Jeff Mills – An unwavering original

“Now electronic music is primarily made by a certain type of people,” Jeff Mills told French Radio station 24 in a candid interview last year; “typically middle class that probably have a pretty comfortable lifestyle.” 

It is this suburban bourgeoisie that has facilitated Techno’s incremental rise to popularity over the course of the last decade with Berlin playing host to a new generation of artists and enthusiasts, dressed in black playing and listening to a kitsch assemblage of Techno non-sequiturs, largely designed to exploit the popularity of the genre today. 

It’s the result of a culture of distillation, stretching back to the gestation of the genre and particularly advancing over the course of the last decade to where it’s completely eaten away the original eccentricities of the genre. Techno today constitutes little more than a percussive loop and a brooding atmosphere, gathering on the resonant frequencies of the percussion.

Self-proclaimed “underground” DJs and producers have watered down the music to an indistinguishable trope as the Muzak of the dance floor in 2020, leaving the door wide open for hackneyed appropriations. Today, Techno thrives in a kind of honorary superficiality as it’s inducted into popular culture where the suburban masses are commodifying it on a perfunctory level.

In this era, two distinct strains of the genre emerge, with the sub-cultural origins of the genre retreating back into the shadows, back underground, where  Jeff Mills still represents the genre and its original principles.


The invention

Techno has begged, stolen and borrowed to get to where it is today. It follows several different  narrative threads, open to all kinds of revisionist plotlines, and you can unpick it at any point, it will completely dissolve in your own biased social perspective every time. Positioning the gestation of Techno at the end of the 1980’s in Detroit with Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, collectively known as the Belleville 3, is the most accepted origins of this story, but it comes with its own issues. Significant figures like the enigmatic Eddie Fowlkes are all but written out of this narrative; Germany’s initial involvement is erased; and most problematic is that it doesn’t figure Jeff Mills into the first wave of Detroit Techno artists exactly.

Even in Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster’s thorough compendium of DJ culture “Last night a DJ saved my life,” they couldn’t quite place the assent of the DJ and producer within the rhetoric of the Belleville 3, so he just appears like an apparition on the radio, independent of what was happening in Bellville. While it’s appropriate for the lore of the enigma, Jeff Mills has always cultivated, it unduly writes off his role in the extensive origins of Techno. 

Frank Broughton would later set the record straight in the collected interviews for the “Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries.” While Atkins, Saunderson and May were doing their thing in the suburbs (let’s not forget) Mills was pursuing a similar strain of music on his own in the city of Detroit. 

Growing up in the urban sprawl of the city where heavy industrial machines and brawny V8 engines would paint the sonic milieu of the city by day, at night, a very young Mills would be glued to the radio.“It was a source of music that everyone depended on: on your transistor radio, in your car, on your home stereo,” recalls Mills in an interview with the Fabric blog. “What radio is like,” he continues is “what a trip to the moon is supposed to be like, what the lunar surface is supposed to be like.” It was a distant world, mesmerising and alluring to an inquisitive mind like Mills’. 

The only real common thread between Mills and his contemporaries in Belleville at this point was a radio DJ called Electrifying Mojo. The “little man with a big voice” (Derrick May once claimed) had a profound impact on the gestation of Techno, bringing the electronic sounds of the European continent converging around groups like Kraftwerk to the US airwaves in the late 1970s. 

As well as electrifying Mojo, Mills would tune into Chicago’s Hot Mix 5 and make regular trips across Lake Michigan to his midwestern neighbour city to buy records when he was still a teenager. He naturally gravitated to DJing from the radio, with the likes Grandmaster Flash and Jazzy Jeff inspiring an early interest, which he quickly turned into a commanding talent.

He started Djing at high school parties, before falling in with his brother’s DJ crew. From there he rose swiftly through their ranks and by 1980 he had his own residencies around town, playing all night long in clubs that he was barely old enough to patronise. The crowd was young and eager, but Mills always remained at the cutting edge of new music, and by the time Juan Atkins’ first musical project Cybotron arrived, he was playing it alongside new music from the B-52s and Pink Poodles too.

