Interview: Robert Hood

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 07.01.13 in Interviews

Robert Hood is a man of many aliases — over the years, there have been Dr. Kevorkian, Monobox, Floorplan, Inner Sanctum, the Vision and the Mathematic Assassins, along with his work in the Underground Resistance collective and in the groups X-101, X-102 and X-103 (with Jeff Mills and UR’s Mike Banks). But one constant runs through all of Hood’s music: the desire to strip things back to their essence. Hood helped invented minimal techno with his 1994 EP, Minimal Nation, and all of his releases since then have fused futuristic machine funk with a deeply intuitive sensibility that feels almost primal.

Hood’s last few releases have been concept albums that expanded techno’s limits while honing in on its Detroit origins. Omega and Omega: Alive loosely applied the narrative of the 1971 film The Omega Man to Detroit’s ongoing saga of depopulation and urban decay; Motor: Nighttime World 3 was inspired by Julian Temple’s 2010 documentary Requiem for Detroit?, which examined the socioeconomic factors behind the city’s decline (and which also dared to dream of a post-industrial future for the city — hence the question mark in the title). But with a new album under his Floorplan alias, Paradise, Hood returns to the raw, no-frills house and techno of his most functional, club-centric project.

The album’s title is a reference to New York’s legendary Paradise Garage, the discotheque where Larry Levan held his residency from 1977 until the club’s closure in 1987, and the epicenter of much of the house, garage and disco that influenced Hood’s own album. But the title also refers to Biblical interpretations of Paradise. The latter is a nod to Hood’s own deep religious faith, which is manifested in the music via heavy gospel undertones. We spoke with Hood about his return to Floorplan, his move from Detroit to Alabama, and his dual roles as techno legend and Christian minister.

To start out, let’s go back to the rebirth of Floorplan, which you resurrected in 2011. What made you decide to bring that alias back?

I just wanted to take it back to the essence of dance and the floor and raw, stripped-down house and techno, but also with gospel this time. My vision has been reinvigorated with the word of God, and being in the ministry and everything, so gospel and disco and all that — it’s just connecting and reconnecting the dots: house, disco, techno and gospel and so forth. Just stripping it down and getting back to the human dimension of dancing and taking it back to the floor. Not so much experimentation, just jack tracks and bass lines — just rhythm tracks.

Most people wouldn’t think of dance music and gospel as being compatible.

Right. Back in the days of disco and Studio 54, Detroit had the Clark Sisters. They came out with a song…what was the name of that song? Let me ask my wife real quick. That’s real important. [Hood calls into the other room: "That Clark Sisters song that came out years ago…" His wife answers immediately.] “You Brought the Sunshine.” That received a lot of radio play and it became a huge dance record. And this is from a group that came up strictly in the church. Their mother, Mattie Moss Clark, was a legendary and very well-known and prominent figure in the church circuit in Detroit. I thought it would be interesting to revisit those days, but update it. I felt like that’s something that has been missing and that’s needed in the clubs, for people to hear a different message. We’ve heard that “Love Is the Message,” M.S.F.B., we’ve done that, and we’ve revisited that, but let’s talk about what is paradise, what is love, and peace, and what is this all about, truly all about.

The first impression I got of the album, especially compared to Nighttime World Volume 3, is a sense of urgency and even joy.

Yeah, that’s it. Exactly. You talk about Paradise Garage, but I wanted to go deeper than the club and sort of delve into what is paradise all about. Typically we think of heaven and salvation, but what about heaven right here on earth, in your heart? That tranquil state of mind that surpasses all understanding, amidst all of the chaos and adversity in the world.

Is that something you found on the dance floor when you were younger, back in Detroit?

It was. You know, at the Music Institute, at Underground Nation, there wasn’t any alcohol, there wasn’t any drinkin’ and druggin’, that was not the order of the day. It was about the music. And that escapism, just for a moment, at the Music Institute at 1515 Broadway in Detroit, it was just — the music took you to heavenly places. We have to understand that the music emanates from God. It’s God’s vision. And it’s about, what are we saying with the music? The music was speaking to me and saying, “There is hope. You can have peace within yourself. You can have peace with God.” I really didn’t know it as much as I do now, at that time, but stuff that was coming out, Lil’ Louis and Strictly Rhythm, “Afterhours” and “Waterfalls” and Larry Heard and “The Warning” and stuff like that — a lot of that stuff was being played on JZZ, which was a jazz station in Detroit, which played mostly the Crusaders and Jean Luc Ponty. But they also played some stuff like Larry Heard. Those records reminded me of a peaceful place within your heart. Also with Frankie Knuckles, that “Whistle Song.” I remember hearing that for the first time at the Limelight in New York. That was the first time I’d been to New York, I was doing the Music Seminar, and it was just, wow, a breath of fresh air in the midst of all this chaos.

