly I wanted to create a project that could be arranged in a way to sound great with live instrumentation. So that’s been my main focus which I’m working on currently by building the set. Additionally, the ‘Textures’ vinyl will be out on my Bandcamp on a limited press from October to celebrate and mark a year since ‘Textures’ dropped.