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Techno Pioneer Derrick May Is Ready For Detroit To Get Its On-Screen Dues

Ahead of his headline set at Warm Up, the techno pioneer talks creative fearlessness and industry failures.

September 03, 2015

As one of the creators of Detroit techno, Derrick May has seen a lot over the past 30 years. He's watched the music he dreamed up alongside his hometown friends Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson travel around the world, mutating into new, abstract forms in cities like Berlin, London, and New York. He's witnessed the music industry similarly mutate, buckling under the pressure of the digital age. And he's noted the mainstream's adoption of electronic music, with little dues or respect paid to Detroit or Chicago's crucial roles in its birth. While others might brood themselves into a corner, May's kept his focus sharply on honing his craft, most recently reinterpreting his body of work for a series of collaborations with the world's finest orchestras. Ahead of his headline set at MoMA PS1's final Warm Up of the summer this Saturday, The FADER caught up with May for a passionate chat over the phone from Detroit.


You’ve recently been working with orchestras around the world, reinterpreting your body of work. What has that experience been like?

Detroit was the fourth one that we’ve done, with my conductor and the other musicians—a piano player and celesta player—who accompany me on the concept. There’s four of us and what we do is we perform with the philharmonic orchestra from whatever country we are going to. I also pull a percussionist from that community who can read music and I get him on stage with us to make it more local. I have to say it’s a constant learning lesson. It’s quite humbling, to be in the presence of professionally trained musicians who take their work very seriously. We have Nice [France] coming up, and Australia. Australia is going to be very interesting because I'll be performing with Jeff Mills—we are going to collaborate together. I've know Jeff since I was 17 years old but we weren't friends then; we were competitors. We always had respect [for one another] but we didn't become friends until we became men.

What’s the biggest thing you've learned about yourself as an artist over the years?

I know this sounds so contrived, but to look fear in the face and walk towards it straight on. To look in the mirror and admit you know that you've done what you’re supposed to do or you haven’t. Doing these live shows with the live orchestra has really pushed me to a level where I have to look at myself and my musical ability, to look at my body of work, to look at who I am as a person and be comfortable with it—or not be comfortable with it.


It’s really taught me that I want to go further and it’s helped me reach a point where I had to get over a fear. My fear was perfection. To realize that you don't have to be perfect and you don't have to worry about being perfect and you don't have to judge yourself to the point of perfection because if you do you'll never do anything else in your life.

Today, techno is made all over the world and has taken on many different shapes and forms. What was the original essence of Detroit techno?

I was angry, I was young. Juan Atkins was angry, and he was young. Kevin Saunderson was young, he was angry. We got rejected by everybody, people laughed at us.

“Doing these live shows with the live orchestra has really pushed me to a level where I have to look at myself and my musical ability.”—Derrick May

What were you angry about?

We were angry at the fact that the radio played horrible music. We were angry at the fact that the people we thought didn't deserve to be given the credibility that they were receiving sucked. Just that young, fearless, angry point in life that everybody goes through. If you do something about it’s one thing, but just to be angry is another. To have the opportunity to change something, and to know how to go about changing something is very rare—as often as you see a shooting star. So we just focused on making music, doing our DJ sets, and playing music in our city that the crowd had never heard before because the local DJs were playing the same shit. We went deep into the music and went deep into the record stores and found stuff that nobody played. I mean, myself and Juan used to play Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express at parties. People would walk off the dance floor immediately but we didn't care; that was the kind of mentality that we had. We just didn't give a damn. We would play the Japanese group The Plastics and Ultravox’s “Mr. X”—you know, shit that nobody played. We nurtured our fearless mentality by doing that over and over again. It also applied to the next level, which was making music.

Do you think the future that Detroit techno was dreaming up is here now or is there still a long way to go?

No, I don't think so. It has nothing do with the musicians or their determination, it has all to do with the fact the industry worked so hard to create a commercial byproduct of what this music is that a couple of generations have grown up with no idea—and not just of Detroit. People think house music comes from London, you know what I mean? You can't blame the typical party goer or music consumer today for not knowing—they have been saturated with so much of what is not the real deal. It’s just a honest curve of ignorance and most will never turn to see what’s on the other side of the curve because they are fulfilled with all this other stuff that seems to be satisfying.


I used to get really upset and angry, and I would speak to journalists and be so passionate about making my point about the efforts of Detroit and the musicians and the attitudes and perspectives of the city. They never wrote about it. It was as if what I was saying was a little bit too strong or too black. In other words, I was only speaking from my angry young black man perspective, I wasn't coming from the perspective of a musician, so they left it out—or maybe their editor left it out. Most people don't really know that we've been fighting for many years for our city and for the music. We put our fight in kind of a silent mood—if nobody wants to listen to what we have to say, we'll just show it in the music itself. I think we have lasted as long as we have because the music has stood longer than the words.

“Maybe if we had received all the notoriety and credibility that we deserved years ago we wouldn’t be here today.”—Derrick May

30 years on, what pushes you to keep pushing techno forward?

If we had accomplished everything we set out to accomplish in the very beginning, we never would have been able to move forward, we would have never gone beyond the moment of fame. We would’ve possibly made lots of money but we would’ve been a supernova; we would have come and gone. Maybe if we had received all the notoriety and credibility that we deserved years ago we wouldn't be here today; we would just be a part of a conversation about the ‘80s or ‘90s, you know.

One day, hopefully before we’re too old, there will be a film made about us, or we will have the opportunity to write a book—none of us have done it yet. It needs to be documented, it needs to be certified, it needs to be legitimized. There are many people who have multiple versions of the story and as we get older the stories change more and more. I read shit from people who weren't even fucking there.

