"I say it to this day, if you ain't listened to the The Wizard
You ain't have a fucking clue what you was missing."
That's Eminem on the 2013 song "Groundhog Day," talking about Jeff Mills, a fellow Detroit musician once known as The Wizard. Pretty big talk coming from guy who famously claimed "nobody listens to techno," but not exactly surprising. It's hard to imagine any music fan catching The Wizard on Detroit radio in the '80s and not liking what they heard. Mills, then in his 20s, had already mastered the art of DJing. His sets on WJLB and at parties around Detroit brought a virtuosic mixing technique to the range of dance records available at the time—pop, hip-hop, new wave, post-disco, industrial, electro, whatever. Save the odd bit of early acid house, few of these records were made with DJs in mind, so blending them took an extraordinary level of creativity and technique.
With the '90s and the rise of techno, Mills' style changed. The Wizard's jump-up party vibes gave way to minimalist, tunneling, cosmic techno, a sound Mills honed alongside Robert Hood and other members of Underground Resistance, and also through his own productions and his label, Axis Records. His approach to DJing, though, more or less stayed the same. His records may have been specifically optimized for DJs and clubs—a luxury unimaginable in his days of blending rock and pop records. But he attacked them with the same alacrity as he always had, blasting through them like a man possessed, layering two or three at a time, cutting, beat juggling and augmenting their drums with his Roland TR-909. In performance, he has always been less DJ than one-man band—his face focussed, his hands like two hummingbirds flitting over the mixer in a constant flurry of activity.
Mills is among the most original and influential DJs of all time, in any genre. But more than that, he is a tireless champion for DJing as an art form. In his mixing style, he intentionally raises the bar for what can be expected of a DJ. In his films from the over the years--The Purpose Maker, The Exhibitionist—he offered a visual document of his technique in hopes that it would inspire young DJs (Objekt, in an early edition of this feature series, named The Purpose Maker as a key influence).
At 55, more than 30 years since he first started mixing, Mills is reflecting on his legacy as a DJ and a techno artist—not least with The Director's Cut, his series of Axis reissues, whose second installment comes out this month. On a cold and sunny afternoon in February, I met him in the private room of a café near his home in Paris, where we spoke about the past, present and future of the art of DJing.
What's your preferred DJ setup at this point?
Well first, are you a DJ?
OK good. Because I'll explain some things that only a DJ would be able to understand.
My setup is very basic compared to other DJ setups. I typically run four Pioneer CDJ 2000s. And a very basic mixer, Vestax PMC-500, which is an old, discontinued mixer. I come from the hip-hop era, so a mixer that's very simple appeals to me more than one with gadgets and delays. I don't use sync or MIDI or anything like that. Four CD players into one hub, and that's it. The booth setup is three return monitors at a certain position. And that's basically it. Nothing special about it.
Since the time of our first release, we had the greatest pleasure of meeting new people around the world.
Persons who have the same passion with us, to present the music that moves massive amounts of crowd into a special dancing experience.
We are feeling the honor to have him with us, thats the reason we made a small interview, to get to know more about someone who is driving the electronic music scene one step further with his actions. His EP "Tokio" is now on digital stores, including 2 tracks "floor fillers" and you can get it on Beatport.
- Whats your background?
MS: My professional background was evovled in a nightclub of my city Lincoln in Argentina (mid-80's). For almost two decades I worked as a DJ in my country, in different radio shows and also as owner and manager of different nightclubs. After 2000, we created a radio called ADN ALternative with a friend of mine and we managed to host many electronic music events. In 2008, I left my country and traveled aimlessly as a DJ, learning everything I could about music production in my free time. In the last 10 years I had multiple events in countries such as France, Chile, Greece, Argentina, Czech Republic and others. In 2017 I returned to Argentina for personal reasons and eventually, I created a project called Harbor Living Room. 2018 is focused on music production, but also in hosting events in my country and beyond.
- How long did it take you to understand electronic music and what are the reasons behind remaining faithful to that genre?
MS: I think I could say that electronic music drew my attention the day that the owner of a nightclub gave me the vinyl of Blue Monday’s remix by New Order. That was in 1984. Listening to that record left a mark in me that lasts until today. The reason why I love electronic music is that feeling of happy solitude that allows me to close my eyes and dance or just listen. Of course there are also sub-genres of electronic music that I do not enjoy.