In 1982 he was plucked from relative obscurity to the radio when an impromptu recording session captured his unique skill as a DJ, and the Wizard was born, an anonymous radio personality that would command the local airwaves with an exciting blend of new electronic music.  

Techno as a genre had yet to be invented by 1981, but in Cybotron’s music Atkins and Richard Davis had laid the foundation for the genre to emerge out of Detroit. Their music wasn’t exactly groundbreaking at first, amounting to little more than a pastiche of Kraftwerk’s sound at that time, but there was something unique bristling through on a track like “Cosmic Raindance,” where you can hear the first strains of what would become a repetitive electronic dance music.

Whereas Kraftwerk were traditionally trained musicians, wrestling with high-brow concepts in their music, artists like Cybotron were musical dilettantes playing with machines like toys trying to make electronic pop records. On “Cosmic Raindance” the classic music structures of Kratwerk disappear as improvised keyboards hover around a tonic with an unwavering 808 groove and bitonal bass line staying the course as the rhythm section. That kind of extemporised  “jam” is more Motown than avant garde German post-rock, encouraging that association with the soul of Detroit that has become something of a key distinction to set artists like Cybotron apart from its European counterparts. 

But who invented Techno? “When did you first hear the word Techno,” asked Broughton in DJ Revolutionaries. “Probably in ‘Musique Non Stop,’ by Karftwerk,” replied Mills. That record from 1986 actually appears a bit late in the etymology of the word, or more accurately, the abbreviation of the word Technology. In 1984 there was already a “Technoclub” in Frankfurt, coined by Talla2XLC, who would be playing musical styles like new beat, industrial and synthwave at Dorian Gray under the all-encompassing banner for the first time. That very same year Cybotron would release a record called “Techno City” too, although the synth-pop sound of that record is a far cry from the more industrialised sounds they were listening to at Talla’s parties, where the likes of Nitzer Ebb were staking their claim.

While it was Virgin records that first attributed the word Techno to a genre of music in 1988 with their compilation, “Techno, the new Dance music from Detroit!,” it was a word in common parlance, used to describe anything electronic or futuristic at that time.

Techno as a music existed way before anybody started calling it that, and it was Europe informing Detroit, before Detroit evolved it into the next phase. And like Kraftwerk’s undeniable influence over Cybotron, acts like Nitzer Ebb would inform Jeff Mills’ first steps into production. 

Radio and specifically Electrifying Mojo, was exposing a young Jeff Mills to all these sounds, which he would take into his own radio show. Because of Detroit’s industrial history, its people “adopted a more progressive way of thinking” according to Mills in DJ Revolutionaries. That kind of thinking was handed down through the generations and influenced a very broad intellectual horizon in his opinion. Mills’ own family came from the north and the south to work at automobile factories in Detroit and “like many other black people, they discovered a whole new world, that was futuristic,” which nurtured an inquisitive nature in their progeny that always looked  “beyond the boundaries of Detroit” according to Mills. 

While his peers from Belleville were looking to Kraftwerk, Mills was looking to groups like Nitzer Ebb and Front 242 as well as Kraftwerk, and while playing on the radio between 1982 and 1989 he was developing his own sound as an artist and producer in what would become the prototype for all Techno to follow.

It started with the Wizard, programming simple beats on machines as a way to stand out from other radio stations. He would segue records from three decks into the machines and back again, interspliced with sonic effects played back from tape, creating a bold and dynamic sonic collage that has remained the ultimate allure of his work as a DJ to this day. 

Developing  those arcane sequences from his drum machines and synths into original material, Jeff Mills founded a group called Final Cut with Anthony Srock, which took its cues from the industrial sounds happening in Europe and Detroit simultaneously by that time, influenced by the likes of Nitzer Ebb, but negating vocalists and pop arrangements for a pure machine music. Final Cut’s first record, the “Bass has Landed” is the archetype for most Techno today, even though it started out life as a House a track.

