Progressive fans who follow Deep Dish will know Sultan for his vocal cuts such as 'Night Visions', 'Shivers' and most recently 'Connected' (made with Ned Shepard), which were all released on the Washington duo's stable Shinichi. In fact hardly a Deep Dish compilation goes by without making space for two or three Sultan cuts. His 'Flashing for Money' (2005), a mash-up of Deep Dish's crossover hit 'Flashdance' and Dire Straits 'Money for Nothing' combined each of the guitar-riffing originals to become one of the few house bootlegs to actually get a legit release.
But Deep Dish aren't Sultan’s only fans. His approach to progressive – melding rock, pop, house and trance – has won over most of prog's main men such as Hernan Cattaneo and John Digweed as well as trance DJs like Tiesto. Perhaps his no-hang-ups take on the genre can be explained by the fact that he's only been dabbling in dance music for a little over four years, coincidentally the same number of years he's had those dreads. For eight years before that, he'll tell you he was a guitarist slogging it out in a rock band.
Sultan's days of gigging with his band are well and truly behind him, and these days it’s calls from DJ promoters which keep him up late at night. RA checked in with Sultan on the eve of three upcoming dates at the Winter Music Conference.
First up, I have to say your dreads are pretty impressive. How long have you had them? Do they get in the way much when you DJ?
Thank you. I've had my dreads for just about six years now. They just keep getting longer and longer. They're definitely a big part of me. They never get in the way of my DJing; on the contrary they make it more enjoyable. When I get excited with the crowd and the music, my dreads dance and bounce with me.
Do you ever have nightmares about somebody just randomly hacking them off? Have you thought about making the big change?
My biggest nightmare is waking up one day and seeing my dreads hacked off! I think I’d have a breakdown. (laughs) I don't think I’ll be making the big change any time soon. Who knows? Maybe never. With time you just become more and more attached to them. I got my dreads when I first began my DJ/production career, just by coincidence. Somehow I can’t imagine Sultan without dreads. There are times when I think of cutting them shorter but never completely off.
Your real name is actually Ossama. So where did the name Sultan come from?
Shhhh. It's a secret! Just kidding! It’s a mesh of things really. I would say it started off when I first bought my turntables and was just starting to grow my hair out. I came back to a friend's house after a long night out and found this big hat sitting on his kitchen table. It was a winter hat made of hemp that in a weird way resembled a turban. I put it on, fell in love with it and from that day onwards declared it mine and wore it almost every day. A few months later I was visiting my mother in Cairo and I decided to take a couple days to do some sightseeing of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and the Sultans' palaces. My fascination with the Ottoman history coupled with the obsession with my hat somehow got my friends and mom nicknamed me Sultan. And so it stuck.
Originally you were in a rock band. What lead you to make the switch to electronic music? Was there a particular song, artist or person that first drew you in?
Honestly it all started off as a hobby with my good friend Miche and another good friend of mine Ali Ajami. One day Miche and Ali came by and said there is a big party going on tonight and there is this amazing DJ called Max Graham playing. They said, "You have to come and experience and see what the scene here is about." So, I did and I was on the dance floor all night. Later on Miche came by my place and said "Let's buy turntables and a mixer" and a few months later we landed a residency at Level at Club Living, and were DJing live on air on Mix96.
Life works in mysterious ways. One minute you're doing one thing, then one decision later the whole path of your life has been redrawn.
What were you doing for a living before getting into music?
I had just graduated from university before getting into music. I was just starting to apply to engineering and business jobs when I decided to take a six months break to complete the band's sophomore album. Soon after that I started to produce dance music and got my first track signed. It happened really fast. I guess I was at the right place at the right time. Next thing I knew, I was making a living more from DJing and producing than being with the band.
I've never held down a real job, however, I did do several internships while I was at university. I worked for Mercedes Benz one summer in Egypt for three months designing and assembling the E class. And the summer prior to my graduation I did an internship in Geneva and Zurich at UBS Bank. I really enjoyed both but music was where my real passion was.
Honestly, nothing comes easy in life. And I really believe results always come about with hard work and dedication. I've had some tough times along the way, struggling to get by at times but my family, manager and friends' support really kept me going and made me believe in myself even more. I’m now following my dreams.
You lived in Egypt for part of the nineties, and have been living in Montréal for the past ten years. What do you miss about Egypt? What do you love about Montréal?
Egypt and Montréal are two worlds apart. Both have so much to offer and both are a big part of who I am. I definitely miss my friends and mom in Egypt. And I definitely miss so many other things such as the beach, the sun, the weather, the historical sights, the culture, and at times the crazy bustling streets and life in Cairo.
