It is often the story that out of hardship and suffering, strong characters and even stronger movements emerge. None more so is that the case than with techno music.
Birthed in its beleaguered maternal city of Detroit and adopted by its strident European Father Berlin, Techno – as with any young child – needed help to shape its identity. But as we’ll discover in this openly honest interview, as much as techno needed Robert Hood, Robert Hood needed techno.
He is now a staple in the minds of all techno fans, an utter celebrity of the underground; but it is his humble pureness and spiritual empowerment that has kept him modest, kept him delivering for nearly 30 years. Whether it be under one of his numerous monikers including Floorplan – his house alias he now shares with his daughter Lyric – or as the minimal techno pioneer himself, Robert Hood is a fundamental pillar in techno’s history, and his life a novel in itself.
As his 22 track !K7 DJ-Kicks mix enters the world, we talk the brotherhood that is Underground Resistance; his first memories of Berlin; his vision to convey God’s message through music and how techno literally, saved his life…
Robert, I’m calling you following a somewhat unorthodox set in Berlin, at St.Thomas Kirche church. I understand, accompanied by a choir, you combined preaching with playing, something which can probably be called pioneering. How did it go?
Yeah it was special. I was a little bit nervous to be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect because it was such a different setting outside of my traditional church experience and yeah, I was nervous, I was wondering how people were going to receive the message of the gospel. I was looking out at the crowd – some people even brought their children – and there was a really good turnout. I expected something like 40-50 people but apparently there was about 400 and that was with very little promotion. It was such a special night. There was an atmosphere of love, it was extraordinary and I hope this is just the start of something.
How did people receive your preaching?
Being from Detroit, and growing up in a black church, there is usually a kind of call and response. When something resonates with you, people usually say Amen or Hallelujah and so it was different in that respect. But as I say, I hope this is the first of many experiences like this. I want the opportunity to speak God’s message of grace to anyone who is willing to hear it and for them not to get caught up in the celebrity of a DJ. It’s not about me; it’s all about God and the love of Jesus, tearing down walls not only of hate but the walls within ourselves. You know, if London will have me I’d love to do the same thing in London!
I understand that Dimitri Hegemann (Tresor founder and cultural activist) was involved in making the event happen, did he approach you about the idea or was it your own brainchild?
Well Dimitri approached me and was telling me about one of the pastors of St. Thomas Kirche, Pastor Rebecca Marquardt. See, she used to be a club goer and was very much into electronic music and Techno. She then received the calling and got involved with the ministry. But I was surprised to see how open they were about this music and this message, because the Catholic Church in America is usually very conservative when it comes to secular music. I think in this situation, they realised that Robert Hood and Floorplan incorporate the gospel message in their productions, so they were very open to it. But yeah, it was Dimitri who approached me.
You played at Tresor straight after the church performance, it must of been quite a contrast?
You know, at St. Thomas Kirche, as soon as I played tracks like ‘We Magnify his Name’ and ‘Never Grow Old’ and the beat kicked in, a spirit of love came about. And you know it was the same way in Tresor.
But when I play other, harder stuff that resonates with people’s pain and life experiences, there isn’t a gospel message in those tracks, but it’s the way they work alongside tracks like ‘Never Grow Old ‘and kind of tell a story or give a sermon, where I’m getting the chance within two hours, to intertwine these chapters of pain and other feelings with love and peace.
You know at one point, in the church, I looked out over the crowd at people’s faces and I didn’t know if they were receiving my message. But it’s funny because when I got to the altar call when you call people to Christ if they want to be saved, there was an immediate reaction and applause that broke out of yes, I want to be saved. Now I don’t know if they actually understood what that entails and what that means, but I felt that a seed had been planted and that is the most important thing.
Sometimes I actually get caught up with how my musical performance went, but with the ministry it’s not about performing, so i need to leave that perspective out of it and concentrate on winning souls for Christ. So when people responded with such eagerness I was happy about that, that’s what it’s about at the end of the day, presenting God’s grace and love and winning people round with that, not condemnation. So it’s a learning process about how the people of Germany, France, GB etc. respond to this message of grace and mercy. So in future, my approach may be a little different.
