Interview: Derrick May

From the DJ History archives: the Motor City pioneer talks at length about his early years and the birth of Detroit techno

Derrick May’s life changed when he moved from Detroit to Belleville as a teenager. There, he developed a deep love of music, which in turn led to friendships with Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson. Together, they would eventually become known as the “Belleville Three” and lay down the blueprint for techno music.

DJ History

May and Atkins began their partnership as DJs, playing at high school parties as Deep Space Soundworks. When Atkins left Cybotron and began pursuing a solo career, May regularly travelled to Chicago to promote his records. That led him to visit some of the city’s most iconic clubs of the period, including the Power Plant and the Music Box.

Inspired by his friend, May bought synthesizers and drum machines in order to make his own music. The result was “Nude Photo,” a wild and thrillingly heavy club workout that helped to define the Motor City techno sound. In the same period he also produced his most famous record, the peerless “Strings of Life.” Along with his friends Juan and Kevin, May became one of the figureheads of a new musical movement.

Back in 2004, May sat down with authors Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton to tell his story in vivid detail. He touched on his early years in Belleville, the development of his friendship with Juan Atkins, how he made his first records and the role that the Chicago club scene played in inspiring the “Belleville Three” to develop the Detroit techno sound. He also recalled his first trips to Europe, key early interviews with British journalists and how he sold Frankie Knuckles his spare Roland TR-909 drum machine.

It has been said before that radio was the biggest influence on Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and yourself. Was that the case?

Yeah. We certainly heard The Electrifying Mojo, first on the radio, which changed our lives. When I heard my first really funky records it would be... Kraftwerk would be the least of those I heard first. The first really funky stuff I heard was, like, Cameo; the first really strange shit I got attached to was Michael Henderson, “Wide Receiver.” That stuff right there caught me.

Michael Henderson – Wide Receiver

Those were the first records that really made me realize that something was different, about my perception, because as a kid we all listened to them – in Detroit especially. That shit was on the radio. And we’re talking about a time when radio was pretty much based in the community. It wasn’t all about Clear Channel or some major Viacom type company owning it and controlling it, so radio was definitely important, yes.

Back in your early childhood Detroit was still quite a lively city wasn’t it?

It’s funny because when I was a kid I wasn’t really paying attention, but I do remember there being a lot more business on all the avenues, in all the local areas. Not just in the center, but in the local streets. There were small businesses, family businesses, little things like a shoe store and a fabric store. And people walked on the street a little bit more than they do now, to go from shop to shop.

It seems like Detroit had been through the worst stage during Reaganomics, but that’s apparently not true, because Detroit is going through a worse stage now. And it could be the darkest right now because the light is coming. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a weird paradox, man. There’s all this building, all this re-structuring going on, but yet in the local communities outside the downtown area, business is dismal, people are not working, people seem to be a little bit disgruntled.

The normal story of a kid growing up in the suburbs is that the city has a real pull. Did Detroit ever have that for you?

I lived in the city until I was 13, then we went out to the suburbs for three or four years before moving back. Those four years were probably the most defining years of my life. That’s what needs to be understood. There’s always this misconception of where we grew up – I mean we weren’t country boys. We weren’t from small town Belleville. We moved to Belleville, all for different reasons.

My mother moved to Belleville because it was recommended by a friend of hers who said, “There’s this new apartment complex going up. It’s in this area called Belleville, it’s going to be close to your work. Derrick will have good schools and a whole other environment to grow up in.”

So my mother took profit of that. Kevin’s mom had her response for getting her home out there. She had two kids, Kevin and his sister. Juan’s father had his reasons. He had two brothers, so... Various reasons, but it’s funny because it brought us all together.

So you were black city kids living in a white suburb: what position did that give you in your school?

It was interesting. All the kids – not just from our suburb, but all the kids from pretty much all the suburbs within a six-mile radius – went to one school. So there’s an area called West Willow, which is more than predominantly black: it is 100% a black area. Most of the people who live in West Willow are people that migrated there. Their grandparents and great grandparents originally migrated there to work at Ford’s Willow Run plant.

Willow Run was one of the first mass production auto-lines and people came from the South up North to work. When Willow Run eventually shut down, these people, who at one time had very productive lives, became very unproductive. They ended up going to school with us as well.

I’d had a whole summer to get to know the kids in my complex. They were mostly white kids, and I grew up originally in Detroit. The public school that I went to was in a middle-to-upper-middle-class area, so I wasn’t in any way estranged to white people. I went to school with white kids, black kids, everybody. That summer, just being a kid and enjoying the summer with my friends. When we went to school the first day, I’ll never forget it.

Troy was the kid’s name. He was my best buddy all summer. After waiting in line to get his lunch, he went and just sat down at the first table. I was right behind him, so when I got my lunch I went and sat down with Troy. I’ll never forget it, because all of the white kids at the table looked at me. They gave me this really strange look. Troy didn’t notice it and I didn’t really pay much attention to it, either.

I had not been subjected to any kind of racism before. I think the city kids live a kind of protected life in a sense. If you live in a predominantly white or black area in the city, you don’t ever come into contact with certain elements. You think you’re rough and tough, you’re schooled and seasoned, but you’re not really, because you’ve never been subjected to the oneness, you know. So I noticed it, but Troy didn’t.

Then a kid came up, a black kid, and he looked at me and said, “Hey man, why you sitting up here with all the honkies?” I looked at him and I said, “The honkies?” It hadn’t even dawned on me that I was sitting with a bunch of white kids. It never occurred to me. And then one of the schoolteachers came up to me and said, “You should be sitting back there.”

I was sitting with a bunch of white kids. One of the teachers said, “You should be sitting back there.”

For real?

He was really relaxed about it. He said, “How come you’re not sitting back there?” In a nice way, but he still asked. I ate my lunch and it was over. Troy looked at me and then he noticed. He felt something too.

Then the next day I got to know Aaron, Juan’s brother. The second day, Aaron and myself sat down in that same section. Aaron also was sitting at another table by himself, because he was from the city as well. It didn’t dawn on him that this was a problem.

This time we sat together, at the front. As we had our lunch two more black kids came up and laughed at us. They started pointing at us as they thought we were funny. So the third day, I think one of the black kids was in line, he said, “Hey man, come sit with us.”

So lo and behold we went and sat with these black kids. He took us in the very back of the lunchroom in the corner, where were these four tables. It was all black people sitting there. Every single person at these four tables was black. There were about 40 tables in this lunchroom and this was basically the whole black population of kids going to school there.

The other 40 tables were all full of white kids. These black kids, they would stand up and throw French fries at each other and scream obscenities back and forth. It was a culture shock for me. It blew me away. I had never experienced, like… voluntary segregation. Voluntary segregation. I think that changed me. That was a defining moment in my life, because it put me… it made me feel outside who I thought I was. I don’t know if that’s interesting to you or not.

Did all these things serve to make you feel like it was you against the world? You didn’t want to fit into these groups, coming from the city and being in a suburb. Is it fair to say you were a loner or an outsider?

I was. I pitied these people. I sat back there with them for the rest of the year. I sat with them feeling pure disgust. I used to look left at the table just across from me, a table that was all white kids, and observe how they used to look over at these black people who acted like fucking animals. These black kids were all from West Willow, from what had once been well-to-do decent families who had migrated from the South a couple of generations ago. Proud people who no longer had a job.

Now this is what it had come to. I sat there and felt like, “This is fucked up.” I made a promise to myself that I was going to be better than that. That was my promise to myself. Kevin Saunderson can tell you the same story about that lunchroom, because he sat at the table with me.

Did the three of you have a similar feeling about this? Is that what brought you together?

I don’t know. I know that Kevin didn’t sit at those tables automatically either. We came together through sports. That’s how I met Kevin: we played together on the teams.

And you and Juan came together through music?

Juan and I came together through his brother, Aaron.

That was through music as well wasn’t it?

No, it wasn’t. Originally it was because Juan played chess and I played chess. We were kids and we didn’t have anyone to play with, so we started playing chess together. That’s how we got to know each other.

Juan played chess and I played chess, so we started playing together. That’s how we got to know each other.

How did you bond with Aaron then? You were friends with him before Juan.

We just took a liking to each other. Aaron used to tell me he had a car. I didn’t believe him, then one day he showed up at my front door, at 13 years old, with a Fleetwood Cadillac. Big red crushed velvet... Aaron was chillin’ man! He had the Funkadelic pumpin’ through the soundsystem, and I was like, “What is that?” And that’s what changed my life.

The car or Funkadelic?

When he let the windows down it was almost like a Cheech and Chong movie. Out comes this big thing of smoke, this weed, you know. And coming out of the stereo it’s, “We love to funk you Funkenstein, your funk is the best.” That shit just blew me away.

Parliament – Dr. Funkenstein

I was outside playing with my two buddies, Tom and Jerry – those were genuinely their names – and Aaron pulled up with the gangster lean and the George Clinton and Funkadelic pumpin’ out of the car. I was like, “Wow.” This music, this car, this thing, this guy! He took me for a ride and it changed my life. It was another defining moment.

Is it true that you met Juan through a cassette tape?

What happened was that Juan and I, we knew each other through Aaron. Juan was basically an introverted guy. He used to write. He had his bass guitar everywhere he went with him in the house. At that time, Juan never really left the house much. He wasn’t the athletic type. He loved sports, he loved people, but he was really just a quiet guy. He hasn’t changed much.