You mention a lot of house artists. Nowadays, a lot of people tend to think of Chicago house and Detroit techno as opposing scenes; was there a lot of mixing of those two musics going on back in Detroit?

Yeah. I remember listening to D. Wynn, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and absolutely, there was plenty of mixing — Chip E alongside Jay Denham, DJ Pierre and Phuture all mixed up with Todd Terry, and all mixed up with progressive imports from France and whatnot. It was just like everything went. We came from the school of the Electrifying Mojo, where you just take all of it, all of this eclectic music and forward-thinking, progressive music, and just mix it all up. I think it was at the Majestic Theater, I remember going to see Marshall Jefferson and Tyree Cooper, Chip E and all of those guys, Steve Silk Hurley I believe it was, [who] came to Detroit for one blowout concert. It was just amazing. I wasn’t DJing at that time, but I certainly heard a mix of all of these elements. Through Jeff Mills, when he had his Wizard show, he played a lot of Detroit and Chicago and New York stuff. It was just all over the place.

How did you approach making the new Floorplan album?

My manager sent me a book chronicling the Paradise Garage days and the days of disco. Reading through it and listening to old disco records, some gospel records, I remember being asleep, and something just woke me up. My eyes just opened wide, and God specifically spoke to me and said, “I want you to do something with lyrics, and get my message out through this music.” So between reading that book and harkening back to the days when disco was on top — the days when heavy metal heads and rock heads were against disco, and disco was just destroyed overnight, literally destroyed overnight — and bringing that gospel element and that hope to it, that was the idea. Like I said, listening to artists like Phyllis Hyman, the O’Jays, Chic, Gino Soccio, it just all made sense that I would do this Floorplan album based on what the meaning of heaven is, and what salvation is, and God’s covering and what his peace is, and start to get that message out there. I think it’s so important that people hear this message and get that message, man. Again, all of the problems in the world we’re facing, we’re trying to find our way and get an understanding of just what it is that’s going on. We don’t have the answers, but God has the answers. It was just a confirmation to me, through the visions that I had, through God talking to me and my manager sending me this book, that it had all come together in this way. And the listener is taken in completely by this sense of hope and urgency for peace. That’s what you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing from listening to the album, is the manifestation of those visions all coming together.

My favorite track on the album is “Never Grow Old.” Which came first on that — the beat or the sample? And how did you put them together?

I think the drums, just the drum patterns, came first, and then I was thumbing through some records, and I pulled out this Aretha Franklin gospel recording, I think it was from ’73, ’75, something like that. I just put the needle on, and immediately, the vocal just — it just played on top while the beat pattern was playing, and the vocal immediately went with the groove, and it started to all come together, and I said, “I’ve gotta hurry up and sample this and start laying it down right now.” Just marrying the vocals and the groove and the feeling with the beat and the rhythm. It was the perfect match. It was just such a spiritual theme coming together. That sort of set the tone for the entire album.

Is gospel something you’ve gotten more interested in since you moved to the South, or was it always a part of your musical upbringing?

I was raised in the church through my grandparents, and they’ve always instilled in me the urgency to know God for myself. In my teen years and my rebellious years I went astray from that, but I came back to that. I guess moving to the South, going to church here, going to school in the ministry and becoming a minister, it all just came full circle. But it all started with my experiences as a young child, through my grandparents. I can remember being four, five, six years old, and seeing people in church catching the Holy Ghost and shouting and praising God. So those experiences are embedded in my heart, in my soul. Like I said, it all came into these visions and what was prophesied and spoken over my life is now coming to pass.

Your grandfather’s cousin was Barry Gordy, correct?

That’s right. Barry Gordy is my grandfather’s first cousin. My grandfather’s mother and Barry Gordy’s mother are sisters.

