By the start of the 90s, the techno sensation had truly taken off. Flourishing from its spiritual home of Detroit, with the likes of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson creating the sounds of the future from the suburbs of the Motor City, the genre had made the pivotal jump across the Atlantic to Europe. The music of the American black suburban middle classes had been appropriated by white culture and changed forever. With the genre removed from its original context and placed in a commercial context within clubs across the world, the origins of techno were in danger of being forgotten. The futuristic sound was being diverted from Detroit at the height of its influence.
This worried Michael ‘Mad Mike’ Banks, the single constant member of Underground Resistance. As an already established instrumentalist, having played with the likes of seminal bands including Parliament and Funkadelic and moving forward into the house sound of the 80s with Members of House, the beginning of the final decade of the millennium saw another change in direction for the man himself. In a turning point for techno, Banks joined with the now equally legendary Robert Hood and Jeff Mills to establish the label and collective, with it marking a different take on the hedonistic and party-centric world of dance music, expanding it past the walls of the club and using it to portray a wider political message.
As a reaction to the increase of the White Europeans presence in techno, one could be forgiven for identifying the phenomenon of Underground Resistance as part of the Black Nationalist movement. After all, the burgeoning hip hop scene was founded on the notion as African Americans as the outsider in Western culture, unable to integrate into society and thus embracing this difference as something to be proud of. The likes of Public Enemy called on the subjugated black people of America to rise up and fight their oppressors, making it all too easy for us to pigeon-hole Underground Resistance in the same political bracket, as many often do. But, as the official website boldly states:
“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.”
Banks’ vision is not based around a divisive present, but the projection of a future wherein race is not an issue. Utilising the futuristic sound and imagery of techno in an environment free from the capitalist ideals of much of the new wave of techno, Underground Resistance represents a transcending of race and an entry into a diverse and accepting future. Whilst hip-hop has a tendency to focus on race, the disciples of UR view it as an irrelevance. This refusal to adhere to stereotypes is embodied in the sheer variety of the music on offer. From the electro of DJ Skurge’s output and the Hi-Tech Jazz of Galaxy 2 Galaxy to the tribal pound of Rolando’s Aztec Mystic, it’s impossible to define the exact sound of Underground Resistance, with the diversity on offer undoubtedly forming part of the un-ending appeal of the imprint.
Of course, the initial Black Nationalist sounds of hip hop extended outside of its original context in predominantly black inner city areas to be big business, with it truly becoming part of the cultural mainstream across the globe. Meanwhile, Underground Resistance, for better or for worse, have remained in their original location. Whilst the techno sound has inevitably spread around the world and become even bigger money business than it was in the early 90s, Mad Mike and his cohorts still live and operate in their hometown. Whether this is bull-headed or admirable is up for debate, but the fact remains; It’s clear that Underground Resistance are in it for the love of the music.
The city of Detroit remains the beating heart pulsing through the music, with it forming an intrinsic part of the aesthetic. When paired with fellow Motor City natives, such as the equally eminent cohort of Parrish, Dixon Jr., Pittman, Wilhite et al, the inarguably decaying location is the source of much romanticism, particularly within European music fans, many of whom have never visited the city itself. This state of geographical stasis is perhaps linked to the rejection of the pursuit of commercial gain. Much like any form of ‘underground’ music, the major labels are rejected in favour of the aesthetic purism of the real deal.
This anti-consumerism is central to Underground Resistance’s identity or, more specifically, its lack of identity. Mad Mike is notoriously shy of the limelight, often appearing garbed in his signature bandana draped across his face and keen to stress that he doesn’t wish unmasked pictures to be circulated too frivolously. The canon of contributors to the label is ever-expanding and contracting, with a host of mystical and anonymous monikers making it hard to keep track of exactly who is doing what in the UR universe. This sense of aesthetic disorientation goes against everything that the current mainstream music industry focuses on, removing the image of the superstar DJ and placing emphasis on the most important part of the label, the music itself. The DJ as the figurehead is displaced, with the listener taking centre-stage and implored to create their own reactions and narrative, rather than rely on the artist to spoonfeed them the ideas behind tracks. The anonymity of the collective creates a dynamic that is inclusive of all, rather than perpetuating celebrity culture.
But then of course, maybe I’m reading to far into things. Maybe the mythical and science fiction imagery of Underground Resistance has become intertwined with our own perception of the imprint, with the ethos and representation of the label itself becoming the subject of modern myth and legend. Much like the city of Detroit, the stories and imagery attached to Underground Resistance may have surpassed the reality of the situation but one thing is for certain: Mad Mike and his band of merry men have been responsible for some of the most forward-thinking and exciting electronic music of the past 2 decades. If recent clips from the upcoming releases from Timeline and Nomadico are anything to go by, this shows no sign of slowing down and whilst we might not be any closer to the cybertronic utopia depicting by UR, we certainly haven’t given up hope.
Words: Patrick Henderson
Featured image: Mister B