In this RA investigation by Annabel Ross, alleged victims of the Detroit techno pioneer describe a string of incidents over the last two decades in the US, Europe and New Zealand.
There are few living figures in electronic music as historically significant as Derrick May. Credited as one of the creators of techno alongside Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson (fellow members of Belleville Three), May has produced seminal tracks such as "Strings of Life" (co-written by Michael James), founded the hugely influential Transmat label and has performed on a near-weekly basis at clubs and festivals around the world for more than thirty years. He acted as mentor to second wave Detroit techno luminaries including Carl Craig and Stacey Pullen and until recently was on the Board of Directors at the Museum Of Contemporary Art Detroit.
Lesser known was the fact that since last November, May has been subject to a series of sexual harassment and assault allegations. These allegations have existed largely in a Facebook vacuum for the past 12 months, until the recent death of DJ Erick Morillo, who had been charged with rape, attracted greater scrutiny of these similar claims against May, which led a number of international festivals and events, including Paris Electronic Week and FAC51 The Haçienda, to cancel May's scheduled appearances.
For weeks, RA has been investigating claims of sexual assault and sexual harrassment made against Derrick May. RA has spoken to 16 people who claim to have been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed by May, as well as to many witnesses and close friends of the alleged victims who have supported these claims. Taken together, these accounts portray a pattern of sexual harassment and sexual assault that dates back at least 20 years and has occurred in numerous countries.
Asked to comment on these claims, May made the following statement:
"As a black man working in a white-dominated and openly biased industry, am I expected to have learned the painful lesson that there is no such thing as truth, fairness, or due process?
When will the long, storied history of weaponizing the sexuality of African American men end?
Must I collaborate under duress with my own victimization at the hands of an openly hostile press that amplifies the so-called fears of privileged, anonymous women in an internet-mediated lynching?
I have no interest in legitimizing these distortions.
Women are the conduit of life, and as such, are to be protected, and not exploited. I live by those words."
An article more than 20 years old reveals the extent of Derrick May’s voracious appetite for women. A June 1998 issue of the now-defunct Muzik magazine dubbed May, its coverstar, an "asshole" and "techno playboy." "Let's watch as he chats up umpteen waitresses in a restaurant, then discusses the relative merits of Naomi Campbell, Scary Spice, Posh Spice and several women who walk past," writes journalist Andy Crysell, who met with May in "Glasgow's most fashionable hotel." Later in the interview, May says, "A womaniser? A techno playboy? Yeah, that was definitely me up until a year ago. But not so much now because I can't be bothered with fucking little club girls anymore. It always turns out they're only 19 years old and they always want their little friends to come back to the hotel, too. I'm like, 'Who are your friends?' 'Oh, just those 28 people over there.'"
The final paragraph of the interview picks up after Crysell and May have just eaten another meal together. "'STOP!' Techno's relentlessly lively one managed to chat up three waitresses at lunch and now we're driving around Glasgow," writes Crysell. "'Stop!' May urges again. He's come across a phenomenally long queue for an under-18s disco and the 'former' womaniser can't believe his eyes. 'They're the reason I'm no longer a techno playboy,' he chuckles, gesticulating at a row of girls braving the freezing conditions in preposterously short skirts. 'They're under 18? Huh! They're the kind of girls who could get me in trouble!'"
When making a statement, released through his lawyer and posted on May’s Facebook page in September, May denied the allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault spanning the past three decades that have been circulating for the past year. "Women are the conduit of life, to be respected and protected," he said. "This is how I live."
The testimonies of the alleged victims and witnesses below tell an entirely different story. Names have been changed to protect the sources' identities.
2004, United Kingdom
Audrey* attended a Derrick May gig in the UK as an 18-year-old. She was still in high school at the time. She was a huge techno fan and May was her "hero." Audrey's friend had told her that he had heard May was a womaniser, and said that when May wanted to seduce a woman, "he will stare at her for ages without saying a word." Audrey laughed it off in disbelief at the time.
