Ground zero for minimal techno.
What does "minimal" mean to you? The term and the music it describes have gone through many changes over the past 25 years, peaking in the mid-'00s when the sound reigned supreme from London to Berlin to Ibiza, played by superstar DJs like Ricardo Villalobos and Richie Hawtin. But before it was associated with laptops and asymmetrical haircuts, minimal meant something else: stripped-down, ultra-efficient, earth-shaking techno, as laid out by Robert Hood in 1994.
"I was fooling around with a [Roland Alpha] Juno 2 keyboard and I came across this chord sound," Hood explained when Minimal Nation was reissued in 2009. "Once I had that chord sound and a particular pattern I realized I didn't need anything else."
Put on Minimal Nation for the first time and you're confronted with the Platonic ideal of techno: a kick drum, a single melodic element, a hi-hat and maybe some alien flourish that defies easy description. It's hypnotic, captivating and utterly self-contained, techno stripped of the vestiges of everything that came before. If the earliest techno was inspired by the sound and image of the Detroit-area automobile factories, then Minimal Nation summoned the factories of the future.
Every granular element of Minimal Nation is purposeful, from the twitchy hi-hat that jumps to the front of the mix on "One Touch" to the single modulating chord on the confrontationally sparse "Unix." The latter track is a masterclass in composition and arrangement: the kick drum and keyboard note seem to phase in and out of each other, as your focus switches between them every few milliseconds. Then Hood introduces a small, hissy hi-hat that adds a new rhythmic texture, the kind of thing that would blow your mind deep in the night on a booming dance floor.
This psychedelic, trance-like effect—making you glued-in to feel every minuscule change—was intentional. "My whole idea with minimalism was to create rhythms inside of rhythms inside of rhythms—sort of hidden rhythms," Hood explained in an RBMA interview. "This is real trance music. I don't know about that other stuff."
It was in this context that Hood's spirituality would start to emerge, too. In a 2013 FADER interview, Hood described his style as "minimum structure" and "maximum soul." "At the time, I really didn't understand the purpose and the vision and where it was emanating from, but I knew it was spiritual," he explained.
Hood's obsession with making the perfect, most pure techno music mirrored his spiritual journey. If his latter-day, gospel-infused music with Floorplan hammers the point home, then Minimal Nation was his early ascetic period, where he was still learning how to express himself in the music. Get in the zone and you can hear what he must have heard in Minimal Nation: the pulse of life, God and the spirit, an eternal and easy-to-grasp rhythm that becomes universal if you can surrender yourself to it.
"My thing was to not make everybody in the club go crazy with this spiritual movement," he said in that same RBMA lecture, "but to have that one guy in the back of the room just lose it, just start to scream, almost catching the holy ghost."
As much as Minimal Nation was about joy and spirituality, it was also a statement against the state of techno in the early '90s. Richie Hawtin and John Acquiviva's mostly-white +8 crew had come to Detroit from Windsor, Ontario and started throwing parties with faster, harder sounds, inspired as much by European EBM as they were by Detroit techno. One early +8 release audaciously came stamped with the phrase, "The Future Sound Of Detroit." Elsewhere, techno was becoming commercial, formulaic, or had mutated beyond recognition from its Motor City roots.
In an interview with Andrew Weatherall, Hood agreed with the idea that Minimal Nation was a "protest record." "Nobody seems to get that," he said. "Techno was becoming one huge sample and the raves were becoming all about drugs."
With the album and the records that followed it (like the equally classic Internal Empire), Hood hit the reset button and redefined the fundamentals of techno. The textures and timbres on Minimal Nation remain central to the sound of techno as we associate it today, heard in clubs like Berghain or Bassiani. The lack of atmospheric embellishment is part of its appeal. There are no adornments or adulterations, and the elemental sounds are as cutting and impactful as they were back then.
Ironically, it wasn't until after the minimal boom in the 2000s that the back-to-basics sounds on Minimal Nation really became en vogue again. But it's hard to overstate the impact this stage of Hood's career had on dance music. "Minus," from Internal Empire, provided the name for Richie Hawtin's famously conceptual minimal techno label. Most of the techno sounds people consider European today owe a lot to what Hood was doing in Detroit.
With Minimal Nation, Hood not only codified the sound of minimalist techno for decades to come, but set the stage for his own career as one of the most important and influential artists in techno. Hood has an instantly recognizable sound that boils down to a drum machine and a keyboard, along with a distinct way of triggering sounds and samples. The album marked a massive leap from his older work as The Vision into something stunningly clear and personal, in spite of its utilitarian nature. You can hear him in every pulse, every thwack, every bleep.
"When you put the needle down on a James Brown record you immediately know it's James Brown. It's the same with Prince," Hood told Weatherall. "But I ain't Prince… I'm Robert Hood."
He's right. With Minimal Nation, Hood achieved perfection with just a few elements and put his own stamp on the most basic tools of a genre. It's a sound that still dominates techno, but no one can make it sound as good as Robert Hood, who still finds new ways to make stripped-down, efficient techno sound exciting 25 years later. Now he commands some of the world's biggest techno festival stages with a sound that isn't too far removed from Minimal Nation. He discovered his calling in 1992 on that Roland keyboard, and he's made some of the best and most beloved techno in history without having to step too far outside that original framework. Minimal structure, maximum soul.