Boys Noize is a dance world legend. A DJ’s DJ and a producer’s producer, the German mainstay can rock a warehouse for hours or co-write a chart-topping hit for Lady Gaga — you’ve heard of “Rain on Me,” right?
Born Alexander Ridha, the producer has worked with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Depeche Mode, started supergroups with Mr. Oizo and Skrillex, and earned a Grammy nomination for the latter with the Ty Dolla $ign assisted-track “Midnight Hour.” He’s somehow both an underground icon and a mainstream force, an unusual and enviable position.
On the release day of his latest album +/- (pronounced “Polarity”), Ridha here discusses his wild origin story, working with Gaga, selling his vinyl collection to Afrojack and much more.
Where are you in the world right now?
In the countryside of Portugal. I kind of started living here, built a little studio in the garage.
Where did you grow up and how did that place shape you?
I grew up in Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg has the biggest red light district in Europe. It’s a whole part of the city called St. Pauli. They have a bad football club, but they’re famous for their skull logo. That whole skull thing made me fall in love with the image — and obviously, I’ve explored that quite a lot on the visual side.
I was exposed to the red light district quite early. I found myself DJing in one of the main house clubs when I was 16. I worked in a house and techno record store. I was 15 or 16 and suddenly getting offers to DJ. When I was 17, I was a resident DJ at this gay house nightclub called La Cage. Every Sunday night, I would play from 2:00 ’til 5:00 in the morning, go home, take a shower, go to school on Monday morning.
It shaped me a lot as a DJ. I did all my first years in St. Pauli. By the time I moved away from Hamburg when I was 21 or 20, I knew everybody, every bar, every club, every bouncer. I was the youngest DJ. in town, so everybody knew me. That’s where my heart is forever, in Hamburg. I had a lot of great experiences there, and then I moved to Berlin.
Also, as a teenager, I took the bus to the Love Parade in Berlin. I was 13, and one of my best friends moved from Hamburg to Berlin. I visited him. Love Parade ’96, ’97, ’98, ’99; they changed my life, too. I was literally one of two million ravers in the street.
What was the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself and what was the medium?
I was attracted by vinyl quite early. My older brother had a big collection and was into all of these early house and rap records. End of ‘the 80s, he was listening to Run DMC and Public Enemy and house music; stuff from Trax Records and Steve “Silk” Hurley, Marshall Jefferson. I was listening to that music without knowing, and when I was 13 or 14, I started to buy vinyl. I started to buy a lot more hip-hop, like Wu-Tang. I spent $1,000 each month easily on vinyl. I had to have two jobs to finance those, because my parents didn’t give me their money for it.
What were your two jobs?
In Europe, we live in these multifamily houses with five levels. I would clean stairs and apartments before people move in. Everything has to be perfectly clean. It’s a terrible job, but I made a lot of money. I was 14 or 15 by that time. Then, I was working at a record store. I would basically turn up there every day and listen to all the crates of house music I knew from my brother that I was trying to rebuy. At one point [the owner] was like, “You come here every day, why don’t you work here?”
I was making $20 an hour on the cleaning thing, and I would make $5 an hour in the record store. My boss was then like, “I’ll buy you your first turntables, Techniques, but you’re going to work for them, so all your money goes into that.” It was like a loan. It was perfect — but check this out. I was so annoyed with my cleaning job and at some point, I quit and just stayed in the record store — but then I also started to DJ, get $50 here, $50 there. That was cool for me, and when I quit the record store, I still didn’t pay off my vinyl. I basically worked four years for those turntables, and still had to pay him more, because those were quite expensive.
Do you have a vinyl you’re really proud of?
I have this one Roule record — the label from Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk — and he signed it for me. He invited me once to the studio. I brought this record and he signed it. That’s a big one.
There’s also this one project no one really knows about that Jeff Mills was involved [with]. It’s called Final Cut. It was late ’80s. He was only involved in the first two records. There was an album, and then they split, and Final Cut became something more inspired by Ministry and Skinny Puppy. The first two records are crazy, because Jeff was trying to make it more dance. Those early records are worth quite a lot. I have that Final Cut album, which is amazing.
Do you get to listen to your records?
