Inner City Blues

A decade ago, Derrick May helped invent a dance music that complemented a hollow city, Detroit. Now that May's music has colonized two continents, its maker has disappeared.

It's 1988 and we wanna dance again. Punk's siege on the body has turned into a war of attrition, and even Ian MacKaye's new band is sort of funky. Hip hop is just getting used to the way it feels to dangle one's jimbrowski in the Mid-American mainstream. A joyous, gay club music called house is finessing its way out of Chicago. In Washington, D.C., a freak-friendly, gutbucket boogie called go-go is striving to break nationally. Bass is bustin' out of Miami. Prince is only beginning his Artistic decline.

And then there's Detroit, where Derrick May, a young black man from one of the outlying suburbs with a love for his homeboy George Clinton and no one's homeboys Depeche Mode, is trying to give the world a new club music called...

Well, they didn't know what to call it. The British press almost settled on "Detroit house," but eventually landed on the more descriptive "techno" later that year when May's sound suite "Strings of Life" became the soundtrack to the U.K. dance scene's epoch-marking "Summer of Love."

Back home in Detroit, however, no one cared enough to call it anything. And, while we're on the subject, nobody danced.

The club May called home was the Music Institute. From outside, it looked like an abandoned warehouse, just like everything else in downtown Detroit. On the inside it often felt like a morgue. With one bathroom and no liquor license, the Institute was often empty save for a band of young, black hipsters--and Derrick. For a comparison, imagine walking into a disco in Boise on a Wednesday, at, say, 6 p.m. Bored yet? More Sprite?

Well, look up. Check out the half-empty dance floor and the gang of proto-clubbers waiting to use the pisser. There's May--about 25 years old, sort of plain, but a little pretty--working his mixer, studiously pretending this is just an off-night at the door. He fades out a Frankie Goes to Hollywood track--yes, it's four years old, but May likes it--and slides into one of his own creations. The track's metronomic beat is ductile and somewhat robotic, like it grifted its groove theory from an issue of Popular Mechanics. The robot leads you on with layers of sleek synths, stratified string blasts, percolating pops 'n' blips 'n' bleeps. The music takes you through the room with a stately, yet detached, elegance that's different from either house's orgasmocratic pulse or hip hop's blustery bounce. This music has bottom, but there's no bass lines. It's got soul, but no samples. And, of course, there are no words.

Derrick May has called this fusion of Europop and funk an "urban black man's soul music." Yet, as bass and hip hop were blasting out of the cars on the streets of the chocolate city outside the Institute's doors, nary an Alpine was piqued by May's futurist funk. George Clinton is one thing. But Depeche Mode?

Save it for the continentals. In a matter of months techno is the Euro-sound of tomorrow, and May proudly walks out of the Institute to leave the country, at times for weeks on end, making roughly $150,000 a year spinning records in clubs from Lisbon to Liechtenstein. His success will be huge. So huge, in fact, that May will be able to take a long, indulgent sabbatical after his specialized production equipment is stolen from his studio in 1990. Work shmirk. Better to let legend levitate as conniving Krauts and finicky Frenchies do wonders with your music and outstrip your innovations.

No worries. By 1996, at age 33, you're in the canon, waltzing into the techno segment of PBS's documentary series Rock & Roll to give it some of its coolest copy, as you propagandize the "flavor" of the "urban black man's soul music" that you invented in your suburban bedroom. You're rich. You own a semiprofessional baseball team along with the boyhood friends who helped invent the music. You can be a superstar DJ and an elder statesman, even if no one knows you in the city you live in.

And you've never even put out your own CD. Until now. May's career retrospective, The Innovator (Transmat), compiling tracks recorded in his late-'80s heyday, is an extraordinarily pompous record: "You won't have Derrick May to kick around anymore," it damn near bellows. Beginning and ending with his signature song, "Strings of Life," its sequencing is pretentious. Its stark sci-fi packaging is pretentious. Its George Clinton-penned liner notes, which compare May's "Vision" to that of James Baldwin, are inexcusably pretentious. Even its title--both as reminder and come-on--is pretentious. If it came with lyrics they'd probably recapitulate the last four books of The Odyssey.

But if the conquering hero has finally returned, his baby's in the sack with the swineherd. May's penchant for bitching about how his music was perverted by the people it influenced--from the drug-addled ravers to evil U.K. industry types--has some justification. The sonic ideas he sculpted in the late '80s--the stabbing synth lines, the fusion of Euro and Afrocentric groove, the spliced disco string sections--have become so ingrained in '90s electronic music that today's innovators rarely touch them. The Prodigy and Propellerheads owe him something, but I bet they know not what. Like Chuck D's old-timer's salvos on Public Enemy's new He Got Game, May's music must strike his European progeny as a kind of outdated pedagogy.

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