The irony of it all is that Derrick May, one of techno's pioneers, is a black American who set out, in the early/mid-1980s, to make music for his people. It was essentially electro-funk then, an extension of the robotic R&B of George Clinton (via Kraftwerk), a plugged-in eulogy for disco's demise. But May couldn't get his people, black Americans, to listen. All these years later, even as electronic music has entered the mainstream, he still can't get them to listen.
"Black people are very particular about their music," May says. "Once black people turn their backs on something, they don't usually come back. They know what they like. They're not going for this punk rock, dance music machine bullshit that's trying to be sold to them. This music has lost grasp of its soul roots."
The double irony of all this is that May is huge among clubgoers. White clubgoers. In Europe. "When we first started making this music," May explains, referring to contemporaries like Juan Atkins, "the corporate color barrier was nonexistent. People saw the music for what it was: future music, part of the third wave, not part of this R&B platform. It was underground music. No one cared who made it or what color they were. They just knew there was something special going on, a revolution. Before it was called techno, people were calling us agents of change."
This supreme agent of change, in addition to his duties as a master DJ, has served as producer, musician, writer, and remixer on records ranging from his own work to tracks from such artists as ABC, Depeche Mode, and Fine Young Cannibals. His contribution to the field of electronic music over the years has been largely unsung in his homeland, while in Europe his annual Mayday celebration draws up to 20,000 people. May says that it can be frustrating. Even as the media-fueled electronica craze sparked multiple DJ signings to major record labels over the past couple of years, May was virtually ignored.
"I think major labels had exhausted all of their resources," he theorizes. "The word 'electronica' is a manifestation of rock and roll's destruction. Straight-up rock had lost its mass appeal, and labels saw electronic music as this fresh new thing that could fill the void. It had taken over the entire world, but it took the destruction of their rock and roll for them to realize that America was falling behind while the rest of the world danced.
"But I don't think they ever knew who their audience was. They are trying to create an audience by filtering out more artists than they are letting in. They're trying to create this blue-eyed image of this music, the same way they did to the blues and rock and roll. It's sad to see such a powerful country like America, which has such a huge world cultural impact, miss what is happening in their own backyard. It's quite embarrassing."
Hailing from Detroit, which he still calls home (and where the label he operates, Transmat, is based), May saw a logical progression between the Motor City's junk culture--piled high atop the rotting machines from the city's auto factories--and the music that reflected it. "The concept of demolish-by-neglect has created this melancholy feel in Detroit," he explains. "Most of the artists that have come from Detroit, be it painters, musicians, or any form of art, have this melancholy, subconscious way of looking at things."
Which is a pretty apt description of May's work. Taking his role as DJ into a more hands-on realm, where he, in fact, becomes more important, relevant, and crucial to the music than the records he is spinning, May slides his influences--Parliament/Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane--into his work without ever letting on that they are indeed influences. It's subtle trickery, a craft that May has been playing with from the start.
"There was no scene when I started," he says. "People laughed at us. We were like the outcasts, the weirdos, the butt of all the jokes. We were all alone, and no one believed in what we were doing but ourselves. Sounds like a Hollywood script, but it was our lives. Just recently I can say that it's changed, but we've lost some momentum, and people went to another level. We get the honors for making the contributions and creating this sound, but we don't have much to do with its current status. Sometimes we don't feel like we want to make contributions to what it's become.
"Back then we were trying to make this hybrid form of hi-tech soul music. How do you make that now with a crowd that doesn't understand? You want them to, and you hope they do, but you don't feel the inspiration you wish they did. It's difficult to stay inspired. Now I know what Miles felt like."
Still, May isn't about to turn his back on his techno baby anytime soon. He sees even greater commercial appeal for the music and has cut back on touring and DJing to refocus his attention on running Transmat and its increasing stable of electronic artists.
"Technology is always changing," he says. "People are always finding different beats and rhythms to move to. There are infinite possibilities to this music. When we first started making techno, we were aware of the potential, but the evolution is simply amazing. There is some very beautiful music out there. Lots of bullshit, but some of it's very beautiful.
"I want to make sure people are listening. It's time for them to start listening. That's why I haven't been recording--I don't want to give my best away while no one is listening. I want people to hear what I have to say. I want them to know where I'm coming from. I want them to know where the Transmat artists are coming from. Where Detroit is coming from."
"FWD" with Derrick May, Reginald Dokes, and Stephen Cinch. 10 p.m., Sunday, April 25, Wish, 621 Johnson Avenue, Warehouse District, $10, 216-902-
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