Robert Hood interview: ‘You can’t escape your vision’

Robert Hood is an artist who’s always flipping things. He’s a pioneer of austere, minimal techno who releases gospel house as Floorplan; The ‘Minister of Information’ in revolutionary techno act Underground Resistance who now preaches in his church, and an indelible part of urban Detroit’s music legacy, who now lives on a ranch in Alabama.

Robert Hood’s techno ministry began in the early 90s when he joined Detroit’s militant wing Underground Resistance as MC Robert Noise, along with Jeff Mills and “Mad” Mike Banks. With track titles like ‘Eye of the Storm’, ‘Riot’ and ‘Rage’, and their masked guerilla aesthetic, UR got asked if they were actual terrorists the first time they went on tour, but they were really a “movement that wanted change by sonic revolution”.

In 1992, Hood left to go solo and carve out a unique brand of hypnotic, mimimal techno, with early releases Minimal Nation, Moveable Parts and Internal Empire among electronic music’s all-time classics. Hood has released dozens of records, remixes and collaborations, from his signature stripped-back thumping techno, to abstract sci-fi creations as Monobox, to his space-age explorations AS X-101-3 with Mills and Banks. His concept album Motor: Nighttime World 3 has Detroit’s economic collapse as its backdrop, but as always with Hood, there’s a lingering sense of hope, on closer ‘A Time To Rebuild’.

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In recent years Hood’s house alter-ego Floorplan has come to the fore, with its joyous, gospel samples backed up by an explicitly religious message – track titles like ‘He Can Save You’, ‘The Heavens & the Earth’ and ‘Confess’ are all over the two Floorplan albums, Paradise and Victorious. The track ‘Made Up My Mind’ on the latest Floorplan EP Let the Church is built around an ecstatic gospel vocal praising Jesus to the high heavens for six minutes, with a church organ wail that’s one serious dancefloor unifier.

In 2014, Hood introduced his 18-year-old daughter Lyric to the crowd at Movement festival in Detroit, letting her DJ in the middle of his live set. Since then, Lyric has continued to DJ with her father, and Floorplan is now a duo, with the pair DJing at clubs and festivals worldwide, and Lyric now collaborating in the studio.

But back to minimal techno – Hood released his latest solo album Paradygm Shift in June, and it’s another raw collection of dancefloor hypnotism. He’s been on tour all summer, shifting between the Paradygm Shift live show and Floorplan gigs with Lyric.

“It’s been a delicate balance, it’s been hard to juggle and by the grace of God we’ve been able to pull it off so far, so all is well,” Hood tells me over the phone from Amsterdam.

As he’s booked up all over Europe for most of the summer, he’s moved his family from his adopted home of Alabama over to the Dutch capital for a few months. He took an hour out of his afternoon family downtime recently, to chat to me about his headspace for various projects, his early inspirations in Detroit and Underground Resistance, the need for revolution in music, the importance of family, and his ongoing spiritual journey.

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In the past year you’ve released Floorplan’s Victorious and Paradygm Shift, and Let the Church EP is just out as well. Do you have a very different frame of mind if you’re writing as Floorplan or just under Robert Hood?
The ‘Robert Hood’ train of thought, that’s probably, number one minimalism, and to stay in that vein I tend to focus on what’s essential, as I have with Minimal Nation and Internal Empire, Moveable Parts, projects like that. Lately I’ve been standing on that a little bit but just building on that groove of minimal, repetitive techno, and so that’s been pretty much the mainstay for the Robert Hood sound.

Floorplan began I guess around 95-96 when I was still living in Detroit and started off with soul and disco samples, like Kool and the Gang, using grooves like that and funky soul tunes, so it was sort of easy to separate the two.

Floorplan was of course more soulful, and then it just developed into gospel mixed with house and disco, taking a direction from the late Frankie Knuckles, Lil Louis and Inner City. There are times when the techno and house bump into each other… the main focus is the groove on each project though.

It seems like you’ve been really inspired working with Lyric. How important was it to play live with Lyric for the first time at Movement in Detroit? Did it feel like a homecoming, full-circle?
It’s been wonderful. It’s been challenging and refreshing at the same time. Yeah, it felt full circle, just a great opportunity to introduce Lyric to the world – and at the same time it was important that I let her do her own thing.

She wanted to play right in the middle of my live set, so I just let her do whatever she wanted to do, just to express herself. She played Beyonce, Martin Garrix, Katy Perry, as well as some of my stuff, she just mixed it all together, cos that’s what she was into at the time. And so I let her come up with her playlist of what she wanted to do and she executed it brilliantly.

It’d be a bit of a shock hearing Katy Perry in the middle of a Robert Hood live set. Do you think that’s an example of the dance music community being inclusive, that the crowd went along with it, maybe because it was you?
I mean, it’s all about the feeling. It doesn’t matter, whatever makes you move. Lyric is a lot like me, and growing up I couldn’t understand why music was so segregated. Why it’s in this category, why does it have to be, ‘this is for the jazz heads’? You can’t play Stevie Wonder behind Electric Light Orchestra?

