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.

In America, however, where Detroit techno signifies about as strongly as Japanese Noh, May's music is totally obscure. (Though his "To Be Or Not to Be" currently underscores Sony Playstation's Ghost in the Shell.) The album's stateside release has been handled so lackadaisically by Transmat that it didn't generate any press or sales until months after release. "He just doesn't seem to care about his American publicity," his flustered L.A. publicist told me last week when I tried to set up a phone interview. (We eventually "spoke" via fax.) By all accounts, this is par for the course.

Derrick May is techno's Velvet Underground. He invented the music, and, in his words, "manifest[ed] techno to the whole world." Yet Detroiters hip enough to hear him back in the day will tell you he took the myth of the "Detroit sound" and sold it to Europe.

"Mainstream America could not understand the work these gifted black Americans were producing," May argues, referring to his collaborators Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson. But mainstream America certainly included the almost all-black city that ignored his work. This is difficult, though not impossible, to reconcile.

"Europe has a history of embracing progressive art," he argues. Yet there is legend of him chastising a panel of U.K. industry people for "ruining my beautiful music." (He concedes the story is "partially true.") It's this kind of duplicity that's caused one angst-drunk Detroit techno fan to warn me, "If he tries to give you that 'whitey done stole my music' routine, then he's an asshole. If he loves Detroit so much, why doesn't he open a club here?"

These stories feed the myth of an artist who is a rare breed in dance culture: a personality--part paragon, part prick. In other words, Lou Reed.

There is a line of graffiti in Derrick May's apartment scrawled years ago by his pal Juan Atkins. It compares Motown founder Berry Gordy to Henry Ford. "Today the automobile plants use robots and computers to build their cars. I'm more interested in Ford's robots than Gordy's music." It's a maxim for Detroit techno's sound and a perfect metaphor for its vision.

To understand the novelty of Atkins's sentiment, you've got to recall the nature of Barry Gordy's Detroit. In 1960, the city is one-third black, and Gordy is starting to make big business out of going into the nether regions of a segregated city and coming out with unknown talents. He turns these performers into superstars for mixed audiences, and, in the process, offers African Americans a previously unrealizable vision of upward mobility.

The Detroit that Motown reflects--and, in part, helps invent--is a boomtown. And the Motown sound is the most exciting music of its age. Off its assembly line rolls Levi Stubbs, crying out, "I can't help myself/I love you and nobody else." Booming from behind its factory door is a snare-drum sound big enough to swallow Lake Erie. At its best, Motown is marketing the same kind of dreams of upward mobility that Derrick May's parents might have realized when they moved to suburban Belleville in the late '70s.

And Ford's Detroit? Henry Ford had a shantytown set aside for his black workers--the prototypes for Atkins's "robots"--called Inkster.

So why should Atkins choose Ford's robots over Gordy's music? Because Gordy left. After Detroit's late-'60s race riots scared Gordy and Motown west to L.A., the city lost not only its soul but also its Soul. In the late '70s the American auto industry effectively tanked, and by 1980 metropolitan Detroit's assessed value was less than it had been in 1960. In 1982 there wasn't one major regional shopping area in a downtown with a population of 1.2 million. By the early '90s the city was so financially ruined it was literally hollow. "Downtown Detroit is like a gigantic no place," says a friend who lived there in the mid-'90s.

This sad history would inform the development of May's music. Yet there's another, simpler, reason Atkins and May gravitated toward androids: Robots are cool. As children of Star Wars growing up in the boring Detroit suburbs, May, Atkins, and Saunderson were, as one scene chronicler put it, "really into space." May recalls that they spent their teen years "chasing girls, playing football, and creating our own reality." They had their own secret languages and sci-fi fantasies.

But when the three started getting into music, quit bogarting the IntelliVision gave way to all-night P-Funk listening sessions. The desire to create their own technology-based musical reality sent them into bedroom studios searching for new sounds, and later into the city itself--to hear club music and make themselves heard.

There they found a harsher reality. The music they made, lauded by May as "Kraftwerk and George Clinton stuck in an elevator," was a galaxy apart from the post-disco dance world of 1981. Atkins's group Cybertron couldn't get on the radio at home. Saunderson did, but his success came with a diva-led, disco-crossover group Inner City, whose sound was far removed from May's depersonalized elevator-funk. May himself landed his first regular DJing gig in 1984 at a club called Liedernacht, playing everything from new wave to Eurofunk and Chicago house--only to be fired by the club's owner when too many black kids started showing up to hear May's sets. "Not until I went to England was I known as a techno artist," May says.

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