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He may be one of the biggest DJs and most sought-after producers on the planet, but Alex Ridha remains defiantly underground and fiercely independent. Welcome to the kingdom of the skull.
Words: Chris Cottingham
The German word is “absturz”. Translated literally, it means “crash”, but in Berlin clubland vernacular it’s the equivalent of “pulling a whitey”. And Alex Ridha had good reason to be worried about a potential spin-out. Earlier this year, he was summoned to write beats with Snoop Dogg. Before starting work he had to ‘vibe’ with the rap legend, a sort of initiation rite that involves listening to music and smoking serious amounts of high-strength Californian weed. And Ridha isn’t much of a smoker at the best of times. “Snoop has a guy who’s job it is to roll joints,” he says, incredulous. “That’s all he does! There’s no way I could keep up with Snoop. It’s impossible.” Instead Ridha kicked back and absorbed the surprisingly ordinary surroundings. “I was expecting bling and Champagne and girls and a big pool, like a hip hop video,” he explains. “But it was just this small apartment with posters of Bob Marley on the wall and him and his buddies chilling. I felt like I was a 17-year-old student again! Maybe he has a mansion somewhere else.” Quite probably. In any case, Ridha passed the test. The following day, he and Snoop went in the studio together.
The result was ‘Got It’, a chugging jam of saw-toothed synth riffs, lazy flip-flopping beats and blunted Cali rhymes. It was originally supposed to appear on Snoop’s postponed album ‘Reincarnated’, but then the rapper otherwise known as Calvin Broadus converted to Rastafarianism; or, as Ridha puts it, “the Dogg became a Lion”. ‘Got It’, a noisy electro banger, didn’t fit with the dancehall rhythms of Snoop’s new direction, so Ridha took it for his third album, ‘Out Of The Black’, released in October.
It’s in good company. ‘Out Of The Black’ is a collection of thunderous electro-house grooves that see Ridha’s trademark ‘everything-up-to-11’ style reach its zenith. It also marks the culmination of three years of transition. When he released 2009’s ‘Power’ he was the darling of the electro underground. Since then he’s produced albums for Scissor Sisters, Spank Rock and Kano, as well as tracks for Snoop Dogg; he’s collaborated on records with Chilly Gonzalez, Erol Alkan and, most recently, Skrillex, under the name Dog Blood; all of which comes on top of increasingly high profile DJ appearances, to which he’s just added a live show. At the same time Ridha’s label, Boysnoize Records, which is approaching its hundredth release, has developed into an electronic music powerhouse. American magazine Rolling Stone recently put Ridha at No. 9 in their ‘25 DJs Who Rule The Earth’ list, an accurate assessment of his importance. Boys Noize is now a mainstream contender, up there with Steve Aoki, Deadmau5 and Guetta (in terms of influence, if not style).
On this grey Sunday evening, Ridha is backstage at Berlin’s Columbiahalle, where tonight he plays the final date of a sold-out European live tour. A youthful-looking 29 years old, he easily carries off his skater dude look: black skinny jeans, hi-tops and a baseball cap pushed back so the peak stands up almost vertically. Wrapped around his neck is a scarf bearing the logo of his football team, FC St Pauli from Hamburg, Ridha’s home town, where he performed last night. He’s one of the friendliest people you could hope to meet, offering drinks and smiling like he’s genuinely happy to see you. His English carries just a trace of a German accent with only the occasional lapse into too literal German-to-English translation. He says there’s been a lot of “rehearsalling” for this tour.
He’s just finished an interview with Deutsche Welle, the German equivalent of the BBC World Service. He doesn’t seem like the typical subject for a story on what is quite a conservative outlet. “Sure, it’s more outside of the box for them,” he concedes. “But they look at what’s representing German culture outside of Germany, and there aren’t many artists from Germany, apart from a few DJs such as Paul Kalkbrenner, who are known internationally.”
True enough. Can you name a German pop star? However, anywhere people stay up all night listening to electronic music in darkened rooms, the clubbers on the dancefloor will know the name Boys Noize. Which makes Ridha one of Germany’s biggest musical exports, right? Ridha laughs. “I wouldn’t say so myself, but I guess so.” He’s being too modest. He’s a superstar DJ now, no question.
