PAWSA: tech-house, reimagined
As one half of the duo behind behemoth label and party series Solid Grooves, UK DJ and producer PAWSA has been a quiet but powerful force in the contemporary tech-house scene; building a massive following through his productions, DJ sets and mix series, while remaining a mystery to fans and the industry alike. As his style of minimal, micro tech-house has exploded in popularity, and after a period of reflection during lockdown, PAWSA is now stepping into the spotlight
In the 2013 film The Wolf Of Wall Street, Jonah Hill’s character, Donnie Azoff, meets Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort in a diner. Donnie sees Jordan’s convertible yellow Jaguar, and asks him how he earns his living. Donnie tells Jordan that if he can show him a month’s pay-cheque for $72,000, he’ll quit his job and work for Jordan, right there and then. It’s a scene that plays in DJ and producer PAWSA’s — real name David Esekhile — head when he thinks about how he co-founded Solid Grooves Records, and became one of the biggest names in tech-house.
Between the late ’00s and 2013, a new kind of tech-house was bubbling in the UK. Shunned by old school house and techno heads for being seemingly uncool or unoriginal, this scene splintered off to become its own, shuffling ecosystem, with artists like Darius Syrossian, Jamie Jones and Steve Lawler spearheading labels and parties like Do Not Sleep, Hot Creations and Viva Warriors. Raves at London’s 93 Feet East and Cargo, and Leeds’s Mint Warehouse, were packed with young crowds, who drank in the wonky basslines, off-kilter rhythms and weird samples, and fuelled wide-eyed, smoking area chatter of after- parties and secret sets.
It was backstage at one of these events, a Solid Grooves party at Sidings Warehouse in 2013, that quiet newcomer PAWSA met established scene figurehead Michael Bibi for the first time, and their roles as Donnie Azoff and Jordan Belfort were cast. “Michael was successful, he had such a mature vision of the scene and where he wanted it to go,” Esekhile says. “I didn’t have a job, and I knew that I didn’t want to work for someone else, I wanted to work alongside them. He and I were on the exact same wavelength on the day we met.”
By 2013, Bibi had been relentlessly DJing, producing and running the Solid Grooves party brand for two years. He and Esekhile started spending time together, bonding over tracks they’d produced in their bedrooms at home. After a few Solid Grooves parties, Bibi asked the then 22-year-old Esekhile to DJ alongside him at a gig in Berlin. A successful show, no sleep and a pile of in-flight napkins scrawled with inky plans later, Esekhile was investing all of his savings — £8,000, from a season spent DJing in Spain — into a new project with Bibi, launching Solid Grooves Records in 2015.
Unlike their Wall Street counterparts, Michael Bibi and PAWSA didn’t crash and burn. By the time they launched the label, this bubbling new tech-house scene was boiling over, and Solid Grooves began to take over the UK’s mega-raves, supernova-style. They were hosting parties at London clubs like Electric Brixton and Fire, playing throughout the summer season at Sankeys Ibiza and, independently, the Solid Grooves artists were establishing themselves as a permanent fixture in the landscape, becoming some of the fast-growing scene’s most in-demand bookings.
Today, the label describes itself as a tight-knit family of artists: Dennis Cruz, Eddy M, Reelow, ANOTR, Bassel Darwish, Blackchild and Ramin make up the current roster, which frequently plays sold-out shows at large-scale venues like London’s Printworks and Studio 338. In recent years, these parties have hosted Cassy, Apollonia’s Dan Ghenacia, Chicago legend DJ Deeon and Paul Woolford, and the label has released EPs and singles from Skream, Prok & Fitch, Endor and Josh Butler.
While plenty of tech-house parties and labels have faded into the background, Solid Grooves has developed its brand, fronting as its own agent, booking team and management. Whether you love it or hate it, this style of tech-house continues to be consumed at an astronomical rate, and the groovers are delivering the goods.
