More from the lab… Behind the scenes with Nadir and Mayaeni, working on their video “95 Miles Down the Road” coming to you in 2012. Shout out to Chris Spooner, Emily Rogers and Emilio Basa. Special thanks to Submerge Distribution, Underground Resistance and Mad Mike Banks. Video documentation by John Woodward, The Wartime Journalist.
For two decades, pioneering Detroit techno label Underground Resistance (UR) has led an international electronic music revolution. For its latest assault, UR deploys a new squad of young musical guerrillas called Timeline, named after the UR dance floor classic. Armed with the label’s patented Hi-Tech Jazz style, the group Timeline aims to rewrite the future of dance music and jazz for the 21st Century with The Graystone Ballroom EP.
The EP jumps and jits with four phenomenal tracks including “Lottie The Body” and “Black Bottom Stomp”, both mixed by EAPro’s J. Nadir Omowale.
“Underground Resistance is like Harriet Tubman escaping from the South.” So says rebel leader “Mad” Mike Banks, of his label, musical collective and revolutionary electronica movement Underground Resistance. “She always had to reinvent herself. I’m sure they had to take a million different angles to get out of there,” Banks explains.
Founded in the late 80s by Banks and his former partner, Jeff Mills, UR charted a critical path through the history of music by packaging hard-hitting electro, house and techno with stark imagery, militant rhetoric, and a post-apocalyptic, futuristic vision of life in the streets of Detroit. Originally inspired by the activist hip hop of Public Enemy, the computer-generated funk of Kraftwerk, and the political philosophy of the centuries-old tradition of resistance movements across the planet, UR’s cadre of artists, producers, DJs and musicians continues to plant sonic landmines in dance and hip hop clubs on six continents.
Like Tubman, UR’s underground railroad moves largely under cover of darkness, in their quest to invent the cutting edge of music, and to combat what they see as the oppressive grip of mainstream media programmers. Banks rarely appears in public without a mask, and on stage, the groups perform in the shadows so the audience can concentrate on the music.
“I’m a firm believer that music is greater than the men who create it,” says Banks. “If you ever needed any form of spiritual assurance, it is music. Certainly music is more powerful than man, because the man fades and goes, but the music – the spirit, and the work – lives on. Beethoven’s been dead hundreds of years, but somebody is playing Beethoven tonight.”
It was the notion of reinvention and evolution that prompted accomplished musicians Banks and Mills to experiment with a melding of techno and jazz music. “I felt like jazz had kind of topped out,” Banks reveals. “Of course, you have to be a great musician to play it, but a lot of times [jazz musicians] are copying [music] innovated in the 40s and 50s, and they’re innovating nothing.”
Influenced by artists like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock who combined funk and rock with jazz, and employed synthesizers to create jazz-fusion, Mills and Banks applied a similar concept to create the song “Nation 2 Nation” in 1990. After Mills left UR to go solo in 1992, Banks produced the EP “Galaxy 2 Galaxy” which included a song called “Hi-Tech Jazz”, and the style took off internationally.
Banks later shared the concept with Detroit jazz and gospel musicians like “The Deacon” Gerald Mitchell, Derwin Hall, and the late Derrick Jamerson, son of Motown bassist James Jamerson. In 2001, Banks and Jamerson wrote a song called “Timeline” that exploded onto dance floors in the US and around the world. Dancers in Detroit still hustle, ballroom and jit to the tune today.
Then in 2007, Banks recruited keyboardist Jon Dixon, and saxophonist De’Sean Jones, two recent Wayne State University grads, to perform with him as part of Galaxy 2 Galaxy at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.
“I know a lot of people who play jazz who have never played the Montreux Jazz Fest,” Dixon marvels, “so here I am 22 or 23 years old, and I’m playing one of the most popular jazz festivals in the world, and I didn’t even know who Underground Resistance was.” When he and Jones heard the song “Hi-Tech Jazz” on the radio in a cafe in Switzerland Dixon was asked by a customer if he was “Mad” Mike. At that point Dixon researched and learned about the rich heritage of electronica of which he was now a part.
After Montreux, Banks, Dixon and Jones added DJ, turntablist, producer and community leader Sicari Ware to the fold forming Timeline. The collective’s mission is to take Hi-Tech Jazz to the next level. Their critically acclaimed first performance was at an opening event for Detroit’s Movement Festival in May of 2010, and the group released its first EP in October 2011.
“The one thing I like about Hi-Tech Jazz more than anything else is that it really embodies what I think music should, which is complete freedom, creativity, flexibility and improvisation while having structure, but also giving the people a good time,” Jones says. He believes Hi-Tech Jazz invokes the spirit of Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, men who are remembered as great composers, and bandleaders, but who, back in the 1940s, played the dance and party music of the day.
At the same time, Dixon appreciates the complexity of the music. “[Musicians] are looking for something different that they can challenge themselves on,” Dixon says. “Like with any new genre, this is a whole different approach. Everything you know, put that [to the side]. I feel like a little kid again. I can take everything I’ve learned and combine it and it’s just… fun!”
But Jones also stresses the importance of the message and what UR represents. “Music is do or die. It’s that serious,” Jones says. “It’s a gift, but it’s also a responsibility. If you take music seriously, you understand that you’re an ambassador to the world as a musician. It’s more than just the notes. The notes are just a medium for something much greater.”
For Banks Timeline is about continuing to innovate. “We never get stuck in one sound too long,” Banks says. “If an artist can’t grow, you can’t keep up with UR. Like I said, it’s like being a runaway slave. For us it’s a matter of survival.”
An earlier version of this article appeared in BLAC Detroit Magazine.