Interview: Jeff Mills
From the DJ History archives: The Detroit legend tells Frank Broughton about his early years, first productions and the birth of Underground Resistance
Jeff Mills may not have been one of Detroit techno’s original pioneers, but he nevertheless played a key role in the sound’s development in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
While Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson were releasing their first records, Mills was making his name as a DJ around the Motor City. As “the Wizard,” he was the anonymous DJ and re-editor behind one of the city’s most influential radio shows, a position he retained until 1990.
Mills had already taught himself the basics of music production and released records as part of industrial outfit Final Cut. By the turn of the decade, he was ready to make his mark as a producer, first as a founding member of Underground Resistance alongside “Mad” Mike Banks, and later as a solo artist. Since then, he’s become one of electronic music’s most celebrated artists, composing soundtrack scores for legendary silent movies and collaborating with orchestras.
In 2005, he sat down in London with author and journalist Frank Broughton to discuss how he got into DJing, the origins of his conceptual productions and the birth of Underground Resistance.
Do you come from a musical family?
No. Well, I come from a big family, four sisters and a brother. There’s bound to be someone who’s going to pick up an instrument.
You played the cornet, didn’t you?
The trumpet and the cornet. It was quite common in Detroit for any family to have some instruments in the house: a guitar or a piano. In Detroit typically every young kid is exposed to some instrument. You’re first introduced in grade school – first and second grade. Before the Kennedy proposition of physical education had really kicked in, music was really the [only] other extra-curricular [activity].
Did you get into DJing early on?
Early for Detroit. Compared to New York I was reasonably late, but for the Detroit area, yeah.
How old were you when you got your first set of decks?
About 19 or 20.
Did you very quickly start playing in clubs?
No. First couple of years it was mainly practicing at home. I would offer my services as a DJ for home parties, but I never got hired.
What kind of music were you playing at first?
It was funk, dance, European electronic type stuff and electro boogie. And then Bass Station [Records] came from Miami and the West Coast [gave us] Egyptian Lover and those kind of things. Industrial music and industrial dance. I played a mixture.
Where were you hearing all this?
On the radio. That was where we got our information about new music. On [the Electrifying] Mojo’s show. There was another station called WLVS and they were the first station to bring in young DJs off the street, so they had mix shows long before I got on the radio. It was stuff that was happening in New York, stuff that was happening in Ibiza – it was really progressive for the time. 14-15 year old kids, friends of mine that I knew from the street were on. A guy named Delano Smith, a guy named Daryl Shannon and Kevin Diezard. They were really successful mobile DJs. They were really, really influential and popular at that time so they used to do mix shows on WLVS. It was them for a short time and then Mojo for most of the time.
So you’re getting music from all over?
That was an alternative station playing mix shows and Mojo was on an R&B and funk station. The rock stations were playing more derivatives of rock, more dance punk, more electronic stuff like Kraftwerk, the B-52’s and “Frequency 7” by Visage.
Where were you hearing the real industrial stuff, the Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb?
Generally on rock stations. They weren’t playing classic rock. Even they were playing grey area type music.
As a DJ were you looking to New York, to hip-hop styles?
Back then there weren’t any music magazines so you would hear about what Grandmaster Flash had done the previous weekend, or DST, by word of mouth. In Detroit. I don’t know how, but you would hear of certain parties and what the DJ would do.
So who were your DJ heroes at that time?
Grandmaster Flash, Jazzy Jeff, Cash Money, Red Alert, Marley Marl, Mr. Magic.
Were you hearing mixtapes as well?
No. It was really hard to get mixtapes unless you could go to NY and tape radio stations like WBLS. The distribution of that music was... This was before it really spread into the country. It was very much a NY thing. You would hear it from your older brothers and sisters who knew someone who went to NY.
Your friends who got on the radio, were they playing a similar style?
No. By the time I reached the radio the city of Detroit had many different types of DJs. We had hip-hop DJs, which is what I was mainly known for. I basically played street music: more Bass Station, hip-hop, industrial and all that stuff in between. Stuff like [MC] 900 Ft Jesus and Section 25 – stuff that was really considered new wave or industrial, but that hip-hop DJs were playing, too. It was a lot of mixing of genres at that time. I was the youngest of all the DJs, so I was kind of the exception. Most of the DJs that were mixing on the radio were house DJs.
So their influence was coming from Chicago?
We were all influenced by Chicago.
When did you first go over there?
My older sister moved to Chicago so I would go over there frequently to visit her and go record shopping. I would tape WBMX...
Hot Mix 5?
