Helena Hauff
The Rules Don't Apply

Behind the staying power of one of dance music's most mysterious—and most celebrated—DJs.

In place of a standard accolade-touting career biography, the top right corner of Helena Hauff's SoundCloud page reads: "Helena Hauff! Du rufst an, ich leg auf." The German phrase is a shrewd double entendre that makes use of auflegen's two meanings—"to DJ" and "to hang up." Call Helena and she'll play for you. Or, maybe more likely, she'll just put down the phone. When I asked her about it over a coffee one crisp afternoon in early September, she laughed and said she thought it was funny and rhymed with her stage name. But more than a joke, the shibboleth is reflective of an irreverent worldview that's led to the Hamburg DJ's intrigue and anomalous staying power after more than a decade of above-ground success: authentic and steadfast, she refuses to answer to trends or the industry's sometimes crippling pressures to conform.

Now a flag bearer for the lo-fi electro leanings associated with Bunker Records and go-for-broke '90s warehouse raves, Hauff has become the ambassador for a suite of retro, underground sounds while still achieving commercial appeal. That she has been playing such large-scale events as Awakenings, Gottwood, Primavera and countless major clubs around the world for years is a feat amid the choices she's made to run counter to the mainstream. A vinyl-only DJ with no manager, press campaigns, social media account or even a smartphone, she has defied the unwritten laws that govern the modern music industry, which privilege artists who satisfy the demands of algorithmic populism and the Instagram economy. More than a decade into her career, Hauff—who is celebrating her third BBC Radio 1 residency and a release on London's fabric Originals this month—has competed with and even surpassed many of her contemporaries, remaining relevant in spite of, or even because of, her outsider approach to music for music's sake.

"The core of the music has never changed. It's about that raw energy—it's what I've always been into."

Though flippant, Hauff partially attributes her success to her abiding commitment to the tastes she honed as a university student in Hamburg. Bred on a musical diet of The Stooges and Loop, she was sonically primed for the strobe-lit intensity of DIY electronica, which she recalls first randomly picking up at a record store when she was 18. She quickly grew fond of Dutch artists like Guy Tavares and I-F, who have notably not changed their squelching school of acid and electro in the 30 years since they first started throwing parties. It wasn't long before she started collecting similar records and DJing, and then holding a Tuesday night residency at the vaunted local haunt Golden Pudel, at which she invited Tavares and I-F to play.

Golden Pudel's understated anarchist ideology resonated with Hauff as she began hosting her own nights and cultivating a hometown following. "I realised pretty quickly that the people surrounding the Pudel were pretty politically involved," she told the Guardian in 2018. "Not like a political party, but a kind of anti-capitalist idea."

Hauff's affinity towards the club's punk-minded ethos blossomed in tandem with her escalating focus on production and record digging, which became an obsession to the point that she dropped out of school to pursue music full-time. At first her focus was on her studio. She used (and continues to work from) an all-hardware setup, whose immediacy and limitations allowed her to elicit the cantankerous sounds being circulated by some electro pioneers in The Hague. Some of her earliest releases from this period, like Return To Disorder, which became the name of her record label, are particularly raw. The tracks, which straddle electro and subversive hardcore, rarely peak and rarely resolve, deploying mincing synths and washes of static that chew up the ear. To her, the style looked towards the future while remaining rooted in a lineage of protest music that soundtracked Detroit's recent past.

While Hauff excelled at production and continued to make music at a dizzying pace, it was her DJ sets that propelled her to recognition not long into her budding career. She proved to be a discerning selector as well as a highly technical mixer, and her chops behind the decks attracted high-profile admirers like Actress—who released her debut album, Discreet Desires, on Ninja Tune sub-label Werk Discs in 2015—when he saw her play at Pudel as a 20-year-old.

"I still think she's the best DJ in the world," her close friend and collaborator L.F.T., an electro DJ and producer from Hamburg, told me over the phone. "She knows exactly which track is on each record—she has an almost photographic memory and knows what will fit into each other." Having played back-to-back with her a handful of times, including a hugely popular 2020 set on Berlin's HÖR, he said she exudes extreme calm behind the decks, and has an uncanny ability to mix any two records together perfectly in less than five seconds. "She knows what will happen before it happens," he said. "It's pretty special."

