When Pete Frame launched Zigzag as the UK’s first music monthly in 1969 it boasted the longest in-depth pieces yet seen beyond the US underground publications that inspired it. Soon NME were allowing Nick Kent to write his classic sprawling epics on Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett and later the early MOJO revisited this long-playing format to great effect but, although there are still publications that do allow room for a piece to breathe, increasingly stringent word counts are necessary to get more names in, placate advertisers and, in this age of the sound-bite and selfie, prevent the potential audience’s attention wandering.
As a lifelong victim of newspapers and magazines insisting on shorter pieces rather than longer, deeper accounts, the realisation struck some years ago that I was often spending more time slashing down reviews and features than writing them; especially frustrating when an artist had opened up and talked for hours, meaning many of their words and memories might never be heard.
While word restrictions have never been an issue at NMBW, The Director’s Cut series will present some of those original conversations, including out-takes that may have surrounded a one-line quote or covered topics not broached at all in the original piece.
Another burning example concerned Detroit’s Underground Resistance, the mysterious subterranean operation who’ve been dispatching socially conscious brutal techno, soul-levitating high-tech jazz and scathing electro since 1990. I’d interviewed UR leader ‘Mad’ Mike Banks for NME, Mixmag and Echoes in short pieces that felt like chipping at a huge iceberg, reaching a hair-tearing nadir with DJ Mag around 15 years ago when, thanks to UR’s UK press commander Jonas Stone, I was able to conduct a lengthy written interview with Mike and his current UR soldiers which they obviously had put a lot of care in answering. Somewhat embarrassingly, only a fraction made the final cut.
So here’s the UR piece I’ve always wanted to write, their Detroit story soaked in unashamed train-spotter detail, and that whole 2005 interview.
Let it roll….
“Underground Resistance is a label for a movement. A movement that wants change by sonic revolution. We urge you to join the resistance and help us combat the mediocre audio and visual programming that is being fed to the inhabitants of Earth. This programming is stagnating the minds of the people; building a wall between races and preventing world peace. It is this wall we are going to smash. By using the untapped energy potential of sound we are going to destroy this wall much the same as certain frequencies shatter glass. Techno is a music based in experimentation; it is music for the future of the human race. Without this music there will be no peace, no love, no vision. By simply communicating through sound, techno has brought people of all different nationalities together under one roof to enjoy themselves. Isn’t it obvious that music and dance are the keys to the universe? So called primitive animals and tribal humans have known this for thousands of years! We urge all brothers and sisters of the underground to create and transmit their tones and frequencies no matter how so called primitive their equipment may be. Transmit these tones and wreak havoc on the programmers! Long live the underground.”
So declared one of UR’s most recent statements. Brandishing this ethos since 1990, UR had spent the following 20 years spearheading a defiantly human uprising that treated machines with love as they turned them into electronic battle weapons, sending musical dispatches from their bunker “Somewhere In Detroit” that resonated like transmissions from a war zone.
UR transcended hiphop’s idle boasts and violence by offering hope and a new urban identity for America’s most devastated neighbourhoods, starting with Detroit’s African Americans who were hopelessly beleaguered after Reagan-era economic recession had exacerbated the damage already wreaked on their decimated city by the departing motor industry and 1967 riots.
By creating their own Marvel-influenced universe, ‘Mad’ Mike Banks and his UR comrades created a positive new world in the bleakness of daily struggle, “electrifying the inner city with hi-tech, sci-fi thoughts and dreams”, resolutely kicking against the music industry and garishly corporate EDM that started taking hold by the 21st century.
From their logo and art-work to masks, militant slogans and false identities, UR established a front-line and enigmatic mystique that ran deeper than any previously experienced by Detroit techno as they unleashed a meteor storm of records that relentlessly raised the bar for electronic music. Or, as original member Robert Hood told The Wire in 2012, “Detroit techno was in a dream state and we wanted to wake it up.”
The first UR 12-inch singles started appearing in London’s import emporiums in 1990. Since then, I’ve looked for that distinctive logo around the UK, at Berlin’s renowned Hard Wax store and all over New York City. It’s always been a tough label to collect, not helped by occasionally jumbled incarnations and numbering system.
UR started forming around 1987 after seasoned session musician Mike Banks met local DJ Jeff Mills, who was first heard as The Wizard on former Vietnam troops DJ the Electrifying Mojo’s seminal show before becoming a much-admired WDRQ radio DJ, deploying dazzling hiphop mixing techniques on hard-as-nails Chicago industrial music and EBM (The Wizard also guested on 1987’s ‘Pump Wid Acid’ by Midi Mechanixx on Vibe). Jeff also worked with Tony Stock in industrial outfit the Final Cut, which released singles such as ‘You Can’t Deny The Bass’ before the ghostly disco shimmer of 1989’s ‘Take Me Away’, with Bridgett Grace singing the haunting hook, was released on Paragon in the US before becoming a UK hit on Network two years later.
First evidence of the new partnership between Mills and Banks was producing ‘Share This House’ by Detroit vocal group Members Of The House for 1988’s seminal Techno! The New Sound Of Detroit compilation, that tried to spread the word in the UK. The pair started hatching Underground Resistance after Detroit’s initial 1987-’88 uprising became a goldrush that attracted music biz parasites and sucked its blood with empty promises and chequebooks. As the UK gorged on cheesy rave, pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson had crept off to lick their wounds and regroup, leaving Detroit techno to be revitalized by a second wave of new imprints, such as Carl Craig’s Planet E, Richie Hawtin’s Plus 8, 430 West, Incognito and now Underground Resistance. “If it wasn’t for UR coming back in the picture so strong like they did I don’t know what would have happened,” self-styled ‘Prince of Techno’ Blake Baxter told me in 1992. “They put Detroit back in the picture.”
