Jeff Mills has inspired many, always raising the bar in whatever form he chooses to work. In an area where few manage to be important for longer than three years, he has been not only important for 18 years, but revolutionary. He would be a hero if only for his days as the Wizard, when it seemed as though he was on every radio in Detroit. But when you think about what he’s done since then it’s even more mind-boggling. Is this man human? No, he’s the Wizard — and he’s coming back to Detroit for a once-in-a-lifetime performance as the Wizard on Thursday, March 1.
It would be impossible to overestimate the impact the Wizard had on Detroit. It all started with his frenetic mix shows, first on WDRQ-FM, then by the mid-’80s on WJLB-FM. Finally he joined the Electrifying Mojo at the end of the ’80s on WHYT-FM. His approach was the first to apply hip-hop turntablism to the mishmash of sounds that was electro, bass, house, techno and hip hop. The mix of styles combined everything that was funky, later including acid and industrial, but the Wizard pushed it all over the top with his unbelievable technique.
Speeding up records, he was the first to play the likes of Model 500 so fast, helping to push up the tempo and the heat. Using short pieces of records, brief snippets and double copies with just the hottest parts, he was able to transform all these records together, with a scratch, into pure energy.
Where most mix shows of the ’80s were recorded at home and then edited on reel-to-reel, legend has it that Mills would record a mix of three turntables onto a 4-track at home and then mix live on the radio over that. Sometimes there would be four or more layers moving into other equally intense material. You could hear 10 records in two minutes in an entirely original arrangement. He was on fire. Chicago had its WBMX mix shows turning kids out; Detroit had the Wizard.
Mills’ influence was widespread, inspiring record labels and DJs, from +8 (named after the Wizard’s style of playing records) to Terrence Parker’s cut-up approach applied to house and soul. A whole generation trying to do his 4-track techniques on two turntables eventually led to the ghetto-tech style that still rules the Detroit mix-show airwaves. And, in an even more bizarre connection, ghetto-tech icon DJ Godfather now owns Mills’ original turntables.
Wizard mix shows were so hot that Mills had mixes on some national records, a residency at the Nectarine in Ann Arbor, and eventually studio production with then industrial-tinged Tony “Asrock” Srock as Final Cut. That eventually led to his working with Berlin-based Interfisch (which later became Tresor). Never content to stay still, the ever-visionary Mills has always advanced his sound and technique, which led to some of the biggest achievements in techno in the ’90s. He teamed up with “Mad” Mike Banks and formed Underground Resistance, whose records and live shows in the early ’90s influenced a new generation of European producers, largely defining hard techno and the independent spirit of techno auteurs. Since then he’s formed Axis (originally with Rob Hood), Purpose Maker and Tomorrow, each releasing groundbreaking records. Mills tours the world nonstop, playing on three turntables (he brought this standard to minimal-hard techno) and a 909 (classic techno drum machine — he was the first to do this too).
Finally, Mills is coming home to Detroit and giving back to the city where it all started. Presented by Laura Gavor’s Yin Sight Management, he’s playing as the Wizard for five hours at the State Theatre on March 1. He’ll also be doing a meet-and-greet at Record Time (27360 Gratiot) in Roseville at 5 p.m. on Feb. 28, the day before the show, when some tickets will be given away and some special Axis stuff handed out as well. The word is he’s home picking out records already, so be prepared for a night of history in the firstname.lastname@example.org