Electronic dance music is a multibillion-dollar industry in America. It claims significant real estate at nearly every major U.S. music festival and influences nearly every aspect of contemporary youth culture.
But there are still misperceptions about how, exactly, this music gets made and played. With cheap, popular programs like Traktor and Ableton, it’s easy to program and perform electronic dance music today, and blowout EDM festivals don’t shed much light on what’s actually happening on that laptop or CDJ.
For the last four years, the organizers behind the lecture and performance series now known as CNTRL have worked to clear up those mysteries. Created in 2012 by foundational techno artist Richie Hawtin and production designer Ean Golden, the series — which hits UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music on Saturday and then moves to the Hollywood Palladium on Saturday night — no longer needs to convince young audiences to explore the depths of dance music.
Now the organizers are trying to help fans understand the nuts and bolts of the craft and help steer them away from clichés and into real expression.
“Anyone can make an incision in something, but you have to go to years of school to be a surgeon,” Hawtin said. “People have to understand that technology doesn’t make music-making any easier. To find your own sound, it takes as much time as it would to be a great pianist.”
The CNTRL series began three years ago as a subtle confrontation to the dominant strains of big-room EDM that ruled the festival scene then. Subtitled “Beyond EDM,” it formalized Hawtin’s lifelong project of making uncompromising techno music while also exposing its pleasures and processes to wider crowds.
Raised in a suburb of Windsor, Canada, just over the border from Detroit, Hawtin was a fixture in the genre’s second wave in the ’90s, just as American pop culture began to discover acts like Moby and the Chemical Brothers. As electronic dance music became a defining sound and subculture in the last few years, Hawtin became a kind of goodwill ambassador between the techno underground and the EDM mainstream. He’s played everywhere, including festivals like the massive Electric Daisy and progressive clubs like Sound, and every flavor of warehouse party and Ibiza residency in between.
But the media’s conversations about dance music today rarely, if ever, focus on musicianship. The particular nuances of the craft — treating samples, programming synthesizers and precisely mixing sounds, to say nothing of the requisite old-fashioned songwriting — often get sidelined in discussions about DJ paychecks or the ever-expanding festival culture. Mainstream stereotypes about DJs “just pushing play” and producing tracks by “cut and pasting” have stemmed largely from such media representation.
Artists and serious fans, though, know it’s much harder than that to craft an original sound, especially given today’s paralyzing array of genre trends and instrument options. Hawtin hopes CNTRL can uncloak the methods behind dance music and show how the music is accessible to newcomers yet limitless in its creativity.
At the lectures, “we’re really candid,” Hawtin said. “I’ll solo in on different parts of a song, and often it’s all very simple. Sometimes it’s about wizardry, but more often it’s just simple parts that add up and reflect an individual.”
Young people have had no trouble discovering dance music in recent years, and accessing modern tools to make it is easy. YouTube brims with reviews of the latest DJ gear and instructional videos for countless software programs and plug-ins. For $9.99, aspiring DJs can download Traktor and mix with the same precision as artists on the main stage at Coachella. Instrument companies like Roland are reissuing new, affordable versions of products like the original 808 drum machine and Hawtin’s favored 303 bass unit, both of which defined the methods of dance music from its infancy (and can fetch thousands on EBay today).
So although dance music, like its distant cousin hip-hop, used to be about making the most from limited options in equipment, that’s no longer the case. Enter Golden's electronic music production resource DJ Tech Tools. Launched in 2007, the review site serves to divine useful systems out of such a tech deluge. For Golden, also a designer of electronic equipment, CNTRL’s college campus tour is about helping aspirant electronic musicians find and hone their methods.
“It’s important to connect with people in a different context than a nightclub. That way, both sides are humanized,” Golden said. “When we unbox a song, we show how it’s created, and show that there’s a lot of method that goes into it. But it’s not about what you use; it’s about how well you know it and how you allow yourself to come through it.”
While the lecture series and workshops — which will also feature talks from popular electronic acts Grimes, Chris Liebing and others — lift the hood on dance music’s techniques, when the conference moves to the Palladium at night, the mood will be anything but academic. Hawtin is one of the most skilled body-movers in contemporary club culture, and for fans learning what goes into (and comes after) EDM, CNTRL’s night school will be entirely hands-on.
“On the tour in Montreal just a few days ago, a kid came up to me in a Deadmau5 shirt with wide eyes, saying, ‘I never realized any of this. Thanks for talking about [dance music] this way,’ ” Hawtin said. “I realized that in the ’80s, I was that same kid.”