Let's All Make Mistakes
On Detroit Techno, Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin, and the rise and fall (and rise?) of DJ Mixes.
As it's Movement Festival weekend in Detroit, my mind turns to the dance music sound I grew up on: The Midwestern DJ lineage, and its attributes of speed/dexterity, musical diversity, and abundant style. In this house, Jeff Mills is high amongst the musical gods of Detroit, alongside Herb legends like Bob Seger, etc. The “problem” is that you can’t fully enjoy Jeff Mills in a single song or even a playlist. Like the (now trendy) brutalist buildings of yore, the work of some of the best DJs work must be seen (and felt) to be understood.
The recorded DJ mix is maybe no longer a cultural bellwether as it was in the CD era, but maybe we’re better for it, with dozens of notable mixes coming out each week online, free to enjoy. With live streams from London’s NTS and NYC’s The Lot, and consistent podcasts from Resident Advisor, FACT, XLR8R, etc. means you need smart folks like Philip Sherburne to cut through the noise with monthly best of’s.
DJ Culture has never been bigger so we need more mixes to breakthrough, which I suspect Boiler Room has done for a new generation. My own “DJ Career” is inconsequential but it’s what led me to start a label and become a participant in music, which still guides my thinking. At Ghostly we honor the form with our semi-regular Lot Radio sets where the team and friends play live from Greenpoint and I’ve co-curated our nearly 100-episode ghostlycast mix series of mixes.
Some classic mixes are starting to resurface online and Apple and Spotify have both enabled seamless DJ mixes. Tim Sweeney’s seminal Beats In Space show (the American Bandstand of modern dance music) is now an official Apple Music radio show and !K7s beloved DJ Kicks mixes are starting to be added to DSPs but the lion’s share of classic mixes remain ad-enabled on YouTube and Soundcloud.
Going back through the DJ mix's commercial ascendency, from the mid 90’s to the mid-00’s, what is striking is the level of suspense that could be created in pre-sync button/Ableton sets. Having these mixes nestled next to the artist albums and singles on digital platforms is important for a handful of reasons: Monetary value (proper accounting), historical benefit (easier legibility of which song is playing in the mix), and more accessibility, in general, is good for the music. It also is thrilling to hear continuous mixes in their best fidelity.
What playlists can’t do, mixes can, providing a historical document which is erosion-proof and showing intention (songs mixed at different speeds/intervals/moments) also reinforces what a “real” DJ is. It’s more than track selection. Great DJs are intuitive performers who create moments for songs that the original artist couldn't have summoned.
Noah Brier from fave Substack Why is this interesting?, shared his experience about how he came to understand the joy of mixes:
“After a few tries, I went with Michael Mayer’s Immer...which I hadn’t given the proper time or attention...It’s good to be reminded that DJing isn’t just the act of playing tracks. The real secret is spiritual, not technical; it's much more about the metaphysical resonance between the songs, not their beats-per-minute. And when you hear it done properly, the result is pleasantly transportive.”
There are two mixes that have been on my mind, sort of siblings in their Detroit-adjacent legacy. 1995’s Mixmag presents Richie Hawtin: Mixmag Live Volume 20 steeps you in the time and place of Midwestern rave, and the parties Hawtin would throw himself in Detroit, just across the bridge from his native Windsor. The other mix (not (yet) on all services) is arguably the greatest recorded techno set ever: 1996’s Jeff Mills – Mix-Up Vol. 2 Featuring Jeff Mills - LiveMix At Liquid Room, Tokyo. A youtube commenter (one of many rapturous voices) says the mix “is a fight and not a DJ set.”
It’s the sound of Detroit techno blasted across the world to a room of fans in Japan, a victory lap for this underdog style of raw track delivery. Mills starts the set like a War of the Worlds transmission before pummeling forth. His own signature tune, “The Bells” is the unemotional lurch of an implacable cyborg: the spiritual center of Liquid Room as endless tunneling of sound. Hawtin’s own cuts under his Plastikman alias, “Spaz” and “Helicopter” offer the same centering, thick with snare rushes which both root and disorient (and happen to sound really great through a delay unit).
