It’s hard to overstate Robert Hood‘s influence on the sound of Detroit Techno.
Through the early- and mid-1990s Robert Hood founded the Hardwax label, founded Underground Resistance with Jeff Mills and Mike Banks, founded M-Plant, and released a veritable planet of music that gave shape and philosophy to the genre of minimal techno. Not content to be known for that sound alone, Hood continued to explore and experiment under his own name and different aliases, most prolifically as Monobox and Floorplan. His fruitful output has continued unabated to this day as he continues to explore and reinvent his sound, most recently with his daughter Lyric Hood as a production and performance partner.
Robert Hood photo by Marie Staggat
How did you come to the electronic music sound? Tell me the story about that.
I suppose the first encounter I had with electronic sound goes back to probably when I was about 12 or 13 I was working at my uncle’s record store and some records came in and we got this record “Man Machine” by Kraftwerk. I really didn’t know what it was, I took it home and listened to it and it just blew my mind. I haven’t been the same so that was my first real introduction to electronic sound.
Later, as time progressed and music styles changed, hearing records by Electronic Avenue by Eddy Grant and listening to Soulsonic Force and Planet Rock and Depeche Mode, the more I heard the more I felt a desire to create electronic music. I bought a Roland TR-505 from a pawnshop in Detroit. I guess I paid maybe about 100 dollars for this drum machine. It came with no manual and I had to learn how to program a drum machine so it’s my first real machine to learn what this is all about. I took it to this music and equipment store and they showed me how to program it.
The drums would kind of talk to me and talk to my heart and tell me which direction we’re going to go.
They said once you learn how to program everything starts to make sense and you kind of get an idea of what it is to create a pattern, how you program it, how you get in and out of the editing and changing and manipulating the sound and so with that machine I started to make demo tracks. I gave a demo track to Mike Clark, he recorded under the name Agent X. He gave it to Mike Banks and he was really impressed at how I programmed the drums and how I would almost make the sounds reverb without any effects.
That was the beginning of my career in electronic music.
How has your process for writing songs evolved over time?
At the time when I was starting out I didn’t have much money at all so it was always a struggle, but I began to really embrace that struggle. It was for me kind of like David in the Bible killing Goliath with just a slingshot and three stones. He tried to work with armor but it just didn’t feel comfortable to him so all he needed was the power of God. I had a small handful of equipment at the time I was doing Hardwax and Axis stuff, a small four track mixer, a Roland 909, a Roland SH-101 and a Juno 2. That was it.
But I learned how to squeeze blood out of what I had and to make each instrument talk. That was my whole approach and not much has changed since then. I’ve learned to seek out machines and instruments that are lined up with my spirit. That’s why I never bought a 303. I love to hear it coming from other artists like DJ Pierre. I love what Richie Hawtin did with a 303 but I wanted to do something that lined up with my spirit. My process has always been starting with the drums. The drums would kind of talk to me and talk to my heart and tell me which direction we’re going to go.
As long as there’s breath in my body, as long as I have a heartbeat, I’m here for the long haul.
It’s something about the tom-toms, and the hi-hat, and the kick drum that would almost write the song for me. We’re going to go into a Floorplan direction or we’re going to go into a Monobox direction. I learned to listen to that and not myself because I would always come into the studio thinking I’m going to make a Robert Hood track, I’m going to make a minimal song and something different comes out of it. And so I learned to say, I’m not going to listen to myself. I’m gonna let the vision write itself.
You’ve talked before about giving your songs time to bake like a cake. Giving them the appropriate time that they need in order for them to be made.
It’s hard sometimes as a human being to wait. There’s so much music, I have a whole album already done I want to get it out right now but I have to wait and let it incubate. When “We Magnify Your Name” first came out it wasn’t an instant hit, it had to grow like a child and go through its infant stages and learn how to walk and grow legs and to breath and to move on it’s own. It just takes time. And so, you know, having the patience just doesn’t come easy but that prayer and that meditation helps prepare me spiritually to just wait and let the music grow. Because if you rush it you’re almost going to abort the baby. And it going to grow up kinda deformed. If you wait and let the song grow and mature then it’s going to stand the test of time and it’s gonna live a long time and that’s very important.
You managed to reinvent your sound several times. After Minimal Nation you made Nighttime World and the early Floorplan stuff which is very different. A lot of people get into a pattern or habit, what drove you to do something different?
After doing “Minimal Nation,” after making “Internal Empire” and “Moveable Parts,” I felt an urge to do something more soulful, something more tranquil and to show a different side of Robert Hood so that people wouldn’t get locked in to this idea of, “Okay this is a minimal guy and that’s all he does is minimal techno”. I wanted to show a deeper side, a more melodic side so that people wouldn’t have this idea of me as a one-dimensional artist. Everything was approached and has been approached from an artistic standpoint and from a storyteller’s standpoint as well. It wasn’t just me always trying to create a Detroit techno product. I wanted to show that there’s more to life, there’s more to me, and more to us than just a 909 kick drum and a high hat.
I approached my career from a distance runner’s standpoint, a marathon standpoint that I’m in this for the long haul. As long as there’s breath in my body, as long as I have a heartbeat I’m here for the long haul. That’s why I created the track, “The Pace.” The original “Pace” was on the “Minimal Nation” EP and then later I kind of refined it and re-introduced it as an EP. The idea was that the race is not run by the swiftest or the strongest but the one who endures until the end and so I began to pace myself and say okay this one chapter of my life and my career and we get to the next and just of sort of take my time and re-invent and re-introduce myself to a different audience at each stage.