I come from a time in Detroit where music wasn’t that segregated. in the 70s there was a station that you could hear Marvin Gaye and David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac all alongside each other, just like anything goes… Elton John, whatever.

And that’s what I come from. And then we had the Electrifying Mojo and he was our eclectic late night guru who taught us all that there are no boundaries – and so Lyric is a lot like myself.

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Lyric, she developed that same ear for music that I had, without any direction from me. I went through her playlist a few times, just being a father and making sure she didn’t have anything on there that was really risky! And I noticed she had some dub on there, some reggae, some drum & bass, some pop, some Justin Bieber, some hip-hop. A little bit of everything. So I’m just quietly watching to see how her music develops.

You grew up in a musical house, so is it just really that spirit being passed on?
Yeah absolutely, there was always music in the house. My dad used to listen to a lot of 50s doo wop music and that kind of shaped me. Lyric doesn’t know it [laughs], but I was raised on that, listening to doo wop, Motown, and then when I was old enough and tall enough to reach the radio knob and turn it myself, I started exploring and and trying different stations to see what else was on the radio.

I’ve always been one to dig into my mother’s record collection, man she had jazz, she had R&B, and soul and of course Motown and pop and it was just fascinating for me, it was just like discovering gold. And then I would go over to my grandmother’s house and my uncle had a huge record collection there.

He just recently passed and he gave it to me. And wow, I can’t wait to go home and dig through all the records that he left me, because it was thousands of records. He owned a record store in Detroit, and so that was my first job, just being constantly exposed to calypso music, to reggae music, he taught me where funk came from.

And that was my musical education, between my grandparents’ house and my mother’s house and my uncle’s record store.

How did your parents feel when you started playing this militant techno in Underground Resistance? Did they feel like you were rebelling?
Well my mother hated it, she hated the idea of me thinking about going into the music scene at all. This techno scene was brand new. And so they were like, ‘What are you talking about? You don’t even know what that is. And I was trying to explain, this is techno, this is the new thing. And of course people looked at it as a fad, like they did with hip-hop — it’ll be around for a few years, it’ll die out and go away.

But they didn’t understand that they had afforded me the chance… and as a matter of fact all our parents in Detroit and Chicago afforded us the freedom to explore this music using drum machines and synthesisers to create something new. And that’s exactly what we did, just exploring and pioneering these brave new worlds, just sort of building planets out of nothing.

My parents and their parents wanted me to settle down and have a regular 9 to 5 job that was safe, and go to college or go to the army and get a job with benefits and a retirement plan.

But the thing is, the vision, you can’t escape vision, and I’m sure if you had a conversation with Juan Atkins and Mike Banks and Jeff Mills and Derrick May and Carl Craig and so forth, and cats over in Europe, it’s the same thing. Vision, you can’t deny it, it’s a powerful force. And so we just had to create.

There’s a pretty powerful moment in your RBMA lecture when you get really emotional watching an Underground Resistance clip from 1992. Can you remember what was going through your head watching yourselves at that early stage?
Yeah that was the very first time I had even seen that clip, I had never seen a clip of Underground Resistance performing live. And so watching myself looking at this young man, this young Robert Hood, it just made me … [pauses] glad to be alive.

I wish I could… man if I could go back and tell this young man about the future, about what he should be doing, what he shouldn’t be doing.

It just caught me off guard thinking about the time I had with Underground Resistance travelling, my first time going out of the country and just being grateful to be alive, and just humbled.

I’ve come a long way spiritually. I was a young knucklehead, [laughs], I didn’t know nothing. And y’know I was just a kid trying to live out his dreams. But that was my journey, that was my path, and I’m happy to have had that opportunity to have performed with Mike and Jeff.

You were talking about revolution back then through the music and producing the Global Techno Power newsletter in the early 90s. In a way did you always want to spread the word in some way?
Music definitely needs that to have a movement, every era has to have a movement. The 60s had the civil rights movement and Motown was the soundtrack to that, among others. And the 70s had its movements, black power and equality and the women’s rights movement and all the songs that came from that… going into the 80s and hip-hop with Run DMC, Public Enemy.

Every era has its soundtrack to revolution. At the time the only art I think in my opinion that was speaking political issues was Underground Resistance, and so that paved the way and set the tone and the blueprint for what we have now. Now we have the power to say whatever we feel like saying, we can echo Marvin Gaye’s sentiment, we can echo Curtis Mayfield and Chuck D.

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People are listening and people want and need direction and especially in these turbulent times, there’s’ so much hate there’s so much adversity and we’re really not even paying attention to it.

We need to speak out… there’s the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s so much to be said and we need to… not capitalise on this, but to say something that means something, I’ve been saying this for years, I tried to raise people’s consciousness, and there’s more to it than just festivals and late night clubs on the weekend. There’s something to be said with this music.

