Then, sometime during "Baby, Baby," a confusing melody came in… is that Katy Perry!? And then a minute later—"Animals" by Martin Garrix? And who is that other, shorter figure in the booth, throwing her fist in the air? The crowd rolled with it—Hood has long since won their trust—but at the afterparties that night and the festival the next day, rumors abounded as to why Hood had played what sounded like pop and EDM near the end of his set.
When Hood met me in the lobby of the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, Lyric was with him. She sat in a leather armchair for the duration of our hour-long interview, his sidekick and confidant. Hood, meanwhile, sat with impeccable posture on the edge of his chair, making firm eye contact and moving his hands a lot while he spoke. His presence is impressive: animated and physically fit, he looks quite a bit younger than his 49 years. In conversation, he is frank, eloquent and unafraid of big topics—personal failures, bad memories, poverty, religion. You gather that he's both very strong and very loving—something that, with the right set of ears, you can hear in his music as well.
How long you have been living in Alabama?
Been there for ten years now. It'll be ten years next month.
What's it like going back to Detroit?
Man, Detroit is home, my people are here, I grew up in these streets, these streets raised me. So it's always just a great feeling to come to the home that built you, the city that built you. The family, the food—Coney Dogs, you know they're the best in the world.
Is it bittersweet to come back for Movement?
You know, home is, as they say, not to be so corny and sappy, but home is where the heart is. We've made a great home for ourselves in Alabama. And we love coming home whenever we travel abroad; we love coming home to our house. There are some things that remind us of why we left, but at the same time, we're always questioning ourselves and saying, "What if we moved back here, what if we just hung out here in the summer?" So yeah, I guess it is bittersweet. We love Detroit, we hate some of the problems and issues about Detroit, but we miss Detroit.
What made you move?
I wanted space. I went down to Alabama for a visit, I had never been there before and I looked up at the sky and I just saw how vivid the sky was, just a bright vivid blue and the clouds, and I just fell in love with the space. Just the laid-back attitude, I suppose I got tired of the hustle and bustle and the daily grind of Detroit. And psychologically, I guess, spiritually, I prayed about it before, my wife and I prayed about it before we made the move, and we said, "Yeah, it's the right move." Her grandfather built up a piece of land down there. It was just sitting idle. So we said why not go down and build a house on it. I've always wanted to build a house. So the opportunity presented itself and it just feels right.
I guess you probably find pretty good peace of mind there.
That's it, that's exactly it. You can gather your thoughts and just sit out in the open field. I cut grass with the tractor mower, that's my thinking time, the time I strategize and think about things, just ponder and muse about life and what it is I'm doing. And so it sort of rebuilt me, where I could take a look at Detroit from the outside in, instead of the inside out. And so I could take stock of Detroit, the city that raised me, and say, "What am I doing with this Detroit techno legacy, with my music?"
Do you ever feel strange about how much Detroit is part of your identity? People will always say "Detroit techno pioneer," your name and Detroit are always in the same sentence.
Yeah, synonymous. I mean, it's normal. For me, it's just absolutely normal. Wherever I go lately I've been wearing this Detroit Tigers hat, and so when I travel somewhere, whether it's Mobile, Alabama, Atlanta, whatever, they will say, "Yo, Detroit! How the Tigers doing? How's the car industry doing these days?" And so they identify you with that "D," identify you with that music. "How's Motown? The Motor City?" I go to church with folks and they constantly say, "What about the Fab Five? What about Chris Webber?"
There's a guy who is the youth pastor at our church, he knows all about the Fab Five, he knows all about Motown, he says, "When are you gonna take me to the Motown museum?" So you can't escape that identity, the cars, the streets, West Grand Boulevard, Latin Quarter, the whole identity of Detroit. It's just something about this city. Everybody is from somewhere. You could be from LA but I don't think you get the same kind of tag put on you—that Detroit identity is a big part of who you are.
Speaking of Motown—you came from a very musical family. What were your parents into? What was the atmosphere of the house like?
