|More Electronic Stories|
Aaron-Carl, in memoriam (10/6/2010)
Motor City Five (9/29/2010)
Go deep (8/11/2010)
|More from Walter Wasacz|
Aaron-Carl, in memoriam (10/6/2010)
Go deep (8/11/2010)
Songs of the hour (7/7/2010)
Berlin. October 2004. — Here, where time and place exist in blurry, indistinct partnership, and where day and night pass largely unnoticed through the perpetually bleak environs, Richie Hawtin is glowing in the ambient light. A muted blanket of artificial sunshine brings color to his face and reveals tone in his arms, which he uses to emphasize and punctuate his words, now coming at you fast and from multiple directions.
It’s Tuesday, around 11 p.m. The calendar says it’s early October, but it could be anytime at all. There is never a doubt, however, that you are in Berlin.
Hawtin is in a restaurant talking about food. Not an ordinary restaurant; and not ordinary food. The word can scarcely be applied within the vast thoughtscapes of this neo-liberal utopia currently under construction. Hawtin, Magda and a small crew of Minus/Plus 8 work/play people from Windsor and Detroit have been here since last summer, when they moved their bodies and machines to this large, strange and vital electronic music community.
No, Hawtin is describing one of the privileges afforded him as one of the most well-traveled DJ/producers in the history of dance culture — the chance to experience exotic Chinese meal rituals like the beheading of live snakes, whose blood is immediately drained into glasses and drunk, and whose innards are scraped out and eaten, all done with an invigorating passion.
“It was actually quite good,” Hawtin drily tells a group seated at Cookie’s, a restaurant/dance club in Mitte, the historical and literal “middle” of the city that has been the recent beneficiary of massive federal government capitalization efforts. For more than 40 years, Mitte was part of gray, dismal, austere East Berlin; now it’s still gray (the color of Berlin, unless it is desaturated brown), but bursts with ongoing design projects by international architect-stars, high-end fashion boutiques, some of the best art galleries in Europe, ubiquitous coffee bars and oddities like Cookie’s.
Mitte is one of the proud faces put on German unification. But outsider-artists and assorted freaks looped into the electronic borderlands help keep it in check. One guide to the city sharply refers to this subcultural elite — which first settled in Kreuzberg and has migrated east and north into Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg — as “anti-system deviants.” Viewed through the prism of a dialectical society that’s reinventing logic from experience rather than predetermined systems of belief, this description twinkles with innocence and romance.
The group at Hawtin’s table includes Magda Hojnacka, an emerging DJ star born in Poland but raised in Hamtramck; Berlin-based producer/DJ Tobi Neumann; Alejandra Iglesias, who records under the name Miss Dinky for Cologne’s Traum label; and various visitors from the United States and Canada.
Tim Price, who manages Hawtin’s and Magda’s affairs in Berlin, had described Cookie’s as “like the Packard Plant with fine dining and an attached club.” The image works perfectly, as do many of the Detroit-cum-Berlin allusions favored by expats, who superimpose both a historical and mythological Detroitness on their fresh Berlin experience. History and myth prove to be valuable signposts in getting a grip on the real/unreal axis upon which the Berlin/Detroit relationship spins.
Hawtin recommends the tunfisch a l’nero or the wildschweinpfeffer, orders bottles of an appropriate cabernet, and rapidly begins to choose thoughts from another palette, this one sonic. He talks to Neumann about making music that, if it’s done right, is devoid of directed thinking, entirely driven by impulses that can’t be explained, then set free into the unknown. And then what? Richie Hawtin disappears?
“It’s kind of like that,” Hawtin says. “There’s no me there anymore. It’s not important for me to control anything. There’s nothing conscious about it. There’s no ego in it.” He closes his eyes and allows free play to make the picture clearer. “In Detroit you just play; you turn your mind off and play.” Interesting words, especially when they come from a man whose last series of Detroit-based parties was known as Control.
At the dinner table, and over coffee at a leafy sidewalk cafe not far from where Hawtin and Magda live in Mitte, and in a hard-charging, crispy-clear but satisfyingly low-register DJ set at the Watergate Club, Hawtin communicates the same message — Welcome to the revolution of your mind.
