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Derrick May (1963 - )

Lifespan: 1963 -

Related: American music - black music - Detroit techno - Kevin Saunderson - Juan Atkins

Recordings: Strings Of Life (Transmat, 1987)

Innovator (1997) - Derrick May
[FR] [DE] [UK]

The 1997 compilation Innovator is a good place to start collecting Derrick May on CD.

Unidentified picture of Derrick May

Techno is just like Detroit, a complete mistake. It's like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator."

Along with his high school friends Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson -- commonly known as the Belleville Three -- May is credited with developing the futuristic variation on house music that would be dubbed "techno" by Atkins. [Jan 2007]


Derrick May was born in Detroit in 1963 and began early in his life to explore electronic music. Along with his Belleville, Michigan high school friends Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson -- commonly known as the Belleville Three -- May is credited with developing the futuristic variation on house music that would be dubbed "techno" by Atkins.

May's career started in 1987 with the release of a record called "Nude Photo", which helped kickstart the Detroit techno music scene. A year later he was following it with what was to become one of house music's classic anthems, the seminal "Strings Of Life".

May has also created his own record label Transmat which apart from his own work, has released records by well known Techno and house artists like Carl Craig (as Psyche), Suburban Knight, Octave One, K-Alexi Shelby and Joey Beltram.

May has not released any new music since 1993, but has continued his career as a DJ, continuing to perform regularly in Europe and Asia. In 2003, he was granted control of Detroit's popular annual electronic music festival. He named his event Movement, replacing the Detroit Electronic Music Festival along the city's riverfront.

aliases: Mayday, Rhythim Is Rhythim [1]

A Profile

Derrick May is one of the founding fathers of Detroit techno, a precursor of its many variants and particularly of acid house. His aesthetic, skeletal, melancholy style gained him the nickname of "the Miles Davis of techno". He introduced both a psychological element and a futuristic vision in dance music.

Along with his high school mates Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, May began early in life to explore electronic music. May sponsored the single Let's Go by X-Ray, that introduced the hypnotic, repetitive electronic figures of techno, and then recorded Nude Photo (Transmat, 1987), credited to Rythim Is Rythim, one of the records that started the techno revolution world-wide. An affecting melody, subaquatic basslines, jazzy hi-hats, liquid synthesisers made it an instant underground classic. May followed it with Strings Of Life (Transmat, 1987), his masterpiece. May's label soon became a reference point for an embryonic but rapidly expanding Detroit scene. R-Tyme's R-Theme and Rythim Is Rythim's Beyond The Dance also ranked very high in the techno Valhalla.

In 1990, right after Beginning, May sank into a self-imposed exile from the musical scene. He returned three years later with the evocative Icon (Transmat, 1993), the transcendent Kaotic Harmony (Transmat, 1993) and the compilation of unreleased tracks Relics.

The double CD Innovator (Transmat, 1997) contains a large selection of the music that May has released.

Terrence Parker on Derrick May

“Simply put, DERRICK put on (what we as DJs use to call back in the day) a clinic, and schooled everyone on how to properly bang out some techno. (…) not just for the records themselves, but rather in the way Derrick presented them. It's the way a DJ presents the music to the audience that makes the difference.”

A Profile (2)

"I believe that you're in control of your own destiny. I believe that I chose to do songs like "Nude Photo", "Strings Of Life", "It Is What It Is". I really didn't care about making the charts or being a top 40 artist at any point in my life and I still don't. I couldn't give a shit about that."

Many years ago the future began: In 1987 a shrinkwrapped record called "Nude Photo" appeared on the shelves of a few specialist dance shops in Europe and helped kickstart a musical revolution. The label featured a drawing of what looked like a second world-war pilot. Or was it futuristic time-slip rider? The hand written details read Rythim Is Rythim, the word deliberately mispelt, given a fresh twist. The music sounded outer-worldly.

Sub-aquatic basslines raced with hi-hats constructed from welding sparks. It was like listening to liquid electricity. But the most outstanding feature of "Nude Photo" and the subsequent music which it's author would produce, was that it was much, much more than just machine-driven sounds. This music was absolutely drenched in emotion. This was the sound of someone's soul.

