May, Derrick 1963–
Derrick May 1963–
Techno pioneer Derrick May belongs to the triumvirate of Detroit disc jockeys widely credited with creating the electronic dance music genre in the 1980s. May, along with Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, became celebrities in Europe during the “rave” rage, long before their achievements were recognized in the United States. Thanks to May’s efforts, however, Detroit began hosting the world’s largest free electronic music festival when the new millennium began. “For so long here, it felt like an endless climb to the top of nowhere,” May told Detroit Free Press writer Brian McCollum. “In the early days I had a mission. All the guys did: Keeping this the rawest, purest, most innovative art form we could create. But nobody meant to become an outcast in their own city.”
May was born on April 6, 1963, in Detroit, and was raised in a single-parent household. During his teens, he lived in a suburb called Belleville, a half-hour from downtown Detroit, and when he was 17 his mother moved to Chicago. Hoping to win an athletic scholarship, he decided to stay behind with his grandfather to finish his senior year. But May was also an ardent music fan, and like his Belleville friends, Atkins and Saunderson, he had started DJ-ing and then making his own music at home via turntables and a newly affordable generation of drum machines. They created new songs by “sampling” a riff or a beat from another recording, and then building aural valleys and crescendos around it with synthesized bass beats or other musical additions. Atkins had formed an ensemble called Cybrotron and was already making records, but May was still primarily a disc jockey, belonging to an Atkins/ Saunderson collective called Deep Space Soundworks.
When May went to Chicago to visit his mother, he visited a dance club he had heard of, where DJs spun similar self-doctored tracks. Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy had launched their careers in the discotheque era, but had recently developed a local Chicago following for their long sets at dance clubs, which featured synthesized basslines worked into old disco hits. The style was dubbed “house,” and May was stunned by what he saw and heard when he visited a club where Knuckles was playing. In an interview published on the TechnoTourist website, May told John Osselaer that he recalled phoning Atkins back in Detroit and telling him, “’Juan, you are not going to believe this. I’ve seen the future! this is unbelievable. They have nightclubs here; people are dancing to this
Born on April 6, 1963, in Detroit, MI.
Career: Worked as a DJ for Deep Space Soundworks, Detroit, MI, early 1980s; released first single, “Let’s Go,” on Metroplex Records, c. 1983; formed Transmat Records, 1986; recorded under names Rhythim Is Rhythim and Mayday, 1986–.
Addresses: Office —Transmat Records, 1492 Gratiot Ave, Detroit, MI 48207.
music. It is beautiful man, you’re not going to believe it.’”
May did earn his hoped-for football scholarship, but dropped out after a year and returned to Detroit. He worked in an arcade and concentrated on making music and landing DJ jobs. Atkins’s label, Metroplex, put out his first single, “Let’s Go,” in 1983. It caught on after receiving airplay on a local nighttime radio show with a cult following, hosted by a mysterious, anonymous figure who called himself the Electrify in’ Mojo. The show played seminal German electronic music of the 1970s, such as Kraftwerk, mixed in with more recent tracks from Prince and the punk genre. Soon May began hosting his own show, “Street Beats,” and founded his own label, Transmat, in late 1986.
Subsequent singles that May made on Transmat included “Nude Photo,” “Kaos,” and “Strings of Life.” Most were launched under the name Rhythim Is Rhythim or Mayday. The recordings caught on with music aficionados and launched May’s career overseas. “Strings of Life” in particular, which featured a Detroit Symphony Orchestra sample, hit U.K. clubs just as the house scene took off in London clubs around 1987. Writing in Glasgow’s Sunday Herald, David Stone called the early May tracks “weird, alchemic classics” that “took dance music into unexplored realms, full of shuddering bleeps and impossible syncopations.”
For a time May lived in Amsterdam, but returned to Detroit to open the Music Institute, a dance venue, with Atkins and Saunderson. Its success helped launch a second generation of DJs and music-makers, among them Richie Hawtin, Stacey Pullen, and Carl Craig. House eventually spawned several sub-genres: trance, jungle, and drum-and-bass among them, and May remained a cult figure overseas. For much of the 1990s, he stopped recording and kept to a heavy international touring schedule, often earning as much as $3,000 per night for a few hours of work. To meet demand for May’s music, Sony Japan issued a retrospective, Innovator, in 1995. David Proffitt, a journalist for the Arizona Republic, called May “the Muddy Waters of techno,” explaining that he “developed a signature style using crisp, percussion-heavy bass lines as the foundation for soaring string samples and warm effects that proved immensely popular and influential in the dance scene.”
Around 1997, May began spending more time in Detroit. He remained a virtual unknown in his hometown outside of the insular club scene, and electronic music had still not yet caught on with the general public—although in European record stores, entire bins bore the label “Detroit,” containing the work of May, Craig, and others. Of the new U.S. interest in his musical style, May remarked in a Detroit Free Press interview with McCollum, “It’s kind of insulting. We’re in our 30s. We’ve been doing this since we were 18 years old. The whole world’s been listening, and finally somebody back home wants to pay attention. We’ve been ambassadors for the city, running around the world, and people back home have no idea.” He added, “It comes down to keeping the fact alive that this music originated from a black element. It’s a black art form. We are on a mission, and we refuse to be forgotten.”