In Berlin, he’s found legions and sub-legions of willing students, comrades and visionaries with whom to trade information that’s usually fiercely guarded in the United States as “intellectual property.” Hawtin is only 34 and in the prime of a career that already has spanned half his lifetime, but he’s close to the point in history when a claim can be made that he helped create the magical, marginal, seductive, telekinetic sub-world that pulses through this brooding European capital.
The techno community here is steeped in European art historical movements, fringe societies and philosophical ideals that helped produce some of the most beautiful and dangerous artist-mystics of the last 200 years. Rimbaud’s famous “I is another” observation can be a starting point. Then follow it through pseudo-Freudian/surrealist André Breton’s automatic poems of love and desperation, and the delirious aesthetics of American irrationalists like William Burroughs, who often spoke of no memory of having written his savage masterpiece, Naked Lunch. But its foundation might rest in Hegel’s Phenomenology (1807), in which the crypto-philosopher and Berlin-based lecturer reasoned — though it might be argued that “reason” had little to do with it — that “it is the nature of humanity to press onward to agreement with others; human nature only really exists in an achieved community of minds.”
Underground Berlin’s community of controlled madness — where radical thinkers and doers enjoy the freedom to be uncomfortable and social at the same time, in a town where work itself is being redefined in a local economy that rarely offers more than potential income-earning via government subsidies (for German citizens) and projects at home and (more likely) abroad for everyone else — is an opportunity for an artist that must be seized.
Hawtin came here on the same chase, but is packaged a bit differently. As the pioneering and iconic acid-minimalist Plastikman, and as a DJ star who’s been headlining festivals and super-clubs since the early 1990s, he’s cultivated a rock-star persona in a culture that best operates as an anonymous techno-organism with an infinite number of workable but replaceable parts. Like most everyone else in Berlin, the chance to be part of a vanguard community has drawn Hawtin in. But he appears to be here for other reasons.
“There’s less room to be different in the U.S. The scene there is driven by money and image; it’s difficult to take the culture further out to where it needs to go,” Hawtin says between checking his cell phone for calls, about a dozen during a brief interview at a sidewalk café. “I got caught up in some crazy shit, trying to sustain what I thought was the right lifestyle. When Plus 8 started making a lot of money in the mid-1990s, we [Hawtin and then-partner John Acquaviva] thought about getting a jet. Insane. I needed to find a balance, keep integrity and be with people who are open and free to experiment.”
Since his move here last year, Hawtin’s music has been freshly re-examined and redeveloped, using the powerful currents within the cultural production/consumption engine that is 21st century Berlin. As Plastikman, he appears to be continuing the ambitious inner space explorations begun in Windsor, where he produced his sad masterpiece, Consumed (1998), and last year’s highly-anticipated Closer, a grindingly personal record that puzzled, divided and, ultimately, disappointed critics and fans.
Plastikman is alive and still searching. He played live at Montreal’s Mutek festival last May. But it is DJ Hawtin who remains the consummate traveling man, with a schedule of gigs that adds up to about 150 each year. This summer Hawtin played Istanbul, Athens, Belgrade, Skopje and dozens of other European and North American locations before finishing the season in Ibiza, the Spanish island that hosts the world’s most famous summer-long dance party. His fall schedule includes Tokyo, London, Amsterdam and Venice. Hawtin’s next mix-CD project promises to triple the content of 2001’s DE9: Closer to the Edit, on which Hawtin reinterpreted and recast 70 tracks into a 53-minute mix. Courtesy of tapes provided by storied UK producer Daniel Miller, he’ll be working with his friend Ricardo Villalobos on several remixes of Depeche Mode, a band that both call “bigger than the Beatles” for tech-generation kids. Hawtin is as busy — and appears fit, relaxed and happy — as he’s ever been.
His desire to go deeper into his music now appears motivated by the preternatural nature of Berlin itself. Mapping the psychogeography of the mind, even your own, is more than mere abstraction in a place where cultural life explodes with constant inspiration: On the high end, there are seven symphonies or philharmonics, seven independent fine art scenes, opera and dance companies, mainstream and experimental theater groups, and a frequency of lectures to rival New York, London and Paris. The buzz among intellectual Berliners in early October was an appearance by Antonio Negri, a revolutionary theorist (co-author of Communists Like Us, Empire and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire) accused in 1979 of being a terrorist and member of Italy’s Red Brigades. Negri spent years in an Italian prison until he was acquitted of his thought crimes in 2003.
