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Cover Story

From Detroit to Tokyo

How DJ Jeff Mills helped shape not just a music scene, but an international culture

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Published 5/23/2007

It’s a brisk winter night in downtown Detroit and Jeff Mills is simply killing it. With three turntables and a CD-mixer, the Detroit-raised DJ blends tracks as if they were all made in the same studio with the same drum machines — even if James Brown didn’t use a drum machine in 1969. Funk, disco, house, techno, early rap, electro, new wave, Italo-disco, acid, minimal — they all serve the same master in Mills’ hands, despite the varying production qualities, rhythms, timbres and transitions.

Nothing lasts long on his turntables.

Records are slid in, superimposed on one another, chiming, clicking, turning, then removed quickly and thrown back on the stack of records behind him. Sometimes, after taking one slice of wax off, Mills quickly grabs two more records and slams them onto the two unused turntables; he knows not just which one record will work but which two records will fit perfectly into his set. When beats fall out of time, as they do with the kind of turntable gymnastics Mills prefers, his hands, staying perpendicular to the platters with fingertips extended, restore the rhythm, nudging the disc faster or slowing it down. It’s a high-wire DJ act, requiring mechanical grace and human precision, one Mills has been practicing for Detroiters and audiences around the world for a quarter of a century.

That show was five months ago. It was an all-too-infrequent return to Detroit for Mills, and a preview of what can be expected at this year’s Detroit Electronic Music Festival on closing night.

 

At 43, Jeff Mills is accomplished. He has produced hip hop and techno, scored soundtracks to silent films (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 2000 and Buster Keaton’s Three Ages in 2005) and performed with a full orchestra under a Roman aqueduct in southern France (released as The Blue Potential in 2006). The DJ-entrepreneur runs his small-scale record label, Axis Records, with his wife, Yoko. He has also launched a new clothing line called Gamma Player and owns two homes, one in Chicago and another in Berlin.

But Mills’ bread and butter is as a well-paid, globe-trotting DJ, whether it’s a residency at a club in Tokyo called the Womb or scores of carefully chosen one-off gigs throughout the year.

The academic community has caught on to Mills as well. A short study of Mills’ musical approach was recently included in musicologist Marc Butler’s 2006 book Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music from Indiana University Press.

But it’s not all high-end theory and jet-setting. In addition to being a father to his 12-year-old daughter (who lives in Germany), Mills is also the de facto godfather of two very large dance audiences, each of which has its own sound: the stoic-yet-sexy minimal techno and what’s sometimes referred to as “ghetto tech,” the fast-paced mixing and scratching associated with the dirty-minded booty music very popular in Detroit.

From local stories to international ones, from tales told on DVDs made in Detroit by Hong Kong filmmakers, to a Japanese-language blog maintained by Axis Records, to more than 100 recent YouTube videos capturing him performing from Moscow to Barcelona, Sao Paulo to Australia, it’s clear that Mills has had a global impact for more than a quarter of a century.

We all come from somewhere, and Mills, like so many young DJs and producers of the early 1980s, was affected early on by all that was happening in the Motor City, from new technologies and sounds to social realities thick with meaning. His story is one of many that show how the continuing sounds of Detroit — from all musical genres — have helped shaped contemporary global culture.

In 1984, Metro Times freelancer Bruce Britt, who now lives in Los Angeles, tried to capture young Jeff Mills at his residence at Cheeks, a now-defunct club on Eight Mile Road, after a moment of profound turbulence in the history of the DJ as a performer. The scratching of hip hop had outpaced the record-blending of the disco era

[Mills] began this spectacle by blending two surging hip-hop tunes into one another. Having demonstrated this most basic of turntable techniques, Mills donned his headphones and cued up Yaz’s “Situation.” “OK,” Mills said, forebodingly. “Here we go.”

Mouth slightly agape and head bobbing to the beat, Mills manipulated the record and mixing console simultaneously so that the phrase “move out” was transformed into “moo-moo-moo-moo move out.” Later he blended parts of In Deep’s “Tonight a Deejay Saved My Life” with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” He then topped off this showy display by mixing a Berlitz language instruction record with the Deele’s synth-funk smash, “Body Talk.”

