The Techno Pioneer Jeff Mills Blazes a Trail to Space, and Beyond

During a recent performance by Tomorrow Comes the Harvest that had some attendees dancing in the aisles at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, a thrilling rhythmic conversation began between the percussionist Sundiata O.M., who was playing African talking drums, and the Detroit techno pioneer Jeff Mills, who tapped out beats on a Roland TR-909 drum machine. Over a 90-minute set, the musicians boldly blended techno, jazz and modern classical, embodying the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s famous credo “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.”

Tomorrow Comes the Harvest began in 2018 as a collaboration between Mills and the Afrobeat originator Tony Allen, Fela’s longtime drummer. Despite their stylistic differences, they created a sonic language — based around total improvisation, not typically a techno hallmark — that Mills found so fruitful, he wanted to continue it even after Allen’s 2020 death. “My hope,” Mills said, during an interview backstage, “is that Tomorrow Comes the Harvest becomes an approach to play music — not always the same sound, but the idea of figuring it out while playing.”

Mills has blazed a singular trail over the past four decades: from his 1980s roots as the Detroit nightclub and FM radio D.J. the Wizard to his early 1990s period with the politically conscious Motor City techno collective Underground Resistance to his solo work helping define the sleek, stripped-down minimal techno genre. While always known as a dazzling D.J., Mills has continually expanded his horizons beyond the booth, including on high-concept album projects that began with “Discovers the Rings of Saturn” from the group X-102 in 1992, up through his new LP, “The Trip — Enter the Black Hole,” released last week on vinyl via his own Axis label.

Mills lifted Tomorrow Comes the Harvest’s name from a phrase coined by the science fiction author Octavia Butler, who was describing the potential power of seeds, properly sown, to influence the future. The metaphor seems apt for Mills’s entire career, which has inspired generations of electronic musicians, like Mali Mase, a 25-year-old D.J. and producer who releases music as Sweater on Polo.

“To me, Jeff Mills is someone who exhibits mastery, not only in techno, but all forms of expressions he explores,” said Mase, who spun a set dedicated to Mills during the 2023 edition of Dweller, a Black-centered annual techno festival in New York. “It would be so simple for him to sit back and bask in the spectacle of his own greatness. Instead, he challenges the forms established, reinvents, and still beats it sicker than anyone on a drum machine.”

Mills said he hopes that Tomorrow Comes the Harvest “becomes an approach to play music — not always the same sound, but the idea of figuring it out while playing.”Credit…Edwina Hay
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