He used to play his bass, without an amp, just sitting there in the kitchen, plucking. He would write [down] everything. He would pluck-pluck and write, pluck-pluck and write. He wrote his own lyrics, he wrote his own notes. He was a musician. His dream from the age of 12 was to be a musician. He knew what he was going to be.

To be a musician or to be in a band?

I think Juan wanted to be a musician.

Was he not interested in playing with other people?

Un-huh. When Juan was young he was always writing music. He knew what he wanted to do. He told me when he was 16 years old that he was going to make a record label called Metroplex. Literally, when he was 16 years old he told me that.

Anyway, here’s this guy walking through the house, he’s got his hair permed back, and he’s plucking away on the bass guitar. I’m looking at this dude, he looks at me and he instantly doesn’t like me because I’m a square. I’m a complete square for these guys. I mean, these guys come from Detroit, the other side of town. They’ve come up another way and have another lifestyle. I’m just a square kid from the city. I’m just a kid who likes to play baseball and watch cartoons. I believed everything my mother told me, you know.

Some years on as we became somewhat associated with each other through playing chess and me coming to the house every day, Juan got to like me. We enjoyed each other’s company.

I had come across these tapes, from my mother. She knew somebody at the hospital who basically gave her some tapes that they didn’t want. Some blank cassette tapes of high quality. She knew I liked to record music on the stereo and just listen to it. I remember taking one of the cassettes down to Aaron and Juan’s house. I left it there by mistake and Juan apparently used it.

I felt like the tape was valuable, so after some weeks I said, “Can I have my tape back?” Juan said to me, “Listen man, to be honest with you there’s some shit on the tape you’re not gonna like. Let me just give you another tape for that tape, because you ain’t gonna like what’s on the tape.” But I said, “No, give it back to me! I want my tape.”

So I took the tape. At that time my mother had just moved from Belleville back to the city, but everyone wanted me to finish the school year before I moved. So I moved in with Kevin’s family, because I had a better friendship with Kevin than I had with Juan at that time. Kevin’s mother knew my mother, it was great.

I put the tape on at Kevin’s house and we were just chillin’, listening. What was on the tape? Giorgio Moroder, some early Tangerine Dream shit, that kind of thing. It was completely psychedelic. It was another digestive lesson I was being given. This time it wasn’t just for me, but also for Kevin. I had some familiarity with some of the stuff because I’d been round Juan’s house, but it was the first time Kevin had heard this music. It freaked him out.

I put Kevin onto Mojo, who was on the radio every night. Mojo used to land the mothership. He used to use the intro to Close Encounters, play some Jimi Hendrix, bump into Funkadelic, then come out with some other funky shit. Some cool, psychedelic stuff and some funky stuff.

I never gave Juan the tape back. It eventually got lost, but I sought Juan out after that.

What sort of things really sparked your friendship?

When I went back and told him that I really liked the music on the tape, that’s when we became friends. From that day on we were friends. He was shocked and couldn’t believe it. He said, “You like that music?” I became his protégé from that day on.

How quickly did you two start DJing together?

Almost immediately. It was during the next couple of months.

How old were you?

Around 15. We decided to call our company Deep Space Soundworks.

Where did that come from? It is quite techno.

Juan just decided it was going to be called Deep Space. It’s his thing. He also came up with [the name] of the first record label that they put Cybotron on. It was called Deep Space Records, in 1981. It was all part of his thought process, where he was at.

Cybotron – Alleys of Your Mind

Was it a serious thing or just a hobby? Did you get gigs?

We got gigs, but we didn’t get gigs until we were about 17. Our first gigs were for local promoters. See, in Detroit we had a really developed scene that was unlike any other city. I’ve never seen it anywhere in the world, the way we did it in Detroit.

The high school scene?

Yes. The high school scene was amazing. All the young high school kids would dress really nice. You had guys wearing Polo and Versace, all this kind of ridiculous stuff, in high school. It was amazing how much money these parties were making. People were charging $25 to get in.

Even back then?

I could pull out some old flyers and prove it. 25 bucks, it was seriously like that.

So where were these kids getting their money?

It’s important to keep in mind that Juan, Kevin and myself come from middle class, upper middle class families. Most of the people we associated with were upper middle class to very rich black people. There wasn’t this element of… there was no abject poverty.

Juan, Kevin and myself come from middle class families. There was no abject poverty.

So socially these parties were very exclusive?

They were highfalutin’. Teenage kids with money.

Was this high school party scene racially mixed?

Yes, it was. This is all after moving back to Detroit. See, originally Detroit was a very integrated kind of city. Keep in mind that at one time, before the riots of 1967, Detroit was a predominantly white city with areas, like the lunchroom, completely segregated. Not by choice, but by that voluntary segregation mentality.

There was an area called Black Bottom that was, at one point, an area people were forced to live in. As time went on people could live anywhere they wanted to, except in certain areas where the community would covertly keep black people out. One black family in particular, headed by a black doctor, fought hard in Detroit to move into this one area. They had to go to the Supreme Court. He finally won, but after that all the white people moved out. Then the black people moved there and Black Bottom became nothing. It wasn’t as fucked up or as derogatory a name as you might imagine. It was at the end of the city, right on the river. At the time nobody wanted to live on the river. People thought living on the river was a bad thing, so black people had the riverfront. Now properties on the riverfront are the big thing.

These parties, were they suburban?

They were in the city.

Were the kids driving in to attend?

No, it was mainly kids from the city, but you had kids from the suburbs there too. At the time black kids had already integrated all over Michigan. Most of the black kids who would come to our parties were attending private schools. There were girls from the Mercy High School, which at that time cost $10,000 a year [in fees]. They came from there and from Cass Tech in Midtown Detroit. There was a whole social element involved in it.

Reading about it, it seems very much like a fashion scene

It was. It was full of posers.

Was the music important or was it just a soundtrack?

It was very important, because those kids would not dance if they did not like a mix. If the mix was not right or the DJ had a bad mix, they would not dance. Jeff Mills, myself, Delano Smith, Mike Clark, we all come from that scene. We were all part of that high school scene, we grew up with that. That was what made us who we are today.

Cybotron – Cosmic Cars

Those kids were our guinea pigs. We debuted “Cosmic Cars,” one of Juan’s records, at one of those parties. Eventually The Music Institute would open, years later when those kids were more grown up, and they came to that as well. But they came raw, because The Music Institute was a box, with just a strobe light, and they loved it. They had this education of music since they were 14 years old. Kevin and myself started travelling back and forth to London, so we’re bringing all this music back, plus we had all the Chicago and Detroit stuff, so we blew people away.

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.”

Doctor's Cat – Feel The Drive (Vocal)

By Doctor’s Cat?

That’s right. We flipped the script. That was a super-big record in Chicago and Detroit. Farley [Jackmaster Funk] was the reason that record became a hit at all. He played the hell out of that record. Because he played it so much, we all jumped on it.

That brings us onto Chicago. That city was a huge influence, right?

Oh yeah. I used to drive to Chicago. Juan didn’t care for Chicago – he thought the whole Chicago house music scene was gay. He was not with it at all.

Music was becoming our common denominator.

How did you hear about it, first of all?

I didn’t hear about it. It was a mistake. This was before house music was called house music. I drove up to Chicago. My mother moved there. She had left me, remember. I told you.

When you were living with Kevin?

Right. They moved back to Detroit and I finished school, stayed up in Belleville the summer and then the following school year went back to Detroit to live with my mom. I was 16. It was a real culture shock going to high school with black kids again. That was a trip. It was wild.

I remember a couple of years later, before I finished high school, my mother moved to Chicago. So I stayed once again in Detroit to finish school, because transferring schools was not good. I had left Belleville high school to come to go to high school in the city and I had a good chance of getting an athletic scholarship. I ended up staying and I had received some great offers to run track in university. But I didn’t develop it because I just didn’t have discipline. My mother wasn’t around. Nobody was around me basically, so I lost it. I sort of drifted for a while.

That’s when I think things really changed for me, because I ended up living with my grandfather some days, some days I’d live with Juan and his grandparents, some days I would live... anywhere, because Juan had also moved back to Detroit by then. We had lost contact with Kevin at that time. He was in Belleville and we were all in Detroit. There was this period where it was just myself and Juan again.

Music was becoming our common denominator. We would just sit in his bedroom and analyze records. We would just put on a piece of music, listen to it and try to figure out what that person was thinking when they made the record. This would just be our days. We had a pair of turntables that we’d hustled and a crappy mixer that we borrowed. We would sit in Juan’s bedroom with these few records that we had and just mix them over and over again.

We would just sit in Juan’s bedroom and analyze music.

Can you remember those records?

I’d have to call Juan and his memory’s not that good.

You say that you were intellectualizing these records, so your connection to music is getting very insular. It’s not like you’re hearing them in clubs – you’re hearing them on a radio or at home and just talking about them. How did that change the way you saw music?

That’s exactly what it did. It changed the way we saw and felt it. Because for us it wasn’t a vocal record we would analyze, it was always an instrumental. And there wasn’t that much instrumental shit out back then, so we were really caught up. When we first heard Manuel Göttsching, we just listened to that shit for hours, man: days and weeks trying to figure out what he was thinking.

Manuel Göttsching – E2-E4

Manuel Göttsching is a great example. What kind of conclusions did you reach?

We just came to our own conclusions about what was on that person’s mind, or what would make them think like that. Or where they were when they made that record. I don’t think we actually had any conclusions. I think we came up with our own conclusions, maybe that the person was deep, or the person was thinking about politics, whatever the case was. We may have been completely wrong. I don’t remember reading any interviews with those artists. I just know that it helped me develop a sense of conscience, of direction, of where I thought you needed to be to pull this shit off.

