10 Moments that defined Jeff Mills
Pioneer. Visionary. Genius. There can be no doubt that Jeff Mills is one of the most significant music producers of the modern age. From co-founding Underground Resistance to helping to define the blueprint of what we now call ‘techno’, 'The Wizard' is a musician of the sort we’re unlikely to ever witness again...
An alias that’s often used to describe Jeff Mills today (even though he officially dropped it a few years back), Mills first adopted this guise in the early ’80s during his days at Detroit’s WDRQ radio station. A precocious talent almost from the off, Mills used his nightly slot to showcase his skills to a receptive audience, and it was here his penchant for turntablism began to be appreciated outside his core circle. He also used the show to highlight local talents such as Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins AKA The Belleville Three. Naturally, Mills learned a lot from the so-called 'inventors' of techno, but we can also state with some assurance that’s he’s heavily influenced May, Saunderson and Atkins along the way too.
In 1989, Jeff Mills and Mike Banks established Underground Resistance (UR), a militantly outcropping of modern Detroit techno that’s known throughout the world for brilliant music and a strict ‘underground’ ethos. Vehemently anti-mainstream, the collective is known for its political leanings and futuristic aesthetics. Such was the popularity of UR that their music (and their ethos) is still felt keenly around the world. Without Underground Resistance, we may never have encountered Mills, Mike Banks, Robert Hood, Rolando or Drexciya. And where would techno be without those trailblazers?
UR isn’t the only label that's housed Mills’ productions. Axis Records is another, and it’s here where Mills released some of his finest ever tracks. Established in Chicago in the early ’90s by Mills and Robert Hood, Axis has hosted a plethora of astute Mills productions and has also housed similarly-inclined artists à la Claude Young and of course, Robert Hood. Check out the below video from the excellent 'Exhibitionist' DVD, whereby Mills spins a few Axis classics…
The Wizard aside, Millsart is perhaps Jeff Mills’ most renowned alias. A medium for traditionally ‘deeper’ cuts that deviate ever-so-slightly from Mills’ wholly techno-focused efforts, Mills has produced some of his most sublime work under this alias. Loved by house and techno fans alike, one particularly stunning example of Millsart's work is the 'Humana' EP. The title track aside (which is in itself a classic), another particular favourite is ‘Gamma Player’, which we've included below. That both tracks still sound futuristic speaks volumes of Mills’ impeccable production nous. A true masterpiece in a discography littered with similarly exceptional gems.
It’s often said that the cities of Berlin and Detroit maintain a 'techno alliance', and much of this can be traced back to Jeff Mills and Blake Baxter, both of whom carried the UR torch to Berlin way back when. It’s worth remembering that back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Berlin was a largely desolate place and vastly different to the city of today. When legendary Tresor owner Dimitri Hegemann invited the pair to his notorious club, he helped invigorate Berlin’s love affair with techno. In a city yearning for a new, positive future after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the music of Jeff Mills and his UR contemporaries was a perfect fit. What's more, it's a relationship that still continues to this day.
You can’t mention Jeff Mills without mentioning ‘The Bells’. By a distance his most iconic track, it’s also arguably one of the top techno tracks of all time. And for good reason: any time Mills (or indeed, any other DJ has the gumption to let it out of its cage), it’s pretty much always the cue for absolute pandemonium. A fast-paced, raucous banger that’s simply impossible to replicate, ‘The Bells’ is an absolute masterpiece.
Nowadays, orchestral renditions of electronic music classics have become big business: you only need to look at recent endeavours by Pete Tong and the Haçineda crew for proof of the fact. But it was Mills who was among the first to take to the stage in a similar vein alongside the Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006. A brilliantly fresh and unique approach to showcasing his music, the collaboration was also shaped into a DVD album ‘Blue Potential’. Ten years on, it’s no less spine-tingling.
'Man From Tomorrow'
Jacqueline Caux is a French director whose work regularly touches on experiments in modern and contemporary music. So it’s hardly surprising that she chose Mills as the main subject in her 2014 documentary, ‘The Man from Tomorrow’. An undoubted nod to Mills’ futuristic leanings, the film is less a straightforward profile of Mills than it is a piece that emphasises the themes that define his body of work. Screened in Paris, New York and Berlin, the film provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a producer like no other. Mills also released a cinematic soundtrack to coincide with the release; dark, trippy, dramatic and eerie but also utterly captivating, it stands up expertly alongside some of his most accomplished productions.
Once again Mills proved a pioneer when he embarked on a four-month residency at Paris’s globally-acclaimed museum Le Louvre. The home of Mona Lisa proved a fitting stomping ground for Mills’ works, and emphasises how his talents transcend the electronic music community. Yes, it’s conceptual and maybe not for everyone, but Mills' work with Le Louve is also a timely reminder of an unrelenting determination to push musical boundaries. After all, isn’t that what Jeff Mills has been doing his entire career?
The Roland TR-909 is to Jeff Mills what the guitar was to Jimi Hendrix. A piece of machinery that practically defines him (and one he’s very much mastered), it’s been his weapon of choice since his early days and is always used to devastating effect. He might have carved out his reputation on a set of decks, but it’s Mills' relationship with the 909 for which he'll be best remembered.
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.