Multiple women report sexual assault and harassment by Derrick May
A DJ Mag investigation reveals multiple women with reports of sexual assault and harassment against Detroit DJ and producer Derrick May. Please be aware that this report contains details of sexual assault
Content warning: This article contains information relating to sexual assault.
Several women have come forward with reports of sexual assault and harassment against world-famous Detroit DJ and producer Derrick May. The reports, which date back 20 years, suggest that Derrick May has assaulted women in the US, the UK, Europe and New Zealand over a period of several years.
The women who have chosen to speak with DJ Mag say they feel compelled to share their experiences after realising their experiences were not unique, and then being outed in a “public witch hunt” against May that has been playing out over social media this year, and has intensified since the summer. Michael James, a journalist and former friend of May, who has a long-running battle with the Detroit artist over the rights to the 1987 track ‘Strings of Life’, has led much of this. The allegations James has made against May are numerous and serious. In one Facebook post, James calls May “a sexual predator”, which May denies.
In the wake of the allegations, May was dropped from the bill of Paris Electronic Week (PEW) as well as the FAC51 The Haçienda's Easter weekend 2021 gig in London. Technopol, which runs PEW, said they were “cancelling his presence while waiting for a clear picture” on the sexual assault claims, while FAC51 said: “May will not be appearing in the line-up for this event pending clarification of recent developments.”
The women say the stress of the reported assaults has been magnified after their personal information and elements of their reported assaults were shared on social media against their will, often by James himself. Some claim to have received dismissive and even threatening messages on social media from fans of the DJ afterwards, an experience they describe as “re-traumatising.”
These outings of reported survivors come at a time of intensified conversation around sexual assault and harassment within the dance music industry. After Erick Morillo was arrested and charged with sexual battery in Florida on August 7th, and several women came forward with reports of sexual assault against the DJ after his death on September 1st, questions are being asked: how prevalent is sexual assault in the industry? Why do reported survivors not speak up? And how do industry power structures allow for such reported assaults to happen, and even be ignored?
After a “re-traumatising” period, some of the women outed on social media have decided to share their experiences now: in order to regain control of their own narrative, and in the hope that other women who may have been harmed by the 57-year-old DJ come forward.
Names have been changed to protect identities. These stories run in chronological order.
Sophia was in her early 20s when she met Derrick May at the turn of the millennium in Wellington, New Zealand. Through her work at a local radio station, she became involved in the local house and techno scene and was regularly invited to gigs. When she was offered tickets to see May play, Sophia says she was “so excited” because “I was a huge fan”.
Sophia attended the gig with a friend, and at some point during the evening she says they found themselves backstage in a VIP area. Among those present was May. Excited to “meet a hero,” Sophia says she introduced herself to the DJ and sparked up a conversation. “He was nice,” Sophia says. “He was really talkative. I was stoked.”
After chatting for a while, Sophia says May invited her and another girl who was chatting with both of them to sit down on a nearby sofa. Sophia alleges that shortly after they sat down beside May, he “shoved his hands under both our bums and squeezed really hard.”
Sophia says she jumped up in shock and moved away from May. “I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember feeling like he was telling me to fuck off. It was really weird, he had this creepy laugh,” she says. Sophia did not know the other girl who had sat down with them and says she can’t remember her reaction. “I left the party and called one of my guy friends,” she says.
“I was really shaken up but [the male friend] just laughed it off. I guess in the grand scheme of things plenty of things like that happen, but it’s the only time something like this has happened to me by someone in a position of power,” she continues. “I’ve been groped by drunk people at parties, but this felt different. I was really shocked. I was so young and impressionable and I was such a fan of his. It was really awful.”
Sophia says she avoided attending gigs with May on the line-up and stopped listening to his music after the incident. She says she felt compelled to speak out after seeing other women talking about their experiences with the DJ on social media.
“I thought there might be another woman out there who this has happened to, who has never said anything, but might be encouraged [to] after reading this report and think ‘okay, I’m not alone, so now I’m not so afraid’,” she says.
Tania first met Derrick May in 2002, when she was working for a record label in the UK. The label had reached out to the DJ to discuss a potential project. “The first time I ever met him, he pinched my bum and told me he reminded me of his friend,” Tania says. In the moment, she brushed the act off “as things like that happened all the time.”
The meeting resulted in Tania and her boss securing the pitch with May. A few weeks later, in late 2002, Tania arrived in Detroit to interview May and go through his archives as part of the project. She describes arriving at the office of May’s record label, Transmat Records, as a “whirlwind.”
“I landed and was taken straight to the Transmat office, rather than to a hotel,” Tania explains. “Derrick was there. He said hello and showed me around the office before taking me to his loft. He was showing me his gold discs, his Fostex reel-to-reel tape recorder, and all this stuff that was pertinent to the project we were doing. The whole thing took 10 to 15 minutes, it was a real whirlwind.”