Crucially, though, he’s never lost his underground cool. Indeed, Boys Noize often functions as a bridge between the underground and mainstream. “Sometimes I do feel like that,” he nods. Which makes him something of a rarity. Two or three years ago there were plenty of DJs and producers who straddled the two worlds – really successful without being mainstream. But, to use Ridha’s phrase, they seem to have “faded out”. “I wonder what happened to those kind of acts,” he says.
Thing is, it can be a difficult job occupying that middle ground. You have to engage with the new opportunities success brings while retaining the essence of what made you popular in the first place. It’s a balancing act that Ridha has pulled off masterfully, not least with his choice of collaborations. For every Scissor Sisters there is an Erol Alkan.
Indeed, Ridha sees Erol as his most important collaborator of the last three years. Together they’ve produced a string of dancefloor bombs – ‘Waves’, ‘Avalanche’, ‘Roland Rat’ – released alternately on their respective labels, Boysnoize and Phantasy Sound. “We both have an idea of how music could be in our dream world,” Ridha says. “We both produce other people’s music and think, ‘This is what they should be playing on the radio’. It’s great to work with him because he was a huge supporter of my music and my label from the beginning. He helped me a lot. He was one of the first guys to book me in the UK.”
When Ridha does work with someone like Scissor Sisters – he produced the New Yorkers’ most recent album, ‘Magic Hour’ – he’s adamant that it’s on his terms, that he’s not going to “feed the industry what it wants”, namely off-the-peg electro beats with a star name sat uncomfortably on top. “That doesn’t interest me at all,” he says. “The sounds are too boring. The romantic idea for me with that kind of music would be to use more sounds and rhythms that are not that usual. It used to work in the 80s and 90s. There was so much experimental music back then that became popular without sticking to a formula.”
Even though the collaboration with Scissor Sisters went well, with both sides happy with the results, it nonetheless ended on a slightly sour note when the record company, worried that there wasn’t a hit, parachuted in Calvin Harris to co-produce the first single, ‘Only The Horses’. It confirmed all the doubts Ridha had about getting too deeply involved with a major label. “I always thought that no matter how much the big labels tell you you’ll be free to do what you want to do, in the end you’re on a big label and you are a product they’ve paid for. They’ve got to make sure they get that money back. You end up having to accept creative decisions made by other people. The music changes without you knowing it. A few years later you’re left wondering, fuck, why did I throw away this thing I had? That thing that people loved?”
He continues: “I don’t want to even start with that kind of thing. I didn’t feel any pressure on my new album because I know what I want to do and I don’t have to do things for the sake of selling records. I make music because that’s what makes me happy. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. I’ve had a lot of talk with big labels. I had interest in my first two albums. And it’s pretty obvious that everyone wants to sign a DJ right now. That would be the easiest thing in the world for me to do. But I don’t want to do that.”
Ridha is much more comfortable with his most recent collaboration, with Skrillex, under the name Dog Blood. The result, ‘Middle Finger’, is a hyperactive mash-up of rave synths, digital rock riffs and a chopped ’n’ screwed rap sample. It came about when Ridha, a fan of old-fashioned, real-world networking as opposed to the virtual type, asked Skrillex to visit his studio following a gig in Berlin.“It was the first time he saw an 808 drum machine or a TB-303,” he laughs. “It was like two worlds colliding. Neither of us could have done those tracks alone.”
When they were done, Ridha took Skrillex to Hamburg for a tour of the city’s infamous Reeperbahn red light district. “The biggest in Europe,” points out Ridha. “It’s crazy because as soon as we got out people knew him. I completely underestimated it. Everywhere we went people were coming up and speaking to him. That doesn’t happen to me.”
Which is something Ridha is very happy about. At home in Berlin he can walk his dog, Mia – his favourite non-music pastime – unmolested. All he has to do is take off his trademark baseball cap and hardly anyone recognises him. “That’s one of the reasons I have the hat,” he says. “People recognise me more with it on.”
He gets excited and jumps up in his seat. “Yesterday the funniest thing happened. A fan – I don’t know how he got there – he knocked on the door of the tour bus. I opened it up. It was this guy, totally drunk. He said, ‘Is this the tour bus for Boys Noize? I was standing right in front of him. I said ‘No’, and closed the door.” He creases up and smacks his thigh. “He didn’t even know it was me. What an idiot.” Skrillex couldn’t do that, and that’s just the way Ridha likes it.
