Robert Hood: In the Spirit
Robert Hood is a Detroit legend. He was one of Underground Resistance’s original members (working on X-101 and X-102). He collaborated with Jeff Mills as H&M and X-103. His solo album Minimal Nation on Axis was a techno manifesto. In 1994, Hood began his own label, M-Plant. He has also recorded as Floorplan, Monobox, and The Vision.
Next month Hood will be releasing a new album, Omega, inspired by 1971’s post-apocalyptic movie The Omega Man. He will also be performing live at this month’s Movement festival in Detroit. We spoke by phone May 7, 2010.
Jacob: What was it like growing up in Detroit?
Robert: In the seventies, growing up, I was a Motown kid, just listening to Motown music. Everything was just people trying to get to work and make a living. It was pretty laid back and relaxed. Not a care in the world. This was post-riots and all that. I was born in ’65, so I was born in the middle of it, but like I said, it was a happy time in Detroit. Everybody seemed to be doing pretty well, and I just remember mostly good times.
How did you first get into music?
I’ve always loved music, ever since I was old enough to reach the radio and hit that knob and change that station. I can remember listening to Isaac Hayes and The Shaft album, and just being turned on by rhythms I heard… Jackson 5, The Temptations. I started playing trumpet somewhere along the line in grade school, just trying to be like my dad. He was a jazz musician. He played piano, drums, and trumpet and just had an innate love for rhythm and music.... Later on, I think my first DJ gig was at a reggae club. Friday nights I would play reggae and hip-hop.
What style of reggae?
It was roots, mostly. A little bit of dancehall. I think dancehall was just starting to bubble up to the surface, with Shabba Ranks and everything. It was mostly dubby, King Tubby, and all that kind of stuff.
Did you used to go clubbing?
Oh, every chance I got…. There was The Music Institute, there was The Underground Nation, there was the Majestic Theatre. There was a club also called Club Liedernacht. They would play more New Wave music. Back then we called it New Music. Bands like The Pretenders and Thomas Dolby and [The] B-52’s and more British New Wave. Then they would mix it with a little bit of hip-hop and some house and techno.
A lot of the earlier clubs, for me growing up in Detroit, I was too young to go to. I would hear about them, but I couldn’t get out to get into them. Strangely enough, though, when I was in my teenage years, I was in a dance group. We used to pop-lock and breakdance and all of that. This is late seventies, early eighties. We were all underage, and we would get into clubs. I think that’s where my whole club experience took off from.
What made you decide to try your hand at production?
Before I got into production, I did some artwork for Juan Atkins every now and then. At that time, I was just fooling around with drum machines. At some point in my life, I got so determined, it led up from wanting to be an artist, with Underground Resistance, and then evolved into a necessity to produce for myself.
A lot of times, UR (Mike Banks and Jeff Mills), they wouldn’t have time to work on my productions—they were busy with so many other projects. I had to decide, either give this up or you’re going to have to take the reins yourself. If you’re going to have a career in music, you’re going to have to take the reins. It became a do or die situation.
What kind of artwork did you do?
Mostly 12-inch labels for Metroplex. That’s how I came to know Juan.
I read you got into UR with a demo and that you used to MC. Were you rapping?
It was rapping. At the time I really started to get serious about production, hip-house was big. I didn’t want to rap; I wanted to have somebody else do it and I’d just do the production. I couldn’t find anybody who could convey the ideas that I had. I wanted to be different from the Chicago hip-house. I wanted to do more like A Tribe Called Quest, sort of Q-Tip mixed with techno and house. I started to write and do it myself. After a while I came up with a couple of songs. One thing led to another, and with a chance meeting with Mike Banks, he listened to the demo. He liked the rap, and he liked the MCing, but for the most part he liked the drum programming. It took off from there.
Would you say you coined the term “minimal” as it applies to techno?
As it applies to techno, yeah. I hadn’t heard anybody use that term. Actually, I wasn’t even going to call it minimal, but Jeff and I were having a conversation one day and we were talking about this sound that seemed to be emerging out of all the rave sound that was currently dominating techno and the electronic scene. I was going to call it something like “access-authorized repetition.” Something repetitive. I said something to Jeff that with the sound that I had started doing, and then Daniel Bell (DBX) [and] Robert Armani, I told Jeff that the minimal nation is rising, and he said, “That’s it. You need to run with that.”
In other interviews you’ve explained that your sound was shaped by the Detroit environment.
Yeah, Detroit was once a progressive metropolis, almost rivaling New York. The city birthed all these forward-thinking avant-garde producers. Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Carl Craig, and so on and so on. But the city seemed to be standing still after [mayor] Coleman Young burned a lot of bridges in Detroit, which was good and which was bad. He was a rebel, and he stood up for what he believed in. At the same time, it left Detroit kind of barren and empty. Crack took over in the Reagan era. People were just trying to survive. You had factories closing, and you had this once beautiful, great city turn into a museum seemingly overnight. The Hudson’s building was just a shell. It was not quite Times Square, but this was a hustling, bustling city. Different factors played a part in, not the downfall of Detroit, but Detroit was just standing still. Things kind of stopped.
