DJ Derrick May Profile
With Rhythim Is Rhythim, Derrick May defined the sound of Detroit techno. Yet he hasn’t released a record for years and now admits he’s wasting his talent. So should we still love Derrick May?
Derrick May swears he’s an arrogant asshole but industry “insiders” state that he’s actually a prick. Other “sources”, meanwhile, insist clubs have to open their double doors before this self-regarding bighead can get in. It’s a contentious issue, it really is. So, here comes techno’s leading arse-connected-to-a-sexual-appendage-to-a-wantonly-oversized-ego, striding casually into the foyer of Glasgow’s most fashionable hotel. Like he owns the bloody place.
“Hi, we’re from …….”
“Hello, I fucking hate journalists.” Asshole.
Then he pulls some kung-fu moves, making sure everyone in the vicinity knows for sure he’s arrived. Prick.
“I’ve got nothing to prove to you,” he continues. “Nothing at all.” Bighead.
Okay, we’ll give Derek May a chance before casting our final judgement. Let’s watch as he chats up umpteen waitresses in a restaurant, then discusses the relative merits of Naomi Campbell, Scary Spice, Posh Spice and several women who walk past. As he accuses everyone in Birmingham of having buck-teeth, does an impersonation of a London ragga kid, shows off his muscles, slags off Madonna, chats up a few more waitresses….Oh stop it, please. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Derrick May’s an absolute……
…..Scream, actually. Because what many forget to point out is he’s just as willing to deploy his merciless wit against himself as anyone else. Blessed with a blinding intelligence and relentless energy, he’s fantastic company. Shhh, don’t tell him that because we’re going to a club. We’ve got to fit this asshole through the door.
Tomorrow, Derrick May – aged 35 – will tell all to us, thereby promoting “Innovator”, his “new” album for Transmat/R&S (it’s actually a comprehensive collection of his epochal early releases). But tonight he’s playing at a party called Aquaplanet, alongside DJ Sneak, Andrew Weatherall and Amsterdam’s Dimitri. It’s on at The Arches venue in central Glasgow and we know this because we’ve just pulled up in a taxi – outside the Tunnel.
“You’re not playing here , mate,” laughs one of the bouncers. “Paul Oakenfold is. Your club’s round the corner.”
“I’m glad I’m not playing here,” Derrick derisively snorts. “Ha ha! This place looks dead.”
Eventually we make it to the Arches and it’s starkly apparent that admiration for May burns as strongly as ever in hard dance strongholds like this. Starry-eyed clubbers, who can’t have been more than eight years old when “Strings Of Life” came out, queue up to remind him he’s a legend.
“But I’m not,” he retorts testily, “I’m alive, not dead.”
Come 2am, Sneak relinquishes the decks to Derrick. If the former’s set is all solid lines mixed with disco flurries, the latter’s is savage and angular, with Derrick snatching aggressively at the EQs. For the next two hours, tunes by himself, Carl Craig, Moodyman and Stacey Pullen whizz by. Oh, and he plays Li’l Louis’ “French kiss”…. Like he always does.
Then a girl clambers over the barriers. “I don’t mean to be a pain,” she gushes to May. “I just wanted to show my appreciation.” He thanks her warmly then winds up the 18,462nd (or something) stellar DJ set of his career.
Numerous punters accuse him of being a legend as he leaves. He gets invited to a few house parties but politely declines and gets a taxi to the hotel. He might’ve only got off a plane from the US a few hours ago, but, incredibly, he could still give Goldie a fair fight in the boundless energy stakes. We say goodnight to May in the early hours as he nips off to raid the hotel’s kitchens for ice-cream…
Something kept May up last night. The renowned Lothario wouldn’t have minded if it was a woman, but instead it was pesky thought.
“Recently, a friend said, ‘If you don’t make any more music, it’ll be a terrible waste of talent.’ I didn’t think much more about it until I was lying in bed last night. Suddenly I found myself agreeing.”
Ho-hum, it’s easy to be suspicious in moments like this. That bar the odd outing on compilations like 1994’s sublime “Virtual Sex”, May hasn’t released a track since “The Beginning” in 1990, yet happened to have a major rethink for the first time last night. Still, we won’t quibble, because we’ve got to get him to backtrack. Whether he likes it or not.
