Interview: Derrick May

Sunday 16 May 2004
reading time: min, words

Derrick May is a founding father of the Detroit techno scene. Two decades ago he began to play with and develop an aesthetic, skeletal and melancholy sound that has led critics since to dub him "the Miles Davis of techno"...

It's now seventeen years since he released the masterpiece Strings of Life. This record made his self-owned TransMat label a reference point for a new and expanding scene of dance music and guaranteed the tune endless play in clubs and on TV. 

May has since played a massive part in breaking other artists. He also takes responsibility for organizing Movement, a festival in central Detroit, which, in terms of numbers, makes Glastonbury look like a boy scout camping trip. By contrast, May plays at the compact but bijou Bomb in Nottingham this weekend.

I phoned Derrick May from Nottingham on a Thursday evening. It had just turned midday in Detroit and while we were talking he was sitting in a big public park leafing through a set of photographs.

This Saturday is going to be your first time back in Nottingham in 4 years.

"I'm really looking forward to being back. England has always had a special place it my heart. It's the birthplace of the whole electronic music scene and where the origins lie."

"Before I first came to England we always used to look out for English DJ's in Detroit. When a DJ was coming off a plane from England there was always a big expectation. We knew they had something funky and they knew it and were ready to go."

You lived in London for a while in the 90's...

"I stayed in England for a time... well, a lot of short times. Because of the nature of the business you're always traveling around the world, but there was a time when I was doing most of my production out of the UK. New music and new scenes are always best when they're just out of the cocoon. When they're raw and fresh and when it still smells organic. It was a good place to be..."

Tell us about Detroit...

"It's is an interesting city. I get the feeling that now is the time that it's changing and that in ten years you're hardly gonna recognize the place. Everything is underground. It's just the way that the whole city is built. We got a real vibrant music scene with some serious talent in hiphop, rock and techno. The reason it works so well is that there's no animosity between the different scenes. It's like we're all working together and fighting for the same cause."

I heard that back in the day you went to University on a football scholarship?

"I played football as a half-back but I seriously lacked discipline. I was a runner there as well, but as soon as I discovered music I knew what I was wanted to do. That was it for me..."

Why did you go for almost a decade without releasing any of your own material?

"On one hand it was a matter of legalities as I found myself caught up in a bad record deal. On the other hand I was really dedicated to my own label Transmat and trying to push my own artists. I had a number of reasons to not do music, but the issues I had also gave me the chance to work with a lot of young artists and do a lot of other things."

One of those `other things' is the Movement Festival. Tell us a bit about that...

"It's been recorded as the largest free festival in the world. There will be over one million people attending at the end of this month. We're gonna have acts such as Rolando, Amp fiddler, Kevin Saunderson and Francois K. It's become a focal point for Detroit music and I just love it. It's something that goes on and must go on. Over the last three years we've had over a million people each time."

Sounds like hard work to organise...

"It's a hell of a lot of work, but all the people that are involved are happy to be doing it. Everybody is doing it for one simple cause. We just want to send out love and music"

How are you feeling about playing in Nottingham on the same night as Carl Craig?

"That's interesting. I didn't know that. I just talked to him on the phone this morning and I don't think he knew I was going. I can't believe it. I'll have to give him a call after we finish talking."

He's often spoken of you as an influence on his own music...

"Yeah, well that's always flattering because he's a brilliant DJ. The music he makes these days is influencing me."

I read an interview from two years ago where you were heavily critical of the Bush regime. Are you still feeling the same anger and disbelief?

"I think that people have woken up now and that the last four years have been a serious reality check. The guy is out now. I think that he's out and that Americans are a little bit ashamed of themselves for some of the decisions they've made and for the way they been shown everything on TV and in the newspapers. I don't expect this to happen again at any point soon in our lives."

You really think that he'll lose the next Presidential election?

"If Mr Bush comes back into office I will be leaving the country. I wouldn't live here in the state that he runs the country. Under him America is a facist state. But most people I know are desperate for a change and everybody is starting to realize that if you want to see change you must make it yourself."

Any thoughts on that other great Detroit musical export Eminem?

"Some people think he's overrated, but that's because he's so big these days. I don't have a problem with him at all. I find his music entertaining."

What can we expect from your set at the Bomb?

"A thing I learned a long time ago is that you've got to keep people guessing. All I can say is that I'm gonna come in with a lot of attitude and I come in to give you a taste of what real underground electronic dance music is all about. It's a very simple thing and I'm not caught up in any other aspects at all. I'm just gonna let it all hang out..."

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