“It doesn’t matter what you look like, what sex you are, where you’re from. You just have to be a bad motherf*cker,” explains Jeff Mills, techno DJ and producer. “If you’re a bad motherf*cker then you don’t have anything to worry about. If you’re not, then you have to keep taking pictures of yourself.” In a world where social media manicures appearances does talent still matter? For someone who’s made a career from technical abilities and not chasing likes, it’s clear as daylight. Nothing beats raw talent.
“Knowing what computers and what equipment does and can do isn’t the same thing as actually doing something. Knowing technology, you know, doesn’t make you a genius, it just makes you knowledgeable.”
DJing has become somewhat of a lost art form and more about an online persona. “I cringe to think about the next five years. I just cringe to think about what DJs might think they have to do to be noticed or to be recognized. I mean, I always understood in that you just have to be very good at what you do.” Beginning his DJ career at WDRQ radio in 1984, since then Mills has become synonymous with the Detroit techno scene. Stretching beyond music, his talent and performances intersect between contemporary art, pop culture, design and science fiction.
His delicate yet lightning-quick touch on three, and at times four, turntables earned him the nickname The Wizard (an alias he’s retired) due to his magical ability. With CDJs replacing the traditional turntable, you won’t see many DJs playing on three CDJs let alone four. It’s not for a lack of want but discipline and determination. It takes a great amount of practice, time, and patience to master the skill of DJing on four DJ decks. In a world that favors immediate gratification and the music industry’s extremely competitive climate, it’s not a surprise why many DJs opt out of creatively mixing on more than two decks.
“Social media has choked the creativity out of electronic music….It has hijacked an incredible art form…you have to take a picture of yourself and that you have to be in their face all the time…This is the impression, this is the illusion.”
Jeff Mills isn’t striving to be the best or greatest DJ. It sounds odd, right? Why not strive for grandeur? In a society that favors competition, Mills doesn’t see his line of work as a contest. Mills goes on to explain from his apartment in Paris, “you have to learn to be humble and to be able to be honest with yourself. You’re never going to be the greatest electronic musician and producer in the world. It’s just not possible. It doesn’t exist. You’re never gonna be the greatest DJ in the world that’s just not the way that the art form is designed. […] Every night you’re dealing with people and people are never the same and the scenario is always different.”
“You have good nights and bad nights, that is the reality of being a DJ. Sometimes you make good music, sometimes you don’t. That’s the reality of being a musician.”
“I don’t like to measure myself in the things that I’ve done. I prefer to look forward to the things that I’m about to do.”
With a career spanning more than three decades, he’s a man focused on movement. He keeps one foot in front of the other hardly ever looking back. He’s not one to talk about accolades, achievements or care much for donning titles. “I’m more concerned about simple things, but [maybe] not that simple. For instance, like the idea in electronic music, most producers don’t even think about and listeners can’t even imagine, about the idea of a solo in electronic music,” says Mills. “It doesn’t exist. So you’re never going to hear anyone solo on any instrument and that just cannot be a lost art. You can’t lose something as vital and as important as someone being able to solo on their instrument in music.”
“When someone can just take an instrument and just play based on how they feel, that is the highest form of the usage of music, but it doesn’t exist in electronic music.”
Like many, Mills felt the initial shock of the pandemic but he admits that in a way he had led somewhat of a distanced life from people given his tour schedule. “A DJ’s life, especially mine, was always pretty much isolated because I was always on the road all the time for like, for like three decades of just travel constant…I just never really had the opportunity to develop habits.”
Realizing his lifestyle had taken a turn, he adapted to his situation. “I really appreciated the time to stand in one place and not planning to leave two or three days later. In the studio [I was] making music. I could take time to work on something and then come back a week later. I had time to think about things. I could have time to extract ideas more vividly and in more detail.”
These music making sessions produced his upcoming album Mind Power, Mind Control examines the art of mental persuasion and our mind’s vulnerability in this day and age. Much of his music takes inspiration from science fiction while exploring metaphysical concepts and questions.
“Money and profits are more attractive than people’s mental health. So, we have to do something to ourselves. We need to somehow condition ourselves to build up some type of resistance.” He goes on to explain of his new album Mind Power, Mind Control. “It [focuses] on this idea that it’s going to depend on us individually to be able to somehow synthesize or create some type of filter to keep ourselves sane so that we can move forward.”
Ahead of the album’s release, Mills plans on showing a film for it at Movement Detroit 2022. Donations will benefit the Detroit Public School system for music education, and the event will be hosted by his label Axis. The label represents 30 years of maintaining artistic independence. Founded in 1992, Jeff Mills created his own label to preserve music as a timeless composition. To this day, he honors music as such. “What is music for? Creativity and art. The suggestion of what music is trying to say…all these things have all kind of just been kicked to the wayside all.”
Maybe it’s better to focus on your mental state or your ability to be able to filter out the things that need to be filtered out, so that it doesn’t drive you crazy.