To put Derrick May's career into perspective you have to include the two other chief innovators of the Detroit techno scene, Juan Atkins (Model 500) and Kevin Saunderson (Inner City). Without these two there would have been no-one for May to bounce ideas off and to help create and achieve a musical vision. It's also worth understanding the state that the city of Detroit found itself in at this time. Having once been home to the empires of Motown and Ford Motors, Detroit was now a crumbling shell laid to waste, unsure of it's future. It's skeleton was as much an influence as electric instruments.

With May having met Atkins and Saunderson at high school, the trio hung out in the early eighties and slowly begun developing their own scene. Influence and inspiration came from imported European electropop crystallised by the likes of Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, New Order and Nitzer Ebb and a fascination with synthesisers. With Juan's primitive electro dabblings as Cybotron and with Derrick and Kevin spinning on local mix station WJLB, it wasn't long before they pooled their ideas musically. During this period Atkins had introduced May and Saunderson to Alvin Toffler's book "The Third Wave", which tells of 'Techno Rebels as agents of the Third Wave', their assigment being to help advance new stages of civilisation by utilising the skills and characteristics of both man and machine with equal placing, but with man still in control. These are the roots of 'techno'.

In the summer of '86 the trio's early explorations produced what was to be the first release on May's own Transmat label, "Let's Go" by X-Ray - an hypnotic space-dub-house journey across the dancefloor. When May released "Nude Photo" into the unknown a year later, following it with what was to become one of house music's classic anthems, the seminal "Strings Of Life", he (like Kevin and Juan) was still unaware of the effect that this music was to have on the European house scene. Between them the trio had created a wedge of inspiring music that, although taking a couple of years to fully sink in, directly helped twist the European dance underground from a sampling prit-stick into a concentrated hub of new investigative musical architects.

Alongside May's solo releases, Transmat released early conceptions by such now well-regarded artists as Carl Craig (as Psyche), Suburban Knight, Octave One, K-Alexi Shelby, Joey Beltram and British house act Bang The Party. And along with Juan Atkins' Metroplex and Kevin Saunderson's KMS imprints, Transmat became a window to what was happening inside the principal musical minds of deepest Detroit. But in 1990, May pressed the pause button.

Now, with such an incredible catalogue and up to this point, obvious motivation, it's a mystery to even the most ardent techno head why May's creative period came in burst of just three intensive years. When Rythim Is Rythim released the spellbinding "Beginning" in 1990, no-one knew that it would be the last they would hear from May for another four years, as he took a self-imposed exile from the techno scene that came complete with rumours of retirement. The soul-searching briefly halted when he returned with "Icon" in late '93, followed by the "Relics"album - a selection of previously unreleased, almost work-in-progress snapshots. "Icon" was a masterly return to form full of trademark Mayisms. Techno central breathed a collective sigh of relief. At an interview later that year he revealed some of the reasons behind the brief sojourn.

"I found that everything that I had done had been sampled, and I found that I had put myself in a position where mentally I thought I had to surpass myself instead of makin music like I'd always done. And I kinda let that edge get to me."

It does well to consider the passion of the human spirit here. 'Techno' is much more than a sound or a bpm rate, it's as much a state of mind as it is a culture. Magic 'Juan' may be credited with 'inventing' techno through his early electro experiments, but May changed the way electronic music was interpreted, grasping hold of the rudiments and laying plans that bared it's possibilities, plans which will always remain as fundamental reference.

To categorise May's music is to really give in to the genre wars. It reaches deeper than that. Something unlocked inside that allowed him to nakedly express himself through a musical form, thus he established that 'techno' is as much inner-space music as it is outer. Even though he's produced very little new music since "Icon" he still remains an enigma. And anyway, Kraftwerk haven't released a new record in over a decade.

"Every time there's a reason to make a statement that's when you do it, not just because the record companies tell you to." Mayday. LIFE IS LIFE AND RYTHIM IS RYTHIM. Time......Space.......Transmat. -- Sherman, April 1998 for R&S records

The Tracks

R-THEME - R-Tyme (1987) : Recorded with fellow Detroit ally Darryl Wynn, R-Tyme is a majestic, melancholic mixture of spinning bassline, blipcode and head in the clouds euphoric brassiness. A classic house record that along with "The Dance", became a signature tune to the London pirate radio scene in the late eighties.

