Posts Tagged ‘ritchie hawtin’

Ritchie Hawtin, aka Plastikman

"People can't appreciate what they don't know or what they've never heard."

[Note: This interview originally appeared on the now-defunct music portal, RadioSpy.com]

“The name is familiar,” reads Richie Hawtin’s bio … and yet, no one I’ve queried has ever heard of him or any of his more ubiquitous aliases: Plastikman and FUSE. Odd for an artist who has DJed to crowds larger than many rock bands ever play to (his appearance at the 1995 Glastonbury festival drew 20,000 people into the cramped confines of a DJ tent) and who has been commissioned by the French Government to compose two pieces of music for their Millennium 2000 celebrations. Hawtin’s anonymity in North America epitomizes the techno ethos of personality subversion to the end of bringing the music itself into sharper focus. As a musician, then, Hawtin is one of electronic dance music’s foremost innovators whose roots extend to the foundation of techno itself. A resident of Detroit-neighboring Windsor, Canada, Hawtin absorbed the influences of a Detroit radio DJ named The Wizard (Jeff Mills), who spun early records by techno forefathers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson. Inspired to begin his own DJ career in Windsor pubs, Hawtin quickly graduated to jaunts across the border to DJ in Detroit clubs. In the mid-’80, he and occasional collaborator John Acquaviva formed Plus 8 records and initiated an escalation of BPM (Beats Per Minute) that resulted in a worldwide stylistic revolution (gabba, hardcore, jungle and drum ‘n’ bass can all trace some branch of their lineage to Plus 8’s releases and live events). His later minimalist work as Plastikman utilizes slower beats, gentler textures and gradual (often microscopic) shifts in pitch and dynamics, pushing techno to a new frontier now populated by acts such as LFO, Aphex Twin, and Autechre.

Setting aside Plastikman’s minimalism for the time being, Hawtin’s latest release, Decks, EFX and 909 (Minus Records / NovaMute), showcases his often-imitated but never-paralleled DJ style (driving beats that seem a mile deep textured with radically reconfigured, stripped-down modulations of other artists’ recordings). The album occasioned his appearance at the groundbreaking Coachella Festival in October 1999, where, as a nod to his rock-solid reputation, he performed on the same DJ tent lineup as his adolescent influences Saunderson, Atkins and May. His Coachella performance also caught the ears of peers The Chemical Brothers, who asked Hawtin to perform with them at the Brixton Academy show on December 4, 1999. I caught up with Hawtin shortly after Coachella, while he enjoyed a short respite at home amidst a hectic touring schedule.

Sean Flinn: My first set of questions have to do with Coachella: What did you actually think of the festival? Do you have any general opinions about the event?

Richie Hawtin: I think in the overall picture, Coachella was definitely a really, really well-organized and attended event, and was really, I think, a good shot in the arm for that type of festival in North America. Because it’s generally something you see overseas, especially the combination of some of the bigger electronic — well, more mainstream and popular electronic acts — with some of the alternative stuff, which is still slightly interesting, and DJ culture.

Outside of the DJ tents, were there any artists performing on the bigger stages that you wanted to see perform?

You know, I don’t even really know the final lineup for Coachella. I flew in from Frankfurt to Coachella, and shortly after flew directly to San Francisco. There were about nine gigs in a row all over Europe before Frankfurt, so it was a bit of a crazy trip.

Sounds like it.

I heard Morrissey, because it was so loud that it was coming into the tent while I was checking out Juan Atkins. And then, I heard the Chemical Brothers because they were so loud that it was coming over my sound when I was playing in my tent. So that was a bit disappointing because I was getting drowned out a bit. That could have been set up a little bit better. I did hear that The Art of Noise was playing, which sounded remotely interesting, but then again it probably would have been 10 years ago.

I completely forgot that they were on the bill after about the first hour or so of the festival because I was running all over the place. I remember being in the tent while you were spinning and hearing the Chemical Brothers … the same thing happened with the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and Rage Against the Machine. So, yeah, that’s something they probably could’ve done better.

Yeah, they could have turned some of the things around or positioned things better. That’s unfortunate, but hopefully they’ll plan a little bit better next year. But you know, there were a lot of things that were done well at the festival too, so it kind of balances out. Especially when you’re talking about sound structure and things, it’s the most important [thing]; people are coming to hear music. They need to be able to hear one or another, not both at the same time. I think with, especially some of the electronic musicians, I know, even like the scratch guys and myself and some other people, the dynamics of what we’re doing are important in the way sometimes it’s about what we’re playing, but also, about what we’re not playing. And those pauses, those breaks, those lower volume sections, those EQ changes sometimes were getting drowned out by something else that was happening a mile away.

I know, just from listening to your recordings, that dynamics are extremely important with what you’re doing, so that definitely could have a negative impact. Aside from that, you mentioned that you felt the festival may have given that type of music — and I’m taking that to mean electronic music and underground hip-hop — a shot in the arm. Do you think the festival could have given electronic music a chance to sway over some new fans, or do you think they were just preaching to the converted?