The dance scene itself is so prodigious, with communities regularly breaking off and sub-dividing according to their own interests, that it spawns new life everywhere. Techno still rules Berlin, with the signature 4/4 boom-boom-boom-boom sound still favored once the party really gets going — which could be anytime after midnight (but usually much later) and not ending until half the following day is gone. But electro, house, dub, drum ’n’ bass, trance and various other related scenes are all played out, with new records dropping weekly. In late September and early October, a huge trade show called PopKomm swelled the arts and culture masses even more. Some parties, like Hawtin’s, had a corporate spin (his was sponsored by TDK), while an underground party featuring Basteroid and Konkord, artists who record for the scorching Areal and Sender labels, was all about word-of-mouth buzz.
All types of outsiders abound in Berlin. There’s a sizable punk-rock scene, with roots that go back to the 1970s; noise, metal, space and mainstream rock; avant-gay and transgendered art; theater and music scenes (to promote an event called “God Save the Queers,” one memorable poster ripped off Jamie Reid’s Situationist-inspired image of Queen Elizabeth II with a safety pin in her nose); and anarchists, 10th generation Marxists, Maoists, unaligned political crazies and various anonymous graffiti artists urging death to capitalism, Bush and the U.S.A. One looks hard, and in vain, to find anyone with a real job. To consider the notion seems absurd, from the perspective of an imperishable society that improbably rose out of northern German and Slavic swamplands in the 1100s. (One of the reasons Berlin is so green, integrated by vast parklands and lakes within its city limits and stretching out to the suburbs and Brandenburg countryside beyond.)
A brief history of Berlin reads like a history of the spirit, where the thoughts of poets and philosophers who brought the German mind to the doorstep of God shared a stage with expressions of unspeakable human villainy. Some of the consequences of this enormous plane of history remain spectral, wrenchingly sad, and trapped in a world between the living and the dead. Invasions, bloody wars on every front, numerous uprisings, rebellions and food riots stirred by grinding poverty all mark its past.
All the while, intellectual and artistic fires were burning holes in the mind of the world, with philosophical interpretations of thought and action that sought to alter the consciousness of culture. Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Jung, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Schopenhauer, Weber, Wittgenstein and Oswald Spengler — whose work of ambitious pessimism, The Decline of the West (1917), foretells the rise of Nazism, World War II and the death of a civilization that has exhausted all its possibilities — all challenged and beguiled while perched atop the German academies, many of them rooted in Berlin.
Walking around this city at all hours (the clock in Berlin is only a utility that marks the time between contacts, events and projects; otherwise useless), you can see small mountains of 60-year-old war trash, containing bricks, metal and invisible artifacts of the soul, piled in various locations. Evidence of abandoned factories, schools and administrative buildings are never far from view. You see the outline of the Berlin Wall (1961-1989), erected as an “anti-Fascist protection barrier” by the Soviet East Germans, but which functioned primarily to keep its citizenry from being lured across to the opposite side of the imagination and into the decadent West.
In the 1970s and 1980s, state-sponsored freedom flourished in this isolated anti-city, courtesy of economic and military authority supplied by the United States, England and West Germany, but freedom was not enough. New experimental societies emerged, redefining property rights and establishing urban farms (the communal squatter movement in Kreuzberg brought constantly refreshed waves of international bodies to West Berlin, fundamentally changing the idea of inhabiting space), finding expression in guerrilla art movements and street-fighting mayhem, fueled by drugs and the passions and nightmares of history.
Enter Detroit Techno, an irrational but ordered system of beats, harmonics and pop futurism that integrated perfectly into this swelling culture of the immediate, where repetitive musical information was given room to evolve into a new sensuous language. Relationships between Berlin’s first electro-fied generation — historically represented by the label and club Tresor — and the Detroit scene remain intact. You run into the Tresor crowd, now pushing 50, at the Markthalle restaurant and bar in Kreuzberg. Here you’re mistaken for royalty as soon as you reveal you’re from Detroit, when you merely wear your cap with its emblematic “D,” or when you say you’re old enough to have witnessed, with admitted incomprehension, the creative infancy of Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance, Derrick May, Blake Baxter and dozens of other Detroit techno-mentalists for whom reverence has wavered little since the early 1980s.
