Kevin Saunderson interview – “Chicago was a big inspiration as well as Detroit. We were both driving forces.”
Kevin Saunderson reflects on a life in techno
“Who knew we was going to be doing this music for 35-plus years? As much as we’d hoped, who knew it was gonna go this route?” Kevin Saunderson appears in reflective mood, seated proudly in his brightly lit studio as he takes a short break from travel preparations. He’s poised to fly to Europe for a series of shows in what will be his third trans-Atlantic round trip since the clubs started awakening from their lockdown-enforced slumber. “I’m doing Defected, doing a show for Inner City, and then I’m doing a couple of E-Dancer shows,” he says. “I’m busy as always.”
Saunderson has enjoyed a long and illustrious career in music, and the quality of his pioneering output means his place in the dance music pantheon is assured. Responsible for seminal club classics ‘Good Life’ and ‘Big Fun’ – recorded as Inner City alongside vocalist Paris Grey – over the years he’s produced countless underground treasures via innumerable guises and collaborations, including Reese, Kaos, Kreem, Tronikhouse, Keynotes, and, of course, E-Dancer.
This October sees the release of ‘E-Dancer – Re:Generate’, a far-reaching album containing contemporary reworks of selected E-Dancer productions. Arriving via Adam Beyer’s Drumcode label – and chosen to celebrate its 250th release – the milestone album contains remixes from artists new and old, aiming to join techno dots while providing something of a history lesson for the newer generation of dance enthusiasts. “I’m very happy with the results,” he says. “You know, a lot of people are funny – especially Detroit guys – about people remixing their music. But, you know, I’m the one who changed the remix back in the day, so for me, I don’t mind somebody touching my music, somebody remixing my record. It’s nice if they bring something to it that makes it live differently – I ain’t gonna say longer, you know, – but you can experience it in a different way.”
Alongside Juan Atkins and Derrick May, Saunderson was part of the Belville Three – a trio of innovative artists credited with inventing Detroit techno during the early to mid-’80s. This fresh, futurist sound spread like wildfire through Europe and, eventually, the rest of the world, forming an intrinsic pillar of the dance music scene as it exists today. Growing up in the small town of Belville, around 30 miles outside of Detroit, the young friends attended the local high school together, bonding over a combined love of music and a fascination for science fiction and technology. It was Atkins who was first to embark upon astrally-leaning studio explorations. His 1981 Cybotron production ‘Alleys Of Your Mind’ is hailed by May as being the seed that started the Detroit Techno movement – though it was later in 1985 that Atkin’s Model 500 track ‘No UFO’s’ would arrive, generally accepted as being the first all-out techno record ever released.
During the early ’80s, Saunderson was cutting his teeth as a DJ – playing at his college fraternity parties, spinning his friend’s newly-formed records alongside a variety of funk and disco-inspired sounds. “It was a collage of music I would play,” he says. “This is pre-house music, you know. I would pay Juan’s Cybotron stuff, I was playing stuff like Madonna’s ‘Holiday’, I was playing Prince ‘When Doves Cry’, Parliament/Funkadelic, of course, early Kraftwerk. – and definitely disco, because I’m from New York originally. I was always playing Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, Chaka Khan, Stephanie Mills, as well as stuff like ‘Super Nature’ from Cerrone.”
Detroit’s powerful funk heritage meant that disco music didn’t have quite the same foothold locally as it did in other parts of the US, but Saunderson’s connection to the sound ran deep. His New York roots saw him travel back to the city often to spend time with his father and brothers who still lived there, and these visits allowed him an opportunity to witness the formative four to the floor club sound morphing into future-facing electronic realms. “From ’81 to ’83 I was visiting the Paradise Garage,” he says. “I got to go to Paradise Garage five, six, or seven times and experience Larry Levan playing disco into early house.”
The rich musical landscape in which he was immersed proved to be profoundly inspirational, and it wasn’t long before he began familiarising himself with the tools and mechanisms of studio production. “Just being around Derrick and Juan, and hanging out with Eddie Fowlkes and all the rest – because they were doing something similar – it kept evolving into something more than DJing. That’s the time that I started learning about instruments and drum machines. It was just a very exciting time, doing my own drums – I didn’t know how to play drums, but I could figure it out by touching beats and come up with my own rhythms – remember it, repeat it, and all that shit. This was so inspirational.” While undoubtedly inspired by the European electro and synthpop acts that Atkins and May were so taken by, for Saunderson, the appeal was as much about the technology used to make the music itself – or rather, what it allowed him to create.