As an optimist, I always hope that. That’s one of the reasons for doing an event like that. I’m not particularly fond of big events, but I also don’t want to preach to the converted all the time. So that was a good opportunity to have some people who were sort of wandering through tents in between Rage Against the Machine and Morrissey or whoever it was, and stumble upon someone who they’d never heard of or they’d only read about, and suddenly say, “You know? This isn’t too bad.” And whether that brings them to go and buy the CD, that could be a good benefit. But I look at it as really giving people an appetizer for myself. You’re not getting exactly what I do, but I’m giving enough of myself to the people with the equipment that’s provided to me to give them enough taste to know if it’s something for them. And then, hopefully, we’ll invite them to see me at another event, maybe, which is more surrounded around my self, where I can play four or five hours on a better system and really show them what I’m all about. You have to use these events for what they are. America has taken a long time for electronic music to grab hold of people. Part of it is the size of the country and the communication infrastructure for getting new ideas to people — which isn’t very good in this country. So you have to take these opportunities to try and open some ears. I’m not going to sit here and say “North America sucks” because no one is into what I do without trying and going through and giving people the opportunity to maybe get turned on by it. People can’t appreciate what they don’t know or what they’ve never heard.

That’s true. And you mentioned the lines of communication — do you think then that the rapid development of MP3 technology and streaming media and all of that is going to help open some of those lines of communication?

I think one of the only reasons that the whole DJ and rave culture — party culture has taken off so well in America and has started to come together is because of communication and the Internet. The Internet is at its most progressive in North America in the way that most of the areas are now wired. It’s getting to the point where everyone has e-mail or some type of opportunity to get online, and it’s a great flow of information, of music, of resources and of bringing people information about new ideas. That’s the thing that’s really kept this movement underground or at a smaller level than everywhere else in the world — it’s basically because of geography. The Internet is basically the first thing in our existence that bypasses physical geography.

That’s very true. Do you have any plans for yourself? I know you have http://www.plastikman.com

We have plastikman.com, and my record labels [have] +8.com and minus.com [for =8 Records and Minus Records, respectively, –ed.]. +8 has been online for about five years. We’ve been broadcasting RealAudio and doing our events for over four years, and MP3 has been up there for about two years. We’re not new to this technology.

That’s good to hear, especially since our organization deals with streaming media …

What’s that? What does your organization do?

Well, RadioSpy is actually a music portal that is … built around a piece of software that we developed to help people find SHOUTcast servers.

Oh really? So are you doing all SHOUTcast streams?

Actually, we picked up RealAudio and Windows Media.

OK, cool. We’re doing the same thing.

Terrific!

We have a new portal opening – going online — in a few weeks called Clonk… .com, .net, .org. and that’s gonna be similar, but precisely for electronic music.

Oh wow! I’ll definitely inform our station manager about that.

You should, because when we go online we’ll have a couple of weekly shows and things. There will be some Windows Media layers, there’ll be a helluva a lot of Real Media, and there will also be some SHOUTcasts.

Well it’s good to know that the technology is proliferating out there and that artists are getting involved with it directly.

Ritchie Hawtin at Coachella 1999

Richie Hawtin hits the decks at Coachella 1999.

That’s something we’ve been trying to get going, so it’s nice to see that other people are doing it — especially people with your clout.

We’re involved in the creative use of technology. That’s what my company does. We’re not a record company, we’re not really musicians or anything. We’re creative. We use technology to get our ideas out, and streaming media or using the Internet is just another form of technology to communicate with people or to communicate our ideas. So it’s all the same thing to us.

I’m going to change track a little bit here and talk about Decks, EFX & 909. Why did you decide, after working in the vein of Plastikman for a while, to release a mix album? It seems, at least at first blush, to be sort of a change of pace from your recordings — I know it’s not from your live performances. But what motivated you to do Decks, EFX & 909?

Well, I think, a couple of things. After so many years — like, since ’93 — of spending a lot of time on the whole Plastikman idea, philosophy and sound, it was time to move on to some new things — permanently, or for a little while at least. So I kind of ride the top of the fence — I run an electronic label, so I see the business side; I also see the creative side as a performer. I make some very strange abstract minimalism, but also as a DJ performer, I play some of that, but also keep it quite upbeat. I’m interested in forward-thinking electronic music. So I wanted to do something that would, I guess, show people the other side of my DJ performances, but at the same time cross the lines a little bit. I didn’t want to do yet another mix CD. I’d done one in the past. I’m sick and tired of mix CDs. It’s an open and shut case. It hasn’t done anything new for ages. So I went in with the idea of capturing what I do during my DJ live performances, and making it different enough and bringing ideas — both the DJ side but also my production side; using the decks and effects that I use as a performer, but also maybe adding some extra production and editing to create something which, to me, for lack of a better word, is definitely more than a mix CD.