At the gig, in the middle of May's set, May spotted Audrey with a female friend dancing at the front of the crowd. He laughed and said to them, "I'll see YOU ladies later!" Audrey was thrilled. "I thought, 'Oh my God, he's noticed me'."
After his set, May approached Audrey in the bar area of the club and invited her and her female friend back to his hotel for an afterparty. At Audrey's request, her male friend was allowed to come, too. Some other friends also planned to meet them later at the hotel, but were turned away at reception when they tried to join them.
In the hotel room, May ordered red wine from room service and poured a glass for everyone. "For about two hours we were having the best conversation ever," says Audrey. "Talking about music, talking about politics. I thought, 'This is just an incredible experience.'" Audrey says May had been "nothing but respectful and charming", and "he hadn't said anything sexual nor made a move on me. There was no flirtation coming from either end."
Audrey said she began to feel "groggy and tired" and lay down on the bed. "The next thing I remember as I began to regain consciousness was someone to the right of me, touching me on my side. I opened my eyes and there was Derrick May, standing completely naked in front of me with an erection. I was still groggy, in complete shock and I couldn't say a word. Then he kissed me and shoved his tongue down my throat. And I just thought, 'this is so wrong, this isn't what I wanted or expected.' I was not in any way attracted to him and had given him no indication whatsoever that I was sexually interested in him."
Audrey pushed May off her. She was still fully clothed. Audrey said to her female friend, who also seemed disoriented, "Let's go." (Audrey's male friend later told her that while she was passed out, May said, “You can go now,” and he obliged.) As Audrey and her female friend gathered their belongings to leave, May started shouting and insulting Audrey.
"I thought, 'This is so surreal, I'm having an argument with Derrick May, a man old enough to be my father, whose records I own, and who is currently sitting naked in bed.'" When it was clear that they were about to leave, May stared at Audrey angrily and intensely without speaking, she says. "Thank goodness I had been told he used this tactic on women, so I knew exactly what he was doing," Audrey says. "But it was intimidating and frightening nonetheless."
Audrey recalls being so "out of it" when she and her friend were trying to leave the hotel that they ended up in the car park, but they eventually found their way out of the building. After leaving the hotel, Audrey immediately called another male friend in tears and told him what had happened (this friend confirmed Audrey's account of this phone call to Resident Advisor). Audrey later told other friends about what happened with May, most of whom said something along the lines of, "Well, what do you expect? You went back to his hotel room."
Audrey was studying for her A-levels at the time and recalls feeling "extremely depressed" following the assault. "I felt stupid and naïve, and all my illusions about techno were shattered. For years I have blamed myself for getting in a situation where I was in a hotel room with this man and for his actions towards me. To this day I still cannot listen to any of his music. I feel sick when I see his name written on a poster or track listing, and whenever I do want to attend a gig, I have to make sure he's not on the lineup."
Nina* was 22 in 2008 when she worked as an intern at a hotel in Amsterdam. She was working in the front office as a duty supervisor on the day Derrick May checked in. She had no idea who he was at the time.
Nina showed May to his room, as is custom in a boutique hotel. He closed the door behind them. She was showing him the bathroom and when she turned around, she says, May "had his clothes on, but he had a really big erection and he was grabbing at it and saying, 'Look at how excited you make me, look how much you turn me on.'"
When she walked out of the bathroom, she says, May pinned her to the wall and put one knee between her legs so she couldn't move. "He was groping on me—groping my butt, between my legs and under my shirt and he was kissing my neck and shoulder area and rubbing on me like, everywhere, telling me how good my body looked, telling how much he wanted to fuck me. And I was just shocked, basically. He was like, locked onto me, and in the meantime he pulled down his pants and underwear. He was literally just dry humping me, you know, I felt his naked erection just, everywhere."