Back then, his studio weapons of choice included classic vintage synths: the Casio CZ-5000, Juno 106, Roland Jupiter 8, and TR-808 drum machine. When asked if he still uses any of his old caches today, he lets out a boom of infectious laughter. “Not at all! You know, for a while I kept around a lot of my stuff, but then eventually I kept saying ‘oh man, I haven’t used that in five years. I haven’t used that in three years.’ I was like, I’m not going to hold on to all this. So I started getting rid of stuff, you know, working in the box. I still have some synths, but not really old stuff.”
By 1984 Saunderson was already producing tracks, with his first release, Kreem’s ‘Triangle Of Love’, arriving via Atkins’ Metroplex label in 1986. A year later, he would go on to launch his own KMS Records label, and, by now, the creative juices were well and truly flowing. “I was flying! Just throwing tracks out under different aliases and collaborations. All kinds of tracks was coming from me and you know, E Dancer was born out of that.”
By now there were a growing number of like-minded Detroit-based artists forging far-reaching sounds, with Blake Baxter and Eddie Fowlkes among those making noise in the city. Despite the steady expansion, the burgeoning movement didn’t have a purpose-built venue to serve as a hub or testing ground for the new material being created. “That came later in ’88 with The Music Institute,” says Saunderson, referring to the club he, Atkins, and May would go on open in Detroit. “[Prior to that] it was really just these fraternity parties – and only black kids going out and listening to the music, with maybe some gay crowds too. That was it. But there was not one club – at least that I played – in Detroit back then.”
Fortunately, the young artists didn’t have to travel too far to hear their music being played in a tailor-made club environment. The house music scene emerging simultaneously in nearby Chicago most certainly boasted venues where these ground-breaking sounds could be heard in context, and the Detroit-based players would regularly make the four or five-hour drive to journey deep into the sounds emanating from pioneering venues, The Warehouse, and Music Box.
While the neighbouring cities’ sounds may have had their differences, the two scenes are intrinsically linked. “I was very aware of Chicago because Derrick moved there as I was becoming a DJ,” says Saunderson. “We would all keep in contact and share our experiences, and then once we started making music – actually before I started music – we would take car rides there. So, when Juan came out with ‘No UFO’s’, we’d take that with Derek to give to Farley [Jackmaster Funk]. Farley would make sure everybody got the record. We would go see Frankie Knuckles to give him records, Ron Hardy, and it continued as we evolved into our own creation of music. Then it was Eddie Fowlkes, then it was Derrick, then it was me, then it was Blake Baxter. So Chicago was a big inspiration as well as Detroit. We were both driving forces. We were kind of led by Juan and they had Jesse Saunders, Marshall Jefferson, Chip E, and Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley in the early days. And [they were] powerful on the radio too, they were tearing up the radio.”
The techno and house sounds blossoming in Detroit and Chicago exploded internationally, initially via the UK and Germany, the latter of which – born out of EBM, electro, synthpop and krautrock – had a symbiotic techno scene of its own evolving around the same time as it’s US counterpart. Techno continues to mean different things to different people, and – although he’s uniquely well-placed to comment on the subject, Saunderson seemingly isn’t too hung up on rigid definitions. “It was no specific thing besides technology,” he says. “The technology drove me to create what my heart felt. I mean, I obviously do techno, but I can do house, I can do somewhere in between. I have Inner City, so, for me, it’s just what I feel”
Despite his untroubled attitude to what, for some, is a hotly contested issue, he offers a fascinating insight into the roles he and his peers played in manifesting the Detroit incarnation of the sound. “I think when Juan Atkins came up with the term ‘techno’, it morphed and changed, just like it’s done over the years. What me and Derrick did was, I think we bought the balance – and Blake Baxter too – to really define the sound more. Think about Cybotron, it sounds very futuristic. It’s not four on the floor, really – it’s still some cool ass shit that inspires you – but it’s not necessarily dance music as we wanted to hear it, at least in my mind. So that’s what we created and added an element to. Then obviously Derrick and whoever else came after – Blake and Eddie [Fowlkes] and all that, you put that together and that’s really Detroit techno, and then the other generations who followed.”
A key motivation for the new E-Dancer remix album was the desire to educate today’s techno loving dancers who may have been previously unaware of the sound’s history. By inviting an international blend of generation-spanning artists to interpret classics from the E-Dancer catalogue, the album aims to effortlessly introduce new audiences to Detroit’s techno heritage. The idea was formulated during the midst of the pandemic when Beyer and Saunderson started fleshing out the idea. Each of them made suggestions about exactly which artists should be called into action, and the collection quickly began to take shape. “He [Beyer] had some cats – some that maybe I wasn’t really aware of, cause we can’t know everybody, there’s always someone else – and then you have some of the younger producers remixing certain tracks. It was so inspirational. Then there was some Detroit people that I thought needed an opportunity, you know, we had to keep the Detroit presence in it.” He goes on to say that the tragically departed Kelli Hand had been scheduled to be part of the project before her untimely death in August this year. “God bless her soul, [she] was supposed to originally be a part of that.”