Meanwhile, on the dance floor, the converted attested to Mills’ disc-spinning abilities. “Is he good?,” asked [a dancer], dabbing the perspiration from her forehead. “You see me sweatin’, don’t you?”

Though the spectacle seemed to appear fully formed, Jeff Mills, like his peers out in Belleville — Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson — didn’t rise fully formed out of downtown manhole covers. The constantly name-checked godfathers of techno shared many of the same experiences (simultaneously) with Mills, including DJing competitively in Detroit and on the radio, traveling internationally and creating their own labels. But neither May, Atkins nor Saunderson (born in ’62, ’63 and’64, respectively), or anyone for that matter, other than the Electrifyin’ Mojo himself, had the kind of profound daily impact on Detroit’s youth over as long a period as “the Wizard.”

Years before, Mills, one of six children — his father, a civil engineer, and his mother, a housewife — had already begun listening to new sounds coming in virtually every day from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. By his senior year in 1980, Mills had built a collection of dubbed mixtapes by everyone he could get his hands on: from Chicago, Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and Ralphi “the Razz” Rosario on WBMX; from New York, DJ Grandmaster Flash, DJ Red Alert, Grandmaster DST, Gail “Sky” King and, importantly, the Whiz Kid; from Los Angeles, DJ Yella and Dr. Dre.

Meanwhile, Detroit stations like WLBS — the now-extinct urban sister station to New York’s famous WBLS — pumped out disco and R&B. For a short time from 1979 into the early 1980s, WLBS was programmed by DJs who frequented disco clubs and the largely underground after-hours parties where local DJs, like their New York and Chicago peers, were beginning to “blend” records with two turntables.

Two of these local DJs, Ken Collier and Duane Bradley, would heavily influence Mills (the former mixing on WLBS and the latter working directly with Mills later in the ’80s at WJLB). Mills also began listening to years of WJLB-FM, a station that already had a long-standing DJ heritage on the AM band, and had signed Charles Johnson — known to Detroit radio listeners as the Electrifyin’ Mojo — to the 10 p.m.-3 a.m. slot.

Mills didn’t just hear these sounds in his bedroom though. Thanks to a fake ID and late 1970s party-promoters like Zana Smith — now the proprietor of Spectacles in Harmonie Park, then a well-connected event planner with a hot car — future DJs like Mills, Tony Foster and Delano Smith were able to see Ken Collier and other DJs at the Downstairs Pub downtown. This older generation of promoters like Smith — with company names like Zana Take Three, Cosmopolitan, One Way, the Real and Luomo — made Detroit’s post-disco party scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s possible. “They were from a different era of partying,” Mills says. “The things I used to hear about that era were really incredible.”

Though Mills didn’t know it at the time, Detroit DJs like Collier had already established out-of-town connections, including New York City-via-Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles, and New York’s Larry Levan, two legends of disco and house music. The DJs in this predominantly gay social network made a conscious effort to share new skills and ideas that they were trying out across the nation. “They were doing the same things, trading information and doing it very purposefully,” Mills says.

Mills and his contemporaries could hear the results and they acted accordingly. “We were going anyplace to hear this new type of music in Detroit — gay clubs, straight clubs, really underground places — to hear this progressive sound,” Mills continues. “We were hooked.”

If these human interactions provided a model, the advent of the 12-inch dance singles in the 1970s, the availability of DJ mixers and direct-drive turntables starting in the late 1970s, and Japanese-made drum machines in the 1980s gave young artists like Mills the means to move audiences at high school dances, converted disco clubs and, eventually, radio. (Buy-Rite Records on Seven Mile Road provided Collier with records by such disco acts as First Choice and Mills with West Coast drum machine sounds from Egyptian Lover.)

Artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, Alexander Robotnik and Kano were making records that already sounded great. But using multiple turntables, mixing on the fly and overlaying the pounding of drum machines, the DJs created altogether new performances that transcended any single recording.

Mills made his entrance at exactly the right moment.

 

Mills took these sounds into his parents’ garage, perfecting his skills while emulating his heroes. He mixed it out against other mobile DJs at local parties. And then he took his growing rep to clubs like Cheeks, UBQ and the Warehouse in Detroit and the Nectarine Ballroom in Ann Arbor. Soon his numerous residencies and one-night stands put him at the right place at the right time, as the execs of a struggling WDRQ — then a Top-40/urban station — heard salvation in Mills’ live mixes. Within days of a live broadcast, Mills was asked to join WDRQ as “the Wizard,” a name he’d called himself when WDRQ’s on-air personality Lisa Orlando had asked him for a DJ name.

