Ahadadream is shaking up UK dance music

Ahadadream is shaking up UK dance music

The British-Pakistani DJ has been tearing it up at festivals and venues since lockdown, while championing the breadth of South Asian talent the UK music scene has to offer behind the scenes. Now, he’s bringing his energetic, percussive sounds to dance floors across the globe.

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Ahadadream, real name Ahad Elley, has a distinctly kaleidoscopic sound. From UK Funky to Amapiano, to GQOM and Kuduro, the London-based DJ seamlessly fuses genres from far-reaching corners of the globe. It’s made him a firm favourite on festival line-ups and club nights internationally, while his work behind the scenes is helping to change the face of the music industry.

Elley, who moved to London from Pakistan when he was 13, cut his teeth running a club night while studying for a Chemistry degree at the University of Surrey (his parent’s had wanted him to be a doctor, but Elley had other plans). Shortly after that time, he started releasing some of his own tracks on Soundcloud, gradually building up a significant following for his infectious, drum-heavy beats.

Alongside making club bangers, Elley has established his own label More Time, the club night No ID, and he also co-founded Dialled In – a London festival showcasing the spectrum of talent from South-Asian artists. And, last year, he travelled to Karachi to host the first ever Boiler Room there, in a livestream spotlighting Pakistan’s emergent dance music community. After returning, he released Homecoming – an EP drawing on characteristically eclectic influences from Pakistan, the UK, and a few places in between.

Earlier this year, Elley visited South America to perform alongside Skrillex, having first met the American DJ and record producer on a night out in East London in 2019. The pair produced two tracks together – ‘Bass Dhol’ and ‘Taka ID’ – which Elley recently unveiled in his debut BBC Essential Mix.

When we speak, it’s off the back of his recent two-track release, ‘Sax Skank’ and ‘Crunchy’, followed by his own first-ever All Night Long tour of the UK. He spoke to Huck about carving out a space for South Asian artists, organising the first Boiler Room in Pakistan, and collaborating with Skrillex.

Do you remember much about the music you were listening to growing up in Pakistan?

Yes, definitely. I always had a lot of cousins around me. We'd all sit around and watch MTV or Channel V, just flicking through ‘90s music videos, like The Backstreet Boys and The Spice Girls.

And then I would’ve had exposure to South Asian music, obviously, because it's everywhere. When one of my cousins got married, we all danced at the wedding. And I played the dhol and stuff like that – it was the first time I’d performed to an audience.

Was coming to the UK a big culture shock?

Definitely. The western music I was listening to at the time was mainly rock, like The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Creed. Things like that were super cool in Pakistan. And then when I came to the UK, I was like, ‘Okay, so that means maybe I'm a grunger’. I just realised there were these different tribes of kids. And I was just like, I don't really know where I fit in.

I think definitely one of the pivotal points for me was downloading ‘21 Seconds’ by So Solid Crew on Napster and just being like, ‘Wow, okay. What the hell is this?’ I’d heard American rap, but I'd never heard UK garage.

Can you talk a bit about your entry into music?

I had a little bit of an indie phase. I was in a band. I was playing guitar and writing all the music. There was a little bit of a scene for that around where I lived. Then when I got to uni, it was kinda electro vibes. I would hear Radio One on a Friday before going out and they'd be playing dubstep as well. So that was a big inspiration for me.

I wouldn't have ever DJ’d at that point, I was just hearing remixes and things, and was curious. For my first electronic music festival, I went to Block Weekend to see Magnetic Man. I saw lots of other artists, including Roska. He was playing UK funky and giving out CDs with his essential mix. I took the CD and I was like, ‘This is the music I want to make’.

At university I started a night of my own because I saw there were no acts like that at uni. So I was just using my student loan to book acts Adam X, Barely Legal, DJ Q, Funky Steps…

How did you start More Time Records?

Sam Interface reached out to me after hearing some of my tracks on Soundcloud. He basically said, ‘These tunes are great, but I could make them sound much better’ – like mix-down wise. And I was like, Yeah, that’s exactly what I need.

So I went down to the studio in Crystal Palace, and he was just mixing down the tunes. And he was like, ‘Look, I'm starting a record label’, do you want to put these tracks on it? Yeah. And then I was like, ‘Yeah, sounds great’. But then later, we realised that, you know, we have like a complementary skill set where I’m more organised, so I'll do that part of things, and then he’ll do more of the sonics.

We started More Time to release our own music. We definitely have a sound that we play, which is influenced by Afro Electronic music, or Bali Funk – kind of like percussive sounds from around the world, that can be played alongside UK Funky.

And how did No ID come about?

I just thought at that point, there was a little bit of a gap missing, like a South Asian sound – more so in nightlife. When I started No ID, I went up to Rye Wax, and I was just saying ‘I’ve got this list of brown DJs, who are really cool, who are doing all this stuff, and doing it in their own lane’.

When we did the first night at Rye Wax, it was just a really special night. I met Provhat [Rahman] there, who founded Daytimers, and Dhruva [Balram], who started Chalo. Now we all do Dialled In together. It just felt like it was a really pivotal time.