How would you come across records like Manuel Göttsching?

We didn’t, we only had a cassette of it from the radio from New York. Juan was in NYC and he heard some DJ play it on a mix. And he recorded it. That’s how he had it.

Was he picking them apart musically as well?

There was one bed. Juan would lay that way and I’d lay this way, facing back, and we would just talk until both of us fell asleep. We would just have music on. We did this for years. It was what we did.

Did that connect with your DJing?

Completely. I learned that there’s always once upon a time in a record. Every record is once upon a time. Every record has a beginning and an ending. Make sure the story has a beginning, a middle part and an ending. I listen to music now and there’s no beginning, there’s no ending. It’s like, “OK and in the middle of the story let’s take it from here.” It’s like every record is one long breakdown. I keep waiting for these records to take off. It taught me that consciously you have to give this a story. You have to give it some sort of sense of purpose. Maybe it sounds corny, or hopelessly romantic, but it’s true, man. So true.

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.

You said the Chicago thing was a mistake.

My mother moved to Chicago, and I just went there to visit my mom. It was an amazing visit. I remember getting in from the train and the first thing I heard on the radio, at midday, was “Feel the Drive.” I’d never heard it before.

See, there was this period, after he’d released the early Cybotron records, when Juan thought that there was this vast ocean and in it was him, in a rowboat with no oars. There was no help in sight, he had this creative, brilliant idea and there was nobody out there to share it with. He thought that nobody would ever understand him. He wouldn’t be saved. And when I heard this shit, it was like a beacon. It was like a lifeboat.

Juan thought that nobody would ever understand him. He had this creative, brilliant idea and there was nobody out there to share it with.

So he had managed to put records out without realizing any kind of context that he could sell them?

I gotta get him on the phone, man. I gotta get him on the phone right now, because “Feel the Drive” came out maybe a year or two after the Cybotron stuff...

[Derrick phones Juan Atkins]

Derrick May

Hi, I’ve got to ask you a question then I’ll leave you alone. Do you remember when “Feel the Drive” came out? Was it 1983 or 1984?

Juan Atkins

We were doing all them parties. It might have come out a little later.

Derrick May

When was “Cosmic Cars” released?

Juan Atkins

It was 1981 and 1982 when we started all that stuff.

Derrick May

OK, but “Feel the Drive” came out in 1983 or 1984. I was already out of high school.

Juan Atkins

Do you think it was that late?

Derrick May

It was definitely that late, because I made my first record in 1986. My point is this: when you made this record, you didn’t have any idea about any Italian shit. We didn’t know about any shit, did we?

Juan Atkins

Nah, but remember when “Alleys of Your Mind” came out, we had it on 45 on Deep Space Records and the DJs would glue the record to a 12".

Derrick May

How did you come up with the name Deep Space?

Juan Atkins

I dunno, man. Me and Rik just brainstormed on all that shit.

Derrick May

I just want to know what year that record came out and how many years before it you were thinking about that stuff. It’s hard for people to understand how you did this without having any perception of anything happening around the world.

Juan Atkins

Yeah. It was the synthesizer. The synthesizer was the main catalyst for all of that. Certain things you hear in the machine are gonna prompt you to do certain things, especially if you make all your beats and rhythms from that same machine. Back when I started making music I was using the same synth for the snare sound, the hi-hat sound… everything. Just filtered noise with the resonance and the modulation.

Derrick May


Juan Atkins

Are you doing an interview or something?

Derrick May

Well, I’m thinking of doing one. I’m just reading the questions. I was trying to remember the days of us staying up contemplating “E2-E4” because you had that cassette, back at that time. Alright man, I’ve leave you alone.

So, back to Chicago. You heard this music on the radio...

Yeah man, I just had to search out these records. I couldn’t believe it. So I started asking around about where to buy. I just started walking and I found a record shop called Gramaphone. I walked in there and looked inside the shop. It was a tiny little space. There’s a lot of history in that shop, though. I remember just looking at the walls, not knowing what to do, intimidated a little bit. I was a young DJ, not really sure of my skills, not really sure of anything. So I didn’t buy anything.

But it seems like I remember somebody telling me about another record shop called Importes, Etc. Now that was another story. I had to make my way to find it. It was on a little back road, in the industry section.

I went to the shop and it was the shit. It was this beautiful, well-done shop with these four late-20s to early-30s gentlemen working there, mostly gay, but they knew their music. When you bought a record, this is how they would do it. There were no turntables. There was nothing to listen to records on. They had the records along the wall. Very, very beautiful presentation – the place was done out in this sort of oak. You would look at a record and they would tell you what it sounded like.

That’s going to appeal to you.

They would describe to you what the fuck this record sound like. Now they did have turntables there, two turntables. And they played what they wanted to play. But they were not necessarily playing what the customer would give them. On occasion they would do this, but normally they had these four experts that worked there and because they had a massive mail order business as well, they had to be very descriptive about the music.

Oh, because they were on the phone about it.

They would tell you, “Well yes, this record it has a long intro, very percussive, then it breaks into this bassline that reminds you of whatever, and then this chord line that comes across and this interesting progression.” They would break it down. “That sounds great, I’ll have a copy.” And that’s how you bought music from that place. Every time time you walked in you’d hear a record playing, maybe “Time to Jack,” by Chip E, or Jesse Saunders, or whatever the hot record was. You might search through all the imports to find what you wanted. That’s how they did it and how I discovered all this music.

Chip E – Time To Jack

So you’re hearing the Hot Mix 5 and going to Importes, Etc.

This is how I learned about Frankie Knuckles. People would say, “Frankie plays this record, he’s playing the hell out of it, you’ve got to have that.” No other description.

And that was enough?

Yeah. Or, “Ronnie is playing this, and you must have this. Who is Ronnie? Who is Frankie? Then finally the people working there told me who they were, and where to go to hear them play. Being the young kid that I was I didn’t have any friends in Chicago, I just went by myself. I went to the Power Plant.

What was it like?

It lifted me off my feet – I was elevated. I can’t explain it to you any better than that. The smell of the place, the people, the long stairway up into it. This lofty space, painted black with this amazing soundsystem that you couldn’t see because it was like... everywhere. Frankie was on this beautiful DJ booth, just high enough where you couldn’t touch him. It was a shapely sort of space. It had one big room and then a smaller room that was like a corridor. In the corridor he had photos of his life, different pictures of him and all the people that worked there. They framed every picture.

There was also fresh fruit. No liquor, only food and juice, which kept them open all night. They laid the fruit out beautifully. People could just voluntarily, nicely, take a piece. There were oranges, apples and bananas. Through the night, they would continuously keep the fruit going. This was what kept people alive and well. They did this and the party would go till dawn.

You paid 15 bucks to get in and you’d hear Frankie Knuckles. He was nothing like he is now. He was unbelievable. He played Front 242 and he played Frankie Goes To Hollywood. He played disco, Chip E, all this different music.

There was a period in my life where after I heard him, and after I got elevated, I went to hear Ron Hardy. I don’t know whether it was six months later or six weeks later that I finally heard Ronnie for the first time. When I finally went to hear him, I wasn’t elevated, this time I was flat-out busted down! I was beat up. I couldn’t believe it. The space was around 18 feet wide and very long. Just long. The DJ booth was almost at floor level, just a hole in the wall in the middle.

At one end?

Yeah. You’d walk in, look left and there were these two gigantic speakers. In the middle was Ronnie, in this little hole in the wall. They’d put him on a platform, about so high. And he had his shit behind him, his sofas and shit and DJ booth. And this way, it was just long.

They used to have a strobe light, just a pin-spot all the way along, so it was constant pin-spots. He didn’t have any other lights. The speakers... they just had whatever they had, but their speakers were the shit.

There was this vent pumping out hot air outside the club. You walk into the club... you know how you see an air vent in some places? The old style fan? It’s pumping. The air intake, it’s taking air out. The room was just full of steam. And it was just white smoke. It looked like the place was on fire, but it was just people’s heat. It was unbelievable.

When you walked into the Music Box, you paid and, similar to the Power Plant, there was an area where you had fruit and what have you. The Music Box was not clean – the Music Box was dirty. So you’d walk in and there were people sitting along the wall.

There was another element, too. Frankie had sort of like the upper tier, the upper echelon of gays and straights who really wanted to party and wear beautiful clothes and have a great time. The Music Box was mainly full of kids from the South Side – younger kids, more physical, more athletic. There were also young girls willing to let you put your hands on them when you danced. It was another kind of element entirely. It was straight up ghetto house.

People were freakin’, dancing close and grabbing each other: guys jumping to the sky and holding onto the speakers. Sometimes they’d even be dancing on top of the speakers. They were really going for it. You’d walk on the one side there’d be people chilling and then you’d walk on through that corridor. The moment you walked through that corridor right there and got into this area right here, it’d be like a heat-ball. These people, it was just like this monster moving and you’d find yourself right in it. It changed my life, man.

At the Music Box, people were freakin’, dancing close and grabbing each other. They were really going for it.

Frankie was my man. I loved him, he lifted me off the ground, he set me up for life, but it was Ronnie that moved me to the ultimate level of knowing I could do this shit. He is the one who made me realize that my teachings from being around Juan, from growing up in Belleville, from listening to that cassette, from the whole entire period of listening to my stepfather’s record collection and learning how to pause button with Juan, all this little stuff we had learned, it all came under this one basic raw element that this motherfucker right here had painted on my face. First, he painted it out simply: it’s all in your soul. Whatever you feel just let it out.

