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 a 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 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.
What is it about the Vestax that suits you more than, say, an Allen&Heath?
Certain DJs use certain techniques to mix. So it's not always pod up pod down. Some DJs use the EQ to filter out the frequencies and thus the audio. Some DJs use the crossfader because it's a very literal way of going between tracks. Some kind of feed and tease the line levels. Some DJs work in a way of, I suppose, amplitude, where they mix by building sounds together, but not so much attention to subtracting and deleting.
I typically work in a way where, I don't put so much emphasis on adding things together. I'm thinking more about how I'm going to get this track out, rather than how I'm going to mix the next track in. My style is mainly of subtracting, not adding. Subtracting sound away. That's just the way I learned. So, a mixer that will allow me to hide frequencies the best—that's the reason why I use the Vestax. The three-band EQ is really like a filter. Literally, you can pod them down to zero, to absolute silence. So with that mixer, I can take all the highs out. It's similar to a Bozak. I can take all the midrange out, or all the bass out, completely. I can take it down to zero.
Something like that, it puts you in something more like a recording studio, where you can then begin to very strategically and tactfully pick your sounds to create something completely different. If I've got four CD players, I can take the highs from this one, the mids from this one, the lows from this one, and maybe something else from the fourth one, and blend these things together to create a composition that doesn't even exist. With that mixer, it's possible to do that very cleanly.
Also, there's a function where you can split the line levels between A and B. So that by shifting which direction the line levels are in, you can kind of feather the fade out, so it's very smooth. You also have this grade for the type of mix, so you can choose very sharp ones or very gradual ones. But using this A/B, you can feather it in a way, you can feather the sounds and frequencies away very, very smoothly.
When you say "feather"—
I'm feathering it. I'm listening to the rhythm of the music, and I'm picking small areas in between the notes where I'm actually making the transition. So if it's a 4/4 beat, I'm in between the one and the two, the two and the three, and the three and the four. So, the listener doesn't really feel that anything is decreasing, because I'm making my movements in between the beats. That's why it looks like I'm doing something and sometimes I'm not, because I'm trying to find a way to get in between the beats to make the transition. So I'm touching it, trying to find a way to do it.
I saw a YouTube comment where someone said, "He's doing all this stuff with his hands but I can't hear anything changing." And someone else said, "That shows he's doing it right."
What a DJ does with their hands isn't something you can expect to hear every time. It's like sports, you know? Like you're a tennis player, and your timing is really everything. You're trying to time it at the right moment because there are musicians playing in the music, there's things happening, and you have to find the right moment and the right split second to make that slight adjustment, so it feels like the track is very slowly melting away. If you take your attention away from it, the track would have seemed like it disappeared. That's the trick.
This is how we learned in Detroit. Some DJs learned via other DJs, like Ken Collier. He was really the master at that. But he did it in a way that was even more unusual. Because you could hear the mix, but before you know it, the track was gone. It's like watching a magician. You see the big elephant, you see the curtain go down, the curtain goes up and the elephant's gone. That was the way he used to mix. You'd listen to it, and follow it, but it would disappear, and you could not track its movement.
So this is the way some of us learned. To needle away the track. To get a response from the audience sometimes, to throw something in in a split second, [snaps] that's one trick you can use. But it takes me two, three, maybe four minutes, to make the subtraction.
So, bringing something in, you might just cut it in and get a nice reaction, but the taking out is the delicate part.
Yeah, it's a long and delicate process. And that's where, actually, if I'm doing a DJ set, most of the time is spent.
I guess especially if you have more than two tracks going. Even with two tracks it can be a matter of subtracting elements to make it sound right.
Two tracks is actually more difficult. Three tracks is easier, because I can hide some of it with the third track.
This is not something that you learn overnight. Anyone can be a DJ. But when you get down to it, it's more like a science. You're really a sound scientist, because you have to know which frequencies match up, and which frequencies hide other frequencies, for instance. You have to know how to anticipate when the track will naturally break down. You have to know when you don't need to do anything, because the track will work itself out. And then you have to keep in mind the audience and how long they've been listening to this transition.
