"We Hollywood DJs who are supposed to be the new leaders of the underground, we're pitiful man. We're pitiful."
"So the kids take a pill to feel the funk and the DJ takes a pill to feel the funk. I don't take a pill to feel the funk."
Derrick May - THE SECRET OF TECHNO
It must be strange to be Derrick May, the man who, along with schoolmates Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, started the thing we call techno. Who is still treated with reverence for his intensely spiritual DJing and for some of the most important records ever made. Who sits silent in his Detroit warehouse, releasing nothing, appalled by the drug culture that envelopes the music he created. Derrick May knows the secret of techno, but will he share it?
Writer: Tony Marcus
Photographer: Peter Gabriel
Who knows the secret of techno? Derrick May, the man who, with Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, started the whole damn thing does. And it's a lot more to do with what's going on in his head than computer love and the soul of the machine.
DERRICK May lives in a small warehouse building that covers an entire street corner in one of Detroit's dead zones. There's nowhere to go if you take a walk outside but the apartment's windows run right around the curved street and through them you can see a church, a discount clothes store and a billboard poster of Kate Moss advertising milk. By night they show four lanes of traffic streaking past in a red blur, the nearby steeple glowing with an underwater green.
Inside his space is one large room with a kitchen area, tiny annex with a bed and clothes, large TV, video and games machine
in one corner, decks in another, a few pictures propped on easels against a wall (including two Dali lithographs and a painting
by US surrealist Richard Williams that cost $100,000) and a handful of keyboards that Carl Craig is helping Derrick wire together.
When he's finished it will be the first time in two and a half years that Derrick's studio has been functional.
A PlayStation basketball game is running on the box. Derrick's customised one of the players so his name is Mayday. "See
Mayday on the court," he beams, "look at the score man. It's not even a game anymore. It's like an ass-whipping.
I'll let the computer finish it."
While Carl struggles with the cables Derrick runs a track from an old DAT. "I made this on one of my sadder days, my girl she had left me," he explains as the music begins. "Can you hear the bassline? It's crying." There is something about that b-line, it seems to twist towards feeling while the rest of the track moves like water, quiet spirals of harmony propelled by clear and funky breaks. Like most of his records it seems to have leaked in from a parallel dancefloor where artists, dreamers, lovers, poets, angels and ravers trip across the clouds. "People haven't heard this before," he adds, "it's from the Rhythim Is Rhythim LP that I never released."
Derrick cooks dinner (a mozzarella and tomato salad followed by baked salmon with wild rice) while different people bang on his door. Kevin Saunderson turns up and signs a contract with May's Transmat label, Chicago producer Glenn Underground checks in to say hi and May's close buddy D. Wynn arrives. They play with Derrick's plastic toys, D. Wynn posing an action man with balaclava and sub-machine gun to look mean, Derrick countering with his Buzz Lightyear. And all this time Carl's fiddling with the wires, getting the studio together. I'm drinking red wine with Derrick ("fuck that you gotta have white with fish"), eating the food he's made and having such a cool time that I almost forget that I'm surrounded by the people dance culture reveres as legends, icons and immortals. Because it's now accepted as undeniable history that Carl, Kevin, Derrick and Juan Atkins somersaulted dance and electronic music beyond disco, electro, Kraftwerk, Eno, Kraut Rock, P-Funk, New Romantic and New Order into something new. At the time they called it techno.
THERE'S some graffiti on the staircase leading to Derrick's space that gives clues as to where he was coming from. There's Juan
Atkins famous quotation where he compares Detroit's two best known products: Berry Gordy's Motown Records and Henry Ford's car-manufacturing
plants. "Today the automobile plants use robots and computers to make their cars," declared Atkins. "I'm more interested
in Ford's robots than Gordy's music." There's a diagram of Eno's ambient speaker system, statistics matching Soviet and US nuclear
arsenals, Kraftwerk song titles and lyrics from a Thomas Dolby song, 'Tune in Tonight, Try To Think Of Nothing." And surprisingly,
but maybe not for anyone who's danced or listened to any of Derrick's tracks, a quote from Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
"Pleasure," it reads, "will be sensual in the afterlife."
A saying that's always been attributed to May is the description of his techno: "George Clinton meeting Kraftwerk in an elevator.
" But that's only the barest outline of a music that suggests golden wings, hot pants and full hearts spiralling above the Earth.
When they first appeared in the late 80s records like 'It Is What It Is', 'Strings Of Life', 'Beyond The Dance' and 'Nude Photo'
shocked dancefloors with the birth of the new. The beats were familiar from house or electro but existed somewhere inbetween,
infinitely more complex yet icily sharp. The strings carried the feeling and his signature. You could tell you were listening to
Derrick May from those strings that weren't strings, sounds that were neither electronic nor acoustic but shimmered in their own space.
