If the impact of an artist can be weighed by how many copycats they have, then Jeff Mills must be more important than the Beatles. I remember a conversation I had with someone back in the nineties about how much longer lesser artists would continue to knock out thinly veiled homages to the master. The consensus was that it would eventually run its course, that something – someone – else would come along and steal Mills’ thunder and everyone else’s musical heart.
We were both wrong. Nearly twenty years later the number of records which owe their entire DNA to what The Wizard was doing back then has grown exponentially. I sometimes wonder whether many of the producers creating these tunes are even aware exactly who it is they are aping. So often have the rudiments of Mills’ sound been passed down over the years, it has become entirely plausible that they are simply copying someone else who has copied someone else who copied Mills until we have a weird, techno version of Chinese whispers. Of course, the internet has also had a massive role to play in keeping his work in the ears of a new generation. In the past once the records were gone, that was it. Now even the oldest of releases are near permanently in circulation due to digital formats and Discogs. In a very real way, history no longer exists; it is perhaps no longer possible for an artist to exist in anything other than the present. Whether this is healthy or not is a discussion for another day.
Still, there is a simple, inalienable fact in all of this: Mills would have never have received a tenth of this love (whether conscious or otherwise) if he wasn’t one of the true originals. Even now when, for many of his older fans, we tend to favour the idea of him over his more recent material, he remains a startlingly genuine creative force. A few years back I was in Paris for an exhibition about the centenary of the publication of the Futurist manifesto and was delighted to discover that an installation had been soundtracked by Mills. It was a good fit (well, the rather fascistic connotations of Futurism aside), and I can think of very few producers whose music is bettered suited to Futurism’s concepts of movement and dynamism, and its excitement about technology. In a wider sense, it was a thrilling reminder of the possibilities of electronic music – of where it can go beyond the clubs.
We tend to get a bit embarrassed at times about the interface between electronica and other, older, forms of art. Sometimes this is just a gut reaction to seeing someone like Richie Hawtin playing in the Guggenheim in what amounts to a publicity stunt for a new album. With Mills though, well, you get the feeling he really means it, that he sees his work with soundtracking old films or playing alongside orchestras as something more than interesting, almost as something vital to pushing the idea not only what techno is, but what it is capable of becoming.
As far as his back catalogue goes, Mills has probably more bona-fide classics to his name than almost any other techno producer. Hardly surprising: he seems unable to sit still for long, and where many of his Detroit contemporaries have seemed suspiciously content to rest on their laurels over the last decade, Mills seems to be on a mission to continuously, and subtly reinvent himself at every opportunity. It’s in this that I think a lot of the acolytes come up short. As is so often the case with homage, it is the sounds which are studiously copied, often with boring, metronomic precision. It’s like creating an exacting sketch of a painting by Titian, and then filling in the space with nothing but primary colours.
Steps To Enchantment is another one of those tunes which surely nobody who has ever spent more than ten minutes listening to techno is unaware of. In many ways it is an encapsulation of techno – not only the sounds but the ideas, the philosophies which lie behind the genre. It is an impossible tune, one which is entirely predicated on the potency of machines, and their interplay with human emotions. It sounds angry – furious, in fact – but it really isn’t. Instead, it’s a paean to movement, a continuous reassembling of its various elements which build over and over again into the groove, rising and falling until it runs out of room to start over. In fact, the only constant is that groove, an ever-present which guides every note, every crash and every stab of that utterly memorable acid bass forward with velocity and grace.
When we think of techno these days, it seems odd that we rarely think of movement. Presented with a tune like Steps To Enchantment which is nothing but movement it rips at the mind with possibility. So harsh is that elemental truth that it barely seems right that the track clocks in at less than four minutes. In the eye of a storm everything is stillness. So it is here. This isn’t Jeff Mills the Wizard. This is Jeff Mills the Futurist, pushing towards a tomorrow which still doesn’t exist and probably never will.