Once upon a time there was techno : an interview with Dj Skurge from Underground Resistance

The main surprise from the last GéNéRiQ festival was obvisouly the coming of the legendary producers from Underground Resistance. UR is a label but also the name for an impressive group of producers and djs, all originating from Detroit such as Mike Banks, Jeff Mills and Robert Hood. They truly shaped the history of techno in the 90’s in the United States. Ambassadors of a futuristic aesthetic of the techno sound where everything was (and still is) played live on machines, they really transform their music into a real « propaganda » tool which enables them to spread their activists views.

After seeing their brilliant – though very dark – live at the Consortium, we quietly waited for them in their hotel lobby with our colleagues from Radio Dijon Campus, until 2 am. Milton Baldwin, aka Dj Skurge finally met up with us and discussed their dearest stakes, the reasons why techno never got bigger in the US and his new exciting plans for this year !


How did the show go tonight ?  Are you satisfied ?
Everything went well even though we had some technical issues before the show. We’re happy that so many fans came, it’s been a long time since we’ve last played an entire live show and the audience seemed satisfied. We rocked the house so that makes me feel good man.

There’s a strong musical and visual identity behing UR, but it’s first about Detroit. Are you yourself from Detroit ?
Yes, I was born and raised in Detroit, I still live there, it’s been going on for… I’m not going to give the actual age, but 30 something years ! I’ve been here the whole time so i’m engrained in the culture as far the city, all of my family still live there so i’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

We could say you’re part of the second wave of artists from UR. So did you grow up with the sound of the people you’re working with today ?
First I wouldn’t consider myself the second wave of UR, there’s quite a few people that came before. I would probably consider Suburban Knight as the second wave, or Marc Floyd, Agent Chaos, Rolando… Those guys were here way before me.
The first UR record i heard was actually Final Frontier, i didn’t hear that record until 1996, so that’s 4 years after it came out. I didn’t start djing until 1992 and all I really did was buy records. At the time I was shopping at Record Time, a really famous store in Detroit that mike Huckaby used to help run. So I would just go and buy more electro records, like booty records – I can’t really go into details -you either know it or you don’t. I wasn’t really playing any techno at all and i was going to school at the time as well. Like Mike, which is one of the reason we connect so well, I was playing the guitar. Even though i knew how to dj, i’d completely let that go because i did not have any turntables, but i had a guitar ; so i was just playing in bands (rock, soul).

In 1996, I bumped into a guy who had been to the original Submerge location on the river. And at that time, it was like a dungeon, you couldn’t get in there if you didn’t know anybody, you had to have a password too. This guy took me down there and that was the first time I bought some records : Final Frontier, a bunch of Direct Beat stuffs, Drexciya. I was a little late, getting into music but once i had heard, I immediately identified with the sound. After a couple of years going to that store i told myself that one day I was going to be in that camp. I knew somehow that I was going to be part of UR at some point, it just made sense. So i just kept doing my thing, got some equipments, started doing some beats. I would take them down to Mike and he would let me know if I was doing good and eventually I came with some stuff he really enjoyed. The rest is history i guess.

We just saw you play live ; you’re a multi-instrumentalist, you were playing on a synthesizer but you also know how to play the guitar. Is it first because you’re a musician and that you share the same feeling with the others that you’re part of the Interstellar Fugitives adventure ?
I think the connection is more than just being a musician. The first connect is being from Detroit. I know that’s cliché to say but it’s to be able to connect with somebody on a personal level. We joke around a lot and you can tell certain jokes that someone else can understand. On our way over here tonight, we were laughing about stuff that used to happen on the playgroung in school. That’s the type of connecttion first of all. It’s like having a deeply rooted connection. Me and Mike grew up on the same part of town, he’s a little bit older than me but we can identify around these types of story.

Musically, i didn’t even start playing keyboards until i joined with the group ; Mike would show me a lot of stuff. We also have this new guy, Jon Dixon and he’s an amazing keyboard player so we share knowledge internally and we learn some stuff from these guys. The connection more than anything is personal.

UR is obviously a label but it’s way more than that. What’s more important amongst the UR group ; music or social actions, the political involvment in your city, in your neighborhoods, in your community. Maybe you’ll answer me that both are of equal importance… In that case, tell me more about the actions.
The musical, social and political aspects are kind of intertwined, they exist amongst each other. Many revolutions go hand in hand with music. Some type of entity that can bring people together and i think music is one of the easiest way to do this. I would say some messages are more avert and some are more subvert or coded, that’s the big thing we like to do sometimes. It gives people a chance to think. Because in a lot of music lately there hasn’t been much thinking involved. It’s just about putting out a track, trying to get famous and to make money. I mean originally, if you go back to even Africa per se, music used to tell stories over song, dance and they used to pass that down through generation. So, once a track is caught on a piece of vinyl on a record, you can go get that. It’s like a time machine, we use this term a lot we say, « land mines » where you can plant these seeds out, maybe nobody picks up on it right now but maybe few centuries from now, if it does still exist somewhere, it’ll be discovered by a completely new generation of people. It will have the same impact, wether they did get the original message or not. Now that’s a huge part.