These are the more detailed things you learn after many years of being a DJ. To mix two records together is not so hard. You match the beat up, make the transition. But to make people feel like the track has dissolved and disappeared, right in front of their ears, is something else, and that requires a lot of practice.
A particular image that sticks with me is in The Purpose Maker when there's this flurry of activity over the mixer, you're making many small adjustments very quickly. To me, it seems like you hear something that I wouldn't hear if I had those headphones on. You can sense these minor adjustments that need to be made. Maybe it's hard to explain, but in that moment, what are you hearing? What tells you, "That needs to go down, that needs to go up," and so on?
As a DJ, you're getting much more than what the audience is hearing. The DJ is hearing the pre-cue audio, and all the things that are happening, the merging of the track together before you pod up. So you're hearing a lot of different things happening at the same time and trying to make sense of it, trying to organize these things in a way that would make for an appealing and smooth transition.
A lot of the flurry of activity is setting up the track that you're listening to, to be conducive to what I'm about to bring in. How I can situate that track will determine how I bring this next track in. If I take all the bass out, for instance, or if I take all the highs out, all the treble out. That will tell me that the track I'm about to bring it, I can bring that in with the treble, because that fills the gap. Or I can just make it all bassy, so the two basslines merge together to the point that you don't know which one is which. The flurry, as you say, is preparing what I need to do in order to make this transition in the most interesting way.
On The Exhibitionist, I didn't have an audience in front of me, so I didn't have to worry about that so much. It was more about showing the many ways you can make the transition between these three turntables. The whole project was a demonstration of what a DJ does. My intention was to show the various ways that sound can be masked over with certain techniques. Sometimes I use the crossfader, sometimes I use the EQ to needle out certain frequencies, sometimes cuts, sometimes blending two things together, sometimes layering things—you know, a variety of things.
With all that, if you do it long enough and you practice with it long enough, you can begin to connect it to how you feel, which is a whole other subject. Putting your personal character into the way you do things is something else.
When we talked about your DJ setup, you didn't mention the 909...
Well, when you bring instruments, that's a whole other article, because of course things can be linked to that drum machine. Various turntables, drum machine, synths, some with a keyboard that you can play or some with a sequencer to programme strange scales and patterns that are completely un-synced. From doing that, I learned how to do that in the studio, so sometimes I'll make tracks in the studio un-synced, MIDI-wise. So you have various elements working in parallel together to create multidimensional impressions. I do that a lot in soundtracks for films, when you have multiple characters in the same frame, or the same segment. To make sound that represents each person at the same time.
I don't want to get too much into production, but the thing you just said about how there will be one sound for one character, is there the same kind of theatrical idea behind your DJ sets? Is there a sound that in your head means something, represents something?
Of course. The pad string sound represents distance. The fluidity of the story I'm trying to tell, it's not meant to be anything you're really meant to notice, but it's there. Similar to the way clouds cascade across the sky. If I'm trying to speak about something like a jungle, the Amazon jungle, well, it's perfect but then it's not. There are no symmetrical lines in a jungle, you expect things to be crossing over, you expect different layers of things. And sound can also be positioned in that way, to create the feeling that you just don't know what's gonna happen when you open the brush. I use sound in that way. Or very clean and minimal, almost to the point that nothing is there. But you feel that perhaps something was there, and this is the residue of what it was. Then there are things that are very literal and very poignant. Sounds that are... confident. You don't have to like it, but it's there. And it's not asking for your opinion.
I can go on for a long time on that, on the different sound application for different things. But I'm talking about things that you don't learn overnight.
You were speaking before about these different eras, one in which people had to be really resourceful with their records, because you didn't have this steady stream of club tools. Next era, the opposite is true. It became rare to play something other than quantized club tracks. For you personally, how did you get from one to the other? I guess in a way, how did you transition from The Wizard to Jeff Mills?
