25th Anniv. Moment: Richie Hawtin – Nov, 2001 [Interview]
20/20 VISION: Richie Hawtin Sees The Future of DJing: Less Perspiration, More Innovation.
Originally published: November 2011
The irony in not lost on Richie Hawtin. As a minimalist, no electronic artist has done more for dance music by doing less. An as a technophile’s technophile, not electronic artist has made sparser sounds by doing more.
Don’t worry we’ll explain later.
For now, though, Richie Hawtin is standing in a downtown New York City loft, a cell phone attached to his ear, trying to figure out for a friend the duration of a cross-borough cab ride.
“How long does: it take to get from Soho to Queens!” he barks to the room. “Why leave Soho,” replies Ravi, our shutter man, “when there’s plenty of queens already there?”
For a second, Hawtin is still. When he gets it, his eyes open wide, and then close to a squint. “Very funny,” he half scowls.
It was very funny, but Hawtin’s music is not the knee-slapping variety; there’s nothing gratuitous about it, no wink wink, no sly intimation. Truth is, listening to much of Hawtin’s music can be an alienating experience. Melody, structure, even rhythm are unpeeled and left as echoing chambers of tone and frequency. If ever there were a beat-less orgy, Hawtin would be your man to score it.
With his innovative use of the 303, his “decks and effects” approach to live mixing, and now with the Final Scratch (again, we’ll explain later), it’s also true that Hawtin has helped modify the means that DJs and producers can use live and in the studio. With Final Scratch, for example , invented by a Dutch company and endorsed by Hawtin and his +8 label partner John Acquaviva, DJs can now play digital music with the true, real-time dexterity of vinyl.
Alright, alright, we’ll leave the explaining to Hawtin, who also waxed on about his new DE9: Closer to the Edit (M_nus/ Nova Mute), and, naturally, the future as he sees it.
DJ Times: You’ve never been one to issue conventional-sounding records, but DE9: Closer To The Edit might just up the ante a bit.
Richie Hawtin: There is no track listing; there’s never one point on the album where just one track is playing. I think on the most uncomplicated part of the album, I think there’s two or three tracks playing, and a lot of times there’s four or five, six, even seven tracks playing at once. I was thinking, there’s 35 or 36 ID points, and the ID points are just there to allow people to skip th rough it and find different sections. That’s really what it is. It’s a number of sections in the mix, which are, you know, kind of like tracks, but because everything is combined together they’re like new tracks, so I didn’t know if I should title them as new titles, or take three or four titles and make new titles. So when you see the album, listing the IDs, and under each ID it just lists each component that makes up that section of the mix, some of the tracks recur, through multiple ID points, some of them come in, come out, come back five or six ID points later. That’s the nature of the mix and the nature of the CD, a conglomeration, a jigsaw puzzle of over 300 bits and pieces of audio. The whole thing was created that way. I went into the studio with the turntables, different sampling boxes, Final Scratch, and took my favorite records of that time, which is only about a month ago, and listened to them and tried to distill them down to their most basic components. I listen to track A, and say, “If I took these four bars or these two bars I could basically re-create the whole track myself by putting them in a number of different orders.” And went to track B, and I’d be like, “Well, this track is cool, but I really don’t like this part, so let’s just take the part I like and throw away the rest.” So I went through over 100 tracks, and ended up with all these bits and pieces , somethings as long as four bars and some things as short as one note . And then instead of taking those pieces to put each track back together , I just started fitting those pieces together in a random order. I didn’t care if it was track A, B or C, or Y, I was just like, “Well, here ‘s a cool bassline, here’s a cool hi-hat, and here’s a cool string snippet – let’s put those together.” And I slowly started to create an interesting coalition, and I guess new tracks, out of these pieces, until I was finished.
DJ Times: What pieces of gear in the studio did you rely on?
Hawtin: Everything was sampled and re-looped using ProTools. I used ACID, Sonic Foundry’s Sound Forge, and I used a hardware box called the Electrix Repeater. That’s a new product. It’s out, but I have a Beta version of it, which allows, well, it’s the same thing as ACID, which locks tempos, but this is a hardware box, so as you’re DJing, you can sample things and they’ll lock to the tempo that you’re playing at. And you can pitch things up and down without changing the tempo, or change the tempo without changing the pitch – all that hardware fast time-stretching. So I used all these tools to get all these bits and pieces back into time into an area where they would work together. That was the idea, really. The whole album was kind of inspired over the last six months by using Final Scratch and the Repeater, all this new technology, like ACID, although that’s not so new anymore, but these looping technologies…
DJ Times: So there’s nothing that’s new to you in the studio from last time?
