All hail the great Jeff Mills – the undisputed king of techno music

Jeff Mills is undoubtedly one of the founding fathers of techno music. Starting out as radio DJ the Wizard on Detroit’s WJLB before teaming up with Anthony Srock in the late ’80s to form the industrial inspired Final Cut project, Mills met former Parliament bassist “Mad” Mike Banks. The two hit it off and soon the Underground Resistance studios came into being, fusing Banks’ keyboard and synth collection with Mills’ recording equipment know-how.

Whether it’s his ever minimal yet highly complex live sets, his re-scoring of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or his multimedia revisiting of The Rings Of Saturn, he always treads a careful line between dance music and art.

He started going to parties at a very young age, 10-11 years old, taking advantage of the fact that there were four or five Detroit clubs that allowed that to happen and also that his older brother was a DJ and used to know most of the labels in Motor City. Even if he was also interested in hiphop, techno was too hip for him to not try out.

Three things dominated his childhood: music, skateboarding and science fiction. He grew up the second youngest of six kids in a “very normal” area of Detroit, neither ghetto nor suburbs, and like most of the city almost all black – though his best friend was Chinese. Music was everywhere:

You just grew up in this atmosphere that was, like…The Supremes had lived over there, and Diana Ross went to this high school, and Marvin Gaye did this… everyone knew someone who played with Motown, or with the P-Funk thing. David Ruffin [of The Temptations]’s daughter Nedra sat in front of me in school.

She was very tall; I had to keep leaning round her to see the teacher!”, Mills told Mixmag a few years ago.

After graduating high school in 1981, Mills started his career using the alias “The Wizard” and started off his series of gigs in different clubs and radio shows in Detroit, using beat juggling and scratching during his sets, some of which were pre-recorded.

“I came up with the idea to bring live instruments into the studio and to actually make the music just prior to the show and actually play it during the show, and then never again”.

His style of mixing was impressive for everybody who listened to Mills’ sets, and his praise went beyond the electrionic music spectre. He was mentioned by Detroit rapper Eminem in his song “Groundhog Day”, from his album The Marshall Mathers LP 2. In that song, Eminem says: “…and discovered this DJ who was mixing, I say it to this day, if you ain’t listened to The Wizzard, you ain’t have a fucking clue what you was missing…”.

As radio evolved, Jeff Mills’ style evolved and his shows were m=becoming more and more complex, offering completely new and unique mixes to the general public.

Over the years the radio show got shorter and shorter, because of that’s just how radio stations are, they make your show shorter because of precious time. But still, there was an abundance of music that had to be played. So I had to figure out a way to be able to play all this music in a very short time very smoothly, so that people would at least hear a little bit of it so that they would go to the shop and actually buy it. We developed a way to be able to play them very, very quickly, or just use the best part of it, and then move on to the next one, best part. Applying that type of idea along with a long mix or to have two records just play for two or three minutes creates another option to be able to play records“, said the artist in an interview for the Red Bull Music Academy.

Mills played The Necto club, were he was a resident DJ and where he first began incorporating concepts such as different equipment setups, including positioning himself on the dance floor with the people, which was unheard of at the time, but is something normal today. His passion for music was obvious see8ng that for his radio DJ spots he had a music spending budget to use, and he drive as far as Toronto or Chicago in order to purchase newly released music.

He is a founding member of Underground Resistance, a techno collective that he started with former Parliament bass player ‘Mad’ Mike Banks. The group embraced revolutionary rhetoric and only appeared in public dressed in ski masks and black combat suits. Mills never “officially” left the group, but did begin to pursue his own ventures outside of the collective in 1991, being interested in more personal ventures.

He thus relocated from Detroit, first to New York, then Berlin (as a resident at the Tresor club), and then Chicago. There, in 1992, with fellow Detroit native Robert Hood, he set up the record label Axis, and later, sub-labels Purpose Maker, Tomorrow, and 6277, all aiming for a more minimal sound than most of the techno being produced in those years.

In his sets he normally playes on three decks, a Roland TR-909 drum-machine, and up to seventy records in one hour. Mills’ Exhibitionist DVD, from 2004, features him mixing live on three decks and CD player in a studio. I

n 2011, Mills switched to using three or four CD decks for most of his club appearances, instead of the usual Technics turntables.

You know, very rarely do I ever play a record that only has one good track. They have to have more than two.

So then I can play the same record at least twice a night“, he admitted in the same above mentioned interview.

Mills released Blue Potential in 2006, a live album of him playing with the 70 piece Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005.

The album was a remix for classical interpretation, following musical acts such as Radiohead. In 2013, he released Where Light Ends, an album inspired by the Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri and his first trip to space. In 2018, Mills recorded E.P. Tomorrow Comes The Harvest with legendary afro-jazz drummer Tony Allen.

Loved everywhere he plays and with a legendary-type background to his name, the artist is now focusing on his future stage in his life.

He still rocks festivals and clubs with his rare and precious bangers, but he confirmed being interested in offering something extra for the public.

He admitted being on the verge of moving from soundtracking into film-making too – maybe not immediately, because he has become notorious in time, which makes him “think I pretty much have most of the resources, actors, access to actors, to film crew, to equipment, to certain locations, living in Paris as I do now… it’ll be science fiction, but in an abstract way.

He did star in some flicks, such as Dealer (1999), No me la puc treure del cap (2010) and Man from Tomorrow (2014), so how can we not wait patiently and with great excitement for the next jewels this man has to offer?

 

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