The first track released as Underground Resistance was ‘The Theory’ on 1990’s Equinox: Chapter One; the first EP on Damon Booker and fast-rising Derrick May protégé Carl Craig’s short-lived Retroactive label. A raw declaration of electronic Motor City soul, the track was joined by Craig’s swirling ‘As Time Goes By (Sitting Under A Tree)’ featuring vocals from British artist Sarah Gregory, and Sherard Ingram’s Urban Tribe. It’s now a three-figure collectable but I was lucky to unearth a copy in New York after it was released.
First releases on UR’s own label soon follow, sculpted by Mike and Jeff on an arsenal of hissing analogue machines. UR’s first single, ‘Your Time Is Up’, was a garage-flavoured floor-filler fronted by singer Yolanda Reynolds (a combination that sent 1991’s ‘Living For The Night’ follow-up into the UK club charts). This switching between vocal house and the hard techno of ‘Waveform’ characterised UR’s first year before their mission clarified. By 1991, with their surging ‘Adrenalin’ appearing on Mute’s Paroxysm Vol 1 compilation in the UK, UR releases seem hellbent on unleashing merciless hardcore rave on EPs such as Sonic, The Punisher and Riot. UR’s statement that came with The Fury EP declares “a constant attack on the hearts and minds of the innocent…the terrorist of them all”, B-side ‘Cyclone’ purporting to “add more of a dimension to the meaning of the phrase of ‘living in terror’.”
After moving back to the UK in 1990 and discovering techno had gone ballistic over here, my mission when I returned to New York in late 1991 was to track down more of this music I’d discovered in 1986 while working in a downtown record shop and unearthed in regular sorties to Vinyl Mania, or reaped while editing Tommy Boy’s Dance Music Report tip-sheet magazine.
Even in the space of a year, techno has noticeably joined hiphop and disco in the city’s dance music subcultures. With perfect timing, UR are playing the last night of seminal techno club Brand X at the Limelight club, whose DJ Moneypenny-organised tipsheet gave them rare early coverage. By now, electronic music had hit America’s white club kids under the banner ‘Techno-rave’; looking back, the germ of today’s excruciating EDM before it became a corporate polar opposite of everything the music represented when started in the black dance clubs. Apart from some diehard devotees, most of the crowd at the converted church on Sixth Avenue are white suburban kids sporting nicely pressed leisure-wear, looking incongruous against the relentless barrage of smoke, lasers and noise being manipulated from the DJ pulpit high above the crowd.
Before their set, I interview Mike and Jeff, who are amiable and friendly as they lay out the UR manifesto in an arched room upstairs. “We’re trying to make music for people that really know what’s going on,” says Mike. “Underground Resistance is music for a movement. It’s music for people who want to change and for people who want to go forward; a resistance to all that commercial jingle bell bullshit. I’m like the result of the major labels’ ignorance.”
Mike says UR mirror what’s going on in their home city, hence titles like ‘Panic’, ‘Riot’ and ‘Rage’. Spontaneity rules in the studio and, at this point, they even consider computers too slow to capture their “sonic brutality”. But even if UR talk of themselves as “a project devised to cold-fuse DNA and cell structures with cybernetics and sonic circuitry; a union of sound, man and machine,” they are also capable of floor-igniting house anthems such as Members Of The House’s recent ‘These Are My People’ and Yolanda’s ‘Your Time Is Up’. “We just thought it might be a good idea to promote Yolanda’s career,” explains Jeff. “She sang the song in one take; ‘Your time is up’. That’s really important.” “That’s just how we make records,” adds Mike. “Just go where it goes.”
UR’s vinyl dispatches are mastered at National Sound Corporation, sometimes playing from the middle out or with cryptic messages scratched into the run-out groove. Situated at 17610 W. Warren, NSC started in 1989 as a vintage record store opened by Ron Murphy, who had been mastering records since the ‘60s, and Steve Martel. The pair had the idea of cutting dub plates for their customers’ jukeboxes so set up a lathe in the back room. It soon got noticed by shop regulars Juan Atkins and Derrick May, who asked about getting some slates cut then started spreading the word.
After Ron upgraded his machine, the first master he cut was for Richie Hawtin’s new Plus 8, followed a week later by UR. Any Detroit 12-inch bearing the NSC stamp had been cut by Ron, who encouraged run-out groove inscriptions and invented innovative messing with speeds and backwards playing by simply adjusting the belt.
“It serves a lot of purposes,” says Jeff. “For a start it protects us from bootleggers because they can only cut it that way. It’s like the Detroit signature. It symbolises resistance.” “It’s to make people think too,” adds Mike. “Why should all records be the same way?” (After Steve’s death in 1994, Ron moved to new premises and called his operation Sound Enterprises, but still stamped every master NSC in his partner’s memory until he himself passed away in 2008).
The pair are genuinely surprised at their hardcore following in the UK (and never forget this early show of support from the awestruck fan before them).
“That’s how we make our living – by making music,” says Mike. “It really is hard. Being in Detroit you don’t expect shit like this to happen. It’s really strange. It took people to call us up and tell us. We just make the tracks.”
