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We Went to CNTRL, Richie Hawtin’s Techno University

"Electronic music isn't what it's become because of EDM, but because of the little guys."
April 21, 2015, 6:20pm

All photos courtesy of CNTRL.

Since its inception back in 2012, Richie Hawtin's CNTRL (Not, apparently, an acronym for the Center for National Techno Research and Learning) has embarked each year on a nation-spanning tour that hits North American colleges like Berklee School of Music, NYU, UCLA, and this year in the Big Apple—The New School—for a day's worth of electronic music-themed programming. Rumor had it that Professor Hawtin was something of a hardass, so I packed up a lunchbox, grabbed a fresh notebook and made my way back to class—techno class that is.

Read more about Richie Hawtin

This year, the NYC stop included a production masterclass, and a gear expo and discounted marketplace from the likes of Pioneer, who debuted their new Kuvo track recognition software, Splice (a production social sharing platform), SubPac, and a buffet line of other drool-worthy gear that would tickle the fancy of any level of nerd.

While the nighttime portion of the tour featured a party at Webster Hall with DJ sets from Hawtin and the posse, one of the more unique events of each stop is a moderated lecture from the artists on tour. The NYC edition of the lecture was moderated by DJ, producer and DJ Tech Tools founder Ean Golden, and included Hawtin, NYC house icon Françios K, Minus label mainstay N-sound, and Dantiez Saunderson, who prior to the lecture conducted a production tutorial. His dad, Kevin, was also in the building.

The lecture set sail with the mission to educate the classroom—a 3/4 filled room of young, aspiring producers and DJs, on subjects of technology, innovation, and the individual drive it takes to hopefully, one day— "make it." Golden started by expressing the hope that perhaps some of the hopeful producers and DJs occupying the audience could one day be sitting on the other side of the room, expounding their own knowledge on a slew of slightly "green," hungry artists. A prime example of this was the story of Dantiez Saunderson.

Though his father is without doubt one of the most widely known and respected voices in all of dance music, Dantiez discussed how he learned production largely from scratch and years prior had attended CNTRL as a virtual unknown. Following in line with what was a flowing theme throughout the entirety of the lecture, the young DJ and producer stressed the importance of having a sound that is unique to oneself. "It's about repetition, don't have a sound that's try to be another person, find your own sound and find the program that works for you," he says.

François K, who played as large a role as any in shaping the power of a dance music artist, also dropped some nuggets of tutelage. He referred the following Miles Davis quote on two occasions: "Do not fear mistakes, there are none." He pointed to the idea never holding oneself back as an artist, and following a relentless method of creative inspiration, whatever that might amount to. He reminisced on producing for Depeche Mode 25 years prior, being the one who would hole himself up in the studio tinkering with hi-hats for days on ends. "It's about being the translator for our minds, capturing those ideas," he says, "Don't second guess yourself, it's not productive, try to always do what feels right."

The power of the machine remained another central subject of the lecture, which was fitting seeing Hawtin, especially through the innovation of his Plastikman albums, was an early innovator of the endless power of machines. "It can be all about the machine, but it shouldn't be," he said. "You're hearing the human, not just the machine, and that's what we're here to discuss."

He talked often also about the importance of feeling an instrument's physically—"It's like hanging out with an old friend," he says. "Don't be caught up with the macro parts, just know the gear inside and out."

He reminisced on using some of his early album profit for buying as much futuristic gear as he could afford, something which would in turn transform his studio into a glowing spaceship when he would turn the lights off. "Eventually I would just become hypnotized by the groove, versus how my studio looked." Hawtin also gave insight into how it's the new generation of producers' responsibility to not get overly "lost" in gear, but instead understand the power of their own sound.

"You can spend the whole time trying to chase a sound or what's cool and never find yourself," he says.

One of the most special moments of the lecture's closing minutes was a question from one of the attending students, an aspiring techno producer himself, who discussed a situation in which he met Hawtin at an airport, when traveling to one of his own first European gigs.

"Do you ever get lonely or scared when traveling the world alone?" the young man asks.

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Hawtin went on to discuss the path from being alone with the previously discussed glowing lights in his studio, to the glowing lights of nightclubs around the planet. He talked of strange, wacky, experiences with non-english speaking promoters in his early touring days, not knowing if he was going to get paid, or what the coming hours would bring. This rare and unique look back from a legendary artist led into one of the most powerful takeaways from the day.

"Electronic music isn't what it's become because of EDM, but because of the little guys."

He talked on the important stepping stones put in place over the decades by loyal fans, hard-working promoters picking up DJs from the airport, essentially—the worker bees of the industry. For Hawtin, these type of experiences paired with his relentless passion for his craft, all resulted in the personal ethos that he was hoping to share with a group of artist who were all just figuring out their own paths as creators.

Fittingly, he brought it back to one's experience finding that class in school that they are passionate about, leading to the nights when your friends might be out socializing, but you stay in and study, because you've found a subject that you truly love.

"That's what has to happen with music," he says.

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