Re-enter Richie Hawtin, who first hit town in the early 1990s, around the time that he dropped the LP Dimension Intrusion, recorded under one of his alter egos, F.U.S.E. He says it was life, crawling en masse from all corners of the Berlin underground, that first got his attention.
“People (in Berlin) were determined to make something out of nothing. There were thousands of nomads, kids who didn’t fit in, who found themselves in this crazy after-hours lifestyle,” Hawtin says, sipping his second coffee at a sidewalk café in Mitte, not far from where he shares an apartment with Magda. The space also doubles as the Berlin office for Minus/Plus 8, which is still run out of a building in Windsor’s Walkerville neighborhood. “We were doing the same thing in Detroit, putting on parties at the Packard Plant and the Bankel Building, getting people together who were living on the fringe.”
Hawtin built his own mythology in the ’90s by creating and nurturing a Detroit/Windsor-based international scene. Plus 8 churned out a twisted parade of dance 12s featuring Plastikman, F.U.S.E., Cybersonik (a three-headed monster with Hawtin, Acquaviva and Daniel Bell, who preceded Hawtin to Berlin several years ago), Kenny Larkin, Kooky Scientist, Speedy J and others. Those records, from 1990 to 1997, are contained on three volumes known as the Plus 8 Classics series. They have proved influential to many younger producers and DJs, who continue to mine the vertiginous, mind-expanding acid style favored by Hawtin and his cohorts. Even the song titles reveal cultural influence: Elements of Time, Technarchy, Motion, Vortex, Evolution, Substance Abuse and Rise can be read as a poetical blueprint for an underground society formed in the imagination but made actual in sufferscapes like Detroit and Berlin.
Hawtin then uses three words that apply to the two cities that have allowed him room to grow as an artist: Will to survive.
“Both Detroit and Berlin have people with an incredibly strong will to survive,” he says. “Out of decay and pain comes this strength; you see it in both cities. You put (the music) out there, and it’s like there’s nothing they can’t understand.”
Hawtin left Detroit/Windsor in 2002 to live in Williamsburg, the Brooklyn neighborhood that in the late 1990s brought some juice to overcapitalized New York City. But Hawtin found the New York scene was not conducive to making his kind of music, which was forged within Detroit’s community of minds, a loose confederation of dreamers and misfits, producers, DJs and promoters, all serious party people whose starting point for cultural origination was nothing.
In Berlin, the eternally primitive Hawtin is exactly where he belongs — with people surfing the sine waves of arty, minimal but danceable electronics. On a memorable night during PopKomm week, Hawtin played with the digital super-jam band Narod Niki. They performed in the Volksbuhne, a historic venue that began its avant-garde programming in 1890. Bertolt Brecht’s philosophical-theatrical works based on ideas, not action, found a stage at the Volksbuhne, as did Chico MacMurtrie’s “Amorphic Robot Works,” a late 20th-century piece that featured sculptural machines performing a mix of a dance, music and theater, and described by one critic as “a cross between West-African drumming and industrial klang.” Daniel Johnston played there recently to 1,000 devoted fans, who were said to be so respectful and quiet that the sensitive American outsider-artist icon bolted from the stage thinking he was unloved.
Narod Niki’s lineup was a who’s who of minimal techno, experimental house and digital dub players: Ricardo Villalobos, Lucien Nicolet (aka Lucien-N-Luciano), Robert Henke (aka Monolake), Cabanne, Zip (aka Thomas Franzmann) Chain Reaction guys Peter Kuschnereit and Rene Löwe (together known as Scion; separately as Substance and Vainqueur), and Hawtin, all improvising on laptops, mixed in real time. Promised as a spectacle for chin-scratchers and knob-twirling geeks, the night developed instead into a practical history of the dance party, with enough varied sounds to keep waves of people moving from midnight to 5 a.m., and hundreds more listening on a large wooden riser at the back of the theater. Hawtin was flanked left, about 15 feet above ground level, by one of eight musicians creating miniature sonic mysteries that fused into one sonic mind with a 300-minute-long pulse.
