Uncovering the Man Behind Plastikman

by Humberto Guida

Richie Hawtin started messing with people from the start of his set at Coachella. This was to be his only other U.S. appearance as Plastikman, his alter ego, besides his Movement date in Detroit on May 29th. For me, his performance was the holy grail of the festival. When I first got into electronic music as a teenager, my friends and I would peak our balls off to the trippy sounds of this mysterious artist, who we were all convinced was an alien.
As is the case with all Plastikman projects, and the essence of Plastikman himself, the first ten minutes of his Coachella set were minimal, repetitive forays into sound. He was literally playing noise. It drove away some of the crowd – those who had arrived to see what the hype surrounding this mysterious virtuoso was all about – but just when we least expected it, he dropped the funk from another dimension. (Click here to check out a clip from his set).
Not too long after the festival, I got Hawtin on the phone for an exclusive interview. This year’s rare tour as Plastikman is going down in support of his upcoming release, Plastikman Live (out on M_nus). I got to ask Hawtin about the meaning of his act and the source of all the hype he gets as a virtuoso, but before I get to that, here is a little about the enigmatic man behind the cult of Plastikman.
For much of his career, Hawtin has been an ultra-reclusive artist, hidden behind the Plastikman character. Only in recent years has the music world finally gotten a good glimpse of Hawtin as a person. He is still pretty keen on maintaining a sort of disconnection from the public – he doesn’t check his messages (he says so on his voicemail greeting) and he changes his email address every year to shake off obsessive fans. He operates his lucrative career for himself, which includes year-round performances and residencies in Ibiza and Berlin. In addition to that, he runs some of the dance music world’s most prestigious labels (his flagship, M_nus Records, and its landmark boutique subsidiary, Plus 8) through a close-knit inner circle of confidantes. I am fortunate to have a mutual friend who hooked us up.
So why the Stanley Kubrick shtick? It probably dates back to 1995, when Hawtin, who is a native of Winsdor, Ontario was kicked out of the United States on the way to a performance in New York and virtually disappeared for two years. During that time, the Plastikman legend took off.
By that point, Hawtin’s music career had garnered buzz around the world. In the late ‘80s, when Hawtin was a scrawny blonde DJ wunderkind, he turned the epicenter of the house music scene in nearby Detroit on its head with his distinct sound. It’s typically defined by compulsive, acidy baselines and precise, pulsing percussion, fused with trippy, 303 heavy sounds. Two highly successful concept albums in the early ‘90s, Sheet One and Musik, put his name on the map. Sheet One caused some controversy with its cover image, a proliferated blotter sheet with the Plastikman emblem on each hit. It looked like a sheet of acid, so I used to sell the copies of the cover outside of raves as a teen to pay for the cover charge.
For two years after the border debacle, Hawtin worked in the studio on his long awaited follow-up to Musik and toured Europe where his profile really blew up. All the while, his first two albums continued to build a buzz as Hawtin operated in exile. Finally in 1998, Hawtin returned to the U.S. on the shoulders of his third Plastikman album, Consumed. Even Rolling Stone was running stories about “the next big thing in dance music” – and that’s when Hawtin pulled one of music’s greatest cons. Consumed was not what people, including the media and his fans, expected. The reception was akin to the one Lou Reed got when he released the unintelligible Metal Machine Music. People didn’t get it. He even lost a number of fans who felt they got suckered into wasting money on some unintelligible, experimental album, when what they wanted was more of the phat tracks he produced on his first two albums.
His follow-up to the much misunderstood Consumed was released a mere eight months later. Artifakts B.C. (the B.C. stood for “Before Consumed”) contained all the dance tracks and blissful melodies that he originally intended to include on his follow-up. It was the kind of music everyone wanted in the first place. One prophetic track on the CD was titled “Are Friends Electrik? (For Those Who Stayed).” It was a smooth electro track that sounded as sweet to the ear as anything he had ever recorded. His true fans caught on. They came to realize that no other music artist makes his listeners work this hard, but Hawtin was worth it.
Today he’s touring the world playing some of the biggest music festivals on the planet. If you get a chance to see him in Detroit at the Movement Festival on May 29th, or in Europe later this year, be sure to stick around past the first 20 minutes when he’ll reward you for your patience. Check out his website for a full list of shows. 
What were your first forays into electronic music?
I grew up in Windsor, Canada. The border was 15 minutes from my house. There was nothing to do where I lived, so I had to go to Detroit for inspiration and excitement. If I wanted new records, cool clothes, I had to go to Detroit. I got sucked into the club scene, and found myself in the beginning of a revolution.  Industrial music was going into Chicago acid house, New York soul house, and it became a mish-mash called “Detroit techno.”  