I just fucking lost it. I was right there with them kids, jumping, screaming and dancing, every week. I had my shirt off, going nuts, grabbing girls and freaking with them. I took Darryl Wynn there and my friend Rick Mosely. I took Kevin Saunderson there. Kevin made a record called “Bounce Your Body to the Box.” It just changed everybody’s life. That was the one. We opened The Music Institute shortly after that.

Reese & Santonio – Bounce Your Body To the Box (Power Hit Mix)

What was it about Ron’s style? What did he play that was different to Frankie?

Frankie could never play like that if you took him and gave him a full blood transplant and new hands and arms. Ronnie could never play like Frankie, either. He was sporadic and he was spontaneous. Everything he played was up-tempo. He played Stevie Wonder “As” at plus eight. He would add effects to it, or drums, or he’d re-edit it, just to keep the dramatic part of it going over and over again. And the crowd would just go nuts.

He had special mixes from all the kids. All the house kids gave him everything. They gave it to Frankie too, but Frankie didn’t play it like Ronnie did. Marshall Jefferson would take stuff down to Ronnie.

He was apt to play and remix everything, or get those guys to remix it. You know, “Time to Jack,” “Jack Your Body,” all of those early records. Ronnie had a special mix of Jungle Wonz “Time Marches On” and he played the fuck out of it. I’ve never heard it anywhere else in my life. I bet you when Ronnie died it died with him. It was this version that was just the bassline with these really creepy hi-hats. Every now and then a sporadic “Time Marches On” vocal would come in.

Jungle Wonz – Time Marches On (Club)

Maybe it was the EQ. That’s where I learned how to use the EQ. He just would bust up an EQ, just… boom! Tyree Cooper heard me play once and said, “Man, you remind me of Ronnie.” That was a big compliment to me.

I never copied anybody. My DJ style more or less just developed itself. Juan used to make fun of me. He’d say, “Man, you make the funniest faces when you play,” and I would say, “Well, I can’t help that.” Indirectly it was all those people that had something to do with our lives, we just didn’t create this shit.

Did you hook up with any of the kids who were producing these tracks?

I actually sold Frankie Knuckles a TR-909. Everybody was producing music in Chicago but nobody had a 909, whereas I had an extra one. So I took it to Chicago. After me falling in love with the clubs, I had just made it up to the DJ booth and got to know Frankie. He had taken a liking to me. He would let me sit in the DJ booth and let me play for a couple of minutes. Not long, but he was very nice.

So Frankie just clicked. Ask him one day, “Why did you let Derrick May in your DJ booth?” See what he says. I would like to know myself. I would like to know why this man took to a kid who was nobody. Anyway, I took the 909 up there. I needed money and I had two. I shouldn’t have had two to begin with, but I had two. Juan said, “Don’t do it.”

This was when they had just made their first records. I think Chip E had made “Time to Jack” and Farley... Steve Hurley had made “Jack Your Body.” Craig Loftis was the engineer for all those guys. People don’t know that. Craig Loftis was a very important part of that musical endeavor for a lot of those guys.

I said to Frankie, “I have a 909, would you like to buy it?” He looked at me and he looked at Craig Loftis. Craig was Frankie’s right hand man. Craig said, “Wait here. How much do you want for it?” I told him how much I wanted, he went and got the money, I got the 909 from the car and sold it to them. Juan said, “Man, that was the biggest mistake you ever made.” But they were going to get a 909 anyway [at some point].

Yeah, it can’t have been that hard.

They were expensive. They were a thousand dollars. Nobody had that kind of money. Juan and I were up to tricks, using credit cards. I came across a couple of them.

So you spent time with your mom, moved back to Detroit and were then going back and forth between the cities?

Yeah, I continued to stay in Detroit. I was living with my grandfather at that point. My grandfather was my best friend and I needed to stay close to Detroit because I felt like I was doing something [important] musically. My mother wanted me to go to school [university]. My whole family wanted me to leave Detroit because they felt like I was this aimless, wandering kid. I didn’t have any money and I didn’t really have any purpose. My grandfather didn’t see what I was doing – nobody could see what I was doing. But with Juan we were teaching ourselves all of this shit, so I was fighting it. I was fighting my family at the time.

Did going to the clubs in Chicago give you an impetus for making music?

Yes, going to the clubs in Chicago, but also hanging out with Ken Collier. He was easily one of the top DJs I’ve ever heard in my life. Him and Ron had this similar style of mixing. Indirectly, he’s definitely been an inspiration for me. These days I mix a lot like Ken on purpose. I never copied anybody but I do purposely pay homage to Ken with my mixing style these days.

Ken was a “dropper.” He dropped mixes. He was a drop mix kind of guy and the technique of dropping a mix is not easy. To drop a mix is harder than blending. To me, blending is the easy way out. You can blend, blend, blend, fade in with the mix and then fade in the bass. When you drop a mix that shit has to hit, because if you fuck it up, it’s dry and it sounds like shit. When you drop a mix it’s like an explosion.

To drop a mix is harder than blending. To me, blending is the easy way out. When you drop a mix it’s like an explosion.

When was the first time you saw Ken Collier and where?

It was our first gig worth anything. A guy named Darryl Tiggs had enough faith in us [Deep Space Soundworks] to hire us for a gig. He was one of the top promoters in the city at the time. We had already done our fair share of high school parties and come up through the ranks of that. We were left of the establishment. We were known as guys who played weird music, but also cool music.

So this guy Darryl, he liked us. Now there was a period in Detroit where people had lawn parties at night, at the back of their house. You’d charge 15 or 20 bucks for people to come to the house, but you’d get affluent houses in affluent neighbourhoods. Just knock on your neighbors doors to let them know you’re going to do this party. DJs would come, set up their turntables, girls would come out and everybody’s wearing their best clothes… It was beautiful. It was a nice thing.

This one promoter, Darryl Tiggs, he didn’t have no nice houses: he had some fucked up houses in the middle of nowhere. He actually called his parties the Pink Poodles. So basically we solicited Darryl for several months to let us play one of his parties. He had moved his parties downtown to a place called Downstairs Pub, and Downstairs Pub was probably the most established venue at that time in the city. He said, “OK, I’ll let you guys warm up for Ken Collier.”

We ended up showing up at this party. The turntables were already set up. We didn’t have slipmats – we didn’t know what the fuck a slipmat was. We took the record jackets and made a slipmat. So we’re playing shit like “Trans Europe Express,” all this stuff.

Darryl Tiggs has this really black, kinda cool crowd. They’re standing around, drinking their drinks, but not one fucking person is dancing. Ken Collier arrives and this is the first time we ever met the man. He’s about six foot two and was wearing this big be-bop leather jacket. He walks in with his record crates, sets one down, sets another one down and looks at us. We kind of brushed to the side a little bit, Juan and myself. He takes out a record, takes our makeshift slipmat off the turntables and he puts on a real slipmat. He pops this record on, listens on the headphones, cues up, pulls back and then, boom, he drops it. It was Frankie Smith’s “Double Dutch Bus.”

Frankie Smith – Double Dutch Bus (Original 12" Mix)

The place went off. Within ten seconds the whole floor was full. I’ll never forget that. I’ve got to call Juan back. That was another defining moment. We knew we didn’t have the records and we weren’t DJs. We knew that we were nothing that we thought we were. It was embarrassing, for real. Truly embarrassing.

[Derrick calls Juan again]

Derrick May

Tell me your most embarrassing moment as a DJ. Would you say it was the night we first met Ken Collier and we played with him at the Downstairs?

Juan Atkins

Oh yeah, when Ken Collier came on and pulled the rubber mats off. [Derrick and Juan both laugh] “Here, let me show you boys how it’s done.” [more laughs] We were playing 45s.

[Derrick ends call]

So you were going to Chicago and soaking it up, then bringing it back and thinking about it. Was there nothing like that in Detroit?

No, there was a competitive spirit to the guys that played in Detroit, but we didn’t like their music. Like he said before, they were all playing the same shit. There was only one record shop: Professional Records. They went to the same shop and bought the same records, but they were all very competitive. We were all 16 year-old DJs. I don’t think there were too many places in the country at the time that had 15 and 16 year-old kids playing disco music, of any nature, to an audience and getting paid for it. That was pretty fucking huge. So we were making ourselves pretty competitive, at an early age. That’s why I think I’m sitting here today. Not just for my DJ skills, but for the musical skills that came along with it. Learning how to play music, learning how to compose it, all aspects of writing a song.

You hooked up with Ken Collier. Was there much of a gay scene in Detroit?

Big time. And we had to integrate that, because we weren’t going to make it otherwise. Ken actually gave us access to the record pool at that time.

Was he getting the same kinds of records as the guys in Chicago?

No, he was just getting records from the record pool. Ken wasn’t really interested – he just had his own sound. He was very much into a gay, funky sound. Not gay Abba, but he was very much into ESG. That was his thing. He wasn’t into mellow records – he was into up-tempo music. He’d look for obscure shit, but it had to be funky. If it had a vocal he was pretty happy with that too. Ken was a big Sylvester fan.

Where do you think the love for Europe came from? You know, the European clothes and the Italian names

It was really the fact that people were informed at a young age, reading things like GQ and other fashion magazines.

But why were they looking to that?

It seemed cool. It looked cool. Isn’t that strange though?

Well, not really. I think it’s the same fascination that we have for black America. It’s a mirror.

