Derrick May: The Innovator
Derrick May - The Detroit Series, Part 3 - Live At Netil House, London

Nearly three decades ago in an urban metropolis in Michigan there emerged an uncompromising style of electronic music, one that would capture the myriad sounds and hard physical structure of a crumbling city.

In the wake of the rapid decline of Detroit’s motorcar production, and the economic fallout that swiftly took hold, a young, politically conscious group of high-school friends began turning their hands and minds to music production, releasing what would soon be labelled “techno”.

The Belleville Three - consisting of Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May - took direct inspiration from the conflicting legacy of the once thriving factories and warehouses, which at the time of their adolescence had been reduced to ghostly echoes of the former machines and the men who operated them. Over a slew of releases from 1985 onwards the three musicians began embedding these visual and aural memories into a brazen and powerful style of dance music, fusing it with a very real fascination with the otherworldly, the ethereal, the alien.

To this day all three have varying styles, both characteristically and musically. Atkins often comes cross in his sets as laconic, slightly aloof, hard, not to be trifled with; Saunderson is more open, more generous, more awash with good vibrations – as evident on his production output as part of the great ‘90s dance group Inner City. And there’s Derrick May – The Innovator. His tracks and his personality span across the spectrum – he can be both feisty and extremely friendly. When it comes to the general public, he has time for everyone, but get him on the subject of music, politics, and in particular the mixed legacy of his beloved home city, and he can go off on mad tangents – the passion, the pride, and the partial anger bubbling up in a miasma of words and expressions. He spins like that too.

And so to the club night in London, some 27 years on from techno’s first official release – put on by the kind people of Dollop who had already hosted Atkins and Saunderson in two separate, previous instalments. Nic Tasker played a decent early set, though not many people were dancing and at points it seemed like he wasn’t quite sure what tunes would rectify that. Jon Rust mixed it up as he is want to do with, recognising the need for musical variety when supporting a headliner such as Derrick May. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for newcomers Waifs & Strays who played like their namesake. Their set was essentially lots of digital files seemingly auto-synched so that the requisite showy knob fiddling could be performed without even breaking sweat. It was low-energy stuff, and just didn’t fit into the legacy of the hard, vigorous Detroit sound.

Luckily when you see Derrick May you can forget about who played before – no matter how much you respect them. Not one part of his body was dry within the first half hour as he rummaged through his vinyl collection, playing a plethora of Detroit classics and deep techno numbers that put the crowd into a heavy, deep, sweaty funk. The space itself is great, although perhaps a few more speakers at the back would have spread the crowd out a bit more and created a more open sound. But once you have someone like The Innovator behind the turntables it doesn’t really matter. He’s a legend for a reason.

Words and photo by Oliver Clasper

Click here for a photo gallery of the gig.

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