At the same time I have so much love for Montréal. My decision to come to Montréal changed the course of my life and now it is my home. I love the ethnic and multicultural diversity in Montréal. There is something here for everyone and there is always something new to experience. Every artist, band, DJ, performer, entertainer that comes through this city will tell you the same, Montréal has a magical feel like no other city in the world.
Montréal has a really strong and diverse electronic music scene. It's home to the Mutek Festival, the Piknic Electronic parties, Tiga's Turbo label and rated house clubs like Stereo. Do you check out what's happening in dance music in the city? Has it influenced your music in any way?
I definitely do whenever I am home. Especially the Mutek Festival because it’s not just a dance experience, it's also a learning experience with all the music related seminars that Mutek sets up. I must say, living in this vibrant city has had a huge impact on my music and has opened my eyes to a variety of styles of electronic music that has allowed me to develop into the artist I am today.
You have a compilation coming out later this year called 'Yoshitoshi Montréal’, which will be a mix of songs from the Yoshitoshi and Shinichi labels. But if you had to put together a compilation which was a showcase of actual producers from Montréal, who would you put on the CD?
That's a tough question because there are so many to choose from! Montréal is home to a great pool of talent. Off the top of my head I would say DJ Anton, DJ Ibra, Maher Daniel, Max Graham, Misstress Barbara, Ned Shepard, Tiga, Tone Depth, Vivie-Ann to name a few.
Recently, a lot of progressive house is becoming more electro-tinged. How do you feel your sound has changed since your 'Night Visions' release?
It’s been a long progression since the days of 'Night Visions'. Back then, I'd just first entered the dance/electronic scene so my biggest influence was rock since I'd been in a band for eight years prior to that. Four years later and my life revolves around DJing and producing dance music. My influences have changed and diversified, and in essence so has my production.
Nonetheless, my roots still lie in melody and that's one thing that hasn’t changed much in my productions although I have experimented a lot more with different sounds and styles. As a producer, I'm influenced by the music I DJ as well as the reactions the people have to the music played. There is a fine line nowadays when it comes to sound and genre and I find the beauty lies in the ability to blend different sounds and influences whether it may be progressive, house, tribal, techno or electro.
What are you doing differently in the studio compared to before?
A lot has changed in the studio in the past few years. When I first started producing I was working with Cubase. I am now an avid Protools fan and I've just recently begun working with Logic Pro as well. Each program has its own strengths and definitely influences the final product. In addition, I have added a lot more synths to my studio, both hardware and software.
On the production side I am collaborating a lot with my good friend Ned Shepard. When we first started working together we both had our way of working but after long nights and weeks in the studio we now know each other’s strengths and we play to them. We’ve also learnt to sit on our productions, let them ferment more and really take the time to perfect our vision rather than rushing to get a track done for a release.
How does your latest single with Ned Shepard 'Connected' reflect the above changes in the studio process?
'Connected' took us about four months to completely finalise. The basic backbone of the track was laid down in a week, however, we took our time finishing it as we wanted to make sure we were happy with all the sounds, effects and most importantly the vocals. It was challenging for us to make a track that would have a big impact on the dancefloor and less of a melodic edge. Both of us are musicians attached to our instruments of choice, mine being the guitar and Ned the piano, so it was difficult to avoid playing the lush melodies and leads. Ultimately 'Connected' is a reflection of the impact that DJing has each had on us and the different sounds and styles we have been influenced by over the years.
You're heading to the Miami Winter Music Conference later this month. Besides your own three gigs, what other parties will you definitely be hitting up? Is there anyone you haven't seen or met before that you hope to hook up with?
I'll definitely be checking out the Proton night, the SOS party, the Sasha & Digweed boat party and the One + One launch.
I'm looking forward to hooking up with Ricky Ryan, Shlomi Aber, DJ Simmi, Rene Amesz, Mathew Dekay, Tom Morgan and of course my boys Tommyboy and DJ Tarkan. Can't wait!
Now that you're signed to a big booking agency, will you still take a grassroots approach to the WMC this year, like burn CDRs of your music and give them out to other DJs?
WMC for me has always been a place to meet up with friends, network, and most of all have a blast listening to great music. It’s my third year playing at the conference. I've always given out my new tunes to my friends there and will definitely do so this year.
Finally, tell us something about yourself that RA readers might not know.
I've actually just started playing guitars and singing back up vocals for Nadia Ali's live shows. We just got back from Egypt and Jordan two days ago where we had two incredible shows. The night started off with Nadia's live show and then I got on the decks and DJed for the remainder of the party. The one thing I miss most about playing in a band is the live aspect of playing an instrument. So now, not only do I get to DJ, I also get to play guitar - the best of both worlds!