It’s what you can’t touch. It’s what you want to get into.

It’s so different from your own experience that it’s fascinating.

The difference was that if the kids at Charivari had met people that actually looked like that, if they had gone to Cannes, France, and ran into some guy looking that way, they would have been very disappointed. But it seemed cool and it gave a lot of these kids another level to reach.

If the kids at Charivari had gone to Cannes and bumped into some guy looking that way, they would have been very disappointed.

Is that the same reason that people were getting into English and Italian records?

Yeah, that’s the main reason. The Italian music was also very good: Klein + M.B.O., all the Capricorn stuff. I was the one who brought it back to Detroit. Nobody had it.

That was just from Chicago.

Yeah, that’s what gave me my edge.

There was a ton of British stuff on the radio too. In 1983 a massive percentage of the top 40 was British synth-pop.

For us, that was sweet. We loved that shit.

Was that universal though?

It was very universal. There was a time when Depeche Mode sold out stadiums the size of Wembley in the States. Later they just lost it.

But you saw their music, not as pop music, but as a continuation of something else?

Oh yeah. In their live show it really proved it. In their live show they tried to be really hi-tech. Did you ever see their live show? They really pulled it off. I think it was cool until Dave took his shirt off or something at the end. Other than that, everything was great. I thought it was very much a continuation.

I thought Ultravox were very important. There was also a record called “Transdance” from a group called Night Moves. I’m sure to this day it was David Bowie just fuckin’ around on a little bullshit, no-name label. It was like this 808 with a synth line, these chords and just this gaunt sounding haunting vocal. Around the time when the Italian stuff was happening big, it was considered one of those records, even though it was from England. There were a couple of English imports that came along like that. But Italy was where it was at.

Night Moves – Transdance (UK Disco Mix)

There was a period when the Italian thing dried up. That was a bad time and that was when we got really serious about music. It was, I think, right between the point where Italy dried up and Farley and those guys made their first records. Farley became king with his first records. We respected him and we respected all those guys in Chicago. After that, everybody made their records in Chicago and we had a chance to analyze it and become friends with the Chicago guys. That was good because that made us feel really welcome, really key to them...

You said that when the Italian records dried up it gave you a little push to start making music.

Not a little push, man. We were unconscious for a while but we didn’t realize it. We lived off those records for years. See that was one of the biggest problems in Detroit: people played records too long. Guys would play records for three years. I mean, really! I’m serious. Guys would play records for five years. It was unbelievable. So that was a period when Detroit kind of got time-warped.

Did guys like Was (Not Was) have any influence in this at all? Because they were doing weird little records like “All Shook Up” by Orbit and stuff like that. Was that stuff getting played in Detroit clubs?

Sure, by Ken Collier. Look on the labels. Ken Collier’s name pops up on every one of those records. But that was more of a gay thing, or a weirdo thing. See, Juan and I played “Wheel Me Out” by Was (Not Was). It’s one of my favorite records of all time.

Great record.

It’s such an anti-establishment record. I didn’t really play the others so much, but they were big records too, though not really with the kids of our age. They were more into that really pretty soft sounding stuff.

So what drove you in the studio? Obviously Juan was making records already.

He was. Juan wouldn’t let me touch the keyboard. I was like his protégé, basically. He wouldn’t let me do anything. He just told me to sit back and watch. I was his promoter and I was his cheerleader. I would go around and support and tell people in record shops. I took the first 45s of “Alleys of Your Mind” to record shops and tried to get it played. I got us a meeting with Mojo, through my steadfast dedication to sitting in this one particular restaurant where Mojo eventually showed up. I was supposed to be at home in bed for school the following day. I’d be in this restaurant until four o’clock in the morning, waiting for him to come. Then finally he showed up one morning and I had the record on me and he took it. He called me the next day and wanted to meet.

That’s “Alleys of Your Mind,” right?

That’s right. That’s how Juan’s career took off.

So how did you come to break away from Juan to do it yourself?

I didn’t really break away from Juan. What happened was this. We decided to do a subsidiary label, originally, and that’s how it started. I wasn’t making records yet but I felt like I could do something and didn’t really feel like it would be cool to have it on Metroplex. I felt I should do it this way. Juan kinda felt like I was going left, but I really wasn’t going too far left. So what we did was we came up with this matrix for the records MS, instead of having T0001 for the first track we called it MS which meant Metroplex Subsidiary. If you look right now on the matrix of any Transmat record it says MS.

That was the purpose of Transmat from the beginning. Musically speaking, I didn’t really make my first record until “Nude Photo,” because Juan wouldn’t let me. I had my keyboards, I had everything. I’d gathered it through time and borrowed stuff from him but I didn’t know how to use it. I had to teach myself and it took me over a year, doing stuff every single day.

Rhythim Is Rhythim – Nude Photo

I then cut myself off from Juan, like completely. I had my little one-bedroom apartment, but I couldn’t pay the rent because I didn’t have a job. I was hustling to make a living, doing this, doing that. I never sold drugs or anything, just ridiculous things. I just ended up spending the next year of my life hibernating, working with the equipment every single day until I developed this thing. I didn’t turn on the radio on purpose. I didn’t turn on Mojo at all. I didn’t turn on the TV. I barely even wore clothes. I ate nothing but cereal and just basically went inside.

And that was all building up to the one track?


Did you make any tracks along the way?

Nothing that I’d let anyone hear. This went on for a year. I made about two or three hundred pieces of music. I put them all on cassette. I had this basket, the sort that most people would put dirty clothes in, and it was all cassettes. To the brim. All these first versions of things like “Nude Photo” and “Strings of Life.” First versions of this stuff.

Finally I got asked by a friend of mine who worked with this kid called Tom Barnett, who I did eventually work with. He said, “He’s got a little money, he wants to put a record out.” So Tom brought me this track that he wanted to do, which was terrible. But he had the money to put the record out. So I said leave it with me overnight and I’ll come up with something. So what I did is I made “Nude Photo,” and he brought me something that had a bassline that sounded like New Order’s “Blue Monday.” I thought it was wack.

So I did “Nude Photo” completely. Then I did “The Dance” and “Move It” in one night. I did the vocal to “Move It” as well. That’s on the B-side. Tom came by the next day and he loved it. He thought it was him and that I was inspired by what he’d given me, which it really wasn’t. But I put his name on the song credit anyway, which has been... was... a nightmare. It’s not any more. That was the beginning.

Actually I had finished an almost complete version of “Strings of Life” before I released “Nude Photo,” but I was afraid. Firstly, I didn’t know how to put a record out. I had to go back to Juan. Secondly, I didn’t understand what I had done with “Strings of Life.”

Rhythim Is Rhythim – Strings of Life

In terms of what?

I was... frightened. I was truly scared. It scared me, that piece of music. It was just something…

Scared of people’s reactions?

People’s reactions wasn’t a part of it.

You knew that it was great from the word go? Or were you scared that it wasn’t?

Check it out. I didn’t think about selling my records. All I thought was, “What have I done?” I remember doing it and, finally when it was finished, I didn’t listen to it for a few minutes. When I hit the sequencer and it played, it was like a carnival. I felt like I was in the circus. I remember before I actually added the orchestration to it, it had a carnival sound on top of it, like a real playschool sound. It was reminding me of my childhood. Then I finally added the orchestration to it and it scared me.

When I made “Strings of Life” I listened to it for 24 hours. It freaked me out, so I couldn’t finish it.

I listened to it for 24 hours. I slept to it and woke up to it, because I hadn’t finished it. I hadn’t put the drums or the piano to it yet, just had the orchestration. It freaked me out, so I couldn’t finish it. I released “Nude Photo” first, then I did “Strings of Life.” That was probably was a good thing because “Nude Photo” opened the door. “Strings of Life” could have been obliterated if it had come out the wrong way.

It took me six months to put out “Strings,” because when I finally decided to do it, I had Mike James’ weird piano parts. I did some of the piano and he did some of the piano. His piano was by accident. He had done his piano a year before, but not for my song. He had made a ballad. I just ended up running across a piece of it, so I chopped it and looped it on top of my orchestration. It worked perfectly. I added all the piano parts, so the song was there, but it wasn’t edited.

So I went to a friend who was a radio production manager and he taught me how to edit. Juan showed me the fundamentals of editing, but this guy Jay Dixon, he showed me how to do some backwards edits, all kinds of shit. He showed me how to take a piece of tape and flip just the bass drum, flip just the hi-hat, crazy shit.

We sat down with “Strings of Life” and he did the edits. And boy did he do the edits! Those edits were perfect. It wasn’t just backwards edits, it was the kind of edits that make or break a movie: the kind of edits that make or break a great song. Timely edits, completely punctual, exactly where they should be. That’s why I never want to remix it. Because it’s not just a song that’s been mixed, it’s a song that’s been choreographed, put together, designed. It’s been put together by the best minds that I could find. I don’t want to ever touch that song. It’s a timely piece of music. I don’t want to touch it.

Why did you want to cut yourself off from other music?

Because Juan and I had always thought the outside influence was the worst influence when you’re trying to create something. If I went to work today on a new album, you wouldn’t hear from me for a year. It probably wouldn’t take me a year to do it any more. It probably wouldn’t take me six months, but I couldn’t do a gig in that time. I couldn’t listen to the radio. I couldn’t even listen to my own CD collection. I would have to quit listening to anything. If you want to pull this thing off, you have to not listen to shit, because it’ll creep up and find its way into your music, and you’ll be embarrassed.

