May On A Mission

18 April 2012 | 7:30 am | Cyclone Wehner

Detroit innovator Derrick May talks Depeche Mode, Transmat Records and “wannabe rockstars” with Cyclone.

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Techno innovator Derrick May once hung with Depeche Mode in his Detroit hometown, the New Wavers a seminal influence. Now Depeche Mode's Martin Gore has cut a 'techno' album, Ssss, with ex-member Vince Clarke, the pair showing the 'kids' a thing or two. “I can totally relate!” May laughs quietly. “I think it's a good thing if they can do it – and if they can do it well.” The DJ/producer has described Depeche Mode as “the Radiohead of their day”. “I've been in the studio next to them – they were working once and they made a track. I had a copy of it for years. It was only on a cassette. They never released it. It was absolutely fantastic! They just didn't release it, for whatever reason.” The Brits were, he reasons, merely exercising their talents.

Mentored by his Belleville High School alumnus Juan Atkins, the 'Godfather' of techno, May founded Transmat Records in the '80s. He'd introduce a romantically futuristic 'high tech soul' with tracks like Nude Photo (its laugh snatched from a Yazoo song!), Strings Of Life and The Beginning. Later May, disillusioned with the record biz, virtually ceased producing – although he memorably remixed Rolando's Jaguar. He'd focus on, not only DJing, but also building Transmat's roster – nurturing everyone from Carl Craig to Stacey Pullen and Aril Brikha.

'EDM' has exploded Stateside with Frenchman David Guetta producing urban names, but its African-American pioneers haven't benefited – just as they didn't during the '90s 'electronica' epoch. May is restrategising. In 2010 he issued a hit mix-compilation, Heartbeat. “My mix-CD sold something like 17,000 copies in Japan – that's un-fucking-heard of! That's like a platinum record these days.” The Japanese label, Lastrum, “really cared” about its promotion. Today few companies in Europe, or the US, properly market comps. Consumers don't have the attention spans. Media interest in touring DJs, too, has declined, says May, last here for Creamfields 2011 with his homeboy Kevin Saunderson. The Australian press still covers tours, but elsewhere promoters don't even arrange interviews. Greater importance is placed on DJs circulating tracks – offering “this so-called package”. As such, dance music's narrative is being lost.

May – his music inspiring Björk, Burial and Azari & III – has often been critical of DJs who act as “wannabe rock stars.” Some behave “ridiculously” – to the detriment of dance culture. “Dance music is a group of individuals who are like these outcasts of the whole music industry. Nobody really cares about dance music artists. We've never really been a part of the legitimate music scene.” And, here, May admonishes himself. “Let's be honest – I used to give attitude to the media, too,” he admits. But the techno rebel was “on a mission” to defend a black music from co-option – and he impressed journalists with his conviction. He's no longer “mad” at new gen DJs who neglect their platforms. “They don't know any better.” In fact, May is upbeat about underground techno. Aside from his most famous protégé, Craig, he rates Ricardo Villalobos and Luciano for their artistry – and admires Ben Sims' longevity. “You've got a fair amount of guys who are showing other guys the way – but are the other guys willing to hear or be interested in knowing the way?”

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In 2009 May relaunched Transmat with Canadian Greg Gow's The Pilgrimage EP. He's presently A&Ring a label comp with tracks from Gow, Zak “DVS1” Khutoretsky, and John Beltran – plus surprises. Excitingly, May will include previously unreleased material of his own – notably his equivalent of that Depeche Mode number, the now mythic Hand Over Hand. Its airing is, he realises, “a big, big deal”. “I played it at a Red Bull Academy in Norway when I was talking and there were a few people who said, 'Can we have that? That's beautiful!' So there's still a response to the song in its current state – without me even having to update it. I'm really happy that it's held on and it's had an opportunity to still touch people some 20 years later – and [it's] never been released. It's nice. It's a good feeling.”