I mean, music in the house 24/7. My father was a jazz musician, he stayed on the road a lot, so I'd see him coming and going. He'd wake me up in the middle of the night coming back from a long trip, bring me a present and kiss me on the forehead. Constantly music in the house, my mother sang in a small R&B group and I think she recorded a couple of 45s. Now my babysitter, she was the music aficionado. She was about music. '50s doo-wop is what she was into, and soul music of course—Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder. But I remember constantly hearing '50s doo-wop, she loved '50s doo-wop, and so that kind of raised me.
And I was always digging in my mother's record collection, any chance I got I would be sitting around listening to albums from start to finish, but at the same time studying who played what instrument and who produced it, not knowing that subconsciously I had this urge to do that. So I'm studying who played strings on this Temptations record, and who played organ on this Isaac Hayes album, who produced it and who arranged what. But like I said, even at my grandparents house the radio is always on, in the kitchen music is playing. My grandfather would play classical musical in the car and I would love to be his co-pilot. I worked in my uncle's record shop, so I was constantly immersed in music.
Techno is a phase in the musical heritage of Detroit, following Motown and everything else. But people like your parents, when they hear techno, do they see it that way?
They don't get it. They do not get it. My grandmother, she says, "It's nice what you're doing but I don't understand it." She's brutally honest. My uncle came from the same school of Patti LaBelle, he's Motown to the heart, he ran the Motown museum, he was the general manager, but he's all about Luther Vandross, Patti LaBelle, the old soul artists. He recognizes techno, but I'm not sure if he gets it as a cultural movement, as an art form.
But my grandfather, my mother, my father, I don't know if they realize they afforded us the luxury of pursuing this music. If I had been born in Alabama, I probably wouldn't have anything to do with techno, even though the artistic side of me was yearning for something creative. I'm sure most our parents wanted us to be professionals, doctors, lawyers, judges, dentists and what not, to go to college, but unwittingly they afforded us a chance to dream. But do they understand that and fully get that? I'm not sure. I'm really not sure.
Absolutely. All of the influences I've heard from '50s doo-wop, from Isaac Hayes, from the Temptations, The Jazz Crusaders and Joe Sample and Al Jarreau and everything on WJZZ—pretty much all things Detroit went into me and I just soaked all of it up like a sponge. So definitely you can hear echoes of what I got from Earl Klugh, from Stevie Wonder, from Earth Wind & Fire, The Ink Spots. All of that goes into it, every sound I've ever heard.
A lot of other sounds went into it, too, just little soundbites that I would hear that would spark my attention. Sounds in early Asteroid games and Pacman games, Space Invaders, industrial sounds that I would hear in the city, the rhythm of the city itself, a bus exhaust—everything went into that. That's just the thing: I might be doing something else but I'm always listening, I'm hearing things in this room right now and thinking how that would sound in some kind of cinematic piece I'm working on. So I'm always analyzing sounds and voices and harmonies and melodies, just the creative brain constantly working.
Why do you think that is? Why would you and your generation of artists start hearing non-musical sounds—the bus exhaust, the stuff from Space Invaders—as potentially musical?
That's a good question because I have no idea. I remember being a freshman in high school, I had drum class with Anthony Shakir and we talked about music constantly, we talked about sounds, we talked about music we just heard last night on The Electrifying Mojo show, and little did I know there was a whole community of us thinking the same way.
The only common thread I can really say which brought us all together is Electrifying Mojo, because of what he exposed us to. It was just like going to class, it was like a nightly ritual where this man preached to us, he taught us nightly. The music we heard… man, anything went, it was just no boundaries. I had never heard of anything like that in radio: electronic music, rock music, funk music, soul music, all of it just mashed up together.
He had those sound effects too, right? He had the spaceship landing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, there was a big intro, like a 20-minute or half-hour introduction and you knew there was something epic going on every night so you had to tune in, and if you missed it, you just missed out on the greatest thing ever. And we recorded it. And right, the spaceship landing—it was just like he was Obi Wan Kenobi slash Darth Vader, you know a James Earl Jones figure, this mysterious man introducing us to our future, taking us on a trip through time, our present and into the future. And it was just mind-blowing when I think about what he did, and that was to me the common thread that held us together.
It's amazing—Mojo wasn't a techno artist, but he may have had more influence on techno than anyone who ever lived.
