Now making a huge impact in the north of Britain, Detroit's techno music owes its roots to a handful of far-sighted pioneers - amongst them Derrick May. Simon Trask discusses the future of electronic music.
While house threatens to become the disco music of the '90s, techno is emerging as a music of greater substance and durability. Detroit is techno's spiritual home, Derrick May its most influential exponent.
"DANCE MUSIC HAS BEEN EXPLOITED, maximised, profitised - the whole works. Now it's time to move left, because anybody that stays right is just going to get caught up in the whirlpool. Right now I don't think dance music has the charisma to last."
Derrick May is nothing if not forthright in his opinions. Unlike his soft-spoken, reticent Detroit compatriots Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins (interviewed in MT September and December '88 respectively), May is a livewire and a generous talker. Working under the name Rhythim Is Rhythim he also happens to have produced a string of instrumental electronic dance music tracks - from 'Nude Photo' and 'Strings of Life' in 1987 to the recent 'The Beginning' and 'Drama' - which have influenced a new generation of electronic musicians.
May recently visited Britain for several weeks to set up the UK arm of his record label Transmat, sign some new talent to the label and DJ at clubs around the country. During his visit he was able to assess the UK dance music scene, and what he saw were too many imitators and not nearly enough originators. So what's new!
"These days any kid can buy a cheap sequencer and a cheap keyboard and make a track", May replies. "It's really easy to lay down a drum track, a little bassline and some little shallow chord line or whatever. So many kids know how to start a track but they don't know how to finish it, how to make it just right so that it's got every element but it's not overbearing. They don't care about the integrity of the business, or where they're coming from mentally. All they care about is putting a record out so they can get some money, and they don't see the terminal damage that the injection of a garbage track is going to do to society. What that does in the long run is degrade the whole concept."
So what would May's message to these aural polluters be?
"I know it's hard to make something that's going to have staying power, but try and make the music with as much integrity as possible, because that's usually the stuff that will last. This quick little cash-in dance music... you could make a couple of thousand pounds, but what the fuck is that?
"The kids have to understand that the music scene is based on the future, and they are the future. If they fuck around with the future then there will be no future. The integrity and the love has to keep it going - that's where the originality comes from. It's so easy to copy somebody else's style. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Bullshit. Imitation is the easiest way to make money. Kids today know it and they've accepted it. Commercialisation has become a part of the business on the artistic side. Why not spend a little time and put a little courage into developing what you believe in? You just don't know what you can do until you try. I think people should take a bit of pride in trying to be original - you know - a little original?"
Transmat UK is an acknowledgement of the respect afforded Detroit's electronic dance music and its creators in this country. Nowhere has this been more the case than in the north of England, where the uncompromising electronic music of Model 500, Rhythim Is Rhythim and Reese and Santonio has inspired countless young musicians to get to grips with technology and produce their own music. Groups like 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald, Unique 3, Forgemasters, Rhythmatic and Nexus 21 have all taken inspiration not just from the style and sound of the music but from its integrity. What does May think of the so-called "northern techno scene" which he has helped to inspire!
"The concepts that they have are going to grow", he replies. "They followed us so far and now they're following their own path, which is great, but at the same time I think there's not enough of them that are original. I've only heard three or four original tracks, the rest of the stuff is weak, to be honest with you. Nobody's asked me to be a judge, I'm just giving my personal opinion.
"In Detroit, there may only be a few of us, but everybody has so much pride in what they do, and everybody appreciates each other's music and respects each other so much, that no-one would dare put out a song that sounds like someone else's song. But these kids here, it seems like everybody's using the same concepts, the same formulas, so right now I don't think that it has the potential to last, because it'll lose its credibility through lack of originality."
WHEN IT COMES TO EQUIPMENT, MAY IS an exponent of what could be called "appropriate" technology.
