Live Review: Derrick May @ Muse Lounge (2009.02.06)


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MP3: Rhythim is Rhythim – Strings of Life from Strings of Life (1987)

All photos: Sexy Fitsum/iLLIMETER

During the recent “25 Random Things About Me” Facebook fad, a friend overcame the trite, threadbare conventions of tell-all confessional writing. He didn’t write a word, but instead linked to 25 music videos on YouTube.  

Music speaks a great deal more to me than words (sometimes, and in the right circumstance). I suppose this approach was infinitely more intimate than the typical spilling of the (usually not) so deep, dark secrets. Instead of revealing secrets, this Facebook note called to mind the close bond my circle of friends has developed over the years, largely through music. It celebrated our shared, rather than sequestered experiences. And at number 3 on the list, there it was: Rhythim is Rhythim’s (Wiki) monumentally epic track “Strings of Life.”

Rhythim is Rhythim is the alias of Derrick May, who along with friends and fellow Belleville, Michigan natives Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson (collectively referred to as the “Belleville Three”) founded the futuristic variant of Chicago House music that would become know as TechnoI always find it so amusing that people stereotype electronic dance music as White, and European music. In fact, during House and Techno’s development, it was largely Black and Midwestern (Chicago and Detroit).

Techno and House are genres of dance music, and come with the rationale of dance being an ecstatic and transcendently joyous movement of the body. I can think of few tracks that typify this more than “Strings of Life.” The Roland TR-909 drum machine programming is somewhat dated, as is the sound synthesis (all done way pre-Pro Tools, keep in mind). However, the track retains that soul and moment of sheer ecstasy. I can think of very few tracks from 1987 that still work as well in a modern day set—it’s a classic and a half.

Needless to say, I have come to view Derrick May as a near idol. He helped spawn the genre of music that I have felt the most aesthetic, political, and spiritual (futurism counts as spirituality in my mind) connection with—Detroit Techno.

I got the chance to catch him spin in DC courtesy of the mnmlife promotion crew. This is less a review of the night and more a reflection of my experience. First of all, DJ sets aren’t meant to be watched as one would with, say, an indie show. The DJ’s whole point is to get one to dance, to interact with the sound. Sets are also typically in the multiples of hours, nothing like the 10 songs and a possible encore by a band. The DJ has time enough to create a mood with tracks, and build tension up to the peak moment of bliss.

derrick-may-3To harp on the technical aspects of Derrick May’s set would be a joke. The man has been doing this forever, or at least since he invented the genre. Needless to say he’s got nothing to prove behind the decks. However, his frequent and skilled use of the cross fader to “cut” rhythmically between tracks was a solid nod to the old school House bag of tricks. His track selection tended toward the “tracky-er” cuts (yes, that is a word in DJ speak). This means the records played out in a way more akin to traditional, strophic song structure—there is a hook, chorus, verse, and so on. This is opposed to a style of mixing that uses records essentially as loops, or draws on only specific segments of a record before it is mixed in to another one. As for the tracks themselves, Derrick largely stumped my friend, the human Discogs track identifier. All he could recognize from nearly three hours of music were these tracks: DJ Sneak’s “You Can’t Hide from Your Bud,” Ceronne’s “Supernature,” and Aril Brikha’s “Groove La Chord.” The DJ Sneak, and Aril Brikha tracks are pretty representative of what was played that night.

So let’s get down to what I thought of the night.

First of all, my hackles where up. I’m not a fan of DC and I’ve had a lot of bad experiences there that I still begrudgingly blame on the city, and its people as a whole. So be forewarned, I’m not exactly impartial when it comes to that city. My window on DC is through its blogs, mainly BYT which literally frightens me with its emphasis on superficial party culture. This is a generalization, I know, but I think my friends in bands in DC might agree that BYT is indicative of a lot of things wrong with DC’s scene right now.

The crowd at the venue for the night, Muse Lounge, was not the typical crowd found in Baltimore (save for Red Maple). I had legitimate concerns I wouldn’t meet the requirements for dress code. Yes, objectively my friends and I weren’t as sharply dressed as the rest of the patrons. I’m only speaking for myself, but I had that slight hint of those self-conscious feelings in early high school around the rich kids in better clothes: “Damn, they even just plain look more attractive than me!”

However, the DJ being Derrick May, I quickly forgot all these things and just got lost in dancing to the music. And I have to say, hats off to DC, because all the pretty people around me were just as into the music as my (literally) hadn’t-showered-in-days-stinkin’-ass-from-Bmo. I’m still way ahead of the curve for hygiene in Baltimore, but then again, the standard is set pretty low.

Aside from the music, two things really stuck out for me that night that serve as greater metaphors for human nature. The first is dismal (I think); the second is genuinely sweet.

derrick-may-2First, there was a young, very attractive woman making the rounds flirting with just about every guy. When it came time for her to come my way, I thought: “Man, she is good looking. She is a complete tramp, I know, but maybe she’s really into me and not those other guys. So what if she is a hussy, I can turn a hoe into a housewife—YEAH RIGHT!” She was the type of girl just about any straight guy would be into. However, none of the guys she was chatting up were really taking the bait. She had that awful combination of “DESPERATION+TROUBLE” tattooed on her forehead. The fact that someone would so desperately crave that much attention from that many guys didn’t sit well with me, nor did I feel so great about having the fleeting thought while she was talking to me: “Damn, she is hot! Damn, she is drunk! Sweet!” If I were a better poet, I’d better distill the loneliness I think that young woman must have been feeling, in such sufficient force, to throw herself so hard at every man that came across her path.

The redeeming action of the night came from Derrick (and not just his set). At one point, toward the end, he spun a track that, impossibly, ratcheted the place up a couple more notches. A young man approached the DJ booth, and leaned over to ask Derrick what the track was after he finished mixing it out. Upon hearing this question Derrick just hands the record over to him with a finger pointing toward the inquiring gentleman. So: he just played an ultra rare track that no one in the venue had ever heard before, and then just hands it over to a stranger to enjoy. Not only did that guy get some free vinyl, but think of the story he’s got now! I should also mention that DJs covet rare vinyl, sometimes even to the point of covering up the label so that people “trainspotting” can’t read the title, and then go out and buy the same record.

It makes sense that the man behind “Strings of Life,” such an iconic aural example of warmth and exuberance would turn out to be a generous, and sharing person.

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One Response to “Live Review: Derrick May @ Muse Lounge (2009.02.06)”

  1. Daily Breather says:

    Hey man, this is gold. Why did it take me 4 months to find this here? (Don’t answer that, it’s probably true).
    If you asked me to critique a Derrick May evening and then write about it on top of that I’d probably be at a loss for words. No words, just be there. He’s been rocking houses for over 20 years and if he can still go to DC and make the dressed up people dance then he’s not just preaching to the already converted. He’s making people dance. And sweat too. Word! That’s what creates a good vibe. I’m glad you reported that vibe that was in the house…Yea, we miss it sometimes.
    Yo, but handing over the evening’s pivotal record to a stranger was really a class act. I’ve heard stories of this before. It’s cool to hear another instance of this.

    This was a cool review on the vibe more than the sound. There was a lot of Alex Mudge in here too. This was a good read.

    And I remember the 25 youtube video’s your bro put up on Facebook. That challenged me to do something similar with my friends. That there is gold too…

    A’ight mang. Keep it up. I dig this
    DB (I hate those initials)

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