I spoke to Hauff about how she honed her technique, inquiring specifically about whether or not she wrote notes on her record sleeves, as many vinyl DJs do as cues for themselves in the club. She said no. Instead, she has a special type of synesthesia that allows her to "see" songs. "Quite often I play a record, and I don't know what the hell it is or what the artist is called, but I can see the structure in my head," she said. The anatomy of each track resembles a complex "anti- clockwise clock" where different parts of the song form structures that imprint themselves in her mind's eye immediately upon first listen. "I can see exactly how many bars are in a track, when a new element will start, where the hi-hats are," she added. As such, she doesn't require the scree of a CDJ, instead pulling from an extensive collection of rhythmically and stylistically diverse vinyl that she can methodically construct into seamless, genre-spanning sets.

Hauff is impressive behind the turntables. She's commanding and magnetic, playing with a casualness that belies the rigor of mixing high-BPM records for crowds of spiral-eyed partygoers in claustrophobic clubs. (Though she told me that one turntable malfunction literally left her crying under the DJ booth between mixes, she conceded that any slip-ups likely weren't perceived by anyone but her). At Lyon festival Nuits Sonores in May, I watched from La Sucrière's overhead mezzanine as she lissomely popped records onto the turntables, pausing to leisurely hand roll cigarettes and scan through her record bag while still engaging with a spellbound throng of more than 2,000 people. The performance was exceptional to say the least, securing my full and undivided attention in a way that few DJs still can.

But it was at Hauff's much-anticipated Berghain appearance in September that she flaunted the full range of her skills, showcasing how her curation, even more than her technical panache, has secured her enduring popularity. In a venue whose bread and butter is the knuckle-dragging routine of four-to-the-floor techno, her set was a refreshing landscape of dynamic peaks and valleys. Troweling from a timeline of noisy, neo-gothic dance music—curdling acid, full-pelt industrial, fanged electro—her selection harkened at times to gritty '90s nostalgia and at others to mechanical futurism. It also eschewed a set's traditional shape in which tensions climax and build.
Her method was to churn up themes, cycling fluidly between different strains of off-kilter dance music played one after another. While this tactic could have come across as eclectic at best (or abrupt at worst) in lesser hands, in Hauff's, the result was to create less of a trajectory than an overall atmosphere.

"It creates a lot more energy [to play different genres]," she told me after the set. "It's also a lot harder than playing just one thing. But when it goes well, it creates this uniform sound over time. And if you listen to that for three or four hours, then you can hear that it will make sense together— you'll see the big picture."

"No one can say that I've achieved what I have because of the nice pictures I posted on Instagram. I'm just good at what I do.”

Hauff uses this kind of strategic titration to gradually introduce niche genres to festival audiences that might not be as attuned to underground dance music, playing one challenging track deep into a mix after an hour of supple build-up. It's how she's managed to bridge such disparate scenes and hold onto a broad listenership, accumulating followers who both enjoy the shapeshifting backdrop of her dark selections and the effortlessness with which she introduces styles that would otherwise feel out of context or beyond the norm. A friend of mine who has historically favoured deconstructed club music and Hessle Audio-like bass summarized Hauff's idiosyncratic, cross-genre allure well: "I usually hate electro," she said. "But I love Helena Hauff."

The artist's new EP on fabric Originals is a testament to her unique ability to bridge scenes as a highly diverse, yet still aesthetically consistent, selector. When I asked the London label about their decision to work with her, they interestingly pointed to her DJ sets rather than her past releases."Helena was one of the first names on our list of artists we wanted to work with," Jorge Nieto, fabric's creative director, wrote over email. "She’s an excellent artist, always digging for new tracks, and her sets are always refreshing. She has a passion for records and the craft that we really love at the label."