"Most of the electronic sound that comes from myself has got nothing to do with trying to be trendy with the latest equipment", he says. "It's about using what you use to the best of your ability, and that's all I care about. I started out with a couple of S900s, a DX100, a Poly 800, a Mirage, an SQD1, a 909, an 808, a 727 and a Fostex 260 four-track, and I still use that stuff. Also now I use a Kawai K3, a Yamaha DX21, some old ARPs, shit like that. One instrument that I'm trying to get hold of is a Korg 707. I'm into keyboards that are not popular, that everybody else slags off. I tell you one keyboard I used to use that had some phenomenal bass sounds: the Casio CZ5000. I had some fierce bass sounds on that which I used on some tracks I never released.
"I do keep my eyes open for the new stuff, though. The Korg S3 drum machine is definitely on my agenda to check out. Nowadays things change so quickly that if you sit back and close your eyes you'll miss out on something. You have to look towards the future in order to be able to know what to expect and what not to expect."
In Detroit, the synth of choice is Yamaha's budget DX100 four-op FM synth, valued among other things for its ease of editing and the grittiness of its output signal. Much of May's own music is characterised by the hard metallic bite of FM synthesis rather than the warmth of old analogue synth technology. However, recently he has had his DX100 customised as a digital/analogue hybrid by a Japanese electronics genius and Rhythim Is Rhythim fan resident in Detroit.
"I've had Matrix 12 filtering applied to the machine to give it a completely different feel", he reveals. "The board was almost destroyed in the process - it was like 'let's see what we can get away with'. It breaks down a lot, but when it works it works, and it's my sound, it's part of the Rhythim Is Rhythim sound. And, like my American Express card, I don't leave home without it."
It's this DX100 which plays the razor-sharp bassline on the Rhythim Is Rhythim track 'The Beginning'. But how would May characterise its sound?
"It's a harder sound than before", he replies.
"You're not going to get beautiful string sounds out of it, but for bass sounds I've got the fat filter sound. In a little keyboard like that, it's so funny."
For May, it's essential to find the right sounds for a track - and if he can't then he'll abandon it.
"There are sounds which can completely bring out the most in a song", he maintains. "I've got basslines that only sound right with particular sounds. I can actually hate a song because the sounds aren't right; I just can't take a sound for what it is in itself. And I will never use a preset; that is against the law where I come from."
May sees exclusivity as an essential ingredient of identity, and exclusivity is the last thing you get when you use presets. A case in point is R-Tyme, a collaboration between May and fellow Detroit DJ and musician Darryl Wynn. So far the group has released one 12" containing two tracks, 'R-Theme' and 'Illusions', which came out last year. May created all the sounds for those tracks but has refrained from using them since, simply because he wants to keep them exclusively for R-Tyme. As a result, they are part of the group's identity, part of its uniqueness.
The distinctive string sounds May has been using in his Rhythim Is Rhythim tracks since 'It Is What It Is' have their origins in samples he took himself at Orchestra Hall in Detroit, where the city's symphony orchestra rehearses and performs. Typically, their introduction in 'It Is What It Is' brought about a significant change in the character of the music, in May's words "sacrificing some energy for greater depth and atmosphere". The track is certainly atmospheric, with the strings giving the music a new expansiveness and an icy quality.
"For my music, I'm not looking for commercial, warm sounds", May says. "My string sounds are very cold, very callous. I give them a sort of warmth through the way I overlay them, but it's not really warmth, it's just a dreamy sort of feel. It's got a lot of attitude, a lot of feeling, but it doesn't necessarily make you feel good about yourself. I try and create feeling and mood in my music. If I was making Whitney Houston records it would be very easy, but when you're doing the kind of stuff I'm doing it's very easy for the music to become sinister, to become hard and callous. I try my best to keep my insight, so I can feel what I'm gonna do and then just do it."
Not one to slavishly follow the supposed "advances" of technology, while manufacturers continue to produce samplers of ever greater audio clarity, May is experimenting in a different direction.
"At the moment I'm using cheap samplers like the Mirage and the Akai S612", he explains. "Sampling things, then recording them onto cassette, sampling them again, recording them onto cassette again, sampling them again and so on. The idea is to pick up noise, to create some sort of different feel to the music. It's working, but I haven't employed it in anything yet."
However, nowhere is May's refusal to rush into using the latest technology more apparent than in his choice of sequencer. Not only was Korg's SQD1 the first sequencer he ever used, it continues to be his sequencer of choice. But isn't it a bit simple compared to the sophistication of today's computer-based sequencers? May agrees, but sees its very simplicity as its strength.
