DJ Hell: The Smell of Techno

DJ Hell photos

photo: Greg Gorman


Helmut Geier, mostly known as DJ Hell, is one of the most influential figures in the electronic music scene. Right from the start of his career, he stood out from the mainstream tendencies, always looking for a unique style and approach towards making and presenting music. Being a DJ from his teenage years during the late 70’s, by the end of 80’s he was one of the starters of a cultural explosion of techno revolution in Berlin. His passion for moving forward and creating new musical forms and genres made DJ Hell responsible for the birth of electroclash, a new musical style that changed things on electronic music scene during the 90s and into the beginning of the 21st century.

Playing on contradictions was always one of the underlying methods of creating the vibe behind his label, International Deejay Gigolo, which in Hell’s words is more than an ordinary record label and is also a way of thinking and a lifestyle. This well-thought use of contradictions started from his alias, Hell, which can sound demonic for most of the world but means “light” in his native German language.

DJ Hell is also known as one of the first artists that brought humor and pop-art aesthetics into the tough world of techno and got techno connected with the fashion scene. This approach was much reflected in his personal style, which stands far away from a regular picture of a DJ dressed simply in black colors – DJ Hell is famous for his dandy outfits and has done a lot of collaborations with top fashion brands like Hugo Boss and Agent Provocateur in the past. Recently his interest in the fashion industry led him to create his own line of perfume and scarfs.

photo: Thomas Hauser

In his interview for All Andorra DJ Hell talks about International Deejay Gigolo records latest releases and the label’s history, shares memories about the early days of techno in Berlin and his trial with Arnold Schwarzenegger, gives an update about his projects in the fashion world, as well as talking about his favourite collaborations and many other interesting things.

Interview: Dmitry Tolkunov

Hi Helmut! How are you and what is going in your musical world right now? Are there any interesting releases from International DeeJay Gigolo records that we should be listening to?

Right now the main thing that I’m working on is a special box with many things inside like a vinyl with my latest single, posters, branded Gigolo t-shirts, magnets, a sample of my perfume “Techno” and a CD with 40 songs on it that mostly are unreleased and remastered material from the beginning of the 90’s or the ones that have been released very long ago only on vinyl – pure analog techno. It’s not a regular album release; to have the music that will be included, you will have to buy the whole box. Maybe later I will put it on digital platforms, but the box will come first. It will be a limited edition thing – 500 pieces only and will be released before or after the summer. I still don’t have a name for it, but think a good definition could be – The Past, The Present and The Future. I am working on it every day, editing music and graphics.

Also, we have a CD compilation coming out on Gigolo in a couple of months. It will be called CD 14 and there will be a lot of new artists from the label, like for example Joyce Muniz from Brazil, and some old artists from the 90’s that are not known well now – like Johnny Dangerous.

Wow, this all sounds exciting! Actually, your label, International Deejay Gigolo, was always famous for its unique style and original presentation of music – starting from the covers of the releases to the music videos with a strong sense of black humor and your personal taste as the label boss shining through. Are you the main mastermind of the label’s aesthetics?

Mostly yes, but I am always looking for artists that will represent the Gigolo style. There is a wide spectrum of different influences in it – sometimes it’s poppy and kitschy, it also represents a lot my past as I started as a DJ in the late 70’s; but it always reflects the moment, the things that are happening in everyday life. Gigolo is more than just a record label; it’s a feeling and a way of a life. Besides the music, we have also always had a good connection with the fashion world and have done lots of collaborations with different brands.

And what interesting projects connected with the fashion world do you have going on now?

I started to do scarves. It’s my own design and concept and I’m selling them on the internet and putting them in some shops. They are very big, kind of oversized and warm, and labeled “Techno”. I think they will be good for other DJs or for people who love techno music.

I started to do scarves. It’s my own design and concept

And last year I released my first perfume called “Techno”. It had good reviews, a lot of men and women liked it and it fits perfectly into the Gigolo world. Right now, I am looking for partners that will help me to launch and develop a line. I have plans in mind for other perfumes that will represent different styles of electronic music – “House”, “Trance”, “Acid”. As I’m a DJ, producer, musician and a record label owner I don’t know much about the perfume world and recently didn’t have any contacts in it. So right now I’m talking with a lot of people from this industry and learning how to present the product, do the right marketing and promotion and to sell it.

How does “Techno” smell?

I think everybody has their own idea about the smell of techno. It can smell like wood, smoke, the sweat of nightlife, cigarettes. My version consists of a strong smoky smell and incense like in a church which is the main mood of it, plus some other ingredients.

You have unusual approaches that nobody has used before in the ways you promote Gigolo. You say it’s not just an ordinary record label, but more like a lifestyle too. The music that was released on the label was also always very ahead of its time. How do you personally look at your position in the musical scene – like the one who is following the latest trends or forming them?

I was always in search of what’s coming next. If you think and live like an artist you must always be innovative. I was never interested in what everybody was doing because it was already here and I never followed the trends. I always was up for looking for something fresh, the kind of music that people hadn’t heard before. And I wasn’t afraid to release it, even if nobody was buying it as I believed in it and it was something new and special. It was always the main goal of Gigolo – finding unknown artists and unheard music.