“You should be able to rent out the video by now: ‘Detroit – The Early Years’,” he huffs. “I was talking to Kevin (Saunderson) about it recently. I said that until we elevate to the next level, we’ll never leave that whole story behind.”
The story? That of May, Saunderson and Juan Atkins, three chums from Belville High School, Detroit, who in a spare afternoon or two, invented techno music. Clever, that.
Fusing their combined passion for Parliament and disco; the fledgling house sounds emanating from nearby Chicago; the bleak influence of living in their fading hometown, as it suffered post-car industry boom decline; a love of heavyweight futurist text and Kraftwerk’s benchmark electro-pop, they reached for the stars. For a few years back then in the late 1908s, they touched them, too.
Atkins led the way at first, cutting tracks as Cybotron and Model 500, but May was busy watching from the wings.
“Juan had the vision,” he recalls. “I was a friend who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Juan and his brother Aaron changed my life.”
“We were still at junior school and Aaron was a renegade – aged 13, he was smoking joints and driving cars with Juan. They didn’t like met at first – they used to think I was an ‘L7’, a square! They tried to get me to smoke a joint but I wouldn’t!”
May was the only child in a single parent family, his mother working long hours to provide for him. The considerable time he spent at home alone caused his brain to work overtime.
May first used the “vault of feelings” he concocted in this period in 1987, releasing “Nude Photo” on his new Transmat label (later home to releases from the like of Carl Craig and Joey Beltram). It was a revolution, as brutal as it was beautiful. So too were the tracks which arrived in rapid succession over the next couple of years, including “R-Tyme”, “Freestyle” and the magical “Strings Of Life”.
“Why did that one work? Because it was ‘simply complex’,” he smiles. “I did it on one keyboard, then recorded it on cassette. The damn thing has sold over a 100,000 copies!”
May had left Atkins and Saunderson far behind at this point. Having weathered the remarks that others were always present in the studio when his finest tracks were made (Thomas Barnett co-produced “Nude Photo”, Darryl Wynn “R-Tyme”, Mike James “Strings Of Life” and Carl Craig “Drama”), he was the undisputed King Of Techno.
However, the series of events which took place over the next couple of years would see his pride and passion in producing music diminish by a monumental degree.
“The first time we came to Britain (in early 1988) people were wearing suits in clubs and weren’t digging the music at all,” he explains. “Then we came back eight months later and it was total hands-in-the-air mayhem. Guys in England has started making their own music and it sort of seemed like we weren’t invited to the party anymore.”
Acid House has exploded in the UK and the Motor City kids’ considered, reflective approach to music didn’t fit easily amid the drug-powered hedonism. May hated Britain’s nascent techno-rave sound and made that patently clear in a mighty row with Factory Records’ supremo Tony Wilson at the CMJ Music Conference in New York in 1991. However, he now denies he ever suggested that while people shouldn’t make techno.
May adds that he drained away yet more of his creative energy by acting as a mentor for Carl Craig, Jay Denham and Stacey Pullen. Most destructive of all, though, was the techno supergroup that never happened.
May, Saunderson and Atkins hatched a plan in 1991 to record together as Intelex. They saw it as their take on Kraftwerk. Trevor Horn – boss of ZTT, the label they would have signed to – wanted the “black Pet Shop Boys”.
“It was our Great Plan,” May says despondently. “But then the deal was off. Trevor decided I was an erratic crazy man who wouldn’t do as he was told.”
So techno’s chief savant pulled the plug on his productions and, save for the odd remix, hasn’t returned to them since. You can view it as a sad story – as indeed those in years to come might, when reading about a pioneer who became so disenchanted that he bailed out. Alternatively, you could decree it a major cop-out by someone who’s often complained people don’t understand his music; seemingly oblivious to the fact that no-one inherently understood Marvin Gaye, Public Enemy or The Beatles; that they made people understand. Or then again, you could choose to sympathise when he says he hasn’t feel sufficiently inspired.
“I’m the ultimate temperamental, prima donna artist,” he confesses. “If you sneeze too loud, my ass is out the door. And I’ve always been like that. Most people in Detroit can’t stand me.”
“I’m an asshole,” he reminds us. “But I’m a happy asshole.”
He is, too, because May has glossed over the heartache by becoming a maximum lucre-earning star on the international DJ circuit; consistently turning on crowds, yet pissing some pundits with the often unwavering sets he offers. Exotic travel, food and women – this bon viveue has sampled them all.