In the middle of the stage at the Columbiahalle sits a three metre-tall silver skull. It looks a little bit like something left over from an Iron Maiden gig – the heavy metallers have been using a skull-headed zombie mascot called Eddie since 1980. But, of course, Ridha also has a long association with the skull as an image. It stretches back to ‘Oi Oi Oi’, which featured a mirror-encrusted human headbone on the cover (Damien Hirst’s diamond skull came afterwards – art imitating electro?).
Ridha’s skull (which doesn’t have a name) is flanked by enormous LED screens. The lights dim, smoke swirls around the base of the skull and then it’s grill-covered mouth flashes in time to a robot vocal: “This is what you want, this is what you get”, the opening lines of ‘What You Want‘, the opening track on ‘Out Of The Black’. Ridha appears, one arm raised, finger pointing to the ceiling. The beat starts to march, the digital fuzz builds then explodes as Ridha sets about duffing up the the audience with his raucous electro-house. Standing in the cranium of the skull, tweaking and twisting the dials of a hidden mixing desk, it looks like he’s poking the skull’s brain, pulling neurons apart and reconnecting them to create new pathways. Dance music’s answer to Dr Frankenstein. Kind of. Together with simple but retina-scorching visuals on the LED screens and reworked versions of ‘Lava Lava’, ‘Jeffer’ and ‘XTC’, which crackle with a newfound rawness, it makes for quite a spectacle. Sunday night in Berlin is, apparently, a tough gig. You wouldn’t know from the crowd’s frenzied reaction.
An hour later, backstage and towelling off, Ridha is buzzing. “That was pretty epic,” he grins. Indeed. The Boys Noize live show is turning out to be a huge success. European tour complete, it goes to the US for six weeks. There’s a string of festival dates in the pipeline for 2013, starting with Ultra in Miami in March. If his appearance at 2012’s I Love Techno is anything to go by, it’ll be mayhem. “There were eight thousand people in my room at I Love Techno and loads more trying to get in, but the security wouldn’t let them,” he says. “It was intense!”
A hit, then. However, it’s not an obvious move for Ridha, who is rooted in the anonymous DJ tradition. He says himself that he is “in [his] heart
a DJ”. Up until two to three years he tried to avoid even having his photo taken, always blocking his face with his hand. It’s only because fans have posted his picture, taken while DJing, online so many times that he’s given up and agreed to do photoshoots without complaint.
Talking about the reasons behind the live show, he says he needed a new challenge, and it’s a fair point; forward momentum can be helpful when it comes to staying relevant. But it feels like there’s more to it than that. Why now? “It’s probably a weird move because at the moment the DJ is more popular than ever and it works as a live thing, or at least people accept it,” he reasons. Exactly. Even if he just stuck to DJing, the thing he loves, the upward trend would continue. “But at the same time I feel that the perception of the DJ has changed. We all know that the DJ is the new rock star, but I feel it’s not so much about the music any more. It used to be only about the music and not so much about the person who plays it, huge LED walls and jumping around. Yeah, I thought it would be cool to do something new that would be a challenge. And I also wanted to watch how the whole DJ thing was going for a year or two.”
In other words, he’s worried that whole DJs-as-pop stars thing is going to implode, and he doesn’t want to be too close to it when it does. So he’s positioning himself as a ‘proper’ live act for the big festivals, meaning he can concentrate on more underground DJ slots. It’s a shrewd move. It means he can do pretty much whatever he wants.
That’s the thing with Ridha. As well as having a dancefloor Midas touch, he’s clever. It’s why, over the course of three years, he’s managed to become one of the biggest names in electronic music, with options to work as a producer for household names, and has done it without having to compromise his underground credentials or his hard-hitting sound.
Put that to him and a winning smile spreads across his face. “Yeah, you could say I’m in a lucky position,” he says.No. Luck doesn’t have anything to do with it.
Boys Noize isn’t just the coolest superstar DJ around, he’s also one of the brainiest. And no wonder; look at the size of his skull.