Jeff Mills

By Nick Doherty

Jeff Mills is many things. He's foremost a DJ and producer, but also a broadcaster, label owner and sound engineer. He's been the Wizard, the Punisher, the Extremist and now the Purpose Maker. Leaving aside names and functions, he's commonly acknowledged as the personification of techno's essence – questioning, provocative and occasionally obscure. He's definitely a mild-mannered, almost genteel man who is idolised and revered – a recent post to his Axis Records site introduced a Marseille-based girl who had been inspired to learn English "just to enter his world". An almost unique sense of anticipation surrounds Jeff Mills' work, manifesting itself as exhilaration or occasional disappointment in a DJing context, or an acceptance or rejection of his productions or their thematic basis. He is, without any doubt, a visionary and an inspiration – where he goes, others have tended to quickly follow. "These days I hear a lot of people talking about doing things in a new way. As long as we have that mindset, I think we're OK. As soon as we think we have done enough, that's when the problems start."

Mills currently has three active record labels. Axis was intended as a starting point, a precursor to four more adjoining labels that would compliment one another and provide the scope to answer problems as they arose and intrigued him. This remains the intention, although time constraints and unfortunate circumstances mean that while his Purpose Maker imprint is fully formed, the Tomorrow label is comparatively in its infancy.

Tomorrow though, has already become one of the clearest statements yet of his incessant desire to drive forwards. Unlike comparative arts such as books or films, a record is purchased almost entirely on the premise of instant gratification. Structuring a label around debated notions of the future, predominantly through spoken word rather than music, has raised concerns over the projects value and worth, and even aroused accusations of aloofness. "Encouraging dialogue about tomorrow was never easy. The research I did prior to it suggested that in general, people don't want to talk about tomorrow and would rather discuss yesterday. So then I thought let's flip it completely and put very little music on it. The point is that you should feel the same way from the spoken word as from the music. I also hope to provoke a different way for people to use vinyl; its primary application does not have to always be music." During the coming months, Tomorrow is set to expand with projects like The Eyes Of Edward Molten, an album based around a fictional character that Mills has created, and the much-discussed Memory, which explores randomisation and response. "We've tried to master it twice but the engineer fell ill – he wasn't able to do what we had planned to do, and we have had to put it on the back-burner until he gets better."

Back in 1989, Jeff Mills was one of the three members in proto-techno industrial act, Final Cut. When they split, after just one album, he moved on to work with two other Detroit figures that he had come to know and respect: Underground Resistance was formed, containing the triumvirate of Mills, Robert Hood and Mike Banks. A string of template-tearing, standard-establishing releases followed, but again the alliance would be speedily severed, ending after two years. Much speculation surrounds the separation, little of which Mills has cared to comment on, but motives aside it perhaps signified his ever-evolving need for independent thought and stimulus. He would continue to work with Hood on the fledgling Axis and for Berlin's Tresor, although he is able to pinpoint the last time he pursued a mutual goal or combined vision on a release. "X-103 was a totally jointly-shared project. That was the last time it happened." In more recent times Mills has attempted to establish projects before handing them on, and that remains the intention for the Purpose Maker series. "What I was afraid of was the shortage of time. I'm careful because I know I only have so much time once travelling is taken into account – I thought it'd be great to start things and have others continue them, just to free-up time and let me work on other labels."

The pursuit of new experiences and the intention to disperse his art has resulted in Mills constantly swapping his environment. A school of thought exists that artists feel bound by their circumstances, with future development dependent upon managing to escape them. James Joyce fled to Zurich, Oscar Wilde to Paris and Keats to Rome. Pick any true musical innovator of the last century and investigate yourself, and the reasons transcend mere affordability. Although it's a view he doesn't totally subscribe to, Mills acknowledges that these scenic shifts have been responsible for musical progression. "I lived in Detroit until I was 24 and then I lived in New York for two years. I lived in Berlin for about a year, and I live there now as well as having a base in Chicago. I can remember moving to Chicago and being exposed to the music of the Hispanic community. The percussion and those samba basslines crept into a lot of the Purpose Maker stuff. In New York the city had a hard, dark edge that I'm sure affected Waveform Transmissions One and the Mecca EP. I remember Berlin shaping my sound too, certainly differently to Chicago. In whichever country I am in though, there is always some part of some city that will remind me of home. We are not all that different."