Yes. And I don't even know what he looks like. He brought us the future nightly and I have no idea what he looks like. It was just spiritual, it was magical, it was amazing. And yeah, we all have the same things to say about him, nothing but great things to say. He taught us.
Do you think maybe he was where the idea came from that music could be a kind of portal into the future?
Exactly, by using your imagination. And he was also a prophet, and he was saying, "No matter how hard times get, just remember there ain't nobody bad like you, if you feel like you're nearing the end of your rope, don't slide off, tie a knot." That's what he was saying nightly: "Don't give up." So he inspired hope in us, I guess he preached to us. And it was unreal, man, he inspired hope, it was a transport out of here, out of this reality and into another reality. And he was also saying, "Things are really going to get bad, you haven't seen anything yet, things are really going to get bad, remember this." And he laid those seeds in us to remember that you and this vision that you have will transport you out of this and into something else. Into another reality. But first it has to start in your mind, it has to develop in your mind.
That's really interesting as a message of hope, to say that things are going to get worse. I guess the idea is that you'll make it.
Yeah. If you persevere and keep the faith and remember these words that he was speaking to us. I guess he was saying that if you hold true, if you hold yourself to these words, you will make it, you will persevere, you will make it through. And I'm the living testimony of that. Times did get rough trying to make it in this business. It is of course a very competitive business. I didn't realize how competitive it was but I had to remember, I had to focus on the fact that I can do anything I set my mind and heart to. And that I am powerful, and I can affect changes in this world, and that's what I'm going to do. But again, it starts in the mind and it has to work its way down into your spirit where you can look at yourself in mirror and say, "No matter what the circumstance is, no matter what the situation is, through this music I will slay the giant that is before me." It may be a mountain but I can move mountains. I can build and destroy planets and it's all within me.
If you think about the way old-school Detroit techno sounds, it's spacey, it's a bit sinister, it's tough. Is there hope built into that?
Absolutely. If you picture yourself as a young Luke Skywalker, with no Jedi training, and you meet this guy Mojo, or Obi Wan Kenobi, and he's training you to use the force—at first you're clumsy with it, you don't know what you're doing, but once you learn to harness the power of the force, when an adversary is coming against you, the enemy, he don't even know who he's messing with. So I guess the sinister strings and the power in those Detroit techno strings, that's the force. That's the spirit, that's the power. And when you learn how to hold the samurai sword or that lightsaber, man, you messing with some serious power. And so it's the drums, it's the drum programming, it's the hi-hats, it's the way we make them sing and not just play, but to make them sing a melody—that's the force, that's using the power of the force.
I guess with any kind of music, it sounds a certain way, and you can wonder why that sound captures people's hearts so much, captures their imaginations so much. I think when your parents or your aunt hear techno, it's impossible for them to imagine why that music would make someone feel so strongly.
Yeah, it's hard to if you don't. I've always said, if you've never been to somewhere like the Music Institute at 1515 Broadway, if you haven't experienced the power of that—the feet hitting the floor, it's like a heartbeat. I remember times being at the Music Institute and the music was stopped and the people would start to make the music with their feet to keep the heartbeat going, we didn't want it to stop. And that's the power of not only the DJ, but the dancer, coming together as one, and it was powerful. We became the instrument. And so it wasn't just all about amplified sound, we became musical acoustic instruments, making that sound with our feet. And unless you had been there, unless my uncle or aunt had been there to experience it, you won't get it, you most likely won't get it.
When you're making a track, are you channeling things from your personal life into it?
Oh yeah, sights and sounds. Those five senses, certain things we hear and taste and touch and see, all of that, those experiences, stayed in my spirit. Movies I saw, like Omega Man, stayed and remained in my spirit for years and years remaining dormant. Gang shootings I've seen, people that I know that have died violently, my father passing, people losing their jobs, the advent of crack cocaine in my neighborhood, Reaganomics, where people were once living the American Dream after coming from the South and working in the automotive industry and then being laid off. I would see things like a grown man being beat up by teenage drug dealers, all of those things stayed in my spirit. It's music for me that has given me a chance to create a soundtrack for those life experiences and to tell people how I felt growing up in Detroit, amid racism, amid watching young pregnant teenage girls trying to survive, or even just catching a bus in Detroit, that's an experience in itself. All of those things went into the pot.
