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A Potted History of Jeff Mills, the Wizard in Disguise

Detroit techno wouldn’t have started without new electronic technology, nor would it have embraced the concept of futurism quite so radically. At the same time as new machinery was forcing thousands of people in the city out of jobs in the early 80s, the sounds of the new analog instruments were also inspiring a young trio we now know as the Belleville Three.

But of all the Motor City’s key players, none have pioneered the concept as far as Jeff Mills. From his studying of the intricate details of Saturn or one-off UFO sightings as the founding basis for his records and art installations, to his elaborate live performances designed to represent live transmissions from space, it’s difficult to think of anyone in techno – or electronic music, for that matter – who’s pushed the boundaries of imagination quite so far. Even from his days performing as The Wizard or as part of socio-political group Underground Resistance, everything Mills has worked on has been about looking forward.

More recently he’s tested this idea by fusing the worlds of techno and classical in live orchestral performances, which aim to go some way to distorting the gap between club set and concert. Shows of this kind are commonplace for Mills these days – in the same week he comes to London for RA’s In Residence show with us, for instance, he’ll be collaborating onstage with Afrobeat pioneer and Moritz Von Oswald affiliate Tony Allen in Paris.

He hasn’t just adapted his persona like this for live sets, though – much of his work spans across several guises, often with other Detroit stalwarts like Mad Mike Banks. And while the majority of his most celebrated work he recorded as Jeff Mills, some of his best (and most overlooked) stuff came from collaborations and lesser-known aliases. We've picked out 5 of the best.

The Final Hour - X-101 [Tresor]

The Final Hour’s throbbing 303 line is just what you might typically expect from Tresor, while the hi-hats patter away like raindrops in the background as an ominous female’s voice whispers away incessantly.

It’s only when we get to the life-support machine bleeps (The Final Hour, anyone?) at around the 2-minute mark that things get truly weird. And just like that, they’re gone: a bass line is left to swirl round persistently, while those hi-hats and vocals with a few added squelches carry on doing the damage.

Let's Swing It - Servo Unique [Luxury]

It’s difficult to imagine Mills making a house record from watching him peering over 4 decks today, but that’s exactly what he went for under the one-time Servo Unique alias.

And for something that sounds so simple, Let’s Swing It is a cut of utterly compelling Detroit house; the 909 synths chime like a bell over dicey, razor-sharp hi-hats, bringing you to alert until you’re hit with an intermittent rolling bass line. It’s not hard to see why this rarity’s so sought after – expect to pay a pretty penny on Discogs for your own copy (unless you hit the jackpot on a digging mission, that is).

Gamma Player - Millsart [Axis]

Given Mills’ obsession with the galaxy, the spacey atmospherics on Gamma Player hardly come as a surprise, but that doesn’t make them any less entrancing: soft synths and brushed hi-hats build up on you as a number of intergalactic bleeps dissipate in and out of focus; then there’s even the most subtle of conga drums on every fourth beat just to hook you in that little bit further.

This is pretty much par for the course for the whole way, just until a few prolonged keys strike you in its dying moments. Listening to this feels like being enveloped inside a spacecraft in orbit: from the inside it feels like you’re drifting along, yet you’re actually going faster than you’d ever imagined.

And just to give some weight to the strength of this one: Zip and Villalobos were caning it only last year, which should tell you everything you need to know.

Mimas - X-102 [Axis]

Mills has long been dubbed the King of Roland’s TR-909, but The Rings of Saturn project’s Mimas if nothing else shows that with Mad Mike Banks he’s a dab hand on the 303 too. Wobbling, acidy lines melt into pronounced hi-hats and claps jumping off each other.

The touching synths, meanwhile, are textbook Detroit: if it was any more grandiose, it wouldn’t be out of place in one of Mills’ orchestral projects.

Ganesca Macula - X-102 [Axis]

Ganesa Macula might not be so well known (170 views on YouTube as I write this), which is maybe because it’s easy to overlook on the surface; a kick drum stays stagnant, while whirring, syncopated spacey dings could almost reach the point of becoming jarring to anyone else’s ears.

But the treat is in the dragging melody underneath, which appears then re-appears hidden beneath a few more clicks and bells. Like the sun slowly rising through your bedroom window, it slowly niggles away at you until you awake from your stupor.


Saturday 31st March

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