Mills is without doubt an artist committed to innovation. Using pioneering cutting techniques, often to enhance his thematic concerns as on Rings Of Saturn, and refusing to feel constrained by the industry-standardised disciplines of singles, EP's and artist albums, he has unquestionably done more than any other producer in shaping techno's music and forms. He is also prolific, and seemingly able to sense the need for advancement. "I can almost feel change. As a DJ when I play tracks to people they don't work like they used to. The people are now beginning to feel the need for something else, and I believe we are standing just before an era of great discovery. What's going to happen eventually with techno is the need for the artist to put more of what he or she actually is into the music. We are at the end of an era of minimalism and a lot of people are beginning to realise that it has got to a point where it all sounds the same. The only way to forward it is to put more personality into it, to add things individually that no one else can. The last cause the techno community acted on, as one, was 'the majors vs the independents'. I always think that music is at its greatest when there is a reason to create."

Further strides have also been made with his Axis website. Designed with the aid of Detroit's Pilot Pictures, its most significant contribution has perhaps been to generate discussion and encourage debate within the techno community. As club and magazine chatrooms recount tawdry tales of weekend over-consumption and relay unrelenting, unfocused banter, Mills sets monthly questions like "why do people feel the need to take drugs at parties?", often replying to interesting responses himself. "I'm really happy that it's doing entirely what it was created for. People can see that others on totally different sides of the world compare to them, in the way that they think and feel. We tried to leave it as free and as open as possible. Sometimes we were so frustrated by responses that we thought it was a mistake, but generally we get incredibly intelligent discussion. It belongs to the people really, not to me."

There are numerous record buyers that appreciate Jeff Mills' music for its sounds alone. This is understandable given that we are encouraged through the majority of devoted media to treat dance music as frivolous and distracting rather than intellectually stimulating. To do so however, is to forgo an understanding of his broader intentions, the core theories of which are often far simpler than the commonly decorative language can imply. "Theory usually comes from what I think is wrong, or missing. When I find a subject that may be indirectly related to that – there's where I begin. Purpose Maker came from a problem I had, I couldn't find that music anywhere. Axis was the same – the music on offer elsewhere was too structured and I needed to react."

His most recent work, a soundtrack to accompany Fritz Lang's 1926 film Metropolis, has re-emphasised this willingness to probe and enlighten. "The film has a message that we should all be reminded of; that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. It's basically where we are today, a few people controlling us. Technology is the vehicle that they are doing it with. In some ways it's just a simple film that touches people. It exposes in an interesting way how workers are unconsciously affected by other people. In America you have the government vs the people and this movie can be seen as an example of that. Religion is another example. It touches on the way people live their lives – one person deciding the way forward for everyone. If that way goes against the people then they must rebel."

Musically the Metropolis soundtrack is evocative of Mills' previous entirely conceptual works, Atlantis and the aforementioned Rings Of Saturn. Acknowledging that the project was easier to complete without the challenge of conceiving it in its entirety, it represents the most successful attempt yet to use his music as an illustrative, enlightening force. Having first seen it as a child in Detroit, the reasoning behind the project goes further than his already pronounced curiosity with the future. "The film has a one-dimension feel, quite stiff and rigid – it almost seems shot by candlelight. It virtually parallels minimalism."

Despite the theorising, challenging and occasionally existential output, Jeff Mills sometimes finds himself hostage to the base-instincts of others. He has not DJed in the UK in well over a year, and unfortunately this is due to a circumstance he views as being tantamount to persecution. "The situation has nothing to do with music, it's a matter of human rights I suppose. Whenever I try to get into the UK, and this has happened eight or nine times, my human rights are violated. I am always detained for hours at a time, and while this is happening, I'm looking around and I'm surrounded by black people, people from North Africa. We are eventually let go with no reasoning or explanation. Rather than being degraded I would rather keep my dignity and not come to the UK. I've come with all the necessary paperwork and visas – I could be the pilot of the plane and it wouldn't matter. While I'm being detained I'm looking at the people that they're bringing in and they are all black – no Asian's, no white people, all black. It's not just me, it's other black DJs – they know the situation and I just thought 'this is crazy'. I don't want to go through the process of feeling like a criminal for no reason. It happens in other places, but to me the UK is worst of all."

As difficult as this is to dismiss, it is to be hoped that Jeff Mills has suffered a sequence of unrelated incidents, and not been party to the kind of institutional racism that is unfortunately prevalent elsewhere within British society. What can be said unquestionably, is that the socialist ethic and urge for empathy within Metropolis, is needed here now as much as ever, and by some more than most.
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