Richie Hawtin On Current Techno – Billboard
Written by GRB on 30/03/2023
In the fall of 2012, Richie Hawtin took to the road in the United States for CNTRL, a college campus tour intended to educate young audiences about the history of dance music. The run included lectures by day — and, naturally, dancing after dark.
The timing wasn’t accidental. This was the dawn of the EDM era, with big room sounds lighting up mainstages at emerging festivals and mega-clubs around the U.S., pulling in a new generation of dance music fans like moths to a pyro flame.
Hawtin, sensing which way the wind was blowing, organized CNTRL to show nascent dance music fans electronic sounds beyond EDM, with Hawtin serving as a key figure of techno and minimal techno since the Canadian producer first got into the sound in the late ’80s. (His hometown in Windsor, Ontario was, after all, just a short drive from Detroit, the birthplace of techno.)
Over the last decade, Hawtin’s vision of getting the masses into techno worked — in fact, maybe too well. Over the last half decade the sound has thumped out of the underground and onto mainstages, with one strain of it in particular — tech house — becoming the United States’ most trendy and hyped dance music genre of the moment, supplanting EDM.
“It feels like what’s happened is, the sound of techno was actually influenced by that EDM boom,” Hawtin says over Zoom from his elegant home in Berlin. “What’s happening in the scene is really a mixture of techno from the ’90s and EDM sensibilities of big drops and personality-led music. It’s been a huge kind of jumbled-up, even confusing development the last four or five years.”
Once again reading the room, Hawtin decided it was time for another tour intended to educate audiences via the dancefloor. Wrapping earlier this month, this eight-show run — From Our Minds — hit cities in the U.S. and Canada and featured a crew of rising techno producers (“other like-minded weirdos,” Hawtin calls them) who he selected for their skills in making techno with a “faster, ferocious type of tempo and strength, but it’s much more minimal.” (One of the featured artists, Lindsey Herbert, in fact discovered techno while attending a CNTRL set back in 2012.)
Hawtin sees this crew — Herbert, Barbosa, Declan James, Decoder, Henry Brooks, Jay York, Michelle Sparks, with support from Deep Pedi, Huey Mnemonic and Jia — as part of a network of underground producers that gelled during the pandemic. He calls this time “a great incubator for new talent, as it kind of leveled the playing field. Anybody who could plug in a computer and stream or make good set had a better opportunity to reach fans sitting at home, and not going to clubs, and not expecting international tours. I think that was the thing, especially in North America, that helped a new generation of artists come through more than they had in the last couple of years.”
The post-pandemic moment in fact reminded Hawtin of his own early days in the scene — just one more full circle moment inherent in From Our Minds. Here, Hawtin reflects on the tour, and and on techno at large.
Given the prevalence of techno currently in the States, do you feel satisfied with where it’s all at? Are you satisfied with the sound?
Yeah, that’s a good question. “Satisfied” is a good word. I think part of me is satisfied that electronic music and even a form of techno has now really become mainstream. It’s huge. Where you could have said in the past on the big stages that it was a form of trance, or some form of house — now it is definitely a form of techno. And yeah, that satisfies the kid who always wanted to see more people come into the door of techno.
But it doesn’t satisfy my need to feel that I’m part of something which is alternative. Because I don’t think all the music that is played on the bigger stages now is actually made, created or enjoyed by people who feel a little bit different than the masses.
How do you mean?
I was talking to everyone on the tour, and we all kind of got into this music because we didn’t really fit in. We felt like we were the weirdos. I guess I don’t feel as weird as I used to be — maybe I’m pretty normal now — but that was a big part of the attraction, that it wasn’t what everybody else was listening to. So although part of my psyche can accept some satisfaction, part of my of my inner being was very excited and satiated and inspired to go back on tour with other like-minded weirdos playing stripped down, minimalistic music, and playing to crowds that when you looked out, felt like they were a bit of the outcasts and had found themselves on another dirty dance floor.
It’s almost like what you were trying to do with CNTRL, in terms of educating mainstream audiences about the roots of dance music, worked too well, and it’s like, “oh, no — it’s so big now that it’s become mainstream too.”
