AFROPUNK INTERVIEW: ROBERT HOOD ON GOD & TECHNO
November 21, 2018
As a pioneering producer of Minimal Techno, a former member of Detroit’s legendary Underground Resistance collective, and now as a preacher in Alabama, Robert Hood has spent three decades forging a singular path of ecstatic electronic music that sets out to inspire and heal. Last week, Hood released a sprawling DJ mix as part of the DJ Kicks series through which he hoped to pinpoint his own growth and trajectory. Within the mix, Hood seemed to approach the collection of tracks as a means of setting a tone and a momentum that could allow the listener to disappear and feel invigorated across its development. AFROPUNK talked to the Robert Hood about combining spirituality with minimal electronic music, about his own story of Black Detroit, and about what the world needs now.
There’s a great sense of momentum in your mix that is definitely akin to your productions. What was your approach to making the mix?
When I first began putting the tracks together, I wanted to really think, “what am I trying to say about who I am?” I wanted this mix to really reflect and encompass who Robert Hood as an artist, as a techno artist. I wanted to reflect my progressive roots and reflect not only the beauty of minimalism but also the ugliness and pain of who I am. To bare my soul, if you will. I don’t think that’s been done enough, you know?
I listened to other DJ kicks mixes — and Moodymann’s really stuck out to me. It really delved deep into who he is. So I didn’t just want to put together a random assembly of rhythm tracks. I come from a minimal background and I just wanted to focus on the essence of my growth as a man, connect the dots between where I’ve been, and give you glimpses of my past, but also point the listener to the future. So as I began to assemble the tracks, I began to pick out certain songs that I felt were indicative of what I was trying to say.
Electronic music is considered to be such stoic music for some reason. It’s not “expected” to be emotional. Electronic music oftentimes feel like painting, or crafting a clear image of dire circumstances and real adversity.
You know, I remember back around, I want to say the ‘89-‘90 days of Strictly Rhythm, that track called “The Warning.” Songs like that, or Fingers Inc. and Larry Heard, they had a forum to speak and say something. Larry said something that meant something for him, and groups like Phuture were talking about what was going on in the inner city, and not just making random acid tracks, but really baring their soul. That resonates with me. It’s like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, it’s a turn onto what’s happening today. Back in the days of Marvin Gaye, the Vietnam War was happening with the riots in Detroit and the civil rights movement, but what are we saying today in 2018?
I think a lot about how Phuture subverted technology. There’s something quite tangible about the idea of taking a broken bass synth, an instrument that was made in Japan, shipped across the ocean to America, and then pawned off by people in the music industry. Phuture took that and revolutionized it.
I remember all I had was an old broken down four-track mixer that I bought for like maybe $50, and I had a Yamaha QL pocket sequencer. You could put batteries in it, and it’s then running sequences so you can just lay tracks down. I didn’t have the latest gear. I had a bunch of pawn-shop equipment that I bought secondhand, and I had to make it work. It made me work harder through all of the glitches and problems that come with pawned equipment, and was accidentally thrust into finding my sound. I remember reading an article about the Pet Shop Boys and how they didn’t really even know how to turn the drum-machine on, but in the same breath they accidentally created a new sounds. That always stuck out to me.
I guess you would say that your minimalism is kind of a byproduct of just using what you have. There’s something quite pressing about taking, like, a banana, a paperclip and a toilet tissue roll and making something out of it, like Macgyver, right?
Exactly. You just learn how to improvise and make something out of nothing, and that was always my thought process. And that’s basically you speaking those things that “be not as though they already are.” With the first verse of the Bible, God spoke and said “let there be light. And there was light.” That’s what kind of power we have as children of God, and we don’t realize that we have that power. I mean whether we use a computer or a pencil to render art, it’s all the power that we have in our hands.
Have you always been religious?
I was raised in the church. My Mother didn’t take us to church on a regular basis, but my grandparents did anytime my sister and I spent time at my grandmother’s house. That included Sunday school, a morning service, evening service, Bible study and all that. So they planted seeds in us. I had that whole perspective about what a religion and church culture was — but I had come to realize that that’s just what it was, church culture. There are people that are believers and really follow Christ, follow his example and not just go to church because it’s something that you do, that becomes an empty ritual and not a true belief in your heart. You know, I guess like any culture. I felt that kind of work in progress where you have to build like a sort of a momentum. I mean, we’ve been un-informed or misinformed, you know, in believing that this is the way church is supposed to be. But when I began to know God for myself and asked for wisdom, God gave me the wisdom and the insight to see what God is all about — what is the mind of God? what his plan is for me? — to really seek God for myself.
I was really kind of astonished to find out that you live in Alabama. I grew up in Birmingham, in the church actually. Finding electronic music much later on in life filled in a lot of holes in Black history for me. My father in his 20s had casually gone to Detroit and Chicago a few times, and would tell me stories about his experiences, but he didn’t know any DJs or club names. I got a very second-hand like understanding of techno until I like looked into it for myself like. How did it work for you?