When I had started to really get serious about being a professional DJ, I hated everything.

So 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.

But all that is in your history and your influences from before, you can’t escape that. And there are certain structures that work on the dancefloor and certain structures that don’t.

I don’t think about the dancefloor when I make a track. I don’t know if that is obvious or not.

Do you stick to this philosophy because it helps you work better, or is it a conscious, conceptual decision to shut out outside influences? Is that a policy decision or is that the way you work best?

That’s the way I work best, that’s it. That’s what I taught all my guys. I taught Carl Craig, everybody, to lock in.

When you made your first record, what was your ambition for it? Did you hope it’d get played on the radio, did you hope it would get played in clubs? What did you hope for that record?

With “Nude Photo” and “Strings of Life,” my first ambition was to take them to Chicago, then to get Ron Hardy and Frankie to play them. That was it. I thought if those guys played my record, I’d made it. I’m a hero! I mean I’m the man. That’s all I could think of. I didn’t get a chance to take “Nude Photo” to Chicago, so I gave it to my friend Al Miller.

Is that Alton Miller?

Yeah. I gave it to Al to take to Chicago. I remember Al calling me up and saying, “Man you’re not gonna believe this! Ron Hardy played your records four times in a row!”

How could you not be there?

I don’t know.

Was that “Strings of Life” or “Nude Photo” that Ron played?

I don’t know. I’ll have to call Al. I think it was “The Dance.”

When you and Juan were talking about music, and when he was making his first records he was very much into this futurology and the decay of Detroit. Were those kind of ideas in your head at all when you were making music?

I became completely anti-establishment. I got to the stage where my mother couldn’t even talk to me. I became a hater of politics, a hater of anything that was conforming. I hated reactionaries. I hated the whole idea of being a conservative. I hated the whole idea of walking the planet oblivious to what the fuck was happening. I think I took it over the top because I noticed that Juan wasn’t like that in reality. Juan was only like that in theory. In reality he didn’t really walk the walk or talk the talk. He had this sort of inner aggravation about things, but he was really just more or less theorizing about everything. It wasn’t really the way he felt. I perceived it wrongly. But it made me angry. It made me passionate to a point where the shit came out in the music. I tended to see my music more like a political thing, like a message.

I became a hater of politics – a hater of anything that was conforming.


Yeah, it was for me. I can look back now at how angry I was and what drove me. Reagan was president, it was a fucked up time. Detroit was all fucked up, depressed, people were out of work and lots of young black men were in prison for shit they didn’t do. I didn’t have any money, didn’t really have any particular vision or goal. I don’t come from a poor family, but I chose my own path. And I just felt like... all that shit used to come out of me. I used to feel so passionate about making a piece of music.

Not changing the subject, but I remember coming to England after the records had taken off. Sales were there, everything was a success and I got offered remixes. I turned to the engineer [while doing a remix] and said, “We’re gonna start the session at midnight.” The engineer looked at me like I was crazy. “Midnight? What?” And I was like, “Yeah, I like to work at night.” And they were like, “You’re in the studio mate, you can’t see if it’s day or night. You’re gonna start at nine o’clock in the morning like everybody else.” I’m thinking, “Nine o’clock in the morning for a recording session, what the fuck is that? That’s not making music, that’s making business.” That freaked me out. It was a strange thing to go in the studio like a job and make music. That was the difference between me doing it and me feeling it. It had to be done at a certain time, at a certain place, with a certain element attached.

You say your songs were very political. Maybe this is a corny way of asking, but if they had lyrics, what would the lyrics have been?

They would have been records about the future, making reference to what kind of future we might have. You know, shit like that, making reference to somehow saving the world. Because I never was a lyricist I never knew whether I had the ability or the talent to write. I didn’t want to do any narrations. I hear these records with corny narrations. I hate them.

How did you see the music you were making?

Soundtracks to everyday life.

Did you see it having a link to the Detroit music of the past?

No. I didn’t disrespect the Detroit music from the past, but I just never made... Unlike here or in Europe, where you can hear classics on the radio in a cafe, in Detroit you never heard Motown music anywhere. You wouldn’t go to a bar and hear those old songs. You would have to go to those older bars, where older guys went – we didn’t have any trendy bars anyway. Now we have trendy bars, but you won’t hear that shit. You’ll hear some cornball European techno CD playing from Sven Väth, or apple iTunes pumping out ambient music. You won’t hear any connection with history. I think the new generation of kids don’t know anything about Motown. They don’t even know that Motown is Detroit and they live in Detroit!

I got music on 24-7, all day long at a low volume. I can’t have the house without music.


How would they know?

What about Parliament?

Gone. Gone in the sense of what they stood for, that whole Detroit funk scene. Never gone as far as the music they made.

That was the sound of affluent Detroit: Motown and Parliament.

That’s right. That’s when people had their Fleetwoods with their crushed velvet seats, and their eight-track cassette tapes in their cars. They were good times.

Were you consciously trying to strip away history? Were you consciously trying to make sounds that didn’t relate to the past?

Quick story. My mom, as much as she loves music, she’s not a music person. Music is not in the house, to this day. They like music, but they don’t have it on. Me, I got music on 24-7, all day long at a low volume. I can’t have the house without music. To me it’s essential to life. I mean really essential. I might leave the same CD in the CD changer for three weeks, but it’s gonna play once a day.

My mother, she never had music on in the house and when Funkadelic and all them were big, she wasn’t into that shit at all. So I’m getting my influence from outside the house. All the things I’ve picked up are elements that come from external pieces of life. Internal parts of life had no sort of influence on my music. My mother wasn’t down with Motown, at least not in her later years when I was a teenager. But when I was a little kid they had that shit on all the time. I don’t remember hearing music, and to be honest with you my family’s not really into music.

My family is quite affluent. They’re people who live good lives, they’re funny people, they’re not stiff, they just don’t have music in their lives. I think most Americans don’t have music in their lives. I think most Americans, especially black Americans, have lost the plot. I think if you ask the average American family – black especially – whether they play music in the household they probably would say no. Do people go out and buy music collections? It’s kind of a dead issue. I’m maybe a little off the path on that.

OK, to get you back on the path, what was the impetus for doing The Music Institute? Was it an attempt to do something like what was happening in Chicago?

It wasn’t my idea. I wanted to do a club but never had enough dedication to pull it off. My friend George Baker did it with Alton Miller.

Didn’t Chez Damier have something to do with it as well?

Anthony? Yeah. It was George, Alton and Anthony. George put up the money. Al and Anthony were his moral support. They helped out, but it was George’s club. I remember that I couldn’t believe he was doing it. George was inspired to do it by me, which was an honor, but I never thought he would do it, so when it happened it was unbelievable. We all got involved in it after that. I got this girl from London, Sarah Gregory. She was married to the guy from Heaven 17...

Glenn Gregory.

Yeah. I got her over to Detroit to do a massive mural on the walls. It was beautiful. It was about three times as wide as this, so roughly 50 feet in length. We put an amazing soundsystem and pin spots in there and just went for it. It was beautiful, man. We had everybody – even Depeche Mode was in there one time. It was a juice bar. We had the fresh juices up in the back.

And you were a resident DJ?

Yeah, on Friday nights. Basically, it was a one night club, even though it was open two nights. Anthony [Chez] played on Saturdays but nobody would come. They played like traditional house and disco, but Detroit people weren’t into that.

So it was straight Friday and gay Saturday?

Nah. They couldn’t get any gay people to go there.

Why not?

They came to hear me on Fridays. They would be in there with the straight kids on Friday, because they wanted to jack the house. I was playing house music – Chicago and London underground music. I played D-Mob “We Call It Acieed” a week after it came out over there. I made that Friday night historic. Whatever was out in the world, I had it a week after it came out. I played “French Kiss” three days off the press. Broke it in Detroit and probably, outside of Frankie and Ronnie, broke it period. I played it so much it became plaster on the walls.

D-Mob – We Call It Acieed

Who were the kids who were coming? Did they have a history from the high school days?

Yeah. It was everybody. We had a line around the corner. It was 25 bucks to get in, and we’re talking 1988.

That’s a lot.

Damn right. It was amazing. We had membership. If you had membership, you stood in the left line. If you didn’t have membership, you got in the right line and paid 25 bucks. With membership you paid 15 bucks, but you paid 200 bucks to get the membership. The membership was like an ID with a picture on it. The Music Institute was only open a year-and-a-half. People think it was open longer.

Why was it so short-lived?

Because myself and Kevin got busy with our work. Inner City took off. Kevin had to go to work. Kevin played with me a few times at The Music Institute, but myself and Darryl Wynn were doing it. All of a sudden I started getting offers to come play in Europe. I was getting remixes, stuff like that here [in the UK]. I got infatuated with England. I couldn’t leave.

It was more about your availability rather than the scene dying. It wasn’t that the scene let you down.

Yeah, we abandoned it. We did. The guys who we put in charge to play, they just couldn’t cut it. They tried, but the crowd was the ultimate judge. These kids in Detroit grew up with the music, so they weren’t idiots. Frankie Foncett came to Detroit to hang out with me for a couple of weeks at the house. We let him play there for an hour and those kids walked off the dancefloor. That was at the height of his DJing career. They just weren’t interested.

Was it the skills or the records?

Everything. Power. When I mix, it is [all about] power. I know that. I know what I have, I know my elements and I know what I do to people. I know exactly how I capture people.

So when The Music Institute closed, where did that scene move on to?