Once trapped in a protective bubble of creative isolation, Hawtin appears liberated by the acceptance and the comradeship he’s found in Berlin. He works closely with other artists: sharing files, remixing tracks, playing out, hanging out, planning projects.
He navigates through the electronic labyrinths the same way as most, armed with the latest micro-machines and digital media — including Final Scratch, a software/hardware hyper-mixing program that allows him to soak his sets in a multitude of sonic information. But he’s also brought with him his labor-intensive training at the hands of Detroit producers and DJs who long ago began teaching Hawtin how to bust the party Detroit-style — by ripping it from the unconscious. He’s been doing it since he was barely 17, creating a multilayered and mythological man with names like Richie Rich, F.U.S.E. and Plastikman along the way. What Berlin has allowed him foremost is the luxury to be no one at all.
Still at the cafe in Mitte, Hawtin rises to greet Villalobos, one of his main comrades in sound. Villalobos has been shopping with his girlfriend and offers Hawtin a gift, a T-shirt with the word Mescaline emblazoned across the chest. “I bought one for myself too,” says Villalobos, a tall, buoyant Chilean-German who produces an elegant blending of minimal techno and Latin house that some argue might be the best dance music being made today.
The T-shirts raise questions about drugs, which are part of the round-the-clock conversation in Berlin, where smoking is expected and beer is consumed everywhere at all hours, in the club or on the street. The euphoric politics of Ecstasy, mushrooms and weed — which people roll with tobacco and smoke in restaurants, clubs or while strolling along the canal in Kreuzberg — prevail over harder substances like cocaine and heroin.
Everything is in Berlin. Villalobos, who seems a quintessentially “no worries” kind of guy, nevertheless has his concerns about “people disappearing into coke. They have been on the scene a long time, then they are just gone, not doing anything, only drugs.” Others talk of “nasty cokeheads” who know their records, but are “unfriendly to everyone.” This is a harsh indictment in a city where phone numbers and e-mail addresses are commonly exchanged after people share conversation and beer at a pub, and where offers to stay in a stranger’s spare room for the night, or several nights, are extended almost as easily.
You find these various vibes — induced by chemistry, history or a combination of the two — best by taking part in the anthropology of the Berlin street. Walk after walk through a 4-mile circle within the east-central part of this sad, sprawling metropolis reveals a warming factor that is so coveted in the United States. While various little scenes and sub-scenes in Detroit and elsewhere are all ferociously protected, prickly and political in the nasty American marketplace, Berlin suggests something much, much bigger — the way out of history, a dream lived out as a great human adventure, complete with a mutable soundtrack that’s already been written into infinity. It’s unlikely that such an ambitious escape from nowhere to nowhere could be done without breaking the blood-brain barrier of an entire culture.
Villalobos, like nearly everyone in Berlin, has no trouble talking about altered consciousness and the role it plays in shaping the universal dance society. “There are drugs that people take that make a difference in how they produce the music. Definitely, that’s true. And there are some of the biggest freaks in the history of techno who won’t even go near a joint,” Villalobos says, talking about Mark Ernestus and the musicians, engineers and other technicians associated with Basic Channel, Chain Reaction, Rhythm & Sound, Burial Mix and others. They make and distribute their records at a complex fronted by Hard Wax, the most quietly ambitious techno enterprise in the world.
The Hard Wax operation is one of the most significant pieces of the Berlin puzzle. All thoughts about dance culture must be brought here for fresh evaluation. Ernestus is considered a master, an unwilling genius who helped reinvent techno in the early- and mid-’90s, when nearly everyone in Berlin grew bored of the same cranked-up beats night after night.
He knew Detroit so well, he helped reinvent it too. Basic Channel brought early tapes to Detroit’s NSC studio, which cut their records. Ernestus wanted Berlin artists to have the benefit of a more “natural,” synthetic Detroit sound.
Carl Craig was paying attention, and he started working on Basic Channel projects, remixing Maurizio’s (Ernestus with fellow mystery-man Moritz Von Oswald) mesmerizing, narco-house track “Domina” in 1993. It was appropriately tagged the Carl Craig Mind Mix. Nine years later, Ernestus played an unmixed set of dub 7-inch vinyl at a party Craig threw in Detroit.
