With its declarative title, 1994’s Minimal Nation is one of the definitive Detroit techno albums that forever links Robert Hood, its creator, to a brand of gaunt, vigorous electronic music. Hood has continued to explore this sound in the years since, but his palette has expanded in other directions as well. This month, the producer/DJ returns as Floorplan with a new album, Victorious, that melds electronic compositions with full-throated vocal samples often borrowed from gospel.
When Hood debuted the Floorplan moniker in 1996, salvation was not his primary musical concern. The producer tells Rolling Stone that the project sprung from his wish “to get deeper into house music.” He released a single or an EP under the name almost every year through 2002. Floorplan stayed dormant between 2002 and 2010, but when it returned, Hood had become an ordained minister and experienced an awakening. “God literally told me, ‘I want you to put a gospel message in the music,'” the producer says.
Hood believes the electronic and religious worlds are directly connected, asserting “house music comes from gospel music.” “I see any form of music as ministry,” he explains. “It just depends on what you’re preaching. When I’m behind the turntables, I’m at a pulpit. I’m preaching a message of love – it’s just coming through electrical wires and Funktion-One speakers.” The first track to signal his new intention with Floorplan was “We Magnify His Name,” a turbo-charged disco sermon from 2011.
Hood is not the first to attempt this genre merger. Though electronic music, which often attracts adjectives like “icy,” may initially seem like an unfeeling anathema to gospel’s human zeal, in fact the two have much in common. Both forms share a finely honed understanding of dynamics – the knowledge that the payoff may take longer to arrive, but it’ll be all the sweeter for it. As Hood points out, the brassy vocal runs that characterize many classic house records are descended from the church, and famous clubs like New York City’s Limelight, located in a former house of worship, played off the notion of dancefloor as a place for intense devotion. Previous examples of the electronic-gospel fusion can be found on records from Green Velvet (“Preacherman,” 1993), Barbara Tucker (“I Get Lifted,” 1994), Moodymann (Inspirations From a Small Black Church on the Eastside of Detroit, 1995), or Kenny Bobien (“I Shall Not Be Moved,” 1999).
Hood’s background also makes him well-suited to draw from the two genres. “We grew up in the church listening to Aretha Franklin and Shirley Caesar,” he explains. “My grandmother, watching her play the tambourine in church, she beat the tambourine like you wouldn’t believe. That’s where I got a lot of my rhythm from. What she did with that tambourine would put Prince to shame.” Looking back now, the producer speaks about his embrace of gospel as an inevitable development. “It was just a matter of time,” he says. “It was prophetic that this was going to come about.”
Victorious also benefitted from the contributions of Floorplan’s newest member, Hood’s daughter Lyric. (Several children of Detroit electronic music innovators seem to enjoy a pleasant working relationship with their parents: Kevin Saunderson also collaborates with his sons.) “Lyric’s introducing me and re-introducing me to songs that I’ve long forgotten,” Hood says. These tracks include the Frankie Knuckles remix of the Jackson 5’s “Forever Came Today” and Missy Elliott’s “WTF (Where They From),” which subsequently furnished a sample for Victorious.
The album’s lead single, “Tell You No Lie,” shows the majestic potential of the Floorplan sound: string flourishes, swooping vocals and a single-mindedly rambunctious rhythm section unite to form a jubilant blast. The singing is culled from Ann Nesby’s “Lovin’ Is Really My Game,” a cover of a Seventies cut from Brainstorm. As the lead singer of the Sounds of Blackness in the Nineties, Nesby was a gospel singer who achieved chart success in the secular world, and Hood describes her admiringly as “Patti Labelle, Shirley Ceaser and Aretha Franklin all wrapped up in one incredible package.”
Victorious arrives at a propitious time, as the sound of gospel is currently enjoying a mainstream moment. Before the release of The Life of Pablo, Kanye West tweeted, “this album is actually a Gospel album.” The record contains a sample of Barbara Tucker’s gospel house track “I Get Lifted” along with an appearance from the minister Kirk Franklin. The minister popped up again on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, which includes lines like, “you need a four-hour praise dance performed every morn.” (In 2014, the Christian rapper Lecrae released the first full-length to top the Gospel Albums chart and the Billboard 200 chart simultaneously, but a gospel artist enjoying some mainstream success does not attract the same attention as an artist at the center reaching out to the fringes.)
The embrace of religious language by several of pop’s biggest stars doesn’t surprise Hood. “We’ve tried everything else,” he explains. “In this era of uncertainty, there’s nothing left but God and his message. We’ve always needed him – his message of love and hope and grace has always been there – but we’ve always taken it for granted. Now we’re getting to a place where we have to call on the name of Jesus to save our souls.”
“There’s trials and tribulations all around us, and we need an answer,” Hood says. Then he seamlessly merges his techno innovator past with his intensely spiritual present. “There’s a minimal answer: It’s Jesus.”