I think the special thing about Gigolo is also the contradiction between the visual aspect – ironical pop-art style covers of your releases and music videos with a strong sense of humor, and the music itself – that is quite serious and doesn’t sound like a joke. Is this use of contrasts a part of your approach in creating art?

Well, what we were doing for Gigolo was never just a joke. We really believed in this art, the musical language, and were always asking questions and trying to tread on new ground. There were some special twists and humor in what we were doing – especially in the 90’s, we included it because there was no humor in the techno business at that time, everything was too straight and regulated by rules. Me and all the other Gigolo artists were never interested in these rules, we didn’t want to be part of that world; there were no limitations for us in any direction. It was really necessary at the end of the 90s when electroclash that was pushed by Gigolo came up, people from the club scene started to dress in any way they liked, to put makeup on and get connected with the fashion world. I think it helped a lot of artists when they started to follow the Gigolo rules, which meant – no rules at all, do whatever you want. I think it really helped many artists and this is why people loved us and was the reason for Gigolo’s world domination.

There was no humor in techno business, everything was too straight, we put it inside

Did the famous transsexual artist from New York, Amanda Lepore, appear on the Gigolo logo in these early electroclash days?

Yes. I was always a big fan of her art and look. I have a photo of a naked Amanda on Polaroid in my hotel room in New York and asked her to be the face of the Gigolo. She agreed, we signed the contract for 4 years and used this image on the labels logo.

Gigolo was interested in artists from the queer, transsexual and gay world as well, already in the 90’s we involved them and Amanda is a great example. To continue exploring these fields of art, not so long ago, I released a video for the track “I Want You” based on images of Tom of Finland, a cult artist that represents a camp look.

Before Amanda Lepore, you had Arnold Schwarzenegger on the logo. Do you think he gives off a camp image too?Despite the fact that Arnold has never been seen as gay and is a strong, family man, this aesthetic of a bodybuilder with a lot of muscles and testosterone is really familiar to gay culture.

He looks really unusual and very aesthetical, that’s the reason why I chose him to be the face of the label. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the one who made bodybuilding world famous in the 70s and 80s. His body and muscle definition was at a new level and he was still a big part of the nightlife scene of the disco era, you can find a lot of photos of him hanging out in Studio 54 with Andy Warhol or Donna Summer. Later, he became a big part of Hollywood. This is why I thought he fit perfectly into the Gigolo world and put him on the first logo of the label.

And was there a story that he sued you?

Yes, it was a crazy time. I had never ever dreamed that the Terminator would sue me. Terminator destroyed the independent German techno label. It sounds surreal but it was happening. He did not destroy me but I have lost a lot of money because of it. Actually, I never asked him for permission to use his image for promoting the company, so he won the case easily.

I heard that you had to pay him $150,000. Is that correct?

Yes, it was about that much.

And in between Schwarzenegger and Amanda, we used the image of Sid Visches on the Gigolo logo. I used him because I thought it was a funny idea as he is the absolute opposite of Arnold. A perfect anti-Schwarzenegger, a punk rocker with no steroid muscles at all, but still in the same pose – showing his biceps like Schwarzenegger did and later Amanda Lepore also on the logo.

You are also known collaborating with many artists that stand far away from the techno world – like P. Diddy and Bryan Ferry. Do you have a collaboration that was particularly special for you? Perhaps one that you enjoyed most of all?

You have already named my favourite ones – P. Diddy and Bryan Ferry, but I would also like to mention Alan Vega from Suicide. When you are working with artists that have a big influence on other people you learn a lot from them and it makes your life and music more interesting.

I really learned a lot from P. Diddy – how he works, motivates and treats people, how he is doing business and making money. I never saw someone like him. Before I met him, I thought that he was a different person; he is really in charge of his image and manipulating the press in an artistic way, this is one of the reasons why he is so successful. Meeting and working with him opened my eyes a lot, it was a big experience in my life.

How did this collaboration with P. Diddy happen – did he approach you and ask you to do something together?

Yes, he said that he wanted to make a techno album and really loves my music and asked me to go to New York to do some tracks together. I thought – wow, P. Diddy and techno sounds like something really unusual and unexpected and could be a really interesting result. We did 3 tracks together, two of them were released on Gigolo – “Jack U” and a track called “DJ“ where P. Diddy is dissing commercial DJs that kiss the ass of the crowd and try to please them and talked about underground DJs that play the real thing, long mixes at the afterparties at which you can really dance for hours.

We made a track “DJ” where P. Diddy is dissing commercial DJs

And what about Bryan Ferry, how did you get in touch and work with him?

He invited me to his studio in London. Originally, I was supposed to do a remix for one of his or Roxy Music’s songs and he asked me to show him some of the work that I had done with other people and the funny and interesting thing was that he was really into the music that I had created with P.Diddy, and said that he wanted to do something like that – fresh, modern and electronic. And together we made a song and a video called “You Can Dance”. I had never even dreamed before that I would make music together with people like Bryan Ferry and think it was one of the highlights of my career.