That birthed techno, out of necessity. If you look at people and their visions, you had this group of young men that had to imagine worlds away from Detroit, get out of mind and travel someplace in their subconscious.
Why did you decide to start your own label?
Again, out of necessity. Just being an artist on somebody else’s label, I couldn’t see myself making a living, waiting for somebody else to pay me—everything is in somebody else’s hands. Just like with the production, it’s the same thing with the label. I had to take control of my destiny and be in charge of it.
Are you still friends with Jeff and Mike? Are you in touch?
No, we don’t stay in touch often. I consider myself to be a friend to them, and I would hope likewise. We don’t stay in touch on a regular basis. I see them every now and then on the road somewhere, at a festival or something like that. We talk and say hello. It’s been pretty much cordial, to be honest with you. I have nothing but love and admiration for both of them.
I read you live in Alabama now. What made you decide to move?
Several reasons. There was some land that my wife’s family had. Her grandfather built up some land down here that was just kind of sitting there, so we decided to come down and build a house. At the time we moved from Detroit, the economy was not in the state that it’s in now, but it was so much cheaper to come down here and build, and I’ve always wanted to build a house. For our daughter, the school system has its perks. It’s more relaxed. I love Detroit, miss Detroit, but at the same time we’re on something like five acres of land where we can breathe, and my wife and I just thought that was the best thing to do to raise our daughter and get to a place where we can retire years from now and already be set up.
You have an album coming out in June inspired by The Omega Man. In the first half of that film, Charlton Heston’s character thinks he’s the last man on Earth. He’s slowly going mad in an empty city. Do you identify in some way?
Techno is such a lonely man’s music. You get off into your own world, you get off into your studio, your thoughts, and the places that music takes me (I can just speak for myself and I imagine other producers as well, other artists, anyway), it can take you on a journey. I get to where this minimal sound that I have is just like a planet, a world of its own. I get to a place where I feel like I’m the only one in it.
More than that, I feel like I prophetically see the world and the way it’s headed. Just standing from a watcher’s perspective, and just watching politics, watching the economy, watching oil spills on the Gulf Coast, and the ecology, and feeling like I see something coming and nobody else is really paying attention to it and it’s like I’m already living there. Imagine, say in thirty years from now, this is what it is but I’m living there now. People don’t even realize where we are, and I have to snap myself out of it and say no, we’re not there yet, you’re getting ahead of yourself. But it weighs heavy on my heart. Watching Charlton Heston in this world where, like you said, he thinks he’s the only one, it just resonates with me.
At the end of the film, Heston’s character seems Christ-like. On the other hand, I feel myself empathizing with his enemy “The Family” and their rejection of the technologies that destroyed them.
Right. You can’t help but feel empathy for this group of people who have shunned all of the trappings of the world. Look at the Internet and where it’s taken us. When used… [the way] it’s intended, it’s a great tool, but mankind perverts everything. We have this natural propensity to distort and turn everything that was meant for good somehow for evil. They wanted to purify the world; they said we don’t want to go back to that. Their love for righteousness, it’s just like with the Taliban. Their love can distort their vision if it’s misguided. I think that’s what has happened with The Family. They meant well, but good intentions have paved the road to hell.
Do you think of your music in spiritual terms?
Absolutely. It’s nothing but spiritual. God is the creator of all things, and he’s certainly the creator of every vision. When I’m in tune and communing with the Holy Spirit, then I create in the spirit. We don’t recognize the spirit realm because we think it’s just this mystical force. We liken it to The Force in Star Wars or something like that, when in fact the spirit realm is more real than this world we live in, is more real than this matrix we live in. When we’re in tune with the spirit and we’re allowing it to lead us, and paying attention to the vision that’s been placed in our minds and our hearts, great things come out of it.
Omega the album is absolutely a spiritual album, because I consulted the Holy Spirit in its inception. It took a few years for it to manifest, but I had to let the spirit guide me and direct me. It was made from 2007-2008. It took me back to my childhood when I first saw Omega Man and how it affected me, and it haunted me down through the years, especially the ending—it had this Messiah-like crucifixion, this Christ-like figure, and he’s just trying to save the world.
So while your music is club-friendly, it sounds like it goes a lot deeper. What’s your intention for listeners?
It’s listening for life. It’s music to grow on. If you really listen to it, yeah, they’re club tracks, but at the same time I didn’t create them purely for club purposes. I created them to last throughout time, for all time. I created them to get inside people’s sub-consciousness, not just to make you dance. When I was creating them, different points in my life would re-align in my head. Something from a future vision would just play in my head in real-time, as this track is running in my studio. It just took me to a place and a time.
It’s like food or like water. That’s how, to me, it flows. I wonder if people are getting that this is music for your soul. It’s just as soulful in my eyes as any Otis Redding track. It’s not just a DJ tool. It’s more than that. It can stand alone, on it’s own.