Artist of the Month: Boys Noize

John Thorp delves into the mind of Boys Noize, a German-Iraqi Grammy nominee whose evolution from maximal rave instigator to pop star muse has put him in rarified musical territory.

17 min
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Sept 13, 2021
John Thorp

The bio at the top of Alex Ridha’s Twitter feed reads, “3x Grammy award nominated DJ & producer.” This is about as succinct of a summary of the achievements of Ridha, better known as Boys Noize, as you might find. But it’s also an uncharacteristically hubristic introduction from an artist known for their low key approach, a German-Iraqi hero of crossover culture who has confidently, quietly evolved from a maximal rave instigator to a creative muse to the likes of Frank Ocean and Lady Gaga.

Ridha has been a recognised musical threat since the mid-00s, when he first released music under the guise of Kid Alex. Working as a DJ and record-store assistant in the Northern German city of Hamburg, he was barely out of his teens before he was known locally for his precocious technical talent behind the decks, as well as his relentless energy. While Europe’s underground dance floors were increasingly hypnotised by the precise, restrained repetition of minimal techno, Ridha, a wide-eyed, unibrowed devotee to punk rock and hip-hop, wanted something a little, well, noisier.

“My first gig was in Hamburg, 1999,” recalls Ridha. “At that time I was 100 percent into the house side of things, although I listened to everything that came into the store. As a warm up DJ, I’d play a lot of deep house; Moodymann, Theo Parrish and French Touch. But a few years later, house had become really functional in Hamburg, and the music I played began to change to electro on labels like Clone, Bunker and especially Gigolo.”

With the sort of restlessness and realness that only comes with youth, Ridha bet the farm on his Boys Noize moniker, establishing its associated label, Boys Noize Records (AKA, BNR) in order to release a series of singles that he patiently mailed to DJs across Europe, followed by his debut album, Oi Oi Oi. Easily living up to the bombastic promise of its title and crossing genre lines with few fucks given and plenty of crunchy sidechained production, Oi Oi Oi was soon unstoppable and unavoidable on sticky, neon-tinted dancefloors. Ridha quickly found himself touring the world, aligned with a crew of DJs like Tiga, Erol Alkan and 2ManyDJs, among whom he was, and remains, “the kid, Alex.”

Check out Boys Noize’s Artist of the Month chart on Beatport.
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“I’d say that starting a label was the first dream come true,” Ridha adds. “Part of the reason why I make so much music, and am then able to put it out, is that there’s nobody I need to get the approval of. On the side, I do work for other people, and I can deal with it as a producer, but as an artist? I’d go absolutely bonkers. That freedom is necessary.”

Having concluded earlier than many that much about the industry “seemed like bullshit,” he has stayed true to this ethos and remained fiercely independent. Nonetheless, he has dipped more than a toe into popular culture with remixes for the likes of Snoop Dogg, Depeche Mode and even David Lynch, maintaining his five studio albums for himself and the BNR stable. He has also remained fiercely loyal to a family of artists, including Housemeister and DJedjotronic.

Still, very little of this character investigation quite anticipates how this DJ from Hamburg came to sit in a hotel room with Lady Gaga for the first time, nor exactly what caused Mother Monster herself to indiscriminately spill a glass of water over a modular synth circuit that had been setup for the occasion. There was no damage to the electronics, and even less to their burgeoning creative partnership. Ridha is credited as a co-writer on Gaga’s collaboration with Ariana Grande, “Rain On Me,” which at the time of writing, has clocked up just under 800 million individual streams on Spotify alone. Oi oi oi, indeed.

“If you’re in a studio with Lady Gaga, and she accidentally pours water all over your modular system, how perfect the world becomes in that moment,” laughs Ridha. “It’s something I want to share, it’s polarity. There are some things happening that you can’t control, and they’re just bizarre.”

Ridah’s new album, +/-, pronounced “polarity,” is Ridha’s latest and most ambitious attempt at drawing together his dual identities as supreme pop collaborator and gnarly rave enthusiast. Over half of its fifteen tracks feature vocal contributions, sometimes from Instagram-friendly rappers like Tommy Cash and Rico Nasty, or old friends like Scissor Sisters lead singer, Jake Shears. The other batch is reserved for Ridha’s masterful club constructs, spanning from techno bangers in the classic BNR mould (“Xpress Yourself,” “Sperm”) to creeping, slower-tempo jams indebted to his taste in EBM (both “Greenpoint” and “XYXY” radiate the groove and menace of influential industrial acts such as Chris & Cosey, and especially Nitzer Ebb).

In arguably the album’s most striking track, “Love and Validation,” Ridha performs a singular alchemy in blending the virtuous soul of pop singer-songwriter Kelsey Lu with the arrangements of Canadian rapper, pianist and humorist, Chilly Gonzales. It’s difficult to imagine these two meeting under any other circumstances, and the results are patient and vulnerable, harking back to the unique balance Ridha first established on the classic Boys Noize remix of Feist’s “My Moon, My Man,” a sort of propulsive sensitivity.

Drawing on his own collaborative past and a future-facing range of pop artists, what do each of Ridha’s creative partners have in common?

Boys Noize’s new album, +/-, drops on Friday, September 24th via Boysnoize Records.

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“They’re part of my life,” Ridha stresses. “These collaborations all came together very organically. I want to work with people who want to give back the energy and contribute something, but I’m really open to see what I can get off someone… I want to do something they haven’t done before, to get to something that’s hidden.”

