First as a DJ aka The Wizard, then as the co-founder of techno collective Underground Resistance, and finally as a solo composer and artist, over four decades Jeff Mills has positioned himself as a legend and a “living archive” of Detroit’s musical lineage. As a new generation attempts to reorganize the history of dance music and “make techno black again,” we pick his brain on the balancing act between legacy and innovation.
PHOTOGRAPHY: THIBAUT GREVET INTERVIEW: DEFORREST BROWN, JR.
DEFORREST BROWN, JR.Submerge Recordings and the forthcoming Underground Music Academy operate as historical societies and offer a path towards a community development of techno.
Given the way that the music was originally recorded for the radio, on eight-track recorders, what are your thoughts on archiving? And how techno has been remembered, both locally in Detroit and abroad?
JEFF MILLSI think it’s great that Submerge continues to see such potential in this genre, as to devote time and efforts towards continuing the spread of this art form. Acknowledging tradition is important, especially in times of change. However, I’m not a believer in the idea that our past should dictate, marginalize, or cloud ambitions. I prefer to put more emphasis on all possibilities and what could be—to spend more time thinking about things to come.
DBTechno as a genre and format emerged from consumer technologies becoming more readily available. In the years that you’ve begun making electronic music, have you developed a method of archiving the various sounds and combinations of instruments that you’ve used?
JMWhat I generally look for in equipment is first, how much can I manipulate it, and second, how fast can I achieve that manipulation. If functions are too complex, and too many actions must be taken in order to produce and achieve a task, I tend not to use it very much. It’s like that because, while composing music, I’m constantly thinking about ideas and I’m using the instruments to find a sound or sequence that represents that thought. If it takes too long, my mind changes to something else.
DBThe Roland TR-909—the first drum machine/rhythm synthesizer to be optimized with MIDI synchronization between instruments—has its roots in Black musicians/engineers like Don Lewis and Motown’s electronic music act Mandre. How important has the 909 been for your practice, and how have you approached building up a sample library?
JMI’m quite fond of the Roland TR-909, but it’s not essential to apply it all the time. What I’m always looking for are certain sounds and frequencies of a certain perimeter. So, something that sounds like a kick drum or snare; a sound that could be mistaken for a human clap. At times, I like the TR-909 because some voices sound great straight out of the machine with no extra treatment. Other times, I can modify the sounds so greatly that they can appear to be things that they’re not.
DBYou’ve also worked with orchestras and live musicians, including the free jazz bands Spiral Deluxe and The Beneficiaries as well as your collaborations with Tony Allen and Rafael Leafar. How did you approach these expanded ensembles, and how have these experiences informed your music making practice?
JMIn all the situations you’ve mentioned, verbal discussions about making music were just as important as the music itself. Because the music we made would only be an extension of those conversations. In these talks, you realized what people believe and, what they don’t; how much they care, what they respect, and more importantly, what they want to really say [through music].
DBFrom an archival perspective, From the 21st appears to be your first proper solo album, released in 1999. The next year after, you released Metropolis, an imagined score to Fritz Lang’s 1927 eponymous film. I’m interested to hear some of your thoughts on this era of music-making for you, as you appeared to transition from dance music into something broader in the new millennium.
JMLike so many others, I had begun to feel the effects of the transitions of time. Before the year 2000, there were certain points I wanted to make about electronic music still having new ideas and more territory to explore, which led to working with film. And ideas of how we might not be able to recognize what we once thought we understood, which provoked that album From the 21st. Both were intended to relay a message to other producers of electronic music.
DBAxis Records has been a sort of home base for your music over the years, but in time it expanded to include The Escape Velocity magazine and series of releases. What was your intention behind this?
JMOur objective with The Escape Velocity was to create a resource and outlet for those who feel and hear techno music with a close and deeper understanding. The project is about ideas and visions. Some that relate to dancing and some that don’t. It’s more about the concept and music than the person who makes it. The Escape Velocity is a place where producers can enhance their skills and not have to worry about other social aspects in order to be recognized for their work.
DBReaching more into the context of The Escape Velocity project, there appears to be an ongoing narrative or a kind of sonic fiction that hovers alongside each release, which for me, is tied together by AbuQadim Haqq’s illustration of the spaceship leaving Earth. There is also a really specific narrative at play within Keith Tucker’s “Optic Nerve” 2001 release. How did you come to organize this?
JMBoth of the artists you mentioned think and create at an almost otherworldly level. When I presented the concept of the magazine, they immediately understood it and went on to create something meaningful, and that was that. With every Escape Velocity artist, we have complete trust and confidence in what they envision and imagine.
DBWhen writing about techno, I often place it within the context of Detroit’s century-long history of Black migration from the Jim Crowera South and Black music from the blues and jazz of Hastings Street, and Motown. I see it as adjacent to the post-disco progressive music scene. I feel like you emerged as “The Wizard” on the radio in the late ’80s at a really specific turning point in the city’s musical history. As I understand it you were on-air at the same time as the Electrifying Mojo and his style of pre-techno sonic fiction, but you were quite dierent and introduced a fast-paced DJing style that blended early techno, house, funk, and hip hop tracks into constructivist beat music that planted the seed for the innovation of ghettotech. Given where you’re positioned in Detroit’s musical lineage, I’d like to ask what has your relationship been with music in Detroit?