More than a broad Detroit techno schooling, Saunderson hopes that the ‘E-Dancer – Re:Generate’ collection sheds new light on the deeply personal output he produces under the moniker. “E-Dancer is a different project than anything else I’ve worked on because it wasn’t a collaboration. It wasn’t Reese & Santonio, it wasn’t me working with anybody but myself. So, it grabbed a different part of me and a deeper side of my soul than anything else.” On top of this, the album represents a unique opportunity to hear vintage E-Dancer music interpreted by a selection of producers – something which hasn’t generally happened before now. “There’s not been many remixes of E-Dancer. I did a reshape version, but it really wasn’t remixes – just taking the original stems and tracks, adding a little percussion or some extra bits – but nothing too extreme. And it wasn’t many other artists involved in that. It was more or less just me.”
Saunderson composed a brand new E-Dancer track for the album in the form of the brooding, bass-heavy workout ‘The Rise’. “I wanted to do something new,” he says. “It’s been a few years since I put out an E-Dancer track. I decided to do that because my goal was to eventually to lead into a whole new E-Dancer record, so it’s kind of a teaser.” Among the dazzling lineup of featured remix artists are Len Faki, Funk DVoid, Robert Hood, Adam Beyer, DJ Bone, and Whebba. Another name that jumps from the impressive ensemble is that of Kevin’s son, Dantiez, who joins forces with Andre Salmon on their version of ‘Forces’. Saunderson was surprised to see his son embark upon a musical path, but quickly nurtured the idea when he saw the diligence of Dantiez’s approach. “It was unexpected. I had no intentions of any of my sons being a part of music, but you know, it’s his destiny. I realised that just by seeing his motivation, his work ethic. And then seeing some of the same skill levels – if not more than myself – come out and him. It was so natural for him.”
It’s abundantly clear that Detroit’s house and techno well remains full to the brim with locally produced talent. A steady stream of inspired creators continues to emerge from the city, with Omar S, Waajeed, Kyle Hall, Jay Daniel and John FM just some of those regularly representing. While Saunderson doesn’t focus too heavily on the newer generations of resident producers, he remains proud of the ongoing legacy. “I’ve run into the young generations,” he says. “I don’t follow the scene like that, but I know we have some new talent out here. I’m aware of the guys and I’m always pushing Detroit to put out new talent. I just wish everybody well and, and hope they keep doing what they feel.”
When attempting to delineate the enigmatic ingredients that have helped shape the city’s abundant musical lineage, Saunderson suggests a blend of quasi-mystical factors are at play. “It’s just the spirit of Detroit. It’s a combination of things. There’s [talented] people in Detroit who have emotions and they want to get them out. I mean, Detroit obviously does something. I don’t have that real answer, but I know Detroit does something, you get this feeling – when you’re creative and you want to express it, it comes out just the way it comes out. It comes from the heart and soul. And maybe there’s some subliminal stuff there from the past that connects, that keeps something going on into the future.”
Saunderson mentions the example of launching multiple label outlets as a parallel between the city’s techno movement and that of Motown Records which preceded it. “Juan could have been the only label in Detroit for years with Metroplex, but then Derrick had Transmat, I had KMS, and then later on a few others followed. Berry Gordy [Motown] had multiple labels, too, but his reason was different: his reasoning was radio could only play so many records of any label, so he created [more]. We created labels because we wanted to control what we put out, and I didn’t want nobody to tell me I had to wait to put my record out, or if they liked it or not. I wanted to be able to put it on vinyl, play it myself as quick as I could.”
Detroit’s musical legacy remains a powerful presence in the city, and its influence touched Saunderson, personally, and from a young age. “My brother used to be a tour manager and wrote a song with Brass Construction, BT Express, and Skyy,” he says. “He was a part of that whole collage back then. So I got an early insight into musicians playing and touring, but at that time I had no vision [of what was to come].” A recent familial revelation also goes some way to explaining Saunderson’s unique affinity to music, something that took him by surprise when it first came to light. Unbeknown to Saunderson, his mother once held a burning desire to make it in the world of music – briefly performing in a group alongside members of The Marvelettes before they hit the big time. “My mother sang the Apollo on amateur night, and I didn’t even know this until later on,” he laughs. “Like, what? You went to New York? You wanted to be a singer? I didn’t even know that until years later – even after a ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Good Life’.”