Then it’s show-time. After hardcore DJ sets from Belgium’s Frank De Wulf, pilled-up Brooklyn nutter Lenny Dee and Moneypenny, three figures take the stage wearing black fatigues and gas-masks then proceed to pummel the venue into the ground with their deafening electronic onslaught. Sending jock couples running screaming to the bar with hands covering their ears, Mad Mike, Jeff and MC Rob Noise (future minimal trailblazer Robert Hood) certainly make an impression at their first New York appearance. Most of the sound comes from Jeff’s records along with Mike’s machines and, after UR’s set, he performs the most jaw-dropping display of turntable mastery I’ve ever witnessed (that includes Larry Levan, Grandmaster Flash, Red Alert and many others). Cutting, scratching and manipulating tracks with head held aloof but hands a dazzling blaze, he sometimes plays a record for a few seconds before chucking it into the growing pile of vinyl at his feet and hyperactively cuing up the next.
The combination of UR then Jeff’s pyrotechnic display is like a paramilitary offensive against the techno-rave tide; Detroit techno in its most undiluted form – dark, scary, charismatic and immensely powerful, even when mangling Belgium rave riffs. But this “hard music for hard times” ethos soon starts giving way to subtler missives when space techno and high-tech soul elements start creeping in on the ‘The Final Frontier’.
The rave element is still present on Banks, Mills and Hood’s X-101 EP, released through a link-up with Berlin’s Tresor label. The trio’s final statement together was the X-102 follow-up Discover The Rings Of Saturn, an immaculately-conceived artefact that first arrived as a double-album, its 14 tracks named after Saturn’s moons and rings. Perhaps Ron Murphy’s master-piece, track widths even correspond to their relative size and distance apart, some boasting his now-perfected locked grooves.
Although ‘Hyperion’ still cranks up the hoover noise, ‘Titan’, ‘Diane’ and ‘C-Ring’ pack an equally brutal punch stripped into the style soon to be known as minimal. By side D, the deep space strings that will now elevate many UR records are well in place, ‘Groundzero (The Planet)’ a cinematic final stretch symphony that floats into another dimension through clouds of electronic icicles before the beat kicks in and it hurtles into G-Force saying goodbye to the rave. Tracks are linked by short atmospheric mood pieces of glacial deep space themes and malfunctioning space-craft action. The result is a three-dimensional UR landmark and techno’s first concept work-of-art concept album. Sun Ra would have approved.
I was given a copy of this vivid manifestation of the special relationship between Detroit techno and Berlin’s underground when I visited Tresor’s Berlin HQ that summer after a night at their impossibly steamy basement furnace of a club, held in the vault of the old Wertheim department store in the no man’s land of Potsdamer Platz and lit by just one flashing light. They also presented me with the UR t-shirt I wore with pride at that year’s Love Parade; a truly astonishing affair which saw techno take over the streets of Berlin then converge to a huge all-night DJ tent.
1992 saw Hood and Mills depart UR to pursue the international success they both continue to use as a means of expressing their current beliefs and artistic fixations.
“(Jeff’s) a brilliant DJ but there’s nowhere in Detroit for him to get off,” Mike told me the following year. “I didn’t want him to go.” Jeff still continued his association with UR and I still remember the day when three seminal Mills missives turned up under the World Power Alliance banner in Soho’s Fat Cat Records, one of the UK’s finest techno emporiums. Along with Hood’s Minimal Nation, ‘The Seawolf’, ‘Kamikaze’ and ‘Piranha’ laid new templates for techno that would be hijacked and mutated for the rest of the decade.
1992’s ‘Message to The Majors’ (UR-023) stated UR’s independent no sell-out manifesto in granite-hewn terms. But while ‘Fuck the majors’ is scratched into the run-out groove on one side, flip it and the record’s other, lesser-mentioned message becomes clear; ‘Message to all murderers on the Detroit Police Force – We’ll see you in hell!” and “Dedicated to Malice Green”, an African-American Detroit resident who, in November 1992, died in police custody after an altercation with two white officers during a traffic stop. This subtly-concealed political message brought Detroit techno back to earth with a socially-relevant message, parallel to the ecological protests of the Acid Rain sets that started that year. Mike’s Acid Rain EP heralded a virulent new strain of Detroit acid with flailing 303 to the fore, further quantified by The Return of Acid Rain – The Storm Continues and Acid Rain 3.
Mike’s dad had been in the army and, since 1982, he had been supported and mentored by a Vietnam vet called TG Williams. This ingrained a respect for the military that accompanied a concern for the plight of his ruined city and the environment.
“I try to be environmentally conscious,” declares Mike when we speak by phone one 1993 evening. “Everything around here is dead, man! The trees, they’re tough, man, but that rain burns the fuck out of them. It’s kind of sad. I can see the pollution from my window. I can look into south west Detroit and see these big stacks. You can just see the shit. It just blows over here. It’s pure sulphur, man! All the buildings here are stained with it. The shit is yellow. It’s a trip man. Acid rain. When the shit blows over into Canada it kills the forest.”
The Acid Rain EPs saw the return of Mike’s TB-303. “I try and paint a picture with it. I put that on there so people could see acid could be used in a subtle way. It doesn’t have to be attack acid. It’s a very expressive machine. I’m sitting here looking at my little silver box right now. My hat’s off to whoever invented the little fucker. I always wanted to meet them. Mine’s 13 years old. It’s old. The parts have to be cleaned.”