In sharp contrast to some of his peers, and more in line with those that came up before him in this scene, Esekhile has been a mystery. With a minimal media presence, he surfaces only for live sets, streams and his own PAWZCAST mix series on YouTube, where he plays vinyl-only sets. Although he made his debut on Lost Recordings in 2014, tracks like ‘Party’, 2017’s ‘The Groovy Cat’ and ‘Crazy’ — released through his own imprints — have left the producer quietly acknowledged as an architect of the current UK tech- house sound.
Esekhile has taken that sound global, too. He’s toured Australia and South America, and played alongside the Solid Grooves roster during a five-year Ibiza residency run from 2015, which saw core artists and guests take over Benimussa Park, Sankeys and Privilege’s Vista Club. With 18 months largely spent unable to gig, however, the palpable uncertainty in the industry has led Esekhile to reflect on his career, and what could come next.
Tech-house is a money-making machine — a conveyor belt of Beatport charts and club tours — but it’s also a murky, fickle playing field, and Esekhile has navigated it better than most. “Some DJs are millionaires, and when I started out in this game, it blew my mind that there were guys out there, making this music, that had this kind of money,” he says.
“Honestly, in the beginning, I found out that some DJs get paid 40k for one show — 40k? Are you joking?” he adds with candid shock, “and no-one is acting like there’s money in it? I realised pretty early on that if I could make ridiculous money, and be smart with it, then I could provide a comfortable future for me and my family.
“It’s that scene with Donnie and Jordan in the diner. This wasn’t just a career. I could have whatever I wanted. When I first met Michael Bibi, I wanted to work and tour all the time. I was hungry for that. Now I’m realising that in the future, I’ll have more responsibilities, and I don’t want to sacrifice my personal life because I need to do another tour.”
We’re spending the day with Esekhile in Richmond, West London, near his apartment that overlooks the Thames. It’s a bright, hot day, and the 28-year-old is relaxed in a grey T-shirt, navy joggers and a simple silver ring and chain, his face framed by dreadlocks. He’s tall, incredibly tall — 6’ 8”, to be exact — but with his warm, gentle manner, he’s unimposing. As we wander between leafy parks, Esekhile engages with people we meet at cafes and stalls, comfortable on his home turf. It’s the most time he’s spent at home since his career began almost a decade ago, and it’s had a serious impact.
Esekhile was born to immigrant parents, a Nigerian father and Irish mother, who met while working at a cinema in London. He says that the fact they are still together is a testament to their dedication to each other, something he wants to mirror after getting engaged.
“To be honest, lockdown was good for me, because I realised that I want that life at home,” he says. “I want to be around for my fiancé and children, when I eventually have my own family. I want to paint, play golf and have fun every single day — and you can’t do that when you’re playing at clubs and festivals every weekend. It just doesn’t work."
When he started DJing and making music (he had every intention of becoming a professional golfer before finding clubland), Esekhile’s productions were influenced by deep house grooves and bumping percussion, with vocal samples layered over grumbling basslines. His first releases on Lost Recordings, Green Velvet’s Cajual and MOOD are perfectly preserved time capsules of that early 2010s sound of deep and dark club cuts. Now, Esekhile’s love for minimal and micro sounds, and distorted samples, is more prevalent.
In 2017, he launched his solo label PAWZ to release records that he knew didn’t align with the sound of Solid Grooves. It’s a more personal project too: he paints the cover art for each release, and sells vinyl alongside limited runs of artwork prints.
“PAWZ is for that weirder, more expressive stuff,” he says, “the sound I liked to share on the early podcasts: mainly minimal, some techno, then 120-130bpm, Shonky-inspired wobbly stuff.
“I just love raw ideas. When you listen back to old tracks by Housey Doingz, Juan Atkins or Omar S, it’s all built from hats and claps. There’s always a nostalgia for the styles that came before you, and when you go back to explore those roots, you realise it’s not overly produced, panned or EQ’d. It’s not meant to be perfect. It’s club music.”
