Derrick May at Element (553 Queen West), Sunday (October 7). $10. 416-359-1919. Rating: NNNNN
Detroit techno innovator Derrick May is living proof that music can take on a life of its own, one that may have little to do with the artist's original intentions.
Back in the mid-80s, when he and two of his high school buddies, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, started working on the blueprint of what would become known as techno, they had no idea their experiments would end up changing the face of European dance music.
May thought of techno as a reaction against the artificial cheerfulness of Motown. The cold, strange melancholy of their early releases spoke of a dying city full of abandoned buildings and forgotten people.
Then the Brits discovered the sound of black middle-American dance music in the summer of 1988, later known as "the summer of love." DJs combined the sounds of Chicago house and Detroit techno with a newly available drug called ecstasy, and the resulting fad came to be known as "acid."
This became rave, which was imported back to America but never achieved the same degree of success. At first, the American artists behind these records were excited. Virgin Records descended on Detroit and released two compilations focusing on "the new dance sound of Detroit," DJs were invited to play all over Europe, and they were also commissioned to lend their magic touch to remixes of European attempts at techno.
But the reality of the rave scene's drug fixation and discomfort with the way the music was being marketed led May to retire from production in the early 90s. He has continued DJing, and his label, Transmat, hasn't stopped releasing techno records, but nothing new has come from the man known as Mayday.
Techno has never really taken off in the U.S., although recently -- as a result of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival -- May and fellow innovators have started to receive official recognition from the city and black history groups. Still, their music remains largely an underground thing.
The Mayday DJ experience is miles from the European interpretation. Don't expect to hear hours of pounding 140-bpm kick drums and distorted 303 synth noodling. He puts the music in a historical perspective, throwing in old disco classics, house, deep techno and sometimes even dropping James Brown into the mix.
Technically, he's one of the best DJs in the business, sometimes piecing together a high-speed, hiphop-influenced collage where each track lasts for as little as 30 seconds, at other times pulling off incredibly long track overlays with his signature fader-chopping and EQ-tweaking. Put it all together in an intimate venue like Element, and you've got a night to remember.