RYTHIM IS RYTHIM - Nude Photo (1987) : The sound of an electronic brain in deep meditation with the human spirit. When this came out a friend of mine rang up Transmat expecting it to be some huge industrial factory where incredible mechanical soul was being made. Expecting to be put instantly on hold by one of an army of telephonists manning the machine, instead, Derrick answered and sent him some mix tapes.

RYTHIM IS RYTHIM - The Dance (1987) : Because that's all you can do, "The Dance" being a brutal a brutal mixture of bare percussives and rubber noted electro-language that sounds like the workings of some distant future technology developing laboratory. "It's the instruction manual to the underground and the sample anthem of the kingdom" said May.

RYTHIM IS RYTHIM - Strings O Life (1987) Without doubt May's best known piece. An anthem of immeasurable status, written about Martin Luther King. "When they killed him, they destroyed the hopes and dreams of a generation. It was about the hope in his message." Friend Michael James had written the piano piece previously. May took snippers and created loops. When it was finished, he listened to it constantly for six days, overtaken by it's mesmeric curves. Oh, and it originally started off at 80bpm...

MAYDAY - Freestyle (1988): Recorded in Kevin Saunderson's basement - the sound of African percussion meeting a funk band. Classic Mayday, intense and uncompromising.

RYTHIM IS RYTHIM - The Beginning (1990) : The included mix differs slightly from the original single release, which is a bewitching alliance of steel and matter that builds teasingly into a crescendo of heavy breathing percussion, curling chords and heavenly voices and pathes the way for the kick drums eventual arrival. It seems like eons before it appears. When it does, it's a liberation. There would be nothing new from May for nearly four years. What a way to be left hanging. Beginning?

RYTHIM IS RYTHIM - Salsa Life (1990) : The flipside to "The Beginning" contained two equally captivating tracks. Firstly there was the pure bodymusic of "Salsa Life", which as the title suggests, marries perfectly steamy South American rhythms with May's mechanical moods, adding a final teasing twist to the "Strings Of Life" saga midway through.

RYTHIM IS RYTHIM - Drama (1990) : Recorded with Carl Craig, "Drama" contained the bassline for the waistline : a deep, call to arms resonation that was subsequently adopted by the 'rave scene'. Something which came to confound May later. There's so much life in this track. The way it just picks you up and drags you along for the ride never creases to exite. Millions of hi-hats seem to drop from everywhere, until it's just a waterfall of percussion, while a beautiful choirly mist chaperons it's limb-driving chassis.

MAYDAY - Spaced Out ("Innovator compilation. Network 1991) : A melodious thunk. Alien language rhythms and outer-galactic innersphere grooves designed for detailed bodywork.

RYTHIM IS RYTHIM - Kaotic Harmony (1993) : Mixed with Carl Craig, One of May's more musically reflective moments that relies less on piston-driven rhythm and more on the subtle wielding of chords - the stabs and drags of strings, underpinning May's skill at manipulating keyboard padding into activating the sensorium, interweaving their washes between the ever industrous beats into an animated mass. Pure spiritual healing.

RYTHIM IS RYTHIM - Icon (1993) : Nearly four years passed before the innovator returned. With just moments left of 1993, having encountered a period of questioning what his music had given birth to, he fittingly returned with one of his most evocative pieces ever, full of electronic morse code and deeply emotive strings. "Icon" first appeared on the now legendary Belgium compilation "Virtual Sex", a stunning techno collection that also showcased the emerging talents of Stacey Pullen, Neuropolitique, Stefan Robbers, Kirk DeGiorgio, Carl Craig and Redcell. -- Sherman, April 1998 for R&S records

Internal Links


Innovator (1997) - Derrick May
[FR] [DE] [UK]

    Disc: 1 1. "rest" 2. Strings Of The Strings Of Life 3. Another Chaos Beyond Chaos 4. Freestyle 5. Feel Surreal Begins 6. Beyond Kaos 7. Another "rest" 8. The Dance 9. A Little Spaced Out 10. Daymares 11. It Is What It Is 12. Beyond The Dance (Cult Mix) 13. Original Feel Surreal 14. r-Theme Disc: 2 1. To Be Or Not To Be 2. Icon (Montage Mix) 3. Montage 4. A Relic Mix 5. Kaotic Harmony 6. More Phantom 7. Salsa Life 8. Nude Photo 9. The Beginning 10. Another Relic From the Relic 11. Drama 12. "Strings"- The Original Mix 13. Wiggin-Juan Atkins Mix

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