Plastikman

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 itself.

Across six albums (Sheet One, Musik, Recycled Plastik, Consumed, Artifakts (B.C.), and Closer) and numerous singles like “Spastik,” “Plastique,” and “Sickness” Plastikman evolved into one of contemporary electronic music’s most distinctive voices: minimalist, psychedelic, groovy as anything, ever mindful of the transcendent properties of pure electronic sound.

The records alone would be enough to make a legend out of anyone, but Hawtin—as Plastikman—also had something else going for him: some of the most intense, unhinged, and mind-bending parties that underground electronic music has ever known. Held mostly in and around Detroit and Hawtin’s home town of Windsor, Ontario, these events’ reputations spread worldwide, by word-of-mouth and message board, to become legendary moments in the history of underground electronic music.

The recipe for their success wasn’t exactly rocket science, despite Hawtin’s contemporary reputation for technological innovation. The parties were based upon the model that Hawtin had experienced as a teenager at Detroit’s legendary Music Institute: a black sweatbox of a room, a single strobe light, and the loudest, fullest sound system that the walls could withstand.

Beginning with those Spartan elements, Hawtin and his friends staged increasingly elaborate events whose every detail was intended for the sole purpose of pulling people out of the everyday and plunging them into the unknown. Their success was attributable equally to the crew’s bootstrap ingenuity and uncompromising standards.

Events like Hard, Harder, Hardest, Heaven & Hell, Jak, Sickness & Recovery, and the Fuk Tour raised the bar for what was possible from an underground (i.e. illegal) party. They not only made Plastikman a hero across the Midwestern USA, they helped create the platform for an entire scene to develop.

At a time when American rave culture was ballooning with cartoonish neon excess, Plastikman’s parties emphasized fundamentals. But this wasn’t the back-to-basics aesthetic of retro-leaning dance-music scenes. They used the materials at hand to create their otherworldly, out-of-body experiences.

The materials could be as basic as a roll of black plastic sheeting that covered the walls and ceiling, or as elaborate as 40,000 square feet of abandoned automobile factory. They transformed the spaces they used, rarely setting up in the same place twice, and always altering the structure so completely that if you returned the next day, you would never know what had taken place there. For the duration of the party, it was a world unto itself, cocooned in black plastic or cushioned with four inches of foam. There were probing lights, bowls of fresh fruit, pools full of goldfish, Melba toast dipped in acid.

They mounted four-point sound systems when two were standard. They arranged speakers in the round, the better to immerse the dancers. Their sound system, standing over two heads high, became so famous that it earned its own name—the System—and logo. The speakers ran so hot that they glowed deep inside. Partiers attributed nearly mystical properties to the System, latching onto it like lampreys, becoming one with the vibrations.

Expanding upon the system of info lines and map points that was common in the underground, they developed an extensive mailing list of fans across the Midwest, ensuring dedicated crowds that would travel eight or ten hours for any Plastikman event. By shrouding their 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 those committed few who wanted to come along on the journey, but open to anyone who made the effort to discover them.

Even if Plastikman is inseparable from the context that created him, the music—which is how most of the world has encountered Plastikman—more than stands on its own. The recordings were as groundbreaking as the events, suggesting new directions and new shapes for techno at every step; indeed, the parties and the records were inextricably connected, each feeding into the other in a dialectic of delirium.

In 1993, Sheet One, with a cover designed to look (and feel) like acid blotter, set the conditions for the Plastikman project. It was intended as a cohesive, album-length statement at a time when techno was mostly a matter of singles; without knowing exactly what he was embarking upon, and without even having yet invented Plastikman, Hawtin recorded virtually the entire thing, more or less in sequence, 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. Released in Canada on Hawtin and John Acquaviva’s Plus 8 label, and overseas by NovaMute, it changed the shape of techno virtually overnight.

Plastikman followed up little more than a year later with Musik, an even fuller exploration of the area between techno and ambient listening music. Like Sheet One, Musik focused on the sound of Roland’s TB-303, shaping its output into a lithe, lyrical form that was worlds away from the strident grind of acid house as it had been conventionally known. More than anything, it challenged techno’s harder/faster/louder trajectory by slowing down and tripping out, just as Plastikman’s extended DJ sets took dancers on a journey from passion to mania to something like a kind of enlightened calm.

In 1995, just as the Plastikman phenomenon was exploding—thanks to the two albums, the parties in Detroit and Toronto, and Plastikman live shows from Glastonbury to Tokyo—Hawtin was caught crossing the border without work papers and barred from entering the United States. In the end, he was able to return after a year and a half, but the experience affected him profoundly, and Plastikman subsequently took an even 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 of a psychedelic trip that showed no end. Inspired in part by a sense of spatial and personal dislocation that he had experienced one night on acid, deep in the Michigan 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 unreleased material intended for an album that had been preempted by what became Consumed. That unfinished album had been intended as the third piece in a trilogy containing Sheet One and Musik—just one of many examples where Hawtin has looked beyond techno’s conventional units of measurement (the one-off party, the single, the album), using multi-part series to explore more nuanced ideas at greater length.

In 2003, Hawtin returned with a fifth Plastikman album, Closer. By now, he had moved from Windsor to New York and was well on his way to becoming the Richie Hawtin we know today. Minus had established a new, global community of artists and fans; Hawtin’s reputation as a DJ had exploded, thanks in part to his adventurous mix CDs (Decks, EFX & 909, DE9 | Closer to the Edit, and DE9 | Transitions), and he was headlining bigger and bigger clubs and festivals all over the world. The same year, he moved from New York to Berlin, taking advantage of the European location to take his career to even greater heights.

But for Closer, Hawtin returned to Windsor and delved deep into his alter ego once again, molding the hallmarks of Plastikman’s sound into newly alien forms as he probed the deepest recesses of his own psyche. In an unintended twist upon the album’s title, Closer closed a chapter of the Plastikman story: at the time, Hawtin believed it was the last time he would record in Windsor, a city he believed to be inseparable from Plastikman himself. Between 2004 and 2007, Hawtin released three Plastikman singles in a series called Nostalgik, suggesting that perhaps the project was forever to be relegated to the history books. But in 2010 Hawtin returned with Plastikman Live, a wildly ambitious multimedia show combining live performance of Plastikman classics and synchronized visuals played out on a massive, semi-circular LED screen.

The tour has taken Plastikman to more than a dozen cities and festival locations worldwide, and it will continue in 2011. After that? Hawtin has hinted at beginning a new chapter of Plastikman’s remarkable story, perhaps to include new recordings, perhaps to focus on even more outrageous and innovative incursions into multimedia live performance.

Before that next phase can start, however, Hawtin has decided that it’s time to take stock of everything that’s happened until now, gathering together his oldest fans and newest devotees—some of whom are too young to have experienced Plastikman in his initial heyday—with Arkives, a massive box set compiling remastered versions of all six Plastikman albums along with five additional CDs of rarities, unreleased material, and brand-new remixes of classic Plastikman tracks from such luminaries as Vince Clarke, Cliff Martinez, Francois Kevorkian, Moby, Chris & Cosey, Severed Heads, Flood, and Mute’s Daniel Miller & Gareth Jones. A DVD of live footage and Plastikman videos rounds out the set, and the deluxe packaging includes a slipcase with foldout sleeves for all 12 discs, plus a 64-page book that tells the Plastikman story in archival photos and a newly commissioned text.

Arkives presents the definitive history of Plastikman until now, leaving the door wide open for the history yet to be written.

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