Mike is convivial as ever, genuinely appreciative of UR’s passionate UK following. “We appreciate that support. You got to realise with underground music it’s very hard to sell records. It’s rough. You can’t halt progress, but it’s just rough. We’re used to there being 30 records but now it’s like 200 records. It’s rough on us. Then everybody presses at our pressing plant. That was part of the joy of underground music; you’d do a track and three days later have it pressed up. There was a quick turnaround. Now you have to wait two weeks. But we’re weathering the storm.”
To that end, UR started the Submerge operation as a bunker umbrella for their releases and independent Detroit techno labels such as Red Planet, Metroplex, Direct Hit, Direct Hit, Shockave, Mixx, Generator and many more. “We’ve hung in there,” he says. “The techno market can be very trendy, very fickle and very shallow. After we did our last gig in France we wouldn’t play any more because it’s all got too ravey.”
Mike talks about recent UR releases such as the starkly cosmic ‘Death Star’. “That’s one of our journeys off into deep space. I look out the window and a lot of times I just imagine I’m somewhere else and dream of stuff and float out of here.
“We’re kicking it now. We’re just trying to survive. There’s so much techno being made. It’s important to keep trying to make music and encourage these younger DJs and producers to keep going. We got techno legends walking around here completely broke with no money in their pockets. They don’t have shit. It’s almost like black groups aren’t supposed to make techno any more. You guys have always got a real interracial type of vibe. In the states hard techno is becoming a white male audience. It’s like Metallica; we can’t go and see them. It’s like gangsta rap is all black males. And when you get too many guys together…”
Mike outlines plans that are already in the process of revolutionising techno again. “I’m just experimenting with other forms of music, like jazz. I’m releasing a jazz record on UR and I’m calling it high-tech jazz. The spirit was moving through me. I’m trying to experiment with my machines, collaborate with the machines; a man and machine type deal. The machines can only do so much before heart and soul come into it to lift the track to another level. The soul you’ve got to put into it. It’s difficult finding that medium. Me and Jeff used to throw away so much stuff. Every little rich kid with a synth is making a record now. That’s what’s jamming up the pressing plant. We just got to roll with the punches; the ups and downs in Detroit. Through the long hard haul, we’re still here. It’s good. It’s exciting.”
The soaring keyboard lines, scuttling grooves and liberated jazz soul that charged Mike’s ‘Nation 2 Nation’, ‘World 2 World’ and ‘Galaxy To Galaxy’ EPs brought deep emotion back to techno (Hear the cream of these landmarks on 2005’s Galaxy to Galaxy: A High-Tech Compilation). Many UR devotees, including this writer, thought Mike was ‘The Martian’ responsible for the mysterious Red Planet series that unleashed its first missive in 1992 (It was actually a producer called Will Thomas).
If I had to take just one set of the thousands of 12” singles I accumulated in the ‘90s and early 2000s to the proverbial desert island it would quite likely be this red and black-labelled body of 14 Red Planet EPs, uncanny embodiments of UR’s deepest space symphonies that flew under Eldridge Cleaver’s declaration that “The spirit of the people is greater than Mars technology.” As a DJ I could use the deadly throbbing dynamics of ‘Stardancer’ and ‘Sex In Zero Gravity’ to demolish unsuspecting clubs, while ‘The Voice Of Grandmother’ and ‘The Last Stand’ enhanced those deeper moments. “Our brothers in Red Planet release their records when they feel a spirit lives in the wax. Then and only then,” says UR’s DJ Dex when I ask about Red Planet some years later.
Back on the streets, in 1999, new recruit DJ Rolando releases ‘Knights Of the Jaguar’, a runaway hit subjected to music biz skullduggery when Sony Germany released an identical cover version. While it’s impossible to describe every UR release, it’s worth citing examples such as long-time associate Raphael Merriweathers, aka The Unknown Soldier, who recorded the stark, juddering electro of 2003’s ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’ and flickering B-side ‘Homecoming’, then 2004’s ‘Hesitation’/’Desert Colonization’. Inspired by addicted veterans crawling the streets, these two 12-inches perfectly encapsulate the Detroit extremes of hopeful optimism and claustrophobic daily nightmare. Or as UR’s communique put it, “Many of these people are Vietnam and Korean war veterans who were sent by America to defend democracy. Men and women who left Detroit unknowing of the horrors they were about to witness. Some of these horrors so intense they cannot be spoken about, so they remain in silence, controlled and contained by King Heroin, crack cocaine, and 5 o’clock.
“The Unknown Soldier, the son of a Korean war veteran heard many sounds of horror before his father’s transition. He smelled the stench of decay many years after the battles were fought. He has indirectly witnessed war’s lunacy and paranoia decades after the events that caused them took place. He looks out his window only to see a ragged house full of vets with their fatigues on bravely struggling to survive. Trained to be self-sufficient and too proud to ask anyone for help with a ghost that never goes away.
“The sounds of admiration, respect and bravery can be heard in The Unknown Soldier as well as the sound of chaos, frustration and violence that was and still is necessary for those without a voice to survive in hoods where the general population is too busy struggling for themselves to possibly give a fuck about what these people and what they went through represent. The Unknown Soldier is an electronic transfer for those who cannot be heard.”