Maybe it was a way to try to make sense of those experiences.
I guess so. Subconsciously all of these elements being down in the recesses of my soul, and yeah, I guess sort of trying to put all the piece together and say, "What does all this mean?" But now I see what it means and basically this is the storms of life.
I liken it to the children of Israel coming out of bondage, out of Egypt. Black people came out of bondage from slavery, from being sharecroppers. They came to Detroit, what we call the promised land, only to fool ourselves with this illusion, with this so-called American Dream, and not realizing the power and the wealth that we have within ourselves, that emanates from God, and losing sight of it, even the black church losing sight of it. When we came from the South we had the bible, we had the word of god, but somewhere along the road we lost it in search of this dream. So I think that's why—you know, I'm jumping ahead of myself, but I think that's why Detroit is in the state that it's in now. We've lost our vision, and where there is no dream or vision, the people perish, the people cast off their strength. Now we are just in survival mode.
Like I said, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here, but now we are in survival mode instead of living life. All of this—I said all of that to say this—is the prophetic message that God has been giving us all along, that the cares of this world, that the things we are trying to achieve and chase after, we are chasing after the wrong things. He said, "Put me first and all of these things will come in time. But exalt me and put me first." And we've lost sight of that. And that's all of these things that we are going through and experiencing right now. It's like, "Look at what you had and what you have now." With greed and excess, this is where we are.
When the auto industry was good, Detroit was among the most prosperous black communities in The States. Is there a feeling that the American Dream was kind of dangled there and snatched away?
And you're saying, maybe it was a mistake to focus too much on the American Dream anyway. The idea of material gain instead of spiritual gain was a mistake in the first place.
Exactly. There is a song they would sing in church when we were living here in Detroit. The song says, "I would rather have Jesus than silver and gold." The bible says in Matthew… I think it's 4:33, "Seek he first the kingdom of heaven and all thee in his righteousness and all of these things will be added up to you." We want to skip the process and go straight to the good stuff. We want the stuff. We want the Cadillac, the nice house, we want the jewelry, the fur coats, but then you get sidetracked with all the bars and the excess living, the strip clubs. OK, God didn't say that. So we get sidetracked.
So the family falls apart. OK, the marriage falls apart and the family falls apart, kids get hooked on drugs and we wonder what happened. We went out of order and there is an order to this. I don't mean to sound preachy or anything like that but there is an order. God has a plan, he wants us to be prosperous, he wants us to have 40 acres and the mule and the house and the land, everything our hearts desire, but desire him first. But spiritually we have to grow, and go through the process. So like I said, I liken that to the children of Israel, they lost their way in the wilderness, in trying to get to the promised land and going into it with the wrong idea.
Is it a goal for you to bring faith into your music?
It wasn't a goal before. Well, it was sort of a hidden goal and I didn't really know, I didn't really realize it, but now I've come to the realization that that's what I was put here to do, to deliver this message, the gospel to the people. To feed the people. It's my goal and my life's ambition and my vision to give, to bring water and bring food to all who want to listen. Everybody who wants to come to the table and eat, the table is set, and so I want to tell people about love, about power, about having a spiritual state of mind and that you can make it, you will make it.
It's basically delivering the same message that Electrifying Mojo delivered. But without coming across as preachy. Techno artists, I feel like even we are lost, just like the city of Detroit—we've taken on that same burden, we've taken on that same confusion and we are even confused and lost in this industry that we've helped to create. And my thing is to get us back on course, but first we have to get in tune with God spiritually, in tune with ourselves and what we can do, and there is nothing we can't do. So I just want to restore that message back to Detroit.
There was a day when I remember Detroit techno artists being so powerful, and feeling so on top of the world that nothing could stop them, and I admire that about Detroit techno artists. You know, I looked at them and said, "Wow, they are powerful, they're like superheroes," and I wanted to be like that. And I've seen that hope just drain from the creators of this music. So I just want to help inspire, put that inspiration back in people.
For you, is it specifically a Christian thing or do you just want people to have a more spiritual existence?
