Afrojack and Richie Hawtin on electronic dance music
Now that the winds of Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival have died down, and the fluorescent furry boots have been packed away for another year, the conversation on electronic dance music can turn from the genre’s economics and festival culture back to the actual music. On June 9 at EDC, I talked separately with two major EDM artists, the English/Canadian/Detroit minimalist maven Richie Hawtin and the Dutch pop-inclined producer Afrojack. They each offered distinct, and sometimes competing, visions of the genre’s storied past and promising future.
In a lobby bar at the Mandarin Oriental hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, Hawtin is hanging out in his usual uniform of a cut-off black T-shirt and messy blond bangs. For a guy who made his reputation pioneering the brittle, chilly and handmade take on electronica that defined the Detroit dance music sound, it’s a bit surprising to see him instantly encircled for photos by a gaggle of short-skirted Vegas party girls. But such is the reach of Hawtin and EDM today, when even the Vegas pool-mob scene gets a bit doe-eyed in his presence.
At the closing artist panel at the EDMBiz conference in Las Vegas on June 7, Hawtin was the lone curmudgeon, saying that he didn’t necessarily want dance music firehosed into mainstream America and that his introduction to the genre felt individual and isolated, even in crowded clubs. In a way, he experienced techno the way Detroit experienced America.
“Detroit was isolated from the U.S. Unless you were in the automotive industry you had no reason to go there,” he said. “Detroit music had a lot of soul, but it was also futuristic and robotic and metallic. It’s music from an isolated city. So as we threw parties, it became about speaker worship. We’d transform spaces so people became detached from reality. As the scene has changed today, I often try to go back to that original place, finding the right room, the right warehouse.”
Increasingly, though, the dominant room for EDM is in multi-billion-dollar casino clubs in Vegas and mega-fests such as Electric Daisy. Even longstanding EDM tourist hubs such as Ibiza, Spain, had a certain organic, self-generated quality -- and now the genre is holding up the financial model of America’s capital for the debauchery business. Hawtin is generally excited about the global surge in interest (and general quality) of dance music, though he’s most concerned about fans and producers taking shortcuts and losing track of the decades of work that went into making the current scene imaginable.
“Now there’s a possibility to get to a very high position without much work," he said. "It’s easy and cool, and an artist with just two or three singles can get a lot of momentum. But they have to understand it’s not about just now. If you love what you do and believe that you’re good, there will be tomorrow to say yes to opportunities. If you treat this genre like a flash in the pan, it will become one. You have to go into this thinking the music will be around forever.”
Though the genre is inherently, necessarily, fast-moving, Hawtin believes it's survived on the physical essence of its sound. This is music inseparable from the technology it’s made on -- be it early analog synths or drag-and-drop, high-octane production software. But he fundamentally believes that the basic premise of the genre -- finding humanity in music made on machines -- holds up whether at a Vegas pool party or a noir-drenched Detroit warehouse. Hawtin's Electric Daisy Carnival set was blown out by winds on June 9, but his influence was felt, nonetheless.
“The music invites you to take a step beyond yourself and look to the future. It’s pure music at its basic state -- it’s just sonics; it’s frequencies. Anyone can find a space in it.”
One young producer who's found an ever-growing space in the scene is Nick van de Wall, the 24-year-old DJ who performs as Afrojack. Even non-EDM fans have probably heard his work, as he's helmed Pitbull and Ne-Yo’s hands-up single “Give Me Everything” and Beyoncé’s drum-clattering smash “Run the World” with producer-peers Diplo and The-Dream.
The tens of thousands of people who caught his set June 8 on EDC’s main stage reveled in his genre-spanning mixes, where sandblasted basslines dissolved into fizzy trance anthems, which bumped up against hard house and Europhile sleekness. The next night, the 6-foot, 9-inch producer with an imposing shaved head but ubiquitous grin was parked on a couch with a bottle of Grey Goose in his regal suite in the Encore.
He’s been reluctant to give interviews until recently, but perhaps due to his pop success and a bit of tabloid notoriety (most recently, for dating Paris Hilton), he’s started to open up. Turns out he embodies what the abiding personality techno might be right now -- young, brash and ever-ready to party, but with a deep streak of technical commitment and sonic restlessness that keeps the music interesting.
Van de Wall can seemingly do anything, which left him with a welcome but real problem as a young producer -- creating an identity in a genre where everything is aflutter.
“I’m known as a dance music producer," he said. "I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put my name on ‘Give Me Everything’ for months. But when I go out to a concert, I don’t want to hear one thing. I’ve remixed Michael Jackson, I produced a No. 1 hit for radio, I’ve had Beatport No. 1 singles. When you watch TV, do you just watch the Kardashians? Of course not. I love Richie Hawtin, I love Nicki Minaj, I love Green Velvet. So many people loved ‘Give Me Everything,’ and I love a good pop song too.”
That split between pop possibility and dance orthodoxy might have been more of a problem in the past, but now he can reel off stories of challenging David Guetta to beat-making speed contests on Guetta’s helicopter -- “I told him, ‘You’re fast but I’m faster,’ and that I could make a song by the time we landed. Twenty minutes later, I had one.” Yet at the same time, he nurses the same kind of outsider personality that drew Hawtin to dance music.
“I wasn’t born special or with a golden [touch],” he said, using a slightly bawdier reference to his prowess. “I was a weirdo growing up. I really wanted to be cool, and I was always thinking, ‘Why that guy?’ It wasn’t because he had the dopest Nikes, I tried that. I only recently figured out that you just have to stop caring. Now I just feel sorry for those guys.”
While Van de Wall is at the top of the Cool Kids hierarchy in EDM right now, he’s also a serious caretaker of the genre, signing several of his countrymen to his Wall Records imprint and spending months tweaking and editing songs like the spritzy anthem "Can't Stop Me" for upcoming shows -- which right now focus on hugely lucrative Vegas club dates at the Wynn and upper-end venues such as L.A.'s Playhouse. Anyone who saw Steve Aoki chuck a pie in his face in front of 70,000-odd EDC fans knows he’s having the time of his life. But he agrees with Hawtin that this genre survives only if an artist uses sound to tell a story. The suites and vodka and helicopter beat challenges? They come second.
“A set always has to be a story. A radio pop song is only three minutes. Adele can make you cry -- for a little while,” he said. “With dance music, you can really make people feel it. You know Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata'? It’s beautiful and sad, and by the end you’ve gone through something. Even when I make a party song, it’s still part of that longer story.”
-- August Brown
Photo: Left is Richie Hawtin (Courtesy MSO PR). Right: DJ Afrojack, a.k.a. Nick van de Wall, spins during the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. (Credit: Mark Davis/Getty Images for Coachella).