« The key thing is going a little bit deeper »

I’ll use this as en example : you know we’re trying to get more integrated with the social media. It’s big, a new form of comunication so we have a new YouTube channel (UR313) and we’ve been putting out a lot of videos lately. Some of the tracks have completely coded meanings and my example is Final frontier. Mike and I were talking about it just yesterday. Now most people when that record came out, because it was called final frontier, they thought we were talking about star trek, which is fine you know, because everything is space ! But with this video, what Mike and Jeff (Mills) actually talked about on that record is in fact the final frontier there’s  in your mind. He was talking about education so yes, a lot of people they take it for face value but at the same time it’s cool to let things go for a while, let people take their own meaning out of it. Then you come back later and throw down what really was going on when it was made. And that’s the shit that stays around for a long time. People are like « damn, i had no idea that’s what they were talking about ». It’s like figuring out a puzzle, it’s enlightening, that carries way more than just a hook on a record and flash and popularity contest and shit, it’s all superficial you know.

We see you a bit like the Public Enemy of techno/electro. But tonight there were only white boys at the venue and in Europe your music is mainly beeing played in clubs or free parties which at the end, gather people outside of your community. When you came to realize this, were you happy about it or did you think that somehow there was a failure in the communication process.
The second part of that question, as far as the reaction from people outside the community, i’d say that it is the whole point. Man is global, man is just not located in Detroit, we have a certain point of view that’s all. I think it depends on individuals, on how deep they want to research things. Sometimes, people just want an expresso ; they get it and they go off on it. Some others want a tea so they can sip on and enjoy. Music is like that : you get out of it what you mentally dedicate yourself to finding out. So for the people that take their time and really try to research a little bit, look deeper into the meaning of things, we enjoy that. But that doesn’t exclude the people that just want to show up and dance to good music either. There’s a time and a place for all of that. Everybody is equal. Our point of view is just from our particular city. There are others great musicians and producers form other cities as well, and they have their point of view. But the key thing like i said is going a little bit deeper, i think you just get more out of the music this way.

You had a track that came out on Soul Aid this year, you can download it for free in exchange for a donation for the japanese victims. Is it directly linked with your involvment amongst UR ?
I don’t think it’s linked to any type of movement, i felt i had to do something,  after the tsunami and the earthquake that happened in Japan early this year. We have quite a few close friends that live over there and we were asked by a really good friend of ours, her name is Yuko Asanuma, and she put the wheels in motion for Soul Aid which is the organization that is donating any type of profits to the people there. She just asked if we would be willing to contribute, not just us, but multiple artists and obviously everybody was onboard to submit a track. We were just trying to help out. And thanks to everybody contributing not just us, she really hit some amazing numbers with donations. It’s a good cause.

Talking about the precise actions of UR in Detroit, would you say that the main battle is still about the mass media, the miscommunication and mainstream music or are work and social issues still the priority ?
I think as far as work, these last couple of years it hasn’t been just a Detroit issue, it’s been very global. With all of the sit-ins, on the United States side, with the Wall street events… We’ve seen that before in an other decade and other generations have been through some of the same things. We have our own battle in Detroit as well. Obvisouly we were hit hard several years ago because of the automotive industry. When you have a complete metropolitan area that was built upon one particular industry and then it gets taken away ; of course it’s going to be catastrophic to communities where thousands of people are just instantly out of work.

The problem with that was you were basically able to live high school and make a lot of money in a factory without any further education. You’d be doing that for 20, 30 years and all of the sudden you didn’t have a job anymore. It’s hard to get educated again when you’re 40, 45 years old, you have kids, a family and not much time. Just an avalanche effect. Some people take drugs, some people drink… Everybody has a vice i guess. In a very spiritual way, to me music is a great relief from our everyday problems. Even songs that were made 20 years ago, carry a lot of weight to some of the struggles that are happening right now. And that goes for all types of genre of music, not just UR and techno. What we try to do now and what’s emerged which is a physical location as well, what we try to do is to embrace the community as far as uplifting. People may have no idea who Mike Banks or Jeff Mills are, but that doesn’t matter. I think with the music scene in Detroit, even if they don’t know who they are, certain tracks carry weight amongst all type of scenes.

