Now that we have access to almost every bit of music ever made, in countless different forms, it can be difficult to remember how important ideas like mix CDs once were. Although they are still released today, they have the feel of boutique object d’art; often beautiful, frequently interesting, but seldom vital. And as that vitality has diminished so has the role they once played within electronic music.
In their hey-day, in the handful of years which fell either side of the millennium, they were often the best and most permanent link many of us had to a larger, brighter world. Not all of us grew up, or studied, in a place where the indistinct spectres of Detroit or Berlin played. Nor did we often have a record store where we could spend hours soaking up vibes and knowledge. It’s difficult to glean an understanding of electronic music from hanging about in a provincial Our Price. And besides, the manager would probably call the police if you’d still been there three hours later.
Mix CDs were a form of education. They allowed you to see how everything moved together. They introduced you to new music and new artists, and strengthened your ties to those with which were already familiar. And for those of us pounding away at learning the basics on a pair of nasty belt-drive decks they were both inspiration and aspiration, allowing you a glimpse into a world where the music and the mixing was far beyond the leaden, wonky, hellnoise which farted out from your bargain brand speakers to torment the neighbours deep into the night. They gave you something to aim for, and the knowledge that, with a little bit of skill and a lot – a LOT – of practice, you might eventually be capable of something that might not be in the same ballpark, but might just be from the same game.
Most of that was an illusion, of course, because even back then your average mix CD shared something in common with the beautiful works of DJ art we still get nowadays: Most of them were about as close to being indicative of a particular DJ’s true talents as that old provincial Our Price was to Berlin’s Hard Wax. They were not the outpourings of white hot sets taken straight off the dance floor and shoved onto a disk. They were groomed and refined, hard edges polished away to perfection, trains wrecks carefully placed back on the rails, scratches and pops euthanized before they could pollute innocent ears.
In some ways, modern podcasts, no matter how deeply thought-out and sync-buttoned, retain an immediacy that most mix CDs would be pushed to emulate. But that really wasn’t the point. They quickly became a place where DJs could present an idealised form of themselves, playing the way you imagined that they imagined themselves playing. They would drip with magic, with post-recording effects, and trickery, and the music would be pulled in new and unexpected directions. My favourites from the era, Kevin Saunderson’s X-Mix entry, and Derrick May’s Mix Up volume, are peerless. But they’re not what you’d hear if they played in the tiny subterranean sweat-box that filled your techno daydreams. Jeff Mill’s Live At the Liquid Room, though: that was different.
The set was recorded in the autumn of 1995 in Tokyo’s Liquid Room venue, a place which still elicits a sense of the exotic and the mythical. This, as much as anything, probably plays up the CD’s mystique. You could be listening to a burst of radio frequency from Voyager, relayed over two dozen light hours, such was the remoteness of it. I’m sure there were more than a few people who looked up from the sleeve and felt a tingle of silly, naive, wonder that techno had landed in Japan, off all places, on the other side of the planet. And that sense of suddenly being connected with a far larger musical world lingered long after the music had faded.
As for what Mills played on, I don’t know for sure. I assume it was his usual three decks and 909 drum machine. Mills has always been a fiend for bringing his own beats along to the show, and it’s difficult to imagine his insane jumps in musical logic, his unique sense of timing, finding a true outlet on anything less than a triple turntable set up.
What there wasn’t was studio trickery. All of the magic belongs to him. As anyone who has ever spent time with his mixes for Detroit radio, performed under his guise of The Wizard, knows, Mills’ sonic shadow is sharpened by a thousand influences and styles which share little more than a tangential link with the sounds he is now inexorably linked to. The quick cuts, the spins and crossfades all have their roots elsewhere. Hip hop, disco, electro. It’s all there, feeding into the accretion disc of chaos that surrounds the absolute control at the mix’s heart, and accenting the way the groove and rhythm pulse and morph as it unfolds. There are drops in tempo, wild changes in direction, and sudden introductions and exits, all of which heighten the music’s proximity to collapsing in on itself. Not that it ever does. That’s part of the beauty.
The mixing has been occasionally commented on over the years. There was no post-production band-aids applied, and the mix is presented as-is. Mills’ mixing is often rugged and fast, by some accounts often eschewing the safety net of headphones in his speed and understanding of the music. Whenever memories of the record’s little dinks of imperfection are brought up, they merely serve to remind how brilliantly Mill’s organic yet utterly technical style pays off.
Some people have claimed that Live At The Liquid Room represents a sort of Detroit techno exemplar, but I don’t think it does. By the time Mills recorded the set, he was nearly five years removed from his time in Underground Resistance, had lived in New York and Chicago, and been a resident at Berlin’s famous Tresor club. That Detroit provides the foundation is inarguable, but the rest is from a different place altogether. This is techno, not as the child of a particular city, but as a global phenomenon, a transcultural burst of movement which owes as much to Chicago, or Berlin, as it does to its true home.