Turning to the state of the dance music scene today, Saunderson suggests there have been developments both good and bad in the last few years. On the positive side, he feels, very recently, that a new willingness to accept disparate sounds has helped diversify the scene – particularly in the US, where promoters were previously reluctant to take sonic risks. “You see opportunities at bigger events compared to back in the day. [Previously] everybody was stuck into like: OK, it’s trance now, or it evolves into EDM, whatever. It was just this one sound that promoters was pushing. Well, now I see diversity sound-wise. I see some big events – especially in America – that wasn’t really going on before. Like, it was really small events or festivals that just really didn’t have a clue.”
Saunderson sees the rise and refinement of festival culture in America as central to the dance scene’s growth in the country. “We got Movement Festival here in Detroit, our own festival that’s been around for years that does quite well. What happened is people started seeing more quality, then you started seeing other festivals pop up, and then you seemed to have diversity: you had trap, you had deep house, you had house, you had techno, you started seeing a collage of different stages. And then people started going and experiencing different DJs and different stages. And then I think people want to graduate. They want to get out of EDM because it was just the same old shit. Even though all of us had four on the floor, there’s different grooves, there’s different feelings, different emotions, different sounds.”
Saunderson feels the arrival of social media is something of a double-edged sword. While it has certainly helped fan the flames of the global dance scene, at times it has allowed glossy branding and a carefully manicured public image to serve in the place of a high-level production archive. “There’s a couple of things I can’t figure out,” he says. “Sometimes, somebody would become really huge because of social media and they [only] have one good track – I’m going to say the track is bad – but, honestly, they explode. All of a sudden just doing venues with like five to 8,000 people. It’s just like, wow! Where did they come from?”
For a time, the tidal wave of EDM cast an ugly shadow over the dance underground, but Saunderson has seen a gradual equalisation in the past few years and remains hopeful that sincere music created purely for the love of the form will ultimately shine through. “It was all about money and dollar. And, unfortunately, crowds that wanted to go out dancing, that’s all they knew. They didn’t know how to understand or have a perception of how to feel it. Just because that’s what press and promoters put out there. And so you got this disconnect from what is real: quality versus what’s not quality. Those [EDM] records have the same old style, the same old structure, you know what I mean? So what happens in the end, they make a bunch of money off of it and radio push the shit out and eventually it levels off – and I think it has levelled off more. I don’t know if it’s completely levelled off, but it’s not like it used to be, which gives me hope for quality and talent.”
Despite his hope for the future of dance music, for Saunderson, an incident at Ultra Fest in 2019 marked something of a low point for the scene as a whole. “They had this Kentucky Fried Chicken DJ [Colonel Sanders]. It was just so stupid to me and idiotic. They paid $50,000 or I don’t know how much money and had this Kentucky fried DJ, or whatever the hell his name was. They’re taking up the livelihood of a talent and making a mockery out of this music because that’s not going to have any longevity. And then there’s people’s perception: like, what the fuck? So it’s not cool. Shit like that is annoying when we created this music or was a big part of creating this music – at least Detroit techno and house. You have artists that love what we do and heads that have so much belief in what we’ve done over the years.
Understandably, Saunderson feels this kind of bastardisation of the music he helped invent particularly acutely, and gimmicks such as this are a far cry from what he and his contemporaries had in mind when they started on their creative paths. “When I first started making this music, like I said, it was only black people listening to this music. I kept thinking, like, ‘this music we make, this music we make is for the world. It’s for everybody. It doesn’t have a colour, it was for everybody.’ So, to see that it has done that. It has captured the world [is amazing]. And then you see somebody do something that’s totally immoral against the music, do you know what I mean? That’s the part that’s tough to take. Bad music eventually will kill the scene, and there’s enough good music out there. And when I say bad music, I mean people making music just for the money. Making music like ‘I don’t really give a hell, I just want to follow whatever the next hit was’ and try to have a ghost producer produce it and, and try to create a brand
Before we end our conversation, Saunderson shares that he’s recently been busy with a new kind of creative project. “I’m working on a book,” he says. “It’s finished, but there still might be a couple of edits. I’ve written my own book of my life story, my musical experiences and my Detroit experiences and travelling the world.” There’s no release date set yet, but he suggests it won’t see the light of day until next year at the earliest. “I’m not far off, let’s put it that way.” Finally, to quench my own curiosity, I took the opportunity to ask what instrument he used to create the iconic chord stabs on Inner City’s 1988 classic ‘Good Life’. Not for the first time, he let out a glorious burst of laughter. “Everybody wants to know that! It was a combination, actually, of a sample of a note from ‘Let’s Get Brutal’ that I played as a chord layered with another sound. That’s how that happened. You know, I got lucky through creation and experimentation.”