International Deejay Gigolo Records: The Electroclash years

“Do you know Frank Sinatra… He’s dead… he’s dead,” Miss Kittin cackles in a distant tattoo as the Hacker’s electro beat chugs along. Few memories play out as vividly as when I first heard “Frank Sinatra” by the Hacker and Miss Kittin. I distinctly remember where I was, who I was with and the feelings that the record elicited. Today, it still evokes a visceral memory of surprise, awe and humour; not for its content within the current landscape, but for what it meant back then. 

Taken from the now highly acclaimed Miss Kitten and The Hacker’s “First album”, that formative experience with “Frank Sinatra” laid the groundwork for a musical taste that sought some distance from the mundane of what electronic music had to offer at that time. It was provocative for all the right reasons and brought electronic dance music back to something that was always intended to be; indifferent and at times completely at odds from anything in mainstream culture.

Not only did it cement an admiration for The Hacker and Miss Kittin both as a duo and individually, but it was also my introduction to a label via a compilation with some curious cover art and a name that would be difficult to forget; International DeeJay Gigolos Volume 2

Baptised by the record label that bore its name, International DeeJay Gigolo – which is often shortened to just “Gigolo” – the compilation left an indelible mark and informed a big part of my musical education; not merely for the music from the label but for an entire musical universe that would come before and after it. It’s a label that would grow as my own musical tastes evolved, and in the process of presenting new music, it would also be my introduction to an entire musical history that was distant and elusive to a still somewhat uninformed and still naïve enthusiast. Gigolo leads to Jeff Mills, takes a sojourn via Tuxedomoon, is entangled in the existence of Kraftwerk, and makes connections with contemporary labels like R&S. Throughout it all it keeps introducing the listener to new music and artists like Tiga, Mount Sims, Terence Fixmer and Adriano Canzian, and at the centre of it all; DJ Hell. 

Gigolo Records has been a significant chapter in the annals of club music. Even esteemed DJ,  DJ Harvey professed his admiration for it in DJ mag back in the day and for many DJs and enthusiasts of the same ilk it remains an important touchstone. It will be forever associated with the electroclash moment, but for anybody with eclectic tastes it goes way beyond that moment, tying the dots between Punk, Disco, Hip-Hop, Techno and Electro.

Gigolo came at a crucial time for club music and it not only found the perfect zeitgeist for its own ideologies, but went a long way in establishing that zeitgeist. It stood out amongst its peers for its unique and singular vision, driven by its sole owner and musical visionary DJ Hell (Helmut Josef Geier). It established a moment in music history we aren’t likely to witness again with that intensity. It wasn’t a specific sound – more a lack thereof – but an attitude that was at the heart of Gigolo and it all starts with the man behind the label. 

To understand Gigolo, you’ve got to take a trip through the history of one of the most enigmatic and individual DJs that has ever lived. A true and determined underground figure, DJ Hell’s history moves through club music history like Dante traversing the nine circles. Key figures and moments crop up in his own biography as if he’s recounting the story of our global scene, the faceless narrator of unflappable character. He’s never stealing the spotlight or craving the attention of his counterparts, but he’s always there, in the shadows working on the fringes like a true uncompromising underground hero. 

His career as a DJ starts with the advent of the nightclub, a concept still indistinguishable from the discotheque during the eighties. In Munich, or more accurately, a suburb outside Munich, a young DJ Hell is cutting his teeth, playing music from his local discotheque’s collection – DJs did that back then, when the music policy was still dictated by the sound of the place rather than the disc jockey. DJ Hell had shown a knack for picking the right records from the communal collection, consolidating it into a career as a DJ and then later a producer. 

Moving from the suburbs to the city DJ Hell became one of the first House DJs in Germany, parlaying his skills for mixing records into A&R for the Disko B label before becoming an artist and producer with his breakout single “My definition of House” on the then burgeoning R&S label. His work as A&R took him from Germany to New York, possibly sowing the seed for an eventual move to New York to be a resident at the infamous Limelight club alongside Jeff Mills.

