- Jeff Mills has always been Detroit techno's deep thinker. His big ideas might account for his continued creative vitality, at a time when many Detroit greats have little new to say. But as his career has broadened, taking in multimedia collaborations and concept albums, the results have sometimes undermined his techno-futurist philosophy.
He criticises elitism in commercial dance music while making overtures to the contemporary art world, whose crimes on that front are much more severe. He preaches techno's futurist credos and then collaborates with one of the fustiest musical institutions on earth, the Western classical orchestra. For all his visionary ideas, he can occasionally come off as an unhinged nostalgist.
Mills' Exhibitionist concept is equally contradictory. 2004's The Exhibitionist used a couple of cameras and a turntable setup to capture Mills' DJing style, warts and all. Its stated aim was to demystify the art of DJing, and it certainly made for engaging viewing. But dance music has always been DIY, and many kids who worshipped the likes of Mills through the '90s and '00s had a set of turntables in their bedroom. The real goal might've been a little less noble: to demand that we recognise the creativity and skill in Mills' DJing, and consider the techno DJ alongside traditional musical heroes: the rock guitar god, the visionary jazz soloist, the piano maestro.
This motive is more openly expressed on Exhibitionist 2, an audio-visual bumper-pack which expands and updates the concept. In a statement accompanying the release, Mills explains that he wanted to show how a DJ "thinks in real time to create and work spontaneously, like a musician playing an acoustic instrument or a soloist thinking of rhythms on the spot." The project isn't without merit, but it's this search for legitimacy that ultimately weakens it.
The double-DVD set picks up where the original Exhibitionist left off, with 40-odd minutes of footage showing Mills' current DJ approach. He uses three CDJs, a 909, and a selection of tool-y productions he made specifically for the project (some are featured on the accompanying CD). In a sense, not much has changed. Mills is still using tracks as small building blocks in a fluid, shapeshifting whole—only the tempo and intensity levels have dropped considerably. Watching his long fingers dance over the mixer, tap-tapping on faders and kneading knobs is mesmerising, but the musical results are pretty flat. It feels like we're getting a run-through of what can be done with such a setup, rather than the peaks Mills can hit in a real club context. (Anybody who has seen a recent Mills set can attest that he still very much hits them.)
On the second disc, Mills turns his attention to the studio. We watch him bash together three tracks over 50 minutes, using a reduced hardware setup. The first track sails by quickly, but the other two involve interminable preset fiddling, with little insight offered by Mills' voiceover. The segment moves too fast to be accessible to a complete novice (even laptop producers unfamiliar with Mills' arcane machinery might struggle), and shies away from the specialist jargon that could make it a trove of studio tips and tricks.
Elsewhere, the DVD drifts further off-piste. Disc Two closes with a lengthy Something In The Sky-style mix, set to washed-out footage of dancer Pierre Lockett. The music is excellent, but it's hard to detect any relevance to the concept at hand. A face-off between Mills on a 909 and drummer Skeeto Valdez is genuinely bad. We start with Mills in full DJing flow, then awkwardly cut to a Valdez solo, in which he paradiddles impressively—and pointlessly—around the kit. Some brief interplay follows, which doesn't come close to the magical synergy Mills likely hoped for. The ostensible idea—to demonstrate that Mills is as "legitimate" a musician as this skilled instrumentalist—is flawed, its execution clumsy.
The solo "TR-909 Workout" that follows is Exhibitionist 2's only great moment. Mills, crouched in his Spock shoes on a spotless white floor, is impossibly nimble on the 909. His hands dance like nervous spiders over the knobs and buttons. The results aren't just impressive but also deeply musical; it's easy to imagine them sending a club wild. It's a virtuosic performance, but after the palaver with the drummer, the value of such a display seems questionable. After all, since when was techno—particularly Mills' vision of it—about conforming to existing ideas of musicality?
Behind this is the nagging thought that Exhibitionist 2 doesn't shine a light on contemporary music-making, instead highlighting a practice that is already part of the past. Mills describes his film as an "opportunity to see how the technology of today is allowing DJs to be more free and thus, more creative." But if so, why is he still faffing about with CDs instead of USB sticks? And why is he wasting time beatmatching when he could outsource the task to a software algorithm? It would've left his hands free for more expressive actions, and corrected the handful of blends marred by clashing kicks.
Mills once explained his aversion to computers as a matter of holding onto "genuine" expression: "I think that this technically limited but genuine way tends to speak more in spirit and means more from a human-to-human conversation." This limitation is as arbitrary as those that would dictate DJing isn't real musicianship. Mills might be given the keys to the musical establishment, but in doing so he's leaving behind what makes techno important.
Disc One (DVD):
01. Exhibitionist Mix 1 Part 1 (Four Angle Options)
02. Exhibitionist Mix 1 Part 2 (Four Angle Options)
Disc Two (DVD):
01. Exhibitionist Mix 2 feat. Skeeto Valdez
02. Exhibitionist Mix 3 TR-909 Workout (Two Angle Options)
03. Exhibitionist Studio Mix
04. Orion Transmission Mix feat. Pierre Lockett
Disc Three (CD):
01. Code Four / Running System / The Bells
03. Star People
05. Strange Wind (From Something In The Sky)
06. Axis Studio Take One
08. T Minus Thirty
09. Start Collector’s Journal
10. Night People
11. Dance Of The Star Children
12. Condex (From The Occurrence)
13. Axis Studio Extra
14. Hydra / Synergy / Designer Frequency One
15. Signals To Atomic One
16. Mills Machina (Live) / Gamma Player Loop