Yeah, it definitely works well … I know a lot of mix CDs are geared for dancing and stuff like that …

Yeah, but the thing is, you’ve got to remember that mix CDs are, a lot of the time, just DJs going into the studio and recording exactly what they do in a club, or just a straight recording of a club. And I think that’s lazy, and quite shallow. If you think about recording that that type of set, especially from a club or a performance, you’re taking everything out of context. The majority of the people who are buying and listening to it weren’t at that performance. They don’t understand the reason you played those records. They don’t understand the atmosphere of the night, the size of the room, the temperature, the sound system that things were played on — and all these things wrap up together to create what I would call “a moment in time.” I don’t want to take that moment away from the people who were there by releasing it to everyone else. So I had to come up with something that related to that, but also, at the same time, was relevant if they were playing it back into a club, but if they were playing it in a car, listening to it while they were washing the dishes, all these different circumstances. So there’s all these extra things you have to think about when you’re creating something like this. That’s why I kind of wanted to cross my sides together and put a twist on the whole thing and do something which was different, with a little bit more of an edge than the rest of these quickly-recorded and packaged and marketed DJ mix CDs.

That leads me right into my next question: How did you approach recording the album? How meticulously did you lay it out, and how did you choose the records you were going to pull?

The records were … with mix CDs, you have to clear all of the records that you want to put on the CD, and not always can you clear everything that you’re actually playing in your set. Luckily, we cleared all the music right through my own production company — through Minus — and were able to get nearly everything I wanted, from a lot of my friends and a lot of really new upstarts and really small labels. So it’s a really eclectic mix of music. I also didn’t want to have a mix CD of all the tracks everyone knew. I wanted to use it to introduce some people to new artists. And so after I picked the tracks, it was really laying out a live mix at the studio, and then going through along with the live mix and adding live effects and some 909 drum machine programming, and then going back over and re-adding some extra things, touching some things up, and then taking what was about a two-hour mix, cutting and editing it up, looping some things to change the structure of the records that people knew. I didn’t want people to feel that comfortable with. I wanted the mix to be comfortable in the way that it really went together well and flowed, but I didn’t want everyone to know exactly what was coming next, even if they knew the record that was being played. That was important for me. I don’t like the idea of people getting complacent and nearly getting to the state of being bored with dance music. I like to pull the rug out from under people’s feet and have them expect the unexpected.

And when you were choosing the records, I know you mentioned wanting to give some exposure to some of your friends and some music that people hadn’t heard before. How did you decided what records you wanted to feature out of those, because I’m sure you have a rather large collection of them. Did you have to make any tough choices?

It was done in two steps, really. I do a lot of five or six-hour sets, and I’m carting 200-plus records around with me all the time. So I had to pare that down to the ones that, first, I knew I could get in contact with the people easily, and also, which I probably thought I had a chance to acquire the rights to. So that pared it down to about 70 records. And then, I probably got clearance on about 60 records. After that it was just kind of putting things together in a way that had a flow to it, that felt right. That pared it down to the 38 tracks that were used in the end.

OK. As just kind of an ignorant question on my part, what all is involved in getting a record cleared for you to use it on an album?

Basically, a lot of the records I play are white labeled [virtually anonymous releases of tracks made available exclusively to DJ’s], so you don’t even where they’re from, except from the postage stamp that came with it. So you have to track down, via catalog numbers or via information on the label — by fax or e-mail or phone — and get their permission, which involves a contract of how much you’re going to pay to the people, what territories you’re going to be releasing it in… it’s quite an involved process. It’s not just a typical “Hey I’m gonna do a mix CD, can I use your music?” And then some people want an advance, or money up front. Some people want bigger percentages than others. It’s a bit of a haggling game in a way. But luckily, because a lot of the people are my friends, and because I’ve been in the industry and I run an independent label, I know what most independent labels like myself would want from a mix CD like this, so we didn’t have that much trouble at all. It takes a little bit of time, just with talking in different time zones in different countries in different languages. There’s things [on Decks, EFX and 909] from German, from England, from Iceland, from Canada, from the U.S. — all different places.

So it’s a real geographical excursion.

Well it’s electronic music, it’s the really one of the first musics that’s grabbed hold of the world. Being a DJ who travels the world and is always picking up new records, that had to be mirrored in the production.

I noticed in the Media Guide from Coachella, they list you as using “out-of-date synth dinosaurs like the Roland TB-303 and the TR-808.” I’m wondering, why the fondness for equipment that other people consider outdated? And do you think equipment like this ever really gets outdated?

If I did a track with just a 303 and 808, it may sound outdated. But really, with electronic music, it’s about taking electronic signals from old things and from new things, passing them through something else, filtering them, modifying them, and coming up with something which is uniquely yours. And so my sound is made out of a mish-mash of old and new technology, from archaic to cutting edge. That mish-mash, which somehow I control in a way, that gives me my take on this whole electronic sound.

