One of the founding fathers of underground techno has become nothing more than an EDM conformist and hypocrite in recent years, yet seems to be immune to criticism. It's time he was held to account.
One sunny afternoon last summer Richie Hawtin played a short DJ set in the shallow waters of Salinas beach, Ibiza. Fist-pumping with one skinny arm and waving an iPad with the other, Hawtin’s slight presence was in contrast with the huge inflated black rubber rings employed to hold the speakers, amps and various other bits and pieces needed to generate loud music in the sea. The assembled crowd was a fair representation of Ibiza society – buff tattooed males, a few leggy club dancers and some puzzled family holiday makers. The occasion of this painful PR stunt marked the end of Richie Hawtin’s credibility as one of electronic music’s forward thinkers – despite what he might tell you himself.
Richie Hawtin is no longer ground-breaking. Now the quintessential superstar DJ, he tours relentlessly in his private jet alongside his entourage of similarly-dressed fixers, photographers, helpers and yes-men, appearing at bland ‘festivals’ between weekly appearances in the (yawn) clubbing Mecca of Ibiza. Here is a man maximising income from his brand, his popularity peaking despite (or because of?) a rigorously unchanged music style.
And that’s ok with me. There are plenty of incredibly talented DJ/Producers who are genuinely pushing the boundaries, side-stepping the clichés with which the scene is riddled and redefining electronic music as we know it. So it’s ok that Hawtin has left that behind, the remaining void has been amply filled. But what I don’t understand is the almost complete lack of objective discussion about him and his current relevance to music and clubbing.
The Guardian’s weekly Guide supplement, normally with discerning clubbing and electronic music output, slips lazily into unquestioning Hawtin hyperbole. In a recent festival preview, they wrote that he is “someone who could have easily settled into pipe-and-slippers mode but instead keeps his finger on the pulse…” More about pipes and slippers later.
A FACT magazine article introduces Hawtin as “one of dance music’s most opinion-dividing names” but I’m struggling to find divisive opinions about him on any platform. Digital media and the clubbing world at large maintain an almost authoritarian level of worship of all things Hawtin.
Where are the “Richie Hawtin is shit” articles? Isn’t that strange? A rudimentary internet search will pull up plenty of critical opinions on almost any musical artist – criticism – it’s what the internet does best! A glance to the “bottom half of the internet” under any YouTube video is your first port of call if you want to snort up some mindless negativity about almost anything – but Richie Hawtin is troll-proof.
I’m not saying Hawtin is shit – I’m listening to one of his DJ sets right now and he sounds as good as he always has done. In fact, this one sounds just like a mix he would have thrown down 7 or 8 years ago. But I object to his God-like-status being reinforced by a complete lack of objective opinion on any of the big DJing websites. So I guess the concern in some ways is not that Richie Hawtin has sold out, it’s that the electronic music press hasn’t noticed. And that is symptomatic of the awful quality of DJ and clubbing media. The few DJ magazines that are still surviving are filled cover-to-cover with over-the-top hyperventilating dirge which does nothing for the credibility of dance music.
Indie music has Pitchfork, and while it’s a bit holier-than-thou, dance music could really do with an equivalent – somewhere with balanced output about DJ’s, clubs and records. Critical writing doesn’t necessarily mean criticism, just thoughtfulness, and that’s the least that should be expected.
Am I alone in thinking that for all the cutting-edge technology, software and hardware that Hawtin peddles nowadays (he’s a ‘brand ambassador’ for Native Instruments), his sets sound just the same as ever? I’m certainly not an expert in this field, but I’m not convinced that technology has improved his sound. Hawtin rattles on about technology that opens up the possibilities, game-changers, etc. but I would struggle to take any performer seriously who prances around on a stage with an idiotic toy such as this. I don’t know what “tools” Richie uses each night, but the tracks he plays are now so totally deconstructed by looping and multiple effects that it’s back to square one – the tracks sound different, but not any better or more interesting. Despite all of these technological “advances”, the sound is the same as it ever was.
Richie Hawtin now appears at the uber-commercial EDM raves which have become insanely popular in the US. Some of these road shows such as Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Music Festival have migrated to Europe. London’s Olympic Park hosted an Electric Daisy party back in July. A friend of mine who lives nearby informed me that the noise coming out of there was shocking on that day – it probably sounded a bit like this.
