Yousef first emerged from the north west of England during the super club era of the 90s, and since the start of his career he’s been one of the UK’s household names for house and techno.
He made his name as a resident at Liverpool’s Cream club, where he’d first been inspired watching the likes of Andrew Weatherall and Derrick Carter early on in their careers. After playing at Cream he also took up residencies at Ministry of Sound and Renaissance, before launching his own party Circus in his Liverpool hometown.
Circus has since been Yousef’s main focus, and after 15 years in action he now oversees a global brand with its own record label under the same name. With the party celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, Yousef will soon be bringing Circus to London for their first ever EC1 takeover on the May Bank Holiday.
Ahead of the show we caught up with Yousef on the phone earlier this month, where he talked to us in depth about his career so far, and the legacy surrounding his definitive party.
Yousef Zaher was still a teenager when he first broke through. After winning a mix competition in the now defunct Muzik Magazine, he was offered a warm-up slot in London playing at Ministry of Sound. Before long he would land his first gig abroad at Pacha in Ibiza, and then started playing regularly in his hometown at Cream.
He also took up residencies at Ministry of Sound and Renaissance, while at Cream he helped bring house acts like Hipp-E & Halo over to the UK for the first time. With Cream’s music policy lending to more commercial tastes in the second room, he left to start his own event alongside Richard McGinnis. It was here that Circus first started. “I had built a reputation in Liverpool for good music, so when I left a good portion of the crowd came with me.” he explains. “So instead of starting at zero, we already had 400-500 people straight away, which gave us a platform to build upon. Liverpool has a massive musical history, and it was a good place to start something new, authentic and inclusive.”
While Cream’s hard house policy in the alternative room hadn’t aligned with Yousef’s tastes, throwing his own event also meant he could build a new residency alongside his own chosen artists in a friendly space. It was an alternative approach to the way the biggest clubs in the UK were operating. “I wanted to bring a quality residency to Liverpool where I could control the music platform with likeminded guests and artists.” Yousef says. “After all this time it seems to still be as strong as it’s ever been. Creatively and musically it’s still within the realms of what we wanted to be, which is authentic house and techno. Circus is about great music, but everybody’s welcome, and it’s not cliquey at all. People are invited to the party and that’s the idea of it.”
Yousef’s welcoming attitude is doubtless one of the main reasons for the party’s success. As much as there’s a focus on the acts they’re booking, the open-arms ethos towards the audience is a way apart from the guest list policies commonly found at many of the UK’s key house and techno parties.
The music policy is another string in the party’s bow. Since its inception the party has brought in young acts with promise, with acts like Loco Dice, Jamie Jones and Seth Troxler all having early gigs at Circus long before they were headlining clubs in Ibiza.
Apart from the young acts, the night has always been centred on Yousef as the main resident, where he plays lengthy sets joined by a cast of his closest inspirations. It’s a concept that’s been adopted by many parties with some success in recent years, but one that’s always been at the heart of Yousef’s musical outlook. “A lot of DJs play an hour and half of bangers and that’s their set,” he says. “But people that know how to play 6 hours or longer and connect with their crowd through a wide repertoire of music even within their genre: that for me is what DJing is. And that’s where it’s heading increasingly now, so it will almost show a divide between people.”
There’s a striking persistence to Yousef’s involvement in the Circus brand: you might catch him spinning in Ibiza or elsewhere in Europe over the weekend, but then a few days later he’s just as likely to be working on the bookings for his next Circus event. He’s balanced DJing alongside duties like programming since he first launched the series with Richard McGinnis. “It was difficult at first,” he says. “But through momentum and making sure that when the DJs come they have a good time, and the whole experience is to a certain level, it works. So as time went by I became a bit more comfortable to pick up the phone and say ‘do you want to come and play?’”
The logistical process behind organising events has also changed drastically since Circus first launched. Flyers outside the club have now been replaced by digital artwork, with social media the main avenue for spreading the word of a party. Price increases across the board have also made the market more competitive than ever. “Compared to when we started, I’d say there’s more of a risk now as everything’s so expensive.” He says. “Whether it’s marketing, the artwork, the DJs, the venue, the quality of the sound, the lighting, the hotels, everything that goes into it is a lot more high-end and professional now.”
“Every party we do, our reputation is almost on the line.” Yousef continues. “It’s like a hobby that got out of control for me, so I take it really personally. It’s really important for me that every event is a success. With this one in particular, it’s 15 years of Circus, and of course it’s our first ever party at fabric. So I’m thoroughly looking forward to it.”