This is where a large part of the story of International DeeJay Gigolos begins. In 1993 DJ Hell was a resident, sharing the booth alongside Mills in one of the most iconic eras and places for club music. It’s here where the story of the club kids of New York begins and ends with Michael Alig’s eventual descent into murder. Yes, DJ Hell was there for the beginning of that too.

It was DJ Hell’s close associations with Mills that planted the seed for Gigolos to exist. After hearing a couple of Disco “edits” from the wizard being turned at limelight, DJ Hell approached Mills with a proposal to release the music. Both DJs knew that the music wouldn’t suit any of Mills’ Techno labels, and he agreed to give the music to Hell to establish International Deejay Gigolos. This was a big deal. Jeff Mills hardly ever licences his music outside of his own labels and here is giving DJ Hell these tracks for free! 

“Shifty Disco” wasn’t the first catalogue number on Gigolos – no that honour goes to D.J. Naughty and David Carretta – but it was released in the same year the label sprang into existence and set the tone for what the label and this music would become. It turned it all on its head. Here’s the original Techno innovator, making Disco-inspired House, and what do you know… he’s very good at it. That raw impulsiveness that is Jeff Mills, is all over this record, but it’s channelled towards the fringes of Jeff Mills’ known universe, where vocal samples and strings sit buoyantly alongside syncopated hi-hats.

Shifty Disco and Gigolo came as a revelation in the late nineties. As we were marching into the millennium, Electronic club music became more and more codified. Lines began to be drawn in the sand, between House and Techno and Trance and its quickly-emerging subgenres where there had never been any distinctions before. Some factions started garnering superstardom on the basis of playing records to a dance floor, while others were happy toiling in the underground benefiting from the hype. It was a time of hyperinflation for club music’s equity stake in popular culture and DJs were playing to millions at the likes of Love Parade while producers like David Morales and Paul Johnson (original underground figures) got played on MTV. As it became trendy without much resistance from people that saw an easy buck, all sincerity went along with it and by the time the troubadours were playing saxophones alongside fedora-clad DJs playing “lounge House” nobody with any taste would be caught dead listening to a DJ, except maybe one – DJ Hell. 

DJ Hell and Gigolo were one of the few instuítutions that not only remained unique during this period, but also bridged a lot of gaps for people moving to and from electronic club music. As the owner, A&R and creative director for the label, DJ Hell’s punk-informed attitude to music and the business of music was one of the most authentic for a time of uber-commercialism for electronic music. There was no specific promotion, no hype, just an ideology and a look that resonated with an audience either coming to electronic music or moving away from the tawdry aspects of the music. 

As the label started to take shape and by the first compilation an aesthetic started to emerge based somewhere between the pop-sensitivities of Andy Warhol and the kitsch machismo of  the Arnold Schwarzenegger artwork for the label. (Later Arnold’s people would sue Gigolo for the use of his image, but that’s a whole other article). It was all carefully orchestrated by DJ Hell and even today a Gigolo record still jumps out at you from the shelves for its curious artwork featuring Amanda Lapore and Sid Vicious. 

Early releases from likes of the disco industrialist David Carretta, the eco-nihilist turned Hi-NRG punk Chris Korda (“save the planet, kill yourself”), House cadettes the Foremost Poets and Electro stalwart DMX Crew, not to mention the Hacker and Miss Kitten set a road map through electronic music that looked like a Jackson Pollock painting created by an AI. Even when Gigolo was releasing straight up House music, there were elements of something more going making unlikely connections between distant musical universes and it was quirky but above all idiosyncratic. There was an approach in breaking down barriers that permeated through it all, and although it was in the air with people moving away from what House and Techno became, Gigolo played a significant role in defining this period as Electroclash. 