So I’m guessing that music played a big role in your family.

Oh yeah, definitely. My father was a jazz musician, my uncle managed jazz bands, my mother sang in R&B groups in Detroit. So yeah, music was a huge part of my life growing up. Motown’s definitely a part of my life. My uncle recently retired from running the Motown museum. We’ve been deeply embedded in music.

Do you sing gospel?

Do I sing gospel? Oh no, you don’t want to hear me sing. I’d run everybody out of the church. I can’t carry a tune! I’m tone deaf in that sense. It’s tragic, I’m gonna tell you that straight up.

Let’s talk about Nighttime World 3, your last album. That was based on the documentary Requiem for Detroit?

That’s right. The thing was, when black people migrated from the South to Detroit in search of better opportunities, facing adversity along the way, and the struggle they had with racism and everything, they hoped for a better life for their children. For themselves and for their children and generations to come. I’m sure most of our parents expected us to go to college, go into the military and become professionals, doctors, lawyers, teachers and whatnot. But little did they know they were paving the way for us to afford to dream, and to travel and invent this progressive music and sound. They didn’t see that coming. Again, they may have expected us to be professionals in one sense, but they really afforded us the luxury of becoming astronomers, so to speak, scientists and inventors. And through this progressive music, we were able to build. Not only did we come to a new place, Detroit, but we were able to go from Detroit and build new worlds, through Juan Atkins and Derrick and Carl and Underground Resistance and so on and so forth. Nighttime World Volume 3, to me, chronicles all of that, the exodus out of places like Alabama to Detroit and Chicago and to the Midwest in search of a better life. But also, using that as sort of the catalyst, [using] the automotive industry and Motown and all of those experiences to invent something out of nothing. You know what I mean? That was the whole idea of Requiem for Detroit?. I thought was an amazing documentary. Talking about the struggle of black people just searching for a better life. Really, it’s ours to be obtained. Not just Detroiters, but for everybody. This is a story of struggle and survival in the midst of chaos, sort of like Omega Man. In this city full of decay, there’s a seed of hope. With any seed that’s planted, there’s gonna be a harvest. But there’s a seed there. And Detroiters, and everybody else in the world, has to realize that out of this seed you can expect a harvest, but we’ve gotta receive it. It’s there to be obtained, but if you don’t reach out and take it, a lot of people will miss this important opportunity for victory over the adversity that we’re facing.

That’s interesting, because your own story is a case of things coming full circle, in a sense. Your grandparents migrated to Detroit, where you grew up, and then you ended up moving back down to Alabama. But you return to a very different place to the one that they left, and the kind of success that you’ve achieved along the way would have been almost unthinkable for your grandparents’ generation.

To me, that’s it exactly, just coming back full circle into this land where slaves were murdered and severely subjected to cruelty, inhumanity and injustice. But now, like you said, this is a different South. There’s still elements of hatred here, but there’s seeds of change. I consider myself to be an agent of change. So there’s work to be done here. My wife and I, we prayed about moving here. We didn’t know if it would be best for our family, but through prayer and consulting God, he said, definitely, this is where I want to put you guys. I’m moving you out of your box into a place you don’t know anything about. She knows more about it than I do, a little bit more, but we were both born and raised in Detroit. All I knew was Detroit and being a city kid. So this is a strange new atmosphere, where people think differently — politically and racially. But God says this is where I want you to be, and where I want you to learn and also teach. We’ve been transplanted here to receive a message and to give a message. Talking with my pastor, we constantly thank him for what he’s teaching us, and there’s times where he says, “No, thank you guys for what you’re teaching us.” But it’s not really us, it’s the God in us. And so, being in a place that’s mysterious to us, where we’re out of our box, it shows us another dimension of ourselves and who we are, and who we need to be. Then we can take that message to the world and share that with the world.

Do you still go back to Detroit?

Oh, absolutely. Love Detroit, man. Any time I can get back — family, friends, the food. We go back and there’s certain places we eat; there’s a place called Dot and Etta’s Shrimp Shack. The best jumbo fried shrimp on planet earth. Any true Detroiter knows about Dot and Etta’s, man. We love Detroit. Love the people and always are glad to get back whenever we can.

Were you there for the festival this year?