"A lot of people think that simplicity is a form of lack of awareness", he says, "but I think that simplicity is a form of showing your actual talent. My whole viewpoint is that I enjoy the sequencer because it is simple, and if I want to link it up to another sequencer just to get a certain feel - which is something I do, because I have another SQD1 and also an MC500 and an MSQ700 - then I have no problem there. I like hardware sequencers. Kevin's brother Ronnie says he can't wait for my SQD1 to die so I can go out and buy a real sequencer."
May did own an Atari 1040ST at one time, but he never used it and eventually sold it.
"The reason I haven't started using computer-based sequencers is that I'm frightened of some of the concepts that go with them. Seriously. The computer can show you everything you're doing on screen, which is fascinating, but I think you lose a bit of insight. The fact that you can do everything, see everything completely and microscopically, break everything down...
"Personally I like to change things by playing them, rather than by saying 'OK, I can quantise that one note, I can change that one note until it sounds fine'. It's like writing an exam paper; it's not art any more, it's working with a computer, and a lot of the imagination has gone. Everything's at your fingertips. Computer-based sequencers are going to make the market more boring because it'll be easier for people to create boring music. What comes easy has no substance, what comes with determination and a bit of innovation usually survives."
"For any young musician out there trying to make it, learn how to play your own music: don't let engineers play the shit for you - that won't do anything for you in the long run."
The "decentralised" approach to music-making which May favours when working with hardware sequencers is also apparent in his use of drum machines.
"Most people nowadays use sampled drum sounds to make one composite kit from several different drum machines", he says. "But while they're using sounds from assorted drum machines, they're making them sound like one drum machine. See, my concept has always been to get the feel from all drum machines simultaneously, not just one feel from one drum machine. I try to connect all the feels so that they accent and bounce off of each other."
One of the newer instruments in the May arsenal is a Roland R8 drum machine, which he bought last year. Does it match up to its classic predecessors?
"I haven't had as much chance to apply it as I want to", he says, "but I did do an experimental track with the R8 by itself a while back, just to see how far I could take the machine. I've got the African percussion card and a couple of others. It's a good drum machine, but Roland need to give the drum sounds more parameters, let a person get deeper into the machine. They're a clever company, though: they introduce things gradually to people."
Although another Roland drum machine, the TR909, will forever be associated with Chicago house music, it has been just as much a part of the Detroit techno sound. However, it seems that, as far as May is concerned, the 909's days are numbered.
"I love the 909 but it's time to move on. I've used it for probably the last time - just outright, anyway. I probably always will live with the kick drum, though.
In fact, I sampled it and ran tremendous amounts of dbx on it to create my own kick, compressing the fuck out of it and then taking it almost to the point of distortion. I'm in the midst of trying to experiment with sounds, and I don't know exactly what I'm going to do. Using live drums and percussion is something I have an interest in, but I haven't had a chance to try it yet."
Cheap samplers, ageing hardware sequencers, acoustic drums... whatever happened to the "third wave" of technology which May has espoused in the past?
"I know I'm supposed to be innovative and techno and all these things, but I just can't believe that going forward is the only way to go forward", he replies. "Sometimes you have to go backward to go forward. I believe that we can easily get stuck in a tremendous rut at this point in time because we've all become very complacent with the fact that it's easy to buy that cheap computer and some software, go into a studio and have the engineer help you, or pull up that sequencing program that will help you assemble a song if you just follow the written directions on the screen. It's like baking a cake. So this is the point where my concern comes from for originality.
"I play all my own music. There's no engineer that sits back and makes the music for Derrick May, so I do take a lot of pride in my music. For any young musician out there that's trying to make it, learn how to play your own fuckin' music. Don't let engineers play the shit for you. That won't do anything for you in the long run, because when that engineer moves in you're lost. Plus you should feel like shit for letting somebody else do your music while you take the credit."
May has a dislike of working in studios, preferring to create his music in his living room at home.
