A former Underground Resistance member and one of the pioneers behind Detroit’s minimal sound, Robert Hood’s music career plays testament to the interplay between hip-hop, techno and house — and he shows no sign of stopping, with multiple EPs under his belt in 2020 and a new techno album just around the corner. In this interview, Hood talks to Stamp The Wax about protest, self-reflection and musical continuity; accompanied by an unreleased mix dug up from his Detroit days in 2004.
Robert Hood is set to release his new LP Mirror Man for Rekids on 20 November.
What has your experience of this year been like?
We experienced some loss this year: my mother-in-law passed away, and we also had a couple of family members who passed away from the virus, so it’s been rough dealing with that. But we’re a praying family, and during this adversity we’re continuing to pray and maintain our faith as we did before. So it’s been hard. But you know we’ve had to readjust: pray a little bit more, and pray a little bit harder, and pray for other people.
Recently, we’ve been experiencing hurricanes, but they’re not as bad as in New Orleans. Even with this second wave we’re just entering into now, we are still optimistic that the best days are still yet to come.
Have you been separated from any of your nearest and dearest?
We’re in Alabama, but most of our family is in Detroit; some in Atlanta, some in Miami – so we’ve been pretty much separated. Back in May we had a couple of family members over for my mother-in-law’s funeral, but they had to be socially distanced. Having several funerals during this Covid situation was a stretch for us: we wanted to hug and console each other but we couldn’t.
In terms of your career, can you think of any struggle that could compare with this one?
You know, the only thing I can compare this to is myself before I became a Christian: I was separated from God, and I was lost. No matter what we have to face now, be it hurricanes or pandemics or social injustice, I feel so much more secure under the covering of God. It’s made all the difference in my life.
Knowing God is critical when dealing with all this strangeness, the negative emotions we feel from day to day and the uncertainty of not knowing what’s coming tomorrow — in terms of the election, the pandemic, and not being able to work the way we’re used to.
Are there any ways in which you’ve felt inspired or uplifted by the way people around you have reacted to this tough year?
My wife and my daughter are always lifting me up. They can always tell when I’m down in my spirits. My wife keeps me constantly held up with words of encouragement, and my daughter makes me ginger tea twice a day and will offer a kind word to help me get things done. And the music has always been a security blanket for me – a healing balm, if you will, that helps me get through tough times in that way music does for all of us.
You have a new album coming out. Was there any overlap between the production of that album and the events of this year?
The project started in September or October of last year as a study of self-reflection, like a man in a hall of mirrors examining and questioning himself. But then around January or February of 2020 – with so much going on in the US, the division and discord, race struggles and the election – the album started to evolve so that it was dealing not only with personal self-examination but also of the world. Tracks like ‘7 Mile Dog’, ‘The Cure’ and ‘Ignite A War’ came really at the last minute, in June. So the pandemic was good in the sense that it caused me to examine both myself and the spiritual condition of the world in these strange times.
In the past you’ve referred to your work as ‘protest music’. Is this a new chapter in that sense?
Yes. Outside the ‘Mirror Man’ album, this year I worked with Lyric on ‘The Struggle / Save the Children’ and her EP this summer and the ‘Break The Silence’ compilation… all of those themes are connected, and the timing of these releases came about kind of poetically.
Beyond these musical projects, what’s it been like for you to witness protest in the wider world in 2020?
I could go back to when Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri. I could go back to Trayvon Martin, and even before that I could go back to the Civil Rights Movement – all of this has been building in me for years and years, even before I got into the techno industry. So it’s been very emotional, watching a police officer kneel on George Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes and seeing the reactions to that; it’s been very straining on all of our emotions as People of Colour. Now we’re making the decision to speak out, much in the same way that Colin Kaepernack spoke out when he took a knee on the football field, or how Killer Mike has been speaking out.