In that vein, and to lead back to an answer you gave me earlier about using technology, what features does a new piece of technology — or even an old piece of technology that you’re not familiar with — have to possess to really catch your interest and motivate you to use it?

It has to possess something which is unique to itself, it has to offer possibilities not offered on something else, and it has to have some type of programmability, which is inviting to the user — something which can be easily programmed and has a tactile edge to it. Personally, I’m not into — there’s a lot of interesting new computer technology which I would really like to use, but at the moment the problem isn’t in the programmability or the actual sound of these programs or machines, it’s the actual control surfaces that are lacking. It’s getting very tiring and boring coming up with lots of different sounds and using lots of different programs, but on the same PC. It’s always the keyboard and the mouse. Part of the whole interest to electronic music and the different pieces of equipment is the different control surfaces, the different interfaces that they all have.

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Beck at Coachella 1999

Beck gets funky as the Day 1 headliner at Coachella

The 1999 Coachella Valley Festival of Music and Arts proved that you don’t need a radio-friendly super-trendy lineup of bands to give hordes of people a great time. Oh, yeah — and that rock as you may know it is dead.

The highly anticipated Coachella Festival promised, at the very least, a spectacle worthy of intense scrutiny. It was the first U.S. festival to attempt to capture the feel of European festivals such as Reading and Glastonbury; it also occurred close on the heels of this year’s disastrous Woodstock Festival in New York. Choler couldn’t let such an event come and go without dispatching a couple of agents to investigate the hubbub. They chose us because — well, everyone else in the office seemed to have plans for the weekend.

We Danced. We Rocked. We Sneezed. We Occasionally Feared For Our Lives.

The temperatures were hot, the crowds mellow, our noses runny. (Wouldn’t you know, the entire polo field seemed covered in Bermuda grass). But despite backstage rumors of infuriating disorganization, attendants experienced little but smoothly run facilities and energetic performances from a wide, wide range of musical artists.

The good news for both fans and promoters alike is that Coachella bore zero resemblance to Woodstock ‘99 — except, of course, in that music was featured at both events. The issues that some people blamed for causing such a ruckus at Woodstock (overpriced water and food, bathrooms that quickly degenerated into mini toxic-waste dumps, a lineup of bands that emphasized thuggery) were expertly addressed at Coachella. The promoters provided cheap water (and plenty of it, though waits to acquire it sometimes seemed interminable) and tasty food at halfway decent prices (I scored a heaping plate of Chinese food, including shrimp tempura and more chow mein than I could hope to ingest, for under $9 — more than your average takeout but better than a sit-down meal). The event staff was courteous, the bathrooms cleaned frequently.

Moby

Click here to read our interview with Coachella 1999 artist Moby.

As promised, marketing was kept — at least on this first day — unobtrusive. Best of all, an under-capacity crowd made for a delightfully spacious environment. The promoters deserve credit for intentionally underselling the venue to accommodate attendants’ desire for personal space.

Only once did the event threaten to erupt into violence. Shortly before agit-pop ensemble Rage Against The Machine stormed the main stage late on Day 2, fans of the group began packing — and we’re talking Sardine City here — the area in front of the stage. Event staff attempted to use steel girders and poles to shore up a heavily strained barrier between the crowd and the stage, but eventually all press and photographers were evacuated from the pit for fear the barrier would break and a tsunami of sweaty 20-something flesh would make us all permanent fixtures of the Empire Polo Fields. The press pit remained off-limits through Tool’s set for safety reasons as well. To the best of my knowledge (which is scant, given that we each spent our day running our legs down to stumps scurrying from one place to the next, and so missed a few details here and there), nothing worse than the odd case of heat exhaustion or head-squashing crowd-surfing occurred in the more vigorous moshing areas.

The only real problem — if you can really call it a problem — was an overabundance of great acts. At any given time, three or four great (and at times, legendary) performers were playing in different areas of the venue. Good luck catching every band worth watching.

There Is A Light That Will Never Go Out: Two Perspectives on the Morrissey Phenomenon:

Sean: The biggest surprise of the festival was Morrissey mania. A staggering number of people attended the event simply to see Morrissey perform on Day 1. Moz owned this crowd. Countless cars in the parking lot blared old Moz and Smiths tunes. Inside the venue, maybe four in 10 people were wearing Morrissey-oriented T-shirts. When he took the stage in the early evening, the crowd went absolutely out of its mind — which has to encourage a guy who hasn’t released an album in about two years and who is currently “between labels.”

Truthfully, Moz just doesn’t do it for me like he used to. Back in the day (say, sophomore year of high school), I would’ve killed a family member for a chance to get as close to him as I managed to get at Coachella (gotta love that photo pass).

Morissey: who knew he was still so dang popular?

