909rewind Vol. 23… Derrick May

Welcome to 909rewind, a series from 909originals that explores the early musical careers of some of clubland’s biggest names, uncovering hidden gems and familiar classics from the archives.

For the latest instalment, we explore the early career of a key figurehead in the development of the techno sound, who happens to celebrate his birthday today (April 6)… Derrick May.

While ‘Belleville Three’ compatriot Juan Atkins is credited with popularising the nascent techno sound in the mid-80s, it was May who arguably turned it into an art form, with groundbreaking productions such as Nude Photo, It Is What It Is and the seminal Strings of Life, which explored on both sides of the Atlantic in 1988.

“It just exploded. It was like something you can’t imagine, the kind of power and energy people got off that record when it was first heard,” May told Mixmag back in 1997. “Mike Dunn says he has no idea how people can accept a record that doesn’t have a bassline. It had never dawned on me that ‘Strings’ didn’t have a bassline.”

May discusses the influence of Detroit on his sound, from the 1996 documentary, Universal Techno


As well as his own productions, May also founded Transmat Records, arguably as influential a label as Metroplex, KMS and Underground Resistance, which would go on to influence the so-called ‘second wave’ of Detroit techno artists such as Carl Craig and Stacey Pullen.

He was also a key figure in the development of The Music Institute, a venue to rival Chicago’s Warehouse and New York’s Paradise Garage, which is where Detroit techno came to be truly defined.

“It was a spiritual place for music,” May says of the Institute. “If you weren’t there, you obviously missed something because I think there are only about four clubs in the world that can compare to its power and energy.

“Nobody was on drugs, man, kids smoked a little bit of weed, drank a little liquor, they came, had a ball, went home, made love and felt good feelings all week.”

Through his often-idiosyncratic productions, May has sometimes been dubbed the ‘Miles Davis of techno’, and has approached each project with the dedication of a Shaolin monk – a meticulous approach akin to that of a classical composer.

That’s evident on the tracks featured in this playlist, which features both early classics under his Rhythim Is Rhythim and Mayday monikers, as well as work alongside artists such as Carl Craig and System 7. Enjoy!

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