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Ellen Allien: 'I became a DJ because of music, not because it was cool'

Friday, 21 October 2022
When you say Ellen Allien, you say Berlin. She has Berlin in her DNA and is one of the purest types of techno DJs out there. Ellen Allien rather calls herself an artist. Why? She's never looked at it as something cool, she's purely in it for the music. ‘Being a DJ was not cool back in the day. It was a loser job’. A lot has changed. Now, everybody wants to be a DJ.

Words: Meike Jentjens

The techno genre is expanding every minute. Back in the days, techno was an underground movement. Hailing from Black culture in Detroit in the mid-to-late 80s and coined by the then young Juan Atkins, techno later made its way to Berlin in the late 80s. Kraftwerk were the frontrunners of the German movement that centered machine sounds, and teenager Ellen Fraatz was listening to them in her home in West-Berlin. The Berlin wall fell on November 9, 1989, which allowed a much-relieved Ellen the opportunity to travel to the East without strict controls by the military like she was used to in her childhood. Techno was having it’s moment in the East already, where loads of squatters where throwing raves in abandoned buildings like warehouses, bunkers, and even powerplants.

Entering outer space

One of the city’s pioneering and leading clubs used to be Ufo, the first acid house club that is seen as very influential to the techno scene. Ufo closed in 1990 and later became Tresor. It might have been the place where Ellen Fraatz got her inspiration to look up to the stars for a name more extraterrestrial, suiting the artist life that she started when new doors opened for her in the East. The setting is 1995, Ellen was around sixteen years old. She made new friends when she moved to Berlin quickly and became a squatter too. She felt at home at the rough edges of Berlin, where the creative and artistic scene was the biggest in the then just reunited city. It wasn’t long until Ellen Fraatz fully turned into Ellen Allien. But to say she always wanted to be a DJ, would simply be an error of judgement.

The techno genre is expanding every minute. Back in the days, techno was an underground movement. Hailing from Black culture in Detroit in the mid-to-late 80s and coined by the then young Juan Atkins, techno later made its way to Berlin in the late 80s. Kraftwerk were the frontrunners of the German movement that centered machine sounds, and teenager Ellen Fraatz was listening to them in her home in West-Berlin. The Berlin wall fell on November 9, 1989, which allowed a much-relieved Ellen the opportunity to travel to the East without strict controls by the military like she was used to in her childhood. Techno was having it’s moment in the East already, where loads of squatters where throwing raves in abandoned buildings like warehouses, bunkers, and even powerplants.

Entering outer space

One of the city’s pioneering and leading clubs used to be Ufo, the first acid house club that is seen as very influential to the techno scene. Ufo closed in 1990 and later became Tresor. It might have been the place where Ellen Fraatz got her inspiration to look up to the stars for a name more extraterrestrial, suiting the artist life that she started when new doors opened for her in the East. The setting is 1995, Ellen was around sixteen years old. She made new friends when she moved to Berlin quickly and became a squatter too. She felt at home at the rough edges of Berlin, where the creative and artistic scene was the biggest in the then just reunited city. It wasn’t long until Ellen Fraatz fully turned into Ellen Allien. But to say she always wanted to be a DJ, would simply be an error of judgement.

‘DJ was a loser job'

Ellen Allien lived ‘the artist life’. She studied Acrobatics & Dance and went clubbing four nights a week. It was easier to just ask if she could work at the club, seeing she was there most of the time anyways. So she started working at Tresor, first at the door and later as a barkeeper. In conversation, she heavily emphasises she has always worked very hard for what she has. ‘The money I earned went straight to investing in records and paying my producer. A misconception people often have of me is that I had to be rich to be a DJ, but I did everything myself since I’m not from a rich family.’

Her DJ career didn’t start with her wanting to be a DJ or wanting to perform to make it big. In fact, she just needed music to dance to. She was jamming with her artist friends, trying to find the right vibe for her acrobatic exercises and performances. 'I was on a journey to find out where it would end.' She mixed tapes together to create a longer piece of the music they wanted to hear. ‘My friends at the club saw my talent. That’s why they kept on asking if I wanted to play music.’ The word spread around Tresor, and that’s how she started playing there. 'When I started as a DJ in a club, people didn’t understand what DJs did. And I only saw it as a job for the time being.' It wasn’t like it was everybody’s dream to be a DJ in a club back then. 'They found it strange. But I was a free-thinking girl.'


