Detroit is a city that’s endured its fair share of hardships since its industrial decline, yet has managed to retain a cultural legacy that’s been at the forefront of global music over the past few decades. From the commercial juggernaut of Motown, to its plethora of ground-breaking Hip-Hop artists – the Motor City clearly breeds innovation. One musical movement that has seen numerous adaptations worldwide has been Techno – since its inception at after hours clubs in 1980s Detroit, it has blossomed into a global club movement. One of its leading and most influential figures over the past 20 years has been Mr Robert Hood.
An original member of the esteemed Underground Resistance crew in the early 90s, Hood has managed to consistently adapt and innovate in the subsequent years, whilst staying true to himself and the city he’s so proud to call home. His own label M-Plant – a bastion of minimal Techno that came to define much of the sound in the late 90s – recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. His diversity in composition is evident under his numerous aliases and has seen him record for respected labels like Metroplex, Axis, Cheap and Music Man, as well featuring on the legendary fabric mix series.
With a seemingly endless collection of releases under his belt, one would assume he’d be satisfied with the way his legacy has panned out. But with a refreshed perspective on his craft and life in general he has no plans to let up, revealing his latest offering ‘Shaker/Ritual’ on EPM in March. A collaborative effort between two of his own aliases – Robert Hood and Floorplan, the 12″ is a perfect marriage of the different motifs he explores under different artist titles and the first time he’s brought both names together on the same record.
We recently caught up with Hood whilst he spent some down time in a cornfield near his home in rural Alabama…
Hi Robert, thanks for taking the time for talking for us today, how are you doing?
Doing pretty good thanks, having a good day so far.
Am I right in thinking you’re living in Alabama at the moment?
That’s right, the deep South right by the Gulf Coast…
What made you want to up sticks from Detroit and move down there? It doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a big Techno DJ…
It’s a little bit off the beaten path, yeah. There was a pretty decent piece of land down here that my wife’s grandfather built up over time, about five acres. It was kind of just sitting there and lying dormant, so we decided to come down and build a house on it. The housing situation was a little bit more ideal down here at the time, especially with conditions worsening down in Detroit. We thought it would be nice to move down here and set up a new base of operations.
Even though you’ve been out of the city for around a decade now, with so much of your past being linked to Detroit, do you think that it still has a lot of influence over all of the work that you’ve done since relocating?
Absolutely. There’s a saying that goes, “You can take the boy out of Detroit, but you can’t take the Detroit out of the boy.” The influences are forever there, no matter where I am. I could be living in Paris, Stockholm or anywhere, and I still feel Detroit in my blood. From the influences of Motown and beyond, those are the streets that raised me, they’ve helped to build my character and my integrity. The progressive attitude of Detroit and Techno music still courses through my veins and I still try to get back to Detroit as often as I can because those are my roots. Even being in the country, right in the middle of a cornfield, I’m still very much a product of metro Detroit.
What do you make of the current state of Detroit? There’s been a fair amount of talk about a kind of regeneration over the past couple of years, what do you make of the speculation?
There’s a small handful of resilient, creative minds who are embracing their vision of rebuilding Detroit. That element of ingenuity has always been part of Detroit and is still there, it just has to spread and get into the hearts and minds of the rest of the people in the city. When the automotive industry was flourishing, people were flocking to Detroit from the South, expecting to obtain a better life. That idea has to be rebirthed and I think it’s yet to really catch hold because people are just so hopeless.
There’s a real sense of hopelessness in Detroit, you can feel it and you can see it in people’s eyes. That fire has to catch on again. There will always be that element of rich people with the money and the capital to invest and take advantage of Detroit’s plight, just the same as its been in places like Oakland and Harlem, but we have to build our own expectations. I think that’s slowly happening.
You’ve recently released ‘Shaker / Ritual’ – it’s the first time you’ve matched Robert Hood with your Floorplan alias on the same release. Am I right in thinking this is the first time this has been the case?
