Kevin Saunderson: A Detroit Revival
Touring again after a ten year break, one of the Detroit originals Kevin Saunderson talks about how it all began
In 1980s Detroit seismic shifts were developing as foundations were beginning to be laid in electronic dance music. Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, who would form the The Belleville Three, were beavering away in high school and beginning to think about making some music. The three of them, both collectively and in their own ways, would go on to mastermind the sound of Detroit techno helping to carve out the landscape of dance music culture as we know it. Now, after a ten year hiatus, Saunderson has returned to touring with Inner City and working on a new E-Dancer record. “I haven’t made a lot of music in, like, forever, y’know. So I’m just starting to crank up.”
For Saunderson, he found European influences intermingled with a stronger New York heritage of disco and soul. “Kraftwerk were important because I think they gave me the belief and knowledge that I could make music without having a whole band,” he explains. In Detroit he listened to Parliament Funkadelic, Prince, The B52s and Tangerine Dream. “The vibe was really cool. It was young, preppy, high school middle class black kids, they were the only ones listening to this kind of music. They dressed real nice, they had these cigarettes that they called ‘the germs,’ real cool. That went with the music. That was kinda the beginning of Detroit and the culture there and it kinda developed to when we started making more and more music international.
“I think people take the music and the scene more for granted now. It’s not as fresh. Everything was new. The technology was new and you didn’t know the limitations. We started out as DJs but we wanted to make our own music so we started making our own music and playing our own music and we also put ‘em on our own labels. I had my own record company [KMS], Juan and Derrick had their own too so that kicked off that kind of a culture. Because we were self motivated DJs-producers-recording artists that owned our labels we could just make a record and have it out as soon as we could. That’s how DJ culture kinda evolved on to a whole new level.”
“When I started making music I would visualise myself playing a track or my song being played in the Paradise Garage,” he explains, “especially in records like ‘The Sound’, y’know, it was really meant for that club. I used to go there and hear Larry Levan playing all sorts of records. They had this long tunnel, this dark, black light, and you heard this boom boom boom. And then you go in and you see all these people dancing. All these, just, fanatics, and they screaming, they dancing and you just catch the vibe and before I knew it I was dancing too and I didn’t know what was going on. Yeah, it was special. All I know is when I left it was like midday, it went that quickly.”
In 1988, Inner City’s ‘Big Fun’ was included in Ten Records’ Techno! The New Sound of Detroit, the first ever techno album, and the sound became a global phenomenon. “[Compiler Neil Rushton] was trying to explain that in Europe our music was building up this kind of cult but we couldn’t grasp that sort of scene. It was a very important compilation because our music was so underground and this helped give us exposure. It was surprising because I would just make music and play it myself, release it, sell a few so we could get our money back. We didn’t expect it to take off like that.” In production Saunderson’s sounds vary widely as he moves through different monikers, from the underground, driving techno of E-Dancer to the uplifting, poppy vocals of the chart topping Inner City. “I had different influences, sort of different paths y’know. I had a hard edge, I had a deeper edge, and I had Inner City. I had Reese Project which was a little more soulful.”
“What happened is we inspired so many people, so many scenes being created all around the world. And the music started changing, it grew and now you have twenty forms of techno, and technology grew too.” Saunderson’s Reese Project was also influential to the drum and bass scene. “I had this sound, this bass line I created in a song called Just Want Another Chance, and all the drum and bass DJs would take it. I don’t think they really knew, they got it from one drum and bass DJ who got it from me and they just kept taking it from him… but then they found out it was my bass and now they’re calling it the Reese Bass so, it’s kinda cool, y’know. So I’m influential in a few different ways.”