Cover Story: Robert Hood Thinks Techno is Losing its Soul
Cover Story: Robert Hood Thinks Techno is Losing its SoulDecember 14, 2020
It’s a sunny November morning, and I’m amping up for my call with Robert Hood, who my sister and I met once on a Detroit hotel elevator after his performance at Movement Festival in 2014. Even still, this interview had me anxious — Hood is an extremely influential figure in dance music. But when the phone rings, I’m greeted by a warm, slightly southern-sounding gentleman who, within moments, brings a sense of calm and comfortability over me. As a native Detroiter who’s lived in the south for over a decade, there’s a robust familiarity and feeling of home a southern drawl brings me. Robert chuckles when I inquire about his alleged accent and says I’m the first to mention it, but his wife, an Alabama native, often says he’s a country boy at heart.
The Hood family, like myself, are a part of the New Great Migration — a reversal of the previous 55-year trend of Black migration within the United States. Instead of heading north as our grandparents did, Black people are now heading back south in droves, and Detroit-born Hood has called rural Alabama home for almost 17 years. About an hour outside of Mobile in a little town called Atmore, Robert and his family reside on a large piece of land previously owned by his wife’s grandfather. He says the reasoning behind the move south was because of wife’s family roots there and the need for some good old fashioned peace and quiet — not surprising coming from a man who, before the pandemic, spent the majority of his weekends in deafeningly loud nightclubs filled to the brim with fans. He also said that they were impressed with the local school system, as their daughter, Lyric, was eight years old at the time of the move. “We thought this would be a nice place to come home to after coming off the road, and a nice place to decompress and retire.”
The remainder of Robert’s family is still Detroit-based, and he goes back to visit as often as possible. Throughout his many years in Alabama, he’s never lost sight of his affection for Detroit, mentioning how he misses the people, the food, the Eastern Market, and even the not-so-alluring things, like hearing dogs barking and gunshots at night. “Yeah, nothing like it in the world [Detroit.] It’s just something about the attitude of the people, the pace of people.” His comment warms my insides as I also recognize that specific “je ne sais quoi” Detroiters have about ourselves. It was actually after moving from Detroit that I realized just how distinctive the city is, and those tiny intricacies I used to take for granted now feel seemingly significant. A car ride through Belle Isle, a bag of Red Hot Barbecue Better Made chips, being greeted with a casual “what up doe.” And if there’s anything that I’ve learned about native Detroiters over the years it’s that no matter where we roam or relocate to, we forever rep our beloved Detroit — it’s code.
With 2020 inching to a close and the pandemic at a standstill, the likelihood of gigs or touring in the next few months is improbable. Amidst the worldly madness, Robert has been making the most of his days off, spending time with his family and fighting off the wild hogs he says have been terrorizing his backyard for the past few weeks. He’s also been listening to the new Busta Rhymes album, which he says is a work of art and insists I check out. “When you’re on a fast train moving, it’s good to get off, take stock in yourself, analyze things, and see where you are.” He says the free time is allowing him to get himself together mentally and has given him the time to get a fresh revelation and direction on where to go next. It’s also been a time of reflection for Robert, who opens up about the recent loss of his mother-in-law in May. He says although this is the most free time he has had in 25 years, there’s always work to do. He’s still in the studio regularly and has made a few live stream appearances, most recently with his Boiler Room “Streaming From Isolation” performance, where he started his set with activist Tamika Mallory’s iconic George Floyd speech in Minneapolis played over a looped intro of Public Enemy’s “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got.”
“The live streams have given us an outlet to get our feelings out, you know, especially today in an election year and with all the protests going on.” Hood, a founding member of the influential Detroit collective Underground Resistance, is no stranger to political expression through music. UR is renowned for their militant political and anti-corporate ethos and, before the collective started, Hood was recording hip hop under the pseudonym Robert Noise, rapping about things like knowledge, unity, and mass genocide on his 1990 single “Sins Against The Race.” We begin to discuss social justice, BLM, and its effect on dance music, and I ask Robert his opinion on how Black artists in dance music have been treated and represented since the genre’s inception. “The industry claims to be colorblind, but it’s not; people see color first. Electronic music is no exception. So, yeah, I feel like Black artists have been pushed to the side.” He goes on to explain how he feels that cities like Detroit and Chicago, the birthplaces of house and techno, are beginning to become overlooked by the new generations as the years pass.
He makes an interesting point, as this very issue was one of the motivations behind starting my blog and platform Underground & Black in 2017. The goal was to champion the roots of dance music and to educate people on its origins; to let people know that house and techno are Black art forms created in the US. Although it’s been a successful endeavor, it’s still shocking to learn just how many people who listen to electronic music aren’t aware of the history. “This is a Black invention. It’s innovation. The same way hip hop came out of the Bronx is the same way techno came out of Detroit, and the same way that house music came out of Chicago. We cannot ever, ever forget that,” Robert says. He stresses the importance of people needing to educate themselves on the origins of the music they consume — not doing so can only cause its legacy harm. Robert mostly blames the industry for the whitewashing in dance music and says that it’s no different from what they do with Black artists at award ceremonies like the Grammy’s. “What is award-winning, and what’s worthy of winning a Grammy? They don’t get to decide that, we do,” Robert says.
