The birth of our underground brand Factory 93 not only brought on an adrenaline rush reminiscent of the renegade warehouse era of raving—on which Insomniac was founded—but it also had us thinking back to all the people, places and parties that made this whole operation possible. And with that came a burning desire to crack open our collection and dust off the classic records we couldn’t live without. Through our From the Crates series, we break out seminal and obscure cuts alike, imparting some knowledge in the process.
The tales of techno’s origins in Detroit are the stuff of legend at this point, and all of the histories of electronic and dance music would be incomplete if they didn’t at least nod to “Strings of Life,” the era-defining tune by Derrick May. This beautifully chaotic club classic is an inextricable part of the collective musical canon.
The story begins with three kids known as the Belleville Three (aka May, Kevin Saunderson, and Juan Atkins) and their fascination with drum machines, synths, and a radio DJ mentor who went by the Electrifying Mojo. The three teenagers laid the foundation for techno and modern electronic club music, along with a concurrent house movement percolating a few hundred miles away in Chicago.
It’s wild, it’s unpredictable, and—shockingly—it has no bassline. It’s probably the best dance track you’ll ever hear that truly has no low-end.
There are techno songs that pre-date “Strings of Life,” and one could argue that there are techno songs that are “better” than “Strings of Life.” But it’d be hard not to acknowledge this as one of the few indispensable, desert-island techno records you could count on one hand. It’s wild, it’s unpredictable, and—shockingly—it has no bassline. It’s probably the best dance track you’ll ever hear that truly has no low-end.
Making it even more unlikely of a smash is that it’s instrumental, seemingly had no mass commercial/radio/MTV viability, and was made on what we’d consider “pretty primitive” tools, as May once called them. But it’s roaring with energy, drama, and the eponymous “life.” It never crossed over into the mainstream the way, for example, “Windowlicker” or “Sandstorm” or Daft Punk, or even “Big Fun” or “Let’s Get Busy” did. But it didn’t need to. It’s one of the enduring tunes of this whole ephemeral world of 12-inches and nightclubs, and it’s the definitive aural footprint of its eccentric maker, Derrick “Mayday” May.
May was a nerdy kid who split his childhood between Detroit, the suburb of Belleville, and Chicago. He met Atkins playing chess and became a sort of protege. Atkins (known as “the originator” of techno ) exposed May (“the innovator”) to all this spacey new music and hardware. May befriended Saunderson after they got into a fistfight in the schoolyard, and he would go on to be known as “the elevator,” as his hits as Inner City exposed techno to the mainstream.
Atkins started releasing tunes as Cybotron as early as 1981, but it took May years to get something he felt was worthy of release. The first track May released—1987’s “Nude Photo,” under the Rhythim Is Rhythim moniker—was a dubby bass jam in the vain of Larry Heard. It got the world’s attention and presented May as an artist who was approaching songwriting in a sort of analytical framework. Atkins and May used to spend nights sleeping over, listening to music, speculating as to what the makers were going for. And there’s a sort of young, hungry competitiveness in May’s early singles that seems to be very intent on making a loud splash in this burgeoning scene.
For his follow-up, May released two versions of “Strings of Life” on the A-side, with several other tracks on the flip. But the A2 “Piano Mix” is the definitive version. It begins with stabs that really are the core of a track by Michael James, which were allegedly recorded a year prior on May’s gear. The song was originally much slower and was called “Lightning Strikes Twice,” clocking in at 80 BPM. The final version is in the high 120s, and it’s a raucous seven-plus-minute jam that feels almost tailored-made to end a sweaty warehouse set or take a night to a different level of intensity.
“Strings” kicks off with these indelible pianos before the synthesized strings come in. Then enter the drums, then more synths, shakers, dialed up and back until a playful breakdown at the three-minute mark that refocuses things. A 909 sneaks into the mix, and the elements swirl into a rapturous build and steady groove that is constantly shifting, with loads of tiny irregularities in the arrangement to keep it unpredictable. And that’s essentially what this is at the end of the day: an unpredictable, melodramatic stomper that is equal parts intellect and heart.
What “Strings of Life” also manages to accurately capture is not just this burgeoning Detroit lightning-like energy, but also May’s own frenetic essence. In May’s interviews, he comes off as unpredictable, melodramatic, passionate, crude, stubborn, wise, wise-cracking, techno’s weird uncle, all of the above. Basically anything you’d use to categorize “Strings,” you could use to describe May. The line between maker and creation is as thin as ever, if it exists at all.
Back to the track: It keeps writhing and inverting itself until the very end of its run of endless inversions, sneakily shifting around like a Rubik’s Cube.
The song itself became a staple to represent not just a city or a moment but a larger movement. May admits, “It just exploded. It was like something you can’t imagine, the kind of power and energy people got off that record when it was first heard. Mike Dunn says he has no idea how people can accept a record that doesn’t have a bassline. It had never dawned on me that ‘Strings’ didn’t have a bassline.”
The idea that one of the most famous dance records of all time has no real low-end(!) deserves a second mention here. It works somehow, perhaps due to the icy paranoia running throughout his work, especially this track. Its sort of anxious cokiness is ironic, since May is outspoken about having never done drugs in his life. The track is so frenetic and overloaded with ideas and little variations that it never lets your conscious mind stop and realize there’s no bass.
May knew he had something on his hands when the track was done. Attack magazine wrote, “May claims to have spent two days naked in his house after writing ‘Strings of Life,’ listening to the track over and over again, feeling as if he was on drugs without taking any.”
The track was a hit, of course, and was released on May’s Transmat imprint. It came out just in time for the Second Summer of Love, when rave culture was blossoming in the UK and spreading out in every direction. Atkins would give “Strings” a jacking re-rerub in ‘89 as one of “Juan’s Magic Mixes.” It would go on to be reissued, remixed, re-interpolated, and covered ad nauseum. Even Liam Gallagher received inspiration from “Strings.”
Surprisingly or not, May doesn’t feel like “Strings” is his best work. He told an interviewer 15 years ago that although it has “been the one that people remember the most, that’s not the one I thought was the most special to me. But it’s the one that was most special to everyone else.” More recently, he’s gone so far as to say, “If you want to hear ‘Strings of Life,’ fuck off.”
This century has seen May continue to tour as a DJ. He’s now 55, and Transmat is still aggressively putting out music. He essentially stopped making and releasing his own music in the very early ‘90s. His roles as DJ, label head, and general head of state have seemed to take up the majority of his time musically.
I’ll leave you with this YouTube comment by rave kingpin Frankie Bones on “Strings of Life,” which sums it up perhaps better and more concisely than I can:
I would like to make this the most important soundtrack to everything that came before and everything that came after. You owned this record on the Jack Trax LPs early on. You didn’t understand what you were listening to. I didn’t know. In the early morning hours of Sept 24, 1989, in an abandoned warehouse in Ipswich UK, I was lost in a sea of 17,500 people, and this came on. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Nothing was the same after that.