Working with Bryan Ferry was one of the highlights of my career

As an innovative producer who was in charge of creating trends in electronic music during the last few decades, what do you think will be the next big thing on the scene?

At the moment techno is the thing of the moment. Everybody is talking about techno and rave culture revival and the fashion and art world is jumping now into this 90’s rave style in Germany and all over Europe. It is still not mainstream, maybe it will become mainstream next year, but this year it will still be the trendiest thing.

What will be the next big thing in 2020 is hard to say now, things have changed so much. There are a lot of superstar DJs with all their managers and private jets that are ruling and controlling the nightlife. But in the underground, there will still be a lot of people making their own music that will be released only on vinyl and will not be played by those superstar DJs. They will have their own parties and their own world, will play their music for themselves and for other people who think the same way as them, staying far away from the spotlights. This underground movement is still quite strong, many people are pushing it and it really opens new directions for the music – and it includes a mixture of styles, in some ways it can be electro, acid, EBM or more rough analog techno and the way it will go really depends on how technology will develop.

There is a lot of opportunity for change in the future and I think they will be mostly connected with the way music is presented by DJs to the crowd. Now when we think about a DJ we think of them standing behind the table with a Pioneer CDJ’S or a laptop and playing a prepared list of tracks which the crowd likes or not. I believe that in the future this will change and there will be a new system. Maybe the sound systems will become more professional, or the lighting in clubs or the way that people will party, dance and enjoy music in clubs and the DJs will play for them. And you can ask me what exactly it will be next year.

With this nostalgic feeling for the 90s rave scene in the air, there were some talks about opening a Museum of Electronic Music in Frankfurt with you curating it. What is the status of this project at the moment?

It is still under construction. I think the problem is mainly about the money, how the organizers will find financial support if it is all done by a non-profit association run by the city of Frankfurt. They asked me to be a part of it and I agreed to curate some exhibitions there. And I also think a city like Berlin definitely needs this kind of concept too. For me, Berlin was and is the center of nightlife and techno where it all started at the end of the 80s –beginning of the 90s. . And I’m sure that this kind of museum dedicated to the rave scene, nightlife and art around it is going to come sooner or later, a lot of people are talking about it and seems it is really needed.

There are already some exhibitions dedicated to this theme happening in Berlin, but for now, they have been done pretty badly by people who do not know much about the history of the club scene. I think people who really took part in the early days of techno and think more artistically need to be involved. One of them is certainly Westbam.

Of course, you are one of these people too. And what are your feelings and memories of these early days, when you have been a witness and one of the starters of the techno movement in Berlin – was it like an explosion? A real cultural revolution?

I still remember everything clearly. This whole movement started to get really massive after the Wall fell down before there were some clubs in West Berlin playing early house and techno music, but it was for a limited audience, not many people were into it. And people from East Berlin had a great impact on the development of the rave scene, it turned into something very big with their help as a lot of illegal clubs appeared in the early 90s. Then when we started Love Parade the scene started to grow very big and got out of control – first, there were 5,000 people coming, then 50,000, and at one point 500,000. We never dreamed that what we were doing would have such a big impact on the whole musical world and on so many people’s lives. At one point we thought that we were going to change the world and maybe we did in some ways.

We thought that we are going to change the world and maybe we did it in some ways

As I know, in your early days you were trying to combine the career of a professional footballer with DJing and you are still a big supporter of the Bavaria football team.

Yes, it is a lifetime thing, I always try to support my team and watch games in which I take part as much as I can. Bavaria is doing well this season and I hope they will get a higher position next year. And I’m a sponsor of the team – DJ Hell is even written on the unifrom of the footballers.

I played in the club when I was young. Football and music were a serious part of my life starting from childhood. But I decided to be a DJ and a producer rather than to go on to do sport professionally.

Since that time, you have been touring as a DJ, so have brought electronic music probably to all the main spots in the world that have a night scene. Do you have some favorite places where you like to play most of all?

For me, one of the leading and best in the world clubs is still Berghain in Berlin. There are a hundred good festivals all over the globe but actually, Ibiza is still a good place to play – a lot of people still believe in Ibiza’s club world and many great DJs live there for half a year and have their own successful nights.

I usually have a big response to my music in New York

I am always up for discovering new places, but there are not so many left – I think I played already all over the world. As for my favourite ones – things are changeable, you can play once at a great party or club and the year after it won’t be as good. But I know that usually, I can always count on cities like Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, Rio, New York – I usually receive a great response to my music there.

Have you ever had a chance to play in Andorra and would you like to if there was ever the possibility?

I don’t think that I’ve played there, but would be happy to go if there was some good promoters or festivals that invited me. Even though it is a small country without a developed club scene – I’m always ready to come and to present something unusual for them, some music that they probably haven’t heard before.

Read more: The sound of music with Dmitry Tolkunov ...