Nowhere. The last record to ever get played in the Music Institute was my “Sueno Latino” remix, because it came out that week. I remember people were crying on the dancefloor when the last record was played. They were in tears.

Sueño Latino ‎– Sueño Latino (Illusion First Mix by Derrick May)

What did you think when all these UK journalists came knocking, telling you that you were great?

It blew me away. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t quite know how to handle it. We used to read NME. We learned about European records from their reviews. I remember saying it would be a dream to be in this magazine one day. And lo and behold, I got a call from Simon Witter, what a nice fella. He called me up and did a casual interview with me on the phone. I couldn’t believe I was talking to somebody English!

We chatted on the phone. He said, “Do you have a picture of yourself?” I said, “No, I don’t, but I can take one.” So I was in Blake Baxter’s little studio. Blake and I were good friends at the time. I said, “Take a picture of me so I can send it to England.” It popped up with the little review of the songs. After that, everything changed.

I got a call from Neil Rushton, “Alright mate, calling from...” I couldn’t understand Neil, because he has that strong Brummie accent and he runs over his words. I was like, “What the fuck did he say?” He basically said, “I’d like to bring you to England to meet some people.” So I talked to my mother and a few friends, Juan and Kevin, they said, “Great.”

But then he called me back and said, “I can’t pay your way.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, I can’t buy the ticket, I can’t have it waiting for you at the gate. I don’t know how to do that.” I don’t know why. So I had to make a decision: was I going to buy my own plane ticket and go to England and have him pay me back, or was I gonna say no, not go at all and possibly miss this opportunity?

Well, I paid for the ticket. My mother said, “Pay for it.” Kevin Saunderson said, “Pay for it.” Juan said, “Don’t do it.” So I went with my mom’s and Kevin’s reaction and I flew over there. One thing Neil said before I left was, “You’re gonna have to take a bus once you arrive at the airport to go to Birmingham, because I’ll meet you in Birmingham.” This was all new to me, but I did it.

I remember getting there and he took me to a little bed and breakfast hotel, the first hotel I’d ever stayed in outside of being with my mom. I remember I called my mother from the hotel to tell her I had arrived and talked to her for like 20 minutes on the hotel phone. The next day when I checked out I got the bill: it was £200 for the phone call. Welcome to England! I didn’t realize hotel phones and international calls are so expensive. It never occurred to me. Of course Neil knocked that off future endeavors. And that was the beginning of our relationship.

What was the first time you heard the word techno used in the context of the music?

Juan said it. Stuart Cosgrove asked him, “What do you call this music?” He had just done a massive interview for The Face magazine and it was about to be presented. We were supposed to be the front cover and they needed a phrase. They spent three days with us. John McCready came over too. It was a big thing. John was writing for the NME. It was huge to have those guys fly over.

This was when the Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit compilation was coming out on Ten Records?

Right. This was huge. We didn’t understand how huge it really was. So we had a great time with them. We took them to places, we showed them the city and they got so emotional about it. They didn’t know Detroit was like that. Stuart was making reference to him loving Motown, and John as well. These guys had a true admiration for the city, for what had happened to it. They were shocked.

Juan said, “We call it techno.” I said, “I don’t say that.” I kept begging him, for like that whole year, not to call this music techno. He said, “Nah man, this is techno.” To me techno was that bullshit coming from Miami, because they tried to call their music techno. I didn’t want to be associated with it. I thought it was ugly, some ghetto bullshit.

Juan said, “We call it techno.” I said, “Don’t say that!” I kept begging him not to call this music techno.

Where was Juan getting it from?


Presumably he dreamt that up when he was about 12. Originally the compilation was going to be called The House Sound of Detroit.

We all sat down with Neil and decided what it should be called. Detroit music is not house music.

Was that a way of differentiating yourself from Chicago?

Completely. We respected them and loved them, but we also had to identify it with us, not them. We weren’t making house music. We didn’t have any tracks with vocals: I think only two tracks on the whole album [had vocals].

There’s an earlier NME article where you’re happy to be called Detroit house.

Yeah. That must have been the first article I had ever done.

So back then you didn’t question it when they said, “This is house”?

I didn’t want the music to be called techno, so I wouldn’t say that. Juan begged me to say that. House music we were not, but I didn’t want the music to be called techno.

So you let it slide and they just called it house?

There’s no way I could be called techno.

And house is the only thing readers could associate with.

Right. It’s a good thing because it got people interested. We did all the press, everything went well and then right at the last minute we lost the front cover to Yazz, who did that record with Coldcut. That pissed us off. We always felt it was some bullshit politics. Four young black guys from Detroit, maybe The Face just wasn’t ready for that. Yazz, whoever she is, who ain’t in the business any more. And The Face is out of business too, so I got the last fucking laugh.

It’s quite an irony that a lot of your music was recorded on quite low-tech equipment.

Yeah, extremely. “Strings of Life” was done straight to cassette. I never even mastered it to another format. I still have the cassette.

When I spoke to Neil Rushton, he said what appealed to him as a Northern Soul obsessive was that he could see the parallels with this music he loved from Detroit. He recognized the area code, so it’s kind of funny that this music that is supposedly referencing the future, has also got these references to the past. The pressing plants were the same ones Motown had been pressed on.

Neil loved Detroit. I think if he could have moved somewhere he probably would have lived there. He got so attached to the music and the city. I remember coming over for my first interview, with a record company, and I sat down next to some executive…

Mick Clark from Virgin?

Not Mick, it was a year before Mick. Mick was involved with Kevin and the album, but before that. Keep in mind we went through a whole process of trying to find a company to get involved with this.

So, I was sitting with this guy from EMI. Neil gave him some music to listen to and we’re in his office. He put on “Strings of Life.” In this nice office, listening to the music, we were trying to explain about the music. He says, “Let the music talk for itself.” The guy then gets on the phone and turns the other way. The song ends and he’s still talking on the phone. Finally he says, “Nice to see you,” and that’s it. It went on like that from meeting to meeting to meeting. Lots of people had the opportunity to take “Strings of Life,” but nobody wanted it. Nobody. The only company that was even partially interested in my music was Zomba. That was only a publishing deal. They weren’t interested in putting any of the songs out.

That’s Jive’s parent company. Was that the UK version?

Yes. The American version never did shit with me.

What’s your definition of techno?

Hmm. I don’t know anymore, I really don’t. When all of Kevin’s [Inner City] records came out, he was really trying not to be identifiied with techno. He did everything he could to not identify with techno. He just wanted that music to be that music. But people were calling it techno.

Was that purely because it came from Detroit?

Yeah. Then we were doing what we thought was purist electronic music, which was closest to techno. Records I did [that were closest] were “Beyond the Dance,” and “It Is What It Is.” Carl [Craig], Juan, Anthony Shakir and Jay Dixon all made records that we thought were close to techno. They were very rhythmical but they were also very soulful and very synthetic. They weren’t just this abrasive cold sound that teenage boys like.

Rhythim Is Rhythim – Beyond The Dance (Cult Mix)

So is it about the purity?

It’s about combining the elements of emotion and technology together. Many years ago I played a party and I’ll never forget it. The boys came to the front. All the lads, every single one of them, and the girls got pushed away. I realized then that if this music went in the wrong direction it would be something that only guys would like. I remember the way guys ran to the front on the first tough house records from Todd Terry. Anything that had a synthetic snare or kick drum sound, anything that wasn’t organic, the guys just ran to it and the girls simply got pushed out. Last night the same thing: if I started to go too tough, or too synthetic, the guys would be at the front. Earlier it was a bunch of chicks at the front having a great time.

The description of techno has got very geographically muddled, and the way it’s talked about. Would you recognize the way it’s described nowadays?

You know what’s happened? Now Cologne has its own techno version, Munich has its own techno, Toronto, London, Cornwall, wherever the fuck it is. Every single community has their own version of what techno music is, which has probably not done the music any favors. It’s not helped define it at all. So we’ve come to the point where the music cannot be defined.

Every single community has their own version of what techno music is.

But back then, was it in your mind? Was it about originality and composing, rather than copying a bassline you wanted to make your own? You know, rather than sampling and combining, which is very much what house music is all about.

I hated sampling. The only sample that I ever used was the laugh from Yazoo, on “Nude Photo” – and I let Tom Barnett do that.

“Strings of Life” is a sample, isn’t it?

No, it’s not.

The strings?

No way. I played that. There are no samples there. I never believed in samples. I have samplers but I never use them to sample other people’s music. I used to tell Carl not to do that. But Carl did it so well. He didn’t actually loop other people’s music. He would just steal a knock or a clink or whatever, and he would make it his own. And he did a good job.

Is that a policy decision, the no sampling?

Sampling is the ultimate sin for me. Now it’s accepted, but it doesn’t mean it’s cool. Artists look forward to their work getting sampled, hoping it’s on a hit record. But that’s the only reason artists are even OK with it. Other than that, artists aren’t cool with it, they’re like, “What a joke.” You hear “Strings of Life” get sampled or looped and everyone’s coming out with these versions. You think, “OK, look at the publishing end of it,” but in reality you’re thinking, “Could you guys not do something better with your time?”

Sampling is the ultimate sin for me.

You can’t say there isn’t originality in records that have been made from other records.

There have been tons of sweet records made and I have some of them in my record box. I play records with samples in all the time. Hey, I’m down with playing some sampled shit. I love it. But for me, I just can’t sit down and hear somebody else’s shit on top of mine.

So it’s about authorship.

