THROWING THE RULES AWAY AND LOOKING FORWARD
Whether he’s DJ’ing festivals under his own name, recording as Plastikman, or traveling with the ENTER events, Richie Hawtin remains connected and committed to stretching, morphing and breaking the limits put on making music, especially with his normal working genres of techno, electro-house and deep dance music.
VOICES FROM THE FUTURE
Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, right across the Canadian border from Detroit, Hawtin felt the pull of the Motor City from an early age, though the initial attraction wasn’t musical. “I was one of the Windsor kids who wanted to go to Detroit,” Hawtin says. “I wanted to search for more and that search didn’t start with music. It just was going resale shopping and things like that, but it led me to music and eventually going beyond the music that I was into at that point, like Electro and breakdancing stuff, and finding music that was actually coming from Detroit, the early Detroit—Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Eddie Fowlkes, all these guys. So that time of being young, and kind of innocent and just sucking everything in, still somehow is the blueprint of what inspires me and how I approach making music, how I approach DJ-ing, and how I approach being creative with technology. Those early days watching Derrick May DJ, Jeff Mills, even actually before I watched Jeff Mills I used to listen to him on the radio. Because in Windsor, we’d get all the Detroit stations and you could even close your eyes and imagine what Jeff was doing. His name was “Wizard” and that was like industrial music and techno and hip-hop all smashed together and you’re like, ‘how the hell is that possible?’ And one of the things that still resonates with me today was [with] all those guys, it was about mutating and ripping something apart, [then] putting it back together in a new way as a DJ. But even in their music, it was something based upon [what’s happening] now, and I guess that would have been their own influences, but it was always looking forward. So if I’m in the studio or if I’m creating something from scratch or if I’m in front of a crowd and I’m DJing, I want to create something that sounds new and from the future. I don’t [want] people to have a reference point. I’m not a painter trying to do a landscape of what it looks like out of my window. I want people to close their eyes and feel that they’re getting taken away and that they’re getting pulled inside my imagination.
“Techno to me—then, now and in the future—will always be about throwing the rules away and looking forward. And remember, like 20 years ago, 25 years ago, you didn’t have to throw the rules away because there were no rules. Most of us were buying used synthesizers from the pawn shops. They very rarely came with a manual. You get a DX-100 or DX-7 without a manual and try to figure that [stuff] out. Probably you’ll never figure it out, but somehow you figure out enough to make your own sound. That was part of the fascination and discovery with technology going into the studio to see what kind of crazy sound you could make.
“I think that was part of the fascination also. It wasn’t like you could go on the internet and find and download the manual. You really couldn’t call up any friends and say, ‘How do you do this?’ You just watched some people here and there. I used to go to Derrick May’s house and Kevin Saunderson’s studio, KMS, and if I was there for one minute or five minutes or one hour, I’d just be watching and sucking it in. ‘What are people doing on a mixing console?’ I didn’t know what a mixing console was. I didn’t know what an EQ was. It was just slowly practicing and trying to approximate what I was hearing on the radio, on Jeff’s shows, on the records, the early Trans Mat and KMS records and other industrial records. I was really into Mute records. So you have all these sounds that you kind of like, and then try to start figuring out. ‘Okay. Is that a 909 drum machine? Or is that an EQ?’ And I say ’909’ because I remember when my partner at the time, John Acquaviva, said, ‘Come to my studio. I’ve got lots of stuff you’re going to like.’ He’s like, ‘Check that machine out over there. TR-909.’ And I turned it on—it was like listening to every Derrick May record I’ve ever heard, and it was [as if] suddenly it was Pandora’s Box. It was like, ‘Okay, that’s the sound I’ve been looking for,’ and then it’s, ‘Well okay, can I make a Derrick May record?’ And somewhere along the line, I guess Rich trying to make a Derrick May record became Rich making his own record.”
“… it was about mutating and ripping something apart, [then] putting it back together in a new way as a DJ.”
FREQUENCIES AND RESONATING
“At that time, the machines I used and all of us used were what we found at the pawn shop. Of course, we were like, ‘Wow, it’d be great to get one of these Moogs,” but they never came up and if they did, they were way expensive. We were looking for things that were like 50 bucks. Like a TR, a TB-303, 75 bucks — an 808.
“Some guy called me up, ‘Hey, I think I found some stuff that you may like.’ You know, some guy in Windsor came over, opened it and was like a brand new 808. “I don’t know what the hell you can make with this but how much you want to give me?’ 90 bucks, Canadian. Okay. It was nothing. You know?
