Jeff Mills

As one of the pioneers of the Detroit Techno scene, Jeff Mills is a superhero of sorts, not just in his local scene, but in the Electronic Music industry as a whole. In his early years, Mills made a name for himself as one the few true turntablists of his time, known locally as "The Wizard" on stations WDRQ and WLBJ, where he would feature many of the days' classic Electro Funk and House tracks, along with the works of local fellow pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson. During that time, and ever since then, Mills has always been perhaps the most unique DJ in the world, experimenting with everything from positioning himself on the middle of the dancefloor, to playing alongside orchestras to the backdrop of cinematic themes that tell a story. "Jeff mills is a legend who left his mark on Detroit Radio back in the day", explains Lamont Norwood aka DJ Di'jital. "I grew up listening to Jeff and used to love how he would speed up records to +5-8, and at first I thought it sounded funny, but grew to like it. Jeff's mixes were awesome and I learned how to track mixes on 8-tracks listening to his style". Supporting the idea of just how influential Mills was to the up and coming generation of DJ's and Producers that would soon come from the Detroit area, DJ Stingray of Micron Audio states that: "Jeff Mills had a direct influence on me as a DJ. Particularly during his stint as a radio DJ. The variety of records, his mixing skills, and speed at which he changed records was amazing to me."

 

Mills would later become one of founders of the prolific Underground Resistance collective alongside Mike Banks and Robert Hood, recording many of the label's early works like the Waveform and Sonic EP's, as well as "Your Time Is Up". In 1991, Mills would "unofficially" leave the collective, with rumors surrounding the event as having been on fairly negative terms; primarily with Banks who all but refuses to accept any association with Mills, who supposedly chose to completely distance himself from the more hardcore political ideology that makes up Underground Resistance. None of this has ever been confirmed however, as all of the members of the collective still deny this to this day.

 

After moving to New York following his departure from UR, Mills held a short-lived but lucrative residency at the famous "Limelight" venue as the American Rave scene was beginning to take hold, later moving to Berlin, Germany, where he held an equally lucrative residency and recording contract with the famous Tresor. Catapulting Mills to international fame, in time he would find himself moving back to the United States, to a city that had long been a huge inspiration to the artist: Chicago. Here, with old friend and Detroit Native Robert Hood (co-founder of UR), he would go on to found Axis Records; home to the sub-labels Purpose Maker, Luxury, Something In The Sky, Taken, and Tomorrow; all of which have been highly influential in the Techno scene since, planting the seed for new generations with futuristic, yet classic Detroit and Chicago inspired Techno music. 

 

In 2001, Jeff Mills would bring things full circle in his life, returning to Detroit for the first time in 10 years, playing at the Mecca 2001 event at the Slate Theater on March 1st, where he would appear as "The Wizard" to a sold-out crowd of long-time fans and what is considered in Detroit still to this day to have been one of the most diverse crowds ever to show up for an event. Composed of the kind of unique performance that has made Jeff Mills a stand-out DJ all over the world over the years, the artist would play a theme-oriented set that would take spectators through the different eras of Electronic and Hip Hop music, starting off with the Breakdancing era of the early 1980's and the Electro Funk sound, moving through Gay Club music, Rave era hits, Hip Hop classics, and even his own works that have helped shape the Techno sound for almost 3 decades. 

 

But to consider Jeff Mills just a DJ, or even a Producer would be a diservice to his hard efforts and enduring vision for something even bigger. After moving to Europe, Mills would begin to devote much of his time to working in the film industry, being taken under the wing of famed French Director Jacqueline Caux, who produced the documentary "Man Of Tomorrow"; featuring Mills' work as the soundtrack, and also highlighting the artist as the main focus of the movie; presenting images, music and quotes in an impressionistic manner to convey Mill's fascination with the world of Sci-Fi and what drives him as a person from within. The flim was presented at the famous "Louvre" museum in Paris where he held a residency at for some time, and later in New York and Berlin. 

 

Mills would begin to dedicate much of his time to film via his music, and would go on to compose the soundtrack for the classic silent 1927 movie "Metropolis", directed by Fritz Lang, and released as an album on Tresor Records, and documenting the project from start to finish. Recently, Mills also worked on a new soundtrack for Lang's "Woman In The Moon", using 4 turntables and recorded live during a screening of the movie at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, California last year. Mills also independently wrote, directed and scored the film, "Life To Death and Back", which focused on the Ancient Egyptian walk of life, death and reincarnation back into life. Mills has also been responsible for the release of "The Exhibitionist" DVD documentary on his own Axis Records, which focuses on the world of DJ'ing from the perspective of Mills himself; recently followed by the sequel and subsequent 12" releases, this time moving forward into today's technology and how it is affecting the art of DJ'ing as a whole. You can also find Mills' work, both for film and music, on a plethora of other works like the documentaries "SubBerlin - Underground United", "High Tech Soul: The Creation Of Techno Music", and many others. For his accomplishments and grand successes in France, Mills was also named "The Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Ministry of Culture some time back. And he is probably just scratching the surface.

 

Also a devout exhibition artist, Jeff Mills has created and shown his works at places like the Pompidou Centre in France, many of them still designed around the idea of sound and visualizations, like his "Le Futurism à Paris - une avant-garde explosive“. But one of his most interesting works to date might be his recent collaborations with Japanese artist Yuri Suzuki, designing a drum machine based on the "Battle Of Los Angeles" scenario that took place in 1942 off the coast of the city in the United States. Here, thousands of witnesses reported seeing lights off the coast, primarily one which became the center of attention for its shape. The subsequent barrage of artillery fired at the craft by the US Navy in fears it may have been Japanese, was nothing short of stupendous if not scary, as many people were hurt by the subsequent fragments and even stress of what took nearly an hour. The drum machine, designed as the shape of what many claim might be a possible UFO, is being adapted into a performance by both artists sometime in 2016, featuring film and actors, in what Mills in a recent interview with the Huffington Post described as "A mix of The Fugitive, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Film Noir of the 1940's."

 

Currently Jeff Mills continues to work as a futuristic classical conductor of sorts, having recently performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra; something not new to him as he has performed with the Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra, and even the "Île-de-France National Orchestra". Currently, Jeff Mills is said to have been working on a new album in famous Dutch Painter Rembrandt's former studio, while there for the Amsterdam Dance Event, where he is also unveiling one of his most interesting performances yet called "Time Tunnel". Conceived in Paris and presented at the Moulin Rouge for two years, this mystifying theatrical combination of light, sound, and film is a journey the artist dubbed "a recreation of time travel through sound"; playing for 6 continous hours into early morning as dance crowds party without stop.

 

A visionary and pioneer in his own right, and to many a prophet of our music, Jeff Mills has had an impact on Electronic music not just for the past 30+ years, but for what will be felt for many more to come. Highlighting on all the things that our music can really be, the inpiration taken from such majestic performances, done with such class, style, and forward thinking innovation is something that cannot be denied. "I'm just waiting on his next project to check out, to see what he's looking to pioneer next" says Norwood, which is a sentiment echoed across the industry, as we continue to see Mills' imagination unfold before our very eyes. Long live his legacy and vision!

 

 

Written by: Santino Fernandez

Edition: 
March 2016