Hawtin: ACID doesn’t allow me to do anything that I haven’t been able to do before. Every once in a while, some technology will come along that’s completely different and redefines things. But other times, it doesn’t change everything you know, it just helps you do things quicker or more efficiently, and that’s ACID right there. Years ago, you would take two records and you would beat match them, and then you could put those on top of each other and create something. And then the sampler came along and you could sample snippets from records and time-stretch and manually get them into time and then put them together. And ACID enabled both of those things to come together where you would throw anything back into ACID and lock it into a tempo, and now not only can you do it with software, but you can do it with hardware with the Electrix Repeater.
DJ Times: Does the technology change your relationship to the music?
Hawtin: I think people started to look at music, and the album title, Closer to the Edit, harks back to and pays homage to the original pioneers of the art of noise. These people started to look at to re-create out of other people’s material or just out of everyday sound sources. Through technology over the last 10 years, I’ve started to look more and more at the music I’m playing as just a collection of loops and rhythms. And again the title implies, Closer to the Edit, I’m getting closer to the music I’m playing. Instead of seeing a piece as a five minute piece of music I’m playing as a DJ on a record, I’m starting to re-evaluate that. Perhaps this piece was created that way and it seemed to make sense for the person who created it, for the artist, but that shouldn’t be set in stone anymore. Let me look at this piece and see what’s best for me. It’s kind of what I did a couple years ago to Yello’s “Oh Yeah.” I took that record and took the parts that I thought were really important, which kind of made that track so exciting, so funky, so fun, and distilled it down to a couple of components, re-edited it together, add a couple more effects, relooped things tighter into smaller grooves and into tighter grooves, and it no longer grooves. And came up with this thing called “M_nus Orange.” But it became something that was related to the original, but it became something else, something perhaps more relevant to the times we’re in. With all this sampling technology and recording technology and DJ technology, that’s what I’m trying to do, at every step of the way. Instead of re-evaluating two records that I’m playing, overlaying them on top of each other in front of people, I want to have technology enable me to re-evaluate those records in the studio, re-edit the and then replay them out. So it’s not just overlaying them, it’s really me changing every record that I’m playing. So when you hear me play Jeff Mills’ “The Bells” or Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash,” you’re going to hear me mixing it on top of another record to make it different. I’ m going to have actually created a slightly different version, perhaps in the studio or loaded into Final Scratch, where I’m re-inventing it with effects and the Repeater, and you’re hearing your favorite record again for the first time. That’s the whole idea. Some people ask me about this album, it’s called, partly, Decks, Effects & 909, and they say, “Where’s the 909?” and I tell them, there’s actually no 909 on this album, the title is a philosophy for me now. It’s really about adding new technologies to existing technologies and the whole idea of what a DJ and what the music is all about.
DJ Times: The mingling of a producer and a live thing?
Hawtin: I think a lot of producers have been doing that in the studio for the last couple of years. The records have been progressing. But perhaps DJing hasn’t. I mean, it has. But don’t just take for granted that you have two turntables. There’s drum machines, there’s computer,s all these technologies are at our disposal and I think we should use them as much as possible, to re-evaluate what we’ve been learning for the last 10 years.
DJ Times: Give us an example of how you’re using the Repeater in your DJ sets.
Hawtin: If you’re playing a record and there’s a traditional chorus or a break that you really like, you can on-the-fly grab that piece, record it, hit stop, and so as you press stop you can press play again, and you can just loop that. As long as you’re close to being on-time, it can figure out the beginning of the bar, the end of the bar, and lock that into the tempo that you’re playing. So you really can go record, stop, start, take the record out, if you’re fast enough, seamlessly bring in the loop, take the record off and have that loop keep going and going and going until you turn it off. While that loop is going, perhaps you can bring an other record on top, or extend that break for a minute or two, start to build up the tension in the room and then mix the record back in. The Repeater is a four-channel repeating device. You can do four mono loops, two mono loops, two stereo loops, and a slider, so you can bring those things back and forth. So you can be playing two records that are in time with each other, sample them into separate things, bring them up or down, re-sample a third or fourth record on top of that, and start to create new rhythms that possibly you would only be able to do with four or five turntables – or if you were taking five or six samples in ACID at home in the studio and overlaying them. We’re starting to do this all live. And again, once you have at locked in you can change the tempo without the pitch, and you can start editing the loops.
DJ Times: Talk about building up your set. How do you create tension?
Hawtin: I think everything I’m trying to do, it’s adding to the two turntables, it’s something that gives me the potential to change my sets, and turn things that might be people’s favorite records and turn it into something they’ll never hear again. And that right away creates a strange atmosphere.
A lot of my records, my recordings, my artist albums and my DJ sets got with that – that kind of quiet uneasiness. It’s like crossing a tightrope walk.
DJ Times: A familiarity, and an uncertainty.
