Original Mix: Derrick May
INTERVIEW BY Hailey Dukes — PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIC PUSCHAK
In a tree-house studio overlooking Detroit’s market district, the founder of techno music poured some French wine and told us about how he and his schoolmates founded one of the most revolutionary schools of electronica. Techno melded funk, electro, and electric jazz with the machine aesthetics of acts like Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, and Yellow Magic Orchestra, culminating in an assembly-line sound that feels like how Detroit looks.
Grand Circus Magazine: Techno is often tied with imagery of science fiction and the future, so how has technology’s stranglehold of music making and marketing personally been a catalyst for you?
Derrick May: It was going to happen one way or another… It was inevitable that technology and television and movies and the whole multimedia concept was eventually going to gel and come together. I’ve gained positive experiences from it and gotten chances to do things like work with Rockstar Games which was an amazing experience.
What do you think about the changes that have occurred to techno over time, to where the genre has moved from a niche subculture in Detroit to producing some of the highest paid d.j.s in the world? Have you had to change to be more competitive with the increasing popularity of electronica?
I have definitely not changed. If anything, with all of the advancements and progressions and times changing, I feel more motivated to stay true to my form and to myself than ever before because so many people seem to be compromising so quickly. The word is acquiescing they’re very acquiescent. That’s exactly what we’ve reached.
So, say you’re on a lineup and you’re around a bunch of d.j.s that you know have this acquiescent shell of musical integrity. Do you have respect for them, or do you not compare what you’ve done to that?
You know what? I’ve come to the point where myself, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Carl Craig, Stacey Pullen, Mike Banks, Underground Resistance, 430 West, Jeff Mills, Omar-S, Cade Dixon, Anthony “Shake” Shakir, and a few more…
I think we’re like overlords, you know. We’re like Jedi Knights and we can’t compare ourselves to that thing. What’s happening on that level is meant to happen. Say there’s a tectonic plate in the ocean between the layers of the Earth; imagine there’s an earthquake and the earth shifts. There’s this shift that has to happen so that the Earth can continue to evolve. There’s before and after the fault line. We’re here to keep the balance after the fault shifts. We’re here to keep the integrity. There’s always going to be a Tiesto, there’s always going to be that shift.
Yeah, I saw a Vice special where Afrojack said he made songs in a few minutes and he recycled his old songs a lot. How do you measure that up to the way you produce records?
I don’t have less respect for it - I just don’t regard it. It’s just like, okay, if I wanna eat McDonald's – yeah, okay, fine. But I prefer to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant. If you like McDonald's, and you enjoy McDonald's, then you keep eating McDonald's. If you wanna have something proper to eat... a good vegetarian restaurant, a nice Arabic place to eat something really good, go to a nice Balkan restaurant, fresh fish, okay.
If you want McDonald's, you can go fucking eat McDonald's!
When The Belleville Three first squaded up and decided to commit to the music and the dream, what did you have to sacrifice or leave behind? What went to the back burner?
How old are you? 24? 26? You’re a baby girl.
I’m a grown ass woman.
No ya not, but you’re getting there. How many times you had your heart broke?
Maybe one-and-a-half times?
Okay, so you not grown yet. You ever ran home crying to your mom in tears? Until you have that moment, yo’ ass ain’t grown!
Guess I need to be humbled first… [laughs] Broken down before I reach final form. I’m guessing you guys had to be broken down to level up, too?
We had to be broken down hard. We had a number of moments where we had to be reality slapped and brought down to the face of Earth. I went to junior high and high school with Kevin and Juan. I’ve known them since we were barely thirteen years old. I think I just turned 13 when I met Kevin and Juan… I was my daughter’s age.
I was friends with Juan’s brother. Juan didn’t care for me, he thought I was a real square [makes the L7 square with his hands]. So we became friends because I was over his house one day, and - Juan played chess but he was playing by himself. He had a three-dimensional chess board like the Spock one in Star Trek, and he played by himself. And Juan’s the same age as me, so I said to him, “I play chess, too.” And that’s how we became friends - by playing chess. In Belleville, we had no one to play with so that was our thing.
Wait, I forgot the question… [laughs].
What did you guys have to sacrifice to get this thing going?
