Derrick May Proves Detroit Techno Is Still Alive at Public Works
Deep Blue presents Derrick May
May 11, 2013
The evening began at Terroir, a wine bar in SOMA, drinking expensive bottles of wine for a French friend's birthday (because honestly, you can't get more Gallic than wine, cheese, and "rillettes"). There was a group of about eight of his countrymen, most of whom had never before been to San Francisco, and we were trying to figure out where to go next. At first, Monroe was floated; the prospect of seeing Tornado Wallace play to a crowd of North Beachers seemed entertaining enough (but it was deemed too small). Then I tried to convince everyone to hop on the BART so we could go to Oakland for a hardboiled techno underground (too far, probably no girls). Before anyone could propose anything else, another friend tore into the bar with tickets for Public Works in hand. The night was decided: We'd check out Detroit techno elder Derrick May. It was the right decision.
Through black magic and taxis, we materialized 10 minutes later at the corner of Eerie and Mission. The bacon dog carts hadn't arrived yet, so the only scent in the air was the smoke from the small huddles of people talking in the cordoned area near the door. I gave my ID to the bouncer, "You look different without the moustache." "Yeah, yeah." "You're here for the Derrick May, right?" I looked over at the empty path leading to a doorway marked "Odyssey" and returned, "Yep, I think so." Doorway, entered. Press credentials, flashed. Guestlist, searched. Handstamp, acquired. Coat, checked. And at that point the dull thud of the club's system coaxed us in towards the bar.
"I'm getting bored of this. What is this, Beatport's May Top 20 chart? I'm thinking we should go." I handed some Stellas to my companions. I started ripping the label off mine. It was past midnight and the opening DJs seemed like they were going to go until 1 a.m., which was not sitting well with anyone I was with. The music was bland, but inoffensive--loopy vocal tech-house with low-slung basslines, sleazebag vocals, and drops that hit every five minutes. The DJ duo, one in a fedora, pumped their fists in the air with a level of excitement that seemed out of whack with the mood of the moment. Questions and doubts began to flood my mind. I thought about the cost of a round-trip cab to Oakland and peeled the rest of the label off my beer. Then somebody shrieked, "Deeeeerriiiick!"
Now May was on stage, doling out hugs and fist bumps to the booth vampires crowding the turntables. His presence filled the room with a palpable sense of excitement. "Hey, Derrick!" someone yelled from behind me, "Hey, hey, hey DERRICK!".........."Hey DERRICK! FUCK... ME... UP... DERRICK!" Elsewhere in the crowd, a hardcore-looking dancer held up a blue flag with the Detroit Tigers' iconic blackletter "D" written on it. May, as cool as he always is, pulled a record out of his bag, wiped it off with a cloth, and put it down on the platter. He wrung out his hands like piano player and grabbed hold of the isolator, giving the outgoing song a few tweaks: bass out, highs up, letting it ride without the kick for a couple bars. Then: BOOM, BOOM, boom, BOOM. He cranked it back in, pumping the low frequencies on every beat, announcing his presence before even playing his first record. He pulled a headphone down over one ear, brought the volume up on his selection, and we were off.
African chants and mechanical rhythms carried us through 1 a.m. "I didn't know it was going to be like this, I didn't know it was going to be so... house," said a friend of mine. But though it pulled from house, his method of playing was not of that school at all. May's DJing is a style unto itself, a hybrid that combines freakishly intense EQing with butter-smooth blends that almost always last a minute or more (mostly on vinyl, generally at speeds in excess of 130 BPM, and often with chaotic percussion). His selections charted a course that rarely drove straight -- instead it was always veering up towards some peak or down into some muffled low. His warm-up even included Danny Krivit's edit of MFSB's "Love is the Message," a track that prompted a heavily made-up girl next to me to shout to her friend, "I don't even know what's happening right now, is this like '60s funk or something?" They may have been confused, but everyone else was screaming along while the warm beat of the disco classic offered a brief reminder as to where this music comes from. He pulled the bass out, let it run with just the hats slicing the air, and then -- boom, boom, boom, boom, BOOM -- he cranked in Ron Hardy's edit of First Choice's "Let No Man Put Asunder" while laying even more mileage on the club's EQs.
An hour or so later, I remember watching the visuals on the wall as they formed a moving grid behind May. The organic disco that had led the night had since become a memory, its congas and strings replaced by the brutalist machine precision of Detroit techno. May was now on the EQs completely, weaving intricate patterns from the raw frequencies contained within his vinyl. Occasionally he got on the cross-fader and cut his records to ribbons, using simple turntablist tricks to turn his four-to-the-floor into something altogether more complex. He pulled the bass out again as a large neon globe began rotating in the projections on the ceiling behind him. The next blend came in and felt like it lasted for five minutes; you could almost hear the horizon of Laurent Garnier's "Acid Eiffel" as its twisting acid line and lush pads peaked out from the pounding techno of the track before. Three of the French visitors ran up to the front and began pogoing next to a group of dancers lost in a trance of highly coordinated moves.
It was sometime after 3 a.m. when my feet began to give way. I'd been on the floor for most of the night, and by that point I'd resorted to a kind of mildly coordinated death march. I was tired and ready to go home, and so were my friends. So we said our goodbyes, and I wandered over to the coat check to grab my coat. Then my ears pricked up. May switched gears once again, turning a corner into a long and melodic ambient passage, Jean-Luc Ponty's "Computer Incantations For World Peace." And with one song, he roped me (and most everyone else I was with) back in for another half-hour at least.