In 1994, ‘Aquatic Invasion’ heralded the arrival of James Stinson and Gerald Donnell as Drexiya, whose complex mythology and live-in-the-studio electro centred around a race of underwater dwellers descended from pregnant slave women thrown overboard during trans-Atlantic deportation.
On Interstellar Fugitives, UR’s first compilation in 1998, there’s a track called ‘Nannytown’, while Suburban Knight’s ‘Maroon’ features a voice saying “I am the voice from the past, standing in the future, forever haunt you. You should have never done this to us, ‘cause now we can never rest. We are!” Both reference black resistance against slavery in the 18th century when fugitive slaves (“maroons”) started settlements in the Caribbean. One of the most famous was Jamaica’s Windward Maroons movement, led by a woman who “had left her name on the map of Jamaica, Nanny Town.” UR maintained and updated that ethos. Their studio was called Black Planet, obviously referencing Public Enemy, who Mike saw as such a powerful voice. “We both had grown tired of seeing the 80’s era commercial media portraying African Americans once again as they were in the 70’s Black Exploitation movies; as happy clowns who wanted nothing more than a big fat ass, diamonds, furs and gold, and a pocket full of cash earned from hustlin’. We wanted a label and a sound that depicted brothers in a different darkness and a different light. UR wanted something that would inspire others to create technologies that would enable us to compete with this stereotypical audiovisual ‘mind beam’ being broadcasted daily 24/7 by ‘Programmers’ who didn’t give a fuck about us. And obviously still don’t. We wanted to build a better community by expanding, inspiring and transporting minds and spirits via unexplored sonic potential. We want a ‘Sonic Revolution for Change’ something that would affect our neighborhood positively.”
And so to the interview that coincided with 2005’s Interstellar Fugitives 2: The Destruction of Order compilation. Mike obviously went to a lot of trouble preparing the answers, giving UR members a shout and providing a series of fantasy locations from where their dispatches came. For the first time, here it is in full.
What is the current roll-call at UR boot-camp?
Abdul Haqq, aka the Ancient, somewhere in the Phillipines: I can’t speak for all of UR, because there are so many people on so many different levels who are critical to making UR what it is. We can let you in to the current roster of the Interstellar Fugitives.
057 aka DJ S2 (Santiago Salazar)
061 aka DJ Dex/Nomadico (Danny Calaberos)
041 aka Perception (Chuck Gibson)
064 aka DK Skurge (Milton Baldwin)
051 aka The Unknown Soldier (Raphael Merriweather)
Abdul Haqq aka the Ancient
The Unknown Writer/Atlantis (Cornelius Harris)
039 aka the Infiltraitor (Andre Holland)
Frankie Fultz aka the Illustrator
Tyree Stinson aka Spawn
O11 aka James ‘Suburban Knight’ Pennington
043 aka Agent Kaos/Von Floyd (Marc Floyd)
DJ 3000 (Franki Juncaj)
DJ Dijital (Lamont Norwood)
DJ Clandestine (Buzz Goree)
Domingo Yu (DJ Chino/Dan Zarazua)
The Deacon (Gerald Mitchell)
Mad Mike Banks!
Who are the new recruits we can expect great things from?
Answered by S2 from somewhere in Taiwan: The Aquanauts are kicking some vicious electro! They are led by the founder of Drexciya’s younger brother so the waterborne sickness continues! The real hot sound now is the ‘Slide’ sound (heard on The Slide’s ‘Ma Ya Ya’, for one). This was the innovation of DJ Dex and myself. Skurge too. DJ Dijital hot ass electro loops.
Since Mike told me he tries to be environmentally conscious the Tsunami has affirmed nature’s awesome power when it decides to let rip. Any comment now?
Answered by Aquanaut X somewhere above 1-14n, 103-55e: Humans are prideful creatures that persist in thinking themselves above nature itself. They believe they can pollute the waters without harming their own drinking supply. They believe they can destroy the ozone layer and wear suntan lotion as protection. They think they can build castles on sand and not have them washed away. Destruction of the human race is a bi-product of its existence. Their ancient mythologies and parables warn against this. Icarus thought he could see his god…and died. The prideful architects of the Tower of Babel. You are your own destruction; respect that which is greater than you.
‘Acid Rain’ and ‘Electronic Warfare’ were strong statements. Has the UR philosophy changed much since then?
Answered by: 040 aka Mad Mike on assignment somewhere in Vietnam: Yeah, actually we changed at UR-039; we moved to ‘Infiltrator’ mode. Later, at URCD-045 (Interstellar Fugitives One) we went to viral mode. Presently we use a combination of both as we have found great success with these two operational modes. During the ‘Jaguar’ controversy an infiltrator unit alerted us of the programmer’s every move. Later, viral units were musically cued (UR-043) to punk the enemy to withdraw and back the fuck up. Our current Midnight strategy involves video game radio stations, which allows us to run in your mind without you ever knowing. Something we could not achieve conventionally with programmer controlled transmitter-based radio. Now exploiting the video game technology and the infiltrator tech fiends that make and follow the games we can infect a new third generation with sonic change waves. For live shows we now employ the 050 technique ‘Hidden in Plainsight’.
‘Ma Ya Ya’ seems to be paying homage to funk roots?