If there is one track that defined this era and this spirit in music and offered something of a breakthrough, this would be “Kernkraft 400” by Zombie Nation. Today that song has been immortalised in football stadiums the world over, but before it was that it set a watermark for what Electroclash would become. It’s instantly gratifying melody and fervent joviality, becoming an instant earworm for a whole generation of club-goers. It cemented the career of the artist and synth-wizard Florian Senfter, defining an era and a sound that would soon be immortalised through Gigolo. Right now, it might be as far removed from the original context as it was intended as a football stadium chant (or not actually considering DJ Hell’s own love for football), but even back then it was also probably the biggest crossover success for the label and the artist. Between the saccharine melody and the rocky nature of the synths that called to mind more Emmerson Lake and Palmer than it did Oakenfold, the record has clearly stood the test of time. It was and remains the definition of Electroclash and you can hear its influence on everything from Alter Ego to Boys Noize. 

Much like the whole ethos of International Deejay Gigolo, Electroclash was based on the absence of a particular sound rather than a specific genre. The prefix Electro is something of a misnomer, referring more to an epochal sound and character rather than the literal understanding of the genre Electro. It would fold in everything from Synth Pop to Disco to Techno with a focus on electronic sounds and an iconoclastic approach that tore down institutionalised barriers installed by “purists.” Electroclash held a middle finger up to the dogmas of electronic club music, establishing one of the most fertile and unassumingly progressive periods in electronic music. It came at just the right time at the end of the nineties when electronic club music was becoming more rigid and formulaic in the wake of some crossover success. 

DJ Hell saw all of this from his vantage point at a point where he himself had been established, and positioned International DJ Gigolo Records right at the centre of this incredible creative mælstrøm. There would be nothing expected or pastiche that came out of this period for Gigolo. Records like the electro-rock of Zombie Nation would live side by side with the rest of the catalogue, with the only common thread between these records being their raw and impulsive nature. There was an energy that sought to decimate the conformity gathering momentum in electronic music, offering a lifeline to a musical scene that was getting complacent.

The label  would never fall victim to this complacency and a record would never deign to cash in on the success from the last. The diversity of the label’s output was something like collage for someone with an attention deficit disorder. If for example “Kernkraft 400” was the record that broke the mould, it wouldn’t assume to take centre stage, and DJ Hell would pivot to something  completely different again and again. There was no blueprint or method, it was purely the impulses of a DJ with remarkably eclectic tastes and a laser-like focus, proven by the early success of a record like Zombie Nation’s and Dopplereffekts “Gesamtkunstwerk”. That last record had almost nothing in common with the first even though they were released around the same time, and today, much like “Kernkraft 400”, “Gesamtkunstwerk” stands as another classic record from that same era.

During a recent interview for Tiga’s podcast “Last Party on Earth”, Hell talks purposefully about this record as one of his greatest achievements as a label boss. From the artwork to the title, and of course the music, “Gesamtkunstwerk” is a masterpiece. Arriving, anonymously, via one of the legends of the Detroit scene, namely Gerald Donald (previously one half of Drexciya), it might seem like an obvious choice for a successful record, but at the time people were still just discovering the truly underground sounds of Drexciya and their other Detroit counterparts. Dopplereffekt was still unknown with some mystery around the main actors of the group, but you didn’t need to know the origin story to fall in love with the record’s dystopian grooves. 

Hell and Gigiolo brought Dopplereffekt to the fore with this record. It was probably the purist from of Electro that Electroclash would assume, demonstrating a mass appeal value for the Electro genre that we hadn’t experienced since Uncle Jams Army in the eighties. Electro had been a DIY indulgence for comic book nerds and synthesiser geeks, but even a stubborn rocker  hearing “Gesamtkunstwerk” for the first time, it was all s/he wanted to hear after. In 1999 when the LP was released, it stood as a linchpin for the whole Electroclash movement. The comical panic of Y2K, makes for a perfect backdrop in the group’s fantastical prose about sexual congress with mannequins and obstructing human fecundity, while machines drummed out rhythmic devices like a automatron motor city factory. 