It’s rare to see him play. He refuses to be quoted or have his picture taken, though a photographer was allowed access to Berlin’s now-legendary Masters and Dubplates studio, where machines are given preferred status as objects of human desire. In this room the engineering was done on some of the heaviest, time-stretched, soulful, low-lower-lowest-register bass records ever.
They sounded like nothing else 10 years ago — it was minimalism so dense that every unchanging beat revealed new information as it galloped across the dance floor of your mind — and nothing else sounds like them now. They were the first spirits to arrive upon the death of techno, and they will likely haunt the scene until it dies again.
Magda’s story begins here, in this milieu of reduction and regeneration, when dance culture began to pitch down, taking the best and the brightest gloriously down with it. She started to DJ about the time that Ernestus and Basic Channel were resequencing the architecture of the techno mind, stripping it of unnecessary information, lowering the blood pressure of the culture while keeping the heartbeat steady.
In the mid-’90s, Magda was studying fine arts and graphic design at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York. She said she “started fooling around on crappy turntables” around 1994 — the same year she graduated from Grosse Pointe University-Liggett School — after she attended Hawtin’s famed Spastik Party at Detroit’s Packard Plant.
“It blew my mind. I remember it being so great to go just five minutes down the road from my house to Grand Boulevard and ... have this experience that changed my life,” says Magda, whose home then was in Hamtramck. She was born in Zywiec, a town in Poland southwest of Krakow, near the Czech and Slovak borders, and came to the United States. when she was 9. The family — father Marek Hojnacki (whom Magda describes as “a techie”) and her academy-trained mother Anna Hojnacka, a painter — first moved to Texas, then came to Hamtramck in 1986.
She is telling her story seated on an L-shaped couch in the swank-minimalist apartment she shares with Hawtin. The two-level apartment has one spacious room that includes a living/lounging area, a modern kitchen, a long countertop with swiveling, backless chairs that Hawtin found in New York, and several rooms attached to the main one. There is an office, where Price is busy working on his computer, and two terraces that offer stunning views of the sun setting over Berlin. Hawtin is on the phone talking to someone about a gig in South America. The entire crowd will soon be going to Cookie’s, with dinner reservations made for 10 p.m.
Magda didn’t finish studies at Hobart and William Smith, choosing instead a different kind of school, where lessons might start at midnight and go straight through the morning until noon, or later. Her teachers? Underground Resistance, Dan Bell, Claude Young and Twonz, for starters. She learned the trade by first being there, in the presence of hard-charging techno outsiders, followed by intense practice on Detroit and international stages.
“I was still in college when I played my first Detroit party. It was 1996, some random space on the East Side,” she says, talking excitedly. Even more information is contained in her large, dark eyes, which grow brighter as she talks about her DJ training. “It was a total train wreck. Awful. I was told to go on and play. I just went out and did it. And I kept doing it, because I had a lot of support behind me.”
Magda started performing with the Detroit collective, Women on Wax, that same year. WOW collected some of the best female DJ/production talent anywhere in the world — Kelli Hand, Minx, Jennifer Xerri and Magda, among them. She also began doing Hotbox parties with Theo Parrish, Kenny Dixon Jr. and Rick Wilhite, and another series of events called System, in 1997 and 1998. Magda says her eclectic style — as a minimalist who defies categorization, playing a tight, disciplined blend of techno, house and electro — comes from her exposure to the depth of talent on the Detroit scene.
“I went through an acid techno phase, an electro phase, a super-house phase,” Magda says. “I played the black, gay party scene; I hung out with [electro-experimentalist and space-disco oracle] Brendan M. Gillen, Mike Servito and other people. I learned so much in Detroit — especially to love what I do because it’s all about working with friends.”
Magda recalls meeting Hawtin about this same time, when the then Canada-based artist had a hand in running a subterranean lounge in Windsor called 13 Below. She was asked to be a resident at the club. (13 Below featured local talent, but also booked Berlin-based performers like Scion and Pole. The building that housed the short-lived club was demolished to make way for Daimler-Chrysler’s Canadian headquarters.) With Hawtin, she played the New Millennium party at Motor on New Year’s Eve 1999, released her own mix CD, Fact & Friction, and then moved to Windsor to do technical work in the Minus recording studio. Magda trained with Hawtin on mixing and editing programs, and learned how to perform using Final Scratch.
