An interview with Jeff Mills, an ex-member of Underground Resistance, now the owner of Axis records and DJ extraordinaire.
I did this interview on May 20th, 1994 when Mr Mills came to our town to play, but you will see most of his thoughts are far from being dated today...
(interviewed and transcribed by Benedikt Laube)
BL:: Do you miss the name 'Underground Resistance'?
JM:: Well, I liked the idea of starting over from the beginning. The whole outfit was in Detroit - we had a building, offices, employees, the t-shirts and all that mess.
So I said 'You take all this and most of the money'. I took just enough to start a new label. Back in Detroit, we did all the tracks together. In the last phase of UR, he (Mike Banks) was on tour and I sat in the studio alone once. That's when I did the Punisher and the Seawolf. Detroit is a depressing city. The feel there is kinda dreamy. After the split, I was in a different city, New York, and my sound changed at that time. It was a really different vibe.
BL:: You played also played at raves and clubs all over Europe lately, but have you played in Detroit recently?
JM:: There are a few smaller parties happening there. About once or twice a year. But they are always very good.
BL:: What style of music is being played?
JM:: Mostly Detroit Techno, but also House and Garage and some European stuff.
In Chicago, rough house, Jack, is still the shit, while New York is still Garage;
Detroit is right in between these two cities - on the map as well as musicwise - so everything in between is played there. Detroit is a bit finer than Chicago, not that 'down-low' - the sound is more orchestrated, no use of 'Pussy'-lyrics and so on...maybe because the musical history of Detroit. Motown and all those labels were putting out highly sophisticated music back then - when I was younger. That was a very exciting time.
BL:: Is there a scene for Detroit Techno in Detroit?
JM:: Oh, Rap is so strong everywhere in the states, but especially in Detroit. That's what the kids listen to. Although there is such a huge background for Techno, the scene is very small. In Germany, the most influential city is Berlin. Frankfurt and the area have some good producers, too, but I like the nature of life in Berlin better. It's looser, kinda New Yorkish and the most impacting records come from there.
BL:: Do you have any favorite producers in Germany?
JM:: I like all the Maurizio material and 3 Phase's stuff. Also, the music Tanith played some years ago was cool, but now....you know. I did a remix for Maurizio, on Basic Channel 01, too. But I am careful with remixing. When you take an idea off someone and change it to make something better out of it, it is always a bit arrogant. If you have a good idea, put it on record by yourself and release it with your name on it. That's it. It might be interesting, though, to remix a record from another category - a rock record for example. You have those two sounds - your's and their's - and create something new, something in-between.
BL:: Do you also like playing over here - at the moment it is all about playing hits. Do you play any?
JM:: Well, as long as it is a bad track - I got to play it. If it sounds like shit - I don't, whether it is House, Techno, even Gabber. I have to keep the people moving. Sometimes you have to check out the vibe at a certain party within 3 records. It is a lot of trial and error on my side most people do not see. Some DJs have a planned set - I don't. I always try to play a special mix for the night. If a large amount of people like a particular record, there's nothing you can do - take Jaydee or The Goodmen for example. Their records were the shit. Whether they were hits or not. Everybody liked them. But there are still records that are totally out of question. I cannot play hard all night, too, because I don't want to. I know there are times it is wise to play Gabber. But then it is also wise to break it down, to give people a rest. You know, nights can stretch for 3 days, especially in Germany. And then there are 20 DJs with all the same records.
I like to have a transition in my set. I always play house if I can, mixing it in, so it's more like a party. Too much of one thing becomes stupid quickly - and you are giving the people exactly what they want. You are following the people instead vice versa. It is hard to break the music down like that. A perfect set would be when I can play all my favorite records and the people are still there. When they scream off to a hot house record and a hot Gabber record at the same party. There are no limits in BPMs either. If you can do a transition, it works. Germany is not like that. The only place I can play like this is Scotland, and some places in London.
That's how the parties are in the states, too - even the normal, no-techno parties. The night is structured. Parties are over at about two most of the time. You can tell the different DJs by their sets. Those sets are divided by slow songs. Parties have always been a meeting place for guys and girls. If you do not break it down sometimes, they cannot get together. And each set gets faster, to the end of the night when all the hot records are played. The guys leave with the girls and come back next week.
In Europe, the parties tend to have a special theme - like Hellraiser III or similar titles. You would not expect to hear Pierre play there, do you? It stays much more interesting when you do not know what to expect.
BL:: What is a good techno record?
JM:: On a good record you should hear that the producer is reaching for something - and you can always hear if he is not. I don't even call those techno. The problem is not the music itself - it is the person who calls it techno. I assume that these people like what they do and are happy with it - so it is OK for them. If you want to listen to it - buy the record and go home, but I won't play it.
My thinking is a bit different - the whole art form of techno is in the same vein as technology - reaching for something new. Everytime you make a record. It is not even about the cosmetics of a track, like BPMs or sounds. It can be a sound you hear everyday, like the 909. It's about what the producer does with it. That's why I did the "Cycle 30" (Axis 008). It was not exactly a dance record, more like a message to the young producers, to let them know there is still a lot of things you can do making records. You do not have to buy analog equipment. "Cycle 30" is all digital. Not a single analog sound on it. Why pay up to 2000 Marks for a 303, when you can do without it. You can go back to 86 and buy a 303 record, play it on 45 and you have exactly the same stuff that comes out today.
I did the loops to explain that a track has no beginning and no end. It also changes your thinking as a DJ. The record is not building up - you have to build it into your mix. It takes more skills to play it. It can be you who has a brilliant idea. When people start to produce records because they know a certain crowd will like it, it defeats the purpose. It is no longer an art form.
If I put a sample everybody knows in a track and play it, and the people instantly start to scream and like it, I won't release it. The trick is out the bag. The record is played out after the first time.
There are tracks I made and this happened when I played them - they were never released. That is why I have so many acetates. Most of them I will not release. I missed something on each of them. A good track does not play out. The more you play it, the more you get into it. That is the basis of all the Axis stuff. A record must be ahead of the situation. I also won't say 'Hopefully I will never make a hit'. Maybe in 2 years somebody will go back and listen to Axis 08 and 09 and say...'Damn, this is the shit.'
It is just not my thing to produce a sure hit record. Too many people are doing it at the moment.
And I see what people are not doing, what is missing. When I am back home, I fill in the gap. Take the Axis stuff. It is not House, not really techno, not experimental, it is in-between stuff, grey-area material. Shit people can dance to.
Before we do a track, we go through our crates and look for the stuff we cannot buy but we would like to play. Like Axis 09. I said 'Damn, I wish I had a track that was fast and dark'- So I did one.
A lot of thought goes into the tracks. If you put the whole aspect of making money away, and therefore insert the idea that each track has to make a statement, has to mean something, that the track has to sound like the title reads - then you quickly lose the interest in making money out of it.
Maybe some kid listens to what we do and goes on from that. I cannot imagine what Techno will sound like in 5 years, and this is good. It really bothers me when people stop reaching.
As long as people keep reaching, everything will be fine.
Comments would be highly appreciated...Benedikt Laube