Between the Notes: Underground Resistance
For music junkies, one of the worst — and sometimes best — developments of digital music is the lack of context. Without liner notes, it's often hard to tell where, when, or even by whom a record was made. Sometimes it's actually nice not to know anything about the music, but every once in a while, a record comes along that demands illumination. That's where we come in: each month, eMusic's Between the Notes will bring you the stories behind some of our favorite albums, artists and labels. This month: Detroit's legendary musical collective Underground Resistance.
Quick: name the originators of Detroit techno. Most narratives of electronic music begin and end with the “Belleville Three”: Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson. But if you dig past the godfathers and look to the producers and DJs that preached the gospel to the uninitiated — the ones who took techno to the streets, if you will — you won't get very far before running into Jeff Mills. Known as the Wizard on Detroit radio station WGPR, Mills mixed the nascent techno sound into all manner of underground dance music (Chicago house, Miami bass, etc.) drawing connections via expert beat-juggling on a nightly show called "The Midnight Funk Association." Word quickly spread about the Wizard's skills and anyone who was anyone in Detroit began to listen, including a little-known session player signed to Motown named Mike Banks.
Once they met up, Mills and Banks became fast friends, but it took a long time before they began to make music together. In eMusic contributor Simon Reynolds'famed techno chronicle Generation Ecstasy, Mills recounts that the duo spent months simply planning: “We looked at what other people in Detroit had done and where we thought they'd made mistakes.” It was a valid concern. In early 1990, the Belleville Three were in various states of artistic distress: Atkins and May were both stuck with bum record deals and Saunderson had just released a bum record. What emerged was a plan for a fiercely independent group focused solely on the music.
It sounds pretty innocuous, but the way that Banks, Mills and fellow UR charter member Robert Hood went about focusing audience's attention on the music seemed to draw as much notice as the music itself. “Underground Resistance presented itself as a paramilitary unit,” Reynolds writes, with Banks and others donning a ski mask for publicity photos to obscure their identity. With little to no publicity and even less information about the people behind the releases, the UR name took on a mythic quality. Much of this, of course, has to do with the trio's initial vinyl releases. The Sonic EP features tracks with names like “Predator,” “Eye of the Storm” and “Elimination,” the last of which features a bass only a woofer could appreciate and an acidic melody hell-bent on implanting itself in your eardrum for far longer than the track's nearly five-minute run-time.
Pressing their music on thin wax and recording on a four-track, the early days of Underground Resistance were as DIY as they come. (Banks actually bought many of his pieces of gears from winnings he accumulated driving a street-race car called “The Punisher.”) But what made UR different was its sonics: at a time when much of techno was teaching peace, love, unity and respect, UR sounded militant, paranoid and chaotic. A mere glance at the track titles will tell you that much: “Your Time Is Up.” “Riot.” “Panic.” The “Beauty of Decay.” Even Blake Baxter, another artist on the label dubbed the harmless-sounding moniker “Prince of Techno,” had a b-side called “Combustible” on his first release. It was an angry and fierce pose that perfectly echoed Detroit's slow decay from automotive giant to industrial wasteland. It was also a sound that began to find quite a bit of success. As a result, in 1992 both Mills and Hood left Underground Resistance to begin solo careers.
Left alone in Detroit, Banks continued the Underground Resistance name and the confrontational stance, while bringing in a number of additional artists to record under the UR name. Throughout the mid ’90s he released numerous EPs, including “Message to the Majors” (which was dedicated to the memory of Malice Green, a black Detroit man beaten to death by a police flashlight, and featured the words “Message to all murderers on the Detroit Police Force — We'll see you in hell!” in the liners) as well as “Galaxy 2 Galaxy,” which stands as one of the earliest and most sublime meldings of techno and jazz. The latter helped to presage a subtle shift in UR's productions. Instead of the unrelenting and brittle lo-fi productions of old, Banks began to release tracks that included more soulful production. One of the greatest successes of his softer side was “Spirit of the Jaguar” (originally put out under the Aztec Mystic moniker), which became the techno anthem of 1999.
You could hardly call it selling out, though. Banks'releases rarely hew to any trend or genre — they create their own. 1998's Interstellar Fugitives was the first long player to be released under the UR name and is perhaps the best example of the varied styles it can encompass. “Afrogermanic” is the exact meeting point between Kraftwerk and Detroit, “Mi Raza” immediately follows it up with a Latin influence and then we go off to outer space with “Moor Horseman on Bolarus 5.” The constant tweak in sound isn't a surprise. Banks and his compatriots have been using the UR name to push the idea of what techno can and should be for years now. How else to classify 2003's zydeco-techno workout “Swamp Thing” or the almost-cheesy breakbeats of “Actuator” from the same year? There's no way to predict what might be coming next. Underground Resistance probably wouldn't have it any other way.