We were little kids, but what we had to sacrifice was our dignity. We were ridiculed and humiliated constantly. Nobody believed in us or thought what we were doing would catch. Can you imagine hearing electronic music in the early 1980s and we were calling ourselves young d.j.s trying to play parties in Detroit? People were basically, like, laughing at us!
That reminds me of the Afropunk movement and what black punk pioneers and the '90s kids who listened to Death and Suicidal Tendencies, with crazy hair and tats would’ve experienced, as well. There are a lot of things that people used to be clowned for, but they’ve found a place and are actually mainstream now.
I was considered like a “white boy.”
When I lived in Detroit, I went to a school on the Northwest side by the neighborhoods of Sherwood Forest and Palmer Park. I didn’t live in Palmer Park but I lived right across the road with my mother.
I come from a single parent home. My father bailed while I was born and my mother raised me alone. My grandfather was my father and he took care of me, but I always spoke the way I do at the time and when we were in the city, it was no big deal - we were just kids in the city. When I moved to Belleville at 13, among these simple-minded-ass kids, they thought, ‘Man, you talk funny! Why you talk like that? You talk like a white boy.’ So, you know, that was a culture shock for me going backwards.
That was my black identity being thrown in my face.
Interesting. I bet some people would bet it’d be more segregated in Detroit at that time.
No it was way harsher in Belleville. It’s like a small village. These Detroit suburbs are like villages, man. Some of these are people live in a bubble… big time. For me, it was not good. My mother worked for Ford. She was a secretary, and she wasn’t uneducated or stooping for anyone, chasing after anybody or anything. She had her own money and did well. She’s a bright lady to this day.
When you grow up you see your parents differently than you do as a child. At some point between the age of 25 and 35, you start looking at your parents like they’re your friends, and you find yourself having an adult conversation with your parents.
Growing up in a place like Belleville, when I think back on it and all the turmoil I went through, she never once told me to be aggressive or negative to people. Especially to white people. She could have, but she didn’t. I always thought Belleville was a racist place, and for me it was. I don’t even like calling ourselves The Belleville Three. I never agreed on it. Okay, well, I agreed on it with Kevin [laughs]. Kevin fought me on this for two years!
What?! I’m mind-blown. I always thought you guys decided on that name together! Why did Kevin like it so much?
He liked it because all of the world and the journalists coined the phrase. We didn’t come up with it – it rose out of the media. We did not come up with this fucking term! Pull-out quote in Grand Circus: “We did not come up with the term, The Belleville Three!” It was coined by the media, we ran with it, I am not a fan of the name at all… I hate being called The Belleville Three. We could be called… [pauses] The Black Three before we’re called The Belleville Three. Call us The Black Three!
And next up is… The Black Three! That shit sounds kinda good! It’s kinda hard!
Maybe you guys should switch it up before you head out for your world tour this year.
It’s locked in stone, girl. But, yeah, we sacrificed our dignity because we ran around, we fought hard, we hit the circuit hard. We were young and we didn’t really understand the process of the music business so we were talking to anybody and everybody we could to get the music exposed.
So you were looking kinda thirsty?
We were 18. We were figuring it out. We were cocky and arrogant but not realizing we were, like, these silly little boys. This is back at the point where Motown was very prevalent and the people that were part of Motown were king! Our dignity was put to the test trying to get the music out at that time.
So, let’s talk about your take on these sub-genres and factions of techno that keep multiplying to the point where you can’t even keep up. How do you engage with new artists? Do you listen to their music?
I’m working with a young guy right now named Drummer B. Drummer B is my next big sensation on Transmat. I’m very excited to work with him. He’s put a couple records out but this one’s going to be a record on Transmat, so we’re gonna give him the stamp of approval.
Is that switching his style up? I’ve heard of him working with the Bruiser Brigade and more in the Hip-hop lane. How’s that gonna work?
You talked about this earlier in the interview when you asked about time and changes and compromise. Do I compromise to keep up with the industry? No. Do I go out of my way to influence my artists to be different? No. I want the Drummer B that is the Drummer B. I’m not looking for him to flip his script to float on my boat. The bottom line of Transmat is be whoever you are.