Almost exactly one year before the first pandemic lockdown, Esekhile’s love for the more minimal sounds, and the expectations from the fans of Solid Grooves, crashed into each other. The set-up was huge: the seventh anniversary party for Solid Grooves at a sold-out, 5,000-capacity Printworks in London, coinciding with Romanian cult festival Sunwaves. Tech-house favourites like Detlef, Latmun and Michael Bibi had just played hours of relentless bangers to the wall-to-wall Printworks crowd, and Esekhile was lined up for the closing slot.
“I don’t plan sets,” he remembers, “but I like to be eclectic with my inspiration. I was listening to older Sunwaves mixes all week, because I couldn’t be there, and I just thought, ‘What if I actually played this set exactly like I wanted to?’”
Inspired by the ‘Rominimal’ sounds being played on a beach 1,500 miles away by Dan Andrei, Raresh and Priku, Esekhile brought the tempo down, ready to build a set from minimal to maximum. “I watched the room clear in like 15 minutes. I’d genuinely thought people would be like, ‘Wow’,” he laughs.
At the 15-minute mark of that set, Esekhile played a now-popular edit of Fergie’s ‘Fergalicious’ from Romania’s DRG Series vinyl imprint. “Half the crowd left before I had even got to that point,” he says. He laughs about it now, but clearing a sold-out dancefloor at your own party is a knock. And that’s before the backlash came. “After the party, I was getting violent threats on Twitter; people saying they’d bang me up, saying that I was shit and the whole of their timeline agreeing with it. The thing is, I recorded that set because I just knew that, in a few years’ time, people would feel completely differently about it.”
Despite the reaction, Esekhile continued to develop these minimal, micro sounds, and as he predicted, they’ve experienced a recent surge in popularity among younger tech-house ravers. Being a painter, Esekhile is inspired by artists who have pioneered movements and pushed boundaries, and applies their methods to his own work.
“My priority has to be the tech-house sound, I have to keep feeding the goose because that’s what got me here,” he says, “but you do have to start innovating at some point. If you look at pieces by Mark Rothko, he did the same painting every single time, but just in a different colour. He had to have the ambition that it would work, and that he’d sell these paintings.
“It’s about finding the courage to be yourself on a public scale, which is terrifying. People might think you’re a fraud, or unoriginal, and any kind of artist deals with that. But when I can tune into that courage, of artists like Rothko, or Damien Hirst or Patti Smith, I can do what I want.”
It’s no secret that the scene surrounding tech-house has been tarred with the same brush as genres like EDM, or the more chart-focused strains of dubstep and drum & bass. Critically written off as the commercial arm of the underground, these artists and labels are frequently dismissed as unoriginal, and treated with snobbery. We discuss the recent Resident Advisor documentary on tech-house, and about the originators like Terry Francis, Kevin Saunderson and Nathan Wiggle. Esekhile respects the roots of the sound, and understands why the current scene, and particularly Solid Grooves, hasn’t been welcomed with open arms by the pioneers.
“I know it gets called ‘bait tech-house’,” he says, “of course it does. It’s the commercial wars. If you’re playing to 200 or 300 people, it’s cool and underground. When 6,000 people are there to see it, suddenly there’s a problem.” Despite its criticisms, the label has stuck to a formula that works for it and its followers. It even launched a sub-label, Raw, in 2017, to showcase some of the roster’s darker sounds.
“You know you get told people prefer the older shit, but I prefer the older stuff by Drake,” he laughs. “It’s just what happens. Things evolve and change. That’s part of the reason I love that balance between me and Michael. When we started this, he understood how to put a party on and I focused on the music. I wanted the output to combine that minimal, solid sound with the more commercial club stuff.”
