Richie Hawtin Master of Minimalism
Published Feb 21, 2011Roundly considered one of the great techno innovators of the past two decades, Richie Hawtin was a young kid from Windsor who fell in love with Detroit's new club music, and then went on to conquer it. In creative terms, the Richie Hawtin story is one of talent innovating upon inspiration: over the course of the '90s, a young Canadian reared on avant-garde electronic classics discovered a new American scene, reshaped it in his own minimalist image and made it more exportable to European communities. Once the seeds had been sewn in European techno circles, he took what he found, reshaped it once again and imported it back. But Hawtin was more than just a talented producer with a keen eye for progression; he is also a deft entrepreneur and marketer, which has made him a divisive personality in a tightly knit scene where artistic purity is held in very high regard. Did we mention he reinvented the art of DJing, and that he hasn't released any new music in over eight years? Just as a new 12-disc box set of his complete Plastikman recordings is being mailed out to fans, we look back at the career of Richie Hawtin.
1970 to 1986
On June 4, 1970, Richard Michael Hawtin is born in the market town of Banbury, England, 100 km from London. The son of a robotics technician with an interest in the kosmiche bands and early electronic music of the decade, Richie (as he becomes known in his family) spends his early years in the UK with a soundtrack of Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and more in his home. In 1979, at the age of nine, Richie and his family move to LaSalle, Ontario, a small suburb of Windsor. His father takes a job with General Motors. In LaSalle, a young Richie attends Sandwich Secondary High School and discovers the radio station signals that come in from neighbouring Detroit. By the mid-'80s, those frequencies are transmitting a new sound percolating up from the American city's clubs: techno. The new form of music — a colder, more avant-garde approach to the house music percolating in the gay clubs of cities like Chicago and New York — has a profound effect on Hawtin.
1987 to 1992
Drawn to DJing from an early age, by 17 Richie Hawtin is making regular trips to Detroit to buy records and spin at the local clubs as DJ Richy Rich. The first wave of Detroit techno — led by Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and Juan Atkins — is predominantly a creation of the city's tightly-knit black community. They don't warm easily to a young white boy from Windsor. As a result, Hawtin's attempts to connect with the Detroit community are initially rebuffed. Nevertheless, he does manage to secure gigs in busy Detroit clubs such as Shelter and Music Institute, the same venue where May and Saunderson hold their all-night parties. By 1989, Hawtin meets another Canadian working the DJ circuit in Detroit, John Acquaviva. Acquaviva is seven years older than Hawtin and has been DJing in the region for nearly a decade. The pair first enter the studio to put together on a Derrick May megamix for a radio show. Shortly thereafter, they begin work on original music.
To release the music they've produced, in May of 1990 Hawtin and Acquaviva form Plus 8 Records. Their first release is the Elements of Tone EP, under the alias States of Mind. The personalities and label behind the music were kept intentionally anonymous for two reasons. Not only was anonymity part of the mantra of early techno at the time, but it was also a good way to navigate past the prejudices the pair had experienced as white DJs in a black scene. The record finds a strong following among DJs. Soon, the Detroit scene is buzzing with speculation over who's behind States of Mind and Plus 8 Records.
By 1990, a second wave of producers has entered the mix, and the sound of techno is evolving from the starting point that May, Atkins, and Saunderson provided. Names such as Carl Craig, Jeff Mills and Underground Resistance have added new dimensions to the music. Along with the generational shift, as well as his work behind States of Mind and Plus 8 Records, Richie Hawtin begins to gain greater acceptance within the Detroit community.
With Hawtin and Acquaviva at its center, Plus 8 Records mines the relationship between techno's acid sounds (provided by the Roland 303) and Europe's post-industrial dance music. Acts such as Kenny Larkin and Speedy J release music on the label, as do States of Mind offshoots such as Cybersonik, which featured Acquaviva and Hawtin alongside Daniel Bell.
Hawtin is eager to produce solo work as well. Later in 1990, Hawtin launches F.U.S.E. (short for Further Underground Subsonic Experiments) as the first of his many solo projects of the era. The F.U.S.E. single "Approach and Identify" takes a more subtly complex approach to Detroit techno's drum patterns, blending in ambient textures that hearken back to the early electronic music in his father's collection. This more "intelligent" design is increasingly developed among the rest of the Plus 8 roster, and by 1991 the imprint has developed a reputation for a more clinical approach to techno, one that fits in well with what fledgling UK artists such as Aphex Twin and Autechre are releasing in England. Armed with the strong identity of his label and his own recordings, the demand for Hawtin the DJ grows exponentially. He proves to be both prolific and entrepreneurial when it comes to pushing boundaries within Detroit's often-closed scene. Alongside F.U.S.E., he's deployed a series of one-off aliases for intelligent-tinged techno that include Chrome, Circuit Breaker, Jack Master, Robotman, Spark, Xenon, and others still. Plus 8 Records also takes on two sub-labels, first Probe and then Definitive Recordings.