By 2000 techno’s potential had finally attracted the attention of the mainstream record industry, and was catching on with youth in several American cities. Assessing the Detroit impact on the scene, Arizona Republic’s Proffitt noted that “without the Belleview Three, there would be no Orb songs on car commercials or MTV reports on global club culture, and, most importantly, dancing all night at a sweaty club wouldn’t have nearly the same sound.” May was an organizing force for the first Focus Detroit Electronic Music Festival, a free Memorial Day weekend event held in downtown Detroit in 2000. The festival showcased dozens of electronic and DJ acts from around the world, and lured 1.5 million attendees, including techno music fans from several countries. Craig, May’s former protégé, served as artistic director for the first two years, before internal wrangling forced his resignation. May supported Craig, and worked to rescue the festival from an event-planning firm that wanted to control it, and his camp gained the crucial support of the city’s young mayor. The festival was renamed Movement 2003, and May spun at a well-attended set. In the website interview with Osselaer for TechnoTourist, May summed up techno’s impact on popular culture: “Techno is the last true evolution of dance music of the twentieth century. A lot of people don’t realize that and they probably never will.”
Mayday Mix, Open, 1997.
Innovator, Transmat, 1997.
Arizona Republic, May 27, 1999, p. 35.
Detroit Free Press, May 30, 1997, p. ID; September 16, 1998, p. 1A; May 21, 2003, p. 1A.
Detroit News, May 16, 2001, p. 1A.
Guardian (London, England), June 19, 1998, p. 20.
Sunday Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), July 2, 2000, p. 4.
“Derrick May Interview,” Techno Tourist, http://technotourist.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=Sections&file=index&req=viewarticle&artid=29 (July 10, 2003).
Producer, disc jockey
Of the three men credited with unleashing techno music on the world, Derrick May is considered the music's innovator and its spokesperson. In the mid-1980s May, along with his Belleville, Michigan, high school friends Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, created the electronic dance music sound that would come to be known as techno. The three young men—later to be known as the Holy Trinity of Techno, or the Belleville Three—tinkered with antiquated electronic music gear and developed a dance sound that was as icily cool as it was soulfully warm. Strongly influenced by Chicago's house music scene and by the waning disco club scene of New York, techno was thought of by the trio as an escape from the bleak surroundings of their suburban neighborhood. Its mechanical sound in many ways imitated the sounds of the once-thriving factories of nearby Detroit, sounds that were silenced after thousands of people left the city following the race riots in 1967. May's techno embraced the decay of the industrial city, but it also sang out in an evangelical way, imagining Detroit as a utopia that wasn't ravaged by poverty, violence, and poor race relations.
May was born on June 4, 1963, in Detroit. In the late 1970s he and his family moved to Belleville, a predominantly white suburb midway between the Motor City and Ann Arbor. It was there, at Belleville High School, that May met Atkins and Saunderson. They spent many nights listening to Charles "The Electrifying Mojo" Johnson on WJLB radio, and making the trek back to Detroit to attend parties where house DJs like Ken Collier would spin records until dawn.
Soon they began focusing a great deal of attention on DJing. The three quickly formed a collective under the name Deep Space and began throwing parties of their own. May also ran a side-gig collective known as KAOS, a separate and lesser-known endeavor from Deep Space. Commenting on the marketing plan for his burgeoning DJ career, May told Dan Sicko, author of Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, "We had amazing flyers back then, [which contained] these subliminal messages of an alternative way of thinking. We were trying to attract people that wanted to be alternative and wanted to be different, but our definition of alternative was the kind of music we were making—not so much a lifestyle... [but] just the way you thought about music. Far too often people associate the term 'alternative' with borderline rock."
When May was in his last year of high school his mother moved to Chicago. May frequently visited his mom in her new town and absorbed the house music scene that was booming there in the mid-to-late 1980s. He ended up spending roughly a year there at one point. His favorites of the city's countless DJs were Frankie Knuckles—the man credited with starting the house sound—and Farley Jack Master Funk, also a Chicago legend.
Along with DJing others' music—often on their own late-night radio shows like Detroit radio station WJLB's Street Beat—May began purchasing whatever electronic synthesizers and drum machines he could find and recording the rough-hewn tracks that would come to define the techno genre. In 1986 he and Atkins produced the 12-inch single "Let's Go" under the name X-Ray, for Atkins's new label, Metroplex. "When I made my first record, it was with Juan [Atkins]," May told Sicko. "I didn't like it, but then, I didn't do it. Having someone produce you when you think you know what you're doing, but you really don't, is really demoralizing. But I went along with it and I did the parts—the bassline and what have you—and Juan took the song and created it."