Yeah, and go record shopping and bring all that stuff back.
What year did you first go?
Maybe 1979, 1980.
So Chicago was always part of your musical background?
Yeah, from an early point.
Did you get to go to clubs?
No, I was too young.
What about later?
Well, a few times. I don’t remember the names. I didn’t go to the Power Plant and those places.
Were you going out in Detroit?
Yeah, a club called L’uomo. Ken Collier used to play there late nights on Saturdays.
Was he basically the biggest DJ on that scene?
On the late night scene. There were a couple of other guys, because the city at that time didn’t just go in one direction. We had many groups of people that went out to party. You had the gay crowd. Black gay crowd: house parties, really progressive. Where Ken Collier used to play. You had that in one direction and a lot of my friends used to go because the music was so good. Then there was the more mainstream dance audience. I spent most of my time DJing for this particular crowd, which crossed over into Chicago house as well. And then you had hip-hop street music. I also played in that direction as well.
I’ve heard a lot about the “prep parties.” Was that the kind of thing you were going to?
When I was very young, say between the ages of ten and 16. It was based around high school. It was basically varsity.
It sounds like a very affluent scene.
Generally when you’re in high school, people want to be mature and older and as sophisticated as they possibly can. And it had got to the point where people were trying to create this atmosphere. And also the social type too. The parties, although they were very young, they were very sophisticated: very nice places.
Was that just one half of what was going on?
Yeah, there were things completely in another direction, but for young people as well. I went to those as well.
Was there tension between the two? The “no jits” thing?
No, that was really later on. It has really been exaggerated. I was there.
How did it really break down?
It really broke down into which high school you were from. Some schools were considered academically higher than others. That created a separation between students. Of course that also brought in certain connections: whether you knew about a particular party over at someone’s house and whether you could be invited to it. It became a very higher type of consciousness.
At these parties was where the DJs were very carefully picked and the music was very exceptional. It was basically the music they were listening to in New York, at the Paradise Garage and places like that. We were very young, like 13, 14 and 15 years old. As that type of sorority, fraternity, varsity idea grew around the city, it adapted to other high schools, where the people were a little rougher, so they had a different take on the idea. But the different groups never clashed. Some people had their parties here and some had their parties there. If it was a rough atmosphere, things would happen. It was never one group against another.
We were very hungry to learn more about the music and it was a very competitive time.
Did you DJ for them?
I was DJing at the time but I never got hired. I was practicing in a basement at the time. I was part of a DJ group but we never got hired. We were called Frequency Sound Systems.
When did you first get to play out then?
Well, my first real gig came through my older brother. He used to be a DJ and he stopped because he got married. He used to work with a group of older DJs and he referred me to them. At the time I knew hip-hop tricks but I did not know DJ theory: how to read a crowd and how to pace the crowd. These older DJs taught me that.
I would go every Tuesday and sneak in the back door because I was too young to be in the club. I would stay up in the booth and they would let me play at certain times to learn how to handle a crowd. I would move up and they would let me play longer, until I would play the entire night. Really that’s where I learned how to really DJ. This is in a club called the Lady. My reputation just grew, I got older, got more parties and I began to do my own residencies. From there I went to radio.
Where were these residences?
At one time I had three residencies. One was at a club called UBQ on the east side of Detroit, which was a much rougher situation. I had that for a long time. There was also Tuesday nights at the Lady and a residency at a club called Cheeks, just on the outskirts. It was the most progressive place at the time. Wednesday nights with a really progressive audience.
You could play anything you wanted?
No, but the music was really cutting edge.
In a lot of accounts of Detroit, there’s a lot made of the fact that there wasn’t much of a club scene.
No, that’s not true. It was massive. It was so big that the club scene worked in different sections. Someone from the age of nine or ten all the way to 60 had some place to go, had multiple places to go, every weekend. That meant that on a typical Saturday night in any demographic, you had four or five different parties you could go to on any given night. There was a tremendous amount of people out and about.
So were the high school parties more progressive in terms of music? Is that why people have placed so much emphasis on them?
Yes. We were very hungry to learn more about the music and it was a very competitive time. DJs had to have the most current type of material and we were all young and very heavily influenced, so you could play anything and we’d just eat it up.
Did it feel like experimental times?
We didn’t think about it at that time, but I suppose it was. We were listening to stuff from brand new Cybotron to the B-52’s. It was a lot of music.
How were you plucked from here to get a show on the radio?