No ID ended up hosting a stage at Lost Village festival. It was three nights of all South Asian DJs, which I’d never seen at a festival before in my whole time of going to festivals.

Do you think there’s a tendency to try to pigeonhole South Asian artists, or see them as a homogenous group?

When I was starting out, I was doing student radio. So sometimes, you'd get asked to go on the BBC Asian network. And it would be like, ‘OK, you have to pick three tracks, but they have to be Asian’. And I was like, ‘That's not really what I play?’

There was no platform for people that might be South Asian, but don’t want to rep their heritage in a traditional way in their music.

That's why I wanted to call it No ID. It's just like, ‘Come and do what you want’. It doesn't have to be South Asian. And I think that really resonated with a lot of people because otherwise, it's Bollywood and Bhangra that you get associated with. There's a huge population of creatives who want to do things that aren’t that.

Did you expect Dialled In to blow up in the way that it did?

Everything was happening so fast at that point with No ID and Daytimers, and everything they were doing online during the pandemic. There were live streams and people saying, ‘We need this in real life’. Then there was the [Yung Singh presents Daytimers] Boiler Room. That summer, everything was just bubbling away and the timing just felt perfect to have an event we can all go to.

I don’t think I was surprised, I just felt lucky to have pulled it off in four months, from not even having a name.

How has Dialled In evolved since that first event?

When we put on that first event, it was a real moment. There were people crying, mad lineups, secret guests – all that kind of stuff. So we were quite reactive, we had another event in April, then September, then there was the Friday Late: My East Is Your West at the V&A [Dialled In collaborated on the event]. We did two international trips to do the Boiler Room and the artist’s residency [both in Pakistan], and a stage at the Four Tet London All-Dayer. So it was like, a lot.

All of us were doing this in our spare time for over two years. So towards the end of last year, we were getting burned out. We took a little break, just to rest. But now we’re coming at it with fresh eyes.

It’s a different landscape now. Like, the amount of opportunities coming in. Something we want to focus on this year is mentorship. In that like sure, these DJs or new artists are being given these opportunities, but how are they going to take their career to the next level? Not even just DJs, but managers, booking agents – and everything else.

Hopefully Daytimers and Dialled In aren’t the only South Asian collectives (and they’re not), because that’s a lot of pressure. Hopefully there'll be other people who start new things, because yeah, we're not gonna please everyone.

You’ve just finished the All Night Long tour. Do you feel that having these longer sets gives you the opportunity to show people what you’re about?

Yeah, exactly. There’s so much music that I'm interested in from amapiano to Kuduro to baile funk, to Palestinian rap – or whatever it is that I'm listening to – that I want to share. I might get the opportunity to share it on radio, but never really in the club because usually you only get an hour.

I have a rough idea of what I'm gonna do before these set, but you know, it's definitely based on the crowd.

What was the experience like of returning to Pakistan to host the Boiler Room?

Last year was 75 years of partition [when Britain left India 75 years ago and the country became two separate states, India and Pakistan]. So we were able to get some grant funding from the British Council, which is the reason the trip was possible.

That's always something I've wanted to rediscover, because I've been away from Pakistan so long, and I've developed different skills while I've been here.

It was a whole other world of learning what is actually needed on the ground in terms of resources. For example, within that community, the club doesn't have CDJs [turntables], so you have to source them. Then the electricity is gonna go, so that happened during the Boiler Room when we were recording it. The challenges over there are completely different.

That's another thing that's really exciting about this space: from their perspective, Dialled In is very much for the diaspora. So it’s about asking how do we crossover more, how do we hear their voice, and actually work with people on the ground.

After first meeting Skrillex in 2019, how did you end up making music and performing in South America with him?

He hit me up out of the blue during the pandemic, and asked if I wanted to do a Zoom meeting. So we chatted on Zoom, we chatted about everything, really. He asked me what I was working on, so I started flicking through some beats which were unfinished. He asked me to send one of them to him, and then and there, he put it into Ableton and started working on it. I was just like, ‘what the hell is going on here’? That song [Taka iD] is now going to be released as a collaboration between us two and Priya Ragu.

Since then, we've been linking up regularly: he came on his own to Walthamstow to support the first Dialled In, and he asked me to come out to South America and just continue working on more music together.

I learned a lot about new music in South America… We don't actually get that much Latino music here in the UK. Everywhere I went I was Shazam-ing everything.

I was opening up the secret Skrillex and Fred Again show so thought it might be a pretty chill warm up set but people were jumping and clapping from the third song in. It was an incredible crowd in Buenos Aires.

You’ll be performing as part of the More Time Records takeover at Glastonbury this year. The festival has faced some controversy over its all white, male headliners. How far do you think we’ve come in terms of diverse line-ups?

I just think in my whole youth of going to festivals, it's always been like that. It's still like that. The other thing is like, you get asked to take over a stage at a festival. And you've got an all South Asian lineup, but there's no South Asian in the crowd, for example. We’re trying to affect that – but it’s slow, there’s a lot to be done.

Follow Ahadadream on Instagram.

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