It’s just something that happened naturally. I wanted to illustrate my ideas on House music and Techno and how close they really are. When I first did the ‘Sleepchamber’ record (alongside Jeff Mills) on Axis (Tranquilizer EP AX-001), it sort of morphed into a House feeling. It was intended to be a Techno record, but I found myself feeling these House vibes, from Chicago and maybe even a little bit of New York. It was strange. At the same time it’s still such a Detroit record, so I guess I’m finding with Floorplan and Robert Hood that the two are kind of merging together. For instance, some of the tracks on the Paradise LP with Floorplan exhibit a bit of the core influence that I have from the early days of M-Plant and Axis. I’d also say there’s definitely an influence of Little Louis, his groove and his House music sensibilities, coming through on that record. It just came together organically, with the two power-twins, Floorplan and Robert Hood, working together and forming like Voltron… I don’t know if you remember the cartoons from back in the 80s (laughs). You’ve got Techno elements and House elements coming together to create a single great entity.
Do you think that the aesthetic differences are getting less significant over time? Is it just working towards a single message?
Not really, it’s just like a solar eclipse. It happens every now and then! At times you have one complete blackout and this is one time when the two have aligned. Merging them together over time isn’t really my aim, it’s just one of those things.
You had your retrospective of your label M-Plant release last year as well, which must have been quite a big deal for you. When you look back across that catalogue, what does it tell you about your own progression, both artistically and personally?
As I take a step back and look at this compilation, the one word comes to mind is ‘growth’. I started with a really stripped back and basic approach to Techno and gradually evolved and grew from boyhood to maturity within the scene. It’s a retrospective of this maturity.
One of the main ways I’ve seen your music evolve over the past couple of decades is the introduction of increasingly spiritual and religious elements, for instance tracks like ‘We Magnify His Name’ and ‘Never Grow Old’.
Absolutely. I remember working on ‘Minimal Nation’ and ‘Internal Empire’ and I could feel a strong presence of the Holy Spirit guiding me. I remember having a feeling of being able to see what was going to happen next and a glimpse of things that were to come. I didn’t understand it at the time, I wasn’t very much into spirituality and I wasn’t attending church on a regular basis or reading the Bible. I really didn’t know what to make of it, but I still felt it revealing my steps for me.
Of course, when I got into the word of God and really developed a relationship with God, my life and everything around me began to grow stronger and more confident. I developed a sense of peace and wellbeing, which I think is evident in my work over the past few years. Around the time I did the fabric mix (‘fabric 39’), things started to fit and I noticed a paradigm shift. I remember reading a book by a guy called Dr Myles Monroe called ‘The Principles and Power of Vision’ and it just changed my whole life and took me to another level. My ideas within production and DJ’ing were transformed, which is evident in the songs you’ve mentioned as well as the whole aesthetic behind ‘Paradise’. I wanted to share the Gospel and God’s message of grace to the rest of the world and become an agent.
Did you ever feel conscious of trying to bring this religious message to a group of people that might not be instantly accepting of your ideals?
At first, I was a bit worried about how people were going to receive it, maybe not everybody was going to embrace it. But God spoke to me about it and told me not to worry about how they’ll receive it, this is real. People gravitate towards what is real. This isn’t a put-on, it’s God’s message! There’s was no point in getting my mind all caught up in doubting myself and being over-analytical, I just had to do it and be obedient to share the Holy Spirit’s message. Not everybody’s going to receive it, and that’s okay! There are people who don’t necessarily believe that there is a God.
When you deliver a message with love in it and not judgement, people tend to listen to you a bit more to see if there’s something in it. But if you deliver a message of condemnation, you just push people away. I’m trying to be a reflection of God’s love on Earth, not just some guy from a church who’s pointing his finger at people and judging them. I’ve seen so many preachers get on a soapbox and tell people that they’re going to hell or whatever. That just turns people off, God is the only one who can judge us.
I think there’s always been a level of spirituality attributed to Techno, although within a more secular context of entering trance-like states and transcending to a higher plane of being within the music.
Techno, just like any other genre, whether it’s Jazz, Hip-Hop, Rock music, all emanates from God. I can remember when I went to the Music Institute and I felt a strong spiritual element in that room. There was no alcohol, no drugs, that wasn’t the order of the day. It was just about the music and, yeah, it was almost like a church with people dancing to music and being together. It wasn’t a hedonistic kind of vibe in that room.
