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Robert Hood's seminal works on Axis and M-Plant paved the way for the wave of muscular minimalism that flooded techno clubs during the late nineties. As Surgeon once remarked, 'When Hood released his pivotal Minimal Nation EP in 1993, it was like a bomb went off'. In a rare interview back in 2001, John Osselaer spoke with the Detroit don for Overload Media
By John Osselaer
Is Mojo the one who opened your eyes for electronic music?
Not really. At that time, I guess I was about 14 or 15 years old. There was a station called WLBS. Between WLBS and Mojo I got influenced by certain artists — Gary's Gang, Telex, etc. All of them formed a kind of prophecy. I thought to myself 'It's only a matter of time before this electronic sound and this funk sound and disco sound are going to fuse together.' Shortly after that I started to hear about Derrick May, Juan Atkins and certain progressive parties, and it just started to evolve from there. There was also an artist by the name of Eddy Grant and he did a kind of reggae-electronic stuff. I would say people like Derrick May, Eddy Grant, Telex made me think 'This is what I want to do, I really want to do this music.'
And there's the Chicago sound of course: Fast Eddie, Chip E, Mark Imperial, Hotmix Five. Have you heard of the Electric Crazy People? Derrick May was one of them and a few other guys. This radio show would come on half an hour every night and it just blew me away. I would record it, listen to it on my way to school. Listening to this it made me realise that this was what I wanted to do. I got a drum machine ... and just started messing with it. I didn't know nothing about MIDI, nothing about DJing… I just knew I wanted to do this music and I knew I could do it.
You grew up in Detroit, which many people believe is a pretty rough place. To what extent has growing up in the Motor City influenced your music?
There was some gang activity. The streets can be mean sometimes. It was a rough experience, but not rough all the time. A lot of people get the misconception that Detroit is just entirely rough. It's not entirely that way. There are a lot of good hardworking, law abiding, god-fearing people that live in Detroit, taxpayers and voters. They're just family people. Everybody focuses on the bad things of a certain area, if it's the Bronx in New York, if it's the south side of Chicago... Everybody is talking about that, but nobody is talking saying what is good about Chicago or Detroit and what the good people are doing — like people who give money to the inner city schools or give money to the churches. I've seen this and that, the ying and yang of Detroit all my life growing up.
Did it influence your music?
Of course. If you listen to certain Motown records, certain old soul like Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Papa Was A Rolling Stone and What's Going On?, they are songs about life and love and why it has to be like this. Can't we get the message that if we just follow God and his plan we won't have to have wars and poverty, ghetto's, oppression… if we just follow God's plan. That applies to everywhere in the world, not just Detroit, Chicago, New York, but in Berlin, Amsterdam, the UK, in Asia, everywhere in this world. It just speaks about the whole plan and how man is not following God's plan and that's why we have so much hunger, so much oppression and hate. It's the sense of man that causes us to act in this way. Artists like Marvin Gaye, when they wrote songs about that it touched my soul and my heart. Seeing it first hand, seeing people getting killed, myself almost being murdered, my father being murdered when I was only six years old, it just makes you look at the music in a different way. [cries]
You were one of the first members of the Underground Resistance collective. How did you meet up with Jeff Mills and Mike Banks?
I hooked up with Mike and Jeff through a mutual friend called Mike Clarke aka Agent X. He introduced me to Mike and at that time I had a demo tape — just basically drum tracks, keyboard tracks and stuff like that, and I was rapping on it. Mike was impressed by my drum programming so he invited me to his studio. He was working on a Detroit compilation at the time, featuring Members of the House, Yolanda Reynolds... some early Detroit artists that were just coming up. We started recording some tracks at Jeff Mills' house – that's where they did all the recording at the time. They were just starting UR and they were doing a track for that particular compilation. It was basically just the two of them.
During your days with UR you and Alan Oldham acted as 'Ministers of Information'. What were your operations?
Alan Oldham was the minister of propaganda for UR at the time. He was doing a newsletter called Fast Forward and a radio show by the same name, so it was only natural that he'd be Minister of Propaganda for UR. At the time I was just the UR gopher. I was doing tracks with them for the compilation, but I started working for them, running errands for them, doing artwork, the t-shirts, the record labels and things like that. I came in on an artistic/business side, just helping them doing some administration for the label.
You moved on to work on tracks and eventually started making your own solo releases. How did all this happen?
