by Sterling McGarvey
Derrick May is a man of opinions. If you don't know who he is and you claim to listen to Dance music...shame on you. It's analogous to a Hip-Hop head saying he doesn't know who Rakim, KRS-One, Kool Herc, or Afrika Bambaataa are. It's like a guitar fiend saying he's never heard a song by Jimi. It's like that. Often credited alongside Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson as one of the forefathers of Techno, May has been producing records on his world-reknowned label, Transmat, for just short of fifteen years. In the past two years, a resurgence of awareness in Detroit's Techno roots has spurred a great deal of interest in the oft-named "Holy Trinity of Techno" (May, Atkins, Saunderson). I had a chance to speak with Derrick after his set Halloween weekend at Eleven50's "Disco Bloodbath."
"Come on, ask me a question, you fuck, you fuck, you fuck!"
Those were the first words that journalist Tony Marcus quoted Derrick May as saying in Mixmag. I wondered if Derrick would give me to same grilling when I headed into Eleven50 after his set on October 27th. The reaction was quite the opposite. Sitting on the couch, shooting the breeze with a few leftover stragglers near the DJ booth, the man exuded super-cool. I made arrangements for a next day interview. I got the chance to speak in depth with him shortly before his flight.
According to Simon Reynolds' landmark epic on the history of Dance music, Generation Ecstasy, Techno was an invention of Detroit's Black middle class youth. Detroit Techno is commonly cited as though the sons of the assembly line workers at Ford had inherited their fathers' work ethic and regard for efficiency in their product. The sound is also often referred to as "what would happen in Kraftwerk and George Clinton were stuck on an elevator together."
"I think that when we first did the music, we wanted to believe that we were intellectual; we always wanted to tap into an intellectual level of the Black mind," Derrick says.
"We wanted to show that Black people could do something that was hi-tech, but intellectual at the same time. We wanted to prove that you could do something that was hi-tech that you could dance to, but it didn't have to be all about being onstage and shuckin' and jivin' and whatnot. That was what we enforced mostly about the music. And we stayed with it. And that's why it's been so hard to this day to get approval for what we've done. Because we still refuse to shuck and jive. We still refuse to get down and show our asses in front of people."
Though Detroit has been cranking out the tracks for decades, in the age of marketing Black music through half-naked women and illusions of wealth, Derrick says, "We're all about showing the aspect, as if to say that we are the modern day Jazz fusion, sort of...intellectual style of the music. I mean, these guys, Miles and all these guys, they were doing some special shit, but they had a Soulful side to it. But they had to work very hard to be accepted. They had to almost refuse a certain amount of success to stay close to the music, to stay true to it. And that's what we've done."
"We got excited. A lot of people, if something like that were to happen, they'd get scared; they wouldn't be prepared for it. Most people would fear it; they couldn't handle it. We accepted it."
One might wonder how he or she would react to a tidal wave of positive critical feedback from across the Atlantic. In the case of Detroit's Techno innovators, it was something to be embraced with open arms.
"We felt like we were due. We felt like we deserved it. We felt like we had something to show the world. We didn't feel like we had to go out and buy a Rolls-Royce; we felt like, 'Alright, we can show these motherfuckers. We're gonna kick some ass. We're gonna put music the way it should be. We're gonna set the record straight and show them what it's all about.'"
Derrick started Transmat in 1987. "Nude Photo" was the first record. "Actually," he says, "'X-Ray/Let's Go' was the first record. But 'Nude Photo' was the first really recognized record. That was the one that opened the doors to England, to the world."
...and then there was the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. The 2000 festival was one of the great historic events in the history of Dance music. Its successor wasn't as triumphant in establishing Detroit as the place to be for Memorial Day 2002. Stories abounded throughout the Internet (from local Detroit-based sites like La Resistance to even MTV News). Through the firing of legendary Detroit Techno producer/DJ Carl Craig as Creative Manager (most parties involved blame co-promoter Carol Marvin) to individuals with T-shirts reading "Detroit Techno, Ford Fuck Us," "Re-Hire Carl Craig," and "Fuck Carol Marvin," to headliners Carl Cox and LTJ Bukem canceling, the 2001 DEMF left a lot to be desired, according to many who attended.