It would’ve thrilled me to bits when he played “Meat Is Murder” and “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” two smoldering classics from his days with the Smiths. I confess to a slight pang of anticipation over pre-show rumors that he might reunite with estranged Smiths songwriting partner and guitarist Johnny Marr. (Their pairing did not occur; Marr, one of many no-shows at Coachella, did not even appear to play his new role as Beck’s guitarist.) However, as a 20-something who’s finally comfortable in his own skin, it interested me more to eat some dinner, drink a beer and grab a few moments to myself on an uncrowded expanse of grass than it did to watch Moz run through the same shtick you see him run through on videos from 1991. Still, I have to marvel at the man’s Latino fan base, which is as devoted a throng of idolaters now as it was 10 years ago.

Eric: Bad memories don’t particularly come rushing back to you while standing for hours in the hot sun. They prefer to circle like vultures just outside the periphery of your vision. The 800-pound bird of prey that was Morrissey’s impact on Coachella hovered above me before I even got there, though it took me a while to notice it stalking me. On the bill, Morrissey was linked with the Chemical Brothers, and a friend horrified me by suggesting that the big-beat maestros might actually team up with Morrissey’s mordant melodrama. Egad. Thankfully, that unholy pairing never occurred. The first car in the Coachella lot we passed should have clued me in to the gaggle of fans awaiting the call of their master’s voice, but it wasn’t until walking past an absurdly long line with more varieties of Smiths and Morrissey T-shirts that I thought possible that I discerned the army of followers that Morrissey’s appearance inspired to endure the torrid weather.

My past experiences with the Mozzer have turned me bitter. In college, I spent over a year with a roommate whose play list consisted exclusively of the Smiths and Morrissey. Said roommate would extol the wit of songs like “Frankly, Mr. Shankley” and attempt to torment my carnivorous soul with “Meat Is Murder.” I tried not to feel too contemptuous. Everyone has their own tastes, and though I feel that most of Morrissey’s material is most appropriate for self-absorbed high schoolers (not that I didn’t go through the same stage; I just got pissed off at the world and bumped NWA), I kept to myself my real feelings toward those who wore black T-shirts — or worse, black fishnet stockings to go with their black Morrissey T-shirts. I thought of the torment that surrounds adolescents east of Orange County, Calif., (I myself spent three misbegotten years in Riverside) and understood for a moment. Then I heard the bass thumping from a DJ tent and followed my bobbing head to a different beat.

Coachella Robots

A fully functional robotic beast, one of a few art installations at Coachella; photo by Eric Solomon

“I’m Seeing Robots”: Electronic Music at Coachella

Sean: Aside from the Morrissey phenomenon and the noticeable presence of Rage and Tool fans on Day 2, the Coachella Festival belonged to the almighty breakbeat. Anyone who dismissed electronica as an invention (one of many) concocted by record labels to sell more copies of certain records may now have to eat their words; if the Coachella lineup is at all representative of the current direction of modern music, electronica is not only here to stay but also slowly forcing rock to evolve as well. Two of the most intense, widely attended performances of Day 1 were delivered by block-rockers the Chemical Brothers and ambient-techno auteurs Underworld, while Moby provided a viable — and popular — electronic alternative to Tool’s performance on Day 2.

The Chemical Brothers go over well in arena-rock settings because they bring wild improvisations and larger-than-life visuals to their performances — just like an arena-rock act. They also know how to work a crowd.

Underworld at Coachella

Click here to read to read an interview with Coachella 1999 performer Rick Smith of Underworld

When “Block Rockin’ Beats” emerged from a long, initially unidentifiable mix of frenetically programmed beats, the heat-exhausted crowd managed to find energy reserves enough to erupt into a dance frenzy. Similarly, Underworld (who headlined the smaller second stage) bonded with their crowd early on and relied on vocalist-guitarist Karl Hyde’s magnetic presence to manipulate the crowd’s emotions from one song to the next. By the time they closed their set with a medley from their latest album, Beaucoup Fish, they had worked the crowd up to a synergistic catharsis — all of it without testosterone-laden exhortations to the crowd or playing “hard” music. Underworld knows how to read its audience’s readiness for a new direction and temper the flow of their show to match.

Second stage headliner Moby deserves the festival’s Spirit Award for turning out the most enthusiastic performance of Day 2. During his self-effacing but always charming between-songs banter, Moby kept his crowd’s vibe positive by extolling Coachella’s virtues in comparison to other events at which he has appeared (among them, the now infamous Woodstock ’99).

Moby conquers keyboard at Coachella 1999

Moby conquers his keyboard during his second stage performance on Day 2.

His enthusiasm for the event — and for his music — created an ebulliently joyful atmosphere in his area of the venue. He concluded his set by standing atop his keyboard, arms thrust skyward, symbolizing the energy that coursed through the festival on both days.