I think it’s imperative that we speak out as artists, whether black or white. Because it’s not a black or white thing – it’s about humanity; it’s about compassion; it’s about empathy. A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, to quote Dr Martin Luther King Jr., so I think I have a responsibility to speak up and show my daughter how she can use her platform to say something about injustice. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
It must be an interesting time to be passing your knowledge onto the next generation, especially as your daughter’s career is just getting going.
It’s imperative that my wife and I show our daughter that there’s power in having a voice, and that this Black Lives Matter movement isn’t just a fad or a trend.
The mix you’ve shared with us was done in 2004. Have you taken a chance to listen back to the mix since unearthing it?
I haven’t listened to that mix for a long time. It’s sort of funny, cause when I saw certain song titles, those artists, it just all came back to me. In a way that mix has become like one long track to my spirit, you know what I mean? It’s just stamped in my brain.
Do you remember where you were when you recorded it?
Definitely. This was at a time when we were living in Detroit. I had a really small studio space, and trying to be creative in such a small space was a challenge. Musically, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go. Distribution was going through a difficult time, and we were just about to move to Alabama, as a matter of fact. I remember reflecting on the short space of time between disco and electronic music and thinking, “that was a lost era.” Not many people pay attention to that moment, and I thought it would be nice to do a mix based around that. I hadn’t heard a mix like it since the days of the Music Institute in Detroit.
The mix does have an ‘in between’ quality to it. At one point you go from Energy Flash into French Kiss, right?
Yeah. That’s very indicative of that time: the Majestic Theatre, the Music Institute, Saint Andrew’s Hall in Detroit… the whole mix is like a timeline of influences from when I was listening to bands like Depeche Mode and The Cure and the B-52s, before transitioning through C-Bank and New Order into the house and techno era.
Did you record it for yourself or did you have plans to release it somewhere?
No, I wasn’t sending it to anybody else – more like a personal effort to chronicle that moment in time. I remember that was one of several mixes that I made just for me and my wife to listen to around the house or in the car. It was an opportunity to pause and step away from traditional techno and minimal and immerse myself in this fantasy disco world that I hardly remember. I had no idea that anyone else would even care about it.
Listening to the 2004 mix and your upcoming album side by side, there are noticeable differences in tone and style: the album takes you through modes of introspection, whereas the mix seems to carry a lot of optimism. What’s it like to encounter a version of yourself from 16 years ago?
That’s what self reflection is: you’re looking at yourself through different mediums; through water, through glass; taking stock of yourself and looking back on where you once were and where you come from. It’s always been a spiritual journey for me to look back on the Detroit I remember growing up in. It shaped me like a flower being shaped by soil. And it’s also been a self-reflective journey because for me, it’s so important to put the cries and souls of Black people and our experiences into my music, kind of like a chronicling. Where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. Artistically, that’s always been my aesthetic.
Like a time capsule?
I would say more like a time-traveller. Going back and forth in time, getting ideas and messages from the past, and finding a way to get the listener to see what we are and where we’re going.
Where do you think we’re going?
Right now we’re on a destructive path. We think we’re in one pandemic but we’re actually experiencing two pandemics: Coronavirus and racism. If we don’t reflect on what’s happening now, we’re going to self-destruct. The world is so fragile – I don’t think we really understood that. In 2018 and 2019, it seemed like everything was fine but we weren’t seeing the signs. Now we’ve got to stop and pay attention, and I think we’re still not really paying attention. If we’re not careful we will consume ourselves.
Is there a message or short note you’d want someone listening to your album to hear? Some kind of intention to send it out into the world with?
There’s a proverb: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” I think that’s what this album is really all about. We have to be able to look in the mirror and see who we really are, and when we do that we’ll begin to line up with God’s plan for us, and we won’t perish. God is love, God is light. Knowing the will of God is knowing love, and when you have revelation, you have direction and you know where you’re going. There’s light in that, and light is everlasting.
Robert Hood is set to release his new LP Mirror Man for Rekids on 20 November.