Richie Hawtin is many things – an extraordinary DJ, creator of the ENTER. Experience in Ibiza, mastermind behind the Minus label, technological innovator, art aficionado, style icon. Before this, though, and perhaps most famously of all, he was and is Plastikman, an electronic music phenomenon whose followers are legion and fanatic.
Between 1993 and 2003 Plastikman created an astonishing body of work, one that didn't so much define a time and place as explode them, expanding the dimensions of Detroit techno and redefining the possibilities of electronic dance music. Across six albums (‘Sheet One’, ‘Musik’, ‘Recycled Plastik’, ‘Consumed’, ‘Artifakts (B.C.)’, and ‘Closer)’ and numerous singles such as ‘Spastik’, ‘Plastique’, and ‘Sickness’, Plastikman evolved into one of contemporary electronic music’s most distinctive voices: minimalist, psychedelic, groove-laden and ever mindful of the transcendent properties of electronica.
As the ‘90s dawned, Plastikman also helmed some of the most intense, mind- bending parties underground electronic music has ever known. They took place in and around Detroit, as well as Hawtin's home town of Windsor, Ontario, and their reputation spread worldwide by word-of-mouth, snail mail and message boards. The parties were based on those he’d experienced as a teenager at Detroit’s legendary Music Institute; a black sweatbox of a room, a single strobe light, and the phattest sound system.
As with his ENTER. extravaganzas at Space in Ibiza today – albeit on a different scale - Hawtin and associates staged elaborate events whose every detail was intended to pull people out of the everyday and plunge them into the unknown. Events such as Hard, Hardest, Heaven & Hell, Spastik, Jak, Sickness & Recovery, and the Fuk Tour raised the bar for what was possible. Using materials as basic as a roll of black plastic sheeting over walls and ceilings, or as elaborate as the 40,000 square feet of the abandoned Packard automobile factory in Detroit (where Plastikman’s first live performance took place), they transformed spaces into microcosms, featuring probing lights, bowls of fresh fruit, Melba toast dipped in acid, and pools of goldfish. At the heart of it all was ‘the System’, a four point Cerwin Vega sound system (when two were standard), arranged in the round. These events not only made Plastikman a hero across the Midwestern USA, they helped create a platform for an entire scene to develop.
Plastikman gained a hardcore following with an extensive mailing list of fans across America. By shrouding the parties in secrecy, they stayed one step ahead of both the cops and the commercial mainstream. They were exclusive but inclusive, designed to remain hidden to all but the committed. The striking thing was how this spirit remained long after Plastikman had gone global, how the idea of this narcotic, techno outlaw made fans want Plastikman’s lysergic dancing logo tattooed on their very skin as a sign of affiliation.
And then there’s the music, even more groundbreaking than the events, suggesting new directions and shapes for techno at every step. On 28th October 1993 the ‘Sheet One’ album was released in Canada on Hawtin and John Acquaviva's Plus 8 label (soon appearing overseas on NovaMute). It had a cover designed to look and feel like blotter acid and was a cohesive statement at a time when techno was mostly a matter of 12” singles. Without knowing exactly what he was embarking upon, and without even having yet invented Plastikman, Hawtin had recorded virtually the entire thing across two days and nights in the studio he dubbed UTK (or Under The Kitchen), in the basement of his parents’ house in Windsor, Ontario. ‘Sheet One’ changed the shape of techno virtually overnight and sent ripples through the landscape of electronic music.
A year later came ‘Musik’, an even fuller exploration of the area between techno and ambient listening music. Like ‘Sheet One’, ‘Musik’ focused on the sound of the Roland TB-303 but was lithe and lyrical, worlds away from conventional bangin’ techno. More than anything, it challenged techno’s harder/faster/louder trajectory by slowing down and tripping out, just as Richie’s extended DJ sets took dancers on a journey from passion to mania to a kind of enlightened calm.
