Black Roots, White Fruit

Somewhere between Detroit and Düsseldorf, electronic dance music lost its soul

“Finally, after so many years, I'm making the kind of money and receiving the kind of accolades I deserve,” reports Detroit's seminal techno DJ Derrick May. That should please him, right? So why isn't he smiling?

From this present vantage point -- reclining with a glass of wine in a secluded courtyard nook of South Beach's National Hotel this past August -- May has plenty of reasons to be content. His lifestyle is the epitome of the globetrotting DJ: first-class flights to European engagements, nights in swanky hotels, and not least, a beautiful Argentine girlfriend who sits demurely a few feet away. The past few months have also seen a spate of scholarly books on electronica, all enshrining May as one of the genre's chief architects. Indeed his late-Eighties singles such as “Strings of Life,” slinky future-funk workouts May himself has described as “George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company,” are universally deemed to be the template not only for techno but virtually all modern-day electronic dance music. But despite his assured place in history, May is visibly upset as talk turns to his gig later that night at Shadow Lounge.

“At some point when I play and look out at the kids in the clubs, I hate it,” May says with pained expression. “It's horrible! There's a dream we had, a focus we had, a perspective we put on this. We said, “Okay, this is a blackart form, this is coming from Detroit.'” He grimaces again and adds, “To see what it's become, it's heartbreaking.”

To be sure, Detroit's techno producers (for whom May has become self-appointed spokesman) are still producing visionary work. Veteran Carl Craig, who began his own career dancing to and then working alongside May, continues to push the form's boundaries. His 1999 album Programmedreached back to the early Seventies electric jazz of Herbie Hancock and the Human Arts Ensemble, while his new Designer Music collects many of his remixes, showing off inventive deconstructions of artists as disparate as Latin conguero Johnny Blas and Belgian New-Wavers Telex. Meanwhile Theo Parrish has just released Parallel Dimensions, a delicious swirl of off-kilter percussion, detuned piano runs, and waist-deep bass-driven grooves; with all its rough edges proudly exposed, it's a sure bet for year-end Top 10 lists.

The problem is, however, that the bulk of America's dance fans couldn't care less. That much is clear once May hits Shadow Lounge. His iconic status may have been enough to impress the Camel cigarette marketing execs who are footing tonight's bill, but Miami's clubbers are nowhere to be seen.

By the time May slides behind the decks at 1:00 a.m. (usually a prime weeknight slot), Shadow Lounge is practically deserted. A few DJs from Miami's more experimental scenes look on curiously from the side as a beefy frat boy bellows out a low “Wooh!” and drunkenly stumbles across the room. Out on the dance floor it's hardly a Dionysian frenzy either. About the closest thing to a display of animalistic emotion is a young woman decked out in zebra skin from her capri pants on up to her halter top and cowboy hat. Surrounded by a few friends, she frugs in place for a few minutes. Then her group troops off, leaving the dance floor entirely empty.

It's a telling sight: One of DJ culture's living legends arrives in the city that (via the Winter Music Conference) supposedly has elevated electronic dance music to new heights. His greeting? Only a solitary workman, who in true Spi&numl;nal Tap fashion, seizes the opportunity to mop down the barren dance floor.

“We're still young enough that we can capitalize on our reputations,” May says wryly of the experience. “We still look good onstage, we still look good in a magazine, we're still young enough that we can go out there and blow most guys away on the turntables. What we'renot is viable. We are simply a small commodity in a major industry.”

What isviable these days is trance. Once a single strand amid the competing subgenres of dance music, trance's bubbly, treble-drenched timbre has virtually swallowed the competition. Here in Miami you can stroll up and down Washington Avenue, drop into the main rooms at any of South Florida's weekend raves, even walk past Lincoln Road's boutiques and rarely hear anything else.

What's disturbing to many of trance's critics is the form's aesthetic message, or rather what's missing from it: techno's black musical sources. Those sonic links to gritty R&B and its evolution into mid-Seventies disco have been stripped away. Also gone is any vestigial connection with disco's implicit identity as the soundtrack to gay, black liberation -- a refashioning akin to Sylvester being traded in for Saturday Night Fever's John Travolta the first time around. Electronic dance culture is beginning to look more and more like the very milieu to which it originally stood in opposition.

“The club scene [is turning] into a junk-food franchise, like Kentucky Fried Beats,” declares ambient producer Mixmaster Morris in the recently published Modulations. “Greasy, tasteless, disposable food that doesn't even satisfy your hunger and gives you cancer in the long term.... The revolution seems to be well and truly lost. You sometimes wonder whether it's worth fighting for that revolution anymore, seeing as how its initial aims have been so perverted. I guess I have the same feeling that the Bolsheviks would have had. By the time they got to Stalin they're thinking, Do I support this anymore? By which time you're in the gulag; it's too late.”

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