Gerald Mitchell somewhere in Malaysia: Actually, ‘Ma Ya Ya’ was heavily influenced by Zydeco! A music Mike first heard as a kid during one of many long hot-ass trips to visit relatives in Mississippi. Its origin is way earlier than the ‘70s. In some regions of the south (especially Louisiana) it is the premier dance music. Many times we randomly reach into our roots as a foundation to go forward. It becomes difficult when your long term history is erased so you end up imagining and gluing stuff from your immediate past, future and present then warping things. Or using super-spliced coded genetic rhythms embedded in your soul that just come out when you tune in and call for them. There’s no real plan to retro-fit any of our music; the sound is as random as who UR.
In 1993, Mike talked about how important it was to establish a link between man and machines to keep the soul. Since then new technology has appeared where you can click the mouse and a track appears. Do you feel the convenience of today’s technology is stealing the soul?
Mad Mike; on assignment somewhere in Micronesia: We have always embraced incoming technology. The whole way ‘Detroit Techno’ evolved was due to new technology. As the newer hardware came in, older hardware was discarded, sold and pawned. This made the shit available to mugs like me! So in a strange way we still look at technology that way. I’m not really interested in the new shit because realistically that shit appeals to people who sell way more records than we do (or rich hobbyist type mugs) and because they sell more records they can afford the new cutting-edge technology. I’m more interested in what the new shit replaces, then the rich folks’ old technology becomes available and affordable to me. I think this view comes from us living in a “hand me down” culture here in America, where nothing is wasted when you don’t have shit. There is an old saying from down south that I still hear a lot of other older people say; ‘One man’s junk is another man’s treasure’. As far as soul machines go, it is much easier finding second hand technology that is battlefield proven and used friendly. To me these features make it easier to express yourself and eventually find yourself through the gear which is, in my opinion, two key elements to a soul machine. The other element exists within the operator; their life experiences and imagination.
I play instruments and by playing them I can still see the lag between the human brain’s spontaneity and a computer’s attempts at being there. It’s a long way off, man. I trust and have faith that others with soul can hear the difference.
What’s the strategy behind the recent Electronic Battle Weapons Battlepaks (12-inch EPs of DJ-friendly loops and noises)?
040 Mad Mike & DJ Skurge on assignment somewhere in China: The mentality behind that was three-fold and similar to our recent re-introduction of seven-inch records. Essentially records are expensive! Over the years we have made many, many records. For new unestablished DJs it is hard to go back and collect a label’s entire back catalogue. So new kids tend not to do it! Even though the records are still very playable. Also, the UR DJs have to carry huge record boxes all over the world with them to play a proper UR set due to the size of our catalogue. This hinders their ability to play other records not of UR origin. Thirdly, we are often under pressure from opportunistic-type record companies to do a whack ass ‘UR Greatest Hits’ type of thing. Something which we are staunchly against as we have new innovative young artists on the label and our new shit sells so why would we allow some stupid motherfucka to date our shit and let somebody blow ‘legendary’ smoke up my ass so they can make a million with a career-ending compilation album from us? So me, DJ-3000 and Buzz Goree decided to make a usable piece of vinyl that would not only revisit some of UR’s most powerful moments but, at the same time, lighten a working UR DJ’s field load while maintaining the same sonic firepower and make an affordable sonic tool for new kids that don’t fly around the world every weekend but have heard of us but could not afford to get into some classic UR stuff.
It was for this same reason we revisited the 7” vinyl format. At UR we make tools for the underground. Grimy, small sweatbox clubs where record volume and precision big studio sound is not a requirement so much as soul is! In my opinion, our 12” records simply cost too much (due to rising manufacturing costs) once they landed in all the various places they had to go. And many domestic records were much cheaper than our imports, so to compete we dropped the 7” which gave us the traditional “a lotta bang for notta lotta money” type value for our brothers and sistas in sound. Thanx to Ron Murphy at National Sound for innovating how to cut a HOTT 7” our records can compete sonically with most 122 records at a cheaper price.
In 1993 UR was going to stop playing live because a gig in France was “too ravey”. What prompted your return to playing gigs?
040 aka Mad Mike, somewhere in Japan: In 2002 Jeff Mills prompted us to return to performing live again. He asked us to play an experimental gig he was doing in Tokyo called Timesensitive. We performed as ‘Timeline’ and it went over very well. We went on to do a show in Detroit during the 2004 festival to raise money for MC Invincible’s Summer Youth programme. We also performed in February of this year at a Tsunami victims benefit gig in Antwerp, Belgium, thrown together by our long-time ally Oliver Way of the EPM crew based outta London. In May of this year we played for Kevin Sanderson’s Musicological Fuse In Festival here in Detroit! That was the shit cos we opened up for Mos Def! We was kickin’ tuff; the crowd was into the shit! Red Planet came out for the first time ever and performed. That went down heavy and then we ran too long and went into my man Mos Def’s time! We needed five more minutes to play ‘Jaguar’ and Mos def was like ‘Kick that shit!’ And we did! We crushed that shit! Then he came out and completely got tha fuck off! That was a helluva night I won’t forget ever and I never got to thank Mos Def and his people so I will now: ‘Thanks Mos Def and family, we appreciate what you did cause our families and friends finally got to see us play after 20 years and was watching that shit! You coulda been ugly and tripping on some famous shit but you weren’t – you are a star in more ways than just being famous.
How did it feel to be playing again in Belgium?
040 aka Mad Mike on assignment somewhere in Papua New Guinea: It was the shit man! It felt like playing for family. People knew the songs note for note. It made me realise that the records we make we can never imagine or will ever fully realise their impact on people’s lives and spirits. It is also a great trade off – we give the music and the people give us great inspiration to continue trying. What you don’t make in money in the underground you make in love. The type of love that carries you through fucked up times.