I was playing at UBQ on the east side and it was Prince week. Prince and the Revolution were in town. They were doing seven shows to promote the Purple Rain movie and album. The whole city had basically opened up for Prince. So around the city there were all these Prince parties and the radio stations were jockeying to do live broadcasts from them. It just so happened they came into the UBQ and they wanted to broadcast at the exact time that it was my time to DJ, so they broadcast what I was doing live. The day after they found out that the ratings were extremely high at that time. The day after they asked if I could come into the station for an interview and audition.
You must have been tripping.
Yeah, because maybe a year and a half prior to that my brother was sending tens of demo tapes to all stations. We had the idea.
And you had friends on the radio.
Not at this time, WLVS had stopped. So we knew they were mixing in Chicago, we knew about New York, but there wasn’t [anything happening] in Detroit, really. So we were eager, sending demo tapes and they never replied back. When I got this opportunity to go in to audition, I was ready. I went in and there was me and another guy. We auditioned and they decided to take me. He immediately went over to the other station, told them what had happened and they hired him. So we started off at the same time.
What was the audition like? Did you do any hip-hop pyrotechnics?
It was just to show skill and I’m not quite sure how they judged it, probably on skill and programming.
What kind of presence did you have on the radio after that?
It was anonymous. Nobody knew who I was. I was asked I used an alias, the Wizard, and the show was called the Wizard.
Why did you want to be anonymous?
I did not. It was the choice of the radio station. It was fine because I could see the reaction from another perspective. I could see from the street how many people were actually listening. I loved it actually. At first it was six days a week, two, maybe three times, sometimes even four times a day. The idea of a mix show was so new in Detroit and nobody really knew how it was supposed to be. Basically I stayed at the station all day and when the program director decided it would be interesting to do something mix-wise, I was called into the studio.
You were on standby?
Yeah. And then at night I had my show, which was three hours every night. At the weekend it was five hours.
It must have been a dream! Hard work, though.
I was by myself and had complete access to their sound library, plus they gave me money to go and buy any and everything that was new on the streets. I was traveling to Chicago and Toronto, buying everything I could find and playing it immediately. So you can imagine if you’re young and listening to the radio and you go from Madonna to Klein & M.B.O and really obscure stuff, in normal everyday programming, you’re really excited about it. Then at night I got three hours. It was really too much, so I think it influenced a lot of people.
What can you claim to have brought to Detroit?
Lots of stuff: “Cooky Puss” by the Beastie Boys, all the early Def Jam stuff, LL Cool J and Run DMC. I was the first one to play all that. Lots and lots of hip-hop stuff for the first time: things like “Boogie Down Bronx” by Man Parrish. I brought so much stuff.
You must have been working hard to fill that time.
I was doing residencies. I was kind of at school. If you are a resident at a club, you’re expected to play five [hours], so three was actually quite easy. The station had given me everything I needed to be able to do the show live: three turntables and a tape machine. In my show I had a request line, an assistant. I was really plugging in to the station.
But you never spoke?
I never spoke. I wanted to say things, so what I did was go into the sound library of the station. Each show had a theme based around the sound effects, so for Halloween I would go into the sound library and grab all the things I could use on the show. That was how I got into conceptual music.
When I listen to Cybotron now and think about what we were doing at the time, Juan was so far ahead.
So that was how you learned production as well?
I had learned how to edit tape and all that at the same time.
You say you were aware of your influence, were there any examples where that was made obvious?
Yeah. If I played something in the afternoon, by the time I went out in the evening DJs were playing it. They had gone to the record store to buy it so that they could play it. I could very easily see. It was a very powerful influence. I immediately began to be more responsible for the type of music. They weren’t sculpting my show. I had complete authority to design the programming. So at a very young age I was deciding what would be on the radio at prime time. Immediately I became more responsible and began to really think in terms of programming. So there was some method to it.
Looking back, that’s the germ of making records.
Yeah, especially conceptual music. I had literally mastered it by the [end of the] first year, taking music and shaping it into what I wanted it to do. And then the stations became so competitive I decided just having records wasn’t enough. So I decided to buy equipment, bring it into the station and make music earlier in the day. Then I could play it as if it were a record. Or do different mixes, just so the other station wouldn’t have it. That’s how I learned how to program. I started off dealing with drums. I bought a little Boss drum machine and I would layer records on top of that, just to give it a different feel. Then I bought a Yamaha RX15 with a slight modification to it and then I discovered MIDI.
This is what year?
About six months after I got on the radio, so around 1982 or 1983.
How long were you on the radio?
About eight years. I stopped in 1990.
You must have met a lot of people involved in making music in Detroit.