What if you were told that after tonight, this is it: No more techno, no more house, this is the last party, this is the last night, this is the last festival. When I look at people now I wonder: Do they know that this is special?
I’m a person that operates off of emotions and the will of the mind. That’s always been important to me, staying away from making a product or commodity, let me make a piece of art that’s going to reach from my soul into another person’s soul or their heart. Later I began to realize that I wasn’t really speaking just the soul but the spirit. Of spirit-to-spirit and I realize the more I got into Christianity and the more I got into the faith – the more I got into spirituality, the more it became apparent to me just what it is I was doing and needed to do.
With albums like “Nighttime World,” especially, “Nighttime World Volume Three” it really came full circle. That’s really one of my favorite albums that I can sit down and listen to from start to finish and it is perceived from me as a very cohesive body of work.
What was the process to have you come into the full embracing of your spirituality? I get the impression that it’s been a process that occurred over time.
Learning how to pray. When I first started to pray I didn’t know what I was praying about or how to approach God but over the years I began to develop a prayer language and to gradually go from praying for maybe 30 seconds to praying for 30 minutes, or praying for two or three hours and just sitting and meditating and getting in the mindset of what it is that I was trying to do. I needed walls to come down. I needed barriers to come down and so meditation and contemplating the Word of God and downloading it into my spirit and to my heart was the absolute process for getting into the mindset that I needed to pace myself, to be patient and to look at what God was trying to tell me as far as my creative vision. Once I got from spending 30 seconds in prayer to spending 30 minutes in prayer the more it became clear to me that, okay you need to really listen within yourself. You’re on the right track but you really need to grab a hold of your own vision.
You said in one of your interviews that your wife and now as it’s well-known your daughter helps the writing process. Can you speak a bit about how that works?
Yeah. My apartment and the house that we lived in Detroit, when my daughter was born the bedroom was right next to the studio so my wife can hear everything I was doing and so she would say, hey it needs something, it needs this, it needs some kind of a piano stab or it’s missing something here or there. So she would help co-write what it is I was working on. She comes from an artistic background, a theatrical background, so she’s visual like I am.
I remember reading a story about Walt Disney. This was before he made Disney World and Disneyland. He was sitting in the park, there was a man sort of sweeping near him and he noticed that Walt Disney was staring off into space and the man said are you okay, and he said yeah I’m fine I’m just looking at my mountain. And he was imagining Space Mountain. My wife is the same way: she can see, and my daughter is the same way. We can sit and look off into the distance and see and hear things and sometimes she has a vision that I can’t necessarily see but I try it out and it ends up working into my music.
And that’s how we all work together. My daughter is constantly coming up with ideas and I have her join me in the studio and tap out on the keyboard or the drum machine a rhythm that she’s hearing or seeing in her head and it just works. It comes together so effortlessly that it just fits like a puzzle. So we all just bring a piece of a puzzle together and form this picture.
You’ve spoken before about the need for originality in electronic music. Minimal Nation and your minimal work in the ’90s was very transgressive next to the electronic sound of the time…
“Minimal Nation” was a radical departure from the rave culture and that’s what Floorplan is now – a radical departure from the mundane. And I’m not calling anybody else’s music stale or mundane but it needed fresh water. This culture that we live in, this techno house scene, needed fresh water and so that’s what I thought was missing.
We have an enormous amount of freedom that I don’t think a lot of people recognize right now.
Yes, yes, yes. The musical palette is so clean and clear and all we have to do is paint and render but we have to know what we’re painting. What are you saying with your spirit with this freedom that we have? It’s very important that we realize we have so much to play with and to experiment with. It’s really a great time that we’re living in. Let’s not be afraid to step out and depart from the known. Let’s go into what is not so familiar.
You brought to mind a quote from a book called “The Battle of The Mind,” and I just want to quickly find it. it’s really indicative of where I’m going… Okay, I found it, I found it. It’s by G.K. Chesterton and it says:
“How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down! .. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.”
That was very profound to me. When we have certainty we feel we’re almost dead. But when there’s uncertainty that lets you know that you’re alive.
You’ve seen a lot of the communities within the world of dance music. What are your thoughts on the American Techno scene and how it’s changed over time?
I just wonder do people really understand what’s going on? Are the people here just because it’s the hype of the moment or do they really love and feel the heartbeat of this music? And this music, it is a heartbeat, that 4/4 rhythm is like a foot stomping on a wooden floor. It’s a steady heartbeat and are people really connected or are they just about the hype and the drugs and being at this big party?
I remember being at the Music Institute in Detroit and DJs like Derrick May, Blake Baxter, Kevin Saunderson would be playing and I remember the people being of one accord. I remember the last night of the Music Institute when it was going to close and it was packed and the people knew that this was special. Every song, every track that was played was the last drop of water. And it was special, we felt like okay this is going to be the end of it. When I look at people now I wonder: Do they know that this is special?
What if you were told that after tonight, this is it. No more techno, no more house, this is the last party, this is the last night, this is the last festival. How hungry are people, really, for this in Europe, in America? You can look at the hunger in a person’s eyes. The eyes are the windows to the soul and you could see that night at the Music Institute, everybody was just happy and sad and so many going through a range of emotions about this last night. So I wonder: do people really get how special this music is? And I don’t know. I don’t know because we’ve got it so readily available to us.