Derrick May: High Tech Soul

More than any other music, Detroit techno is defined by its mythology. That mythology is encrypted in the beats, the strings and the very bassline. And it validates the genre’s cult status.

One of techno’s three ‘godfathers’, Derrick May is promoting a documentary, High Tech Soul, which traces techno’s origins back to a neglected Detroit, but otherwise he’s looking forward. Indeed, May is aware of the paradox that Detroit’s “future music” is perceived by some as retro. The DJ values history, hence his support for High Tech Soul director Gary Bredow, yet he’s not excessively sentimental. For May, Detroit techno was always about possibility – and he continues to explore just that. It’s no coincidence that Derrick was among the first DJs to laud MySpace. However, he’s liberated himself from expectation. “I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anybody at any given time,” May states. “I do it because I wanna do it… I don’t have to do anything.”

May began creating music in the ‘80s under the tutelage of his Belleville High school friend Juan Atkins. Their ‘techno’ music caused a sensation in distant Europe, remaining countercultural in the States. May, astute with the media, emerged as the movement’s main champion. Ironically, while his homeboy Kevin Saunderson gave techno its breakthrough hit, Big Fun, a last minute addition to Neil Rushton’s British compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit, May’s romantic Strings Of Life, a homage to Martin Luther King, would forever exemplify the music. Strings Of Life is the record that turned ‘Detroit’ into an adjective.

In two decades what originated as a party music – Detroit’s response to Chicago house – has evolved into an ideology, philosophy and aesthetic comparable to jazz. It is this highly abstracted soundtrack to Detroit’s dystopian environs that May now refers to as ‘high tech soul’.

Techno revolutionised pop culture in the late ‘80s with the music’s auteurs challenging “the R&B system,” as Atkins put it. May was prepared to sign to Trevor Horn’s ZTT with Atkins and their supergroup Intellex but, to Horn’s disbelief, he refused to perform on Top Of The Pops. The deal was squashed – and Horn unable to launch his “black Pet Shop Boys”. The Detroit rebels relinquished a commercial opportunity but secured the integrity of their music, even as rave’s pretenders – cue Moby – (mis)appropriated it. But May’s allegiance to the underground has meant greater sacrifice.

In 2004 he assumed control of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, renamed Movement, but, with no tangible backing from the city, it proved a financial burden. Derrick invested personal funds into Movement, accepting he’d never recoup. “I got severely wounded financially,” he affirms.

That year his longstanding Transmat Records disseminated a series of credible LPs, including the debut from Australia’s Microworld, but the label, bearing the brunt of Movement’s losses, has since laid dormant. May was pressured to let go of his artists, which still pains him. “If I was gonna keep the label, if it was gonna survive, I had to do this. I had no choice.”

Fortunately, today he’s in a position to revive Transmat. May is overseeing 20, an anthology as momentous as his Innovator, to celebrate its 20th anniversary. “It’s very important for the 20 album to be an exceptional piece of art and an exceptional piece of music ‘cause it has to live forever.” And Derrick is working on forming an alliance with his onetime protege Carl Craig and Planet E. He believes that, to endure, the Detroit community must unite.

In 2006 May’s influence pervades a usually ephemeral scene. The Roots’ ?uestlove – a walking, talking, groovin’ musical encyclopaedia – calls him “The Legend”. May met the hip hop drummer at a festival and was astonished to be recognised – and the respect is mutual. “I’m a real fan of true pioneers.”

And, in 2006, May is quietly making music.

Since the early ‘90s, excepting his output with Steve Hillage’s System 7, Derrick has been distracted by DJing, A&Ring, and a not insignificant stand-off with Belgium’s R&S – though he’s again on friendly terms with Renaat Vandepapeliere.

May has been DJing with New York disco renegade Francois K, himself fascinated with high tech soul, as The Cosmic Twins and Francois recently aired their track Solare Flare on his Frequencies mix-CD. May, a perfectionist, isn’t wholly enamoured with the record. “It was just a rough demo of what I put down, it wasn’t finished in any kind of way,” he insists. Nevertheless, the deep Solare Flare has been licensed for Rockstar’s Table Tennis game, and Derrick adores Francois. “His age is nothing but a number,” he enthuses. “His spirit and dedication to his work and the way he travels and how he overall attacks the work and goes out and just does it and does a good job at it every time – it just goes to show you that you can do this for quite a long time and you can do it at a very high level if you’re serious about it.”

The same might be said of May, who’s lost none of his youthful radicalism. “The difference is that you do reach a point where you get mentally tired – and that’s when you have to challenge yourself, that’s when you have to truly challenge yourself, that’s when you find yourself in a position where you could become redundant.

“You could just be there because you’ve earned it and, if you’re just there because you earned it, then that is a very sad state. You’re not doing anybody any favours for being there, ‘cause you’re simply just holding onto something because you can, not because you truly love it, not because you truly have something to say or you truly feel like there’s a reason to continue. All you become is a blockade for anybody who should be moving up into your place.”

In future May aspires to move into uncharted territory altogether. He extols Jeff Mills’ “brave” collaboration with the Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra. “I’m happy to see he did it because it’s fired me up – it fired me up when I saw it done.”

Derrick is conceiving an opera project. “The theme of the opera would be techno music – which opera it would be I don’t know yet.”

Music for May is instinctive, not prescriptive. “I don’t have to make an album because people want me to. I left [R&S] because I didn’t wanna be a part of that. I didn’t wanna be told what to do and how to do it and when to do it. I didn’t wanna be anybody’s slave, nobody’s prisoner – and you know what? The funny thing about that aspect and that attitude is that all of a sudden that’s a reflection of the times – completely. Now everybody wants to be independent. Now everybody wants to run away from everything that they thought was the right thing to do. So I think I did exactly the right thing with my career.”

Derrick May plays tomorrow night (Thursday 4th October) in Melbourne.