DJ Hell Interview: Power and innovation

John Thorp talks International Deejay Gigolo Records, the new wave of Easyjet ravers, Berlin's techno scene and tribalism in music with DJ Hell.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 21st Oct 2015.
Originally published: 20th Oct 2015

Image: DJ Hell

Helmut Josef Geier, better known internationally as DJ Hell, is one of dance music’s most enduring provocateurs. Hell has DJed since 1978 at clubs such as Tresor and E-Work in Berlin, both at their counter-cultural peak. Then, 50,000 records and a John Peel session later, spearheaded the electroclash movement of the mid-00s.

His label, International Deejay Gigolo introduced artists such as Tiga, Fischerspooner and Vitalic to the world, seamlessly combining club music, fashion and performance. His singular vision attracted the attention of artists such as P Diddy, Grace Jones and Bryan Ferry, who have all collaborated with Hell.

With the twenty year anniversary of his label fast approaching, and a string of UK dates on the near horizon, Skiddle’s John Thorp caught up with Hell besides Berlin’s Spree and beneath a looming piece of the city’s largely demolished wall.

Thoughtful, optmistic and humble, but still not without flashes of inate confidence, Hell reflects on the peak of electroclash, the current humour in contemporary techno and the flight of the Easyjet ravers.

Looking back at Gigolo Records back catalogue is interesting. You were ridiculously prolific in the early 00s, weren’t you?

We had amazing impact into the worldwide dance music scene. We had moments where DJs were asking for five or six tracks for compilations. It was crazy, that time. Every week, we had a twelve inch release, and every month, two albums. And there was so much good stuff coming in, I told my distributors, “I can’t hold it back!”

Johnno Burgess, who runs Bugged Out! and booked you for years, has talked in the past about how the era of electroclash, which was strongly associated with yourself and Gigolo, was the most exciting thing in dance music since acid house, and made it somehow fun again. Why do you think it captured people’s imagination to such a degree?

It was because there was something missing, and we filled the gap. I was into a techno world, and we inspired by Chicago and Detroit music. And then after minimal wave, it went into computer music - all rhythm, no bassline - and techno became very industrial. And there was nothing human in that music any more. 

Many of the artists on Gigolo, from Tiga to Peaches, and then later, Hard Ton, have an aspect of subversive performance about them. They are not mere DJs. Why has that always been so important to you?

This concept was not created myself. People had been doing that for many years before, and I felt I needed to get it into the world of house and techno, where it was not allowed. With Gigolo, I wanted to bring the performance back. At parties, we had a DJ playing, then a live act, then a DJ, and it was all different types of music together.

DJs were already playing just one particular type of music, with no freedom at all. And at Gigolo, we had Fischerspooner from New York, Tiga from Canada, then some Australian guy sent me a record called Kikumoto All Stars, who attached a photo of a Japanese guy. He was making this amazing Chicago style house, and he completely fooled me.

But I was happy to believe in the talent of the artists, and as for the music industry rules, I just made up my own. I didn’t care what was happening left or right, I just trusted my instinct.

Did you ever feel any pressure?

I didn’t feel any pressure.

Responsibility?

To the artists? Maybe to myself. But for me what was most important was that the artists know they have artistical freedom, you know, to find a new way, and I always pushed them. I was always looking for the new flavour, or a different point of view. I was looking for originality.

Also, I was interested in people like Bobby Konders, and it was logical to collect all of his music that was on twelve records. And he’d come from reggae, and dancehall, and he wanted us to know it could be done a different way. It was hard to get in contact with him, as they need a certain level of respect. I’m a white guy from Munich and Berlin, and I offered him something different.

Well, Jamaica is perhaps not know for it’s gay culture, whereas Gigolo has definitely been associated with gay culture in the past.

I was very connected to gay culture, especially here in Berlin, and was always fascinated with the house and the disco that emerged out of it in New York, to my understanding. So even with the logos, we used Arnold Schwarzenegger, as he had that kind of sex appeal fit into the disco era of the seventies, and that connected with the music, and what was possible within the universe of Gigolo.

From 2000, Gigolo was based in Berlin. Perhaps it’s a stereotype, but nowadays, Berlin’s techno scene is seen to be very straight, lacking in humour. Do you think that’s the case?

Maybe you need more time in Berlin. You’ve got the Watergate, and Berghain and Villa Renate, and all these typical clubs, but there are so many clubs like Sisyphos That’s kind of a rough place, kind of freaky, kind of wild, self made. It’s a new kind of humour, and it’s very connected to the situation here. That too many people are now attracted to Berlin. I saw it yesterday when I played a Panorama Bar.

For the first couple of hours, there were people there for the first time, you can see feel it in how they act, they’re so happy to be there. We had some amazing Gigolo parties in a club called WMF. We had a party and invited everyone who ever played for Gigolo. I had three or four dancefloors, and those parties, 2001, 2002, people said they were the best parties they had been to in their life.

What was the atmosphere like at the peak of electroclash?

When electroclash became big, and became a phenomenon, and it was hyped not only in the music world, all the artists said they didn’t want to be involved in electroclash. There were even songs that mentioned my name, trying to turn me down, saying I wanted the big money. It became unfashionable very quickly.