He didn't release many records, just a handful of 12 inches, each one sparse but musical, machine but human. To this day there
isn't an artist working in dance music who wants to be taken seriously as a creator who doesn't namecheck May and Detroit as an
influence, if not a standard. So it seems strange that neither Derrick nor any of the people hanging out in his apartment have
deals with major record labels.
"I would love to work with a large record company," purrs Derrick. "But I had some fuck-up situations with large record companies and realised that these majors don't work on the same frame of mind as artists. I went in as an artist and was suddenly told that I had to be an entertainer. An artist is David Byrne, Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie. An artist is Prince, people who tend to be able to say what they want to say the way they want to say it - and make money at the same time." He continues: "Black people can't get the opportunity to be artists. They can get a chance to be entertainers all they like but they can't get the chance to be true artists. Especially in a genre that hasn't been totally proven. Record companies want to take their chances with marketable people which happens to be people of their gender, colour or race. Maybe it sounds racist. I don't think it is racist. It's business."
Juan Atkins once remarked that if he, Derrick, and Kevin had been white by now they'd be the biggest thing since sliced bread.
May agrees but he insists he's not bitter. He's happy with his life, he travels the world as a DJ and people treat him with respect
if not reverence. He compares his situation to Goldie's, pointing out that 'Timeless', was a perfect, beautiful record that failed to
sell in the US because the record companies, radio stations and music infrastructure still couldn't deal with a black man producing
non-recognisably black music. But the race question troubles him most as it affects the dancefloor. Because techno's black root is so
invisible, he argues, it keeps black kids off the floor.
"You've got black kids in this country who won't come out and dance," he complains, "they don't want to know about dance music. They're not even interested. Half of them don't even know it exists. It's the same shit all over the world, even in Africa man. I been to South Africa and the black folks don't want to know. Nobody has a black audience except for the r n' b and rap crowd. I long for a black audience to hear my music. It hurts me to believe that black people are not down. Because I'm black."
WHEN he started, as a kid dancing in Chicago and later DJing as the resident at Detroit's The Music Institute, he was facing a different dancefloor. "It was a spiritual place for music," he recalls. "If you weren't there you obviously missed something because I think there are only about four clubs in the world that can compare to its power and energy. We had a young, beautiful, black crowd and I mean beautiful in the sense of spirit and mind and soul. We had white kids coming, Spanish kids coming, gay kids coming, straight kids coming. Nobody was on drugs, man, kids smoked a little bit of weed, drank a little liquor, they came, had a ball, went home, made love and felt good feelings all week."
Like most of the artists who've pushed the music further and deeper he was intricately lost inside disco-life. The DJs who took him there were house music's early 80s pioneers like Detroit's Ken Collier and Chicago's Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles. "Before I really started making music I got baptised by Ron Hardy. The way he played music and the way people responded to him, I watched those people climb poles in his club, watched them become animals, like fucking wild animals. And nobody in there was on real drugs, you know maybe a few people using MDMA but the gay scene always kept their MDMA to themselves. Most of those kids didn't have no money for shit, so they'd share a joint and pass it around to four or five people until it was about as big as an exclamation point. " That club was unbelievable and that spirit stayed with me and that shit was embedded in me, scared me, it opened up a whole other insight to where I was coming from electronically and all my other backgrounds. So when I had the chance, man, I followed that vision of those people and that club and of the things I've seen in other clubs, Ken's club, Frankie's club. All these things. Everybody gets a dose of it, everyone goes to the same parties but for some reason I had a different feeling about it. I don't know why. I just did. And I felt like I had to do something with those feelings. And I did."
His best known track, 'Strings Of Life' comes from these days, a demo tape he gave Frankie Knuckles to play in his club. It was Frankie who named the song. "It just went crazy," smiles Derrick. "It just exploded. It was like something you can't imagine, the kind of power and energy people got off that record when it was first heard. Mike Dunn says he has no idea how people can accept a record that doesn't have a bassline. It had never dawned on me that 'Strings' didn't have a bassline." Not that it needed one because like a lot of May's productions, in 'Strings' everything from the strings, the blips, the sequences, the keyboards and sounds all move to create rhythm. It's as if the funk has infected every part of the track so the whole thing jiggles and dances like a crazy bag of bones some shaman is waving over the dancefloor. His secret, he claims, is simple - he saves the drums for last. "80% of all my songs have always started with strings, it's like a mood, a frame of mind. I don't always end up using those strings but that's the way I start and from there I just build. I'm a metronome working kind of guy, I make the music to the metronome. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. The last thing I do is add the drums. Too many people use drums as a piece de resistance to their music. That's dumb. Drums are an accent. That's it. You should be able to make a track and not even use drums. You should be able to have so much power that you don't need drums."
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