It's a Christian thing, it's a spiritual thing, it's both of them. We realize what kind of power we have, and you realize there is nothing that can stop you but you. You have to get out of your own way first, let God rebuild you, sort of like The Six Million Dollar Man, into an unstoppable juggernaut. There is a song that Heaven 17 did back in the '80s, "We're Going To Live For A Very Long Time." I didn't realize until maybe 15 years ago that it was a spiritual song. I said, "Wow, they are talking about the power, they are talking about spiritually living on forever." So you know, understand that this body that we live in is just a house, it's just a physical frame, this is going to pass away but spiritually we are going to live on forever and ever, either here or there. And that's what they were talking about.
Sounds like your Floorplan track, "Never Grow Old."
That's it! That's exactly it, we'll never grow old. Spiritually I'm a young man—I'm almost 49, 50 years old, like I said this body is going to pass away in time, but my spirit will never grow old. That's exactly it. And when I heard Aretha Franklin sing that I thought about Heaven 17, I thought about when I was woken up in the middle of the night and God said, "I want you to put gospel music and this message of hope, this message of exalting God, into your music." He woke me up in the middle of the night, my eyes just jumped open and he said, "I want you to do this." And I'm questioning this; I'm questioning the prophecy. I said, "What if they don't receive it?" He said, "Don't worry about that, let me take care of that, don't worry about that, they need this, they need this message."
So a track like "Never Grow Old," that has a deliberate spiritual message?
Definitely, it's very, very deliberate—it's laser-point deliberate. You will live, you are a powerful, creative, unstoppable man of God. You were designed to do great things. But a lot of people go to the grave not knowing that, not realizing their dreams and their visions, having them manifested and come to pass. And so it's this message: not only can you survive, but you can thrive in this world, you can live an abundant life, that's God's plan, that's his will for us. And so no more do we need to get depressed or worried or live in fear—fear of what? So there is nothing I can't do in techno. You are looking at a water-walker, you are looking at a dude who can defy gravity. So again, like Mojo said, "There ain't nobody bad like you"—hey, that's me! He's talking about me! And he's talking about you. So it's a beautiful thing. It's a beautiful thing.
When did you have this experience?
There have been several occurrences that have happened in my life. When my marriage was starting to fall apart, my career was in limbo, it just wasn't doing as well as I had hoped it would be doing. There was a spiritual encounter I had in about, let's say, 2007. I was in church and the praise and worship service was going on, and my wife laid her hand on my back and told me to open my mouth, and so I was reluctant at first but as I began to open my mouth I began to shout. And you are talking about a guy who was painfully shy, you know I would rather sit in the back of the church and I didn't want the preacher to call on me, and I wasn't the type to raise my hand or make any kind of gesture of crazy worship. In school I would rather take the F than stand up in front of the class and read a book report. I hated to speak in front of people.
And so she said, "Open your mouth," and I'm shouting and tears ran down my face and I could feel God's presence all over me, and I haven't looked back since. As I began to constantly read God's word and begin to seek after his will for my life and to walk in righteousness, it began to build, and my faith began to build and I began to feel more and more powerful. Again, it's like Luke Skywalker learning to use the force—it's a gradual process, and it's still a gradual process.
So you are at 20 years of M-Plant, you're at this milestone, you're putting together a compilation, you're in a period of revisiting everything that you've done. Do you feel like you could just continue on this path for a long time? Do you feel like you've got something going that can just go on and on?
Yeah, forever and ever. I mean, there are times I've tried to create timeless music and I believe I've done that. We are just getting started. We are just beginning. Because before it's kind of learning how to crawl, now I've learned how to walk a little bit, you know, so now I'm concentrating on learning how to run and not just stop there, learning how to fly. It's still a process, the best is yet to come. Again, I feel like I'm just getting started, I'm just beginning to grow wings. I'm looking forward to another 20 years. Why not? There are still things I want to build, there are planets I want to build, there are stories I want to tell. We've laid the groundwork for M-Plant, so we are still going to plant seeds, we are going to plant seeds and they are going to grow and they are going to bear fruit.
Robert Hood plays Dekmantel Festival in Amsterdam, which runs from 1st to 3rd August.