After the brief tour, Tania says May took her back to the office and explained that he wasn’t able to discuss the project with her at that time because he had a meeting scheduled with his business partner. He suggested that she wait in his loft until he was done. “I didn’t want to go back to his apartment because there was a man in there, cleaning the outside deck, who I thought looked like a drug addict, and it was making me feel uncomfortable,” Tania says.
“He said he would take me up and send [the man cleaning] away, so we left the office and went next door again. I was walking up the stairs in front of him, maybe four or five steps in front, when I felt the full weight of his hand on top of my head. He spun me around and sat me down on the stairs in one movement, and he pulled out and held his penis.
“I’d been in Detroit less than an hour, and I’m sitting about three inches away from his penis. He’s looking at me and laughing. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know anybody there. I didn’t know how to call the police or anything like that, so I went for humour as a diffusion tactic. I asked him if I was supposed to be impressed with that bullshit and told him to put it away.”
Tania says May “backed off” after the incident and the rest of the trip passed uneventfully, with her completing her interviews for the project she had been sent out to work on. During her time in Detroit, however, May had been pitching to win the contract to run an American dance music festival — and Tania says he repeatedly said that if he won the contract he wanted her to programme the event.
“I didn’t take it seriously,” she says. “He used to say a lot of shit. But at the start of 2003, I got a call from Derrick saying he’d won the contract and asking if I wanted to come and work with him.” The call came at a difficult time for Tania. The Friday before the call, she’d lost her job, and that weekend her parents had split up. “It was an impulse decision, but I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing else going on, I don’t have a job and it’s an adventure. So let’s do it’.”
Tania travelled to Detroit to begin work in early March 2003. She describes the next few months leading up to the festival as “chaos”. She says she spent her first night in Detroit in May’s unfurnished, unheated house in Farmington Hills, as no accommodation had been organised for her. After sofa surfing for a few nights, she ended up sharing a room with one of the male festival organisers for the duration of her stay.
“He became a very good friend of mine, but obviously sharing a room with a strange man was not at all ideal,” Tania says.
Tania reports a culture of almost constant harassment and abuse that came with working with May. “He was overbearing and gratuitous,” she says. “He was the kind of guy who would come in and try to grab your chest or stick his hand down your trousers, or even physically or verbally abuse the other guys in the office.
“Everything he did was designed to intimidate everybody. There was a constant undermining of anything we were trying to do with any sort of legitimacy. There was a lot of persistent bait-and-abuse behaviour. You’d be trying to have a meeting about budget while he’s sitting there trying to grab your tits, or talking about his sexual encounters with other women.”
“Even when he wasn’t in the office he was being sexually aggressive. He would do things like phone me panting, claiming he was having sex with someone — comments that I felt were designed to be provocative.”
Tania alleges May would regularly put her in “dangerous and uncomfortable” situations, which he would treat as “jokes”. “Everything was a joke to this man,” she says, “but if you tried to explain to him how much he was intimidating you, or how inappropriate he was being, he’d either laugh it off or switch modes and become a super nice guy for 24 hours, saying he was just playing and that it’s not a big deal.”
Tania reports that May’s toxic behaviour, alongside issues with the city of Detroit pulling funding and artists dropping out, led to the festival almost not happening in 2003, and that the festival only went ahead thanks to people like herself and the local music community pulling together. Despite being promised a salary, Tania was never paid for her work on the festival in 2003 — at that point, she says she vowed never to work for May again.
However, in 2004, the same team approached Tania to programme another festival. The director promised her that she would receive a $20,000 payment, not just expenses as before, and could carry out the majority of her work from the UK, where she would not have contact with May.
“I only went to Detroit twice in 2004 — once for a week and then for the festival itself in Spring — so I had very little dealing with Derrick as I physically didn’t put myself in that situation,” she says. “Derrick also wasn’t around as much that year, which made 2004 a lot easier to digest because the abusive stuff died down.
Despite the team’s assurances that Tania would be paid this time, she says the money was not forthcoming — and reports that May became “belligerent, rude and abusive” before “basically telling her that she wasn’t being paid shit.”
Tania says she resigned herself, yet again, to not being paid for her work. But three months later, she bumped into May at a boat party in London she attended with friends, where he was the surprise guest DJ. Tania and a friend who attended the party with her both claim May was overtly sexual and derogatory when he spoke to them.
Tania recalls May “swigging from a bottle of red wine”, which she remembers finding odd because she had rarely known him to drink alcohol. She reports that a few hours into the party, May walked over to her group of friends, slammed the bottle of wine down on the table and said: “This is for Tania, to thank her for letting me fuck her all those times.” Tania describes this as “blatantly not true” and “intimidating”, adding: “It was so aggressive.”