"This past year was pretty emotional," Derrick says. "I didn't play because of the rain. It happened right before I went on. There were hailstones this big (he makes a gesture that the stone was the size of a small golf ball), and that kept people away. It was interesting; Carl went through so much with this lady (Marvin), and this lady went through so much with Carl and blah, blah, blah, and I was in the middle of all of it trying to keep the peace with everybody. It was a pretty tough experience, after fighting through it for so long. Not being able release my pressure. To play. You know what I mean? After all of that, to have that happen, that was irony. That was amazing irony. It was pretty tough, the way it ended. I was happy that it happened, I was happy that everyone had a chance to experience it, but it was tough."
In regard to a DEMF 2002, he says, "It's up in the air. It's all up in the air. Carl is not talking to this lady; this lady is not talking to Carl. She is not rational, in the way that she is thinking about the event, about keeping the peace. There's a lot of problems right now, for the first time ever. She is not part of our unit; she is not part of our nucleus. She was accepted and brought in, she was invited into the nucleus. She has turned out to be 'the mole.' And she seems to not gather or not be able to understand or comprehend what it is to deal with people like us. She seems to only be on a level on which she wants to control; to lay out a detail of how she wants things. And that's the reason why things are falling apart. It's very unfortunate, man, because we've worked so hard. The city needs it; we need this. We have worked our entire lives for this just to watch some stupid person (borderline) fuck it up."
Flaws aside, the DEMF was something on a level that hadn't been seen before. Hip-Hop acts like Mos Def, De La Soul, and The Roots rubbed shoulders with a diversity of Techno and House DJs from Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva to the "Holy Trinity" to Glenn Underground, Derrick Carter, and Mark Farina. It was a reconciliation of Dance music, which has traditionally been stigmatized in much of the Black community as "not Black enough" or "too Gay," with Hip-Hop, which has infinitely wider acceptance in Black communities across America. Could the festival be recognized as a step toward the recognition of Detroit Techno as a form of Black music in the eyes of Black America?
"It was Carl's idea; it was a good step. But it wasn't see, something about Detroit, there's a level of appreciation for the music and more of what we do is open. I mean, look, it's Detroit. It's not New York, it's not LA."
Derrick's feelings are that mainstream America, regardless of color, will always have a difficult time accepting that Techno's roots are firmly planted in the Midwest, and not on either coast. "(Detroit)'s not supposedly one of the so-called forefront leaders of ideas and creativity. So people tend to discount it in the media. They don't have anything to do with Detroit. They don't really say, "Okay, well, Detroit is the focus of the music in America." They'll never let that happen. They'll never say that a city like Detroit, that is going through so much economic strife, that is a city full of illiterates at one point, at one level, is the focal point of electronic and music, period. They won't let that happen. So instead of them saying, 'this was the shit, what happened in Detroit; they're on top of it, so many people having a great time...Wow, Black young guys getting off doing their Electronic/Tech/Techno music' and all these little young White kids coming from around the world to hear this, they won't let that happen. They will constantly discount it, and they will act like this didn't happen."
In the end, he says, "Only history will tell the truth. It will show that Detroit, and what we're doing, was the shit. It was a real influence on music around the world. If this happened in New York, everyone responsible would be considered geniuses. But it happened in Detroit, so we get nothing."
In the face of an industry that puts together disposable CDs at the drop of a hat with titles along the lines of "House/Trance/Dance Party (add season/year here)," Detroit's Techno innovators have persevered by sticking together. "In the early 80s, a lot of Chicago artists went over to England, and they got ripped off. They didn't know anything about legal affairs, and they got ripped off actually, they ripped themselves off; they signed bogus deals."
Unlike those unfortunate others, after years and years, all of the great Detroit producers have stuck together, according to Derrick. "I think that we did pretty well for Detroit. We stuck together, we've been really united on the front. There comes a time when you have to open up and play hardball with people, because if you don't, they will look you over and they will move on. And that's where we are now; we stayed underground for many years in Detroit. We stuck close to the front. But now, we have to start to comprehend and realize what's happening in the industry, and if we don't start playing some ball, we're out. They've found other ways to move without us now. The music doesn't need Detroit anymore. The music doesn't need Chicago anymore. What we do is respect it and consider it always at the forefront, but it's not considered necessary anymore. So at some point we have to realize and we have to say, "Now, we have to open our doors and evolve." They've figured out ways to move on and evolve without us."