All I’m looking for is artists that can stand the test of time. It’s all about the music and the artist. The artist has to have the point of integrity where they’re serious enough and they mean it. It’s not easy, but guess what? If it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s supposed to be hard and you’re supposed to struggle. You’re supposed to have lots of disappointment along the way. That goes back to your other question about sacrifice. Part of it was the struggle and that’s why we got here. Had we not struggled, we wouldn’t have gotten here.
When did that happen?
That happened several times. We had to watch others walk in front of us. We had to watch lots of other people get great opportunities. We had great opportunities, too, let’s not get into the blame game. But when it came down to marketing and viability we were the guys who invented and created it. We were on the front pages of the magazines but then we were the guys people wanted to work with in the studio. People wanted us to make us make other motherfuckers famous. They didn’t want to make us famous but that was probably our fault because we didn’t understand the industry then. We were young.
Damn. So who was the first person to help school you guys to the industry and help you figure it out?
Nobody. We were never a part of an official marketing management staple. We worked with a guy named Neil Rushton from England but he didn’t know shit either, so we were learning together. We were equally invested in our careers and learning how to build them together. We didn’t know shit... but we learned! I think that’s why were still here and everything today.
Kevin Saunderson sold 7 million records, okay? Don’t forget that "Big Fun," "Good Life," all the Inner City stuff. The records on my wall are just my contribution. Kevin sold 7 million! 7 million fucking records. So there was pop stardom that we experienced, but we never left Detroit.
We went to England (that was Kevin’s moment) and we did the whole thing there. Juan was this eccentric, cool Godfather artist and I was trying to be more eccentric and more left-wing and it really worked. We were trendsetters and we were talked about. We were mysterious. We were intellectuals, and it was always very important for us to be known as intellectuals. We weren’t always quoted as intellectuals. The journalists didn’t always utilize that side of us.
So how would you say you were characterized?
There was always this question that came up constantly – how did you make this music? Like, hey, dumbass black guys, you’re supposed to be dumbass black guys. How the fuck did you do this? They came here, they saw the city. They saw what used to be decadence and they also saw a city demolished by neglect. Which was completely the case: Detroit was 100% demolished by neglect, and the reporters saw it and they just couldn’t put the two together. They always brought up the clubs and the nightclubs. We didn’t have the club scene like that here in Detroit.
What do you mean?
It’s the way the city is. It will happen one day but it won’t be the club scene you imagine. There will be a different community in that club scene when it arises. But there was this formula that goes into making this music of having these influences, these supplements to create this thing - this dance music -and we never had those supplements.
We went to Chicago for those supplements. I went to see Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy and we would drive up to go get the supplements we needed to fuel the sound and bring it back home.
We played our music at our own club, the Music Institute. But we didn’t have the typical supplements to create this music. We didn’t have those things to point to and say, “We want to make that kind of track.” We were totally anti the world. So all the music we made was based on being anti the world and that’s all we knew...
We were renegades, in a sense!
So how did you decide to put these sounds together where there was no example?
It started with Juan Atkins. See, at the age of thirteen, Juan was already into music - trying to make music, trying to create it. He would sit at the kitchen table with his bass guitar and he was writing lyrics and notes. I mean, he could write measures. That was the beginning and then Juan made his first record when he was 18, Alleys of Your Mind. But somewhere between 13 and 18, his grandmother and father bought him a Minimoog keyboard. Now they’re worth like $30,000. That’s the real deal right there. That’s 1980 for you, and that’s the real deal.
So speaking of all this technology, I always see these spiritual and existential concepts of time and space swirling around the techno community. It seems much deeper for people, like a sort of religion and all-encompassing lifestyle. It’s more than the music, it’s like the sublime for people. What’s that connection to outer space and the cosmos? How do these things tie into the music and an actual feeling of techno spirituality? Do you feel spiritual about the music?
I think there was a time where the origins of Ultravox, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and - you know, Brian Eno and those guys - I think they set the standard for how this music was to be performed or produced and then along we came. We never really made the connection with space, we made the connection with technology.
We never denied the fact that space was important, but for us it was more of a technology connection. That’s why the music was called techno. Even though I disagreed with this name (Juan came up with it) but it suits. It’s important, it’s perfect. I don’t make so much the deep space connection even though we had a sound company called Deep Space. I don’t make the connection so much that this music speaks to a society of another galaxy.
I make the connection more that we speak to the technology of the future. That’s my connection. My connection is that we are setting a precedent for future technologies.