At one point, Tania saw May being paid in cash by the promoter — something she reports he noticed her seeing. After the event, she says she received a call from May. He told her that he had been paid for events he had played in London, so she could collect the money she was owed from him at his hotel.
“I was like, ‘Hell yes I want to pick up my money’,” Tania says. “Not being paid for two years had a knock on effect. I lost my apartment in London because of it, so I felt I had to go and get it off him.”
Tania went to meet May at his hotel room in the early evening and that “within five minutes he started his bullshit, being rude and making it clear he was not going to pay me.” She reports that, as she went to leave the hotel room, May blocked her exit and sexually assaulted her.
“He is taller than me, so he reached above me and slammed the door shut with his hand,” she says. “I was wearing a long catsuit, with long sleeves and legs and a zip, and he started to try and pull my zip down. I managed to kick him in the nuts and push him off, but if I hadn’t done that I don’t think I would have got away. I think [that moment] would have ended completely differently.”
Tania says she “buried” the experience and tried to put her life back together, and has not seen or spoken to May since that day. She has felt forced into speaking out after her name and elements of her story were shared without her consent on social media. “It was the first time I had spoken about it in years,” Tania says. “It just made me feel stupid looking back on it. How stupid was I to get on a plane, to not leave Detroit after the first incident?
“The bit I reflect on now — when I hear myself saying things like ‘oh well, I gave him a pass for trying to grab my tits because he wasn’t the first guy to try and do that’ — is that you realise that’s how [women] go through this industry. We’ve been accepting, whether it’s your boss, a famous artist or even your band-mates, that people are capable of being inappropriate to the point of being scary, and that can cross over into abuse and assault.”
Lara met Derrick May in the UK in 2004, when she was a teenager. The teen was a huge fan of May’s and was excited to see him play in her favourite club with a group of friends. Lara and a female friend were dancing in front of the DJ booth — where she says they caught the DJ’s eye. He said: “I’ll see you ladies later.”
The group would regularly stay in the club after the night ended, where they would have a drink and decide what to do after. Lara says, on this occasion, May joined them and started chatting to the girls, before inviting them back to his hotel for an after party. Excited, the girls agreed and asked if they could bring their friends.
“He said we could bring our guy friend, who was standing there with us, and that the others could join later,” Lara says. “We got in a taxi together and I just remember it all being so exciting. I was a real music nerd so I was asking him all these questions about his tracks. We were having the most amazing chat. It was all so surreal.”
“I was also a huge Carl Craig fan and Derrick said he could call him so I could speak to him over the phone. I was really, really excited — it felt like one of those bucket list moments when you meet your musical heroes.”
When they got back to the hotel, Lara says the group went up to May’s room and May ordered a couple of bottles of red wine for them to share. “We were chatting about music and politics and just laughing a lot,” Lara says. “We were probably there for a couple of hours, just drinking wine and chatting. I remember the sun coming up and feeling really happy — like ‘this is amazing, what a wonderful, wonderful experience’.”
Lara says that, all of a sudden, she felt extremely tired, “like she had to close her eyes.” She went over to sit on the bed, where she says she passed out. May reportedly suggested her male friend leave soon after Lara went to bed, leaving him alone with the two young women.
Lara reports: “The next thing I recall was someone touching me on my side. I opened my eyes and remember feeling really disoriented. I saw Derrick standing in front of me, completely naked and with an erection. Before I could say anything, he kissed me and shoved his tongue down my throat. I was really shocked. I made it clear I didn’t want that.”
May moved away from her and Lara told her female friend they needed to go. As both girls began to gather their things, Lara says: “Derrick went crazy”. “He sat on the bed, pulled the covers over his bottom half and started insulting me. He was shouting, insulting my appearance — it felt like he was just trying to grab on to anything he could to attack me,” she continues.
“I remember thinking ‘this is really surreal, I’m having an argument with Derrick May, who’s old enough to be my dad and is naked in bed in front of me’. When it was clear we were leaving he gave me this crazy stare, it was almost cross-eyed — like he was trying to wish death on me. It was really intimidating. He angrily said ‘I never want to see you again’ as I left the room.”
Lara reports she and her friend left the hotel and Lara went to meet a friend at a nearby after party, who she had called crying. The friend recalls Lara seeming “really shook up” and “crying her eyes out in the middle of an after party of 30 or 40 people".
Lara says that the reported incident has had a lasting impact on her life. “I missed a lot of school afterwards, in my A-Level year,” she says. “I felt like such an idiot and really blamed myself for being so naive. It was like I’d all of a sudden grown up and seen the world for what it was. It really affected me for a few years.