Out now, Living With Ladybirds sits well on fabric Originals, which seems to highlight artists who are the torchbearers of their respective genres. The four tracks are true to her past work's spare and unarmoured grit. "Touching Plastic" offsets the electric thrum of hardware with scuzzy drums and a lone synthesizer, while "Your Turn To Fly" and the melodically comparable "Jonas" cull heavily from the sketchy single-take feel of her 2015 LP, A Tape. Despite the arc of Hauff's career since her last consistent string of releases before the pandemic, the overall impression is that she has remained resolutely committed to a prototypical sound—one she has unwittingly become the representative over the last few years.

Part of Hauff's drawing power to a relatively above-ground audience is the distinct musical sensibility she's disseminated in her studio and behind the DJ booth. But it's also the subtle ways in which she courts intrigue by dodging conventions. Not only did she not approach fabric for Living With Ladybirds—they tapped her for songs last January, and have seemingly been the only purveyors of any kind of promotion—but she's allegedly never had any set ambitions for her music more generally. Opportunities have emerged in the wake of her exceptional talent.

"I just go along with what's being presented to me," she said at our second meeting. "I never thought, 'What am I going to do next?' I know there are a lot of artists who have some kind of business plan, but I just never have. I've never wanted to 'reach goals.'" The statement was less of a put-down than an admission of punk naivete wherein her attention has been purely on the records and releases that interest her and nothing else.

In 2022, this audacity is rare and refreshing. The entrenched and extended power of social media has fed the majority of the arts—and nightlife as a microcosm of these wider commercial economies—into the maw of unfettered platform capitalism; understandably, many DJs and producers have been thrust towards the kind of shameless self-promotion and easily-digestible music-making that generates income by gratifying hungry Instagram scrollers and the companies that peddle products to them. What's more, many artists used these networks to sustain wavering careers at the height of the pandemic. Wanting to stay connected to their fans and keep the attention of a dwindling (and increasingly competitive) cabal of clubs, they posted selfies and produced accessible tunes that could proliferate on algorithms and discovery pages. Some artists have been subject to criticism for ostensibly championing the love-and-acceptance values around club music while buckling to pursue commercial profit. There are plenty of artists who have beefed up their feeds and pivoted their signature styles in accordance with bank-backed trends.

Hauff has a fan page that she claims not to be involved in, but she otherwise has no online presence aside from her accumulated collection of interviews and reviews. There was a time at the nadir of the 2020 lockdown when she considered joining a couple of platforms, but she's ultimately happy she didn't, calling social media a "disease" that breeds mindless content and skewed metrics for success. She's also aware of how her abstention has influenced the course of her career."I think I've been a bit lucky that I haven't had to play the game," she reflected. "I think it's gotten me more respect, because people notice that I'm not playing. I don't blame people for using it as a tool, but at least now no one can say that I've achieved what I have because of the nice pictures I posted on Instagram. I'm just good at what I do.”

At a panel on business techno and the Instagram economy last summer, I was asked about the intractable relationship some artists have with the DIY ethos if they want to get paid while staying true to the underground. Is it possible to circulate through major venues while playing music from lesser-known artists and garnering street cred? Hauff was the only artist who came to my mind as someone who has been able to keep a foot in both worlds. She's traversed the rigid boundaries that separate seedy squats and wide-acre festival circuits and continued to transfuse her vision into both.

On the ebbing crest of a release announcement and a busy summer tour, now would be a natural time for Hauff to be anticipating her next EP, plotting her next move. Most artists would be filled with a quaking anxiety at such an unfixed horizon. Instead, she's perpetually cool. "I don't know what I'll be doing," she laughed.

As with her DJing, Hauff has navigated her career by being impromptu and intuitive, letting the pieces fall into place. In the time since we spoke, Hauff started a month-long residency with BBC Radio 1. Her first hour-long mix is a high-octane trip through the recesses of her record collection, exploring hiss-laden industrial and electro. In between songs, she narrates her selections, detailing the memories that inspired some of her choices. The majority are timeless cuts she found when she was 18 that she's still playing now. "I randomly bought this in the mid-2000s," she wrote to me after the fact, citing Radioactive Man's "Uranium." "I remember thinking, 'This is the best thing I've ever heard in my life.' The core of the music has never changed. It's about that raw energy—it's
what I've always been into."