Immediately Mills was thrown on the air to compete with the popular Electrifyin’ Mojo on WDRQ’s urban opponent, WJLB. Though the two DJs respected one another and were on a first-name basis, their competitive spirit created a sonic backdrop for 1980s Detroit.

At that time Mojo owned Detroit’s airwaves, commanding an immense fan base as well as the keys to the new electronic music, from Kraftwerk and Zapp to such artists as Prince, who sought Mojo’s advice on new tracks and called in for on-air interviews.

Starting at 10 p.m. every night, Mills went in to the “battle with the opposite station. My job was to play anything and everything that was happening in order to take away from Charles [Mojo].” For the young Mills, that meant everything that he’d absorbed to that point — disco, house, techno, electro, Miami bass, R&B, rap and, in the later 1980s, industrial. Basically anything that would tweak the ears of the kids.

In this pre-Clear Channel era, corporate radio was still tied into the local community. The new music — so popular in Detroit’s neighborhoods — had forced radio stations to, at least initially, react to imported releases and street sounds, whether program directors understood them or not. MTV wasn’t yet in every home; computers for downloading and iPods were 20 years away; and CD versions of the vinyl-only DJ releases that Mills and others were playing weren’t available.

Radio was king.

“Back then, you had a city that was listening and, on the radio, you had a short time frame to have a big impact,” Mills says. “You had to keep them listening and you had to keep it fresh. If I bought it that morning, I had to play it that night.”

Mills adds that he was constantly honing his DJ skills, learning to mix and scratch, not as a tool for showing off, he says, but as a tool to reach into people’s heads, to get them to stop and actually listen. “That’s really where I learned to use texture to keep things interesting, how to set them up, you know, the one-two punch.”

Mills followed the radio ratings and says his show had, by the mid-1980s, begun to gain on Mojo. But WDRQ decided that they were not securing “the right demographic” by creating a sonic-paradise for Detroit’s predominantly black audience. Instead, they switched formats, attempting to break into a more suburban crowd and dumped everyone, including the Wizard, in 1985. But Mills wasn’t unemployed for long. In 1986, James Alexander, then programming director for WJLB, brought Mills on board to join the late Duane “In the Mix” Bradley. The idea was to replace Mojo, who hadn’t renewed his contract. Mojo subsequently left for WHYT. The competition continued.

At WJLB, Mills had access to the station’s recording studios, its library of music and sound effects. The station built a special booth for Mills to include his mixer, up to three turntables and an assortment of drum machines, so that he could program music before the show and then mix it into the set live. Mills estimates that more than 85 percent of the shows were still done live. “Most of the time it was just easier to just come in and play, because to make one 30-minute show required eight to 10 hours of recording time.”

What’s funny is the Wizard never spoke on radio. He never had to. In the WDRQ-era, Mills’ show was syndicated to sister stations in Houston and St. Louis; at WJLB it was syndicated to Stevie Wonder’s station, KJLH, in Los Angeles. The Wizard, though still a mortal to Mojo’s godlike status, had made a name. When James Alexander left WJLB in 1990, the station’s new director changed the station’s format. Mills could either compromise or he could quit. He played his last night at WJLB on New Year’s Eve 1990.

But internal radio struggles weren’t the only sign of change in those days. Near the end of Mills’ Wizard career, a number of crises began to roar in Detroit’s nightlife.

Mills remembers the possibility of fights and shootings at Detroit hip-hop events as a fairly constant hazard of the gig.

“Generally, things did ‘jump off’ — you just hoped you weren’t in the path of the bullet or in the middle of the fight,” he says.

But by the late 1980s an uptick in Detroit violence spilled even more intensely onto the dance floor. A gang fight at Climax 2, a club on Chene near Jefferson, was enough for Mills to stop performing as the Wizard in Detroit. Concurrently, his successful three-night-a-week stand at the Nectarine Ballroom in Ann Arbor— where he’d been living— came to an end. The hot, bass-heavy Sunday nights had become a problem for the local cops.

