Interview by Denon DJ / Dave Jenkins
Many great tales have been told in dance music over the decades. Heart-warming stories of artists overcoming adversity, legends of DJ decadence (and just as many sobering accounts of the comedowns), yarns of underdogs done good and countless anecdotes of promoter derring-do and revealing management confessionals. But you don’t hear quite so many tales about the humble kit customizer. Certainly not ones that are quite as remarkable as Daniel’s.
Like all great tales, the last 20 years of Daniel’s life has it all. A graffiti artist underdog done good, he’s faced adversity, enjoyed plenty of decadence and derring-do himself and experienced more than one sobering comedown. He’s a detailed, obsessed craftsman who’s created two unique brands. He’s developed a reputation that led him to work and become friends with the very biggest in the game, travel the world and live the perceived dream… Until he lost everything. Twice. For added Hollywood effect, his story even involves a top secret recipe. Intrigued?
I love things when they’re very accurate. That fits well with my brain
“I’m a nerd. I like things very precise. I guess because also I am German, I’m very fond of structure and efficiency!” Daniel laughs over Skype. He’s relaxed, engaged, chatty. He doesn’t fit the cliché stereotype of an overly-efficient time-obsessed person. Like many people in dance music, especially DJs and producers, he has that balanced air of both passionate artist and fastidious engineer. His background suggests as much, too; from his youth as a graffiti artist and turntablist, in his late teens he settled into an apprenticeship as a tool maker. “I love things when they’re very accurate. That fits well with my brain.” All these interests of mine at the time had that quality and necessity to them.”
It wasn’t long before he realised a way to combine all three…
“I was bored with the black uniform shell every single piece of kit had,” admits Daniel. “So I applied how I could use my skills as a tool maker and using a milling machine, the creative hobby of DJing and my art as a graffiti writer. I combined the three things together and started to customise things. The first face I made was 2004.”
Face the Music
And so djs-face!® was born… Although it would be a while before the brand became a buzz word among the DJ A-list; the first few years were spent deep in research and development. Constantly updating his collection of current kit to ensure he could design faces for all popular mixers, turntables, controllers and players, Daniel spent years refining his faceplates ensuring the print lasts as long as possible and they wouldn’t affect the machines’ functionality. By 2007 he’d used his tooling expertise to create the first ever colorway ranges of faders and knobs. He’d also experimented with a range of materials and textiles on the faceplate designs, using sprays, markers, acrylics, leather and denim. Then, in 2008, technology caught up with his idea and things began to accelerate from R&D to VIP…
“Finally a machine that made it possible to print and letter on a metal plate, this was what I was waiting for,” Daniel recalls. It cost him €100,000 and he was the first in Germany to own one. It would soon become a gamechanger and attract business from the biggest names imaginable in dance music and huge brands such as BMW, Vodafone and Porsche. But first he had to let people know he existed.
“That first day nothing happened. I’m not kidding,” he laughs. “I was disappointed. All I wanted to do was spread color in the world. People think in black and white and there are straight lines between, but it doesn’t have to be this way and I think customization is one of the nicest and deepest things you can do as a creator. But I had to let people know what I was doing. I needed a door opener. I’m a nobody, I need to prove myself, so I kinda took it upon myself to make djs-face!® designs for DJs I liked. You can’t expect to get anything from life if you don’t put anything in, right?”
The first artist to enjoy the bespoke djs-face!® treatment was Russian breaks and bass royalty Lady Waks. “She totally freaked out!” grins Daniel. The next was French DJ Joachim Garraud. “Joachim was also so impressed he invited me to his tour in 2008 and we customised his tour,” he recalls. The third one he made was also inspired by a French brand, Ed Banger Records. “Busy P, Mehdi (RIP) and Krazy Baldhead were playing the Love Parade in Berlin and I showed it to them,” he explains. “These guys have seen the entire world a couple of times and this was something they’d never seen before. When I saw how they were acting it made my belief stronger and made me more focused.”
Through these key encounters, business blossomed. Within a year Daniel was working with the prem de la premiership. From Fedde Le Grand to Fatboy Slim by way of The Prodigy, DJ Qbert, Spinbad, Mathematics, Redman, Digitalism. The list went on… And so did his lifestyle. He hung out with Wu Tang when they were in town, he bought a classic Ford T Bird, he found himself on the same airport merry-go-round as many of his clients.
“I had within a year been to 150 parties,” he lists. “I’d fly from meeting to meeting. My ego became quite inflated. I was 24 years old, I could see the zeroes growing in my bank account and had this feeling like I owned the world. If I’m brutally honest with myself, I was a bit of an arsehole in those days.”
He’s also the first to admit he wasn’t particularly money minded. And while the zeroes were going up in his account, there were problems with payments from clients and big regular commercial clients reducing their marketing budgets. This was the early 2010s and the credit crunch was beginning to bite.
“The climate changed so drastically in just a few short months. Customers couldn’t pay. Budgets changed and I was just burying my head in the sand,” admits Daniel who liquidated the company in 2011 and lost everything; his business, his apartment, his car. “I was overwhelmed by all this stuff that I didn’t answer any calls, or emails and skipped dates of where I needed to be and payments I needed to make. The police were looking for me. For a while it became very unpleasant.”
But at some point, he experienced another epiphany and remembered why he’d got into customization in the first place. “I needed to sort out my attitude,” he says frankly. “I wasn’t scratching the surface, I wasn’t going deep enough, I’d become very rude and inconsiderate. I remembered that I was doing this not for myself, but for other people’s enjoyment. I had got carried away with the money and parties.”