I can remember going to Heaven when Ken Collier played and there was a strong hedonistic vibe in that room. I’ve seen the contrast at these two different clubs. Anything that God creates, Satan wants to twist it and draw us into darkness. My idea is to bring light into a dark place. Everyone has a voice to influence people and I don’t want to use mine to bring anything but life and positivity.
Do you think that everyone is using their voice as much as they should? Within the Techno scene it can be quite easy to be passive rather than trying to spread a message of change…
As artists, whether you’re a painter, actor, author or anyone involved in the creative arts, we should tell a story. I don’t think that’s happening. Say something that means something, instead of just making a hot dance record. I mean, that’s okay sometimes and there doesn’t have to be some deep or meaningful concept behind every song, but I like to take an approach like an author and create a strong cinematic story. I take cues from Marvin Gaye, Langston Hughes, and little bit of Slick Rick, the greatest storyteller in Hip-Hop. It’s got to mean something, whether that’s love or hate. There’s so much going on in the world and we’re not talking about it.
Do you think that’s one of the reasons that you seem to embrace the LP as a format more than a lot of other individuals in the Techno scene?
I’m a 70’s kid. I grew up listening to Earth, Wind and Fire, Al Green, and Motown Records. They made albums. Each song on an album represents a room in a house and I like to build the whole house, which has always been my approach to music. Even though Techno is more of a singles-driven industry, I still want to make albums just like Prince did back in the day. It’s a medium where I can tell my story, whether it’s a personal story or complete fiction, and people can relate to that.
The artists that you seem to be identifying with as influences, whether in the Hip-Hop, Soul, or Disco scenes, seem to be part of an African American tradition. Do you think that your music fits into this same tradition as part of a black identity?
It does and it doesn’t. At the end of the day, I’m a spirit. I was a spirit before I was a black man from Detroit and when I die I’m going to be a spirit, so I try to focus more on that than on my flesh. At the same time, I’m a civil rights baby, which formed a lot of my ideas about the world, so I try to communicate with that in mind at times. I want to touch people’s hearts and spirits on a higher level from my own personal perspective of Detroit.
What do you make of the state of the contemporary Techno scene more generally at the moment?
It’s very strong and healthy right now. I’m hearing some very good interesting elements from Techno that I haven’t seen in years. It’s come out of this place of obscurity six or seven years ago when it was re-establishing itself. My worry is that we can’t keep using this same aesthetic and these same ideas, thinking they’re going to work next year. We need to keep elevating this artform and avoid getting into this ‘if it ain’t broke…’ mentality. Nothing in excess is entirely good. If we eat too much, we’re gonna get fat, too much candy rots your teeth, you know?
Do you think that popularity in the scene can be retrogressive for encouraging experimentation? Once people realise what people are into, I think that people are sometimes more comfortable taking the easy route, thus risking stagnation.
When Disco was at its height, people capitalised on it. We had Disco commercials and all that. I remember my little brother played his Disco Duck record until the thing wore out (laughs). It just morphed into this silly joke. Even the Bee Gees, who I love, became the butt of a lot of jokes in the media. The same thing is happening in Rap music, the artform is losing its bite. I’m not seeing the creativity that you had with artists like Eric B and Rakim, Nas, Wu Tang Clan, and Notorious B.I.G. It’s just about the hook that’s going to sell records.
Because of that, we need to be careful about how Techno is being perceived. Now we have EDM and it’s becoming a candy-coated commodity without that much substance. People will always capitalise on the latest trend and product, but Techno is a different animal. We really have to guard this precious thing we have. EDM is going to run its course and that’s okay. I’m not against EDM, some of it I like, but let’s guard this underground thing and take it where we want it to go and don’t let anyone prostitute it. We have the power.
What are you plans for the near future to push the genre forward? You’re touring fairly consistently at the moment, so have you managed to fit much production in?
We’re not slowing down, I’m constantly in the studio and the creative juices are flowing like rivers of living water. I’m working on new stuff for Robert Hood, Floorplan, and Monobox, as well as some remixing. I’m doing it all! I’m just so in love with Techno and electronic music, I don’t even know how to stop. I’m looking to get more experimental and radical.
Words: Patrick Henderson
Photography: Marie Staggat