FREAKS

Being a DJ was not cool back in the day, it was a loser job, and it wasn’t respected.’ DJs from Berlin couldn’t go out and travel the world, as they were not as respected as artists from the USA or UK, explains Ellen. ‘The scene was not on the same level as theirs yet. We couldn’t do our own record distributing because our scene was the opposite of business orientated. All the DJs were freaks. And radical.’ She recalls people thrilling with chaotic, creative energy, and screaming out of excitement and lustfulness for raw raves.


And where there’s demand for raving, there’s Ellen Allien.
She started throwing raves in industrial places herself. ‘Hosting events was the same as how I started DJing, I worked very hard for that. I couldn’t even pay the bill of the first events I organised, because I didn’t earn that much.’ And so she worked harder. The scene grew more business articulate and she started earning money with her events as well. But that took years. Ellen grew with the scene and her life became even more intertwined with techno when she started her label BPitch Control out of the mere reason that she wanted to push her friends’ music and the Berlin scene forward.

Ellen Allien lived ‘the artist life’. She studied Acrobatics & Dance and went clubbing four nights a week. It was easier to just ask if she could work at the club, seeing she was there most of the time anyways. So she started working at Tresor, first at the door and later as a barkeeper. In conversation, she heavily emphasises she has always worked very hard for what she has. ‘The money I earned went straight to investing in records and paying my producer. A misconception people often have of me is that I had to be rich to be a DJ, but I did everything myself since I’m not from a rich family.’

Her DJ career didn’t start with her wanting to be a DJ or wanting to perform to make it big. In fact, she just needed music to dance to. She was jamming with her artist friends, trying to find the right vibe for her acrobatic exercises and performances. 'I was on a journey to find out where it would end.' She mixed tapes together to create a longer piece of the music they wanted to hear. ‘My friends at the club saw my talent. That’s why they kept on asking if I wanted to play music.’ The word spread around Tresor, and that’s how she started playing there. 'When I started as a DJ in a club, people didn’t understand what DJs did. And I only saw it as a job for the time being.' It wasn’t like it was everybody’s dream to be a DJ in a club back then. 'They found it strange. But I was a free-thinking girl.'


FREAKS

Being a DJ was not cool back in the day, it was a loser job, and it wasn’t respected.’ DJs from Berlin couldn’t go out and travel the world, as they were not as respected as artists from the USA or UK, explains Ellen. ‘The scene was not on the same level as theirs yet. We couldn’t do our own record distributing because our scene was the opposite of business orientated. All the DJs were freaks. And radical.’ She recalls people thrilling with chaotic, creative energy, and screaming out of excitement and lustfulness for raw raves.


And where there’s demand for raving, there’s Ellen Allien.
She started throwing raves in industrial places herself. ‘Hosting events was the same as how I started DJing, I worked very hard for that. I couldn’t even pay the bill of the first events I organised, because I didn’t earn that much.’ And so she worked harder. The scene grew more business articulate and she started earning money with her events as well. But that took years. Ellen grew with the scene and her life became even more intertwined with techno when she started her label BPitch Control out of the mere reason that she wanted to push her friends’ music and the Berlin scene forward.

DJ, events organiser, label boss

'People always told me I couldn't do this for the rest of my life and that I needed a real job. We did one event in club Tresor that went on to Monday morning. The whole road was full of cars with people that needed to go to their day jobs, which gave me a very strange feeling of not-belonging.' Her first album Stadtkind became a fact, that she released on her own label. 'I made Stadtkind because I am a part of the city, and I am a part of you, and I am a part of Berlin. I needed to record that to show to myself that I am a part of society!'


Ellen Allien finds it funny to see that being a DJ is now a dream job to many young people, the same young people that look up to her and may have been in the crowd of her ADE Lab: 'Not a Diving Podcast with Ellen Allien by Scuba', soon to be released on streaming services. 'You see DJs travel all around the world a lot and see them on TV all the time, so now it's a very prestigious job.' She feels that it's a long road arriving there at that point, and that you have to be in it for the long run. 'The funny thing is, if you want this job, you have to keep on investing in it and that’s something to keep in mind for the future.