While many consider “Strings of Life” by Derrick May (Rhythim is Rhythim) as the precursor to Techno, Final Cut’s minimalist approach, where the track constitutes little more than a drum machine, will probably be more recognisable to dance floors today. May’s opaque arrangement between piano and synthesised strings, playing in combatant keys sounds puerile against what would constitute Techno, whereas Final Cut’s debut could stake its claim amongst any new record in a 2020 DJ set in the right hands. 

Mills only recorded two records with Final Cut, leaving the group when they started pursuing the industrial aesthetic in accordance to European trends. By the time Mills retired the heretofore anonymous Wizard alias, Techno in Detroit had emerged as its own independent sound, developing on its own as the genre stepped into its next phase with a second wave of artists and producers, in part spearheaded by Mills. 


The Emancipation 

While the debate rages on over the origins of Techno, there is absolutely no denying that by 1990 it was the domain of Detroit and a faction of DJs and producers including Jeff Mills, who weren’t merely creating a new form of music, but were consolidating an entire ideology around this abstract electronic music.

Detroit in the 1980’s was a hopeless landscape for a bunch black kids immersed in science fiction and drum machines. Kevin Saunderson once said that there were only two options for black kids growing up in Detroit and that was the army or prison. While Saunderson chose the army, the ones that remained avoided jail by making music. With no help from the American government, who had continued (and continues) to enslave its black population through the prison complex, people like Mills, turned to music to emancipate themselves from the system.

He found a kindred spirit in Mike Banks and together they formed the Techno collective, Underground Resistance. “Planets and stars and futurism and time travel — these types of visions aren’t supposed to come from black guys from Detroit,” Jeff Mills has often said in interviews, but it’s exactly these things that brought he and Banks together and enlisted Robert Hood as the original trinity that inducted the UR collective.

UR was more than just label releasing beat music. It was a way of life for all the artists involved and a platform to get out from under the commercial machine that constituted the dominantly white male record industry and take the power into their own hands. Feigning individual artistic identities for the sake of the collective, there was clearly a political agenda at the heart of their pursuits, but what that was, and remains completely open to interpretation.

That’s the appeal of Techno for many. This abstract form of music is all but completely devoid of any literal meaning. A vocal snippet, ripped out of context or an obscure track title relays little information or direction from the artist, so as a listener you always get what you put into the music. And UR exploited that, turning all the focus on the music, and making their impact more profound. Many labels and artists have since blatantly imitated this model, with mixed results, but UR remains unique in the initial diligence of their pursuit and what they established for all those institutions that followed in their wake.

Although Jeff Mills’ tenure at UR was short lived (only two years), that sense of agency that UR established for artists of their ilk, remained at the core of what he’s pursued as an artist, DJ and label owner ever since. “My hope is that the listener gives up on the idea of trying to recognise anything or relate it to something they know,” he told Fabric in a recent interview. There is a kind of freedom that Mills instills in the listener through his music, but when he is talking “about being free, it is not just music,” he explained in the France 24 interview “but in your thinking.” 

The idea of cognitive freedom is something that has suffused black American music since time immemorial. Cultural appropriation is nothing new, and even as early as Jazz music’s origins, a musical elite (largely white males) have been trying to co-opt any black musical tradition into the larger universal western narrative. Since the days of Will Marion Cook and just after the civil war, there had always been vocal dissent in black American musicians about their music being co-opted into the classical western canon. Merely exploited for their exotic charm, this narrative would deny black American artists their own culture where they controlled the parameters of the music and its legacy.

With figures like Cook and Duke Ellington publicly expressing their disdain and on the merits of their artistry, Jazz and Blues had managed to disentangle itself almost completely from the western canon, but Techno would not be so lucky. 