Electronic music dominated the three smaller performance tents as well. Day 1’s “Sahara” tent lineup featured two hour sets from techno’s progenitors — the Detroit DJs Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Richie Hawtin, all of whom spun a mix of dance tracks that pointed to techno’s roots while exhibiting its potential for adaptation to new styles and technological innovations. On Day 2, ambient techno superstars Autechre defined minimalism in one DJ tent, playing crouched behind their laptop computers with no lights shining on them. I snapped one digital picture of them before realizing that I’d left the lens cap on the camera, but the all-black shot probably embodies the duo’s sound as much as their actual physical appearance.

Turntablism and electronica even flavored the more rock-oriented bands on the bill. Scottish band Bis played a disco- and techno-inflected set of high-energy power pop; Spiritualized played an atmospheric set worthy of any ambient techno trip-out artist; former Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros frontman Perry Farrell made a solo appearance with an electronica backup ensemble, turning out a drum ‘n’ bass cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (and true to form, managed to talk and sing about dolphins and the rainforest about halfway through his set); Beck featured the highly respectable skills of DJ Swamp, who provided an ear-bending interlude between Beck’s main set and encore.

The Funky Four Plus One Make an Appearance: Hip-Hop at Coachella

No, I don’t mean the old-school hip-hop group, though they attended Coachella in spirit. To break it down for those who don’t know, the “four pillars” of hip-hop are MCing, DJing, break dancing (or B-Boyin’, depending on who you ask), and graffiti art. The “plus one” would be beat boxing, represented at Coachella by Rahzel and Click tha Supa Latin, both masters at producing beats with nothing but the mouths and lungs their mommas gave ’em.

Gil Scott-Heron at Coachella 1999

Last Poet and godfather of hip-hop Gil Scott-Heron orating on Day 2; photo by Sean Flinn

MCin’:

Coachella’s organizers must be congratulated for learning from the Woodstock fiasco and avoiding any drama under the white-hot sun. Their true brilliance, however, comes in learning from Lollapalooza to never put Kool Keith, the legendary MC who was frontin’ schizo long before Ol’ Dirty Bastard burst onto the scene, on the actual bill, or he won’t show. Don’t tell anyone, not even the lowly press, that Keith will arrive in the Sahara tent on Sunday ‘cause if you expect him, then the good Doctor, being the unorthodox man that he is, will have to defy your expectations. If, however, you make a last-minute call to the self-proclaimed Black Elvis, begging him to fill in for one of a few hip-hop no-shows (Black Eyed Peas, anyone?), boom, he shows, decked out in a fake wig and a cape.

Besides Keith, the art of the microphone was well represented by the few groups Coachella saw fit to invite. Essentially, it looks as though they peered down the Interscope roster, crossed out Dr. Dre and Eminem as being too inflammatory and came up with underground cats Jurassic 5, Ugly Duckling and Black Eyed Peas (an aforementioned no-show). Ugly Duckling put in a decent set on the second stage (referred to in the festival program as the “Outdoor Theater”) but served mostly as a mellow warm-up for Gil Scott-Heron. Scott-Heron, a.k.a. the Last Poet, dropped some science and hopefully enlightened anyone who thought that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” originated with Public Enemy. (Scott-Heron cut off the song after a verse, joking that he had heard so many versions of the song, he no longer knows which was which.) In today’s hip-hop world, where political statements only peep through the cracks of a playa-gold paved road, it was a true privilege to see Scott-Heron perform.

The art of the MC was perhaps best put down by the Jurassic 5, who made good on their claim to “make four MC’s sound like one.” Their music melds an old-school sensibility with a wide range of shifting vocal rhythms, all set to the brilliant DJ work of Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark. The humor shown by their sitcom-theme adaptations, notably their play on “One Rhyme [Day] at a Time” brings some much-needed levity into the cynical, materialistic hip-hop of the 90’s. Unfortunately, with just an EP plus some singles material (and a new album dropping in 2000), they seemed preoccupied with stretching out the show, e.g., the featured appearances by Click tha Supa Latin (widely regarded as the West Coast Rahzel) and his son (widely regarded as Click tha Supa Latin’s son). I could have done without the kid doing his Slick Rick imitation, but the crowd loved it, so maybe I’m just a cynical old 24-year-old who doesn’t like kids.

While Coachella represented the MC better than any hip-hop-inclusive festival to date, I hope for the next event, they’ll look beyond the Interscope roster and try to bring in some artists who don’t have so much record-label clout behind them. There are any number of MC’s out there who need the exposure and plenty, like Black Star and KRS-One, who can rock a party and educate.

DJ FS of Ming and FS at Coachella 1999

DJ FS of Ming and FS rips up a turntable on Day 1 in the Gobi DJ tent; photo by Eric Solomon

On the Wheels of Steel:

Hip-hop DJing was everywhere at Coachella, served up on steaming plates of black vinyl prepared just right for the crowd’s pleasure. The DJs gave up too many mixes to name that brought things back to the old school, bumping that good hip-hop and electro funk for the crowd. Sometimes there was too much of a good thing –(I heard at least two DJ’s drop the sure-to-burn Brand Nubian track “Punks Jump Up”) but most represented with more imaginative selections.