In that vein, Derrick also has his feelings toward the cooperation of Ford in recognizing the city's roots. He feels that the Ford Focus commercials from 2000 that use Model 500 (Juan Atkins)'s "No UFOs" are "...great. I thought it was the beginning of a wonderful future of a new level of communication that should have been established years ago." In regard to use of his songs in advertising, he recalls, "I had a commercial with Nike; I was going to do the music for Shocks, for a new Nike Shocks commercial, when the director, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, decided that he didn't want to fly from Paris. I lost the commercial. But it's alright. The time will come. There will be another day."
He describes his style as "hi-tech. I always try to keep it Tribal hi-tech. I like to stay with the sound that has never really been properly discovered, which is the sound of Detroit. The sound of hi-tech tribalism; it's very spiritual, very bass oriented, and very drum oriented, very percussive. The original Techno music was very hi-tech with a very percussive feel, so there were lots of strings, lots of sounds to the left, then sounds to the right. But it was extremely, extremely Tribal. It feels like you're in some sort of hi-tech village."
As for the usual round of questions (the "Desert Island Five" and the "Who Would Win in a Fight?"), he came through with flying colors.
"I take Miles: Kind of Blue, I take George Clinton: The Mothership Connection, I take Brian Eno's Apollo, I think it was one of those albums, I take one album from Cuba anything from there. Last album I'd take would be a Best of Detroit compilation. Yeah, that would be it."
Juan, Kevin, and Stacey Pullen get in a fight, with Carl refereeing. Who wins, and why?
"Kevin is the Peaceful Giant. You upset a sleeping giant, ain't no stopping him."
As for the current state of Dance music, his feelings are mixed.
"Well, I think Dance music is better off in terms of production, but it's not in a better state of reputation. I think that so much bad music came out for so long, and so many people call themselves DJs and they're embarrassing the music and really taking peoples' intelligence for granted. I think it's hurting credibility. You've got all these people like Paul Oakenfold and all these other kind of people out here, and as nice enough of a guy as Paul Oakenfold is, and I mean that, really, DJ-wise, I think he has cashed in his chips, and he's just trying to bank as much as he can. And it's kind of like a disservice to the DJ, to the real professional DJs. I think that Sasha and most of these guys that are playing music that in their right minds and in their right sense of who they are, or I should say, where they come from, they would never play it. They would laugh at it. They're simply cashing in. And, that's okay, if that's what you want to do, but understand that you carry a responsibility as a leader, and realize how that will reflect on the rest of the industry. And if you don't care, then fine, but do realize that you are altering the state of Dance music because you are carrying such a level of responsibility.
As for playing Atlanta?
"I don't know yet. The crowd when I played last night (Eleven50) was a little bit, blasé, and the club is a beautiful place, but I don't think it's a serious dance club. If you put that club in Europe, it would be a serious, beautiful dance club. But here in America, it's a serious club where people go to have cocktails and to be seen. So, the difference is that the musical club culture here in America died about 15 years ago. People in America, young people today in America, are not interesting in partying and looking good; they're interested in looking good first, and partying second. And I think that Atlanta is no exception to that. I think that it's part of a generalization of America at the moment."
As for the final question...
"Last one? Take your time, make it right." [smiling]
Hmm...it looks like I've gone through them all.
"You must have one more. Surely, you do."
No....well, I've got one, but it's kind of trivial...If they made a movie about you, who would play you?
"I'd play me. Nobody's going to play me but me."
In the end, we shall see. Hopefully some film executive will greenlight a film illustrating Detroit's rich legacy in Electronic music. No matter how the cards fall, though, any history book on Dance music that ignores Detroit ignores Dance music completely. Along with Kraftwerk, the innovations of Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, and the breakbeat pioneers of early-to-mid 90s London, Detroit is an episode of the history of the music we listen to, and it is a crucial one to know and understand. If they ignore Detroit, they ignore Juan Atkins. They ignore Kevin Saunderson. And they ignore Derrick May. That can never happen.
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