And nationally, too. From Public Enemy to LL Cool J, Run DMC, George Clinton and Queen Latifah. Juan, Derrick and Kevin also used to bring in their music.
So you met them early on in their careers?
Yeah. I was aware of Juan of course because of Cybotron, but I did not meet Derrick until much later. Kevin used to bring in his records, stuff on his Incognito label, just before he had made “Big Fun.” He brought his Reese and Santonio records to a club I used to spin at in Ann Arbor, about an hour out of Detroit. It was a really successful residency and I would play his records instantly, because I knew he was waiting to see the response. I knew him from that.
What did you think of Juan’s music when you first heard it?
It was incredible. The only thing we had to compare it with was Kraftwerk. If you really think about how young Juan was and his technique of putting the music together, it’s mind blowing. It’s incredible. Still. Even now, when I listen to it and I think about what we were doing at that time, Juan was so far ahead. Incredible.
Was that an inspiration to you to make records?
Sure, of course.
When did you first make records? I mean making a track rather than these soundscapes.
It started from radio. I had got into the idea of programming these machines so much that I had literally began making my own compositions and just playing them in a mix. Not trying to press them up or anything, but that led me to production. I used to belong to an industrial techno group called Final Cut. From radio I learned how to program enough to be able to put together an album.
That was the first actual releases you were involved with?
That was the first album, but before I had worked on other releases from other artists. Studio remixing, things like that.
Tell me about Final Cut. Was Industrial the music you felt closest too?
It was what was happening in Detroit at the time: techno and industrial. Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb. Shriekback and Love And Rockets. I got together with someone who was more interested in industrial and made two records. We performed once. We were asked to go to Berlin by a label called Interfisch, which is now called Tresor. They put together a festival. Baby Ford and Clock DVA were there with a couple of others.
Why did a place like Detroit take to this European music so much?
Mainly because of radio and what Mojo was doing. Geography had something to do with it as well. We’re so close to Canada. Though people don’t realize it, there is some influence from the fact that Canada is so close. It’s another country! You can see it just across the river.
The history of Detroit has something to do with it, too. Detroit was a very wealthy place back in the 1920s and ’30s. Because of the automobile industry and the army, planes were built here. So people were quite wealthy and they adopted a more sophisticated and more progressive way of thinking. That was handed down through generation to generation.
My relatives came from the south to the north to work in the factories. Like many other black people, they discovered a whole new world that was futuristic I suppose. It’s like someone moving from Iowa to NY. That’s generally the mentality that has been handed down from generation to generation. So we kind of grew up wanting to go beyond the barriers of Detroit. It was always there. A lot of us searched out certain things, unique things, to define us. Music was just one of them. Fashion is another. You had this small group of kids who were very heavily influenced by those sorts of things.
When did you first hear the word techno?
Probably in “Musique Non Stop” by Kraftwerk.
But when did you hear it applied to what was happening in Detroit?
Probably through the records of Juan, Derrick and Kevin.
Did the industrial stuff lead naturally into what happened later?
At some stage in Detroit they used to mix: the techno crowd and the industrial crowd used to party together. It’s a very segregated city, so it didn’t last very long. The club owner got threatened that maybe something was going to happen.
The two crowds were very different racially?
The industrial scene was more suburban and more white. The techno scene was predominantly black. We were partying together for a time, so this is where we were integrating. Certain people, certain club owners and certain clubs didn’t like it. They cancelled a lot of nights. They didn’t like the fact that black guys were walking out of the club with white women and vice versa.
Yeah. Richie Hawtin can attest to that. He used to spin in a club that was predominantly white and he noticed that there were more black people coming, so he started playing more black music and the club owner told him to stop playing that music so they would leave. And lots of things like that happened. It didn’t last very long, so eventually it split in two different directions. Some really interesting things happened in that short time.
What sort of time period is this?
This was 1983.
So Richie was already coming over from Canada?
He was very young, but he was in a group of many other DJs. He didn’t really rise up until later.
But there was a lively scene going on?
When Final Cut ended what happened?
During production of the album Deep Into the Cut I didn’t have enough keyboards. I had lots of recording equipment, but I didn’t have the type of keyboards I needed to make this album. But I knew a guy who had lots of keyboards that I had done studio work for – editing and remixes – and that was Mike Banks. I used to call him and borrow his keyboards, so he would come over and listen to this album, to what Tony and I were doing. We kept in contact and when I split from Final Cut I kept in contact with Mike. He was in a band called Members of the House. One of the members of his band left to go to Los Angeles to be a studio musician, so Mike was left by himself. That’s how we started Underground Resistance.
Tell me about how Underground Resistance came about.