Skin When You’re Winning
While djs-face!® was a runaway success with major league artists, it was, and still is, a highly exclusive service. Bespoke one-of-a-kind customisation can’t ever be cheap, which eliminates the vast majority of the DJ market. So Daniel thought about more affordable ways all levels of DJs can customise their kit. Within a year of liquidating his assets he was back on his feet, off his mum’s couch and developing a new solution. Quite literally.
“djs-face!® had made things very exclusive, which is great, but I wanted to have a possibility to help everyone customise their gear. I don’t care if you’re a bedroom DJ or David Guetta,” grins Daniel who began developing sticker-based customised skins that would provide the same unique personalisation for DJs but at a fraction of the cost. Once again, the same detail obsessed side of his personality kicked in as he developed the product; just like their metal counterparts, these adhesive skins couldn’t compromise any machine’s functionality. They should also be fool-proof to apply and leave no trace of residue when removed. No mean feat… As anyone who’s ever applied a sticker over anything bigger than a Panini sticker album will agree.
For these developments Daniel emailed his clients, colleagues and DJ friends to help him with research. 250 DJs wanted to be part of it. They were each sent a variety of adhesives and ask to test them in a number of ways. Their feedback became the product we know as DJ Skins today; stickers you apply to your kit which you can move around as much as you like until they’re perfectly in place before pushing down to release the adhesive. No air bubbles, no wonky lines, no creases. And no residue if you wish to remove the skin to service or resell the machine.
Once again, like his djs-face!® kits, he had created something unique. Something highly confidential, too. Seven years later and still only a handful of people know how the adhesive is made. “It’s top secret,” states Daniel. “We have our own production run for this. We use something that is un-regular to make it.” They won’t even patent it because then their technique is publicly available.
Voice of Experience
But while this top secret, fascinating new level of adhesive technology is at the heart of DJ Skins, Daniel’s attitude and approach to business was the spirit of the new venture. “I’d lost everything, so I had nothing to lose,” he admits. “I had this amazing chance to start once again, calmer, with a brighter perspective and more confidence.”
Once again, things boomed. Triggered by a viral picture with inMusic brand Numark who he collaborated with to make custom skins for the NS6 controller, DJ Skins took off with the same acceleration as djs-face!® but with much wider appeal. Following Carl Cox’s djs-face!® customization, many more A-list collaborations followed with the likes Steve Aoki and Dim Mak, Denon DJ (with a limited MCX 8000 sold exclusively in a reseller store in Germany), the well known Bootshaus Club in Cologne, Tomorrowland and Parookaville Festival. Humbled and grounded by his second chance, Daniel approached business a little more strategically and professionally. He no longer used VIP tables in clubs as his office but instead worked towards investing in a building where he would live, work, manufacture his products and store his kit and stock.
“It was a proud day when we finally achieved that, it felt like another big step up,” Daniel considers. “Everything I owned was on that spot. Everything personal, domestic and commercial. Every aspect of my entire life.”
This was in May 2017. A few months later, On December 2nd, 2017, the building was involved in a massive fire while Daniel and his girlfriend slept.
“We’re very thankful to be alive!” he exclaims. “Our neighbours woke us up and the police and firemen said if we were there for a few more breaths we could have died from smoke inhalation. I’m thankful to be able to tell you this now but not so lucky in other ways. The worst thing was that a friend of mine was taking care of insurance and on that day when the fire burnt, no contract had been signed. Once again, six years later, I lost everything and had to start again from scratch.”
Daniel’s luck seemed to have a limit. And no one could blame him if he gave up and pursued a more ‘conventional’ job after another crushing blow. But the universe had other ideas… With no insurance in place he had to clean up the fire debris himself and found friends and members of the community volunteering their time to help. “People I didn’t even know!” he says. “The kindness of people was overwhelming.”
This was just the start, however. A German house music community called ‘House Fans’ also heard about his situation. They raised an appeal and set up a Paypal account for Daniel and his partner to get back on their feet and start to replace life’s necessities. “I’m so thankful,” says Daniel soberly. “It’s hard to put into words just how much this moved me. I will never forget it. Also business associates were just as supportive. When I met with inMusic, for example, I asked them how to move forward because I’d lost a lot of their product in the fire. They helped me a lot and, I’ll never forget, they said our partnership was more important to them than stock. This meant a lot to me.”
when things seem like a total nightmare, there is a light somewhere, or way for you to get everything sorted
Four months later, March 2018, Daniel and both his brands were back in business, operating out of a tiny room, that a partner company offered him for free. He used this chance to get things sorted, and another 6 months later, October 2018, he moved into his new office, this time fully insured. Five months later he became a Father and his life accelerated again. This time in the best possible way.
“I cannot express how happy I am with my life now,” Daniel beams. “I’m still wearing a donated t-shirt from Serato, my office is still very small now. But I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everything and have faith in whatever you want to call it… God, Allah, Buddha, karma, the universe… Whatever or whoever it is, it works. I’ve lost everything, twice, and been lower than you can ever imagine but have, with lots of help, overcome these challenges. I know that even when things seem like a total nightmare, there is a light somewhere or way for you to get everything sorted. Whatever happens to you, you only have to get up one more time.”
In Daniel’s case he got up twice… Still making bespoke customizations for DJs of the highest level, still creating skins for DJs of every level and currently working on even more innovative and collaborative projects. Naturally, for now at least, they’re top secret. His great tale continues…