“It’s all about Black people owning and exerting our power,” he continues. “We just saw how Black and people of color took this election into our hands. We took this election into our hands and said enough is enough.” Robert is not the first Black artist I’ve spoken to since the onset of the pandemic and worldwide protests regarding police brutality and the treatment of Black people, and there seems to be a consensus that Black artists have received the short end of the stick. In a recent interview with Billboard Magazine, techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson said that the scene is failing Black artists. And when I spoke to DJ and producer Honey Dijon in July, she put it bluntly, saying “dance music has been colonized.” In response to the backlash, institutions, websites, and platforms alike are suddenly seeking out Black creatives in an attempt to be more inclusive, an act that’s also been met with backlash as some see it as performative and not actual long-standing change. Robert says these acts need to be sincere and from the heart if we want to see a viable difference.
“Embrace and understand each other’s cultures and our cultural differences. Embrace what we agree on and find common ground. It’s about being brothers and sisters. You know, our brothers and sisters in Europe, the UK, Amsterdam, I’m talking about white and Black people.” His spiritual background and role as an ordained preacher often show through his words, they flow poetically with conviction. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and we as people need to start realizing that when one of us is hurting, we should all be hurting. We’ve got to find a way to care about and understand one another to a point where it bothers us that someone is being mistreated in Europe, Asia, or South America, and so on.” He says it’s essential that we know where the music comes from because if we don’t, we won’t know where the culture is going.
Robert says Black artists must speak boldly and let the world know that we’re here and this is what we created. He then mentions DeForrest Brown Jr.‘s, “Make Techno Black Again” project, saying he thinks it’s great. “This is the vision that God gave to producers and aspiring DJs and artists out of Chicago and Detroit, and some people took it, ran with it, and labeled it something else. And you can whitewash and water it down all you want to, but this is raw, unadulterated Black dance music,” he says passionately before adding that the industry has ripped off Black artists for years. Concerning the current state of techno, Robert says he fears the music is on the verge of losing its soul, an audacious yet valid claim coming from a man well versed on the topic.
Between prayer and meditation, Robert persistently tries to keep himself excited about music in an attempt to avoid complacency. He says what techno needs right now is a breath of fresh air, more innovative thinking, and fearlessness. He believes that innovation doesn’t necessarily have to come from technology but from within ourselves. “I’m always meditating on how can I find a new way to keep electronic music relevant and how to take it further than anything that we’ve ever imagined.” His progressive nature is a very Detroit feature, and in Robert’s opinion, 1980s Detroit and the Music Institute era was the most progressive time in dance music. “The fearlessness of making music back then was unparalleled, and nobody could touch it. I think it’s going to take that kind of mindset to take us where we need to go.”
A 1983 Cooley High grad, Robert grew up a music lover in a musical household. He recalls at the age of 3 or 4, finally being tall enough to reach the knob on the radio and turning it to the station he liked. Similar to many other Black kids in Detroit, Robert grew up listening to soul music. His childhood babysitter and housekeeper was into ‘50s doo-wop and the likes of Lonnie Smith. His grandfather is first cousins with Motown Founder Berry Gordy, and his uncle, who also worked at Motown, owned the record store where Robert held his first job. He has vivid memories of celebrities like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder sitting on his grandmother’s living room floor hanging out and listening to music.
Unsurprisingly, Robert’s father was also a musician, and into jazz. He was also an illustrator, a skill Robert inherited. And for a while, despite having a musical ear and coming from a musical family, Robert’s first love was illustration. He took up a vocational art program, and was working as a Technical Illustrator by the time he was 21. But he soon grew bored, since it didn’t offer much room for his creativity. The timing was perfect. At this point in his life, Robert was consumed by and enamored with dance music, and wanted to DJ and produce, so he decided to go for it.
Robert is one of several now world-renowned Detroit DJs and producers who were regulars at the trailblazing Music Institute, the acclaimed after-hours dance music club that opened in 1988. It’s known for being the first place to give techno a dedicated platform, not just in Detroit but globally. The resident DJs ranged from Kevin Saunderson to D-Wynn, to Alton Miller. Robert met Mike Clark there, a well connected Detroit DJ and former hairdresser who, according to Robert, knew everyone. (Funny enough, Mike Clark was the very first house DJ I knew by name when I was living in Detroit.) He gave Mike Clark his demo, who then passed it along to “Mad” Mike Banks, a local music producer who went on to become a key player in the second generation of Detroit techno. Robert was making hip house at the time, influenced by Chicago’s Tyree Cooper and Fast Eddie.