And then, I was taking a move to New York, and I worked with Puff Daddy. I heard the record he made with Kelis, ‘Let’s Get Ill’, and I thought it was amazing, it sounded like Joey Beltram! We were both on Universal, so I got connected with him and some artists called me and told me that if I got involved with Puff Daddy, they didn’t want to be on Gigolo any more.

I think I decided then, in 2002, that was the last record I was done releasing 80s pop and electroclash direction. And then I changed completely. I saw DFA Records coming out of New York and Trevor Jackson out of London, and I thought, this is it.

What was your relationship with DFA and the New York scene?

I tried to release The Rapture ‘House of Jealous Lovers’ (above). James Murphy sent me a huge package of music, and he sent me a CD, and it was broken. And I thought to myself, “Man, they can’t even send me a working CD!” I’d heard so many good things about that record. I thought, if that CD was working, I’d release LCD and Rapture on Gigolo.

I think a lot of people were confused as Gigolo changed, it was the same but the music was different. I signed artists like Psychonauts, and maybe it was too early, a totally new direction. But I was still releasing things that were totally different from each other. That’s the concept with Gigolo, you never know what’s coming.

You’ve worked with Bryan Ferry, Grace Jones and Puff Daddy. Nowadays, do you think there’s less tribalism in music, and is that a good thing? 

Definitely, it’s a great thing. When I think of one of my favourite DJs, Ron Hardy, he’d open with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, then go into Grace Jones, then maybe The B52s, then The Clash! You can play all of those, and yet there’s so much good new music coming out.

In the eighties, when I was working in a record shop, I had control on every techno and house release. I didn’t really miss anything, whereas nowadays, there’s so much music you do miss out. I’m in the lucky generation that went through so many decades and saw so much. Disco, the arrival of rap, then acid house. To be in the club and see the reaction to Phuture tracks or 'Strings Of Life'.

In 2009, you said Berlin is “a mecca for a new generation”. Living outside of Berlin in 2015, how do you feel about that statement now?

It was 2009 that I decided to move out of Berlin, I’m sorry to say. For me it was a turning point. Because in the nineties, when the wall came down, it felt you could do what you want, that you were a part of it. Nobody knew who owned what, and there were so many empty spaces for nothing, they said, “Please come inside, you can rent it, open an illegal restaurant!”

OK, that was the nineties, but even 2000-2010 was a special time here. It was a real mecca for electronic music. And when you think about dancing, in Manchester or London, there’s so many limitations, America, New York! You can’t smoke, you need to be 21. And you come to Berlin and it seems like craziness, it’s still the best place in the world for nightlife.

It’s really out of control how many people need to go into Berghain, it’s on their agenda, just one day. And how can you filter that? What’s the concept? One of the owners said to me, “There is no concept. You have a 50/50 chance. You’re in front of the door guy, he says yes or no.” But there’s no formula, it’s chaos.

And that represents Berlin, there’s still a lot of freedom, but there are big companies. I think there was a big opportunity as a mecca for a new generation, but a lot of things are sold to investors. The arts scene and the music scene will be pushed out the cities. But then, the party is never ending. The locals go to to Panorama Bar on a Sunday, when the tourists have maybe gone home, and then they go to Kit Kat Club on the Monday. If I was from London, and 20, 21, it would be paradise to be here. 

Where do you live these days?

Well, I still live in Berlin, but I never gave up my flat in Munich while I was here. There are things about both cities that I can’t accept, but between the two, you can have a good life.

We’re in the middle of a new decade now, and who knows, maybe we’ll see the new wave of Easyjet Ravers, as they call them, who come here, they party, then they go home. But they’ve changed the landscape of nightlife, but not of music.

There’s still so much energy, and I think it should be written more and said louder, that it’s not just about drinking, drugs, and fucked up people. There’s a lot of power here, a lot of innovation. If I was here for a week checking out things, I wouldn’t know where to start, there’s so much choice.

So, it’s been a quiet year for Gigolo, and yet, next year is the 20th anniversary of the label. What will two decades of Gigolo potentially look like?

We’ve been in talks for maybe a tour. I think there are eighty artists in total, maybe more, who’ve released on Gigolo. From Jeff Mills to Fischerspooner, and we want to get them together, maybe starting with a party at Berghain. And some of those artists have totally disappeared!

And it’s three hundred releases, so I think I maybe need to hand those releases to a younger audience and see how they handle them. And I think Gigolo was a kind of blueprint for labels like Ed Banger and Kitsune, to show them the blueprint for the freedom.

Given Gigolo’s fashion connections and performance elements, have you ever thought about opening a museum?

I’d love to open an exhibition. We have masks done for Fischerspooner and Miss Kittin from famous fashion artists. We have a catalogue of merchandise. We had sunglasses. We had toilet paper, for the hundredth release of Gigolo.

I also had the idea to go on tour with some DJs and only play Gigolo material It’s wild! But I think, I don’t want to copy myself and kiss my own ass. I think it’d be good to do it for one night. But I hear these records and forget I’ve released them, and some of them are genius. 

You have contemporary fans - Ben UFO is a big fan of 'My Definition of House Music', for example - but what do you think of the label’s impact on dance music in 2015?

I hear that sound when I listen to Jamie Jones and Troxler, maybe more on the Chicago side. Not necessarily tracks from Gigolo, but the vibe, the humour, the concept is very Gigolo. And Paranoid London, amazing stuff.

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