These segments come from a three-hour performance recorded on October 28, 1995, at The Liquid Room in Tokyo. Unlike most DJ mix albums, which are most often recorded in the studio, often with computer-aided mixing devices, Live at the Liquid Room fulfills its billing -- it's indeed a live recording. As such, it's less than pristine -- for instance, you can hear the needle drop, the crowd noise, occasional train wrecks, and other audience-recording phenomena -- yet, flaws and all, this is precisely Live at the Liquid Room's beauty. You see, Mills mixes at a jaw-dropping tempo, rarely allowing a given track more than two minutes or so; furthermore, since the mixing is so frantic, the mixes themselves are seemingly instinctual, often overlapping and sometimes abrupt yet mostly perfect. - All Music Guide
Hawtin’s role as a disciple of DJ’s like Mills, presents a more sterile and serpentine view: the snake charmer with the 303, summoning spirits. Mills, who came of age as a hip-hop DJ (early alias: The Wizard) treats records as objects. These records, “DJ Tools” to some, are deployed quickly, working as building blocks to stack and unstack as needed for the desired effect, an. The fragility (pops, skips) becomes part of the texture of the mix and the decay (“cue burn” in vinyl terms, or the degradation of sound when you rub a needle back and forth on a record a few too many times) adds character, a human edge.
Both mixes benefit from the underground techno of the time which revels in “which way is up”. The assumption is that a song in a mix is about to drop a beat on the “2”and the “4” and instead, hits on the “1.” Sounds boring but the net effect is an MC Escher drawing: The endless stairs and the disorientation, which were also pivotal to both the sound and production design Hawtin’s classic Detroit parties. Hawtin returned serve with Decks, EFX & 909 (1999) with a cover that feels like an homage to Liquid Room which for many is the greatest techno mix (deckmaster Ryan Elliott: “nothing is even a close second”), which is is like T-1000 level mixing and editing, maybe the height of the era, giving way to the next.
The knock against techno (then and now) is that it’s heartless and macho. But in review, it’s a much more sensuous sound than most dance music. The limitation of the technics 1200 turntables and mixer set up was a key factor. 1) it was the same for everyone, which established the tools as equal. 2) you can mess up, and a skipped record can de-hypnotize a crowd back to earth. And on Liquid Room, Mills does mess up. The effect is electrifying. It’s the trapeze artists slightly wiggling, showing that it can all fall down. In the hands of Mills, these flubs become ecstatic. Proof of life.
Both artists would eventually move past the art of live mixing as a key tenet (as techno should be future-focused), with Hawtin focusing on the fx/concepts as the key and Mills donning a tux and commanding an orchestra from time to time. But when reigned in by the gear of the time, they were at their most explosive and fearsome. Dance music has perpetuated “look at me” rock stereotypes in more flamboyant ways, but the position of these mixes, as the engineers of barreling freight trains, is about at badass as it gets.
The a-musicality of the ‘90s techno sound is also the key to getting lost. There are no “solos” or breakdowns like on the competing trance mixes, instead, all virtuosity is in crowd command. On Liquid Room, you can actually hear the howls of crowd noise through the needles, another unintended error. The sound cannot be contained. It’s hysteric.
The continuous DJ mix found a commercial form on cassette and peaked as a sellable product with the CD, which represented strong economics and marketing for club-branded series (Fabric, Cream, Café Del Mar). The ability to represent a consistent curatorial approach helped make these mixes buy-on-sight for curious fans who usually didn’t know the artist names included, but sought out dance music the way it was played at clubs and raves, which for minors or people who didn’t live in urban centers, was a big deal. The Easy Jet-enabled techno tourism that kicked off in the 2000s was aided by the imaginations spurred by franchises like Global Underground (big name DJ mixes, with the location trope in full effect) and its myth-building art direction.
The best mixes tend to chart alternate histories for dance music. A key one for that is I-f’s Mixed Up In The Hague (Vol 1) (2000) which acts as a historical document but it’s like a false future where Italo Disco and street beat electro got a fair shake. It’s a wrestlemania of hooks and chromatic wonder.
There are some technical innovations that may see another surge for the DJ mix in terms of importance and meaning. In its current state, financial remuneration for artists and DJs inside mixes is still taking shape, and web3 thinking/attributes may open another new lane where compensation can meet with deep transportation, sort of an absolute ideal. - Sam