“So the machines I love now—even the textures of sound—weren’t something that I had a choice about. [For instance,] I love Dave Smith instruments because in the beginning I had a Pro-1, a Sequential six-track and I just use them all the time. Same with the 101, the Roland [SH-]101, and 202, 303, 808, 909, 707, 727. This is stuff that I found and that just became my sound. I couldn’t afford a Moog and it wasn’t until years [later] that I got [one], and I love the sound of that instrument. But when I’m very honest, other people use a Moog much better than me because they’ve spent time and that’s their sound.
“It goes back down to being an artist. You know, for me, Dave Smith is an artist. Moog was an artist. I’m an artist. We all hear things differently. It’s not that’s better or that’s worse. It’s just like I resonate with those frequencies over there and as much as I resonate and get turned on by certain records, a lot of these records that I like have a certain sound that I like which actually quite often has some of the synthesizers I like by some of the designers, who are actually some of my friends now, who I like. So it all really makes sense. It’s all about frequencies and resonating and finding a vibration that’s real and honest and you.
“Today there [are] so many incredible choices it’s nearly an avalanche of stuff being thrown at you. Of course, I really love the re-introduction of the Roland synths. Some people don’t like them because they prefer the original 808 or 909. Because I used those instruments so much in the early days, I’m quite happy for an update that has a feeling—somehow it’s connected to that original sound but is a little bit different. Again, not better or worse—it’s just something a little bit new for me.”
There’s always been a strong connection between DJing and production.
MANIPULATION AND MOVEMENT
“I’ve never been one to sit too long. Let me just say that again—I’ve never been one to really enjoy sitting in front of the computer during the creative moment for too long. Later on, editing and stuff—I love editing, back edits and this and that. But drawing notes on a computer screen—I’ve always enjoyed grabbing something and manipulating and moving it and seeing what happens. To me, there’s always been a strong connection between DJing and production. I think that’s why I still love hand hold, grabbing things and manipulating. My studio work is, of course, programming drum machines and setting up a number of rhythms and then leaving on the machines and the computers all running and jamming on the mixing console and those machines nearly in a dub kind of style. You know, pressing ‘record’ and jamming. Sometimes you’re 20, 30, sometimes an hour and then finding a great chunk within that which is a song.
“When I’m DJing, it’s also that kind of stream of consciousness. I do preparation by going through all the records and tracks that are sent to me or the records that I would have bought back in the day and having a certain bunch of options. 100 records or 1000 tracks and then just going with the flow. Playing the first record, and maybe I know the second record, but after that [it’s just] one leads to another. Just as you would be in the studio—‘Okay, is it the right time to bring in the high hat or bring the melody or change the filter sweep?’ You never really know. It’s a flow. It’s intuitive and it’s a feeling that you just have to let naturally evolve.”
“I don’t want to play records the way that they were produced. I can listen to that at home…”
CREATING THE MOMENT
“I used to prepare for my exams and tests the night before, so I was never that guy. I love the energy that is nearly like I’m back on the dance floor. When you’re a participant and you don’t know… I think I know what record’s coming in or is that something, that frequency is being made by something else I never heard before and it’s like this kind of uneasiness and this excitement. It’s just something magic and that’s the moment I’m trying to create on the dance floor or even with the records.
“So that’s the situation I put myself in. I have Ableton [Live] going. I have TRAKTOR. I have thousands of records. I have certain drum sounds in my Push that I’ve decided I like to use. So I guess I have all the sounds and the frequencies in place, but Push and Ableton start empty. My record box basically starts empty. I may have one or two records that are a good intro and then I go for it.
“I don’t go back and look at what I play or how I play it. I record. We tweet out what I’m playing live as a playlist for everybody, but I try to remember and if I feel that I need to try and go back to a point on the next gig, maybe I will, but you don’t really remember exactly what happened anyway, so it’s kind of up to chance. You know, when I’m playing I’m listening through my playlist and 90% of the time I don’t think, ‘Ah, I know I’m going to play that record next.’ I’m listening and I’m, ‘Okay, those frequencies sound good to what is out here right now — boom.’ And by the time I realize what I’m playing, you’re already hearing it. I often describe it as a stream of consciousness, an audio stream. And yeah, that’s the best way I can explain that — whatever’s happening.
“I don’t want to play records the way that they were produced. I can listen to that at home, you know. Other people can, that’s great. But as a DJ, I want to take the songs apart and repurpose them and allow people to hear things in a completely new way, in the way that I like to hear things.”