Exactly. In the long haul, I don’t want to be known for sampling other people’s music to make mine. I’m glad talking to you guys is working out, because I’m glad I cleared that up about the sample. I had made that clear before. I don’t know what you read, but I definitely did not sample.

It was just my assumption.

I have proof. I have the disc and I have young people like Carl Craig who were watching me fool around, not when it was made but he saw the process.

Fair enough. What about jazz? Where does jazz fit in?

It doesn’t. I didn’t like jazz until five years ago. I didn’t even listen to it. I discovered Miles Davis and all these people all at the same time.

What about the methodology of it: the improvisation, the soloist...

I haven’t heard much of that in music these days. I heard a lot of that when we first started. I think I’m a subconscious throwback. I think I stopped making music because the pure mentality, the pure element of it was leaving. Not from me, but from everybody else. I felt like when house music came out and I saw those guys get ripped off... When I saw all the house guys lose it, when I saw Marshall Jefferson get caught up and not get his publishing, when I saw all these guys get destroyed, their careers go down the toilet, the talent involved with Chicago, I thought, “This is fucked up.” Then I saw them coming after us. We got the reputation that we’re not easy to work with.

That’s because you had seen the mistakes everyone had made in Chicago and you got your shit tight.

Right, but the people here [in the UK] wanted to say we won’t play ball, that we’re not agreeable people. I got known as an asshole in the industry. Guys like Pete Tong didn’t care for me back in the day because I wasn’t a rollover artist.

What was your inspiration for putting out your own records? Over here we had punk, but how did Juan go about getting it together?

Juan just decided there was no company, in America especially, and we couldn’t see beyond America. He just thought that there was no company in this country that’s going to put this music out from a young black artist. All we could do was imagine it coming out on a major label. We didn’t know there was any other process. There was only one independent company we had heard about. It was called Nettwerk and it was in Canada. We thought they might be interested. We sent them some music and never heard from them.

They were putting out industrial records, weren’t they?

Yeah, we thought maybe they’d like it. We sent Mute some stuff but nobody called us back. So we did it on our own. Juan basically thought if he didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get out.

By necessity.

Right. Juan bought the book This Business Called Music, so we all bought a copy and learned the business. We followed Juan’s lead. He made a lot of mistakes. I helped him shift and deliver records. That’s the way I learned. I picked up where he left off. Transmat is still going to this day.

Your music is so intimately connected with Detroit. How did it feel to see it selling mostly in Europe?

It made me angry and pissed off. When we put out our first records, we sold thousands in the States. We sold tons of records to Chicago and tons in Detroit. I know we did. Our record “Nude Photo” was on the radio – regular FM daytime radio. Go to Chicago, if the Hot Mix 5 played your record, you sold thousands. Period. Now nobody even knows of the Hot Mix 5 in Chicago. House music doesn’t sell. BMX and GCI play nothing but hip-hop and contemporary music all day long. It’s like it never happened. The only one from the Hot Mix 5 that’s still going is Bad Boy Bill, because he was really young at the time.

Do you think one of the reasons that radio stations didn’t like it is because it’s the first black musical form in America that kind of broke with black tradition? If you listen to house, you can hear the clear parallels with disco, and you can take that lineage right back to Louis Armstrong. But with techno, although it was clearly influenced by some black elements, it also was very European as far as the music industry was concerned.

It’s not black as far as the music business is concerned. “It won’t last, it’s just a phenomenon, it’s just a thing, don’t worry, it’ll go away. I don’t think we should waste any time on this. Let’s monitor it and watch what happens.” I think it just got to the point where they realized it was not going away and they would pick it up on the second wave, which is what they did. They got Moby and all those guys, which turned out to be a real disappointment. Moby did have the most successful album to date with compilations – the only time ever in history there’s been an album that had every single song licensed for compilations. That’s in the record books. I don’t know if that’s by coincidence or what. I don’t know how many of those compilations were from the record company that he released his album through.

Are you finally getting the respect in your own country? You have a million people coming to your festival.

Yeah. That’s a good thing. I had a real fight with the festival. I didn’t want to do it in the beginning. It was Carl’s festival. It was an idea I had, Carl made it a reality.

How important has the UK been to you?

Tony Wilson made a comment years ago at the New Music Seminar when he brought his group Happy Mondays with him. I was on the panel with Marshall Jefferson and a couple of other guys. It was full. He said that without England this music never would have happened. I remember that Marshall stood up and got offended by that. And people started booing. To a degree, he was right. But he was wrong in the context he put it in, with these Happy Monday idiots sitting there and some comedian guy named Keith Allen.

He’s a fucking idiot! He was on the panel too and he was being rude and really trying to start a fight. So I sat up and told him, “You’re a fucking asshole, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” So he tried to have me thrown off the panel because the crowd went crazy when I called him an asshole. It was horrible, for him. He was completely embarrassed.

I believe that without England this music would not have happened, to a degree. I believe that it had to have a diving board and the diving board was Detroit. The pool that it dived into would be England, then into Europe and into Asia.

Definitely Britain first?

Through pop culture. Britain is the home of pop culture – the cesspool of that shit.

Did seeing the way the music was received [in Britain] change the way you did things?

It gave it market value. It gave the music and us market value, which changed the way we saw the music and what we saw the music was worth. It also changed my perception of what I thought a record deal was. When I dealt with record companies and I was told that they were gonna release this many singles and then they didn’t, I took it personally, which was wrong. I just didn’t understand the business. The man didn’t lie to me, his plans changed because they had a hit record.

We were just really disappointed when we found out that people make promises in this business and plans simply change. It was me being hopelessly romantic about the whole thing in the beginning that hurt my feelings. I took this business personally. Big mistake. I look back at articles I did where I say I was hurt because of the music business. Well yeah, of course I was hurt, because I came into it wide-eyed and...


Completely. Thinking it was just a place where people put out good music and everything’s great.

Has techno reached a plateau or is what’s happening now under the name a disappointment?

Yes, the last couple of records from Mike Banks and Rolando have been unique compared to a lot of stuff that’s happened in the last couple of years in Detroit. Other than that, Matthew Dear has done some decent records, but he’s not really trying to do anything like what we did. I like his stuff, I can’t say it’s phenomenal, but it’s good. What Richie Hawtin does now doesn’t move me at all. No offense to Richie – he’s a friend – but I just do not feel motivated... I don’t even have a Richie Hawtin record in my bag. I don’t think I’ve had a Richie Hawtin record in my bag in ten years. There’s nothing innovative, refreshing or vibrant about it that makes me believe it’s moving to the next level.

I think Carl Craig right now is beyond Detroit. He really shouldn’t even try to associate with Detroit. He should just concentrate on Carl Craig because he’s moved on. He’s a phenomenal person and a great artist. He needs to get the recognition deserved of someone of his quality. I think he will get that respect, but most of the music from Detroit right now is really redundant.

I think the Detroit guys are living off a legacy that is not going to protect them very soon. That’s my opinion. They’ve been set up with a great legacy and all they gotta do is kick some ass. I could be very wrong. But in my record bag, right at this very minute, I only have about five Detroit records. Really.

I’ve always said Detroit is like the Titanic above water, like this big vessel that’s just deteriorated.

I mean, Theo Parrish is one of my favorite artists, but I can’t call that Detroit purist music. That’s something else. That’s some eccentric, off-the-wall kind of shit, but that’s not straight up, driving Detroit melancholy techno music.

Stacey Pullen is not really trying to be a techno artist. Mike Banks is sticking to his guns. Him and Rolando are really trying their best. I think “Knights of the Jaguar” was phenomenal.

The Aztec Mystic – Knights of the Jaguar

I think what Jeff Mills does is interesting, but Jeff doesn’t want to be known as a Detroit artist. He certainly doesn’t make reference to Detroit unless you ask him. I speak like this honestly and people don’t like it, but I gotta live for me and when I’m dead and gone I’ll be dead and gone. And I won’t be taking whatever people think of me with me. And not too many people can fuck with me so I’m not too concerned.

I notice you threw in the word melancholy as if it was a requirement of techno. What do you mean by that?

There was a period of time when I used to ride through Detroit in the middle of the night. I just want to cry when I look at this place. I’ve always said it’s like the Titanic above water, like this big vessel that’s just deteriorated. Detroit has been demolished by neglect. It was always my motivation, during the whole Reaganomic era, during that period when I stayed in the house. I used to just look out of the window and see the city from my apartment. I could see all these steam pipes, all these massive factories that were just dormant. It was like looking at this vessel, this large ship above water. That’s wild shit.

We didn’t talk about the German and the Belgian connection, how they took your music and put their own spin on it.

Well that’s why I moved to Amsterdam, because Amsterdam did the same thing, but the Dutch were really open and receptive to ideas. They came up with a movement called the high tech soul movement. That’s why we have a stage at the festival called the high tech soul stage. That’s to pay homage to that whole thing. I actually wanted to call this music high tech soul from the very beginning. I never wanted to call it techno. That’s what I thought it should have been called. But nobody liked it, so...

Techno is snappier, but high tech soul is probably more descriptive.

Techno works on a marketing level. It rolls out of your mouth really well. High tech soul, maybe they don’t want to say that. Unfortunately the term techno is so generic, it means too much. It just means anything.

Why do you think the Europeans picked up on your music?

I think it was time for something fresh. It came at the exactly the right time. Hip-hop had died. Disco was over, Samantha Fox and all that was flat, wasn’t happening. There was really nothing. It was like a gateway.

This interview was conducted in London in August 2004. © DJ History

By Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton on May 22, 2017

On a different note