Since starting operations in the late-80s, Detroit’s Underground Resistance have remained the singular most innovative, subversive and inspirational force in techno. Led by ‘Mad’ Mike Banks, they set out their stall from the word go to produce electronic music which makes you think and never loses sight of the soul. Having been predictably screwed in the early days, UR have also deliberately steered clear of the corporations, sell-outs and easy options, while attempting to help likeminded individuals who they’ve encountered on their voyage.
The state of play in the Underground Resistance camp is frighteningly healthy right now, going on the evidence of the second Interstellar Fugitives collection. In 2006, ‘Mad’ Mike and his gang of uncompromising sonic messengers have consolidated and manage to transcend a lineage which has given the world old school techno, hardcore rave, Jeff Mills, multi-hued funky techno, Red Planet, revitalised electro (before it got trendy), hi-tech jazz and, most of all, some of the most heart-stoppingly passionate electronic music of all time. Stalwarts like Suburban Knight still unsettle and provoke, while new bloods like S2 and DJ3000 bring in new strains of funk which can only broaden and boost UR’s potential manoeuvres wide open.
UR is going through one of those phases where they make their presence felt, often with jaw-dropping consequences. Apart from ‘Interstellar Fugitives’, there’s the ‘Battle Pak’ collections of past grooves for DJs, tunes showing up on UR like the new ‘Slide’ sound, Red Planet reappearing in the long-range telescope, mix and artist albums by fast-rising new blood DJ 3000 and superlative mix compilations by Rolando and associates Los Hermanos. Meanwhile, UR’s assault DJs - including DJ 3000, Rolando and Suburban Knight - are out in force around the globe.
UR don’t do much press. Last year, I spent six months trying to sort out an interview with UR, who mailed in their answers to a bunch of questions from wherever they were situated around the world, particularly the Far East. Due to space restrictions, etc, only a smidgeon of these well-considered replies appeared in DJ magazine and their special format was cut out. UR were not amused and it only reinforced their reasons for not doing much press. In order to try and redress the balance, here’s a much larger chunk of the interview in its proper form.
why should 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 from us?
UR stopped doing gigs in the early 90s because they felt it had got ‘too ravey’. How did it feel to be playing live again at last year’s Tsunami benefit in Belgium?
040 AKA Mad Mike on assignment 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.
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 levels who are critical to making UR what it is. We can let you in to the current roster of Interstellar Fugitives...
In addition to Mike, there are another twenty, many with a code number prefix: DJ S2 [Santiago Salazar], DJ Dex/Nomadico [Danny Callaberos], Perception [Chuck Gibson], DJ Skurge [Milton Baldwin], The Unknown Soldier [Raphael Merriweather], Abdul Haqq AKA The Ancient, The Unknown Writer/Atlantis [Cornelius Harris], The Infiltrator [Andre Holland], The Illustrator [FrankieFultz], Spawn [Tyree Stinson], James ‘Suburban Knight’ Pennington, Blak Presidentz, The Trinity, Agent Chaos/Von Floyd [Marc Floyd], DJ 3000 [Franki Juncaji], DJ Dijital [Lamont Norwood], DJ Clandestine [Buzz Goree], DomingoYu [DJ Chino/Dan Zarazua], The Deacon [Gerald Mitchell].
In addition, many of the fugitives do double and triple duty in other groups and as solo artists. The UR family is massive.
‘Ma Ya Ya’ and ‘The Slide’ both pay homage to funk roots. Although UR’s music has always been funky, why are you bringing this Seventies funk element to the fore now?
Answered by Gerald Mitchell somewhere in Malaysia: Actually ‘MaYa Ya’ was influenced heavily 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 Seventies. 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 very difficult when your long-term history is erased so you end up imagining and gluing stuff from your immediate past, future and present, warping things. Or using superspliced 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 UR.
In our ’93 interview, Mike talked about how important it was to establish a link between man and machine in order to introduce the vital element of soul. Since then, technology has progressed to the point where you can push a button and a track appears. Are you still working on that relationship with the old machines or embracing new gadgets and gizmos and trying to make them more human? Do you feel that technology is stealing the soul today?