Hawtin: Exactly. A lot of my records, my recordings, my artist albums and my DJ sets go with that – that kind of quiet uneasiness. It’s like crossing a tightrope walk, and giving people a little bit to grab their attention, their understanding, but then you want to take them somewhere they’ve never been before. People aren’t, at least in my crowd, people remember a fun night when they were partying and having fun, but if it’s a musical experience [you're looking for], they won’t remember it if someone just plays all their favorite records. They remember the first time they heard that favorite record, where they were when they heard that favorite record, and that’s what I’m trying to do while creating tension, to re-create that first-time feeling.
DJ Times: What are you doing, technically , to create that tension?
Hawtin: With the effects and the delays a lot, I’m able to double up frequencies, and double up notes within a track, and creating these weird loops that aren’t normally there in the records, and re-loop things and loop things into infinity while bringing the normal track down. That begins to create a tension because you’re creating something that hadn’t existed before in that record. So people will be like, “This is the record that I know, but where is it going?” As soon as they ask that question, they don’t know, even though it’s their favorite record, what’s going to happen next. As soon as you start having that unknown, it’s like listening to that record for the first time again. It’s like turning the lights off in the room . OK, it’s familiar, but now I don’t know where the door is.
DJ Times: What are some characteristics that you can spot in a crowd that’s experiencing tension?
Hawtin: It depends on where in the world you are. Sometimes the crowd goes very quiet, sometimes you hear screams, and vocalizations, and some times people will slow down and stop dancing because they’re not too sure what’s going to happen. A lot of people, especially in America , are right in front of the speakers, and I’ll see friends, and then I’ll bring the delays back into the record, bringing up the bass , bringing up the other frequencies, or slowly or fast or back up to the familiar. And from that you should get some type of response. I always remember experiences that I had dancing – Derrick May, Laurent Garnier – and I’d be like, “What the hell is that record?” And then you figure it out that it’s overlaid with another record, and I’d be like, “Oh, it’s that record.” That moment is just amazing. I want the potential to do that every time I play. By playing the same cities over and over, I started to exhaust the possibilities of doing that just using a 909 and effects. So the Repeater and Final Scratch has allowed me to be inventive.
DJ Times: Explain Final Scratch.
Hawtin: Three years ago, a friend of ours was surfing on a site from these Dutch guys that supposedly enabled you to play digital files by interacting with a piece of vinyl. We found it kind of interesting and John (Acquaviva) was in Holland and he checked it out. Somehow this special record that they made interacted with the computer. There was an intonation on the record which enabled the computer to figure out where your needle was, how fast the record was going, if it’s going forwards or backwards, all the things you need to know to mimic what we do with normal vinyl. But at the time there was a two-second delay. So about a year ago, they called to tell us it was working, and John told me right away I had to get over there to play with it, and did, a couple weeks later. And lo and behold, maybe there was a seven-millisecond delay. For all intents and purposes, once you tell the computer what record you want to play, that piece of vinyl becomes that record. The music is not coming off the vinyl; it’s coming off the computer. You have a Final Scratch record, which is a regular piece of vinyl; there’s a small interface box, which the turntables get plugged into and then back into the mixer; and that box is connected to the computer.
DJ Times: What are the benefits to a DJ?
Hawtin: It allows you to carry more music than ever before in a smaller package. It allows you to interact with your music in a creative way – manipulating vinyl. And you don’t have to take two crates of records for a two-hour set. You’re talking about on computer, if you encode them as MP3s, over 3,000 tracks. And you don’t have to do every track. Because now that it’s digital, you don’t have to play it the way the original artist intended. I don’t like that break, that vocal, let me re-edit and re-evaluate every record in your collection. You don’t have to do every one, obviously, but that “Energy Flash,” say – I used to be able to play it, and then add to it with other records, then I started adding effects and drum machines to modify. Now I can take that record, totally re-work it, add some digital effects with my editing program, and then load that into Final Scratch and interact with that record just as if it were a piece of vinyl. It will re-evaluate music in general. Now, once a piece of music is released, it will be come public domain.
(Editor’s Note: Final Scratch is now manufactured and distributed by Hollywood, Fla.-based Stanton Magnetics.)
DJ Times: Tell me what you’d like to do as a DJ in the year 2010.
Hawtin: I would like some type of interface to be able to play and interact with digital files. More movement. Interfacing our own humanity into the digital medium. I hope to be playing all digital files, music from people’s studios, take it off the Net, with some sort of wireless system, so I don’t have to carry anything with me. I’d like to be on a plane, re-editing a track the night before I play it, or maybe someone’s just finished making a track, and I get it just as it’s being finished and I play it. To me, it’s all about furthering our possibilities as humans through technology.