Not underground anymore

'You have different kinds of DJs; those who do it for the passion and the music, and those who are in business. When there’s so much money going around in techno, I don’t know if it’s underground anymore, liked it used to be for me.' That's why she will never abandon techno in the shape she knows it to be. But she doesn't mind the scene growing. As long as it stays sincere. 'If you really want to be a DJ, you need confidence and the strength to work in these conditions. Go your own way and try to laugh while you're on it.'

That's what she did. Her advice to those willing to follow in her iconic footsteps? 'Don't listen to the capitalistic pressure of what they teach you in school. If you really want to do something creative, you can do it. The most important thing is to create, enjoy it, and be a true artist. If that’s only a business plan of how you want to become a DJ, you are not an artist. People look at where others are because they wanna be at that point right away as well, but they don’t realise it’s a long way. And you have to have a loving team behind you to support you.'


So what does being a true DJ mean to Ellen Allien?

'When I play and I feel like everything has become one, I feel like a DJ. It's all about sharing. I react to the people in the room and they react to me. It’s like an energy exchange - it's very spiritual.' And for Ellen, that ultimate feeling of being one together sure can be at festivals, but it all comes back to her playing in clubs. ’People in the club tend to be more open-minded, so when I experimented with different genres of music, that has always been in the club. The same with demos I received from artists, I could try them in the club to see how people would react to them and how easily I could mix them in.’


She gets sent a lot of mixes, tapes, and demos. Mostly from young people who want to release at one of her labels, BPitch and UFO Inc.. Her advice would be to focus on your productions, on your network, and the best thing you can do: making DJ mixes and giving them to friends so people can hear what you do. 'DJing is socialising. People want to be part of a movement. Start it.'

DJ, events organiser, label boss

'People always told me I couldn't do this for the rest of my life and that I needed a real job. We did one event in club Tresor that went on to Monday morning. The whole road was full of cars with people that needed to go to their day jobs, which gave me a very strange feeling of not-belonging.' Her first album Stadtkind became a fact, that she released on her own label. 'I made Stadtkind because I am a part of the city, and I am a part of you, and I am a part of Berlin. I needed to record that to show to myself that I am a part of society!'


Ellen Allien finds it funny to see that being a DJ is now a dream job to many young people, the same young people that look up to her and may have been in the crowd of her ADE Lab: 'Not a Diving Podcast with Ellen Allien by Scuba', soon to be released on streaming services. 'You see DJs travel all around the world a lot and see them on TV all the time, so now it's a very prestigious job.' She feels that it's a long road arriving there at that point, and that you have to be in it for the long run. 'The funny thing is, if you want this job, you have to keep on investing in it and that’s something to keep in mind for the future.

Not underground anymore

'You have different kinds of DJs; those who do it for the passion and the music, and those who are in business. When there’s so much money going around in techno, I don’t know if it’s underground anymore, liked it used to be for me.' That's why she will never abandon techno in the shape she knows it to be. But she doesn't mind the scene growing. As long as it stays sincere. 'If you really want to be a DJ, you need confidence and the strength to work in these conditions. Go your own way and try to laugh while you're on it.'

That's what she did. Her advice to those willing to follow in her iconic footsteps? 'Don't listen to the capitalistic pressure of what they teach you in school. If you really want to do something creative, you can do it. The most important thing is to create, enjoy it, and be a true artist. If that’s only a business plan of how you want to become a DJ, you are not an artist. People look at where others are because they wanna be at that point right away as well, but they don’t realise it’s a long way. And you have to have a loving team behind you to support you.'


So what does being a true DJ mean to Ellen Allien?

'When I play and I feel like everything has become one, I feel like a DJ. It's all about sharing. I react to the people in the room and they react to me. It’s like an energy exchange - it's very spiritual.' And for Ellen, that ultimate feeling of being one together sure can be at festivals, but it all comes back to her playing in clubs. ’People in the club tend to be more open-minded, so when I experimented with different genres of music, that has always been in the club. The same with demos I received from artists, I could try them in the club to see how people would react to them and how easily I could mix them in.’


She gets sent a lot of mixes, tapes, and demos. Mostly from young people who want to release at one of her labels, BPitch and UFO Inc.. Her advice would be to focus on your productions, on your network, and the best thing you can do: making DJ mixes and giving them to friends so people can hear what you do. 'DJing is socialising. People want to be part of a movement. Start it.'

Header photo: I AM JOHANNES

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