We almost lost Detroit. It’s the title of a song, one of Gil Scott-Heron’s best, but that phrase often comes to mind when I read another accidental obituary for the Motor City.
Detroit’s decline is also the subject matter for Julien Temple’s documentary Requiem for Detroit? which, in turn, inspired one of the most incredible odes an artist has composed to his hometown.
That album, Motor: Nighttime World 3, is being hailed as one of Robert Hood’s best. It’s not a claim I make lightly: Omega, Internal Empire, and a number of other albums from Hood’s catalog have made a profound impact on the direction of electronic music. But Motor brings something more to the table. The drama of Detroit’s decline has within it, the film suggests, the seeds of its rebirth – and you can hear that bleak despair alongside Hood’s passionate hope and faith in the city’s (and by extension, much of America’s) renewal.
5 Magazine spoke to Mr. Hood about this remarkable creation and the faith of the man that drives it.
Motor: Nighttime World 3 is based upon Julien Temple’s documentary Requiem for Detroit?, but I’m sure you’ve thought about the subject before, or people like me have asked you about it. What was it about Temple’s film that inspired you to make the album?
Detroit’s people are resilient, resourceful people. They still dream, they still have the vision. And if you have the vision, you still have hope.
It was the backstory, the history of black people migrating from the South, from Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. They arrived in Detroit in search of the “promised land”, if you will – a better life for themselves and their families, an escape from life as sharecroppers, with the mentality of wanting a piece of the American pie for themselves. They faced adversity once they’d gotten to Detroit, from racism to drugs to politics. That’s what drew me in, especially as I’m myself looking at Detroit from Alabama, which is where I live now.
Does the distance from Alabama to Detroit allow you look closer than when you were living in the midst of it?
It gives me a different perspective. When you’re living within the adverse climate of Detroit, it can become so much a part of your everyday life. Looking at it from a distance you gain a different perspective and point of view. You hear the analogy of Detroit in the film as “a slow motion Katrina”. For me, after living in Detroit for so long, I became immune to the things around you. You don’t pay attention.
It’s hard to put into words but… it’s almost like being an alien looking down with a bird’s eye view – a panoramic view of the place where you’re from. For the first time you can see the entire picture of what’s happened, what’s happening and what will be.
I often think of the title of the Gil Scott-Heron song, “We Almost Lost Detroit”. I know that’s about a specific incident – the near-meltdown of a nuclear reactor – but the title has become prescient and I think the insertion of the word “almost” in there has an optimism about it. Do you feel that way?
Oh, Detroit is still alive and vibrant and teeming with life. It’s almost like the movie The Omega Man: you’re all alone, the last man, thinking all is lost and life can’t be the way it was again, that it can’t be restored from such a bleak present. But there’s the spark of life, of blood in the veins, and everything’s renewed. Detroit’s people are resilient, resourceful people. They still dream, they still have the vision. And if you have the vision, you still have hope.
Do you know if Julien Temple has heard the album and has a reaction? He’s done a lot of musical films – most famously the bookends to the Sex Pistols’ career.
No, I haven’t, but I’d be interested to hear it. While watching the movie I began to imagine how a soundtrack for it would sound, but listening to the music I think they would probably go with music like Gil Scott-Heron and a more Motown-ish sound. I’d be really curious to hear [street artist] Tyree Guyton’s reactions to the album after seeing him in the film, too.
You mentioned The Omega Man a moment ago; your album Omega was based upon that. What is it about movies and visual media that you’ve found such a rich source of inspiration?
I’m inspired by stories of struggle. I’m a survivor and I come from a place, Detroit, that breeds survivors. I’m inspired by the story of human struggle in whatever form it comes in. And that’s what I’ve tried to document that in the music: a very real story of people – not the hype of Techno, House, Electronic Music, etc. – but what I feel is important subject matter. Groups like A Tribe Called Quest always followed that path. Gangstarr always had more going on in their material. Marvin Gaye… I think Jay-Z said it best when he said that “I can’t see my own tears comin’ down my eyes, so I gotta make the song cry.” That’s the kind of emotion I put into the groove on the record. It’s putting my soul on wax. If it’s real, people will gravitate toward it. It’s from my heart to your heart. It’s like when I was a kid, listening to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. I try to channel these feelings – of angst, fear, happiness, just true emotions – for people in Detroit, people in Australia & people in Africa.
It’s putting my soul on wax. If it’s real, people will gravitate toward it. It’s from my heart to your heart. I try to channel these feelings – of angst, fear, happiness, just true emotions – for people in Detroit, people in Australia & people in Africa.