Yeah. Be careful what you wish for. I’ve thought about that a lot — how the juggernaut of techno grew to this size. I remember certain decisions [I made]; I even I reread a couple of old interviews back from 20, 25 years ago, and things I said or did to actually welcome people into this world. I never wanted it to be just so insular and insider that it became hierarchical.
Electronic music, techno music, the music that started my career and that grabbed me back in the late ’80s, was something very different than what else was going on [then.] It made me feel welcome and invited lots of diversity and introduced me to people I never would have met in any other circumstance. I hope those ideals are still on the dance floors I’m playing to. I think as the music and the scene gets bigger and does welcome all types of people, the bigger it gets, the less that happens and the more homogenous the dance floor becomes.
Why do you think size and growth induces homogenization?
Is there an answer? Can I make one without, like, talking down on someone? I think an open, eclectic, free-forming dance floor needs to be led and/or inhabited by lots of very open-minded people. And I actually think as much as the internet and social media has spread the idea of “let’s all be different,” it’s also spread the idea of “let’s all be the same.” When social media and these platforms are our main source of promotion, and marketing, and letting people know what’s out there — the bigger you get, the more focused it becomes on the image, on the sound, on the personality, on everything else.
The globalization facilitated by social media kind of flatlines things in a way where it all looks the same, regardless of territory.
When you’re thinking about music, and places like Spotify, and this long tail that they speak about, it’s all the weird stuff at the end [of that tail.] And the mass stuff isn’t just like, great pop music — it’s a lot of things that sound the same. It’s the same artists over and over again. I was just talking to a friend of mine about a rather large electronic musician who just had a new album out. I was like, “It just seems like they’ve invited a bunch of other people in to collaborate, just like every other pop album seems to do.” It’s so much the same.
You mentioned house big techno has gotten, but how is it evolving into those weirder spaces that you like?
Really, what I intended to showcase on the tour is the type of music I’ve always loved. It takes cues from what’s happening and from other strains of electronic music right now, which is definitely based upon a much faster, ferocious type of tempo and strength — but it’s much more minimal, which of course, I love. It’s stripped of most vocals and any other kind of sample references, and it’s just hypnotic.
I was talking recently with another artist who’d just done a gig in New York. It was a big warehouse party, but they were playing more of that [hypnotic] style of music and weren’t sure about the reaction, because people weren’t putting their hands up in the air. And nothing against hands in the air — [at] an outside venue or big festival, that makes sense. But in a warehouse where it’s dark and pummeling, I think the best thing you can do is let people lose themselves in music and maybe not react, maybe not look at you. Maybe you shouldn’t be on stage. At all of our events, we had everyone basically on the floor, or maybe one step up, just so people could see their heads.
A set-up that de-emphasizes the artist.
Yeah, it does. I don’t know if we want or need to go back to the the faceless DJ in the corner who never got any actual notice or respect — maybe that would be too far. As part of the tour we brought on a company called Aslice, which allows [artists] to upload [the setlist] after the event, and [people can] donate money to those songs — kind of like a tipping jar — to bring some more money to the producers who are making music, and who are just not making enough through all the different avenues out there, specifically streaming.
I’m part of [the company], and I feel very strongly about that kind of initiative. Because one, the artists and producers need that money, but two, it also reminds us that no matter how good the superstar DJ is at the head of the dance floor, if they’re not playing great music, they’re not gonna go anywhere.
Right. It also de-emphasizes the artist onstage and reminds people that it took a lot of artists to create that set.
This tour is also to remember and celebrate that we’re all wrapped up in music [made by people] who aren’t actually there. That’s a really special situation, where other people’s music is being played, and somebody else is controlling it and that people are losing themselves on music they’ve maybe never heard before or will never hear again. That’s not like 99% of people who go to 99% of the concerts out there, who are hoping to hear and sing along with their favorite song.
It sounds like this tour allowed you to present artists you’re excited about in a format you really believe in.
The the format of the dance floor, the dark warehouse, the simplicity of that, is the foundation of where this whole scene came from. As we said, we can be satisfied that it’s actually [become] so many different things. But if the foundation isn’t kept going, and if the foundation isn’t respected, and if the unseen artists and producers [aren’t respected], then it all starts to unravel. If I’ve played a little bit of a part in helping things grow over the last 30 years, and I also want to be part of making sure that foundation stays strong for the next 30 years.