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Living history

Photo / Riva Sayegh
Jeff Mills
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Published 11/21/2001

Detroit is still waiting for the next epoch of techno to begin, so in the meantime Detroit techno is in its living-history phase. We celebrate the innovators with festivals such as the DEMF — and thanks to Submerge we even have a sort of techno museum, Techno’s Hitsville USA. Submerge’s new building features the Metroplex Room (named after Juan Atkins, designed by Jeff Mills, built by Mad Mike) — a room designed for seminars, conferences and classes. No longer will the history of Detroit techno be written by outsiders. This time it will be written by many of the creators. Check out www.submerge.com.

Agents of Change

Derrick May’s impact began with a frenetic string of groundbreaking releases. From 1987 to 1990, he practically revolutionized electronic music, taking inspiration from Chicago house greats Larry Heard, Lil Louis and Music Box DJ Ron Hardy. He gave the music an elevated, abstract intellectualism still rooted in soul, something not found since the jazz greats. These records stand up in the same way, incredibly listenable well over a decade after their release and at least 10 sonic generations of electronic music later. With tracks such as “Nude Photo,” “Strings of Life” and “Beyond the Dance,” he helped to create the lexicon of what came to be known as the Detroit techno sound. When world touring became May’s mainstay, for whatever reason (lost gear, Kraftwerk-level pressure to make another milestone), he stopped making music. Many people use this as an excuse to write him off, but all you have to do is see him DJ and you’ll know where his creative energy goes. He has truly mastered the art of the mix, working the cross-fader like he used to do his reel-to-reel edits, making some of the most forward-thinking, soulful electronic funk possible within the house-techno traditions. His mastery is such that people not even familiar with electronic music are moved by his mixing. He is one the best representations of the DJ as artist, keeping alive a tradition started by the likes of Ron Hardy and Ken Collier.

At the same time May stopped releasing new records, Jeff Mills just began to come into prominence. Already known as a DJ extraordinaire thanks to his days as the Wizard, he had begun making music in the mid-to-late ’80s. By the time he graduated from his Industrial project, Final Cut, and co-founded UR with Mike Banks (Submerge), Mills had picked up the gauntlet laid down by May. From 1990’s UR “Waveform EP” on, Mills (and collaborators) began a nonstop frenetic release schedule that still hasn’t seen a significant pause, with at least one classic groundbreaking record per year. Often conceptual with his releases, combining art and philosophy with technology, Mills remains constantly open to his muse, opening new channels of expression and closing down ones that are no longer fruitful. Through his explosive performance style and continual stream of releases, he became a hero to many and, as Shake likes to put it, “opened more franchises than McDonald’s.” In short, Mills is the most copied person in techno. To this day, people continually attempt to emulate his sound, just like the first generation of techno did with May.

May and Transmat had more than a passing impact on Mills. Transmat’s approach to records as art, the staying power of their releases, even their sounds affected him. (Compare Mills’ “Changes of Life” to May’s “Strings of Life,” or Mills’ “4 Phase” to 3 Phase’s “Der Klang,” or Mills’ “Alarms” to K. Alexi’s “My Medusa.”)

It’s no wonder that, as Submerge relaunches and Detroit revisits and writes its own history, these two leaders are teaming up to present the Agents of Change event. Witness the history of the future on Thanksgiving Night at the Tangent Gallery, 715 E. Milwaukee, Detroit. For more info, call 313-438-4082 or check out www.transmat.com or www.axisrecords.com. And check out this recent interview with Mills (or search for "Jeff Mills" at technotourist.org).

E-mail Pitch’d at bmg@monkey.org.

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