“Techno has been branded horribly,” declares Derrick May. “A lot of people have a misconception of what it is. It’s been branded as music that violates the cortex, as music that says, ‘Girls, stay away.’ It’s been branded to be this music about teenage boys on ecstasy with their shirts off with red faces. So what most people have heard is a poor example of what the music is.” In truth, as May—the Detroit native who helped invent the genre along with high school friends Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson—will be the first to tell you, techno is really just high-tech soul.
Nowadays, of course, the term is used—derisively, by some—to describe any electronic dance music, but its genesis is much more specific. Initially, it was a new spin on house music (i.e., disco’s revenge) that distinguished itself with self-consciously synthesized sounds: a reconfiguring of classic Motor City soul with synthesizers that presaged the technology boom, which itself hit musicians just as the auto industry lurched and stumbled. Against that backdrop of industrial devolution, Atkins, Saunderson, and May married house’s sensual bounce with funk’s sweaty urgency, packaging it in gritty technology that betrayed its very human makers.
As for May personally, he is a wordly evangelist of the sound, DJ’ing internationally hundreds of days a year. His original production output, defined by emotive force and sublime grooves, ceased as such in 1991. But the 20-odd tracks he wrote between 1986 and 1991—songs like “Nude Photo” and the anthemic “Strings of Life”—are a microcosm of the formulas, sounds, riffs, vamps, and grooves that define much electronic music today. The studio is still a second home to the now prolific remixer, who recently completed work on the soundtrack to the film Tekkon Konkrete, hailed as Akira‘s successor in anime circles. He’s also served as a producer for Detroit’s seven-year-old electronic music festival, while his revered label, Transmat, will soon release Transmat 20: 20 Years of Detroit Techno.
A skilled turntable master by any reckoning, May is here this weekend in conjunction with a screening of Gary Bredow’s documentary High Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno Music, a labor of love that chronicles techno’s genesis via nuanced interviews and smart cultural context. It tells the tale, as May says, of “How three young black kids took on the world and, against the odds, made it happen.” The minds have long since been freed; the asses continue to follow.