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Richie Hawtin @ Turner Hall Ballroom

Nov. 26, 2010

Nov. 29, 2010
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Alongside its rougher-edged cousin Chicago house, Detroit techno has irrevocably altered the very DNA of popular music, all without ever completely surrendering its underground credibility. By sparking the worldwide rave phenomenon (and by extension its countless sub-scenes), the sound not only changed the listening habits of hardcore party people, but also the sonic palette of the mainstream. Scan any American pop charts and you’ll find guitars hopelessly outnumbered by programmed drums and synthesizers. What you won’t find, however, are any bona fide techno or house releases. It’s an odd paradox, but it’s one that’s easily explained. A casual listener may respond to techno’s textures and immediacy, but that doesn’t mean they’ll easily connect with faceless producers or tracks that gradually unfold over 10-plus minutes. So the music industry did what it does, and repackaged the genre’s basic elements into a three-minute pop context, added a pretty face and left the connoisseurs to ingest mind-bending chemicals and dance to the deep cuts until dawn.

It’s not a bad arrangement. In fact, more than anything, it highlights the universally infectious nature of the sound (when people start ripping you off, you must be doing something right). It’s doubly impressive when you consider that the style was really the brainchild of only about three people (Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson), who first crossbred simmering disco rhythms and experimental electronic music. While not in on the ground floor, Richie Hawtin (also known as Plastikman and F.U.S.E., among other aliases) spent his teenage years in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit, and quickly became the leader of techno’s second wave with a series of influential productions and by co-founding the pioneering Plus 8 record label.

Stylistically, there was little difference at the Turner Hall Ballroom when Hawtin wordlessly took over from the last of four openers who had been warming up the crowd of hipsters, hippies and stalwarts from Wisconsin’s surprisingly vital rave heyday, but viscerally there was no comparison. His buildups were that much more effective, his beats masterfully syncopated, and his skill was reflected in the electrified crowd. Although he is best known as a practitioner of minimal techno (a purist style that utilizes little beyond bass, snares and hi-hats), most of the tracks dropped Friday were high-energy bangers, and by the time he blazed to a halt, around 2 a.m., in a fury of skittering rhythms and organ-quaking sub-bass, there didn’t seem to be a stationary body in the room. Dance music fans often seem a low-priority constituency for many Milwaukee venues, but hopefully Friday’s strong, enthusiastic turnout will be a wakeup call; book them, and the massive will come.

Photo by Dale Reince


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