The legendary DJ captures the artistry of techno with his latest album and companion app.
Sitting down to discuss DJing with Richie Hawtin is like trying to discuss the theory of relativity with Albert Einstein. Having grown up just across the border from Detroit, in Windsor, Canada, Hawtin became one of the earliest adopters of Detroit techno—the futuristic sound first created in a Belleville basement by Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson. He found his musical nitch early, began DJing in Detroit’s clubs in the late ‘80s, and by the ripe age of 17, had established himself as a key proponent of a movement that would soon spread throughout the world. The precocious teen epitomized the DIY ethos that goes hand-in-hand with musical innovation. Hawtin launched his own record label at 19, and at 23, under the moniker Plastikman, released his seminal 1993 album Sheet One; a monumental piece of music that has proven foundational for a younger generation of electronic musicians.
I meet the ‘Mozart of Minimal’ at club Ost in Berlin, which sits in the shadow of a wall that fell exactly 30 years ago. Hawtin describes his first visit to the city in 1990, when the divide between east and west was freshly mended. As a rising second-wave techno star, young Hawtin played a significant role in transporting cutting edge sounds from black, suburban Detroit overseas, and into the fertile landscape of another post-industrial city—one freshly liberated and ripe for sonic revolution. “The East and West German people came together to fill the void of what had happened in the decades before. It reminded me so much of Detroit, because as space opened up, the scene and energy and freedom of techno grew,” says Hawtin. The ensuing decades brought remarkable growth for Berlin, now known as the ‘techno capital of the world,’ with Hawtin’s career exploding simultaneously.
“It’s become easy to forget that techno was a subculture—a refuge for misfits in a city that offered very little economic opportunity.”
In his 25 years of touring and recording, Hawtin has only gained momentum, by consciously pushing the boundaries of the role of the DJ—and of music itself. His latest project, launching in September, aims to tackle perceptions of the former. “There’s a wide spectrum of what a DJ or electronic musician can be, but the general definition has become tighter and more misunderstood,” says Hawtin. Envisioning the extremes of this spectrum, if on one side there’s the rookie who does a clumsy fade between songs on a free trial of Traktor Pro, on the other there’s Hawtin himself—an avant-garde engineer and intellectual, who has built his career on artistry and ingenuity.
The problem is that this spectrum is clouded by an aura of mystery surrounding the DJ in contemporary consciousness—one stoked by a physical distance between the audience and the person behind the booth. While this distance was, in part, designed to enable the idiosyncratic techno experience of losing yourself in the music and becoming one with the BPM, it has bred a chronic misunderstanding of what the person behind the booth is actually doing (and is capable of). Lack of understanding often results in lack of appreciation, which makes sense given the stark comparison between a DJ’s set and the feigned intimacy of a rock, pop, or hip hop performance, where fans can easily gawk at an artist’s vocal or instrumental skills. Hawtin’s CLOSE, a series of live performances—and, come September 20, a mix album CLOSE combined and interactive audiovisual app CLOSER—is his way of better articulating the art of DJing. The app will allow users to manipulate Hawtin’s audio channels from the mix, and to switch their viewing angles to create individual interpretations of the show.
CLOSE was born of a fluke decision, during a live show, to turn the camera on himself rather than the audience, as is the industry standard. The resulting video highlighted the complexity of Hawtin’s performance and proved beyond any doubt that he is not just playing other people’s tracks, but rather engineering entirely new productions, live, in action. The fanatic reaction to this newfound visibility, a look into the nuts and bolts of his mixing, inspired Hawtin to recreate it on a much bigger scale.
Hawtin premiered CLOSE as an audiovisual experiment and live performance at Coachella in 2017, and performed it the following month as a headliner at Detroit’s Movement festival. He stood, boothless, before the audience, with his equipment arranged in a way that amplified his movements during mixing. On his right were computers equipped with Ableton, Traktor, a custom 10-channel mixer, and extra consoles for modulation; on his left were Push Ableton, a keyboard, and a modular synthesizer; forming a unique hybrid of analog and digital technology. Hawtin collaborated with artist Ali M. Demirel to create the visuals projected on a massive screen behind him, which abstract footage of Hawtin’s motions to create a synesthetic effect. His hands move across the controllers with the precision of ballerinas performing Swan Lake; it’s mesmerizing to watch even if you have no idea what a push of the fader or a twist of the knobs actually does to the track.
Hawtin explains, “[It’s] designed to allow people to get closer to what I’m doing on stage, to live in the moment of creativity and the chaos going on around me. It highlights what I think real DJing is today; someone who is as spontaneous as possible. My way of performing and playing is to give as much transparency as possible to what I do…and to inspire the next generation of DJs to go beyond the idea of playing one record after another.”
“‘There’s a wide spectrum of what a DJ or electronic musician can be, but the general definition has become tighter and more misunderstood.’”
Hawtin’s quest to honor the creativity of the medium is driven by changes he’s seen in the industry. As someone who has been involved with electronic music and culture for three decades, few people have witnessed so intimately its dramatic transformation from niche to mainstream. “It’s a massive industry and a commercial force around the world, but it comes from a place and set of values that are totally opposite of that,” he says. The global popularity of techno understandably masks its alternative roots. CLOSE, for Hawtin, is a method of returning to the original spirit and ethos of the music.
It’s become easy to forget that techno was a subculture—a refuge for misfits in a city that offered very little economic opportunity. Hawtin explained that CLOSE’s origins go back to the crumbling buildings of Detroit in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when the void of development gave way to the spirit of freedom. The community that grew around these new sounds was a motley crew of outcasts who didn’t fit in due to their interests, sexual orientation, or skin color—and it was here that Hawtin, a self-described “shy computer nerd” found solidarity and acceptance. “The music was the soundtrack to escape,” Hawtin says. “We did things only because they weren’t done before. It was about breaking the rules and edging on discovery. I want to bring DJing back to that attitude.”
Hawtin has become a bannerman of techno history, a figurehead keen to remind the contemporary world of its roots in the communities of color of a forgotten city. Berlin today stands as the metropolitan manifestation of a ‘techno city,’ a cultural touchstone that promotes global tourism and intrigue. Detroit, on the other hand, is a city still being subjected to the myth of American modernization. Projects like CLOSE are Hawtin’s own way of filling that gap, of building a bridge between the parallel places that have proved foundational to his work.