Having come over from Detroit with Underground Resistance way back in the early 90s, Berlin must hold some special memories for you. How do you see your connection with Berlin and why do you think techno found an adoptive home there – were there similarities between the two cities?
I think my first time in Berlin was in ‘91, just after the Berlin wall came down. And I believe the connection that Detroit and Berlin share is a desire, to rise out of the ashes of oppression and move towards a progressive goal, away from what people’s perceptions are.
I find that the world has a perception of Detroit as being a write off, a city that’s lost. I remember watching documentaries about Berlin and learning about people’s needs and wants to separate this new Berlin from fascism and socialism and paint a new picture of Germany as a whole. I understand that the people of Germany embraced Motown music too, and they gave Berlin a new identity of art, creativity and love, not of oppression and hate. The connection? It’s just two cities that are trying to reinvent themselves.
I know Dimitri gave Underground Resistance your first experience of Berlin at Tresor, but what were those early memories like?
Yeah Tresor, it was crazy, so hot and smoky, it was incredible. There was an explosion of pain, anxiety, anger and protest and you could feel it down in that bunker, the vaults of an old Jewish bank. You could just feel the tension and pain, it was like the souls of the Jews and Germans and all those who had been oppressed being released; feeling the spirit of souls in conflict and their need to escape in the urgency of the music, it was a release, a decompression.
Checkpoint Charlie was also probably one of my earliest memories, learning of the people who tried to cross, like one guy who stole a tank and tried to drive straight through the wall. It is that breaking out spirit, that is what I remember and Tresor captured that perfectly.
Why do you think techno is such a great genre for giving a release? I know many people use it almost therapeutically, the power and the speed enables people to forget or cast away any suffering or sadness in their lives and techno’s rawness feels the perfect vehicle to facilitate that.
You know, it starts with things like jazz and motown, which during the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s brought both black and white people together listening to people like The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. You had people in France, Germany, all over, coming together and listening to John Coltrane and it broke down divisions. God is a God of inclusion, not exclusion, tearing down walls and bringing together people of different races and ethnic backgrounds, bringing people together in one place.
As for techno, techno is explosive in all of the emotions that we feel. I know I myself felt depressed up to the point where I tried to commit suicide as a means to escape, and music offered me an escape. It really did save my life.
I think that these various boxes that segregate us such as race, or background, I think in techno, it definitely is a vehicle to bring those barriers down and bring people together. And you can see that in festivals and in all of these big gatherings and events, people coming together for one purpose and we have to understand what the real focus is and grab a hold of it.
Music seems to transcend all boundaries as you say, and especially in today’s political landscape where nationalism is seeping back through into the mainstream, that is an important fact to remember.
Yeah absolutely, we all speak the language of music, it has no particular religion or affinity, music is a healing force. Even here in the South, I hear stories of how there was so much segregation and when people would see Motown artists, people had to be segregated by a rope, black on one side and white on another. And just like with the Berlin wall, those people, those kids were like ‘we don’t need this rope, this wall, we need to come together’, that is God.
Let’s turn to your recent DJ Kicks mix. How did you find pulling this one together? Was there a particular message or emotion you wanted to convey?
Yeah, there is a particular song on this mix called ‘Mirror Man’, and it caused me to look at myself – where am I going? Where have I been? Who am I as an artist? As a DJ? As a man of God? You know, I listened to some of Moodymann’s DJ Kicks mix and that is Moody you know, and that is one of the best collections of tracks that I have ever heard.
I didn’t want to stray too far away from my minimal roots so i thought I’d put together something indicative of my soul, ugliness, pain and struggle of who Robert Hood is as an artist. So this mix is a reflector, a mirror of my soul. I want to further tell people about who I am from the inside out. We all have this struggle and war inside of us, coming to terms with who we are and where we are going.
Talk me through some of the track choices, the likes of Matrixxman and Truncate. Are these artists you particularly admire and whose sounds resonate with you?
So when I look for tracks to play in my DJ set I’m always trying to find music that identifies with the story I am trying to tell. Certain artists stick out like Gary Beck, Mark Broom, Truncate, Ben Sims, and it’s very important for me that the tracks fit into my perspective of how what electronic music means to me.