“Before this happened, I wanted to be a DJ and had been saving up to buy decks — but I felt like I’d fucked it all up before it even started. I was worried about running into him in person, and him shouting or getting angry at me. I really felt like he would have the power to say ‘remove that girl from the bill’ or ‘blacklist her’ if he ever saw my name on a line-up, which sounds ridiculous now. But I really thought he was that powerful.”
Lara says she had put the incident behind her until recently, when she noticed other allegations circling online about May — which made her realise she was not alone. “For years I thought I was the only person he did this to,” Lara says. “I think he’s a terrible person.”
In March 2008, Lisa was working as an intern at a boutique hotel in Amsterdam. The young woman was on a work placement as part of her hospitality management degree, and was working at the front office when Derrick May checked in for a show at the Powerzone.
“I didn’t know who he was, but my supervisor was excited as he was a really famous DJ,” Lisa says. “When he arrived, I checked him in and made some small talk. I absolutely didn’t know anything about him, so I was asking him questions: he said he was a DJ and that he’d stayed [at the hotel] before.”
Lisa says she walked May to his room on the second floor, all the while making “friendly, professional chat” about his work and telling him about her boyfriend, who also worked in the music industry.
“It was standard operating procedure at the hotel to walk guests to their room. Sometimes the rooms needed instructions, like how the lights work or where the safe is,” Lisa explains. “When we got to his room, I let him in and he closed the door behind us, so we were locked in. He was staying in a big, L-shaped suite, and I’d started walking over to point things out, so I didn’t really think anything of it at the time.”
Lisa continues: “I went into the bathroom to point out the facilities in there, and when I turned around he was standing, blocking the doorway, with an erection and his hand on his crotch. He said ‘look how excited you make me.’ I tried to get past him to get to the exit, but he grabbed me and threw me against the wall. He kept me there and put his knee between my legs, pinning me against the wall.
“That’s when he really started grinding on me. He was rubbing his dick on me, touching me everywhere: on my butt, my clothes, on my breasts, on my vagina. He tried to grope me everywhere and tried to kiss me.
“I’m not sure exactly what happened next, but I’m quite tall and strong, so I think after the initial shock I just pushed him off. He was taking his trousers off and said: ‘I really want to fuck you, you’re so sexy, I’m so excited.’ I told him no and pushed him away with his trousers half down and left the room. As I walked to the elevator, he opened the door and said ‘I hate seeing you leave, but I love watching you walk away.’”
Reflecting on the alleged incident, Lisa says: “It was aggressive and premeditated. The door was closed and I was locked in a room. He waited until he got me alone and basically attacked.”
Lisa says she returned to her workstation on the front desk shaken and breaking out in hives from the stress. A colleague who was working with Lisa that day says she recalls her attitude “changing entirely” from this “bubbly and energetic” person to someone who seemed “very fragile”.
She eventually told the on-shift manager what had happened after she says he raised concerns about her change in attitude. Lisa says: “He was very upset and said he was going to get [May] banned from the hotel. He was really angry and emotional. I was just thinking that I didn’t want this to impact my grade on the work placement, so I tried to calm him down.
“My shift was changed so I didn’t have to come in to work the following day when he checked out, but as far as I’m aware nothing ever came of my complaint. The supervisor promised to make a note in the system saying that Derrick May should never be accompanied to his room by a woman alone again.”
Lisa says that, 12 years later, the incident still plays on her mind. She decided to speak out after seeing similar accounts of sexual harassment and assault by May being posted on social media.
“There are times when I think ‘did I do something wrong? Did I flirt or give off vibes?’ You start doubting yourself, but I was just being friendly. You tell yourself you shouldn’t overreact and that it’s not that bad, that it was just one isolated incident that will never happen again — but when I saw allegations being made by other women I thought ‘you motherfucker, why didn’t I say anything?’
“So now I think nobody is going to know what he’s like if I don’t speak up. If everyone stays silent, he’ll always get away with it. It happened, and it’s shit, but I want to speak up now because if I don’t, people won’t know.”
Lisa has since filed a verbal report to the police in Amsterdam, who have made a note of the accusation on file. In order for them to launch an official investigation she needs to return to Holland, where she no longer lives, and file an in-person report.
Since her post claiming she “had a bad experience” with Derrick May was widely shared on social media, Lisa has received abuse from a number of fans — something she says has added to an already traumatic experience.
“People have been saying vile shit like ‘you’re just a star fucker who did something you regret.’ People who don’t know me, or know anything about what happened, just from a Facebook post saying I was assaulted. It feels like the world is shaming me just for speaking out.”
In response to the allegations, Derrick May said:
“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.”