JMDetroit is a special place with a special history. It was always known as one of the great Midwestern cities before early European settlers headed West in search of gold and other minerals. It was one of the first cities they returned back to when they found those riches. Places just East of the Mississippi River, like Chicago and Detroit, had always been known as almost outpost cities with entertainment venues, bars, and watering holes. Back in the 1800s, piano sheet music and a piano player were the distributed form in which people heard new music. Jumping forward to the 1950-60s and the birth of Berry Gordy’s Motown, some of those traits still remained, though radio had become that main source of music knowledge. Growing up there, music was everywhere! I heard it all the time and what made it even more special was the fact that a lot of it was made by people there in Detroit—around the corner, a few blocks away, the father of your schoolmate, etc. In such a rich climate, it’s not unusual to hear that someone wants to be a professional musician. There was a lot of support for that profession and it often started in the early years of grade school. For me, the relationship with rhythm runs quite deep. It’s not based on personal preference (what I like) or an idea that there is good or bad music, but more so that music—all music—has the ability to set people free. To make them more of themselves and thus, become more human.
DBMy own involvement in the industry as a former editor of Mixmag, and representing the “Make Techno Black Again” campaign, I’ve tried to reorganize the history of dance music to reflect these claims and pay respects to the initial ways in which I read Juan Atkins talk about techno as "music that sounds like technology, and not technology that sounds like music." I’m interested to hear more about your use of core instruments like turntables, synthesizers, and drum machines. Something that I attempt in my own electronic music practice is reconsidering techno, in particular, as a kind of studio music composed with an electronic ensemble of instruments. What is your approach to techno as a format?
JMI think of techno as more of a special language than music. The sequences of bleeps and morse-code type of sounds and rhythms, the emotional string lines, and dramatic moments are conveying something more about what we sense, what we feel, and maybe even how we wish the future to be. Even if a lot of techno music sounds the same, that has meaning and is a mental indicator as well. To me, it feels like humans are becoming closer to each other and towards a sense of oneness. We understand one another to the point of singularity. Therefore, some things need not to be said or explained because we just know.
DBIn the thirty years since techno left Detroit and became a global phenomenon, we’ve seen a considerable shift from how techno was initially being made as bedroom or studio music that was broadcast either through the radio or distributed in physical formats (singles, compilations), to large scale clubbing and touring industry—with a considerable amount of wealth being accumulated in the process. When you left the music collective Underground Resistance in 1992, there had been an entire industry built up in Europe and the UK. What do you make of the financialization of techno? What are some ways that you’ve adapted as a DJ and musician?
JMI think that any healthy art form and genre of music will, and should have, such a range of levels to consider. One shouldn’t have to feel as if there must be certain guidelines that have to be met before reaching a level of success of real progress. Music is not a competitive sport: no winners, no losers. It’s is more like public service, where each artist contributes to a body of creativity in which any and everyone can access to better understand, learn, and see more clearly. Some works will be more recognized than others, but it doesn’t make anyone’s contribution less important. We are humans, not machines, so mishaps, mistakes, and errors are how we learn. Without them, we would lack the sense to prepare.
DBWithin the last year there have been conversations in the dance music industry and consumer base about diversity and inclusion. While you have mentioned that “dance music has become too middle class,” Kevin Saunderson has echoed that the “dance music industry is still failing Black artists.” What are some thoughts on the structural makeup of the dance music industry, and do you have any words of advice for younger artists, writers, and industry workers?
JMThe context of my quote “dance music has become too middle class,” was about how relaxed electronic music has become. So much to the point that such subjects like innovation, creativity, and new thinking are often overlooked in favor of things that are easy, convenient, and predictable. Middle class means an understanding that things have been prepared especially for you and when you want them. So when there were times where music lovers should have spoken up and out about what’s happening to music—like when Apple sold music for 0.99$ to sell computers, many stayed silent. When Napster opened up the category of free music by sharing, which practically paralyzed independent music and artists, people stayed silent. I can go on and on, but my point was that if it is true that we love music as much as we say we do, then why, at times when music needed to be protected the most, did we not answer that call? Maybe it was because too many people believed or still believe that music will always be here and available. But, there is no reliable way of knowing how many people have been affected by those two incidents, but I sense many. For younger artists, my message is simple: sometimes in order to be able to live within something and flourish, you have to maintain and take care of it. Even if it doesn’t directly benefit you. Spend more time thinking about it rather than yourself.
Jeff Mills (American, b. 1963) is a legendary DJ, record producer, and composer whose pioneering work is tightly intertwined with the birth and history of the Detroit techno scene. His latest album The Override Switch, in collaboration with Rafael Leafar, was released by Axis Records in October 2021.
DeForrest Brown Jr. is an Ex-American theorist, journalist, and curator. In 2021, he published Assembling
ALL CLOTHING: BOTTEGA VENETA
PHOTOGRAPHY BY THIBAUT GREVET
STYLING BY MORGANE CAMILLE NICOLAS CREATIVE DIRECTION: ALESSIO ASCARI
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT: PETE HAWK STYLING ASSISTANT: YUMNA MIRZA