“A womaniser? A techno playboy? Yeah, that was definitely me up until a year ago. But not so much now because I can’t be bothered with fucking little club girls anymore. It always turns out they’re only 19 years old and they always want their little friends to come back to the hotel, too. I’m like, ‘Who are your friends?’ ‘Oh, just those 28 people over there’.”
May says he’s merely a “serious flirt” now, that he’d get married if he could find a woman who was “panoramic” enough. He also admits he’s less likely to lay the boot into other artists these days, effectively acknowledging that he’d seem like a woeful old curmudgeon if he was to lambast successful youngsters like Daft Punk or the Chemical Brothers.
Some things don’t change, though. He still gets hordes of technophiles arriving at this apartment. Understandably, he’s less charitable that he once was.
“I’ve got a shotgun and a pitbull, so they don’t come round so much now,” he jokes. “You get so many weirdos, the Mark Chapmans of techno. They turn up with a sleeping bag and backpack and demand to sleep on my sofa for a month. ‘Knock know. Er, is this, like, the Hotel Mayday? I have a reservation to sleep on your sofa for a month, then steal all your hi-tech dance music secrets, take them back to my land and become an overnight sensation!”
A rumour about Derrick May: that he’s shortly to retire from DJing and concentrate on production work.
“Er, nah. When I was 18 I’d look at people like Ken Collier (now deceased former resident at Detroit’s similarly deceased Music Institute, where May and co first went clubbing) and say, ‘I am not going to be that old and still playing records.’ But now I realise DJing is a moment of freedom and euphoria. “However, the moment I feel people aren’t screaming anymore, that they’re swaying, not dancing, I’ll be out. And I won’t be lugging record boxes around the world forever.”
To which end he, Carl Craig and Kenny Larkin are launching their own club in Detroit next spring. Though nameless at present, May intends it to be a “high-tech cyber-club that’s on the cutting edge. It’s going to be a personal place where the music’s the most important thing.”
Another rumour about May: that he’s handed in two ambient-ish albums to R&S (whom Transmat have signed a deal with), but they refuse to release them.
“That’s a good one,” he retorts after a lengthy exhalation. “I haven’t handed anything in and when I do there’ll be no handing back. If R&S don’t like it they can kiss my beautiful black ass.”
Rightio then. But at one point in the interview May clearly says, “The album I did which has not been released is not me toying with people.” Hmmm?
“There are pieces of that album in place,” he says next, scuppering talk that he hasn’t been near a studio in years. “But it’ll only be finished when I say it is and I don’t care if people who read this think that sounds corny – be they pop stars, little kids, fat A&R men or wannabe musicians.”
But isn’t it a cop-out, even an oxymoron, that May has lamented the state of techno yet not been on hand to push the sound to the proverbial next level?
“You know, you’re right. I’m to blame for a lot of things, cos it’s like I took the music to a certain point then left it hanging there. I’ve been a really selfish person with my own creativity.”
He once famously described techno as “George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator.” And now?
“Kraftwerk got off on the third floor and now George Clinton’s got Napalm Death in there with him. The elevator’s stalled between the pharmacy and the athletic wear store.”
He states he’s no longer bitter; that he’s actually more “hungry” than he’s been for ages. Hence the new African drumming project he’s producing – it was going to be called Detroit Rhythm Riot, except he’s not so sure now. Featuring percussionists aged between 25 and 70, and former Last Poet Omar Ben Hussan on vocals, he is certain, however, that it’ll be a “far superior” version of Masters At Work’s Nu Yorican Soul.
But anyway, enough chat because Derrick May wants to go to lunch now.
“Stop!” Techno’s relentlessly lively one only managed to chat up three waitresses at lunch and now we’re driving around Glasgow. “Stop!” May urges again. He’s come across a phenomenally long queue for an under-18’s disco and the “former” womaniser can’t believe his eyes.
“They’re the reason I’m no longer a techno playboy,” he chuckles, gesticulating at a row of girls braving the freezing conditions in preposterously short skirts. “They’re under-18? Huh! They’re the kind of girls who could get me in trouble!”
What an asshole, eh? What a perplexing, sporadically inspirational, always endearing, ceaselessly fascinating, occasionally frustrating asshole. You’ve got to admit it, despite everything, he remains a veritable star.
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