In an interview with Carl Craig last year, the producer and DJ mentioned that Derrick May stopped making music in the 1990’s, because he had become agitated by people in Europe frequently and blatantly copying his style. Even while the version of Techno, made popular in Europe through the more industrial inclinations, had started to inform its own strains of music including EBM and in some way Trance, it seems that what was happening in Detroit was also informing European trends, where new artists were imitating what was happening stateside, quite often resulting in bland, watered down versions of the same music. 

In an effort to buck these trends, Mills and his co-conspirators sought new realms in Techno, often encouraged by some conceptual thought and/or musical experiment. While the rest of the world was packing in warehouses with big sound systems playing House music to people in their thousands enraptured in ecstasy, Jeff Mills was making a deep, conceptual record with Robert Hood as X-103. “The world was raving, why would we make an album about Atlantis” he mused in a Wire interview and while it might not have made sense at the time from a commercial perspective, it certainly exposed a depth that few ventured beyond in Techno.

Although the LP was released on Tresor in 1993, the “Thera” EP that preceded it came via Mills’ newly established Axis records label. Unlike his debut record, “Waveforms Transmissions” which played to the militant intensity of the German dance floor, “Atlantis” and especially “Thera” played to Mills’ more experimental inclinations. The lead single is essentially an ambient piece, with a rich harmonic texture developing around a singular drone, and dissipating in staccato releases of atmosphere.

While in “Waveform Transmissions” you can clearly hear those first faint echoes of what would eventually become the sound of Techno in Europe today, “Atlantis” seems to expound more on the soulful traditions that had informed Detroit in the sixties and onwards. Lush, synthetic strings, defined melodic movements and dynamic beat constructions, distinguished it from its eastern successors, while the theme behind the music asserted Techno beyond the mere corporeal into the cognitive, a philosophy that Jeff Mills continues to pursue today in all his endeavours. 

Later Drexciya would take this idea even further with the nautical, afrofuturist theme, based on a black atlantis populated by the children of slaves. Using what they learned from Underground Resistance (Drexciya’s James Stinson started out in UR) they too emancipated their work from the increasingly indoctrinated version of Techno that was laying claim to dance floors around the world. This was tactical in distinguishing the Detroit faction of Techno from the increasingly popular form of the genre, which was infiltrating mass culture steadily, throughout the 1990’s. It’s in this spirit that Mike Banks still refers to the genre as High-Tech Jazz, to liberate any associations with this other vapid interpretation of the term Techno, which has largely commodified the term. 


The eternal  innovator 

“There were times earlier in my career when partying, entertaining the ladies and making a lot of money were my top three goals!” Jeff Mills told the Monument in an interview last year. “But like anyone that cares about something, in time one’s craft and art form require more attention and focus. For me, this difference happened around 1995.” 

The mid nineties had been definitive time for Techno too. Robert Hood had released Minimal Nation on Mills’ Axis records, creating a new branch of Techno in its wake (which would again be adopted and distilled down to a perfunctory music in the mid 2000’s). Jeff Mills released the hugely influential “Bells” and alongside artists like Carl Craig and Kenny Larkin, he also constituted the second wave of artists, producers and DJs from Detroit, strengthening the resolve of their predecessors’ music as the rightful pretenders to the throne. Even while Jeff Mills was there from the onset, the most significant contribution came during this era, as he established the genre beyond the confines of a sweaty dance floor. 

Techno as art had hardly been a notion before Jeff Mills posited it to the world as such. He realised early on “the genre could contain more than just dancing” he said in an Electronic beats interview and that it could relay “a certain subject to certain people.” 

While “Atlantis” was an early effort, Purpose Maker was certainly about redefining the genre with a multimedia project incorporating film, performance and music. Essentially pre-dating Boiler Room by 20 years, the Purpose Maker video was a DJ set captured on film as performance for the first time. As well as introducing the world to Octave One, it played a significant part in established DJing as an artform too with Jeff Mills giving his audience and intimate look up the Wizard’s sleeve. 

