Derrick May - THE SECRET OF TECHNO
by Tony Marcus
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 DJ'ing 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?
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."
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.