A year later May started Transmat Records, a name he lifted from Atkins's song "Night Drive." The label's first release was May's defining moment. Under the name Rhythim is Rhythim he produced 1987's "Nude Photo," a warm-sounding track that owed as much to Atkins's hard edge as it did to Chicago's soulful house atmosphere. Soon after came "Strings of Life," another well-known techno classic that sampled string sounds from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Saunderson, leaning more toward the pop side of things with his new band Inner City, struck it big with the hits "Good Life" and "Big Fun," singles that first arrived via his KMS label.
By the late 1980s Detroit techno was in full swing, evidenced by the Belleville Three's success and the countless number of other labels and DJs that had cropped up in the city. Parties were held in legitimate clubs like the Music Institute—founded by members of Deep Space—and in underground warehouses, many of which utilized the crumbling buildings abandoned by the city, and their success partially revived the once vacant downtown core. Transmat, Metroplex, and KMS all began releasing work by artists other than the Belleville Three, including many musicians from Europe. With the money that they made, the labels took residence in a building on Gratiot Avenue. To the growing electronic dance community in Detroit, that strip of Gratiot became known as Techno Boulevard.
Even though techno thrived in Detroit, the rest of the country was slow to pick up on its popularity. Most of the labels' revenue came from Europe and abroad, and soon May and his partners were jetting overseas on weekends to ply their trade as DJs and sell their records to dance-hungry stores and distributors. Their frequent trips to Europe left a void in the burgeoning Detroit scene, but in their absence younger DJs like Carl Craig and Windsor, Ontario's Richie Hawtin came on the scene and neatly bridged the gap.
May continued DJing and recording, often under other monikers like Mayday, until 1990, when, reportedly fed up with the vapidity of the worldwide club scene—and probably partially because of his lack of recognition in the United States—he took a leave of absence from music. "I sort of ran away from it for several years, and I ran away right at the peak," he told Ben Rayner in the Toronto Star. "Most people peak out and then they run away, and I think one of the reasons why I've lasted is I left at the peak."
May returned in 1993 and released a string of records including "Icon," "Kaotic Harmony," and a collection of unreleased tracks titled Relics. While he still garnered respect from his peers and fans overseas, his recording schedule was severely cut back during the late 1990s. In 1997 he released the compilation Innovator, which collected most of his previous works on CD.
In 2000 Carl Craig, a second-wave techno artist and close friend of May's, organized the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival and asked May to perform on the last of its three days. Almost out of nowhere, the event ushered in a new respect for the genre that May and his friends had created nearly fifteen years earlier, as more than one million attendees converged on Detroit's Hart Plaza over Memorial Day weekend. May was scheduled to headline the festival the following year, but the event was cut short when a late-night hailstorm rained down on the crowd.
For the Record …
Born on June 4, 1963, in Detroit, MI.
Started DJing in Belleville, MI, and Detroit, 1981; produced "Let's Go" with Juan Atkins as X-Ray, 1986; founded Transmat Records, 1987; produced "Nude Photo," "The Dance," and "Strings of Life" as Rhythim is Rhythim, 1987; produced "Freestyle" as Mayday, 1988; produced "The Beginning," "Salsa Life," and "Drama" as Rhythim is Rhythim, 1990; produced "Kaotic Harmony" and "Icon" as Rhythim is Rhythim, 1993; released Innovator as Derrick May, 1997.
Awards: Michigan Governor's Awards for Arts and Culture, International Achievement Award, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Transmat Records, 1492 Gratiot Ave., Detroit, MI, 48207, phone: (313) 567-0080, fax: (313) 567-0082, website: http://www.transmat.com. Website—Derrick May Official Website: http://www.derrickmay.com.
Subsequent years of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival were marred by controversy between Craig, his business partner Carol Marvin, and the city of Detroit. Wanting to keep the festival alive, May and Transmat took over production duties for the festival's fourth and fifth years, and renamed the event Movement. Shortly after the 2004 installment of the festival, techno was finally given its due when Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm presented May and Saunderson with the International Achievement Award at the Governor's Awards for Arts and Culture ceremony that August.
As Derrick May
Innovator, Transmat, 1997.
"Freestyle," Transmat, 1988.
Mayday Mix, Open, 1997.
As Rhythim is Rhythim
"Nude Photo," Transmat, 1987.
"The Dance," Transmat, 1987.
"Strings of Life," Transmat, 1987.
"The Beginning," Transmat, 1990.
"Salsa Life," Transmat, 1990.
"Drama," Transmat, 1990.
"Kaotic Harmony," Transmat, 1993.
"Icon," Transmat, 1993.
"Let's Go," Metroplex, 1986.
Sicko, Dan, Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, Billboard Books, 1999.
Detroit Free Press, August 30, 2004.
Toronto Star, December 2, 1999.
"Derrick May," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (August 28, 2004).
Additional information was provided by Transmat Records publicity materials, 2003.