Having been DJing for more than 40 years, DJ Hell has seen more genres come and go than most, and continues to draw on his vast experience to keep pushing the boundaries in electronic music.
Hell, aka Helmut Gaier, cut his production teeth with 1992’s My Definition of House Music on R&S Records, establishing the Bavarian native as an emerging force in techno, or more specifically electro, which he cemented with the formation of the iconic International Deejay Gigolo Records in 1997.
Gigolo was a transformative label, establishing the careers of Miss Kittin, Fischerspooner and others, while also catapulting its label owner into the spotlight, as Hell increasingly blurred music with the worlds of fashion and art – he was photographed by Karl Lagerfeld, released his own underwear and sunglasses lines, and was named ‘Man of the Year’ in music by GQ Magazine.
His latest project is House Music Box (Past, Present, No Future), an album that pays tribute to the originators of house and techno that inspired his journey.
Released last Friday (27 November) on his own The Hell Experience Records, the release features cover art by Jonathan Meese, and has enabled Hell to delve into his encyclopaedic knowledge of music to deliver an album that, like its creator, its beyond definition.
Also, the video for the first single off the album, Out of Control, is one of the oddest shorts you’re likely to see this year.
The new album is available via Apple Music (https://apple.co/3fDw9ty), Beatport (https://bit.ly/37aLv4Z), Amazon (https://amzn.to/3l9G9w0), Spotify (https://spoti.fi/3lblS9o) and the usual retail channels.
909originals caught up with Hell to discuss his latest project and a lot more besides.
Thanks for talking to us. The year 2020 has had plenty of challenges, but also opportunities. How has it been for you?
All together, more downs than ups. All shows were cancelled and my regular life stopped since March. Clubs and festivals were shot down and will not open since 2021.
2020 was one of the worst years of my life. Around me, 12 people that I know died – DJs and friends and great people. It’s hard to stay optimistic, so I worked even harder and got into future projects like writing my biography and starting to work on a documentary.
As someone who has been a DJ, promoter and club owner, do you think that the government or authorities have done enough to support the scene during this difficult time?
100% no. Clubs around Germany got government support very late, and they are all struggling and trying to survive. Lots of clubs don’t exist any more, and people working around the nightlife industry, such as booking agents, producers, security staff and bartenders, lost their jobs.
German politicians said nightlife and nightclubs are not systemically relevant. That is a complete misunderstanding about what we do, and what nightlife culture and electronic music culture is all about. After 30 years of nightclubs and electronic music, techno was only officially accepted as ‘music’ last week.
Techno and house music culture was never accepted or pushed by the government here in Germany. A worldwide phenomenon was more or less ignored and not accepted.
Why did you feel the time was right to pay tribute to the origins of house music, with the new album House Music Box (Past, Present, No Future)?
The idea and concept have been around for ten years. I worked on this album in different studios and cities, from New York to Berlin to Vienna to Munich.
I felt it’s needed now, and it’s never been a better time to get back into the world of Ron Hardy, Lil Louis or Jesse Saunders. These are my heroes – this is where it all started and changed my life as a DJ, producer and label owner.
The title of the album includes the term ‘no future’ – a warning, perhaps, for those imagining a quick return to clubbing in the coming months?
It’s a warning if you want! Clubbing and nightlife will change, or has changed already. Most people want to go back in time and start again where we came from.
The good thing, now, is that it’s pretty obvious what went wrong. We can’t travel to play shows around the planet all year round. For me, personally, the question was ‘would I like to continue on like that?’, and the answer was clear – no way!
The cover of the album, by Jonathan Meese, is particularly striking – reflecting perhaps the four different sides of your musical personality?
Jonathan Meese is one of the greatest painters and performers around now, and he reflects my music in his art perfectly. The question would be, what are the different sides? Punk, new romantic, house, techno?
Out of this project, there’s a new collaboration happening with Jonathan and myself, along with his mother, Bridget. A Meese x Hell album will be released next year, and it’s called Hab Keine Angst – Ich Bin Deine Angst (Do Not Be Afraid, I Am Your Fear).
In keeping with the theme of the album, do you remember where and when you first encountered house music, or was it a gradual experience over time?
Donna Summer’s I Feel Love was released in 1977 and the future of dance and club music was defined. Giorgio Moroder came up with the new formula and Kraftwerk from Düsseldorf opened the door for everybody around the world with their mind-blowing early 1980s releases.
I was already working as a DJ in clubs and experienced this new dance music culture from behind the decks. I would travel to New York, Chicago and London around that time to get the newest 12-inches and check the club scene around the world. It became the most important thing in my life.
Next year marks 25 years since the foundation of International Deejay Gigolo Records. What was your modus operandi when you founded the label, and how did that change over time?
I worked in the music industry in the early 90s as an A&R manager and released and compiled the first trance compilation ever, on Logic Records in Frankfurt, while the first record I released, on R&S Records, was My Definition of House Music. At the time, I never thought I would start my own company, my life was producing and DJing around the world.
At the end of 1996/early 1997 I started Gigolo Records because there was something new going on – a revolution was coming. Gigolo was at the forefront of this genre and released artists like Miss Kittin & The Hacker, Fischerspooner, Vitalic, Tiga, Crossover from New York, Zombie Nation and Mt. Sims from Los Angeles.
We released music from all around the world, and I remember saying we need a name for this new genre, so I named it ‘electroclash’. Around 2002, I completely changed the music output into something even more experimental and diverse.
Gigolo Records was in many ways responsible for the resurgence of the synth-pop/new wave sound in both electronic music and popular music. Was there a point (or a particular release) when you felt, ‘wow, we’ve really captured the zeitgeist here‘?
Artists like Dopplereffekt, Bobby Konders, Fischerspooner and Tiga sent out a clear message, and influenced lots of people around the world. I think labels like Kitsune or Ed Banger out of Paris really pushed that concept and were also motivated to go that way.
The hype machine inside the music, art and fashion world was phenomenal, and it felt like we ruled the world for a moment. Everything was possible.
People like Puff Daddy wanted to release music on Gigolo, I was doing Grace Jones remixes and Pet Shop Boys asked to get involved. Even the KLF produced music for Gigolo with the group Atomizer. It was like a big, never ending intoxication.
The new single, Jimi Hendrix, features the spoken word lyric, “I can’t build anything right now, you know, because of the things that are happening right now.” Do you think it is now more difficult to ‘build anything new’ in electronic music?
It will happen more on the technical side of music I think – how music is created. There will be new ways of performing electronic music and new sounds with new equipment and new hardware. A new generation will work on the future of techno.
You’ve been DJing for around 40 years, and have seen scenes come and go. What artists have you been particularly impressed by over the years?
Jeff Mills was one of the most forward thinking artists around – he completely pushed the limits and went where no man has gone before. Also Radio Slave is one of the greatest producers of all time, and Lil Louis, to me, is still touched by the hand of God.
What sort of a dance music industry will emerge once the pandemic is over?
The underground, independent labels and producers, have kept going all the time, releasing great music and fighting for their right to party. The industry and the big players will continue doing their thing, manipulating the market and seeking to take a dominant position.
[Thanks to DJ Hell for talking to us. House Music Box (Past, Present, No Future), is out now on The Hell Experience Records]