And she played: A spot at The End in London, in 2001, was her first exposure to the European club scene. The first time she played in Berlin, she performed with an impressive cast including Alter Ego, Villalobos and Zip at a Playhouse label party in 2002.
“Berlin opened my eyes even more. Parties were going all night and ending at 6 in the evening, totally different than the U.S.,” she says. Also different was the expectation of the European mind, which craved more melody and hooks than she was used to playing in Detroit, where she had reduced her sound down to layers of raw, stripped-to-the-bone beats. “In the U.S., I found the weirder stuff went over. Here, I’m always getting new information, always changing.”
In Berlin, Magda is close to some of the producers who influenced her from afar, notably artists who record for the Perlon and BPitch Control labels. The Perlon roster features performers like Villalobos (who also has records on Playhouse), Lucien-N-Luciano, Dimbiman, PantyTec and Dandy Jack. BPitch Control is best known as the label started by Ellen Allien, a native Berliner who’s emerged as one of the city’s few techno pop stars. Allien is worth talking about because she’s a woman blowing up in a scene nearly always dominated by men.
Two nights after Hawtin and Magda played at Watergate, Allien performed at a huge event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Ocean Club, one of Berlin’s top venues. Others on the bill included Thomas Fehlmann, The Modernist (aka A Jorg Burger), the three-piece band, Marz, and Miss Kittin, a Swiss-born DJ/vocalist who is also approaching international star status. Sharif Zawideh, who promotes shows at Detroit’s Oslo via the name Soft Curls, also was DJ at the event, which was held at Club Maria.
Allien began playing at 5 a.m. and was still building the party five hours later, when an opaque sun was sending lazy streams of light onto the River Spree, which must be crossed via a bridge from this part of Mitte back into Kreuzberg. Allien’s scene, which features a posse of girls and boys who party along with her behind the decks, contains elements of Detroit ghetto-tech and booty: some of the moves are pure Jefferson Avenue, but delivered with coy European panache. (It was during Allien’s set that a Detroit photographer learned that there is a law in Germany against taking pictures not in the public interest. DJs OK; group shots in the club, OK. Individual shots of citizens, not OK. This law exists in response to the Nazis’ intense photo-documentary initiatives in the 1930s and 1940s, when Germans and foreigners living in the country were brutalized by photography. History must be integrated into all investigations, in inner or outer space, while in Europe.)
Magda has not reached the status Allien and Miss Kittin enjoy, but she is rising. At Cookie’s, she sits at the opposite side of the long table from Hawtin. Magda spends time talking to Iglesias (aka Dinky), and another woman who says she’s visiting from the States. While Hawtin talks about finding a way out of the self that limits him, Magda merely talks, eats, laughs and drinks.
The night’s still young, barely 1 a.m., but Hawtin and Magda are already excusing themselves from the party. Their work and travel schedule is intense. Wine with tuna or wild boar entrees are quite enough, this time. Not every Tuesday night becomes a 36-hour Berlin day. Soon after, someone rolls a cigarette at the table. It is tobacco mixed with Skunk, or Super-Skunk — the powerfully-psychoactive cannabis hybrid that one devoted Web site charmingly calls very strong smoke that produces a cognitive imbalance.
The two DJs in the corner of the restaurant are now starting to bang a bit harder. They’re dancing with each other as they play, pumping fists into the air. It’s time for dessert, but everyone still at the table chooses to pass. The story will end instead in a darker, slightly smaller room down the hall from Cookie’s main dining room.
Here, a crush of people presses around a long bar, which rises slightly above the main floor. There are lounging areas in front of the bar, next to a table where Miss Dinky is now playing records. The dance floor is impenetrable. There about 200 people moving to Latin and pan-African tribal beats.
Dinky is another Chilean who intuitively knows how to insert sex into the fireproof northern European heart. One heaving city-state of mind under a groove. You get burned by a cigarette and a bottle breaks at your feet. No worries, this happens all the time in a city where the night never ends, where every new face could be the beginning of a new story, where you could lose yourself amid wondering, Why did it take so long?
Clutching a platter, the “Love is OK” EP that Tobi Neumann gave you, you try to find the door that leads the way back into history. But the exit’s hard to find. Berlin, you begin to realize, will not let you go easily.
Check out Shrinking Cities
Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.