We started working gradually, very gradually on the Vision EP, the Riot EP... and X-103 really was a big stepping-stone for me because it allowed me to start doing my own production. From X-101 to X-102 it just slowly progressed, but they took their time and just groomed me very slowly so that I would understand what I was doing. It was never like: 'Oh, let's rush this artist out.' I wouldn't have known what I was doing. I owe that to Mike and Jeff, just taking their time and saying 'This cake is not ready, when you're ready you'll be able to fly on your own.'
I understand that Underground Resistance is not only about music, but also about social engagement, doing good for your community... How far off am I here?
You're dead on point. Mike with Submerge is employing people that don't necessarily want to work at your typical 9 to 5 timeclock-punching job, a factory job or whatever. Their heart is in the music and in the Detroit sound. Mike is employing people at various stages, like administration, promotion, art direction, going up to production. My heart is definitely in the community. Anybody I can help with the resources that I have – it doesn't even have to be music oriented or techno oriented. Sponsor some kid, … me and my wife sponsor people at church. It's not always technowise. I'm the soundman at church and my heart is definitely in the church and in the community. You're dead on point with that.
You and Jeff Mills left Underground Resistance to start working on Axis. What were the events surrounding this decision?
You have a group of guys and you record together and run a label together and travel together – so you become like brothers. You live together, but at some point you start to disagree on certain things and you just branch off. Jeff wanted to do Axis at the time. Myself, I'm not the type of person to just follow somebody, I'm a team player. After a while me and Mike started not to see eye to eye so shortly after that Jeff left [and] I had to leave because of the lack of mutual respect. I respect Mike and I respect Jeff, but if I can't be respected for who I am I have to leave, whether that's with Mike or Jeff. I'm a man just like them. I love them both, but you have to have mutual respect to be a group, in order to be family – because I looked at it as family; they brought me up from the bottom. I brought myself up because I had something to bring to the table. You have to respect that as well as I respect you doing what you do. As a man I had to see my way clean of it and do my own thing, hence M-Plant.
Did you and Jeff have a concept established for the label when you were about to leave UR?
Not at all! Axis wasn't even a name yet. Jeff was doing his Waveform Transmissions, just starting up on Tresor, so I was basically a progression. I had my concept for M-Plant in '92 — whether I was with UR or Hardwax, it was already in the back of my head. Axis wasn't even a name yet, it was just tracks. Jeff came over to my studio one time and just heard a track I was working on and at the time — it was a self-gratification track, it was the definition of my sound taking, so it seemed natural to do Axis. That track was called Sleep Chamber and that was Axis 001 — that was the first Axis.
You have also released for the German label Tresor. What attracted you to the label?
It was nothing really special. It was just basically a licence. The Waveform Transmission project was Jeff's and he just asked me to do another Waveform extension. We had already been doing the X-101, X-102 and X-103-projects with Tresor and that was my contribution to it.
What was the philosophy behind starting M-Plant?
M-Plant was an escape from the rave and gabber sound. I didn't want to do that hard, 160 bpm stuff. Nothing against it personally, but I saw the whole techno scene going in that direction. Detroit has to maintain its roots, that is all I was thinking. We are talking soul, reality, just the realness. The music was getting too belligerent, too ravey, too circus-like. You know, lights, lasers, smoke and not the reality, no kind of social commentary. Marvin Gaye, Martin Luther King Jr, we've got to take it that way. I'm not saying you have to do it like Detroit does it. Rotterdam is only speaking from Rotterdam experience, Berlin is speaking from their experience. I was just saying that I want to maintain the Detroit sound, I want to keep that going. That rave sound at the time was just covering that to me. I was more like 'I have to champion Detroit.' Yes, soul, funk and just rhythm.
Although you've been surrounded by some of the most influential people in techno, you developed a very personal style. What inspired you to develop your style towards a very stripped down sound?
Before I got into this music I wanted to be an originator; I wanted to be original. I wanted to keep true to the sound of the original Detroit people at the same time, but I knew I couldn't be like Derrick May or Juan Atkins. I have to be Robert Hood. I had to look inside myself and say 'What do you like, what do you want to hear ?' What I've always wanted to hear: the basic stripped down, raw sound. Just drums, basslines and funky grooves and only what's essential. Only what is essential to make people move. I started to look at it as a science, the art of making people move their butts, speaking to their heart, mind and soul. That's the only thing I focussed on and that's M-Plant. It's the M-Plant in every person's mind that is speaking through your heart, through your soul and is making you dance in the process. To me rave was just samples. True techno, the true sound of it is a science.
How does it feel to be considered the godfather of minimal techno?