Focussing, quite literally, on Mills’ technique, closeups on the decks revealed the artist manipulating three decks at the same time, lifting the shroud on his unique practises for the first time. While most Techno DJs at that time were manipulating two records in some seamless segue between tracks in one uninterrupted musical journey, Mills was expounding on it by essentially creating completely new compositions in an improvised manner. The idea of DJing as an art form is essentially born. 

Jeff Mills had been a DJ innovator from the very beginning on radio, and while even some of his Detroit peers still struggle with the practise he had mastered something unique in his abilities. In the age of CDJs (CD players emulating record players, made for DJs) it’s not uncommon to find DJs using up to five players simultaneously, but when all they had were vinyl and record players Jeff Mills (and Carl Cox of course) stood apart. When he eventually moved over to CDJs in the 2000’s he would start incorporating a drum machine, in that ceaseless sense of curiosity and experimentation that underlines all his work. 

“My interaction and application of always using a Roland TR-909 drum machine in a more hands on way” he explained in Monument, “is an example about how I’m trying to regain some of the human-ness back into my DJ sets.”

Even as a DJ, the idea of “Techno as loops for dance music” never quite sat well with Mills. His experience with that kind of narrow approach in Techno has been “very negative… For many many years“ he told Wired. “Not just with my peers but also in the press.” His views expanding the dimensions were “being totally ignored” for the longest time and even by time the millennial bell rang in and he signalled his intentions for the turn of the next decade by soundtracking Fritz Lang’s silent film Metropolis, his efforts still went purposefully unnoticed. It didn’t quite fit the devil-may-care hedonistic approach of the dance floor where superstar DJs were asking exorbitant fees to play mind-numbingly formulaic pieces for an increasingly disengaged audience. 

While Jeff Mills was trying to revolutionise the genre, it dug its heels in even further in the first wave of popularity that sought to codify the genre in recognisable tropes for these numbed hedonists. Many of Techno’s architects abandoned ship, seeking refuge in everything from Drum n Bass to Post-punk music, but even during this time, Jeff Mills remained an unwavering presence with a resolute philosophy in expanding the collective consciousness of the genre. He would release some stunning records like the conceptual album “Time Machine,” as his music moved further into the abstract realm, perhaps even too abstract for the new Techno elite that were only just cottoning on to his early work like “Waveform Transmissions.” 

During this time he made the “Exhibitionist,” a follow up to the Purpose Maker – after the advent of CDJs and incorporating a drum machine in his Dj sets – while unilaterally exploring the absolute limits of the music, extending his experiments into film too with concepts like “Three Ages.”

By the time people started flocking back to Techno through the thunderous sounds of Berlin at the turn of the first decade of this century, Jeff Mills was still there, he never left, and still constituted the determinable ideologies of the genre. With Techno’s profile rising however, Jeff Mills’ profile rose too naturally, and today with the recent re-issue of “The Bells” some nearly twenty five years on from its creation, he is possibly the most referenced artist out there today, but his hesitation at the popularity from the start of this piece is warranted even more today. Those certain types from the suburb, have effectively exploited the origins for some kind of gain (whether for money or profile), effectively white-washing the original principles of what Mills and his Detroit cohorts set out to create at the beginning. 

It’s why Jeff Mills is still such a significant figure in Techno at the age 56, because even at Techno’s heightened popularity, there are very few artists pursuing a unique voice in the genre like he still is. Everybody seems to be playing to the common denominator, making bridge and tunnel journeys into the city’s clubs for simple escapist pleasures.

As Techno’s popularity continues to grow, it’s reached a point where everything we experience as Techno is just some bland version of what Jeff Mills has done at some previous point in his career. Whether its referencing Waveform Transmissions, the Bells or utilising four decks in a DJ mix, everything in Techno today can be distilled down to its archetype, Jeff Mills. And yet, when it’s Jeff Mills pursuing these things, it still manages to set a tone apart from the mainstream. Jeff Mills remains the original.