Away from Solid Grooves, where Esekhile’s released eight EPs to date, the first release on his Pawz label, ‘Party’, has amassed over three million streams on Spotify since its release in 2017, and ‘The Groovy Cat’, the label’s fourth release, currently has over 22 million streams. They’re both sample-heavy, and set against not much but a grooving bassline and sharp percussion.
His more recent singles and EPs on the label — aside from the aptly-titled ‘2016 TECH HOUSE BANGER’ — are straight up club tools, samples and scraps of ideas built on Ableton and released once per month. The label is a place to be himself, away from the kind of expectations that saw him clear the Printworks dancefloor.
“I know better producers than me must sit at home and think, ‘Fuck this guy’,” he says earnestly, sitting forward and shaking his head, “but I just think, ‘Bro, I know. I get it. I would probably feel the same.’ PAWZ breaks that illusion that some people have of, ‘he can’t miss’ — which is something I hear or see often. I miss all the time, 90% of everything I make is shit. This is a way to show people I’m just here expressing myself, and maybe inspire some of them along the way.
“It’s like when you see a piece of art in a museum, and it’s just a painted white square,” he continues. “You think to yourself, ‘For fuck’s sake, I could have done this’. But you didn’t, and if you do it now, you’re second. Someone has already brought that idea to life. It’s that easy.”
Esekhile’s love for transforming acapellas into club tools comes from his formative years as a DJ, when he learned how to work the crowds in Magaluf during his twenties. He mixed hip-hop and commercial house, focusing on punchy blends and recognisable vocal hooks to keep passing punters interested. It coincided with a wave of EDM-influenced pop hits like Avicii’s ‘Levels’ and Deadmau5’s ‘Strobe’, and the ensuing, rippling tide that saw deep house move up the UK charts, giving artists like Julio Bashmore, Route 94 and Duke Dumont their first taste of the mainstream. During that season in Magaluf, Esekhile started producing edits inspired by his own punchy, hooky DJ sets.
Watching free Point Blank tutorials on YouTube and using basic production techniques on Ableton, he was making 16-bar intros using tracks by rappers like J. Cole. After he’d cracked edits, Esekhile began trying to replicate the sounds he’d heard in Magaluf — early tracks by Afrojack, commercial house and Dirty Dutch — before visiting Ibiza for the first time, and switching his attention to the deeper, minimal sound he’s known for today. “Ibiza is magnetic. I remember hearing house tracks in clubs, and just imagining that I’d made a song like that. The feeling was freedom.”
Esekhile’s self-belief has developed in parallel with his sound. When he started experimenting with this cross-pollination of deep and tech-house, and rarely finishing his tracks, he went to a Leftwing : Kody event on his birthday in 2013. The duo weren’t supposed to be playing that night, but Esekhile ended up speaking to them. It was a turning point. He knew he needed to level up.
“I didn’t think I could be that guy that says, ‘Can I send you my beats bro?’, but at some point you have to believe you are that guy, and nurture that ambitious part of your soul,” he says. “I had to start saying that I was a DJ and producer, to speak it into existence.” After exchanging details, Esekhile finally finished a project. Leftwing : Kody listened to Esekhile’s demo and instantly signed it to Lost Records, where the artist made his 2014 debut with the ‘Pilot’ EP and impressed the likes of Michael Bibi, Audiojack and Nicole Moudaber.
“I was blown away,” he remembers, grinning. “It was the best news I’d ever had. I’d been telling my dad that it was gonna happen for me, and then I got a release on a label alongside Darius Syrossian and Hector Couto. Life was great.”
Two days after his debut, Esekhile’s life fell apart. His then girlfriend was involved in a serious accident, which left her in a coma. “My whole world was just chucked upside down,” he says, his words trailing off. When he speaks again, his voice is lowered and his eyes well up. “I was in the car on the way up to London, to the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital, and looking at people on the street and asking myself how anyone could be happy. I was asking them, inwardly, ‘Do you know how lucky you are that life is not horrific for you?’”
