The practitioners of intelligent techno often pride themselves on their anonymity. But if the genre has a star, it's Richie Hawtin, who under his given name, F.U.S.E. and Plastikman has steered an influential pathway between arms-in-the-air ecstasy and alienated sparseness. One of the few DJ/composers whose full-length CDs sell consistently over time, he has also headed up a couple of important labels: Plus 8 (co-founded with John Acquaviva) and Minus.
Although closely identified with the second-generation techno scene in Detroit at the turn of the '90s, Hawtin's music has always collected a unique combination of influences that also reveal a strong sympathy with acid house and German minimalism. Pitching him somewhere between Detroit and northern Deutschland would seem about right, especially as Hawtin spent the first part of his career working mostly over the border from Detroit in Windsor, Ontario, and has since moved to Berlin.
Why would a DJ renowned for his technical faculties (both of his DE9 CDs are classics of seamless mix-and-match) move to a notoriously inefficient city where it takes three weeks to get a phone line switched on? Well, Detroit isn't exactly Disneyland.
“The very, very first time we came to Europe in 1992,” Hawtin recalls, “I remember going down to [famed Berlin techno club] Tresor — totally deserted, a wasteland — being 21 years old and walking downstairs into this intense strobe light, this massive wall of sound, and seeing Jeff Mills, who had inspired me so much. The record he was playing when I walked into the room was F.U.S.E.'s ‘F.U.’ — probably my first big, big record. And seeing all these Germans going fucking mental to it, from that point on, there was always a connection. If I was ever to pick another city that was like a sister city to Detroit with the feeling of the producers, the feeling of the people and even the look and feel of the city, it's Berlin.
“And then, at the end of the day, if you look at my schedule, for 10 years, 80 percent of my gigs are in Europe. And I'm sick and tired of flying on a plane back and forth. It's wasting my time when that time could be put directly back into the studio.”
Hawtin's recent studio time has been productive. Closer (NovaMute, 2003), his first Plastikman release in half a decade, is perhaps his most abstract album yet: spare, with touches of subdued orchestration and even some highly processed vocals by Hawtin.
Located in the Western punk and gabba wonderland of the Kreuzberg district, Hardwax Records is one of Berlin's oldest DJ-vinyl stores, founded in 1989 by the heroin-house heroes of Basic Channel/Chain Reaction. Inside, a copy of the early Plus 8 compilation From Our Minds to Yours, Vol. 1 (1991) is notably displayed with a 70-euro ($81) price tag.
Co-owner Peter Kuschnereit (aka Substance; pictured on p. 27) of Scion enthusiastically piles dozens of records upon Hawtin. With his brow furrowed, Hawtin needle-drops through the 12-inches over the store's sound system; at one point, he has a “no” stack of about 20 and a single “yes,” causing Kuschnereit to return to the bins with maniacal fervor. Nevertheless, Hawtin makes quota.
Presents Bryant Stewart (Trax)
This is very typical old-school Chicago, typical Rush sound. The only problem with a lot of these records that are on Trax: They sound like shit. It's the pressing and also the quality of the mixing. It will be a record that I can only play when there's a really incredible system and a really good EQ, because if you play this against any other record, you'll lose the energy and you'll lose the sounds. You just have to realize that there's a lot more potential in this record than you're hearing now.
“Don't Dis the Beat” (Alleviated)
This track here is perfect: MIDI beats, 808, the flange, and you're rocking. Classic acid feel, classic minimal feel — probably, the guy only had one drum machine. Sometimes, when you're forced to do something with the smallest amount of equipment, you do your best work. There are so many different options that you can sit in your studio forever trying to use every new piece of equipment, and you just never get anything done. I have a lot of friends who are buying equipment but never actually finish anything because it's always, “Oh, I can make it better,” because of a plug-in.
Pipecarrier EP (Red Planet)
It's hard to buy Red Planet records because some of the early ones are so classic that, subconsciously, I'm always expecting something to come close or bypass that. And maybe it's not even possible. There are always some tracks I use at the beginning, the middle and the end. And in between that, you're playing some other cool mixing tracks. Sometimes, you need other records to go on top to make something new. This is one of those tracks.
Lucie (Mental Groove)
Lucien is really one of my favorite producers and probably one of the next big stars from the whole techno community. Lucien is also Chilean, and like Ricardo [Villalobos] and everybody else from Chile, they have this organic groove to them that sounds as if nothing changes and it just continues forever, but there are so many little things happening, and it's completely infectious. It's one of those records you play for 10 minutes, and you realize that maybe you should play it for another 10 minutes.
Happi EP (Sähkö)
These guys were really obscure, and they were really important records for me in the Detroit days at the early parties. They were spacey and minimal, and people really didn't know what was going on. Last week, Ricardo and I were playing in Ibiza. It's 6 in the afternoon, and we play one of the Sähkö records. We were playing it with Vapourspace's “Gravitational Arch.” We played the record three times in a row — 30 minutes of one Sähkö record. Every time we were kicking the bass in and out, everyone was freaking. This is the record of today, for sure. I'm playing it at the wrong speed, but it doesn't matter. You could play it just like this.
PAUL ST. HILAIRE AND RENÉ LÖWE
“Faith” (False Tuned)
When Ricardo and I were playing last week, these vocals would have been perfect at the end, because there's a lack of really good electronic records with cool vocals. There's a certain groove there that's soft and moves really elegantly. A lot of the other records you're playing in a typical DJ set always use flat, changing hi-hats — 4/4, 8/8 — and this is the same. But because this is so much more sparse and atmospheric, you don't notice it.
“Plug in Signal” (Max Ernst)
I always like [label owner] Thomas Brinkmann's stuff; it's really loopy and sample-based. Brinkmann's records seem to work really well with both the guys and the girls. Most guys are going a little bit more for an energy while I think girls are reacting more to the bass line. There are a lot of records without bass lines these days; it's so boring!
This is my favorite record of the bunch so far. There's a new record on Gold Plate that will mix perfectly. I'll be able to play them together for 30 minutes. It's got a really good tight snare, a supercool bass line and an energy, but it's funky, too. It's a little bit more trippy: You can close your eyes and get into it.
Shake has been one of the most influential people on the Detroit scene — influential but somewhat unknown. And this is a Soundhack mix. This is a perfect example of Germany meeting Detroit. It builds up nicely with cut-up samples, which is the Soundhack trademark. It's loud and really works. I would be adding effects, my own energy, my own dropouts, resampling it, looping it, a whole bunch of things.