No, I was in Milan and Brussels at the time, on a 10-day tour through Zurich and Paris and Brussels and Milan. Then, after that, Montreal.

You played at MUTEK, right? How was that?

That was really amazing. It seemed like it was a whole ‘nother techno universe. Sort of almost untapped, but educated at the same time. The set at MUTEK itself and then at the Boiler Room specifically, man, we had church on Sunday evening! It was just amazing. It was spiritual at times. I ended up doing, like, two unexpected encores. I didn’t even have anything else planned, so I just had to improvise towards the end, because the space was still available for another 30 minutes. So I had to dig deep and try to come up with something. But it was great. Again, that mystery of not knowing, and the uncertainty of, what’s going to happen, just do this…I played some beats and played around with my Kaossilator pad and just winged it, and it was great. Because I think that’s also missing, that’s needed, just to experiment right there, improvise right there on the spot.

Are you mostly playing in Europe these days?

Yeah, primarily.

Given your message, is it strange to be playing for crowds where a lot of the audience is drunk or on drugs? Because a lot of European techno clubs aren’t exactly church.

Right, right. I like to look at it in the sense of one spirit connecting to another spirit. When we can get past the drugs, and get past the hype and the alcohol, just spirit to spirit, connecting, then it’s real. But again, if you’re high on something and you’re not really tuning your heart into what’s happening, it will get lost in translation. But when you can really connect, from one heart to another, through electrical wires, through the speakers, through the emotions and the feeling, and you connect with people, it’s a spiritual uplifting. There’s a spiritual connection. And it knocks down those walls and those borders of being high. Just getting to the true essence of music and what this is all about.

Are you an ordained minister now?

I am.

Do you have a congregation?

No, I’m not a pastor. My wife and I have a ministry through the church where we’re members. I get a chance, every now and then, to stand before a congregation and deliver a message, yeah. I’ll be doing that in Detroit in October for a few nights during the revival coming up. I’m not the pastor over a congregation or a flock, but yeah, I am an ordained and licensed minister of the gospel. It’s great. I never saw that coming, to be completely honest with you. But it was prophesied and spoken over me some years ago while I was in Detroit. A minister there was preaching at our church and turned around all of a sudden and said, “You’re going to preach.” And I’m looking behind me, like, “Who’s he talking to? He can’t be talking to me.” And I said, “OK.” I received it. “If that’s what you say, then that’s what it is.” And lo and behold. But it hasn’t been easy. It’s never easy. It’s a balance, balancing being a DJ and being a minister. But I consider my music career and this artistry a ministry. To me it’s like when I go out overseas to Europe, I’m going on a mission trip. I’m going to spread the gospel. Not necessarily to go and just play records and make money and be some kind of a techno legend and all that stuff, but just so people can see the example of what God is doing in my life. It’s not about me. It’s about Jesus and delivering His message. This music is a catalyst and it allows me a platform to speak to you about the good news. That’s all. It’s good news. It’s not to condemn people, it’s not to point my finger and look down my nose at anybody; it’s just to spread the good news.

You mentioned balance. You’ve had so many different aliases over the years; are there any others that you’ll be bringing back, like Monobox?

Yeah, you just said it. Monobox. I’ve been sort of experimenting with sound and looking for the right time and the right opportunity, just that right moment in time where Monobox is going to come back and say something new. For right now, I’m just experimenting with new sounds. Because you know, the Monobox idea is sort of an alien type of deal, sort of an unearthly type of entity, and I have to approach that with a whole ‘nother aesthetic. But that’s in the works.

Monobox came from a comic book, right?

Yeah, it was a paperback I read. I think I might have been 14, 15 years old, just bored at the library one time. Just this ominous box hanging in the sky is what this book was all about. The people of earth wondered what is this and what does it mean, and it hung there for days and days and days, and then other boxes appeared. I don’t think I ever really finished the book.

It’s probably not a happy ending.

Yeah, I filled in the blanks. I can discern how it turns out, it ain’t good. Again, an alien concept and how earth people are interacting with these unforeseen events that take place.

So you’re going from Floorplan, which is this very earthy, soulful project, to its diametrical opposite.

[Laughing] Right, right, right. The mystery of it all — I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but that’s the good thing about it. It’s like Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, faith is taking that first step, even if you can’t see the rest of the staircase, but you go anyway.