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 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 that 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 older people say - “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure”.
As far as soul machines goes, it is much easier finding second hand technology that is battlefield proven and user 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 attempt 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 Battle Paks?
Mad Mike & DJ Skurge on assignment somewhere in China: The mentality behind that was three-fold and similar to our recent re-introduction of 7” 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 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 should 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 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 about us but could not afford to get into some classic UR stuff.
It was for the 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! Our 12” records simply cost too much due to rising manufacturers’ costs in my opinion. 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 brothas and sistas in sound.
Ever see Jeff Mills? He could turn them into lethal weapons…
Answered by James Pennington AKA Suburban Knight somewhere in Hong Kong: Mike communicates with Jeff regularly via 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 post. Never.
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.
How is the Detroit techno scene? I remember Mike saying in ’93 that one of the reasons Submerge (distribution umbrella) was started was because a lot of techno legends were walking round broke. Is it healthier or still the same struggle?
Mad Mike somewhere in Mongolia: I would want to say it’s changed and Submerge helped. But that wouldn’t be true. The ironic truth is that 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 dollars 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 $1,000 every three months in a hot funky basement with an old dogshit aroma as a backdrop... our blossoming scene had the life sucked right out of it! Mugs 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 fifteen 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 is their 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 the “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 revived the dying analogue synthesiser industry also! 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?
Fortunately the scene here in Detroit is always active and you got UR and Kenny Dixon’s camp 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 new shit dropping and they work hard constantly to recruit new talent - which is really healthy for any scene!
Many UK techno labels complain that downloading has effected their 12” sales. Has it hit UR?
Santiago Salazar somewhere in Nepal: I see iPod parties coming! Kids can’t afford records just like people in the hood can’t afford to go to the movies so stuff like the new Star Wars is out on bootleg! If your product is hot folks will buy it when they can! So the bootleg acts as promotion for the real thang! I’m always down for the most affordable format for the message to be delivered. You can get the quality later if the piece really moved you to do so.
Ron Murphy’s National Sound - the venerable Detroit cutting plant responsible for mastering some of the heaviest tunes in history, sometimes playing backwards - is a legendary part of the Motor City mystique. How does it keep going?
Mad Mike from somewhere in South Korea: Loyalty. Ron Murphy helped many a fledgling Detroit 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 favour of a louder, more European sounding record. This made times hard for Ron. Fortunately a few of us and Jeff Mills remained with him through good and bad times. We didn’t give a fuck how loud the shit was or how sonically correct it was! Why would you when you were cutting on eight tracks at most? We just wanted to have Ron’s input on our recording, Ron’s experience and, more important, Ron’s spirit. It is a big part of our sound.
The truth is the record is only as good as the master! Most of the masters Ron has to work with come from crazy, clueless kids with no formal recording experience. Trying to make a hit on the bullshit gear! His job was to make sense out of nonsense, essentially. I don’t think he will ever get credit for that shit. 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 anything but we cannot compare to those artists! The difference between us and them is they had 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 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 is for our album? They have this blank-ass look on their faces! It’s almost like telling me that “you mothafuckaz are smart enough to make this shit but too dumb to listen to it”. They don’t think there’s a market for hi-tech music in the inner city/urban areas! Keep in mind that just for having the audacity to ask shit like this you get to be “techno terrorists”, black militants and other assorted “don’t like white folks” type of characters! And if you say NO then you’re Geronimo!
With UR’s past record for busting fresh talent out into the world, are there any recent recruits we can expect to hear great things from?
S2 from somewhere in Taiwan: The Aquanauts are kickin’ some vicious electro! They are led by the founder of Drexciya’s younger brother so the waterborne sickness continues! I’m also feeling these two new groups we got Pervtech and Black Presidentz. You will have to hear this to believe it. But the real hot sound right now is the ‘Slide’ sound. This was the innovation of DJ Dex and myself! These records are hitting big in the Detroit scene! I’m also looking forward to our next Battle Pak by DJ Skurge and DJ Dijital. It’s full of hot ass electro loops! The fellaz are working hard man!