Recently when I was back at my place in Berlin, I wanted to get through all of them, because I haven’t done that in — I don’t even remember — and I was trying to get rid of some. I just have so many from those days from the record store. I was going through through them, and I did randomly hit Instagram Live so people could tune in to see. People reached out to me like, “I want to buy all these [records] from you.”
In fact, the first 1,000 I took out, I’m selling them to Afrojack. He was like, “Man, what are you doing with all this?” I sent him one picture. He’s like, “I want those.” I was like, “You can’t go through all of them. If you want to get them, get the first thousand.”
What’s the last song you listened to?
I’ve listened to new demos. I’ve listened to the Kanye album, and didn’t hear any of the stuff I worked on. Someone sent me the Drake album, too.
What was the first electronic music show that blew your mind?
Watching 2manydjs for the first time. It was 2000. I was 17 and a house DJ. Techno was kind of dead. 2manydjs were blowing my mind. They were the first DJs doing mash-ups live. They really set the revolution. No one’s talking about genre anymore, and I think they are the reason. It became normal to put an a cappella from Missy Elliott over a techno beat, play the Stooges with Vitalic, then dropping a Beyoncé record — all of this wild shit that is so normal now for a D.J. They were the first I heard doing it, and they were also doing it so well. That really changed a lot of views, and also the energy was incredible.
Richie Hawtin at that time also inspired me. He had this Decks, EFX & 909 album around that time, and he would play tribal techno stuff, then Nitzer Ebb, then a really hard, bass-y DJ Koze record, which was just noise basically. That was a different context, but powerful energy.
What is the first piece of gear you bought?
This E-mu ESI-4000 sampler. It’s a big rack and you had these zip disks. I would record samples on it, chop ’em up there and then play with the MIDI keyboard. The first synth was this Access Virus TI2. I think I was one of the first using the laptop to produce. In 2004, when I made my first Boys Noize records, that was the first time you could take your laptop and have the software like Logic on your computer. The laptop became gear by that time, too. I just had one outside synth, one drum machine and the laptop. Most of my early music was sample-based too.
Do you have a favorite piece of gear?
One of my favorites is still the mighty Roland 303 that made acid house. That one is just super timeless. Any time you make something with it, it’s dope, because immediately you have an acid record. You did nothing and you already have something.
If someone is looking at a piece of gear and it’s intimidating, what advice do you have?
I’ve had those moments for sure. I looked at these modular systems in a shop in Berlin for quite a few years and I just thought, “This is too much.” Over the years, I looked at it more and I knew I was going to love it, but I can only touch it If I dedicate proper time and learn it, study it. At some point in 2016, I was like, “Now it’s the time.”
It’s good to take something when your head is ready for it. Don’t force it. It’s got to attract you visually, too. There’s so many different desktop machines and groove boxes, drum machines and synths. If you’re already freaking out by the look of it, then don’t even bother. You want to work with something you like visually as well. There has to be some connection outside of you thinking it’s going to make the dopest sounds.
Is the disco skull from the cover of your 2007 album Oi Oi Oi a real object?
Yes, I have it! It’s massive. It’s like half of my body. The artist is Christoph Steinmeyer, a German artist. I’ve seen that one in a gallery in Berlin around 2005. It was tiny like my head, a real-size skull. Going all the way back to St. Pauli, I just love skulls. We got in touch, and I asked if I can use that photo for my album cover. The album was so extreme, like death techno and death punk. It was the perfect image for it. That’s how it started, then I was thinking if I made that one bigger, I could bring it on to my tour.
So I asked him, and he’s like, “Yeah, it’s going to be expensive, because these are all small mirrors.” But we did it, and it’s been sitting in my home. I took it with me on tour one time. I took it to I Love Techno, the festival in Montpellier, France. I put it up on on this big stage, but it looked so tiny. It was hanging above my decks and it just looked minuscule from the stage. Now it’s just a piece of art.
These nearly 20 years, you’ve proven to be chameleonic with your sound. How do you keep your mind, ears and process fresh?