By 1992, his Detroit parties have become the city's central events, attracting major crowds and legendary all-night parties to old warehouses that can hold thousands of people. The Hawtin warehouse parties become synonymous with the growth of the Midwest's young rave scene.
After a strong run of singles under a number of aliases, as well as a devoted and ever-growing following for his marathon DJ sets and Plus 8 releases, in 1993 Hawtin delivers not only one but two full-length albums. The first of the two albums is the F.U.S.E. album Dimension Intrusion, which is the fifth instalment of the now-legendary Artificial Intelligence series on the UK label Warp Records. Featuring artwork by brother Matthew Hawtin, a conceptual minimalist in the visual arts who will go on to design packaging for several of Richie's subsequent projects, Dimension Intrusion offers a mix of the more jacking tracks F.U.S.E. has become known for in the clubs, alongside numerous more down-tempo offerings that explore the role of artful minimalism and atmosphere within the techno framework. Joining the album in the Warp series are genre-shaping works by the likes of UK producers Aphex Twin, Autechre, B12, and Black Dog.
The series and ensuing Artificial Intelligence compilations cement the importance of intelligent dance music (IDM) as a counterpoint to its more club-friendly Detroit sibling. A distribution deal for Warp through American label TVT also means that Hawtin's music is able to reach a wide audience across both North America and Europe. But the F.U.S.E. album, as well received as it is, is ultimately dwarfed by the debut of Hawtin's new alias, Plastikman. More melodic, minimal, hypnotic and bristling than past works, Plastikman's marriage of music and design captures the imagination of an entire generation of young technophiles. In 1993, the first two Plastikman singles, "Krakpot" and "Spastik" receive a massive reception, reaching audiences well beyond the usual techno circles due to Plus 8's new distribution deal through Mute sub-label Novamute. That October, Novamute releases the first Plastikman album, Sheet One.
Arriving with a CD cover made to look like a sheet of acid, Sheet One is stamped with the now-iconic dancing squiggly-man logo. The implication of hallucination and mind-morphing animation, coupled with Hawtin's shaved head and black-rimmed glasses, all join together to present a potent image of the futuristic music within. After a very prolific year that sees each release pushing him to new heights, the clever packaging and marketing coup of Sheet One separate Richie Hawtin from an otherwise anonymous pack of producers and help make him one of techno's first stars.
In anticipation of the second Plastikman album, Novamute releases Recycled Plastik, which features early tracks "Krakpot," "Elektrostatik," and "Spastik." Furthermore, Hawtin and Acquaviva's massive warehouse parties across Southern Ontario and the American Midwest result in a DJ compilation for K7's X-Mix series. But all eyes are on Muzik, the sophomore Plastikman full-length, which drops via Novamute on November 8 and garners unprecedented critical acclaim for a techno album. The cover art of the trademark squiggly-man once again reinforces the Plastikman brand, giving fans a much-desired personality to latch onto without having to compromise the music.
Hawtin would tell Exclaim! a few years later that "there is a certain power to taking my profile out of the realm of the nameless techno producer. If you want to bring new people into the fold — which our scene definitely needs — they have to have more to latch onto than 12-inch records and featureless labels." It's a branding strategy that will influence the way electronic music is sold for years to come. Muzik also offers a marked sonic evolution for the producer as well, toward uncharted forms of techno minimalism. "Ever since Sheet One," he'll tell Exclaim!, "I've always been trying to leave space so that people can interact with the kick, the hi-hat and the clap and feel that the music isn't too cluttered for them to join in." That year, Hawtin also releases From Within Volume 1, his first of three ambient collaborations with the prolific cult-figure Pete Namlook. The Canadian duo Legion of Green Men also fins national success with their Plus 8 album Spatial Specific.
1995 to 1997
With two critically acclaimed and surprisingly popular albums under his belt, Richie Hawtin spends much of 1995 working on his highly anticipated third Plastikman album, tentatively titled Klinik. But his large warehouse parties draw too much attention at a time when the authorities are beginning to worry about drug consumption reported at raves. A crackdown on such events leaves Hawtin unable to enter the U.S., where many of his DJ gigs are based.
That year, Hawtin releases a handful of singles and a well-received mix compilation for Mixmag magazine, recorded live at one of his parties in Windsor. Through Plus 8, he releases Speedy J's cult classic, G Spot. But Hawtin is unable to work in the U.S. and frustrated by the prolonged legal entanglement that ensues, and as a result work on Klinik slows down. Instead, Hawtin tours the world. Prolonged exposure to international techno scenes begins to redefine his vision. By the time he's able to return to the U.S., his ideas for Klinik have changed, and he eventually shelves the album.