Even Birmingham is represented, with cuts from Surgeon’s earliest release. Magneze still blisters the skin, and reminds you that the club Surgeon will always be connected to, House Of God, deliberately sought to provide a counterpoint to the waves of high-tech soul emanating from across the Atlantic. That is an attitude which finds a kindred spirit here with Mills, and it can seem as if he is also, deliberately, seeking to step away from Detroit’s familiar sound, to push the idea of groove and funk onto an entirely new plane.
It’s littered with the sort of moments that would define other mixes. The CD is arranged into three segments, but the music erupts fully formed right from the start, with the dark clouds of Mills’ own Utopia rolling across the floor before being parted by the lolloping groove of The Extremist. The early part of the mix is beyond just being fun; it’s a genuine lesson in DJ’ing. The pulverising run which begins with Magneze, and ends, finally, with Ian Pooley’s mix of Wicked Wipe’s Rock Da House, remains forever fixed in the minds of a lot of us as What Techno Is. Not a list of sounds and synths, of cavernous and hollow kick drums and theory, but a riot of energy and emotion, and if your heart and soul don’t kick over a little bit when he drops in The Bells, I doubt you’re human.
In the second segment, the sudden arrival of Derrick May’s Strings Of Life, a euphoric sunrise after the bleak fury of DJ Skull’s The 187 Skillz, resets so much more than just the tempo, and afterwards the music seems to twist with a lighter touch. Well, for a little while at least. And in the background, so deeply buried in the sound it feels like part of the set, are the echoes of the crowd going mental as they encourage Mills’ music and the music, in turn, goads them on. It lends the whole thing an immediacy – and intimacy – which is difficult to emulate, and you sometimes wonder whether or not the set would feel the same if it had been recorded the following night, with a different crowd, a different atmosphere, channelling the madness.
A sequel of sorts eventually arrived, in the form of 2004’s The Exhibitionist CD. It was another astounding display of the DJ’s craft, but it lacked something, particularly in direct comparison to the earlier release. While it remained enthralling in its choice of tunes, it often felt airier, lighter, and missed much of ..Liquid Room’s elemental stomp. It wasn’t of course, a full-bore club set, but a much more thoroughly planned workout.
I drove at least one friend clean mad with Live At the Liquid Room. He still gets a far away look today, and visibly shakes, when I mention the CD to him. I was obsessed by it, playing it every opportunity I got. Often we’d be together in the car, and I would crank it up all the way, not really paying attention to the fact it might have been the eighth or ninth time that week. There were others, a Relief Records mix, a bunch of bootleg tapes of various Detroit and Chicago DJs found between stacks of ubiquitous happy hardcore mixes on rare journeys to record shops in Glasgow or Edinburgh. It was always Live At The Liquid Rooms which won out, though. Always.
Familiarity breeds contempt, and I’m lucky nobody ever tried to make me eat the damn disk. If a telling metric of how much you love a record is how many times you’ve played it, how well you know it, then Live At The Liquid Room is my favourite record of all time. I have no idea how often I’ve heard it. In the car; burned to tapes and played on my Walkman; on Ipods in the gym or in the mountains. It has been an ever present for what feels like a lifetime, and I sometimes feel that if I just had all the records, I could preform the mix perfectly, so familiar am I with every little movement, with every inflexion. It would be like a shadowy, ghostly muscle memory, guiding and fuelling my weak skills.
Many DJs these days talk about ‘the journey’, of educating the crowd, or of transformative experiences. But it doesn’t take you very long in the company of Live At The Liquid Room to realise what a crock of shit they’re making up. This is a real journey, an exhausting and exhilarating ride through the talents of a man playing right on the edge. And where other mix CDs from the period are beginning to sound more and more of their time, that won’t happen to Liquid Room because it never really felt of its time back then, either. This is not an album of tunes, snapshots taken at a particular moment in the history of Our Thing, but a narrative of frequency and emotion, and a testament to the fantastical shapes and colours they create when combined. Jeff Mills knows that such things are universal, and the only time they can exists is right here and now.
There is something utterly fitting about the fact that one of greatest celebrations of electronic music ever released should be a dance floor mix taken from a club. For all the amazing music released under the banner, it says so much that very, very few studio albums have ever come close to explaining so succinctly, and so vibrantly, what this music means to so many people as Live From The Liquid Room so effortlessly manages to do. And this is its true important: It is a manifesto, and a statement, of what techno can be when we loosen our grip over it, and let it take us over instead in all of its brutal, uncompromising, and life affirming beauty. It is a moment of rare grace and violence, and one that likely will not, can not, ever return. Cherish it.