Nina says she pushed him off her and told him, "'No, dude, this is not going to happen, fuck off," and ran out of the room. May followed her to the front door. "I hate to see you leave, but I love to watch you walk away," he called down the hallway behind her. Nina returned to the front desk and promptly broke out in hives. "It was very stressful."
Nina's supervisor noticed she was upset and asked if everything was OK. When she told him what happened, he became furious and threatened to "kick out that motherfucker."
"I was like, 'OK, you calm down,' because he's very aggressive and the last thing I wanted to do at that time was create commotion." Her supervisor put a note in the computer system saying that no woman and no female employee was to be alone with him. "He basically changed my roster so that I wouldn't work with him again," Nina says. A colleague of Nina's who was also working in the hotel on the day of the assault has confirmed this account to RA.
Sherri* was 21 years old when she attended a party that Derrick May was headlining at Industry, a former superclub in Toronto. There was a special VIP area on the second floor called the "Treehouse," which you had to climb up to, and had room for about six people. Sherri climbed up to the Treehouse with a friend and got chatting with the man seated next to her. She was gushing about how great the night and the music was.
"He asked me what I do, and I told him, and then he said, 'Well, you should ask me what I do.' I was like, 'What do you do?' And he was like, 'I'm Derrick May, I'm a DJ, I just finished my set here.' I was like, 'Wow, like, oh my god, that's amazing’. And then somehow one thing led to another and he started kissing me. He was all over me. And I wasn't attracted to him. He wasn't my type, I was 21 and he was like, a 30-something-year-old man."
She told May she had to go and climbed back down to the dance floor. May followed her down there.
"He was like, 'Are we gonna do something later?' I was like, 'No.' And he says, 'Just remember, Not everyone gets the chance to know Derrick May.' I said, 'Excuse me? What, because it's such a privilege to know you?', or something mouthy like that. He grabbed me and picked me up in like, a bear hug and squeezed me and was like, 'Ohhh, I love that.' Then he dropped me and walked away."
Sherri continues: "I remember thinking, I've met so many DJs and I've partied with so many people and I've never had someone so blatantly and aggressively go after me that quick. He scared the shit out of me when he lifted me up and hugged me like that, because I thought he was gonna hit me or something, you know, I wasn't sure what he was gonna do. It was just weird in the fact that he was just so aggressive. And then it was like this story I had afterwards, like, 'Derrick May, you know, he's not that great.' I was at [Movement] a couple years ago, and I just didn't want to go anywhere near where he was going to be playing. I don't think I ever went and saw him [play] again after that."
Pippa* was around 20 years old and a big fan of May's when she saw him play for the first time in Wellington, New Zealand. As she worked in the industry, she was able to meet him in a VIP area at a bar after his gig and was really excited to say hello. He was chatting with Pippa and another young woman when he invited them both to sit down on a nearby couch to continue talking.
"It didn't seem like he had any intentions, he was just being friendly," says Pippa. Not long after they sat down, she says, "he just, without any warning, he just put his hand under both of our asses really quickly and forcefully and just grabbed them," she says. "He kind of like, laughed, and I jumped up in shock. I can't remember what the other girl did, I think she was shocked as well but I was just aware of what I was doing. And the way I felt, I mean, I don't know what was going through his head but when he looked at me, it felt like he was telling me to fuck off, like, 'Why are you even here?' That's how it felt." Pippa left the bar immediately. "I went home that night feeling really foolish and disappointed," she says.
Mona* met May through mutual friends in Detroit and although she was never attracted to him, she thought he seemed like a cool, interesting guy when he asked her to go to drinks with him. "So I agreed to meet him and then the night of, he pretty much insisted on picking me up. And I had wanted to go nearby to my home. I was already kind of feeling weird about being picked up. And he just got straight on the highway."
May drove for miles and miles as Mona protested and grew increasingly anxious about where they were going. They stopped at a restaurant that was closing where May picked up some wine and said they were going back to his place. "We got to his place and he was just kind of trying to show off," says Mona. "I think he thought that like, maybe I wasn't as impressed with him as I should be, because he was bragging about his home, he was bragging about his car, bragging about like, opportunities he could get for me and, 'I can take you here, I can take you there', that type of stuff. And then he was just trying to get me to drink a lot."