DJ Shadow, a.k.a. Josh Davis, summed up the tone perfectly during his Day 2 set, sermonizing with his hands and delivering a set that swung wide of the obvious or expected. Shadow dropped nothing but gems, some by others and some his own, always managing to inflect them just a bit to freak the uniqueness. His turntable work seemed especially enlightened when he manhandled the synth noise from “Public Enemy Number One.” Shadow’s at his best when slowly building new patterns out of old music and embroidering tracks like “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt” with scratch work and ominous intonations from vocal samples that perfectly frame his turntable masterpieces. He typifies the contradiction of the DJ, constructing a personality out of samples and yet submerging his own identity beneath his music. Shadow even told crowd that they didn’t have to look at him, that they “could even look at each other” if they so chose. The crowd, anxious to see him go to work, scoffed at the notion.

DJ Qbert at Coachella 1999

DJ Qbert

The Invisibl Skratch Piklz DJ crew, represented by Q-Bert, Mix Master Mike and A-Trak, were considerably more flamboyant. The show brought Q-Bert and Mike, arguably the best the Piklz have to offer, together for the first time in ages, and despite (or perhaps because of) playing an improvised set thrown together hastily, the ISP absolutely ripped it up.

The session proved to be educational as well, as Yoga Frog’s play-by-play broke down the chemistry of the techniques used, detailing the switchover as Mike — no, now A-Trak’s on the drums, and Mike’s scratching in a guitar sample. The Skratch Piklz blessed the session for well over an hour, with numerous highlights. (My personal favorite being Q-Bert’s stuttered beat juggle of LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells”). Whether scratching over beats slow or fast, the ISP crew hones their precision to laserlike dimensions — and that’s within a few microns, y’all. They’re definitely on some microscopic shit. Of course, the entire festival proved that when you think things are as hot as they can get, they’re probably just about to get hotter. And things heated up to supernova extremes when Rahzel hit the stage for a historic collaboration with the Piklz.

Rahzel at Coachella 1999

Rahzel duels with his DJ, using only his mouth and his mind.

Super DJ (The Human Beatbox, the Godfather of Noyez)

Rahzel, in the course of the day, battled not one, not two, but four DJ’s. Operating without his crew (the Roots), the only thing he didn’t do Sunday was battle it out with the Jurassic 5’s Click tha Supa Latin (and I’d be willing to bet they had it out backstage at some point). Rahzel started things off nicely, highlighting the second stage with Transformer effects, samples galore and even rocking the mic a few times with tracks off of his solo album, Make the Music 2000. He battled it out with his DJ, JS-One (who you can hear on the Return of the DJ II compilation), setting down beats with his mouth and leaving it to JS-One to match it on the turntables. It may seem like an unfair match-up, but Rahzel has at his disposal as many samples as his mind can store, while a DJ is limited to the contents of his record collection (always pared down for live shows). Rahzel also earned the prize for non sequitur of the festival when he gave a shout-out to “All the ladies in the house with real hair.” I tried as hard as I could, but I didn’t see a single weave the whole weekend, so maybe Rahzel was just channeling some of Kool Keith’s insanity vibe.

Battling his own DJ in a set routine is one thing, but going against DJs (Q-Bert and Mix Master Mike) who were “asked” to retire from the world DJ competition (held annually in New York City) because of their superior skills forced Rahzel to bring his art to another level. Rahzel’s mental crate was bursting with goodness, letting him give props to the West Side with a “California Love” sample, move on to the syncopated beat and hook for Nore’s “Oh No,” and wrap things up with the classic “All That Scratchin’s Making Me Itch” — at which point the crowd just lost it. Picking up on the Piklz’ educational vibe, Rahzel broke down his beats, displaying for the crowd in slow motion exactly how he could vocalize a beat and lyrics simultaneously.

B-Boys and Graf Art

Actually, while there were hip-hop inspired paintings (in one DJ tent, a crew of artists spent all day adorning blank canvases with hip-hop inspired displays), I didn’t see a single person bombing the canvas (or anything else) with spray cans. At least there was a break dancing clinic put on for people chillin’ in the Oasis tent. The L.A. Breakers put it down on both days, not with so much poppin’ and lockin’ but with a good amount of backspins and headspins to hype up the crowd. Although I wish the crowd could have seen the subtle shadings and spray-can technique of a gifted graf artist, I think the festival as a whole represented the realm of hip-hop to a good degree.

Beyond Hip-Hop

I was happy to see hip-hop but thrilled to see how many non-hip-hop acts gave their respects to the art form. After all, as much as hip-hop derives from James Brown, it also goes back to Afrika Bambaataa, who sampled electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk on his trademark track “The Planet Rock.” All the divisions between so-called electronica genres and hip-hop just represent branches forking from the same tree.