Jeff Mills on his latest album Mind Power, Mind Control
“Right now we are in this situation where the amount of likes, the commerce of followers and likes determine how popular DJ is, and it’s crippling in many ways,” comments Mills. “It gives this seemingly impression that [electronic music] can only survive if we stay in parallel and stay connected to social media. A lot of people believe that we really don’t have much of a choice. That there really wasn’t anything before social media, and we weren’t getting along and doing things and communicating any other way, which is not the case.”
He goes on to reference the 80s and the dance music scene. “It’s not the first time there have been these diversions. During the rave culture, you know, it was drugs. Drugs were the large elephant in the room without drugs, nothing, many things didn’t happen. I know a lot of people didn’t wanna talk about it, but, you know that also took the place of a discussion about music.”
For Mills, it’s about artists getting back to the basics. “You need to know, the theory of music. What is music for? What is it? What is it good for? Why do we want to keep it in our society?” These are some questions he thinks about. “Frankie Knuckles and all those guys, you know, they did all those things. They were leaving things for us to trace back and, and it’s just gone off somewhere else.”
“It’s useful to understand how music is made not just programmed in your setup, but to understand how music becomes a form of communication.”
If you really want to succeed as an artist in the music industry forget the notion of “fake it til you make it.” Looking beyond influencer culture and behind social smoke and mirrors, he comments “you have to find some way to balance being a master of what you do, or you have to give the illusion that you know more. The knowledge of the usage of technology is the same thing as skill which is also not true.”
In today’s competitive world, talent alone won’t get you noticed as a DJ or producer, but it certainly does get your foot in the door. While technology has benefitted society in many ways, Jeff Mills feels for the DJ world it has had a reverse effect. He cautions against falling prey to the myths and half truths social media creates. For Mills, music has always been about the creation process, “the act of extracting an idea and materializing something that you’re thinking about and making something that other people can interact with and can listen to.”
“Knowing technology doesn’t make you a genius, it just makes you knowledgeable”
He goes on to explain “music is extremely powerful when the conditions are right. So you spend your whole life trying to have those moments …[…] I think at this moment in time in the music industry, especially for younger people, the idea of being liked, being acknowledged, and being followed is something that is really important.”
However, younger artists are starting to wake up to the (false) realities of social media. Techno artist Sara Landry recently shared her thoughts on how social media is devaluing art. The algorithm tyrant has placed more value on popularity than creativity.
Listen: Premiere: Jeff Mills & Rafael Leafar “Homage” – Axis Records
This class of younger artists who are going against trends and opting to focus on building authentic careers is what can help keep the scene alive and thriving. When it comes to music-making, Mills encourages younger artists to do it for themselves and no one else. “Make it with the idea that not everything is going to be heard by the public. Make music for therapy and make it because you need to extract an idea. You know sometimes it takes 10 tracks to finally discover that it was the eleventh track that’s most interesting.”
He also attributes creating for his own ears and personal taste as helping drive his career’s success. “It’s probably a better way to protect yourself from the criticism and the viciousness of people who can lash against you for various reasons. Maybe they’re envious or maybe they just don’t like it,” says Mills.
Jeff Mills is a highly-respected figure within the electronic music industry, but he doesn’t let external forces define him for good or bad. In fact, he almost evades any sort of title or recognition. Not because he doesn’t care for it but because his experience has taught him otherwise. He is all too aware of the beauty in the struggle of pursuing creative efforts, especially within the music industry. It is precisely that understanding that allows him to honor craftsmanship and creativity. “The respectfulness that you develop over time for any musician, anybody that plays an instrument, or anyone that’s in music–you develop respect for them. Whether you like their music or not, it doesn’t matter.”
As they say, you get what you give. Mills has shown respect for the last 30-plus years to his peers and continues to do so. It’s no wonder why he’s one of the most well-regarded artists in techno. Even with a lifetime of techno under his belt, he doesn’t necessarily consider himself an authority in the space. “Everyone’s free to do whatever they want. It’s not my place to give any rules…I can only speak to what I think would be useful to someone if they really want to make a career in music,” says Mills. “If you really want longevity, you have to understand how music works.” It’s that simple but not easy.
While art and music are subjective in taste, there are undeniable characteristics that separate good artists from great. There’s a reason why certain songs or tracks resonate with many instantly becoming cultural staples. Mills wants to encourage a healthy dose of artistic curiosity among his peers to maintain music as not only art but as a thread to the fabric of human culture. “Why do we want to bring it [music] with us? Why do we live with music all our lives? Why does it bring out so many memories? Why do we recognize certain artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder? What did they do that was so special that makes them eternal? What is it in their music?”
“There’s never a time where you’re going to know everything ever, and you’re never going to be good all the time.”
By no means is Mills conditioning music for one sole purpose as he knows everyone has different intentions. “Some people make music because they just want to be known. They just want to accomplish a certain level of notoriety and recognition….[and] some people do it because of money,” shares Mills. “For me, I’ve experienced all of those things in my career. I wanted to do all those things. At this moment, I’m more concerned about the idea overall about electronic music and on a larger scale.” Seeing music as a means to connect, Mills continues to foster its integrity in an authentic way that honors the past while carrying traditions forward.
Check out ZANZA 21 via his imprint Millsart, all acoustic and electronic instruments are programmed and played by Jeff Mills.
ZANZA 22 to be released April 22.