I live in Atmore, which is about about 50 miles north of Mobile. But I can remember a class I was in Cooley High School in Detroit; I was in class with Anthony “Shake” Shakir and we really bonded. All we talked about was the Electrifying Mojo radio show and kind of obscure records that we heard. At the time I was really into new wave music, bands like Kissing the Pink and Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode and stuff like that. We began to trade records back and forth — that was before house was House, and techno was Techno. It wasn’t even barely called progressive music. And I can remember going to progressive parties and hearing DJ’s like Ray Berry and Mike Huckaby. Electrifying Mojo was on the air in full force, and that was was for me the beginning of electronic music. That class is when I first heard about Juan Atkins. Finding out that music was from Detroit just blew my mind. It was like, “Okay maybe one day I can do something like that. Maybe I can DJ and become a producer.” I could see something coming between the new age/new wave sounds of Depeche Mode and this guy Juan Atkins (Model 500). Fans of Newcleus and Yellow Magic Orchestra and all of that were coming together to cause a movement. Then, when house music and acid house exploded I was hooked.
There’s always this reoccurring thing with electronic music where a little light bulb goes off as people find out that major strains of its development are Black by definition.
Yeah, definitely, and it evolved. I was listening again to Derrick May. He had a show on WJLB in Detroit called “Electric Crazy People.” There was all of these radio shows where people were playing this music that I had never heard before, playing imports and Italo-disco records along with the stuff that they had made themselves. And I said, “Wow, what is this? I don’t even know I really like this, this is really strange!” And I listened to it, recorded it, and would go to school the next day and talk about it, and buy the tracks two or three days later. “Actually, I love this. I have to have more of it.” Those radio shows changed my life. I still wasn’t even really getting serious about making music, I guess, until about ‘88, when I bought a drum machine and a Roland TR 505. That was it. I said, “I have to do this.”
It’s really fascinating to sit and meditate on your perspective, this sort of “shock of the new” with the discovery of this “inhuman” music played in such soulful context. You speak of it with so much emotion.
I had a series of ups and downs in my personal life that made me realize that music was saving my life. This is my way out. This is my vehicle into the future, you know, it’s like Model 500: Techno can be your cosmic car. I have one and you have one. And I said, “Well I want my own cosmic car! I want my own space ship so I can travel and get out of here.”
Detroit historically is one of the first real failures of the American Dream. It was supposed to be this utopia. Cars, a new mode of transportation and ability to navigate the country, were made available en masse, but then when the industry didn’t do so well anymore, Black people suffered.
Black people migrated out of the south to Detroit in hopes of a better life. My grandfather moved from some little town in Georgia — met my grandmother, who was from Texas, and they moved to Detroit. My grandfather was in the automotive industry, working at Chrysler. For him, the American Dream worked out great: he had a nice, beautiful home, two cars, everything he wanted. But it was so different for some other families, especially when the crack cocaine epidemic came in. It destroyed families. I began to notice when I got older that we got lured into a false sense of security that the automotive industry was going to take care of us.
Maybe that’s where God comes in. Not to pit God against technology, but…
There you go right there! See, my grandfather was rooted and grounded in the word of God and so that made all the difference in his life, his career, his marriage, his ministry — and his walk with God. He didn’t fall victim to the prize of the American Dream. Now my father did. He was a jazz musician growing up in Detroit. He fell victim to drugs and heroin and all of those trappings of temptation that also comes along with chasing the American Dream. My uncle, however, did not. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke and all of that. I say, “God is our anchor.” But when we fall into the temptations and the distractions of life and thinking that this industry is going to take care of us, you can fail majorly. When the industry started to outsource and downsize, people lost hope.
When we stray away from God’s covering, this is what happens; and that led to the demise of Detroit, I think. We had great opportunity. Our grandparents afforded us the ability to dream. We didn’t have to be sharecroppers, we didn’t have to be picking tomatoes and cucumbers and cotton anymore. We could dream and be what we wanted to be. That’s what I’ve come from in this crop of electronic musicians, dreamers and builders. But if it hadn’t been for our parents and grandparents migrating from the South to this land of milk and honey, this promised land, we wouldn’t be, but we can’t get lost and distracted.
I saw you play a party in New York a long time ago. It was nice to recognize a lot of the gospel songs you were playing, and to see people from a similar context as me use the sound system to translate this context and broadcast it into an environment. At the time I was staunchly sober, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, but I was having these religious experiences in the club completely sober.
That’s the spirit man. It’s the Holy Ghost, the spirit of truth, the spirit of love. I’ve had similar experiences with music. And I said, “Man, the club is a church.” That’s what I thought to myself back in ‘87-’88. If we use this correctly, we could minister through it. I wasn’t deep into religion and the faith and the word of God like I am now, but I could feel it in my spirit. I could sense and discern it. And I just thought to myself, “This is what the future of the club is.” The club is kind of coming full circle, because house music really derives from Gospel music, disco derives from Gospel music. You can go back to the days of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and you can point to the Clark Sisters, how they bridged the gap between disco and Gospel music in the days of Studio 54 and all of that. There was an energy and a message, we need that message. We needed it to. We need this message of the Gospel and the message of love in the club to keep us anchored. Electronic music is a vehicle to bridge the gap.