Jeff Mills, aka The Wizard, is a techno music DJ and producer from Detroit. During the 1980s, his nightly radio show as The Wizard helped strengthen and cement Detroit’s heritage in techno music. Mills has released over 100 different projects and has received worldwide recognition and praise. Metro timetables spoke to Mills over the phone about all things Detroit, techno and his latest album.
Metro timetable: Let’s start from the beginning. What brought you to techno music compared to other forms of music?
Jeff Mills: It got to a point where the messages in hip-hop didn’t tell me or show me anything more than I already knew. It was around 1988, 1989, and I loved the music. So I really wanted to keep getting involved and keep DJing. I entered the production with a certain type of concentration to go further. I found some of that in techno music, where machines were used differently, where new ideas from mixing other genres were used, and more rhythmic dance music. The mix of people came from all over, so you had all kinds of ideas – afrobeat sounds mixed with house music, you had the first drum & bass sounds that came from the UK, you had rave music at that time. So I just walked away from hip-hop and just had to explore.
Metro timetable: You were there at the basic level of techno music. What were your DJ musical influences? Who inspired you as you climbed the first steps of your career?
Jeff Mills: In Detroit, it was Ken Collier and Dale Willis who were big influences at the time. Stacey Hale, I remember being a teenager and going to listen to her when I was in high school. Outside of Detroit, New York DJs — Larry Levan, producer Shep Pettibone, David Morales, Tony Humphries, Frankie Knuckles. These are the DJs who were somehow related to Ken Collier and Dale Willis.
Metro timetable: Let’s go back to 1986. You were known as “The Wizard” and you were WJLB’s featured DJ during late nights. It was my first introduction to techno and house music. There are plenty of kids like me who hovered over their boomboxes and radios with blank tapes ready to record the wizard. What do you miss in this period?
Jeff Mills: It was serious business. I was competing because I was on the same time as the Electrifying Mojo, so there was that aspect of competing and trying to get grades. But behind the scenes, it was pretty serious. I really haven’t seen that much daylight because I was always looking for new music in a record store or traveling around a city like Chicago, Toronto or on the phone trying to find something from New York. I had a studio in my apartment at the time. I was spending 8 hours a day working on music and preparing music for that night…trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t took a lot of time too. So I would go around to all the record stores to see what people were asking for. It was a 24 hour thing. I was aware that the children were listening and I knew that every second and every moment could be worth something. It was also the station’s view to keep the wizard quiet and never reveal my identity.
Metro timetable: Techno music was so accessible back then. It was played in clubs, on the radio, and many DJs worked in record stores. Looks like there’s a disconnect now. What happened?
Jeff Mills: This industry has changed. We have lost a certain type of community. Like doing a show like The Wizard, you had to know the city. You had to know the east side, you had to know the west side, you had to really get around to find out what people might want to hear and that’s exactly what I did. So years before the Wizard show, I was a street DJ. It was during and after my internship with Dale. I was on the street doing house parties, wedding receptions, sorority parties. I was everywhere. So I had a lot of knowledge about the lisner. I remember on WDRQ something like there were half a million listeners at one point. So you have to imagine, “Who are these people? What kind of music will keep them on the radio longer? By the time I got on the radio, I knew how to mix it all up. I could play industrial Meat Beat Manifesto because it was part of the makeup of the city.
“I can tell you that Detroit, beyond its artists, beyond its DJs like me, has such a reputation. It’s such a legend of a town when it comes to music.
Metro timetable: You are an artist who has traveled a lot. There’s probably not a continent you haven’t been to. How has Detroit influenced you over the years and does it influence you now?
Jeff Mills: Yes, I definitely have a few miles. I can tell you that Detroit, beyond its artists, beyond its DJs like me, has such a reputation. It’s such a legend of a town when it comes to music. I think it’s really out of our control. I think the impression that Europeans and Asians, Latin Americans, what they think of Detroit is something much more than what we thought we could create or bring to other places. There’s no other town like it in the world of Motown, rock ‘n’ roll and all those artists. And it’s all done with that certain perspective that you don’t compromise when it comes to music. Our approach to music is serious. And it has been passed down from generation to generation. I don’t think we’ve reached the city’s full potential for influence. Just in regards to Detroit techno, it’s immeasurable how many people from Detroit have taught dance music to people in Europe… So I can’t answer the question because it’s very hard to rate, there has so many aspects and factors that are still developing as I’m talking to you now.
Metro timetable: Last year you published Warning light while we were in the midst of a pandemic, while this year mind power mind control comes out at the dawn of the return of a real summer. What was your mindset creating mind power mind control? Was it just a natural progression from getting out of this forced confinement to being able to come back outside?
Jeff Mills: Well, Warning light was definitely me sitting on my couch and making a response to what was going on with the world. mind power mind control deals with the subject that we will have to deal with in a few decades towards the end of the computer age and in the following era. About 100 years ago, the industrial age began at the turn of the century. It lasted about 50 years, until around 1950, when they started having fun with computers. The computer age started then and it will be the same. mind power mind control deals with this part of the century where something else is about to happen and I have no idea what it’s going to be. But I think we are in the prelude of what is to come…. mind power mind control is my first guess on what we should focus on to keep a rational mind as we move forward.
Metro timetable: When you create, what comes first: the sound, or do you create the message you want to convey first?
Jeff Mills: The idea comes first and then it’s much easier to make the music because at least I know what the music should sound like. If it’s something with a very abstract subject matter, I know I should be playing the keys a certain way, or blowing up types of chord structures…and then I do a lot of research. With Warning lightI researched for months and months and months about 100 years ago.
Metro timetable: Tell us about the film for mind power mind control.
Jeff Mills: In the film there are different scenarios and examples of how the mind is used. There is a lot of contemporary dance in the film. I use the dancers in different ways and the film shows how the mind makes these dancers do certain things through a special type of language that they use to say things that may not even be possible to say verbally.
Metro timetable: What would the Jeff Mills of 2022 say to the Jeff Mills of 1992? For example, has anything changed in your creative processes?
Jeff Mills: Well, my thinking is almost the same in 2022 as it was in 1982. I still treat music the same way. My studio setup isn’t too different from what it was in 1982. I still don’t make music as a Wizard, but my mindset hasn’t changed. I’ve always wanted to use music as an instrument.
Metro timetable: What can fans become experts on in the future? Is there another direction or shift you think you’re going musically?
Jeff Mills: I am constantly working on the needs of electronic music. One of them is to express what a solo is, what a musician should do in the case of electronic music – not just let the machine play the tracks, but what should the person other than d simply press the button. So I explore a lot of different things [ways] to put the human aspect back into electronic music.
Metro timetable: What can fans expect from your Movement set?
Jeff Mills: I think the set should be if the Wizard was on the radio right now in Detroit. What would I play now? With all things and all styles, if I had a radio show, what would I play? Sounds pretty interesting to try this… not necessarily what they want to hear, but what do they need?
mind power mind control screens at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday, May 29 at Cinema Detroit; 4126 Third Street, Detroit. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased online in advance at axisrecords.com.
Jeff Mills performs from 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Monday, May 30 at Movement Festival.
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