At one point, Mona used the bathroom and when she came out, she says, May "surprised me and started forcibly kissing me. And I just was kind of taken aback, you don't know what to do so you kind of just like, stand there. And then he pulled my shirt down with both hands and exposed my breasts and then made a negative comment about them, like he was negging me. Like, if he could get me to feel bad about my body or something? It just really repulsed me and disgusted me, and I just pulled my shirt up and said, 'This isn't happening.'"
She told him she wanted to go home. They were so far out of town that she didn't have any reception on her phone and May told her he was too intoxicated to drive. Mona said she would sleep in his daughter's room, who was not home at the time. She was afraid he would try something if she went to sleep, so she stayed awake all night and got into bed fully clothed.
"I think I even had my coat on still," she says. At one point May came into the room and got into bed with her. "I just was stiff as a board, I gave him nothing so he was just basically behind me, you know, trying to do whatever moves he could but it wasn't gonna happen."
Mona stayed awake until the sun rose, when May finally agreed to take her home. She tried to avoid him after that but ran into him on the street in Detroit a while later.
"He pulled a U-turn on the street and then parked like on an angle so that my car was blocked and I couldn't leave. And he said to me, 'Why are you avoiding me? Why won't you talk to me?' And I just said, 'Quite honestly, because you're so aggressive, you made me uncomfortable.' And he was really taken aback by that. And then he just sped off."
Mona says she's seen May a couple of times since and that he's been "quite nice," but she thinks she might not have fared so well that night if they didn't have mutual friends. "Even though I was really uncomfortable I didn't feel like I was in terrible danger," she says. "But I feel like that's only because I was protected by the people that I know."
Shannon's* friend owned a bar in London where she would regularly host DJs to play small gigs. May was playing in her bar and Shannon's friend hosted a dinner there beforehand for around 20 people. Shannon was there with her boyfriend, but as soon as he'd gone to the bathroom, May took the empty seat beside her.
"He was like, 'Hey, who are you? How are you? What's your name?,'" Shannon says. "We got chatting, but it was very uncomfortable."
May took out his phone and showed Shannon and the other dinner guests a video he had filmed on his flight to the UK. "He was on the flight with this woman sitting next to him, a random stranger, and they were getting drunk together," Shannon says. "Anyway, he manipulated her to show her boobs on his camera on his phone. So she was like going, 'No no no,' and he was like, 'Come on, come on,' and in the end she flashed herself, and I was just sitting there going, 'What the fuck is this all about?' He got a kick out of showing everybody how he managed to get her to flash him. Then he said to me, 'Why are you going out with that kid [her boyfriend], you need to come out with me.' And he grabbed my phone and put his number in my phone and the whole night he was literally harassing me saying, 'Come on, come back with me, come back to my hotel.'
"It was just a very awkward situation, you know, you have this DJ who you respect and you love his music and it was quite an experience for us to be sitting there with him, and he's acting like that. It was just very bizarre to the point where I left in the end with my boyfriend, because it just blew us away, we did not expect that at all."
Anyone with additional information in regards to this story or to other cases of sexual harassment or sexual assault in the dance music community can contact Annabel Ross at [email protected]
If you are a victim in need of support, here are some places that can help:
Crisis Text Line
Text HOME to:
741741 (US & Canada)
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) (1-800.656.HOPE)
Sexual misconduct support resources search tool
Rape Crisis England & Wales (live chat here, or call 0808 802 9999)
Rape Crisis Scotland (08088 01 03 02)
Rape Crisis Northern Ireland (0800 0246 991)
Safeline (for men, women and adolescents who have experienced sexual abuse)
For Samaritans, the 24/7 crisis hotline, call 116 123
Rape Crisis Help (1800 778888)
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line
Or call 1 800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)