Have you surprised that Floorplan has been embraced by techno crowds?
You know, I was a little bit apprehensive about playing something like ‘We Magnify His Name’ at a club like, let’s say Berghain, and how people would receive it. I was a little bit nervous. I just said, ‘No, I have to express this vision God gave me, I can’t be afraid to put this record on’. At first the reaction was, ‘Well OK’ and after a few other bookings at Berghain they started to request it, then they started to demand that I play it.

So this message resonates all over the world, so I’m always so proud to play ‘Never Grow Old’, ‘We Magnify His Name’, ‘He Can Save You’, tracks like that… I’m a firm believer of the Christian faith, like I said I was a little bit afraid, I was shook [laughs], but God told me I had to take a bold stance, this is what I represent.

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I was chatting to Green Velvet and he said there wasn’t much of a jump from going to church and listening to gospel, then listening to house music in a club, would you agree? You’ve said the Detroit Music Institute felt almost religious…
Yeah I totally agree, I’ve always felt like the DJ booth can be a pulpit. When you take the stage you’re actually preaching something, every DJ is preaching something, every singer, every performer, you are preaching a message. Just what is that message that you’re preaching? Is it love? Is it hate? Is it anger? Is it happiness? We’re all preaching something.

House music came from gospel, disco came from gospel, so when I listened to groups like the Trammps and Sylvester, and man when I listen to James Brown, when I listen to Ray Charles, there’s a a preaching kind of tone to their performance.

And at church at a revival, those things can go on all night too! But that’s where it comes from, the Warehouse parties in Chicago, that’s what it was, it was church. The techno parties in Detroit at the Music Institute, that was church.

I’ve heard you use the analogy of fresh water and flowing for your inspiration. Do you think this is almost like the act of DJing itself?
When you’re on the middle of a continuous mix — that’s running water, and it’s non-stop, it’s ever-flowing, it’s constant fresh water flowing and even after the DJs change shifts the next DJ may play the same record but he’s not going to play the record the same way.

So the river never gets stale, and that’s what I’m amazed and inspired by techno and house music over the years. You wonder how we can keep coming up with new sounds and new rhythms — there’s only so much space on a  sequencer and a drum machine.

And if you look at gospel music, if you look and R&B and hip-hop, I don’t see it running dry. Creativity doesn’t have to be stagnant, no matter how old you are.

Movement was declared Detroit Techno Week last year and a lot of techno artists were awarded the Spirit of Techno, including Underground Resistance. What did that feel like after all these years?
I remember back in the mid 80s when radio refused to play house and techno, they thought that this music is too far ahead of its time, and that was the excuse… with the exception of ‘Good Life’ when Inner City I think had the biggest dance record in the country at that time, and so radio had to play it.

Fast forward to now, it feels like it’s about time. I feel like Detroit has to embrace what we have. Whether it’s underground, it is what it is. I was too young to really remember the beginning of Motown but I’ve heard stories from my uncle, it didn’t catch on overnight, it took time for it to be accepted as the music of those progressive days.

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House and techno were forward-thinking, but the music was avant-garde and abstract at times and acid house was all new to people. And for the most part they were just rhythm tracks, they weren’t always songs like you had with Colonel Abrahams. It wasn’t until tracks like Deee-Lite’s ‘Groove Is In the Heart’, ‘Pump Up the Jam’, that people began to grab a hold of it a little bit.

Chicago seemed to embrace house music more and I always thought Detroit should do the same thing. So I’m glad, and I’m glad it’s still happening, but we still have a long way to go.

Your name will be forever tied to Detroit but you’ve lived in Alabama for over 10 years. Did you think long and hard about leaving your home city?
Oh yeah definitely, yeah I’m still questioning the move [laughs]. For me to leave Detroit and go away from what was familiar to me, and go to a strange place where people didn’t necessarily look like me, talk like me and vote like me.

And so it was a brave move to the deep, deep South. I’m a city kid all my life, it’s all I’ve known. I still love Detroit and I still call Detroit home. It’s different for me and my family in the South. We go to a church that’s predominantly white, Republican, and so it’s definitely out of our comfort zone, but at times I can see the growth, we can see we’re being taken to a new level spiritually.

So we don’t know where we’re going from there but now we’re living in Amsterdam so I barely know what’s happening now! We just take it day by day…

I guess the environment and the space helps you think? I read in an interview that you like to get out on the tractor mower on the ranch. That’s an amazing image, Robert Hood on a tractor…
Yeah man, you know that’s something I love to do when I get the opportunity. lately I haven’t been able to get on the tractor… you know that’s a quiet time when I’m able to think and talk to God and reflect on my music, my career, my family, and just say, What am I doing? What’s the next move? It’s kinda like my strategy time, where I can plot out and get some direction and just plan out the next chess move…