A lot of artists tend to drop off when they get to a certain age. I don’t think it’s a great mystery: family and other life priorities get in the way. But I think you’ve produced not just your best work in the last few years, but we could have done this interview six months ago about Omega: Alive or six months from now about the Floorplan album. I mean, that’s three albums in a year! How have you managed to stay on edge like this?
It’s the power of vision. That’s the title of a book I read some time ago by an author named Dr. Myles Munroe. I’m invigorated by this vision and that’s the spirit of God. I’m a praying man that believes in the Word of God, and as it says in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” I breath new air and drink replenishing water and have the power of a 22 or 23 year old – I can be as excited and as creative as I was then, and moreso. The body may be older but the spirit is still young; the body is just a shell but the spirit will live forever.
It’s true that I am more than an artist now – I’m a husband and a father, but through God I can defy gravity. Twenty years down the line, yeah, some of my peers may have tapered off. But I keep feeling reinvigorated, creatively alive and vibrant. There’s no end to new ideas and sources of creativity. I give all honor and credit to God for this.
Your heart may stop beating but the music will survive for all time, until the earth has passed. It’s a testament not to me but to the God that’s within me and within all of us. All have that power if we seize the choice.
I couldn’t let this interview pass without talking about the tracks released underneath your Floorplan alias. We did an interview with DJ Rush about a year ago, who has veered between a throwback disco sound and hard techno and is now starting to combine them in the same sets. A few of your other peers with deep roots in both scenes are starting to do the same, being tired of playing separate sets for separate rooms and throwing them all together. It’s all really exciting.
I agree with them and that’s what the party is supposed to be about. Music shouldn’t be segregated, that this record has a slower BPM or this one’s too hard to play for this room. Berghain is this, Fabric is that… Maybe you’re not always in the mood to gauge a room almost like a jukebox.
M-Plant and Floorplan is the home for disco, house, jack tracks, rhythm tracks – everything. I mean it all comes from a disco groove anyway! Whatever it takes to keep the energy alive and don’t lose ’em. It allows me to do it all.
There was this flurry of Floorplan tracks recently. I remember seeing an interview with Neil Young many years ago, where he described having to alternate from the noise and fury of Crazy Horse to doing really quiet acoustic music after it. Did you have similar thoughts with these records, coming as they did after Omega: Alive?
Yeah I feel the same way. I like to take a break from hard techno, off to melodic jazz, then back to a more industrial sound… And then I feel like making something with no beat whatsoever.
You know, we’re in an era when people say the album is dead. And to be honest, electronic music albums have often been neglected by a DJ-centric culture, which often waits on the singles and the remixes. Yet your releases lately have been very centered around full length LPs.
I’ve always been album-oriented. From listening to Curtis Mayfield, Elton John, Kiss… What can I say? I’m a ’70s kid and I think in terms of albums. Why can’t we as electronic artists make albums? Look at Kraftwerk and their albums: so meticulously produced and arranged, deciding which songs to list in what order. It’s like the chapters in a single book or a movie that flows from start to finish.
That’s my aesthetic and that’s how I approach any project. You can’t just throw tracks together, though I’ve done that too. You get a call that Peacefrog wants an album and you start digging through DATs and tracks. That approach is ultimately unfulfilling, though. It has to work together, coherently.
I have to confess that I don’t get more excited than when I hear about a new Floorplan or Robert Hood release. It’s really easy to get burned out on the torrent of new music that’s always flowing, and I really feel like this is something new under the sun, and that’s invigorating. When you, personally, come across demos or releases that just don’t work, or are a step in the right direction but need more work, what approach do you take? I never want to come off as being cruel, but you also don’t want to encourage someone when they’re going down the wrong path.
I think you have to be honest. Learning from Jeff Mills and Mike Banks, they were always honest with me. I remember Jeff had a way of putting it – he’d listen to a track and say, “The cake is not quite done.” Meaning: this is close, but it’s not quite it. Jeff is a really, really honest person, and what he was doing was setting a standard. It was really a boot camp of training and they were using their guidance to steer me in the right direction. They didn’t release everything I did when my sound was still in development.
And they would test me. They’d play a track from someone else and ask, “Well, what do you think?” I’d say, “That’s tight.” And they’d come back with, “Why is it tight? Do you know what this is? Are you trying to get on his good side? Are you trying to brown nose these guys?” Jeff is brutally honest that way and I think I’m better for it.
It carried on after Axis as well. When I started M-Plant, he was quizzing me about what the concept was behind it. It wasn’t enough to start a label just to make ends meet. There had to be a concept behind it. It was an invaluable lesson.