We were both frustrated about the industry at the time. We had both tried to work with major labels and it just didn’t work out. I had a really bad time with Final Cut, to the point where we had to literally give our music away to get out of bad contracts. It was really ridiculous. I thought, “If I’m going to make a career out of the music industry, I’m going to basically have to do everything myself.” And that was the same way Mike was thinking.
By that time there was the example of Transmat and Metroplex.
They were already up and running. I think by then Kevin had come up with “Big Fun” and “Good life” – big hits. “Strings of Life” was already out, so we had things to refer to and people we could talk to about starting up. We tried to put UR material on various labels, but there wasn’t much response. So that was more incentive to do it ourselves. We first tried it at Metroplex, Juan’s label, and then we went to Derrick at Transmat. After that we decided to do it ourselves.
Mike sounds like quite a militant guy. There were all these manifestos and politics...
He’s a very nice guy.
But there was this subversive element. Just the name alone suggests you’re engaged in some project of subversion.
We thought by keeping the structure minimal, keeping a distance from the audience from a personal standpoint and just focusing on the music, using the music to make contact would give us the ability to be much more profound in the ideas behind the music. And that’s what we did.
How can non-vocal, non-lyrical music be political in that way? Or carry a message?
We figured there’s only so many ways of creating a certain ideology. It was a combination of the label design, the titles of the tracks and the name of the EP itself. Then we would give the distributors just a small paragraph, a few words or some type of image as a supplement to the release, to give them some sort of idea. It kind of grew from there.
Getting away from the mythology of the artist?
We just wanted people to know us as Underground Resistance. Once I left UR, Mike took that and went even further. We just thought it wasn’t important. We learned from what had happened to Juan, Derrick and Kevin that maybe we should try a different direction. Kevin was on Virgin and I think that deal had just gone sour.
What about before that, when they first licensed all those tracks for the Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit compilation, and that blew up. What was the feeling like in Detroit?
The city really had no idea what was going on, but as DJs we knew that it was something special. We never got magazines or anything like that. We did not know what the world was saying, but we knew it was a collection of new music coming from Detroit. It was very forward thinking.
When did you first feel that Detroit techno was something unique, its own genre?
I could hear it much earlier because I had became accustomed to always listening to everything. Stuff from New York, stuff from Europe, Chicago, Miami, Seattle and San Diego. I was aware of everything. So I knew what the unique characteristics were. It was the programming of the drum machines and the type of drum machines we used. The melodic type of sequences and the basslines were much different from Chicago. The music I always thought was more progressive than Chicago house. It was more difficult to listen to because it was more complex. I think that was because we had a more European appetite.
Do you think the kind of theories that Derrick and Juan came up with to explain their music was to a certain extent post-rationalizing?
Maybe to a certain extent. I’m sure they had no idea, really, what they were doing at the very beginning. I suppose it happens naturally that way. You see the response of people: what they say and what they think. You can fall into that type of agreement and it gradually shapes itself. Maybe the opposite, say, of Mike and I with Underground Resistance. We knew exactly what we were doing before the music left the pressing plant. We knew exactly where it was targeted, who it was targeted at, the type of person and the concept behind it. We knew what it was called. We knew everything about the music before we sent it out.
Who were you targeting then?
It depends. I can’t tell you too much. You have to ask Mike. We knew exactly what was going on. We knew enough people in Europe to be able to get enough information to be able to take that back into the equation. So we knew. We knew a lot.
Very quickly you were coming over here [the UK] a lot.
Yeah. At one point I came back very frequently. I spent a lot of time in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium.
How did it feel that your music was strongest as an export?
It felt great. It was a really great feeling.
But how did it feel that your music was being applauded all over the world but not in its hometown?
Yeah, that’s true, especially when you consider the history of Detroit. Even before the success of Motown, Detroit was known for vaudeville type music. It was always known as a music-making city. When you think about the history of Detroit and how Detroit really didn’t accept techno, it’s really sad. So I can identify with that. But I realize it’s just not one of those places... It’s known for making and manufacturing and exporting out. It’s just one of those cities.
Are you involved with the techno festival?
Is that a coming home for the music?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask Derrick about that. I think it could have been done in different ways. I think it doesn’t necessarily... most people who like Detroit music think it doesn’t have to be that big. Most people just want to go and hear the DJs and hear the artists in a very simple form, not on a big stage with flashing lights.
It’s bringing a lot of people into the city.
Of course: it’s free. I just think there was a much better way to do that.
This interview took place in February 2005. A version of the interview was published in The Record Players by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. © DJ History