There was a sense of absurdity at work even when the music was quite serious and it came to define the likes of the roster at Gigolo. Things like providing a platform for the aforementioned Chris Korda’s and his “church of euthanasia”; releasing Mount Sims’ “Hate Fuck” as a single for radio; and putting Amanda Lepore on the cover of records obviously provoked, but the intention was always with sense of fun, DJ Hell’s tongue always firmly cheek. A kind of Roy Lichtenstein for the new millennium, Hell and Gigolo took a slanted approach to pop-culture through a soundscape only JG Ballard could envision, and it worked. The records would be released into the world without any pressure from the label for the artists to do interviews or promote their work, and a whole generation flocked to them without much goading. There was something considered about the final product around a Gigolo release, which extended from the music to its packaging and it stood out on every record shelf.

It was an entire world contained, built around a cult-like family of freaks that Hell cultivated like Charles Manson without all the killing and with some actual musical talent. It’s possibly best represented in the funny, almost outlandish 2005 Gigolo documentary, Freak Show, where Hell takes the gang on the road, from Germany to the states, featuring a young Tiga, Miss Kittin, Traxx and a host of characters you couldn’t possibly write today. 

With so much music being released via the label one can’t simply dip a toe into the Gigolo catalogue during this period. There’d be tracks like Vitalic’s “Poney,” Tiga’s “Sunglasses at night” or Fischerspooner’s “Emerge” that would keep you engaged with the label though its popularity, but it would inevitably lead to records like Terenece Fixmer’s “Muscle Machine” or David Caretta’s “Dominion”. At the same time it could lead to a rabbithole to post-punk darlings like Tuxedomoon; resurrect forgotten gems like Shari Vari; or really turn everything on its head with a P. Diddy record. That’s not to mention DJ Hell’s own vital contributions throughout this period, including masterpieces like NY Muscle.

It’s in fact NY Muscle that stands as the fulcrum point for the electroclash era for me personally. With collaborators like LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Traxx, and Suicide’s Alan Vega, this record was something of the barometer from which we gauge the Electroclash period. Rock motifs and tunnel-vision like Techno live side by side in this record from 2003, which also started to mark the height of the success of the label sandwiched between tracks like Sunglasses at night and Justice v. Simian’s “never be alone.” 

Gigolo would honour the legacy from which it arrived and in some chaotic kaleidoscope of sound it would reconstitute and re-invigorate what had become stale and formulaic. In what is only a laboured analogy Frank Sinatra was truly dead, but the rat-pack survived in the form of Micahel Alig’s club kids born in the parallel world the label and its founder created. It was the right label for the right time and as much as it brought a whole new generation (this writer included) back to electronic music. It remains a significant label even today, and today its back catalogue often warrants some double-takes, like “wow, they released that!

From Gigolo’s heyday, electronic music’s success quickly rose in the popular consciousness, perhaps even leaving Gigolo behind somewhere between the stark minimalism of Berlin’s endemic influence. Those barriers that Electroclash broke down were quickly reinforced and only strengthened in its resolve to institutionalise a music that was always thrived in the obscure and impulsive. But it’s still some of the world’s best producers and DJs working today that came to the fore during that time. DJs like Tiga, 2 many DJs, Boys Noize, Erol Alkan and Ivan Smagghe (many of which collaborated or were featured on Gigolo) rose to prominence during this period too, and it’s no surprise that they continue to be acknowledged as some of the best in the world. Whatever was ingrained during Electroclash (even if Ivan Smagghe hates to admit it) has established them as unique entities on our scene today. 

And much like those DJs, Gigolo stands as a watermark in electronic music history. Some twenty years on, many of those records (and I have a fair few of them) stood the test of time. They haven’t been in the zeitgeist for some time but every now and then you’ll hear a DJ play a track and it immediately stands out amongst whatever else is being played, much like it did when it was in its prime. There are some similarities we can draw with the current era and the original Electroclash scene. Electronic music has reached a state of popularity it has never witnessed before, and at the same time has been diluted into bland tropes facilitated by accessibility and the economics. There are a lot of similarities that can be drawn to that time and now, and is setting a good precedent to set the scene for a new iconoclastic genre to exist, much like it did when Gigolo was there to establish it. Frank Sinatra is well and truly dead!