He pauses to look out at the views of Richmond Park. For the first time in our conversation, he’s still and quiet. “It’s tough to admit that bad things will happen, and that was the first bad thing that had ever happened to me,” he says. “But you realise that horrific things happen to everyone. Everyone is carrying some kind of trauma — they’re living with that. I went from the happiest day of my life to the worst; in intensive care, witnessing the most tragic situation. It was the most horrific thing I’ve ever known, but it became one of the most significant moments in my life. It gave me the determination to change my outlook on life, and grab opportunities.”
While his ex-girlfriend remains in recovery now, in the immediate aftermath of the accident, Esekhile focused on her, and the only thing he had — music. One night, after leaving the ICU, he went straight to East London club XOYO, to see Green Velvet play. Floored by his presence, Esekhile approached him, and their conversation led to Esekhile releasing music on Green Velvet’s Cajual Records.
“Speaking to him and seeing him play that night was a game changer,” he says. “He stays in character, and that’s such an interesting thing for artists to do. You can create an imaginary world if you become an artist: that’s why I chose to make music as PAWSA, not David Esekhile.”
On one hand, Esekhile is serious when he talks about his music and work, but he’s also fearless, and a chancer. He plays up to the criticisms and shade he gets from other artists, blasé about the fact that other people take offence to his own self-expression. Last year, he released an EP on his GOLFOS TRAXX imprint — which he runs alongside Dennis Cruz — that included a silent, 60-second A-side, dubbed, ‘ONE MINUTE SILENCE’.
“You just have to defeat that final boss,” he says, gesturing upwards and smiling. “Criticism. I get criticised, and the people who do that don’t know this, but perhaps I thought it was shit too? The difference is I’ve got a label, and I can share what I want."
Recently, Esekhile came around to the idea of opening up more. He uploaded the aforementioned Printworks set to his SoundCloud page and discussed it on Twitter with fans, encouraging the people who walked out of the gig to engage with it again. Interacting with his fans online more, and doing this interview, is his way of setting the record straight before he moves on to “the next chapter”. He says that he plans to retire from touring in five years, to focus on productions and running the labels; he acknowledges that, in walking away from a club scene that’s given him so much, he could be considered ungrateful.
“It’s not about greed, wanting to eventually quit touring,” he says. “I just want to keep growing. I want to sleep in the same bed for 365 days a year. At some point, I’m going to have to turn around and say, ‘I’m not playing anymore’. It’ll be hard to turn down gigs — I do enjoy them — but I’m putting my roots down now to have a passive income later on in life.”
As the time at home draws to an end, Esekhile is slated for some of his biggest performances to date. Groove Island — a sold-out, Solid Grooves two-day weekender at East London’s Three Mills Island, featuring PAWSA alongside Loco Dice, The Martinez Brothers, Michael Bibi and others — took place on the last weekend of July. In September, there’s a solo, all-night-long set from PAWSA, at Liverpool’s mammoth Camp & Furnace. The groovers are also taking over Amsterdam’s NDSM warehouse for Amsterdam Dance Event in October, where they’ll host the likes of FUSE’s Archie Hamilton, Chris Stussy, Eats Everything and more, alongside key figures from the Solid Grooves roster.
Despite Esekhile’s straight-shooting manner, his attitude towards making and playing music, and his passion for raw creativity, is sincere. He’s worked alongside Bibi to champion an often derided yet hugely popular scene, and to redefine tech-house for a new generation. Through nurturing new talent — be it in the form of Endor or Dimmish on the imprint, or hosting rising DJs like Rossi., Mason Collective and Pat Wilson at shows — and keeping the team behind Solid Grooves united and informed, Esekhile is determined that Solid Grooves, and tech-house, are here to stay.
“No-one is an artist that everyone wants to hear, or paints a picture that everyone wants to hang in their gallery,” Esekhile says. “But you find that formula that works, and you just keep innovating.”
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.