Well, maybe right now we are not, because music has become stagnant. Look, I didn’t use a computer when I made my music. I used that sequencer [points to a sequencer], that right there is the sequencer I made all my songs with. Right there. We set it up so you guys can see it – that is not a computer, that’s a sequencer! And now guys are using all of this equipment and have all access to all these things and they use it in a way, but guess what? They wanna sound like me, Juan, and Kevin!
There are a lot of great artists making nice music but I don’t necessarily see that they’ve taken it to their full potential. I see a lot of guys who can go further and they need to so that they can surpass people like myself, Juan, and Kevin. There’s no way in the world that my name, Kevin’s name, and Juan’s name should be in the same conversation as any current artist. People don’t wanna stand the test of time and get into music for the long haul. The problem is not the music – the problem is that the avenue to being like us has been cut off. It’s a problem.
Do you think its part of our impatient, technology-laden, immediate-gratification society, people just need a quick hit on the net so now they don’t care so much about investing in a full album of great songs?
I think they’re smoked-out, cained-out internet kids. The internet is cocaine and they have all taken too much. The technology that people have today isn’t being utilized properly because most of these guys aren’t really in it to be creative, they’re in it to be popular and that’s an issue. But you’ve got guys like Drummer B, Mr. G, and this guy Connan Mockasin, who are super inspired to do amazing things.
There’s a lot of guys like Drummer B and Connan but they’re stuck in the vortex of this bullshit time in music. Quality has gone down at this point, and with some of it it could be somebody farting on the radio and the next day it’s a hit. Most of these guys aren’t in it all the way. They’re thinking good looks, charm, and charisma will give them opportunity. Unfortunately, it has.
So how has travel changed your career and perspective?
Coming back to the city from Belleville was a shock because we had big dreams and we were told you have to wait 10 or 15 years for this to happen. We were taking our music to people and they were like, “Fuck off!” It wasn’t as easy as you’d think.
Club people knew it but it hadn’t taken off yet. It was about to pop. People were kind of like, not interested in meeting us at the beginning, they heard Strings of Life and like didn’t pay attention, didn’t really care about the meanings.
We were angry, we were young. We wanted to make music that went beyond way, way out to the deep space of music. We wanted to be as far away from the mainstream as we could and we hated what we heard on the radio at the time.
I’ve seen this happen time and time again. People who have no fame in Detroit but are worshiped overseas. It happens in the rap game too with groups like Clear Soul Forces. So why do you think certain acts get no love in Detroit but blow up in Europe? What’s up with that phenomenon?
Who the fuck knows? It’s the old saying, “You get more appreciation elsewhere but not in your hometown.” We had it in the beginning then it just faded. People grew up and it just faded away for them and they were like, ‘That’s the music of my youth.’ They grew out of it and started listening to like, Babyface.
How would you describe a typical night at the Music Institute?
1513 Broadway was where it was. Now it’s called something else.
Early in the day, George would run around with Kim, my girlfriend at the time, to get beverages. There was no alcohol, it was a juice bar with no liquor. Open all night, but no liquor. They’d go get juice and all the things from Eastern Market around 6 and set it up.
There was Alton, who was there kind of like sleeping in the club because he was a partner but he also lived in the club. He would just sort of get started with his day by putting on a couple records and it was a really relaxed start in the early evening.
Anthony Pearson would shape the night from there. He would come chill with everybody and we would get started cleaning and sweeping. The Music Institute opened at midnight. I would leave the spot around 7 or 8 and have to come back to the building because I was working on my mix.
I had a mix show on the radio that came on WJLB on Friday nights called the Mayday Mix. I’d be putting the finishing touches on my mix before the Institute started and it was always a panic because I always got there right before I was supposed to go on. I would go on WJLB and it kind of like ignited the night. My show on JLB injected the energy into the whole night. People heard me do a mix on the radio then they would come out to the club right after.
Back at the Institute, Scott Kinchen and Chuck Roper were the openers. They would warm it up before I got to the club and then D win would come on after that and when D came on he would shake and bake the house. He’d play until about 3 a.m. and I would come on from 3 until the end. Could be 6, could be 7 in the morning. Normally about 7.
Back then, it was okay to close whenever we want. It turned out to be a beautiful experience. We were young and full of energy and we didn’t understand the consequences of anything. We were just letting it all hang out.