His new sound first emerges in 1996, and it's miles away from the percussive Detroit brand of techno that has defined his work thus far. New music from techno's European enclaves has emboldened Hawtin to pursue electronic minimalism to its extremities. He releases a series of 12 singles under the alias Concept 1, with each piece of vinyl in the series appears completely unlabelled at an interval of one per month. Hawtin's Concept 1 is an adjustment of his sound, and reveals a new creative world centred not by Detroit but instead by Germany. Labels such as Moritz von Oswald's Basic Channel and Chain Reaction in Berlin, as well as Wolfgang Voigt's Profan and Studio 1 in Cologne, serve as primary influences. Indeed, Concept 1 is a nod to Voigt's Studio 1 project, with both works mining similar conceptual themes and released in similar fashion with stridently minimal design. But to the average listener, Plastikman has receded from the limelight and back to the underground for several years. Apart from 1997's Sickness EP, little emerges from the alias. Another volume of Pete Namlook ambient collaborations also surfaces.
Eager to pursue his new, more artfully minimal and avant-garde approach to techno, Richie Hawtin puts his involvement in Plus 8 records on hold and launches a new label, M_nus. The new label's first release is the collection of the Concept 1 singles entitled Concept 1 96:CD, in line with the newly reductive aesthetic of the label's design. M_nus' logo, with its evocative square and subtraction symbol, emphasizes the venture's updated outlook. The label's second release is a remix album by young German minimalist Thomas Brinkmann, who reforms the Concept 1 tracks using a dual-tone, two-arm turntable. This companion Concept 1 disc reflects what Brinkmann had already done with Wolfgang Vogt's Studio 1 series.
But 1998's major development is the arrival of the long-awaited third Plastikman album, Consumed. Deemed a classic upon its release, Consumed offers the stark change in direction promised by the Concept 1 series, although its textures are less severe and subtly infused by groove. If Concept 1 is influenced by Profan and Studio 1 releases, Consumed pays tribute to the dub-infused, reductive techno of the Basic Channel and Chain Reaction labels, which are in the process of reinventing techno's core as a balance of Jamaican soundsystems and German futurism. Consumed is billed as a deconstruction of sonic space, a soundtrack to the open plains of Ontario-Michigan axis.
In what proves to be the most prolific year of his career, later in 1998 Hawtin releases Artifakts [bc], his fourth album-length project in one year. Named to reflect its status as a collection of an unrealized concept, Artifakts contains material originally recorded for the abandoned Klinik album. Its sound is a telling reflection of where the Detroit-influenced thread of inspiration could have gone, had Hawtin not shifted gears and pursued techno's German strains as his creative mantra. The [bc] stands for "before Comsumed."
1999 to 2001
With 1998 overflowing in music from Hawtin's studio, in 1999 the Canadian producer turns his attention to his other passion: the art of DJing. Hawtin has been quietly working on a new hybrid form of spinning records, and that year he releases the Decks, EFX, and 909 mix on M_nus. The compilation proposes nothing less than a revolution in DJing. Pursuing the idea of extreme reduction to its logical conclusions, Hawtin strips bare 38 tracks — the shortest is down to nine seconds; the longest registers at just under three minutes — and then uses those components as a mixed foundation he then rebuilds with various effects and a Roland TR-909. The result is a quasi-live performance piece with much greater versatility in a club than a regular set. Taking the new set-up on a DJ tour, he finds that the new platform completely blows open the restrictions of regular DJing, allowing him to communicate with the mood of the crowd with unprecedented precision. Invigorated by his new conceptualization of the DJ, in 2001 he takes the idea even further with DE9: Closer to the Edit. This time round, Hawtin reduces and edits over 100 tracks, essentially turning source material into sound files and converting them through the mix into an epic electronic composition that further blurs the line between DJing and original production. Touring DE9, Hawtin brings along a brand-new DJ technology known as Final Scratch, created by Dutch company N2IT.
As he explains to Exclaim! that year, Final Scratch is "a system that enables me to manipulate digital files with a regular turntable. All those physical things I do with a turntable — cue up or back spin or play records fast or slow in reverse — are now transposed onto a digital music file. John Acquaviva and I have been able to take it out on the road and beta test it and help confirm to the developer what it really should do for the DJ."
With Hawtin as a roving ambassador for Final Scratch, not only does he propose new methods of DJing, but he also legitimizes the use of MP3s in a field where vinyl is considered the holy grail of mixing. "We're at a point now where different artists can re-evaluate works and put their own personal interpretation on it and create something new, which is what we've been doing as DJs in the last ten or 15 years."