In 1995, just as Plastikman was exploding—thanks partly to live shows performed from Glastonbury to Tokyo—Hawtin was caught crossing the border without work papers and barred from entering the United States. He was able to return a year and a half later but the experience affected him profoundly and Plastikman subsequently took a darker, more introspective turn. 1998’s ‘Consumed’ reflected that period of isolation and exile, as well as Hawtin’s own ambivalence towards his growing fame. After several years of no-holds-barred parties, ‘Consumed’ wasn’t so much a comedown as a new and unexpected phase on a psychedelic trip without end. Inspired in part by a sense of spatial and personal dislocation that he experienced one night, deep in the countryside, ‘Consumed’ was both Plastikman’s darkest, strangest album and also his best-selling (It was even nominated for Prix Ars Electronica’s esteemed Golden Nica award). ‘Artifakts (B.C.)’ followed in the same year, collecting material intended for a never-released album called ‘Klinik’, originally the third part of the ‘Sheet One’/’Musik’ trilogy which ‘Consumed’ had replaced.
By the early ‘00s, after a period in New York, Hawtin moved to Berlin. His Minus label had established a new, global community of artists and fans and his reputation as a DJ was soaring, thanks in part to his adventurous mix CDs (‘Decks, EFX & 909’, ‘DE9 | Closer to the Edit’, and ‘DE9 | Transitions’). Then, in 2003, Plastikman returned with a fifth album, ‘Closer’. For its creation Hawtin had returned to Windsor and delved deep into his alter ego once again, moulding Plastikman’s sound into new, alien forms as he probed the recesses of his psyche. In an unintended twist on the album’s title, ‘Closer’ closed a chapter of the Plastikman story. Although three further Plastikman singles appeared in a series called ‘Nostalgik’, it wasn’t until 2010-11 that Hawtin returned fully with Plastikman Live 1.5, a wildly ambitious multimedia show combining live performance of Plastikman classics with synchronized visuals on a massive, semi-circular LED screen. It was accompanied by ‘Kompilation’, a Hawtin-curated selection of Plastikman’s greatest moments, followed by ‘Arkives’, the complete compendium of Plastikman releases to date. The limited edition gatefold boxset included 15 CDs and 1 DVD, a book of rare photographs and historical details of the Plastikman story. Many presumed that as Hawtin’s career went from strength-to-strength the Plastikman story was finished. They presumed wrong.
Last autumn Raf Simons, Creative Director at Dior, a man who listens “to Richie Hawtin’s music like others listen to classical music”, asked him to put on a special performance at the Guggenheim, New York’s iconic art museum, the centre-piece for their annual fund-raiser. From this event there was an unexpected knock-on effect.
“I knew that Raf Simons was a long, long time Plastikman fan,” is how Hawtin explains it, “and signing on for the project really forced me to find the time to not only get back to Plastikman but to get back into the studio. In five days I’d recorded enough material for a new album. Music came out of me because of the opportunity to play in this beautiful architectural space renowned for art not music. It allowed me to step very far from dancefloor, gave me a huge amount of freedom back. Art and music, architecture and music, painting, sculpture - these mediums live together.”
The Guggenheim show, a major success constructed around an LED obelisk, thawed his lengthy production hiatus and has resulted in the first full Plastikman studio album in over a decade. The new release, titled ‘EX’, is from the material recorded for the Guggenheim event. It is the first part of Plastikman’s return to music production. Expect more in 2015.
Plastikman is also returning to the live arena at Sonar 2014, where the new tracks will be presented, pushing the boundaries of techno, offering a synchronicity of art and sound, a place for electronica that’s both cinematic and thought-provoking. Plastikman’s career has pushed at the frontiers of dance music, rejecting first the endless drive for faster speeds and, later, the blatant pop aspirations in favour of more imagination and more musical engagement. Plastikman was never going to be a heritage dance act. It is a creative force that will not be stopped. This latest renaissance once again opens doors few never knew existed, showcasing a master at work.Close