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Signal Path Podcast: Jeff Mills

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Signal Path Podcast: Jeff Mills

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Listen to the latest SIGNAL PATH podcast with JEFF MILLS, the Detroit techno titan who has shaped electronic music like few others.

Hear the stories behind the sounds. Join Zakia Sewell as she meets world-renowned sonic innovators to explore those defining moments that influenced how they think about sound.

Episode 058: Jeff Mills

For the latest episode of Signal Path, Zakia speaks with DJ, producer and artist Jeff Mills about his early days in the Detroit Underground Resistance, his residency at the world famous Tresor club in Berlin, as well as his most recent electro-jazz project The Paradox ‘Live at Montreux Jazz Festival’ and the introspective Mind Power Mind Controlconcept album.

Zakia Sewell: I wanted to ask you about when you first started making music in Detroit and what the sort of atmosphere was around at that time and how did that affect your approach to sound?

Jeff Mills: Right, well, the city, as you might know, has a very long and deep history with music in general. We're talking about a period of time that is not really ‘post-Motown’, but so many other remnants of that great era. I went to grade school with the daughter of Eddie Kendricks. She sat in front of me, she had this big afro, which I couldn't see around. Her name was Deidra. You are living amongst all these stories and all these legendary people from the same neighborhoods in the city. So music was always something very special, it was always something that was very close to the people. It wasn't just for entertainment, but it was really something that runs through the bloodline of the average Detroiter. Everybody has a story, everyone has a connection. The cousin of Diana Ross, or someone who worked in the studio. If I had to kind of sum up in just a few words, what was it like? It was very rich with information.

Wow. So you’re taking all of this in and you're not necessarily doing anything with it yet, but it's like you're kind of accumulating the stores that then get expressed when you start making your own music?

Yeah, I mean, that was the time when you were closer to your neighbors. So on my street, we played with the other families that had kids of my age and my older sister played with the other kids of her age. And so you kind of have extended siblings in a way. So music was the thing that kind of bonded us all together. So when the Jackson Five came out, we all wanted to be part of the Jackson Five. It's truly a music city, that's for sure.

Well, I love that picture you're painting, a sort of collaboration and community and connection, which brings me to my next question about your time with Underground Resistance. We couldn't really talk about your career without mentioning this particular collaboration. So could you tell me about how it came about and what it meant to you and what impact it had on your musical journey?

Yeah, I was working for a radio station and a friend, one of the hosts of the radio station knew Mike (Banks, co-founder of Underground Resistance), and maybe Mike's sister. She asked me if I could by recording studio to help some friends of hers make a house track. This was the time where house music was still very new. It was primarily just in Chicago and in New York, but for the rest of the country it was still relatively new. So because I worked for a radio station, I got a lot of music early, so I was pretty familiar with the sound of house music. So she asked me if I could go by the studio after my radio show to meet them and to see if I can help them make a house music mix. So I did that and that was really the first time that I met Mike and his band. From that point on, we just became very good friends. 

So we decided to sit down to get together to kind of see if we can come up with some way to work together as a unit. He said that he had this name, Underground Resistance, that he didn't do anything with. He had just copyrighted the name and maybe we can use that. So I said, okay. Great. Then we started the conversations of how we should do it, and we had both had some experience in music industry, dealing with major labels and independent labels, and we took those experiences and decided to kind of do it differently, to communicate and to have more control and to kind of basically chart our destiny from that point on. And so we kind of rewrote the rules of how we're going to work in music. And it was a very interesting time because this was before the internet but communicating was becoming easier because of the fax machine and you could go to an appliance store and buy a fax machine. This was revolutionary at the time. We were amazed that we could send a letter within seconds to someone on the other side of the world. This was a big thing back then. We got into the art of sending faxes like propaganda. We were really creating, not just announcements because of our new releases, but we were really implementing our position in terms of what we think music should be free and open for everyone.

And I think that resonated with a lot of people in Europe. At the same time, we were making a lot of music and had not been to Europe yet, we had no idea. We were just asking people like Derek May and Kevin Sanders and Juan what it was like, and printing lots of T shirts at the time.

Listen to the full interview with Jeff Mills and subscribe to Signal Path with the podcast provider of your choice below.

Host: Zakia Sewell, Producer: Alannah Chance, Creative Producer: Joshua Thomas, Creative Lead: Ty Stanton-Jones, Music: Yip Wong, Agency: Commune

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