Ever see Jeff Mills these days?
James Pennington, aka Suburban Knight somewhere in Hong Kong: Mike communicates with Jeff regularly through two-way devices. He still functions as the lead re-con man in our system. He essentially is the eyes and ears of UR. He has never abandoned his past. Never.
Back in ’93 Mike said a lot of Detroit’s techno legends were walking around broke. How’s the city’s techno scene now?
Mad Mike 040 somewhere in Mongolia: I would like to say Submerge helped and it’s changed but that wouldn’t be true. The ironic truth is history has repeated itself. Just as jazz musicians abandoned Harlem for the greener pastures of Europe and Japan, so have a lot of our guys left Detroit. It is easier to DJ and earn $4,000 to $6,000 a weekend in Europe playing for people that adore you, know every record you play and actually give a fuck of what your perception of life is and have a wine and cheese dinner before every set than it is to produce a record and earn $1000 every three months in hot, funky basement with an old dog shit aroma as a backdrop, with your no account boys dropping through with fortys hating on you but at the time telling you which one of “dem spaceships they like” and drunk dancin’ all over the place knocking your cords out! And your woman mad at you cause “you need to get a job” and two or three other muggs all in the way trying to trying to help you for a % of the profits!! Shipping shit to Australia instead of Austria cause they didn’t learn shit in school and talking to women on your business line!! So our blossoming scene had the life sucked right out of it. Muggs ran up outta here and Chicago when the world discovered this shit. We lost some of our best producers as they have been on a paper chase for the last 15 years and are living off old ass hits! The irony is…can you blame them? Many tried to help their boys and surrounding communities, but the truth they boys wasn’t helping them or weren’t capable to help in an increasingly global game. So for many there was no choice; either leave or be pulled under by the leeches. The good part about it was their efforts made a ‘Detroit-style’ techno party a global thing. They made the jet-set DJ culture what it is today. And inspired many of the people who now buy records from us to become professional DJs. By doing awe-inspiring sets under tremendous pressure, they were like bees spreading techno all over the world! They saved the vinyl industry and also revived the dying analogue synthesiser industry. I even think they inspired the development of the internet and various music-related software, man. So maybe Detroit suffered so the world could grow?
Jeff Mills is the only guy I’ve seen with enough discipline to still produce quality records and DJ a demanding schedule as well as be a tremendous help to us here at home. Some of the other guys aren’t faring as well. The many long flights upset your body clock making your immune system weak. The long nights sucking up a club’s smoke-filled air and drinking isn’t good for you either. The women that adore DJs also take their toll. And then worst of all the drugs cats fall too as they try to keep that energy up for that 4AM headline set. Man, I really don’t know how they do it. It certainly ages a mugg prematurely if they don’t exercise or work out while on the road. At UR we train our DJs to prepare for the shit and we usually opt for short quick strikes to keep the cats from falling in sync with the other worlds. Best we try we still experience casualties! Fortunately, the scene here in Detroit is always active and you got UR and Kenny Dixon’s camp holding shit down. Ade Mainer and the Electro-Funk crew holding shit down. Mike Clark, Malik Pittman and the Beatdown Boys doing their thang. The Burden Brothers banging Octave One hard! So it’s all good. And these guys have learned from the others. They don’t stay out too long, they always got some fresh new shit droppin’ and they work hard constantly to recruit new talent! Which is real healthy for any scene.
How was UR and Detroit affected by 9/11?
Cornelius Harris aka The Unknown Writer aka Atlantis on assignment deep undercover somewhere in Burma: Detroit’s Arab-American community has endured harassment and violence, not to mention the economic impact. While things have improved since that date, there are numerous Americans who live as second and third class citizens due to stereotyping and prejudice. In US history different groups become scapegoats for all the wrongs others experience; African Americans, Asian Americans and now Arab Americans. Latinos in the US have been victims in the past, and no doubt will be in the future. The US shares this with other countries as well. As for UR, we had to get rid of the masks. We no longer could travel with them in our luggage for obvious reasons and out of respect to those who are dying in this faceless era of conflict. Thus our move to the more nocturnal Suburban Knight ‘Hidden in Plainsight’ 050 mode.
Has Detroit undergone any of the negative aspects of gentrification yet?
Atlantis somewhere in Lemuria: Gentrification is, by its nature, always a danger for the people displaced by it. People mistake ‘edge’ for location, a scene. It’s like the definition of cool. Many black Americans are perpetually cool because coolness is a response to oppression, a way of dealing with absurdity. Regardless of the gentrification, which has some very disturbing implications for many Detroit institutions, we will always have an ‘edge’.
National Sound is legendary. How does it keep going?
038 Mad Mike somewhere in south Korea: Loyalty. Ron Murphy helped man a fledgling Detroit techno producer’s early careers. When they had a fucked up, out of phase, poorly segued, four or eight track piece of shit production he would fix it! He would make it competitive to the shit coming out of New York or Chicago. He did miracles with some of those records (ours included). Later, when many of these producers found global success with their Ron Murphy mastered classics, they abandoned Ron in search of a louder more European sounding record. This made hard times for Ron. Fortunately, a few of us and Jeff Mills remained with him through good and bad times. We didn’t give a fuck about how loud the shit was or how sonically correct it was! Why would you when you were cutting on eight tracks at the most? We just wanted to have Ron’s input on our recordings, Ron’s experience and, more important, Ron’s spirit. It is a big part of our sound!
