Derrick May - Hi Tek Reflections
Author: Cyclone Wehner
Thursday, June 7, 2007
There is timeless rock 'n' roll, timeless soul and, yes, timeless electronic music. However, DJ culture perpetuates a myth of ephemerality - and disposable music - driven by trends. And that (artificial) flux could be its undoing.
Detroit's Derrick May is, of course, no ordinary DJ. The techno he created in the late '80s - records like Nude Photo, Strings Of Life and Icon - has defied the test of time. His machine music can be classed alongside that of Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre and Giorgio Moroder. And, like Doctor Who, he's regenerated himself for successive generations. Yet Mayday is also cast as techno's gladiator, defending its honour from the imperialist forces of bland 'electronica'. As his MySpace states, he's "trying to save the world from bad music." But, increasingly, May is concerned about the proliferation of downloading and its impact on dance music. The scene is shrinking - and he blames those DJs who unquestionably embraced technological advances for not imagining the ramifications. As such, dance has suffered more than other genres. "These guys who are DJs, these guys who are musicians, they never truly understand their responsibility, nor do they understand the power that they have. But, when they do things like this, indirectly, they are blindly distributing their power without realising it," he proffers from his Zurich stopover.
May believes that DJs should have united to consider the best way to harness technology. "It was inevitable that one day it would change. It was life, it was a fact that nothing can stay the same in the future - there's no doubt. But I think that it should have been discussed, it should have been thought out, it should have been resolved, so that it would have had a positive effect for everybody." Derrick is unconvinced that the Internet enables consumers to greater access music. Instead it destroys the tangibility of music and devalues the search for it. Punters who hear a DJ spin an underground tune they dig can no longer visit a store for help to identify it. The shops are obsolete.
May misses vinyl, too, deeming the sound quality of MP3s to be inferior. "It just does not have the balls," he asserts. "I don't care what anybody says."
Overall, with countless DJs abandoning vinyl for laptops, their entertainment factor has lessened. The digital revolution, Derrick fears, has culminated in an "immediate dilution" of party culture. "The quality of the DJs has become based on the music that they have - not their ability, the music, and their experience and their history. It's now just the guy with the music."
The irony is that May hasn't been as excited about music in years. "There's a lot of good music now. Some of the stuff I hear guys playing is like, 'That is a fucking great song!' I wanna get it myself - and nine times out of 10, I'll never be able to get my hands on it. Even when I go online looking for it, I would never find it, because there's so many songs online. It's just impossible to know which one you heard from some DJ - unless he gave you a specific name, you won't be able to find it."
More than his contemporaries, May embodies Detroit techno's mythology. He's the most charismatic of the music's 'godfathers' - the Belleville three. May was tutored in DJing and music production by his older school friend, Juan Atkins. Soon, Kevin Saunderson, another Belleville High student, joined them. Their techno - a futuristic incarnation of Chicago house - found its way to Europe, partly due to an English entrepreneur, Neil Rushton. Here, it inspired a dance subculture - and, with May's romantic Strings Of Life - a movement. The Detroiters' music sparked a clubbing shake-up. But, unlike the current change, May says, "We didn't just kill everything in the process."
Still, in the US, techno remained countercultural. May and his cohorts developed techno into an ideology, philosophy and aesthetic. Atkins even suggested that the mu Tags