That needs to happen.

You know what makes me really happy? That Dr. Dre got his movie made. Basically he paid for that movie, and I'm pretty sure they were on the set when they were filming it. I don't think there was much of a script in that movie to be honest with you. I think those guys were there on the set and they were stopping the production, saying, “Nah, that not what I said, I said it this way,” and "No, he didn't act like this, he acted like this, get that shit right.” I guarantee that’s why that movie’s great. If there’s ever the opportunity to make this kind of movie [about Detroit techno], I hope that we are all alive and well to do it.

“You know what makes me really happy? That Dr. Dre got his movie made. One day, hopefully before we’re too old, there will be a film made about Detroit techno.”—Derrick May

I notice that you and your label Transmat have Soundcloud accounts but they've been not updated for a little while. How do you feel about streaming?

Those are not legitimate accounts. I never started them. It's good you mentioned them, but I don't know anything about them. I have no connection to those accounts.

What are your thoughts on the music industry becoming more streaming-oriented?

I'm very interested in it and I think that everybody should be. It’s a matter of fact that many artists—nostalgic rock bands—are touring again. Everyone’s touring, and I know you know why, of course. They are touring because they have no choice. In other words, they may have noticed that the publishing checks have gone from being $250,000 a year, where they could relax and enjoy their lives, to $4,000 a year. The consumer has no idea what’s going on; they are just enjoying Pandora, they’re enjoying Spotify, and they’re enjoying Soundcloud and everything else, but what they don't realize is that these sites are making making millions on the backs of musicians.

Somewhere along the line, when George Bush was president, there was this mandate or something in Congress; it took a while for it to come into play but when it finally did, all these streaming companies came about and they have been able to find a way around the legalized way of paying musicians, because it’s not radio. The law for streaming seems to have a tremendous loophole in that allows these companies to exist without paying the artist. They know they are not paying the artist and they know they are stealing money and it’s a big joke.


How can we change this?

It’s like the NRA: too many people now are making money way up the food chain that don't want change. It’s not in the best interest to those people to change it.

“Most electronic musicians are using the Easy-Bake method. They aren’t really going deep and searching for their own personalities on this technology.”—Derrick May

There’s a whole new generation of kids who can get their hands on technology very easily and who are making music. But there still seems to be a lot of confusion about the difference between being a producer or an artist.

A guy with a guitar, a bass, a drum kit, he will always be a musician first and an artist second. He has the ability to be both, of course, but that doesn't mean he always will, but he certainly has the prestige of being a legitimate musician. An electronic artist is not a musician first and foremost, he must come to terms with that. But what he can truly can be is an artist—if he or she is willing to go beyond the parameters of what is the Easy-Bake mentality.

When I was a kid there was an oven that kids would buy and it was called an Easy-Bake Oven. You take the cake mix, put the water in, stir it in this little pan that came with it, put it in this little oven, and boom—out comes a little pie. This is the recipe for most electronic musicians: they are using the Easy-Bake method. They aren't really going deep and searching for their own personalities on this technology, they are just using what’s in front of them.

If you could speak to a bunch of kids whose only exposure to electronic music was top 40 EDM, what you like to say to them?

Create a body of work, legitimize your efforts and your energy and your creativity by creating a body of work that you can stand behind, that holds you up and that will stand the test of time. And if you can't create a body of work, then you need to find a way to do it, otherwise what you're doing is wasting time. You’re just having fun, which is fine, but if you are not serious then stand out the way—especially if your name is in lights—and let someone who deserves it, receive it. Let them have the opportunity to create that body of work because it’s not just helping them, it’s helping the efforts of the entire electronic community.

“I don’t practice, I don’t rehearse, I don’t conceptualize it. I just go into a gig, look people in the face, feel the energy and go from there.”—Derrick May

On the flip side, who do you think is carrying the torch for techno today?

I could be very biased and only name Detroit artists, of course, and I've done that before. Carl Craig is one of my original students. Stacey Pullen, as well. These are my original protégés, my brothers. These guys didn't just set a precedent with the music, they set a precedent with their personalities, with their attitudes, with the way they hold themselves. I’d have to say Luciano, too. He’s struggled the last couple of years because he's been caught between being a superstar DJ and wanting to continue to make underground dance music. His heart is still in the right place, and given the right amount of time and the right environment I think he will surprise a lot of people. There are so many artist around the world that are busy making great music and giving great performances, like Octave One. If you go online and look at Octave One and their setups at gigs, they bring all that with them. None of that is backline, hired equipment, they bring that all on a plane every single gig. That kind of dedication needs to be commended, needs to be respected, needs to be honored.

Finally, what can what can people expect from your headline set at Warm Up this Saturday?

I really love the challenge and the opportunity to look people in the eye and take them on a journey musically—I just never know what I'm going to do. I carry with me a bag of 100 vinyls and I have my CDs with me, old and new and I just do what I feel. I do not ever think about it: I don't practice, I don't rehearse, I don't conceptualize it. I just go into a gig, I look people in the face, feel the energy and go from there.


Warm Up line-up: September 5

Derrick May / Transmat / Detroit, MI
Vince Staples / Blacksmith + ARTium + DefJam / Long Beach, CA
Clark / Warp / London, UK
Dan Bodan / DFA Records / Berlin, Germany feat. Draveng / Allergy Season / Berlin, Germany
Sporting Life / R&S Records + Letter Racer / New York, NY

Techno Pioneer Derrick May Is Ready For Detroit To Get Its On-Screen Dues