2002 to 2004
Firmly established as a major innovator in both electronic music creation and DJ culture, Richie Hawtin begins work on a fourth Plastikman album, but this time the end of a long-term relationship consumes the creative process. Feeling increasingly confined in Windsor, in 2002 he moves to New York for a while to finish work on the album. True to its name, 2003's Closer presents a more intimate look at the mind of its creator. It's the first of his albums to contain lyrics. "I knew the album had to be personal and I knew I had to use the voice," he tells Exclaim! that year, "but I didn't want it to feel like I was preaching or have it feel like it was just me sitting there talking. I wanted there to be some kind of abstraction to it so that people still felt that they could identify with it, so that even if they knew it was coming from Richie Hawtin, they might feel like it was the voice in their own head coming through."
Once again, design plays a significant role is the presentation of Plastikman's music. "The packaging for Closer is the most important of any of my albums. You actually need to destroy and tear apart the package to see the whole album, which is exactly what I had to do to get inside my own head to capture its workings in recorded form." But with relatively little original material released in the past five years, the album disappoints some with its lack of conceptual discipline, which leaves it feeling like an unfocused effort after a decade of major innovative breakthroughs. Tellingly, it turns out to be the last Plastikman album to date. Looking to start fresh again, in 2003 Hawtin leaves North America for good and moves to Europe.
2005 to 2009
Hawtin arrives in Berlin at a time when the international techno community has begun to adopt the city as its global centre. Easy access to major European clubs, cheap living conditions, and very lax atmosphere toward partying make the city an ideal home for the genre. Once there, Hawtin invests his creative energies into the cultivation of the M_nus label. He selects an exclusive roster of young artists carving out the next wave of minimal techno. Among the label's new faces are names like False (Matthew Dear's minimal alias), Heartthrob, Troy Pierce, Magda, and Gaiser.
In 2005, Hawtin also releases the third in the DE9 series, DE9 | Transitions. A CD/DVD package, Transitions further evolves the art of DJing beyond what Closer to the Edit and Final Scratch managed in 2001. Technically and sonically brilliant — perhaps too much so — Transitions moves the DJ booth into the studio and uses an array of production tools to fuse the most minimal ends of nearly 100 tracks into one seamless journey. No turntables are used this time round, with the title's transition alluding to the switch to advanced production software as the main tool for sonic manipulation.
A global superstar by 2006, Hawtin is invited to collaborate with Italian choreographer Enzo Cosimi to compose an original work for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. They produce a work entitled "9.20." Otherwise, Hawtin doesn't release any new music and instead focuses on his label. In its new context, M_nus becomes a marketing juggernaut and touring umbrella for all sounds mnml, which is what the new version of minimalism, more geared toward clubs and less toward avant-garde ideas, is called. Complete with memorabilia like M_nus towels and earrings, Hawtin's promotional savvy separates the label from the many others in Berlin releasing the same kind of music. As a result, the following for M_nus events and Hawtin's reputation as a superstar DJ grow quickly in mnml-hungry Europe, where electronic musicians can attain rock star status.
2010 to 2011
After a seven-year silence, rumblings of a resurgent Plastikman begin to be heard within the electronic music community. In 2010, Hawtin presents a lavish new live set of greatest hits at select festivals around the world. Late that summer, M_nus releases a greatest hits collection for the Plastikman discography, the slight Kompilation. Featuring only eight previously released album tracks, the set is geared toward a new generation of fans who may have missed the original run of albums in the '90s. Hawtin also announces a 12-disc box set called Arkives, which comes replete with various packaging offshoots, available only via mail-order. True to the promotional premium often associated with Hawtin releases, fans are promised a personally signed holiday greeting card with each order. Arkives ships on February 28 of this year. As the repackaging campaign kicks into high gear with more live shows and extravagant box sets, one question still looms at the otherwise empty core of the proceedings: will there be any new material on the way, or is this all just a heavily marketed victory lap for one of Canada's great talents? Fans everywhere are asking if Richie Hawtin's most creative days are behind him. Time will tell.
Plastikman – Sheet One (Plus 8/Novamute; 1993)
This album put Richie Hawtin on the international map. Though the first three Plastikman albums are all must-owns for any electronic-music collector, Sheet One hearkens back to a time when there were still more possibilities than boundaries in the genre.
Concept 1 – 96:CD (M_nus; 1998)
The most abstract and minimal original material ever set to record by Hawtin, and certainly among the most avant-garde techno releases of the past 20 years. Also worth tracking down is the equally brilliant remix album by Thomas Brinkmann, 96:VR.
Richie Hawtin – Decks EFX & 909 (M_nus/Novamute; 1999)
A fantastic DJ from the start, here Hawtin strikes one of his most inspired notes of his career, fusing the worlds of DJing and live production into one seamless entity. Both world have never been the same since.