“Take ‘Love and Validation’, for example,” he explains. “Collaborating with someone like Kelsey, who’s better known for her classical influenced music, [so] having her sing over a slightly industrial, eighties-inspired song is an amazing opportunity. The track with Rico Nasty is the sort of music that used to live in my dreams. The one thing these artists do have in common is that they’re willing to trust me and jump into my world.”

“Outside of that, they are friends,” he affirms. “We have all been in the studio, together, creating the music from scratch. And that only happened as we’d spent time before. That has become very important to me over the years, and I’ve had great teachers in that sense, someone like Chilly Gonzales who is dialed into his world and pretty open to work with other musicians. Erol Alkan is a lot like that, too.”

Ridha’s stellar reputation as a producer for pop and rap stars has, like much of his career, progressed gradually and naturally. While others wishing to make a leap from the club to Top 40 tend to use social media clout and the odd thirsty rebrand to chase their aspirations, the world of Boys Noize has evolved, rather than rebooted. The kind of evolution that leads A$AP Rocky to introduce you to his friend Frank Ocean in case you might want to chill in the studio in Berlin. Ridha is therefore able to maintain the rare luxury of being able to focus on what he loves — programming drums, rather than banging his own.

“Before COVID, I would go to LA for winter and I found myself participating in some of these group pop writing sessions,” he recalls. “And emotionally, I wasn’t so attracted to it. I’m drawn to letting things happen. If someone wants something, they’ll come. It’s kind of a spiritual thing.”

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Ridha offers a wry laugh at his own assertion, keen to catch himself rather than be drawn into self-mythologising. The songwriting on +/-, while a world away from the teeth-grinding techno, electro and EBM he regularly unleashes as part of his Strictly Raw series, might still seem alien to commercial radio, where playlists increasingly compete with the international attention deficit disorder writ large by social media. And Ridha stresses that he feels like he still has a lot to learn as a songwriter.

Still, 800 million streams…

“I did not write that song alone,” Ridha underlines when the conversation inevitably circles back to “Rain on Me.” “Gaga is just the best, a killer pop writer. I learned a lot that way too, working with her super professional team. But writing my album wasn’t really about that. It’s more about something that I haven’t done before as an artist.”

“I get a little scared when I have a vocal on my track!” Ridha candidly admits. “But I love the vulnerable, imperfect sound. And that draws back to many of the records I play in my DJ sets, I like that they’re far from perfect. When you make music, you open up yourself, you show a little of yourself. We, as humans, are not perfect either. And in a more perfect world, music should be a reflection of that.”

Ridha may be drawn to imperfect records, but few DJs can match his reputation for executing them in such a way as to inspire mass pandemonium. As we speak, he is sifting through legions of new dance music that might sit well amongst his own latest work. Locked down at home in rural Portugal, he keenly observed the rise of a new generation of DJs accelerating techno’s BPM with a sense of radical abandon, and can count Russia’s bruising, balaclava sporting Locked Club collective amongst his recent allies signed to BNR. Still a few years from forty, Ridha can’t imagine himself losing this kind of core rowdy energy, even as it transfers to new identities and generations.

“There was definitely a time when I heard, down the grapevine, that DJs were scared to play after me,” says Ridha. “But while I love bangers and hard stuff, I wouldn’t play just two hours of it! And now what I play is basically categorised as deep house. It’s interesting to see how techno has evolved in a harder direction, but it has so many different subcultures, as well as fine lines.”

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After an exhaustive tour and the press for +/-, Ridha will continue to curate BNR following an understandably fallow period. The label has been making time to focus on signing new talent, “especially those who can produce something more than just music, who want to work with other art.” Ridha excitedly breezes through several new names spanning both gender and genre, from experimental IDM to pop.

His ear for new talent is renowned. In 2013, he signed a then-sixteen year old SCNTST who sent the label, “a bunch of these BNR-inspired bangers, and they sounded a little cheap but there was something in them that I loved.” SCNTST went on to deliver a series of characteristic headspinners for BNR, soon touring the world with Ridha, who had initially accompanied him on his first-ever trip to a nightclub in his home city of Munich. “He hated it,” Ridha says.

“SCNTST would sometimes send me 100 demos a week, and eventually I said, ‘Just give me the bangers and keep the shit with all the pads for your friends in Munich,’” Ridha recalls fondly. Those friends in Munich were the Zenker Brothers, proprietors of Ilian Tape, and that shit with all the pads became the basis of his secondary project, Skee Mask, who’s 2017 album Compro is arguably one of the most singular and celebrated electronic LPs in the past two decades.

“He’s the next level,” says Ridha, with visible awe in his eyes. “He’s just insane, switching it up and improving and trying out different things. He makes great music, but on a technical level alone, he’s just so fucking talented.”

Despite his ongoing creative success, Ridha remains a huge supporter and proponent of talent, as consistently excited by the potential in others as his own adventures across the charts and in the club. But, for all his modesty and understatement, where are the itches left to scratch? Having been nominated for three Grammys, surely it’d be nice to win just one?

“It’d be nice to win a Grammy for sure,” admits Ridha. “Not because of the prize, but it would make life easier. I’d be able to stop explaining what I do. With a Grammy, it’s just instant industry shit, “Oh yeah, he’s got a Grammy, he must be good!” It’s so silly, but it works.”

John Thorp is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. You can find more of his work here.

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