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A Sit Down With DJ Derrick May

16:25 Jan/17/2018

Of the Belleville Three, the cadre of early Detroit producers who tested the limits of spirit within electronic dance music and changed the integrity of the form forever, Derrick May's reputation as an originator remained intact despite more than a decade of recording inactivity. While Juan Atkins is rightly looked at as the godfather of techno, with a recording career beginning in the electro scene of the early '80s and encompassing some of the most inspired tracks in the history of dance music; and Kevin Saunderson is the Detroit producer with the biggest mainstream success through his work with vocalist Paris Grey as Inner City, May's position as an auteur eroded slightly during the 1990s due to a largely inexplicable lack of activity.

The classic Derrick May sound is a clever balance between streamlined percussion-heavy cascades of sound with string samples and a warmth gained from time spent in Chicago, enraptured by the grooves of essential DJs like Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles.


"You lose a certain definition to your hearing while you’re playing, which causes you to turn the music up louder and louder and louder. The audience gets ear fatigue, and that makes people want to fuck off."


Where do you come from ?

I was born and my family comes from Detroit. I stayed there all my life, even though I traveled all over the world afterwards. I traveled little, with my family, for the holidays: Jamaica, California, Washington ... It was only with my mother, because my mother raised me alone. My father was not there. I lived there all my life. But at 27 or 28, with Juan Akins and Kevin Saunderson, we did some magic. We did something that no one had done before.

What kind of records were you playing at the high school parties?

We were playing anything from the Thompson Twins “In the Name of Love” and Answering Machine’s “Call Me Mr. Telephone,” to “Capricorn” by Capricorn. We played that and more Italian music, things like "Feel the Drive".

It’s very impressive that when you listen back to your original tracks like Strings of Life, to what you are doing now you are still bang on trend. You seem to be headed in a direction similar to guys like Diplo and Major Lazer who are mixing techno with reggae and Caribbean sounds. Where do you find your influences?

You know, I’ve never been one to look from left to right for any particular influences. I’ve never really been one to be a big fan of anything. I’m actually kind of an anti-fan. I’m kind of like this super hardcore, left-wing guy. If I was to get the call, I would go out and kick somebody’s ass on the conservative party in a minute. I’m that guy. So everything I do is always sort of just putting everything into it, just going for it just living it and not thinking about it – action.

What was the pull of instrumental music in particular? Why didn’t you like the tracks with vocals as much?

We were just anti-vocal. Well, not so much anti-vocal as anti what the vocals said. We just thought the vocals were stupid. Talking about love and getting some pussy and you broke my heart [lets out a sigh of boredom] – oh, this is ridiculous! Nothing political, nothing conscious. We were really conscious. I still am. Juan is not as conscious as I am about these things any more. I turn my friends off, because I’m still very much an analytical fucker. I still can’t go see a movie without looking for the undertones. I sense when I see a film that the producer has had a real fucked up influence on the movie. That’s me – I’m that guy. Don’t go anywhere with me. I might look at two people and say, “She’s not happy.” I can tell she’s not happy because he looks like he’s pissed off about something but he doesn’t want to show it.

And at that time you were listening to Clinton, etc. ?

I had done it, already. At this point in my life, when I started making music, I decided not to listen to anything anymore. I'll tell you something: you can not make music and listen to music. You can not make music and be a DJ, or work in something related to music. You just have to make music. You go to a room, you stay there and you make music. If you have to paint, it's from something you've left. It's not going to museums, galleries and then going back to paint, they're bullshit. You must completely abandon yourself.

Is there anyone out there at the moment that you think is doing really remarkable stuff?

There’s a whole lot of them that I think are really playing well, but I would probably give a big nod to Ricardo Villalobos (when he’s not wasted). I think he could possibly be considered one of the best in the world and it comes from the fact that Ricardo, as a DJ, has a very simple approach to music. He is not afraid to play anything and I think that’s where you get your sort of fantasy, your challenge and the romance; when you just love a track and you just want to play it and don’t care about what anyone else thinks. That’s the real romantic aspect of music. When you’re calculating the audience, when you’re thinking about how long you’re going to play, when you’re looking at your records, when you’re paying attention to that laptop – you’re all locked into that and you forget about your audience or maybe why you’re there or don’t even know why you were there to begin with – people feel that. It doesn’t have to be the best record, it just has to be romantic and passionate and if those elements don’t exist, people know.

Do you empty your head completely, and then what do you build on?

When I had started to really get serious about being a professional DJ, I hated everything. I did. I didn’t like any records. I had a hard time adjusting to the fact that I was buying people’s music. I didn’t like anything. I thought it all was shit. What was I doing? Comparing it to myself! You have to dig up your own asshole if you want to smell good shit. Otherwise you’re gonna smell somebody else’s, and you’re gonna fuck up and make a record that sounds like somebody else’s shit. It’s for real. If you’re writing your book you lock in on it a certain way. You get it done. You maybe dedicate so many hours to it a night, but those distractions are fucked up if they come right at the moment when you’re on a roll. So you know, same thing, you might need music and little things to inspire you, I need just... I just don’t need that to inspire me. I don’t want to hear Philip Glass, I don’t want to hear fucking Kraftwerk. I don’t wanna hear nobody.

What is your opinion on electronic music in Europe?

It's business in Europe. When you go to Ibiza, it's business. Ibiza is pretty, but the guys are 35-40000 € per night, 100000 €, each night! For a night. And that's for the DJ, what about the club leader? It is half a million euros every night, charging 30, 40, 50 € tickets presales. Online! People buy these tickets 6 months in advance! As if they were going to see Diana Ross, or Barbara Streisand! It's incredible ! It's a man's party! But at the same time the least kid in his room is techno with three times nothing. There is a technological revolution at the moment yes, what will be tomorrow I do not know.

Is it hard to separate the party life style that seems to come with the job?

Not at all, not at all I mean I could tell you that Kevin hasn’t either; I think really honestly, a couple of glasses of champagne (is enough). I’ve never tried drugs in my entire life, I’ve never wanted to. To me it’s just not interesting. I’m not anti-drugs, I just don’t feel it and I know Kevin is virtually 99% the same way. We don’t need all the extracurricular shi*. We’re complete. We love what we do and we’re going to continue to enjoy it.

What is the advice you would give to a young artist?

I would say: Hold on, it's hard, it's not as easy as it sounds. If it were, everyone could do it. It should not be, it's not supposed to be, it must be difficult. It is very difficult to wait, it is very difficult to have a chance, to accept the bankruptcy of his situation, the defeat. Which can sometimes be destructive. You also need to know how to listen, learn and make sincere decisions. Dance music now is zero: they are the same people who live on this planet, but for some unknown reason, they do not listen to music anymore. People do not buy music anymore, there are not even any record stores anymore! The problem is that we try to solve this situation where we spend so much time on music and that everyone does not care. We want people to really listen to music. But it's difficult because people take pleasure but they do not buy music. But the artist needs that we buy his music to make it live and that he can continue to make it. And it's very serious, because all artists now, keep their "real" job, they have no choice.


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