"When you go in a studio it's work, not fun, and I don't want to work", he says. "I hate the idea of having an engineer sitting there while you prepare your ideas, and I hate the fact that there's a clock running. I'm the kind of guy where I'll do a bassline or a melody or strings line and I'll walk away from my synths for two or three days and just let the sequencer continuously play a loop of this line very low. Then I'll come back and maybe work on it or maybe just erase it."
Nonetheless, a few days after doing this interview May was scheduled to go into the studio with former Gong guitarist turned producer Steve Hillage. It seems that the cosmic one was exposed to some Rhythim Is Rhythim music, liked what he heard and got in touch with May.
"We sat down together and talked, found that we had a lot in common, and decided to collaborate", May says. "I felt like I could learn so much from working with him. Every time I mention his name to somebody the man has top-notch respect, and he has my respect simply for the fact that he's decided to give it another go at this point in the game and to go against the grain. There's not enough rebels out there."
And have the pair decided how they're going to approach their collaboration?
"The project is going to be based around future concepts", May replies. "The idea is to come out with something different and innovative. Not Derrick May Rhythim Is Rhythim music, and not Steve Hillage ambient guitar."
We can but hope that the result sees the light of day.
LAST YEAR MAY UNDERTOOK A STRING OF remixes and was less than overwhelmed by the experience. Today he has more or less turned his back on remixing.
"It's a dangerous thing to get involved in", he explains. "You try to figure out what a person was thinking when they recorded something, you can get really hung up on that. You're dealing with a lot of different engineers, running to different studios... Sometimes that's good for experience, but other times it can be a burden. You become an expert at readjusting your thinking every time you go in a studio, and at the same time you become a sort of prostitute, you become used.
"I think if you're trying to be an artist then you can't be a remixer, and if you're trying to be a remixer you can't be an artist, because you give up so much one way or the other. For me, being an artist is my number one occupation, running my record label is my second occupation, and after that I can do remixes if I like."
It seems that nowhere do issues of creativity and marketability' become more intertwined than in the remix. Too much commercial exploitation and too little creativity could spell the end of remixing.
"I don't think remixing will die out, I think it'll just come into some sort of perspective", May says. "The A&R people that order all these remixes have got to be more realistic about what a remix means for the record and what it means for the lasting of the group. I mean, a group's image is tarnished from three or four remixes of the same record. This just shows you how shallow these record companies can be when it comes to looking after the integrity of their artists. If they had any respect for an artist, or any belief that that artist could create something of value, they wouldn't go out and get the record remixed three times. But sadly I don't think record companies respect artists at all, I think that's a thing of the past."
And what of the future for Derrick May? With the long-awaited Rhythim Is Rhythim album no nearer completion than it ever was, he looks set to remain an underground, cult figure, bathed in an aura of exclusivity. Perhaps this is the way he wants it to be?
"That exclusiveness is something that doesn't last forever. Once you reach the boundary of exclusiveness and you pass into popularity and commerciality, you become a product of society. And as a product you have a certain amount of marketability before your time is up, before it's time for a new product. I'd rather not be a part of that if I can help it."
May understands that a good reputation can be lost far more quickly than it was gained, and he's not about to accommodate the whims of major record companies on the chance that he might earn more money that way. As he explains, he has his own priorities:
"In the past I've been to Mute, MCA, Virgin, Warner Brothers... They all wanted to do something with Rhythim Is Rhythim, but they wanted to do it in the context that I was going to change. When you're talking about a black guy who's making electronic dance music for intellectuals, intellect dance music, you're talking about something that they have to completely bend themselves out of character for. They don't understand it, they don't know how to market it, and I think they'd really rather not touch it. OK, I've come to accept it, I know the score and I don't even worry about it any more; I'm not changing. If I have to lose out on millions of dollars, fuck it. I have to live with me, I have to be happy.
"What I've just said may sound quite noble, and maybe some people might not believe me, but... You have to understand that, to me, it's a very important thing to be happy. Happiness doesn't come in a dollar or a pound. Happiness comes with honesty and self-confidence, not self-denial, just being a happy person with free will, doing what you want to do."
And surely there can be no better philosophy of life than that.
Interview by Simon Trask