Why was it a juice bar?
We didn’t have money for a liquor license and we couldn’t stay open past 2 a.m. if that was our thing. The Institute was all about the music, but in New York, the Paradise Garage was a juice bar, the Music Box in Chicago was a juice bar, and the Power Plant were all juice bars. There was no liquor. Liquor was really something that was popular with a certain demographic of people. The place was only open for a year and a half, but it was legendary. The Music Institute was where you got your fucking freak on if you wanted to dance. Plain and simple.
People these days seem to really be turning up before shows, like hardcore.
There was no heroin, there was no crack, no coke. They smoked a little bit of weed.
So when people quote you and paint you as these underground nightlife kings, would you say it may have had a different meaning at the time? At face value, it seems that you’re these crazy nightlife party kings, and I think maybe today that would have a different look than what it sounds like you guys were actually doing.
Yeah. It was beautiful people. There was no ecstasy, there was no acid, there was nothing – that came along later in Europe, but it wasn’t in Detroit. In Detroit, and with our generation we grew up with, you were afraid of drugs because we saw people dying over that shit, so we never thought that it was cool, or funny, or fashionable to do ecstasy or hard drugs or anything. You know, we just didn’t see it. That’s why I get blown away when I see people wasted. I’ve never in my life tried one drug. I’ve never even smoked a joint, nothing. Nothing, zero. Not because I’m against it, because I don’t want to!
So what do you think when you look out and see people so fucked up at techno shows?
It’s a sign of the times, and it’s a sign of the end of the times of this music scene unless it finds a way to change. What you see is the end of days in the dance music scene and it has to change.
Its 30 years people have been down with this music. Motown did not last 30 years at the height of its moment. People that were not even born are still dancing to me and they’re 20 years old, but yet people are not 30 years later dancing to Smokey Robinson. The paradox here is really weird. How is it possible that we’re still tearing it up but Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight and the pips were not?
See, its 50 years later for them, but 30 for us. But when it was 30 years for Motown, I wasn’t goin’ to no Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight concerts. I wasn’t interested in no Motown when I was comin' up. Either way the music has to change. This bullshit has to come to an end so that the talent can rise to the top.
So what’s up with that? How do you think you guys have been able to last so long?
Earlier you asked if we were interested in space, I said no. We were more interested in the future. What we were doing was not meant to be understood at the time and I think that’s why we are still here today. We weren’t understood at the time. Do you understand how hard it was? We got laughed at and no one can imagine how hard it was for us. The music has to get that futuristic thinking again for the talent to rise.
The cream always rises to the top.
So maybe techno is the proverbial phoenix that has to die to come back to life.
What it’s doing is creating offspring that are going to be anti-techno. They’re gonna go left where techno goes right. They’ll hear us and say I’m not into this. A new attitude will arise. Once again, a tectonic plate will shift and it will be us again. It’s a sad day for me because it means that the title of innovator will never leave, but it will mean something else.
We need a new group of people with a fuck you attitude. It might be my daughter’s generation. You may not dig it but it’s got to happen. That’s what we did here. Juan, Kevin and myself, we unknowingly spawned a sub-culture in Detroit, and then we left and it grew in its own way. It spawned Adriel Thornton, Richie Hawtin, Kai Alce, so it did what it was supposed to do. It spoke to a generation, and it almost makes me emotional because we were all young at the same time and we didn’t realize it was so powerful.
We did it together. I could not have done this alone, Kevin and Juan couldn’t have done it alone. It took all of us together to create this combustion of energy and we exploded with this orgasm of creativity at the same moment and we shook the fucking world.
That’s the cosmos - that’s the creative cosmos that people are trying to connect with the music. If you think about it, Richie Hawtin, Carl Craig, and a bunch of other people Mike Banks, all these people in the Music Institute all at the age of early twenties, all of us together, all of us there together, and then it was just like… Boom! Stars everywhere.
Stay tuned for the full interview in Grand Circus Magazine VI.
Under his pseudonym Rhythim Is Rhythim, May released "Strings of Life" in 1987.
Movement Electronic Music Festival is an annual electronic dance music event held in Detroit every Memorial Day weekend. May was the producer of the 2003-2004 Movement Festival.