I’m constantly looking for new ways to create sounds and even compose. A few years back, it would just be buying a new drum machine or buying a few new plugins. Now it’s gone way more extreme, into even how I sequence stuff and building my own instrument with the modular system. Sometimes, I wish I had more an idea about what I want to do in the studio — but I’ll just make something, and go from there. I just put something on and make it, and I try to make it in a way I haven’t before. I never try to use the same sounds again. I have no template. I always start from scratch and decide what does best for whatever I’m working on.
You’ve collaborated with, like, everyone alive, from Skrillex to Lady Gaga to Chilly Gonzales and more. What do you think makes a good collaboration?
There’s a difference between being in the producer role and or being the musician, because sometimes I’m just the producer. When I sit in that seat, I try to do the best for the artist and that sound. I put my touch on it, but I’m trying to get where the other the musician or artist wants to go.
When it comes to my record, and I work with an artist I admire, that’s usually a very exciting process. That person can definitely show me things I can learn. You go in this area — I’ve had this multiple times with Skrillex — where you get in a discussion. You fight over little things, you have to talk about it. What’s the middle ground? I love that. That’s when something new happens, when you jump out of your comfort zone and open yourself up to new things.
What’s your guiding vision with your label, Boys Noize Records?
Finding fresh bangers for the club. It’s very club-driven, although we have more experimental stuff. It’s basically all artists and music that I love to play and listen to. If you impress me in the production and I’m able to sign you before someone else, I’d love to sign you. If you make bangers that I can play it and it goes off and they’re still in the good production world—it doesn’t even need to be good production. It can’t be the worst production, but if the energy, the feeling and the message is right, some of these naive productions are the best.
Let’s talk +/-. I love a symbol name.
It came to me during the album process. The whole interaction we just talked about, basically, it comes all together where you have these two extremes, but what happens if we meet in the middle? There’s this magical and yet undefined space. That’s always interesting, and it’s always been a narrative in my music. The “Girl Crush” record, I’m doing this 90 bpm, slow, industrial techno track, and I’m thinking, “it would be so cool if Rico Nasty would sing over this.” Total wild musical ideas. This is what excites me. When I heard her first tracks, I was just blown away. Luckily, I knew the producer, so we got in touch.
This idea of this music has been in my mind for so long, and you just never come across artists that are open enough to do that. Same with with Kelsey Lu on “Love and Validation.” It’s been a long life process to find those people. Those don’t come from “the manager called someone.” All of the collaborations on the album came together from being friends, being fans of each other, and hanging out and having a good time, and you make music because of that.
Were there cool coaching moments working with some of these other artists?
One thing that I’ve learned is that capturing the moments is way more important than being perfectly prepared for it. With the song with Vinson, the ballad at the end of the album, it’s the furthest away from what I usually do and even more from what I play in the club. It was the first time he sang and recorded his voice. He didn’t even know he was going to be a singer and that was the first thing he ever wrote and ever recorded. That to me is so special, and we made everything in that moment from scratch. I was able to capture his first idea, and that became the song.
What about the artwork you created with Eric Timothy Carlson?
It’s so hard to express music in a visual form, to have the same ideas and mood. For the first time, the art is really 100 percent reflecting the music. I was a big fan of Eric as an artist. I checked out his gallery in New York. We went down the theme of plus and minus, polarity. We explored it for a couple months, pulled down every possible image and reference, going quite deep. It set the whole inspiration for the artwork, and it became his interpretation of that. You see quite a lot of references, but that’s how my music is. It’s more about how do you combine them and make things new.
You’ve been immersed in the universe of +/-. How do you feel about it finally being shared?
It’s probably one of the albums I put the most effort in — from the art, the music, everything. I know that it’s not going to have that effect. It’s hard to accept, but at the same time, I really do this for myself and I’m really proud of it. It’s definitely a big release for sure. I’ve been sitting on a lot of these ideas for a long time to see how time treats them. They’ve been treated well, so I’m very confident. I’s really hard to say what people that know my music are going to think. I’m showing so much new and different things. My sets are techno and house. I don’t think people expect this type of record for me, but it’s fresh to me, and I had to do it. I had to get it out.
Are you planning shows?
Musically, I do have ideas of how to build the night. I’m going on a club tour and I seriously can’t wait to play out again. Just give me decks, I’ll play anywhere.