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Underground Resistance: political music, ‘chaotic, just like Detroit’

By Martin Smith | 27 May 2014

Underground Resistance at work

Underground Resistance at work

It’s been said before and it will be said again: Underground Resistance are the Public Enemy of Detroit Techno.

Some members of the collective performed at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. I was fortunate enough to interview two members, “Mad” Mike Banks and Mark Flash, while they were in rehearsal for their headline appearance.

“It’s about the music and so much what people look like,” says Mark. “There’s a popularity contest out there: whoever is the most popular wins. But they stand in front of their music; we stand behind ours. That’s the difference between UR and most musicians. We look forward and not back at ourselves in the mirror.”

Three Detroit DJs were primarily responsible for the formation of UR in 1989 – “Mad” Mike Banks, Jeff Mills and Robert Hood. But UR are a bit of an enigma. It’s not exactly known how it all began, let alone who is involved or who is in control. What can be stated with confidence is that it is a collective, an umbrella for a host of Detroit’s Techno artists and groups like Galaxy 2 Galaxy, Red Planet and Timelines.

How does it all fit together? Mike puts it succinctly:

It doesn’t, it’s chaotic, just like the city it comes from

Detroit is like no other city on earth. From 1900 to the 1960s it was one of the main centres of US capitalism, the heart of the US auto industry. Its wide boulevards, beautiful sculptured building and department stores are testament to that. And when Henry Ford offered $5 a day to come and work in his Detroit car plants in 1914, it became a city of dreams for black and white workers.

The collapse of the car industry and the “white flight” that followed the city’s riots in 1967, brought de-industrialisation and poverty on unprecedented scales.

At its height, over 1.8 million people live in the city. Today it’s less than 700,000. It is estimated that nearly a third of the city’s 140 square miles now lies vacant. In some areas locals have set up urban farms.

In 2010, one in four Detroiters lived below the federal poverty line. The black population now accounts for more than four in every five Detroit residents.

Mike states:

Detroit has been left to rot. And it has everything to do with racism. Do you think they would let this happen to Manhattan? But out of this adversity we are creating something pure, good, uplifting. We are bring back pride to ourselves and our city.

UR produces uncompromising music geared toward promoting awareness and facilitating political change. The collective rejected commercialisation, the DJs did not identify themselves and performed hiding their faces behind bandanas.

UR created their own record label. They refused to work with the mainstream record corporations and they rarely appeared in the media.

UR riot cutout

When their records first popped up in record shops in Britain in the early 1990s UR were shrouded in mystery. The first UR record I brought was Riot in 1991 or 92. On the red record centre was a Black Panther figure with UR on his chest and scrawled into the dead wax of the record was “Stay Underground”. Each subsequent release drew listeners in even further.

One of UR’s founders, Jeff Mill, told a Japanese reporter in 2006:

All the black men you see in America today are the direct result of those actions: all the freedoms we have, as well as the restrictions, refer back to the government and the Black Panthers in the ’70s.

So we make music. We make music about who we are and where we’re from. Of course there are going to be links – that’s why we had songs with titles like Riot. Because that’s indicative of the era we were born in, and the things we remember.

UR also embraces new technology and stretches it to its limits. Mike explains:

As newer musical hardware came in, older hardware was discarded, sold and pawned. This made the shit available to mugs like me! I’m more interested in what the new shit replaces – then the rich folks’ old technology becomes available and affordable to me.

Performing at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Pic credit: Martin Smith

Performing at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Pic credit: Martin Smith

While there has been a steady stream of UR 12 inches and the occasional album over the past 30 years, the collective – in any of its incarnations – rarely performs. UR stopped doing gigs in the early 1990s because they felt the scene had got “too ravey”.

The collective was always fluid: some DJs and musicians moved to perform solo. But the Timeline performance at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival has got UR fans salivating.

The group consists of Mike, Mark, Jon Dixon and DeSean Jones. It brings together the keyboard wizardry of Mike and Jon, DeSean’s saxophone and DJ Mark.

Timeline concentrates on what it describes as “hi-tech jazz”. It is a fusion of jazz and electronic experimentation. Mark says:

Timeline both emphasises our musical past and heritage and the future of music. Imagine Chick Corea, Lenny White and John Coltrane playing alongside Mr Fingers and Frankie Knuckles. We’re trying to fill in the spaces.

Part of UR’s musical manifesto states:

Underground Resistance is a label for a movement. A movement that wants change by sonic revolution. We urge you to join the resistance and help us combat the mediocre audio and visual programming that is being fed to the inhabitants of Earth, this programming is stagnating the minds of the people; building a wall between races and preventing world peace. It is this wall we are going to smash.

A dream? Possibly. Idealistic? Maybe. But 30 years on, UR still have a vision and unlike so many, they refuse to compromise.



2 comments

  1. Dex said:

    Nice read! One correction, Mike Banks is not a DJ. He’s a musician and plays guitar and the keyboard, but he’s never DJ’d.

    “Three Detroit DJs were primarily responsible for the formation of UR in 1989 – “Mad” Mike Banks, Jeff Mills and Robert Hood.”

    27 May 2014 at 7:04pm
  2. scott harris said:

    My first techno dabble was down to UR mainly Jeff mills, legend with the other legends we really don’t hear about.

    9 June 2014 at 7:27pm

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