He admits he wasn’t a “rapper’s rapper” but was doing it and trying it out for the sake of his demo that he planned to shop around. He initially dropped it off at KMS studios and called every day after to see if label boss Kevin Saunderson had listened to it. He unfortunately never heard back, as Kevin was already blowing up overseas. But when one door closes, another one opens, and Mike Banks soon introduced Robert to The Wizard, AKA Jeff Mills, after hearing the demo. Mills, one of Detroit’s most coveted and legendary DJs, invited Robert to make a couple of tracks for a compilation he and Banks were working on at the time. The meeting of these three stellar minds would soon turn into the prolific collective we know today as Underground Resistance.
Around the time that they all linked up, Banks and Mills had already been talking about starting a production team and possibly a record label. I asked Robert about his experience working with the duo and their early days as UR. “It was fun to watch them in the studio and learn from them. The way they produce, the way they program drum tracks, the way they experiment. That’s what I meant about being brave and courageous; they stepped away from the mold of what Detroit techno was and redefined it.” He says watching Jeff Mills edit a tape is similar to watching a surgeon, and that his speed and precision are unreal. He adds that when the three of them performed together, it felt like it was meant to be. Under the wings of Banks and Mills, Robert learned how to build concepts, as opposed to just random tracks.
Underground Resistance became a movement that took on a life of its own. Their unyielding gritty techno, which was geared toward promoting awareness and political change, couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time, as the post-Reagan presidency brought an inner-city economic recession. Their masked faces and all-black attire was an aesthetic that accompanied their sound and message perfectly. Hood says UR’s mysterious nature plays into Mill’s creative vision of The Wizard, who always presented himself as a mysterious figure. He also cites The Electrifying Mojo, a sci-fi visionary and beloved former Detroit radio disc jockey, who remains an enigma to this day. Given the US’s crumbling political conditions, I ask Robert if he thinks the current generation needs something similar to UR. He said he wasn’t quite sure if it’s something that one could recreate, but the same way UR got inspiration from Public Enemy is the same way others can gain inspiration from what he, Banks, and Mills were doing.
Speaking of the next generation, Robert and his daughter Lyric performing together as Floorplan have proven to be one of house music’s most beloved father-daughter DJ duos. Floorplan is a project that was created by Robert based on a spiritual awakening he had to incorporate gospel music with house and techno. When Lyric joined not long after its inception, the project took on a new life. He and his wife recognized early on that Lyric had an ear for music, and once they gifted her with some DJ gear in her teens, she wasted no time in learning the tricks of the trade. “She started DJing with me as one half of Floorplan, and then really started to show her abilities as far as making music and the sounds that she chose, especially the way that she put together grooves, drum tracks, and bass lines.” Robert thought it would be him doing all the teaching but admits it’s Lyric who has taught him a lot through her selections and playing style. He said it’s made him a better producer and has forced him to dig deeper into Floorplan’s potential. Lyric, now in her twenties, lives the life of an international DJ and producer, following in the footsteps of her father, who created the perfect blueprint. She released her debut solo EP on her father’s M-Plant label in 2019.
Legacy in electronic music as it relates to the Black community is vital. I think it’s important for our pioneers to mentor and support the many pupils who have come after them. Although I feel like there is a general disconnect between the new generation of Black artists in dance music and the more seasoned “OGs”, it excites me to see projects like Floorplan, and to know that Robert’s legacy is in good hands. “Legacy is so important. We have to help raise the next generation of Detroit techno, because when we’re gone that legacy must live on,” Robert says. Robert’s father passed away when he was 6, and he always wished he could have worked with him. He says now having the opportunity to work and travel with his daughter Lyric has been nothing short of incredible.
As far as his solo career goes, Robert has returned with an LP titled Mirror Man. The album dropped last month on Rekids and was preceded by Nothing Stops Detroit, also on Rekids, an EP of tracks from the album. The LP glides from cinematic techno to warehouse-style bangers, to slower tempos and ambient themes. Robert got the idea for the album in fall 2019 and said his goal was to put together an LP that reflected his soul and spirit. He says it was something of a self-examination — who he is and where he’s going. He references a sermon he did some years ago called the man in the mirror, inspired by Michael Jackson’s chart-topping tune of the same title. “It’s about examining oneself and looking at who you are and asking, ‘Are you happy with yourself? And where are you going?’” The intro of UR’s infamous 2005 tune “Transition” immediately starts playing in my head.
After 30 years in the game, Robert says he’s learned how powerful he is in Christ, and he’s still actively learning and thinking about his vision. When he reflects back on his early years as an artist when he called himself The Vision, he says he truly didn’t understand what he was naming himself. Today, Robert says his vision comes through his family and his faith, as he speaks fondly of his wife Eunice, who has played an instrumental role in helping him find power through ministry. “I’m still learning about myself, and also that the transformation process is not complete.” Honest sentiments from a man whose artistry we’ve seen as oftentimes revolutionary throughout the past three decades. Regarding his post-Corona plans, Robert says this year taught him not to make plans. “Just trust and depend on God, let him lead and direct.” To which I can only reply, “Amen.”
Robert Hood’s ‘Mirror Man’ LP is out now via Rekids. Buy it here.
Ash Lauryn is an Atlanta-based DJ, radio host and writer. Follow her on Twitter.