He might be one of the biggest DJs in the world, but it’s been well over a decade since Richie Hawtin touched a turntable. The man who in 1999 released one of the defining documents of the ’90s techno sound, the compilation album Decks, EFX and 909, has long since abandoned the former in favor of computers and controllers onstage.
In the process, Hawtin inspired one of dance music’s great schisms, with a generation of laptop DJs ditching their vinyl while the opposing faithful fiercely fetishize the format more than ever. But Hawtin’s latest project challenges something many might have assumed even more sacrosanct, the DJ booth.
Hawtin’s Close show splits the conventional DJ booth in half. Flanked on both sides by tables of gear — custom analog mixer, glowing PowerBook, blinking trigger pads, a tangled of modular synth wires and a pair of Roland TB-303 clones — Hawtin stands visible from head to toe, his stark full-body profile towering against blinding backlights is more than just a visual gimmick. It is the visual manifestation of a new direction for DJ performances that looks both forward and backward. September’s release of the Close Combined (Live, Glasgow, London, Tokyo) album gave anyone with a DSP insight into a show that serves as a literal break from the classic DJ table model and a reassertion of the adventurous techno lineage Hawtin first discovered in late ’80s Detroit.
This Monday (Nov. 25), Hawtin will release the Closer app to accompany Close Combined, Created in partnership with Telekom Electronic Beats it allows users innovative ways to manipulate and engage with his recently released live audiovisual mix album and serve as an ongoing archive of Hawtin performances. The app’s release comes on the heels of Hawtin’s final Close show this weekend at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles.
“If pushing forward is still part of the aesthetic or mission of techno or electronic music, I want to have that be embodied in the way I perform,” Hawtin says over the phone during a recent visit to LA.
That sentiment is as close to a manifesto as anything that as guided Hawtin’s 30+ year DJ career. It is further spelled out in the opening of Close Combined. As skeletal synths and thrumming bass slowly build, an archival video of Hawtin as the bald-headed and bespectacled avatar of pre-Millennial techno DJ culture captured during his DE9 era, breaks down the function of the two turntables and a mixer before going on to affirm the vision of electronic music as “alien music” and stating “if you’re going to make futuristic music, you have to perform futuristically.”
At it’s most simplified, Hawtin is still doing what DJs have done for over four decades, mixing two or more pieces of music together to create a distinct third. But his Close set-up allows him to manipulate those tracks and that mix in unprecedented ways. Using the latest technology, he at once deconstructs the individual tracks using EQ, looping, delays, etc., while adding his own musical elements via drum machines, synths, samplers and so on.
The results can be seen in the tracklist to Close Combined, where “Trip” by prolific producers (and Robyn remixers) Kaiserdisco is wrapped in Hawtin’s original 303 acid line to become “Acid Trip,” or on “These Restless Drums,” where the rumbling kick of “This (Lewis Fautzi’s Remix)” by Belgian sensation Charlotte de Witte merges with descending drum fills from S.Sic’s “Restless Sea” (plus some of Hawtin’s own rattling snare fills) to become something musically far more than the sum of its parts.
“There’s no preplanning. It’s as spontaneous as it can get,” Hawtin says of the real-time manipulation he performs onstage. “There is a foundation of records that I’m playing — some are mine, some are other people’s — but on top of that, where does it become a Hawtin show? When is it not a normal DJ show? When is it a live show? What the hell is somebody’s definition of DJing?”
For those wishing to untangle those questions, the video component of Close gives an unprecedented look at the art of DJ performance, at least how Hawtin conducts it. With a vertically oriented screen (the better to smartphone with) divided into three separate panels, it gives fans an uninterrupted view from multiple angles. At the top is the familiar view of audience footage culled from social media. Below that is a steady overhead shot of Hawtin as he pivots between the equipment that surrounds him, while the bottom jumps between various camera trained tight on the gear, giving a glimpse of the knobs, buttons and faders Hawtin twists, taps and slides in a perpetual ballet of spontaneous movements that manipulate the beats pounding in your earbuds.
The set-up is a small-screen version of the towering visuals Hawtin uses onstage. There, the surveillance styled black and white footage is often rendered otherworldly by real-time visual effects controlled by a team of video artists who’ve been working with Hawtin for at least a decade, including his acclaimed stint performing as Plastikman in the early aughts that culminated in a live show of all-new material at the Guggenheim NYC and released as the album, EX. That particular event featured a two-story-tall LED monolith erected in the museum’s famed Frank Gehry curved atrium, while the Plastikman shows that took place in more conventional venues found Hawtin enclosed behind a massive curtain of video. It was the polar opposite of Close, with the artist completely obscured by the optics of the show.
The inspiration for Close’s intimate view that insinuates the audience to his onstage activity came in part from Hawtin’s concern about transparency in an age when the expanding audience for his brand of electronic music might assume the DJ is merely pressing play. It’s also a pragmatic solution for creating a visual experience for those fans, largely bred on mainstage bombast that matches the music, without compromising the ad-lib approach Hawtin insists on when DJing.
“I’m the guy who, if someone gives me a hot new record, I’m gonna play it. And if there’s no visual for it, I’m f–ked,” Hawtin says of the challenge in playing festival stages around the world. Even though most A-list DJs tour with their own video guy, they can still end up feeling hemmed into a limited selection of records when the moment comes. Hawtin admits that his sets are mostly made up of 200 current tracks (roughly what fits in an old school record crate), of which he’ll play 30-40 over the course of a two-hour show.
But he’s quick to point out that of the three performances that comprise Close Combined — recorded in Glasgow, London and Tokyo last October — only about 30% of the track he played overlapped. The rest were only aired once out of the three nights. He also always has the option to dig deep into the 20,000 tunes on his hard drive, should the mood strike him.
“We set it up the show so I don’t have to worry about what visuals are playing, or, now I need to play this song because suddenly there’s a happy face behind me,” he says. “I’m free up there trying to make the purest sonic experience for the people.”