Ron used to coach championship baseball teams down in the city where I play now. Actually, he’s legendary among the old-timers in Detroit’s Sandlot baseball scene. Ron was also our coach in producing records. Sometimes you didn’t want to hear what he had to say because it hurt, but the truth sometimes does hurt. If you survived his harsh critiques you actually became a better, more consistent producer with a better understanding of the music business. I guess if you didn’t want to hear his shit then off to Europe you go where smoke was blown up your ass and people tell you what you wanna hear. It was funny when we made ‘Jaguar’; many of these same motherfuckas was running up saying “Where did you cut that at, man? Damn, that shit sounds good!” And I would proudly tell ‘em “At NSC motherfucka!” You see, if Ron could cut all that shit coming out of Europe from them good studios his shit would always be good. The truth is the record is only as good as the master. Most of the masters Ron has to deal with come from crazy, clueless kids with no formal recording experience, trying to make a hit on bullshit gear. His job was to make sense out of non-sense essentially. I don’t think he will ever get credit for that shit. If you ever wanna hear some real Ron Murphy listen to some soul or R&B cut on a good mixer with a real producer. The shit is unbelievable! Ron suffers from kidney failure and diabetes, so he has his good days and bad days; you have to be patient. But for us he is worth the wait. He is the sound.
Rock and funk have their own icons of innovation, like Hendrix and Sly. Techno-wise that has to include UR. Has it ever hit you that you’re held in similar esteem?
Mad Mike from somewhere in Detroit: Not to be an asshole or nothing but we cannot compare to those artists! The difference between us and them is that they found success in their own communities among their own people. We, on the other hand, had it at first but lost focus and since then have been complete failures in our efforts to bring hi-tech music to the inner city to inspire hope and futurism. We have had marginal success here in Detroit and that’s only recently due to Carl Craig, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson’s efforts with the festivals. The rest of inner city America has never heard of us and won’t any time soon. It’s strange how the inner city produces a sound that inspires hi-tech hopes, dreams and variant musics all over the world yet at the same time doesn’t get to listen to it! It would be easy to point the finger at how progressive and uninhibited what we used to listen to was compared to how obviously backward and controlled what we are allowed to hear is now in the inner city. But the reality is that when we ask large American and European record companies who ask for contractual worldwide distribution rights to your shit what their inner city marketing/promotion plan for our album is. They have this blank ass look on their faces. It’s almost like telling me “You motherfuckas are smart enough to make this shit but too dumb to listen to it.” That’s actually what’s happening. They don’t think there’s a market for Hi-tec music in the inner city/urban areas. Keep in mind just for having the audacity for asking shit like this you get to be “techno terrorists”, Black Militants and other assorted “Don’t be like Whitefolks” type of characters! And if you say “no” then you’re Geronimo!
There’s never been any Juan Atkins advertisements for his upcoming album on any billboards or African American press here, never. I remember when me and Juan were trying to get a Model 500 tour together and we needed gear to rehearse on we figured we would ask this equipment manufacturer to sponsor us after all the years of using and mentioning their gear on records, in interviews, etc. Surely this wouldn’t be a problem? And even though they have presets in their most popular gear that that were called ‘Detroit Techno strings’ and shit like that, they told our representative they never heard of Juan Atkins and could only sponsor more visible groups! That’s our reality man. It’s a painful existence sometimes. The only mothafuckas showing us love is the software cats in Germany; Ableton and Native Instruments. Without them some of our guys wouldn’t be surviving right now because they couldn’t find or afford all that old hardware.
In 2007, UR released another compilation album called Electronic Warfare 2.0, presenting tracks from the current roster. The cover showed three dead victims of street violence sub-titled ‘The other side of bling’ and the mood was militant on tracks like ‘Kill My Radio Station’, subversive on ‘Sabotage’ and heart-breaking on Mike’s beautiful ‘Death Of My Neighbourhood’. UR also made the front cover of The Wire with a major interview, Mike popping up again in the magazine’s September 2013 Robert Hood cover story, where he declared, “I think the original conditions, passions and respect for Detroit techno have all been corrupted. But a new virus will evolve deep on the edge. There may be another Robert Hood or Drexciya walking around this city. I’m proud we have a piece of a doorbell for them to ring and a place for them to maybe find a sonic identity.
“New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Detroit has been decimated and gutted by capitalism and industry, leaving ruins as a ghostly reminder and monument to consumer-driven pillaging. As Detroit becomes a modern day urban experiment and well-intentioned hipsters flock to the decay, it will become gentrified and evolve into a flavourless giant suburb, and the natives will have to relocate to the outer edges of the reservation.”
There have been sporadic UR releases, including Alone’s ‘Has God Left This City?’ in 2013, Timeline’s ‘The Conscious Dream’ in 2014 (marking the fabulous return of hi-tech jazz with a stone classic) and Dookie Machine (Mark Taylor) with 2016’s ‘Vintage Future’. Most recently, Mike explained online Submerge had temporarily suspended operations because his sister Bridgett, who’d run it for 25 years, had fallen ill.
As his beloved home city and country continue to change and face new threats, Mad Mike can be relied on to ensure his underground resistance will be in there somewhere, making its presence felt in the shadows, as it always has done.
–KN, from somewhere in sunny Albion