Interview: Hudson Mohawke

August 04, 2011

When he was 11, Ross Birchard's radio DJ dad gave him a pair of turntables. When he was 15, the Glasgow native became the youngest UK DMC DJ Competition finalist, excelling against the nation's best in technical turntablism. Now 25, recording as Hudson Mohawke, Birchard has made a name for himself as a master of genre-smashing production, expertly crafting what so many attempt and fail, that bigger-than-life blend of mainstream rap beats, experimental electronic hip hop and, crucially, rave. Last night, he performed his first BBC Radio 1 mix. His eighth EP Satin Panthers is out now on Warp.

You started DJing competitively long before you were old enough to actually go to a club. Were you playing shows when you were still underage, too? Yeah, I think probably for the very first time I was like 12 or 13. There was an internet café in Glasgow. It was the first internet café I’d ever heard of. The whole concept of an internet café hadn’t really taken off, but they used to have DJs play in there like Friday or Saturday nights for whatever reason, loads of people sitting around. My dad ended up getting me a little slot where I played on a couple of Friday nights and play on Sunday afternoons playing ridiculous jungle or gabba on like a Sunday afternoon.

Do you think starting young gave you a different perspective on that world? As a 12 or 13 year old kid I wasn’t trying to get wasted. I was pretty much just going to study musically and technically what was going on on stage. I wasn’t that interested in other stuff… I’d already been collecting records and buying magazines, and I was so into this turntables thing back then—it was sort of an obsession that was driving me at that age, but I’d never really been able to get into any clubs. If I wanted to go to a certain event, I had to make sure I could sneak in with a group of older people or get chaperoned or some bullshit.

I watched this interview with Pharrell and Chad Hugo about how to become the world’s best producer. Their advice was basically start DJing and take piano lessons. It seems like a rare thing for people to have DJ’ed first, like you have. Yeah, that seems kind of strange. In my own opinion, I always have an issue with people who are DJs and then sort of go on into production. I feel like it’s an afterthought for them. Somehow when someone’s a DJ, their production never quite lives up to it. But it has definitely served me well having that experience before. It wasn’t like a massive sort of jump in terms of what I was doing, because while I was DJing I was also messing around doing production stuff. I had a PlayStation game that was kind of a sequencer, MTV Music Generator, in 1999 or something like that. I was always kind of doing it. It wasn’t always like playing around once a week or something like that.

I read that you used to bartend where Optimo DJed. What was it that you liked about those guys? The whole aesthetic of their party and how everybody at the party knew them before they sort of blew up. You would see them there, and then like a year later it would be some sort of massive LCD [Soundsystem] or Hot Chip or any of these guys. Factory Records people. Their whole style of staging and how they were driving people was absolutely insane, playing really good techno but also Missy Elliot, or playing “Stand By Me” or something like that. They could just get away with whatever. They all seemed to make sense and it wasn’t some sort of corny, mash-up style. That really amazed me, how they used to do it.

What’s your production set-up like these days? You used to do everything in Fruity Loops. Yeah, it’s still the basis of everything. The only thing that’s changed is that I used to use this DST synth, and I bought like a load of hardware since. I’ve got an analog mixing desk and I bought a V-drums kit, stuff like that. I mean everything still sort of revolves around Fruity Loops. I just sort of embellished it with various other things.

It sounds more tactile now. I think it’s really good to know a lot and be completely computer-centric and work like that, but I think you can quite easily get caught up in a sort of habitual way of working. You have your go-to studio and go-to drum kit and you just end up using that over and over again, continuously doing the same things. Whereas if you have your gear set up, you can fool around with various things that you might not do every time.

You’ve done a lot of work with vocalists—maybe the biggest thing lately was the record you did with Chris Brown. When you have a vocalist get on an instrumental of yours, do you feel differently about the work you’ve done? Not necessarily. A lot of the tracks, I make them with the idea of having a vocalist on them at some point. I would never say, oh, I made this for such-and-such, but I would always structure them so they could fit a vocalist. It’s quite satisfying to complete things like that, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I still always listen to the instrumentals on my headphones.

How is the Satin Panthers EP different than some of your older work? For this EP I wanted to go in a more dance floor way. [On the Butter LP] I was focused more on quote-unquote headphone music or listening music or whatever. I wouldn’t want to make an entire album of dance floor music, so I thought that for one EP I could have a little departure. The first music I really listened to was happy hardcore. It was from my older cousin, he’s maybe five or six years older than me. When I was ten, he was like 15 or 16. All the [DJ] sets would get recorded on tapes, with a box of eight tapes in it for all the sets of the night. I basically got a lot of tapes from him, Thunder Dome tapes and all these Dutch ones and just, I don’t know what it was, but it totally sparked my imagination and I really got addicted to that kind of music. I was listening to that kind of music in those musically formative stages, so I thought I might play around with it.

Interview: Hudson Mohawke