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.

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.

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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