Ritchie Hawtin at Coachella 1999

Click here to read an interview with Coachella performer Richie Hawtin; photo by Sean Flinn

I’ve been resentful of people pilfering hip-hop, as when the Crystal Method built a fan base out of a Rakim sample on their song “Busy Child” (overstating the fact maybe) and landed a Gap commercial, all with fans probably not knowing jack about the R. That irked me a bit. My annoyance at this, however, runs contrary to the sample principle of hip-hop; by all accounts, Lord Finesse was thrilled when Fatboy Slim took his voice for “Rockafeller Skank.” All I want to see is hip-hop getting its proper dues after being the media’s whipping child for so long in the 80’s. With Ming & FS, Mr. Scruff, DJ Cam and others setting things off to the old school at Coachella, my indignant stance softened, and soon I accepted the notion that everything is everything, and music is music.

But wait! There are more epiphanies! DJ Swamp, Beck’s DJ, simply ripped it, beat juggling bizarre noises to put his own personal stamp on what’s long been a hip-hop art form. If every rock band wants to have a DJ, that’s fine, but they better bring some skills to the table or get off the stage. DJ Swamp officially raised the bar at Coachella. I was also pleasantly surprised with MC Dynamite, who Reprazents with Roni Size’s crew. I, like many hip-hop heads, tend to malign drum ‘n’ bass MCs, who complement and play up to the DJ, unlike American hip-hop, which emphasizes the man on the mic and leaves the DJ in the background. Dynamite reminded me that MC stands for “master of ceremonies,” whose job it is to move the crowd. He didn’t do it by ordering the crowd to get hyped; he just moved things along, narrated the brilliant Roni Size set and threw in verses along the way that blended perfectly with his continuing dialogue. American hype men could stand to learn something from the more understated (but no less energetic) approach of MC Dynamite.

Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori at Coachella 1999; photo by Sean Flinn

Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto brings some estrogen to a male-heavy Coachella lineup

The Revolution Will Not Be Testosteronized

All in all, despite the ominous presence of bulked-up males, Coachella unfolded and concluded pleasantly. On Day 2, the Rage and Tool fans remained ensconced within the food-court and beer-vendor areas for most of the day (ah, nothing quells violence like gallons of beer and prolonged exposure to scorching sunlight), while other attendants happily absorbed historic sets from a truly diverse lineup of artists. Cibo Matto made one of the few female-fronted appearances (Bis, Breakbeat Era, DJ Rap and Neotropic rounding out the festival’s estrogen quotient), serving up some tight, funk- and hip-hop influenced pop and indulging the crowd in their food madness (songs include the anthemic “Know Your Chicken” and “Sci-Fi Wasabe”). Medeski, Martin and Wood used their 45 minutes on the main stage to remind the audience of jazz’s influence on rock, rap and techno; Beastie Boy keyboardist Money Mark delivered a laid-back set of mellow organ music perfectly suited for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

The festival’s energy only slightly shifted from the excitement of discovery to the thrall of thuggery when Rage Against The Machine delivered their brutally uncompromising performance. The audience’s burgeoning mob mentality actually compelled an MC to exhort fans to use their heads and not get out of hand during the set, and people were able to keep it together for the rest of the show. Rage frontman Zach de la Rocha performed with laryngitis and “still kicked all your asses,” Tool vocalist Maynard Keenan informed the crowd. Keenan joined Rage in a rare collaboration to assist de la Rocha on vocals before his own band closed the festival with their circus of the bizarre. During Tool’s intense set of prog-rock on crack, Keenan wailed and gyrated spasmodically in nothing but a G-string while his band hammered out a string of soul-searing songs from their albums Undertow, Aenima and a forthcoming record. Nudity made a prolonged and decidedly untitillating appearance with the help of the group’s surreal backing films and a performance by two nude acrobats who scaled ropes and hung far above the stage from their feet during the final 20 minutes of the show.

Pass on the Bizkit and Hold the Korn

All told, Coachella was an unexpected triumph. A U.S. festival hasn’t been this much fun since the first Lollapalooza pounded the first nail into alternative rock’s coffin. Our only caveat to the promoters of Coachella would be not to take the lack of major violence at today’s show as an invitation to include more heavy rock bands on Coachella’s 2000 bill (purportedly already in the planning phase). The general opinion of the journalists, artists and event staff with whom we casually conversed was that the festival ran successfully primarily because it avoided certain acts that encourage mindless brutality. Intelligent metal bands like Rage and Tool work well because they compel audiences to use their brains as much as their bodies while rocking out. It is possible to find catharsis without beating on one’s neighbor or sexually assaulting female crowd surfers. Brains ruled at Coachella — people rocked, people danced, Piklz skratch’d. For at least one weekend, the whole desert bounced.