Goddamn, who wouldn’t want to live the way I do?” asks Derrick May. The innovator of techno is feeling ebullient, and, refreshingly for one of the musical elite, reveling in how goddamn wonderful it all is. And rightly so – May is one of three men credited with creating the genre of techno; he founded the label that released a bunch of seminal tracks and, as far as he’s concerned, has as much money as anyone could want.
Of course when you’re that goddamn wonderful, there’s bound to be some backbiting – some say May is a total prima donna; that of the few tracks he actually produced, there was always a helping hand in the studio, and if he’s so great, why didn’t he ever sign a record deal?
We could have signed major deals, rolled over and did what we were told to do. [But] we were an anomaly – we were young black artists making music that no other young black artists were and we were not impressed by four-figure record deals,’ says May. ‘That was intimidating to a lot of companies that didn’t get how the f*** we made this music coming from this s***hole city Detroit.’
Techno has its roots in the tiny Michigan town of Belleville where May and his co-creators, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, attended high school.
‘We were just kids – it was the right place and right time,’ May says.
‘We lived in a rural area with nothing to do – Juan had the access to all this music, and it was the outlet of our young lives. We were 13 years old, the best times of a teenager’s life – you don’t pay bills, don’t need a job and just live off mom and dad. And here we were, already focused on music.
‘When we were 14, Juan was already saying, ‘I want to have a record label and I’m going to call it Metroplex’. Then he did, and it became one of the best electronic labels in the world.’
Although the three eventually produced their own tracks and started their own record labels, Atkins, Saunderson and May are often referred to as the Belleville Three, their names inexorably linked to the uniquely synth-heavy, futuristic music Atkins dubbed techno.
‘In the first days, we were all running record companies from studios – making music, dealing with orders, shipping … We’d pack up a small moving truck with 15,000 records direct from the pressing plant and drive four hours to Chicago to sell them [to the record shops],’ says May.
‘Chicago house is a very close cousin to Detroit techno. We have the utmost respect for them, and they for us. We’ve sold more to Chicago than to any other city in the world probably.’
It was savage, post-house music that emerged from the industrial landscape of 1980s Detroit and May is its ambassador. By the end of the 1980s, techno was getting played in and out of the city, and he had released the piano-led techno anthem Strings of Life. Inimitably articulate, May described the genre as ‘George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator with only a synth to play with’.
‘Back in the day, these blueprint parties more or less laid down the foundation for great techno parties. That would get mutated and misconstrued around the world [by promoters and DJs],’ he says. ‘[But] there are lots of talented people making techno today – the issue is downloads. Artists are competing for an invisible market -that’s the sad part.’
Aside from residences, touring and helming his label Transmat Records, May is working on a film version of 2006’s High Tech Soul, a documentary on the roots of techno. ‘I’m definitely a prima donna, because I’m putting my neck and black ass on the line,’ he says. ‘I’m determined to see this movie get made. You have to be an asshole to some degree – you’ve got to take on all responsibility so that the project is indestructible before you let other people run with it.’
For one of techno’s biggest names, May’s production rap sheet is light – a handful of hit singles under the aliases Mayday and Rhythim is Rhythim – and each co-produced with other heavyweights in the business, to the point that some critics wondered whether May could have done as well alone.
‘I think not. Because what [my collaborators] brought to the table was another perspective,’ May says. ‘With Strings of Life, Mike James was just doodling some piano parts and several years later, I heard something that could work and built a song around it.’
So why stop producing? ‘I’m not interested in being a pop star,’ he says. Instead, he’s nurturing second-generation techno artists like Carl Craig and Kenny Larkin through Transmat, providing financial support for other people’s labels, and making the Detroit scene last.
‘We institutionalised the music. We took the money from selling records and built foundations. We did everything you’re supposed to do to a business,’ he says.
‘We understood the creative aspect and always understood the business aspect. We knew the simple As and Bs of supply and demand – we were educated people, never ignorant motherf*****s.
Juan comes from an affluent family so from young, he understood money. Kevin’s mother was a high-end saleswoman for Amway products and pyramid schemes and she was very good at it.’
For the trio, need was never the motivation. ‘That’s why we never signed record deals – they never understood we just wanted recognition. The backup plan was that we were going to do this. At 15-25 years old, you’re warned, but you don’t give a f***. You have to have your back against the wall a few times before you realise the need for a backup plan. We were winging it.
‘We never intended to be famous, otherwise we would have taken those record deals, become pop stars. We would have faded by now,’ he says. ‘Longevity – that was always the dream and we got it.
‘People ask how the hell we managed to do this. We were romantic and able to live off our dreams. Most can’t because the dream doesn’t come true – life throws a curve ball, parents get in the way. Well, our parents never snatched us from our dreams.
Kids should have the chance to mess around – they make curves where straight roads are. We were very fortunate that from the beginning, we lived free.
We were like animals in the jungle – we never lived in the zoo.’
Originally published in the South China Morning Post, June 12, 2008