“Wednesday nights was a fraternity night where I played everything from Bruce Springsteen to the Smiths. Friday nights it was house, techno and Top 40. Sunday night was the black night. Kids came in from all around including Ypsilanti. That was the night we got down.”

It was also the night fans wouldn’t go home after the club closed, and large crowds would congregate on Liberty. The club was making lots of money, but city officials, Mills says, pressured the club to shut the night down.

Similarly, class politics was nothing new in the scene, beginning with notices on techno-party fliers in the early 1980s explicitly banning “jits”— the derogatory term given young working-class audiences who enjoyed the high-energy smashups that DJs like Mills unleashed. And that attitude didn’t die. As the ’80s came to a close, even the experimental dance nights at the hallowed Music Institute banned rap.

MTV didn’t help things either. It split formats further, now with visual accompaniment, encouraging audiences to define themselves as consumers along racial, sexual, cultural and geographical lines. The implications for DJs like Mills and Mojo, who had ignored those lines when building their sonic followings, were significant. After leaving WJLB, and a short stint at WHYT, Mojo would end up bouncing from station to station throughout the 1990s, never re-establishing the breadth of audience he once had.

For Mills, the years of Front 242-meets-Rakim — the Wizard years — vanished as quickly as they had come.

The stage was set for Jeff Mills’ exit.

 

Scott “Go Go” Gordon booked Jeff Mills to perform at Spanky’s, a teen club in the northwestern suburb of Waterford Township, in the early 1980s, long before the label “techno” even existed. Gordon paid Mills more money than he had ever dreamed a DJ could make. Mills’ only brother, 10 years his senior and an electrical engineer, was managing the young DJ at the time.

Says Gordon, “They came in with a blueprint drawing of what they needed as far as layout of the DJ booth, the necessary height of the table for the record players and other requirements as far as sound. His contract said that we could not record the performance in any way, and we paid him $100 an hour for four hours of work.”

In a deadpan voice, Gordon — who helped Richie Hawtin (aka Plastikman) get his first Detroit gig at the Shelter downtown — finishes the story: “Mills absolutely brought the house down.”

Seeing Mills spin was a career-inspiring event. Gordon remembers recording Mills’ performance, despite his contract-rider demands, on a tape machine hidden underneath the turntables. He later studied the recording intensely. “I learned one of my favorite scratches of my career listening to that tape, based on a record by Egyptian Lover.”

Gordon later became a reporter for Billboard magazine, where he relayed the names of artists and the titles of records that were hot with his crowds in the Detroit area to the national industry magazine. Gordon traveled to New York City for music industry functions and conventions, where he remembers playing radio mixes of the Wizard to his New York DJ peers.

“They didn’t get it,” Gordon says. “They told me, ‘Why do you listen to this stuff? What is this?’” Neither West Coast nor East Coast inspired, Mills’ lightning-fast mixes were largely inexplicable to Gordon’s New York peers. That initial resistance, however, didn’t stop Mills, a few years later in 1991, from conquering Manhattan’s Limelight club, or blowing minds in Germany, when he first performed on two turntables at the Tresor club in Berlin.

Mill’s wasn’t alone, though — Detroit DJs Blake Baxter, Eddie Fowlkes, and others had played clubs like Tresor in those heady days as well.

Brendan Gillen, member of the electro-techno outfit Ectomorph, puts Mills at the head of Detroit’s German invasion. A techno scholar and electronic music producer, Gillen attended Tresor that summer in 1991 to see the influence of Detroit techno in general, and Jeff Mills in particular.

Over corn tortillas in southwest Detroit, Gillen shares his thoughts on Mills’ influence on global techno. “1990s techno music was Jeff Mills’ music. Everyone else was covering Jeff Mills. He is the theories and concepts of techno.”

Mills’ developed said theories and concepts during his Wizard era, competing with peers for gigs in Detroit clubs and jockeying with Mojo in the studios of WDRQ and WJLB.

“Competition was really intense — playing normal records was not good enough,” Mills says. When he was competing with other young DJs early in his career — contemporaries that included Al Ester, Earl McKinney, Kevin Dysard and Ray Berry — it meant trying to buy all the copies of a unique new record at Buy-Rite so no one else could play them. But on the radio the ante was raised.