If Hawtin’s sharing stages with Avicii, Swedish House Mafia and Skrillex, that’s his business, but if that’s the crap he wants to be associated with, then he’s off my Christmas card list. Doesn’t this concern anyone else? This is what he is does now, along with his weekly Ibiza junket (and that’s another thing…). What bothers me is the excuses he gives.
One day somebody must have whispered quietly into his ear how much he could pocket on the US EDM circuit. After that it was just a matter of post-rationalising the move as ‘pushing the boundaries’. The internet is full of inane sound bites from Hawtin and some of his contemporaries doing precisely this – one notable instance being when he performed back-to-back with Deadmau5 at SXSW last March. In a public discussion with him at the festival he harped on about Deadmau5 being the “gatekeeper of electronic music”, suggesting somehow that the reason he’s appearing with a performer in a mouse mask is to encourage him to bring the EDM fan base underground. Complete and utter badger poo – and Sasha agrees.
Much more idiotic sprouting oozed on a weekly basis from a contrived 2012 DJ/lecture tour around the US called CTRL – Beyond EDM which Hawtin “curated”. The lectures produced many titbits of wisdom from various DJs – all preserved for ever more on Twitter – inspirational quotes such as “I think there is something still very magical about someone who is solely a DJ and not a producer/DJ”. I don’t even know where to begin with that one. The real message here is that DJs shouldn’t lecture, unless you’re DJ Spooky.
And so to Space in Ibiza, the nightclub behemoth which hosts Richie Hawtin’s weekly Enter.bash (the full stop is intentional). An event so confused about its identity that the branding for it has ended up as incoherent rubbish falling uncomfortably between at least three stools. It was always going to be a big leap to credibly market Hawtin in Ibeefa without excluding his original fan base; it’s just too much of a contradiction. So, what we’re left with is big black dots (full stops? Periods?) everywhere, from billboards to the sides of buses all over Ibiza (and the internet) – reminiscent of the minimal cool from the Plastikman moniker but a little bit derivative. Add an “intimate” Japanese sake bar, a silly slogan (“Are you ready to take the next step?”) and of course the pop-up floaty DJ set-in-the-sea malarkey and you’ve got yourself a totally over the top Ibiza party.
It doesn’t really matter though, because Ibiza, as we know well, is filled with unquestioning moneyed-up disciples of techno who won’t think twice about shelling out dizzying amounts of cash for a night out with Hawtin and friends. He may not be the first to take that “next step” from underground minimalism to mainstream but he’s definitely not going to be the last, as German label Get Physical is now hosting a night on the island this summer.
In this way, Ibiza and Las Vegas are converging. The Balearic island of love and music is where DJs go to die – when you’re as rich and famous as you can possibly get as an entertainer, when you’ve done it all but you don’t want shift into pipe-and-slippers mode, what do you do? You get a season-long show in Vegas of course, just like Celine Dion and Santana. Likewise in Ibiza – glancing up at the billboards which line the highway between the airport and the centre of town, you will see the giant faces of the DJ elderly smiling back at you – the likes of Eric Morillo, Paul Van Dyk and the king of them all, Carl Cox, whose enduring popularity is completely inexplicable. These are DJ slebs who haven’t produced anything remotely interesting for years. Richie Hawtin, are you ready to take the next step?
So Ibiza is kind of like Las Vegas, but for DJs. And meanwhile, in Vegas, Hawtin’s buddy Deadmau5 is getting $400k a night for a two year residency at a nightclub called Hakkasan. It’s one of Billboard magazine’s Top 10 Vegas musical events – along with Boyz-II-Men at the Mirage. There’s loads of other DJs getting on that bandwagon too, David Guetta (wouldn’t you know!?) and AfroJack amongst others who have also sorted out club nights in Las Vegas. The crossover doesn’t end there… Vegas veteran Elton John made a live appearance last summer in Ibiza with electronic producers, Pnau.
The obvious and only conclusion to all this is Richie Hawtin’s “final step” which will almost certainly be an Enter.Las Vegas residency (he’s already been to Vegas this year with the Electric Daisy jaunt) and with it, the ultimate nail in the coffin for one of underground techno’s founding members. No longer setting the benchmark or breaking the rules of dance music, Richie Hawtin is now a conformist and a hypocrite.