So, sometimes frustratingly, when I get new music and there is not enough of it to build up a book, not enough chapters to build a cohesive narrative of what I want to say. This makes me dig further or go back into my studio and create something, but you know, sometimes that gets frustrating and so it’s a constant search for the perfect beat. And I guess we are all on that journey, like a geologist trying to find that mineral that will translate the story of the human spirit, to the human spirit. So all of these artists such as Slam and Matrixxman, they feel like prophets to me, like books of the Bible that help me to tell a story.
Wow, I don’t suppose there’s a bigger compliment to those artists than that. If we go back to America, how do you find it playing out there now? What kind of transition have you witnessed from those early Underground Resistance days to the present day, how is techno being received there?
Well I can remember in the early days, when techno and house were looked as this underground entity that was just a fad. But then house music really took off in the clubs and college campuses. In places like Detroit we had underground progressive clubs like The Music Institute, Underground Nation and St. Andrew’s Hall. I even remember going to the cabaret clubs and hearing Adonis. In Detroit the whole cabaret movement was a whole different planet.
You know, hearing Larry Heard being embraced on a jazz radio stations in Detroit was just indicative of how deep house and techno music’s reach had spread. So yeah, I saw the advent of the rave movement also, and how the drug culture came into techno music, with kids overdosing at these mega-raves in places like Arizona, Denver and California.
In the present day, techno has come into its own where it is a healthy, exciting scene which is really strong, and you can sense that in New York at Output or Smart Bar in Chicago, just how powerful it is in its staying power – it is no longer looked at as a passive fad, it is a music culture, the same as jazz or hip hop.
So now we’re at the stage where America at least knows what this is. It’s come a long way from when I was trying to explain it to my Mother and I was like, “I don’t even know what that is”. Electronic music is the sound of rebellion and protest, the sound of the future, it still has a long way to go; in my eyes it is still very new.
And it was rebellion and protest that were key elements of those early days with Underground Resistance; are you still connected with the modern day entity?
I mean I will always be connected to Underground Resistance; we’ll always be a brotherhood. The roots run so deep. There were guys in Underground Resistance that people didn’t even realise. A guy who recently passed away I used to in fact be partnered with. We made up a group called ‘The Vision’, which didn’t materialise until I later became The Vision myself. There was another guy who played the guitar and sang in the vain of Prince. And there were always different guys in and out of this basement in Mike Banks’ mother’s house, that’s where we recorded a lot of stuff.
The different characters and rappers and musicians that came out of that basement were the Underground Resistance family. It was a brotherhood. We would all drive to places like Toronto when some of us were performing, as members of the house we all supported each other, it was a family. An army. A gang. All of it. I’m always connected to that movement. We rode, lived, moved, fought and ate together. It was a movement so much deeper than people realised.
It’s a romantic story in many ways, how you all shouldered each other and your ambitions as a tight-knit group.
Yeah it is, thank you for that. I remember walking miles and miles to that house, that basement, just so I could sit in their (Jeff Mills & Mike Banks) presence and watch them work, even if I wasn’t recording anything. I’d watch Mike play the keyboard or plug a 303, or watch Jeff program a drum beat; it was just such an invaluable experience, a magic time to learn from their processes.
As a final thought, I just wanted to get an insight into the life of Robert Hood on the road, your life whilst touring. What keeps you going, a routine or coping mechanism? Do you rely on your spirituality?
Pray and drink water. Pray and drink water – and get some sleep if I can. That keeps my spirit sharp and aware and awake. It’s hard to sleep sometimes, in between flying and security and delays, it is hard to keep giving the best that I can. Because of that I pray to keep my spirit sweet and focussed on what this is all about – staying in spirit of laying down my life, just like Jesus did, to stay humble and not be so caught up in my ego and celebrity.
I try to focus on what is essential, spreading God’s love through electrical wires. And yeah, as my wife keeps saying, drink plenty of water, stay hydrated. It can be a challenge to stay well but the word of God is real in my life and it keeps be grounded.
Thank you, Robert.
God bless you brother, thank you.
DJ-Kicks: Robert Hood is out now on !K7 Records. Buy it here.
Words: Samuel Asquith
Featured Images: Rik Moran