Well, there are some aspects that never changed. My view on music is still the same. And I'm still in the mindset of selling music. Selling the idea of it. As music became more tailored, in a way easier to program and to play—you have this window of BPM, you know every 16 bars something's gonna happen, it works and by now people have grown up on this type of music so it's gonna make them happy. So, it's easy for someone who comes from a time when you had these totally different things and you had to fit them together like a puzzle. I tried to spend time finding ways to make it interesting, to make it more tailored for someone like me. Layer tracks on top, make it more creative, not so predictable, and still leave open the possibility for mistakes to happen. That's important for me as well.
I will purposely let the track almost run out, and not have an idea of what to play next. It's effective on a few different levels. It gives people a break to hear music break down but not off. And to not always be in control. It becomes too predictable. If I know, exactly, the track is gonna break down, then the beat will come back and I'll layer this on top... yeah, maybe I have time to smoke a cigarette, or drink some Courvoisier, or talk to my friends.
It's hard to imagine you doing any of those things.
[Laughs] Well yeah. I think it makes the DJ set less predictable. You let things happen. It's OK for the track to run out. There's no bloodshed. It's alright! The audience is not gonna leave the dance floor because there was a moment of silence. If they do, then, maybe that's not the right place to be anyway, right?
DJs now, they learned differently. And it's much easier. They're generally playing for an audience that... the story is already written, they're just turning the page. It's easy. Anyone can be a DJ. If you can mix two records together, do the right thing at the right time, you can be on the cover of any magazine, you can be considered a master of the art form in a year. It's a false narrative, a false impression. Just me sitting here speaking to you can give you some impression just how complex the art form can be, right? And this is what makes experienced, good DJs... there is a lot to it that younger DJs don't know, and they don't think they need to know, because they're successful with what they're doing. They're already being rewarded. So the art of DJing becomes that. When actually, it's much deeper.
Something like staying up all night, learning to mix from one prog rock record to the next, with that kind of practice as the basis for your craft, you'd form such a fundamental appreciation for how music works, how rhythm works...
And how musicians work, how to anticipate human reactions. Machines are easier to predict. And the whole thing becomes easier. It can be so easy that it becomes too easy, and it loses its value. Because it becomes less special. DJs are doing less special things. And it ends up in the discount bin. The whole art form.
It seems like you're anxious about electronic music's legacy, its staying power.
I'm 55. After my generation, it's clear to see a certain amount of knowledge will be lost. With this loss, the art form will become one of a few things. An art form of mastery and technique and the creation of sound, or it will become extinct. Too easy, people take it for granted. In my mind that's really the choice.
I think the standards are too low in electronic music. I think media plays a big part in making the standards too low, because they talk too much about people who haven't done too much. That is my professional opinion, as a DJ and an artist. I think that we should only speak about people that clearly have done something special. Then it raises the value of everything, and everyone remains at their level until they do something special. But we don't do that. So, it dropped.
If you're DJing today, next weekend, whatever, do you still get kind of a boyish buzz out of the whole thing? Do you have fun?
You know, it would probably be smart for me to say yes, because I'm playing music for people and they're paying to get in. But I have to be honest. No one ever said that a DJ is supposed to like what they do every time. No one said they have to enjoy the people in the audience. There are many things happening during the party. There are times when I'm looking straight at 2000 people and I don't even see them. There are times when I only notice them for a hot second, and then I go back into another type of mindset. I'm sometimes very much in a fishbowl.
And, be honest, you can't pay attention to the people the whole time you're there. You can't, and anyone that says they're always in tune with the audience is lying. So, there are times when I break away. I break away from the audience while I'm in front of them. While I'm staring at them, I'm not thinking about them.
I'm thinking about... approaching a planet. What that could possibly feel like. When I turn to the music, that's what I'm trying to get to, to describe that. And at times I find it more enjoyable than paying attention to the audience. Because these are otherworldly things. And it's a very private, intimate thing. I'm breaking away, because I'm searching for something to bring back. I'm hired to play music for them, so I need a reason to make the music more interesting. Just looking at people is not gonna do it. Doing something to make someone jump up, it's cool for a couple minutes, but you can't do that all night. Some DJs do that, and that's how they structure their DJ set, they're just trying to get a reaction over and over and over again. I do it differently. In my mind, I have a place where I want to go. I'm using the music to get there.