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.

But that wasn't to come for a few years. In the meantime, May, Atkins, and Saunderson kept imagining their own world and creating music that reflected it. As they matured, the urban wasteland May and his boyhood friends saw as they zipped by on the freeways became a source of inspiration. The rows upon rows of abandoned factories and warehouses affected them the way Uptown did Prince. Motor City blues made them wanna twaddle--not only with knobs and buttons, but with the psychogeography of the city itself.

"Techno was created in an urban setting, which was Detroit by black men. The music was a fusion of our diverse influences and technology," May says today. "The technology was our keyboards, computers, drum machines. Kevin, Juan, and I made soulful and emotive music with these inanimate machines."

The best Detroit techno strove to turn economic and spiritual desolation inside out. A new kind of urban pop emerged. New York hip hoppers had been using samples and storytelling to capture the color and intensity of the vibrant urban landscape they loved. Confronted with a dead city, May and his cohorts manufactured rigid grooves and cold, abstract synth noises--aural grays, really--that sounded acutely mimetic of their surroundings. Yet, when the layers bled into one another and the grooves played hide and seek, those sonic grays could mutate into a new kind of color. Or as May said in Rock & Roll, distinct "flavor."

Techno taught Henry Ford's robots how to dance and replaced Motown's failed utopianism with a more personal, possibly more honest, version of postindustrial confidence.

In 1995 May summed up his music's ethic for the Detroit Metro Times: "I can truly believe that the lack of influence in this motherfucker [Detroit] has given people an influence of their own psyche or personalities, unlike Paris, London, or New York, where you'll be influenced by what everybody else is doing--by its fashion, its cars, its people. But in Detroit there is nothing to influence you and that is a unique gift. And that's why the music came from here, because the lack-of created more-of."

If there is anything genuine in the May myth, this statement is it.

May might say he never got his due. He may feel caught between an "American mainstream" that didn't understand his sound and a Europe that often mishandles it. He may say--he does say--that he "chose to take a break and take care of myself and have a good time. People thought I was in a corner, but I was still DJing and seeing the world." And in 1998, the world has heard him--though perhaps not firsthand.

Want proof? Well, come and go with me, tonight maybe, to Shark's--A Nightclub in Fridley!--or any other ladies' night at any other suburban notspot. Take my sleeve and lead me through another kind of postmodern wasteland, dodging the butt-drunk weekend warriors in ass-tight battle fatigues.

And the music? Ten years ago we might have been listening to Billy Idol. Five years ago we might have been line dancing. Tonight we are bombarded by the most feverishly insipid, clichéd techno possible--the kind they play at the Gap, only 50 times harder. "I hate this dush-dush-dush-dush/EH!-EH!-EH!-EH!-EH!-EH! shit," you howl at me, impugning not just the song, but an entire form.

Sure, this dush-dush and that EH!-EH! seem to have been invented for our evening's synchronized fox trot down the river Styx. Yet, it has a lineage. Our nemesis Dush/EH! is a watered-down variation on an unforgivably hard Belgian dance strain called "tekkno," a style heavily influenced by a former Detroiter named Jeff Mills, whose crude, yet plangent, music grew in conversation with the cooler Detroit sound of Derrick May. Mills's live mixes often include May's 1987 classic "Strings of Life."

The Dush/EH! you hate is to "Strings of Life" as Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" is to Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane." (And guess what: The watering-down process only took a third as many years.)

"Strings" begins with the same EH!-EH! synth stabs. However, here they're sweet and pretty; instead of boxing your ears they tease your lobes. The synth is augmented by a string section--a classic disco string section, or five of them--crisscrossing the beat to exhilarating effect. That dush-dush "rhythm" is here too, but it's passionate and funky--a cyber-salsa that May melds through the track with a compositional intelligence. "Strings" suggests the trajectory May would have followed had he not decided to excuse himself from producing back in the early '90s. This is where techno started. It's perfect pop and great rock 'n' roll.

I asked May to list some acts his music has influenced, and he responded with classic arrogance and bitterness: "Sure, use the lesser side of your imagination and I'm sure you can come up with plenty of names."

Well, here goes: Spring Heel Jack, LTJ Bukem, the Aphex Twin, Moby, the Future Sound of London, the Underworld, A Guy Called Gerald, Goldie, Carl Craig, the Chemical Brothers, System 777, Dee-Lite, Underground Resistance, Ritchie Hawtin, Atari Teenage Riot, Kenny Larkin, Fluke, Photek, Josh Wink, the Hardkiss brothers, the Crystal Method, Dimitri from Paris, Daft Punk, KLF, Fat Boy Slim, the Pet Shop Boys, U2, David Bowie, the Prodigy, the Propellerheads, and maybe Madonna.

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