What DJs would you get to see back then?
I was going out to the clubs and listening to Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Jeff Mills before anyone ever cared about them. It allowed me to feel a certain excitement in the air that something new was happening, and that’s why I jumped right into producing and being part of the scene. 
What was the scene like back then?
People were taken aback and weren’t sure what was happening. I was definitely inspired by the scene in Detroit, but because of my British heritage, I was also keenly aware of what was going on in London in 1988-89 with all the sunrise rave parties. I was listening to the European electronic music and it all came together. 
Your first album, Sheet One, is considered revolutionary to this day because it was a concept album. Where did the inspiration for such a blatant ode to tripping on acid come from?
Sheet One was directly influenced by late-night parties in Detroit, listening to Derrick May DJ these long tripped-out journeys of sound. At that moment in 1993, electronic music albums were all about having a handful of tracks of varying ideas. I thought there has to be a way to tell a journey for 60 or 70 minutes and spit them out the other side, to take a specific sound and take people through that journey as deep as possible. It’s very similar to what I do with my performances. 
What happened with you at the border in 1995? It seemed to take you out of the spotlight for two years but in a way contributed to your legend.
That was a simple situation that got blown out of proportion. I was coming back into the country to do a performance in New York and my working papers weren’t in order. Essentially, I wasn’t allowed into the country to perform. I wasn’t prepared to not show up at the show, so I went anyway and I ran into the wrong people (authorities) who weren’t happy I was coming to take jobs away from the Americans.
I took that time that I was not allowed in the U.S. due to that “trespassing” incident. I was working for one year on the Concept series, just staying home, in the studio. Those years gave me early inspiration for the M_nus label. I was going around Europe, meeting people, raising my profile there, because at that point, I wasn’t sure when, if ever, I was going to be allowed back in the states. I couldn’t just let myself be cut off from the scene worldwide.
What were you trying to accomplish by releasing Consumed, with all of its experimental sounds that most people couldn’t digest, when you had Artifakts including those very tracks that would have blown you up?
Once you grab people’s attention, once you have their trust, you almost have a responsibility as an artist to take them deeper than they are willing to go.
At that moment in time, I knew there was a huge anticipation for Plastikman – from people who had been waiting because they were fans, to people who danced to Plastikman when they went out, to people who had just heard of me getting kicked out of the country, to kids getting arrested for having Plastikman CD covers. There was so much hype that it became more than music. It went well beyond what was intended.
It would have been very easy to just deliver them a continuation of what I had been doing on Musik and Sheet One, but I was much more inspired with what I had done with Consumed that I figured this was probably the only situation I could think of where people were going to check it out and perhaps give the chance they wouldn’t give to another artist who was releasing something so obscure. So I had to use the potential of this moment or I’d be throwing away all that had built up throughout the previous eight years. I gave people what I think is progressive electronic music to let them decide. And then after that I put out music that’s easier to digest, but I wanted first to deliver what they weren’t expecting. 
How big is the divide between Richie Hawtin and Plastikman?
There’s always a connection point between both identities. They feed off of each other. Right now Richie Hawtin has become the extrovert; the one who goes out and parties and plays with the people as a DJ. Plastikman has a lot of different influences, and is more introverted and introspective. It can be danceable but it doesn’t have to be. When I get to that deep, dark moment I tap into the Palstikman persona, which goes into the deeper regions of who I am, while the Richie Hawtin side is the outer entertainer who I have become more of in the last few years. 
You seem more comfortable in your skin than you did in the ‘90s.
You spend a lot of time by yourself in studio doing what you think is right, but then people start to connect with you and feel close to you. You start to travel around the world, you learn about yourself and meet people and you become more confident and outwardly expressive. I think that is what people have seen from me in the past few years.
I’ve always been very serious about what I do. That hasn’t changed, but I‘ve been able to enjoy it more and share it with people more than I could ten or 15 years ago. 
I can see you… but not like, in a stalker way or anything like that.
- HG

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