Right now the only thing dedicated to techno is a techno museum, the first one in the world. About ten years ago we had an exhibit at our Detroit historical museum but that wasn’t permanent. This is educational in itself. There’s also a record store as well, people would be around and play UR records,and it leads people into « this is where it started » and « this is where it’s going ». It will embrace other types of music as well ; we have a couple of hip hop artists as well that have put out some records recently. Nick Speed put out an EP on UR last year and he has some more in the pipe coming out, in the next couple of months.
That’s a major turning point as well ; it’s a lot more hip hop based nowadays than it was during our time. So, sometimes you have to do battles with what’s new, you can find ways to integrate them into those scenes as well. But we still stay true to our methods.

Do you think techno will one day get the place it deserves in the United States and reach the level of popularity of hip hop and rock n roll ?
If that was meant to happen i think it would have been embraced back when it started. Just the type of music that it was or that people perceived it to be was only viable in club settings or discos… After the fall of disco i think people were tired of just the dance scene in general. What i like to say is that hip hop is the new rock n roll. When rock n roll was new it was « hands off », it was taboo. Hip hop was looked at the same way. Unfortunately, techno and hip hop had its roots during the same decade, they grew up together and hip hop won out. One of the reason for that is because of mc, vocals, lyrics, because you can get a lot more messages across obviously with spoken words versus just instrumentals which techno is born in. Certain artists like Public Enemy were very popular and avant garde, they were turning the music industry on their ear, during a time when the music industry was down.

Me personnally i think it will never be embraced as much. Clear Channel owns every radio in the States, if they thought techno was a viable means to make profit they would’ve invested in that. There hasn’t been a single radio station in Detroit that just plays techno properly in fifteen years. Just recently one of our variety show where you can hear mix shows at night, that just got bought, so that’s gone.
It had its chance and it didn’t make it but it doesn’t mean it’s not important or viable again. You know sometimes things that are good don’t come easy, actually most of them (laughs).

« One label is not enough to… I guess i want to say compete but if there’s going to be any type of Detroit resurgeance, it’s going to take multiple entities to do that, multiple minds, multiple people, more Jeff Mills, more Rob Hood to contribute to the Detroit sound »

Hip hop roots were great in the beginning. Me being an old school fan i’m always going to have love for the original. I think now it’s just easy because to market it is easy,  you don’t need to put in a lot of work, as long as you have a machine behind you to fund promotion and looks.

Going back to the roots of techno, thinking on it as a futuristic music  i think it was too futuristic for itself in the 80’s. I don’t think it has even hit its peak yet. We talked about seeing alien encouters… you know when the shit hits the fan that’s when people take notice like « man, those cats were talking about this shit 50 years ago ». Unfortunately, some very fine art goes along that same path. Some artist aren’t famous before they’re dead and gone.

Can you tell us more about the new tracks coming out in 2012 ?
This is a new EP, it was supposed to come out this month but we had a couple of other releases that got out before. Juan Atkins did a guest apperance on the A side track. That will be out in January. I’m doind dj dates as well to promote that. Right now is just a good time for everybody especially Submerge because a lot of records are coming out, Mark Flash has put out one, Dj Dex‘s is coming out, Timeline‘s just came out. So there is a lot of activity and i’m basically just another soldier on the field. Everybody has its own personality and what they like to do as well. I’m more the grimy, electro dude ; i still love regular four four techno, don’t get it twisted, that’s still the hot shit. But yeah, just breaks and electro that’s where i would like to take things. There’s possibly a label in the works, that’s been talked about. Several of us are talking about that right now.
UR is amazing, it’s been around for a very long time but we understand that one label is not enough to… I guess i want to say compete but if there’s going to be any type of Detroit resurgeance, it’s going to take multiple entities to do that, multiple minds, multiple people, more Jeff Mills, more Rob Hood to contribute to the Detroit sound.
Most likely next year, i’ll probably launch a label at some point, Dex probably will as well. That’s what’s in my backpocket now, it’s my own label.

Have you discussed this with Mike ?
Oh yeah, these are things that have been in the discussions for years, nothing is just for the moment you know. Sometimes it takes a while to get things in order. The main thing was to get Submerge healthy again and have these new records coming out and that’s cool. The factory is in full effect right now. So i think you’ll see a lot more records in 2012, probably the most you’ve seen out of any year since 2004/2005.

I love travelling, small outings you go out and play at, maybe stay a little while and come back, but the main thing we like to concentrate on now, me included, is finding some new guys as well to pick up. Maybe you’ve seen on the press that Mike Huckaby does that with a youth organization in Detroit ; he teaches. Mark Taylor, he’s put out records on UR as Vintage Future, he teaches as well. He has a portable studio, and show high school kids how to produce. That’s what’s needed next, that’s my focus. You still need to go out and promote but there’s work at home. So hopefully we can find some new Skurges.


Interview by Sophie Brignoli, Martial Ratel, Amandine Chauve.
Photos : (c) Mister B – Le Consortium Dijon, december 2011 (festival GéNéRiQ)
Thank you to : Mathieu Roussotte.