The high-profile radio gigs had afforded Mills opportunities to produce and guest-DJ on some hip-hop and R&B recordings. But it was Mills’ move toward industrial music while competing with Mojo in the late ’80s — encouraged as well by crowds at industrial nights at the Leidernacht (now known as the City Club) — that cemented Mills’ commitment to making music.

His first official releases were with the house-inspired industrial band Final Cut with Tony Srock. Fortuitously, these early records were released overseas by the German Interfisch label, the same company that would eventually become Tresor and help Mills release music up to the present.

But it was Mills’ co-founding and short (1989-1992) but influential tenure with Detroit’s Underground Resistance — a still-operating multilayered group of Detroit techno artists, including Mike Banks and Robert Hood — that set up the Millsian myth in Europe and beyond.

Gillen traces the hardcore, chaotic, militant edge of the early Underground Resistance catalog directly to Detroit’s postindustrial condition at the end of the Cold War. “UR was the sound of the machine dying — the end of the assembly line,” he argues.

In 1991, the Limelight made Mills an offer that was too good to refuse — three nights a week spinning at a club willing to do anything to crossover “European” techno in New York City. At that moment, Mills had no radio job and no Detroit residency — but he wouldn’t be forgotten in 1990s Detroit.

His turntables found their way into the hands of Brian Jeffries, now known as DJ Godfather, and cassette copies of the Wizard’s mixes became — as they had for Scott Gordon, Richie Hawtin and so many before — required educational tools. What had taken Mills hours to create and, at times, speed-up, on four-track tape, funky and vulgar-minded DJs like DJ Assault (Craig Adams) and DJ Godfather, learned to do on two turntables in real-time performances, crossing-over “Ghetto-tech” or the “booty” sound in clubs, cabarets, and blistering DJ-mix CDs sold at area stores like Record Time in the 1990s.

And Mills’ work didn’t just appeal to Detroit working classes or those in nearby cities like Warren. It also spread to the predominantly Latino section of southwest Detroit, where Ray Rocha (DJ Rolando) learned to love the Wizard too, eventually joining Underground Resistance and releasing fast-paced mix-CDs and string-infused tracks — just as the DEMF began taking off in 2000 — that owed much to Mills’ performances and production work.

The minimalist techno that Mills spins and creates is borne of the work that he did on the air and in the clubs of Detroit. Mills continues to skillfully build multilayered pulses that encourage audiences to follow minute details within the music, dragging dancers into the mix as if they were car radios dialing themselves into some urban landscape.

 

It’s October 2006 at Womb, Mills’ Tokyo residency. It’s his final Friday there. The DJ booth is a “one man spaceship” where the traveler-DJ in the “cockpit” can access many options. With six turntables, the visual manipulation offered by a DVD-turntable and a drum machine one can do a lot. Mills plays every record he’s ever recorded — more than eight hours of music — beginning with his Final Cut work and ending on a series of unreleased recordings.

It’s a career moment.

Meanwhile, Mills’ own MacKenzie High School on Wyoming potentially begins its final year as a Detroit public school (it’s one of 34 schools to be closed as enrollment citywide continues to slide). It was here that Mills took drums; he was a sophomore playing in the senior-led jazz quartet (“stage band”) that featured future jazz star Kenny Garrett on saxophone.

The instructor was saxophonist Bill Wiggins who, like many instructors in Detroit’s public schools, had professional playing experience. Wiggins had played with Marcus Belgrave and Aretha Franklin. Mills and his fellow students were well aware of their antecedents — it wasn’t so long ago that students such as themselves had landed chart hits for Motown.

“We knew there was a legacy to be in the stage band and in marching band or in the vocal group,” Mills remembers. “All the Detroit school music departments were strong. We knew that in those days we were just a few steps away from people who were active in the Motown era or were studio musicians or active in the jazz scene.”

Though Mills would later take classes at Oakland University and eventually apply to Lawrence Tech in architecture, music clearly took over his career path. And if it hadn’t been for MacKenzie High and its community, who would’ve been the Wizard?

Jeff Mills performs at this year’s Detroit Electronic Music Festival 10 p.m.-midnight on the Main Stage, Monday, May 28.

Carleton S. Gholz is a freelance writer and doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s co-founder of the sonic-art collective Paris ’68 (paris68.org).

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