I've never heard that before. I heard that I was one of the originators of the minimal sound. It feels good; it's flattering. I wanted to carry the torch of the Detroit legacy and be original and stay true to the sound.
Although M-Plant is the most famous of your labels, you also have Drama, Duet and Hardwax. What are the different strategies for those labels?
Hardwax is harder rhythms. Aside from doing the minimal sound I didn't want to be put in one corner with people saying 'okay, he's the minimal guy.' It's different feelings. I get angry, I get happy – it's just different emotions. Drama is more to-the-floor, disco party-down stuff. Duet is me and my wife developing the label. It's a heart-felt rhythmic techno sound. M-Plant is just M. Minimal.
Dutch producer Steve Rachmad has released on M-Plant. How did this come about? What do you like about his style?
It's just a raw sound, a continuation of some Detroit stuff. It's a little bit of M-Plant sound, a pinch of Axis, I hear just echoes from Detroit in there. And then his work on other labels, on Music Man, etc. It's just rhythm. You can tell he has got rhythm, that's what I like about that.
What can you tell us about the collaboration with Claude Young on Missing Channel?
It was back in the UR days. Claude did his production and I did my production, we weren't really working together. When I did my production he did some co-production and vice versa. Together we made an EP out of it. We never really worked side by side.
Finally you rarely play in Europe. Why don't you play here more?
Racism, that's the problem. My wife does all my bookings, all my management. When I had European bookers I had no problem getting bookings. When I let that go and my wife started to do everything they suddenly started having problems with the language barrier, 'I can't fax you anything. You never call back…' My wife is very thorough, she's the most thorough agent I know. All you have to do is call the number and make an appointment. If you come correct and adhere to our agreement – which is fair — there is no problem. We are fair people and we have no problem booking anywhere on this planet. There are a lot of politics involved. I've noticed that Germany was a problem. I hadn't played in Germany for five years. I heard Sven Väth say 'Robert's wife won't return phone calls.' That's bullshit, we don't do that. First of all I like to come DJ, I love it. I'll play for kids, old folk, anybody. We like to make money like anybody else. Why would we turn down a booking? We have no reason to. We heard a lot of bullshit stories.
Like 'Robert Hood is afraid of flying…'
No. I don't fear nothing but God. I ain't afraid of nothing.
A lot of your work is considered to be pivotal in the development of techno. What do you personally consider to be the turning points in your career?
I think the turning point for me was between the X projects and that first Axis record. That was the point where I could express myself. Just me, not X-101, not Robert & Claude, just Robert.
Nighttime World and Internal Empire seemed to signify a new phase of development in your music. Was that a deliberate choice and what was the philosophy behind those kind of releases?
1992, that was a pivotal point. I was experimenting with hip hop-techno, you call it trip hop now. I never released that stuff. I was experimenting and it progressed over the years. 1995: Nighttime World 1, which was supposed to be H&M: Every Dog Has It's Day, released in 2000. Originally Jeff and I were supposed to record tracks for that album Every Dog Has It's Day back in '93. Jeff can be erratic at times, he changes minds, but I had already done tracks. These tracks were good so I decided to make an album out of it. There was one track, Nighttime, that made me think about the title Nighttime World. I thought it would be a good title for an album and a series. It's just more emotion and melody. My father was a jazz musician; he played the trumpet, the piano, drums... so I guess unintentionally I channelled that energy and there it is.
What can you tell us about the new Nighttime World that is just out? To what extent is it different from the first?
It's basically in the same realm as the original Nighttime World, but more of an extention of it. There are more tracks, more expression, a wider range of emotions. I wanted to give the listeners the same feel, but take them deeper into how I feel about the world and how I express myself, how I make music. It's just not about a 4/4 beat because there is the time before, during and after the party. You warm up to the party, get down to the party and cool down after the party. A lot of times I would be riding home with drivers from a party and they will still be playing techno at eight, nine, ten 'o clock in the morning. So I'm like 'Don't you ever cool out and listen to some mellow stuff ?' Take it easy, relax, sit back and think. That's what it is all about, different degrees of techno and music.
What can we expect from you in the future?
God tells me what to do and I just let God guide me. You need to give some social commentary, you need to say something about homelessness or racism or crime… I have some projects I can't really discuss right now because I don't want the cat out of the bag yet.
Would you ever consider using vocals to bring across the message even better?
I can not speak on that right now. I'm just going to keep doing my thing and keep evolving and follow God's plan and wait until the next episode.
Photo credit: Wouter van Nevel