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Jeff Mills

Author: Andrez
Sunday, 1 January 1995
In the latter half of the 80's Detroit was a veritable hotbed for electronic music creativity, as evidenced by the output of people like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Alan Oldham, Eddie 'Flashin' Fowlkes, Anthony Shakir, Kevin Saunderson, and Jeff Mills. It was a musical putsch unique to the Motor City at the time, a wave of machine-based sounds seared with funk and the reality of life in a post-industrial, post-modern state. You can call it techno.

While much praise is heaped upon the roles of Derrick May and Juan Atkins throughout this period, Jeff Mills' own impact should not be underestimated - for instance when I spoke to Stacey Pullen a year ago, he referred to Mills as the biggest influence on his own career. "Back in the 80's," recalled Pullen down the line from the Motor City, "he played on the radio station WJLB in Detroit under the alias of The Wizard, and it was definitely he who made the public here in Detroit aware of two turntables and a mixer. It was totally different from what regular radio was playing - I mean we're talking about over ten years ago!" Coming through from an obsession with Kraftwerk, 'The Wizard' was spinning techno-industrial tracks by the likes of Nitzer Ebb, Front 242, Meat Beat Manifesto and early 900ft Jesus, mixing it all up on the airwaves and creating some diabolical new sounds in the process.

By the end of the decade Jeff Mills had graduated from the decks and mixer to the keyboard and sampler, and more particularly specialised in the analogue excesses of Roland's TB-303 bassline and TR-909 drum machines. It was at this juncture in his career that Mills collided with fellow producers 'Mad' Mike Banks and Robert Hood, alias The Vision, and Underground Resistance was born. Dubbing their sound 'hard music from a hard city', the collective maintained an obsessive sense of anonymity and combed the darker colours of music. If anything Underground Resistance wore their emotions on their sleeve, combining harsh yet strangely compelling techno with military references and the outright suburban guerrilla symbolism of balaclavas. In many ways they were the Black Panthers of the burgeoning Detroit style, the Public Enemy of the electronic set, and these intentions showed up in the music that they produced.

In around 1992 Jeff Mills departed Underground Resistance to start up his own label. Called Axis Records, it's a preoccupation that Mills has pursued since and he recently added sibling label Purpose Maker to the equation. There is a difference between the labels, however. "The Purpose Maker material is much more DJ-friendly," advised the man behind the labels just last week. "It was designed for the DJ to simply put the needle down and immediately start into the track without intro or any dramatic build up; basically to use those particular compositions as tools. They're made for enhancing other tracks or layering upon each another in order to make one new track. The Axis material is much more conceptual so it's designed to try to draw a picture in one's mind as to a location or thing. It's similar to a book I suppose in that there's a title and each track represents a chapter; each composition kind of tells a story and they lead into one another."

While Underground Resistance was overt in nature and so obviously reactionary in its stance, the music Jeff Mills produces himself is far less a written text than something rather intangible and precious by nature. Brutal, blunt, ferocious and intimidating are some of the terms used to describe his musical heritage, while at other times think of ethereal, melodic, beautiful and mesmerising. Reactions are everything in terms of his creative output. "Because I don't use any vocals, I have to rely upon reaction. If I touch you in a certain way - actually physically touch you - then that's quite similar to the way my music is created. For example by fading the intro in, rather than just starting on the first beat, it gives the impression tha