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kevin Saunderson

Chicago, IL, USA DJ Tools Deep House Tech House Techno +1

Kevin Saunderson 2012 Biog.

A few months ago Kevin Saunderson experienced an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. When he heard Beat Me Back by Italian duo Supernova he recognized it as a loop of his first ever single, the 1987 club hit The Sound.

“When I found out about it I caused some noise,” he says. “This ain’t right. They said they got a sample from their friend’s library and they weren’t even born when the record came out! They didn’t realise I made that music and I’m still living. I’m still here.”

He certainly is and, as the Supernova case demonstrated, he’s still influencing dance producers even if they don’t know it.

Kevin Saunderson has an enviable dual reputation. To the dance cognoscenti he’s one of the “Belleville Three,” the trio of friends who invented Detroit techno; a gifted producer and remixer under such aliases as E-Dancer; and a tireless international DJ. To lovers of great pop music he’s half of Inner City, who made regular visits to the Top 20 in the late 80s with jubilant hits like Big Fun and Good Life, paving the way for hundreds of underground-to-chart crossover records to come. It’s the latter role to which he’s returning this year, reuniting with singer Paris Grey for The Future, Inner City’s first new single in 15 years. The history of dance music would be very different without him.

Born in Brooklyn in 1964, Saunderson moved to the picturesque Detroit suburb of Belleville when he was nine, a different world to the urban decay of the city itself. “There’s a lot of lakes and woods. Not much to do: play sports, go fishing, go skiing. I didn’t even see the city of Detroit until I was in high school.” At Belleville High School he befriended Juan Atkins and Derrick May, who introduced him to the eclectic post-disco playlists of Detroit radio DJ Charles “The Electrifying Mojo” Johnson. “He played disco, funk, Prince, Parliament/Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, the B52’s, Tangerine Dream. He’d play whole albums too! So it broadened my horizons. I already had a serious love for music but I didn’t realize I was going to make it until then.”

In his first year at East Michigan University, where he studied telecommunications, he gave up football to become a DJ himself. He took inspiration from visits to Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage in New York and Frankie Knuckles’ Warehouse and Music Box in Chicago. The trio played campus parties until setting up their own club in Detroit, the fabled Music Institute.

Of the Belleville Three Atkins was the first to make a record, with electro group Cybotron’s Alleys of Your Mind in 1981, then May, with Rhythim is Rhythim’s Nude Photo in 1987. Inspired by his friends, Saunderson bought some basic equipment and made his own debut in 1987 with The Sound. “I just had a good ear and a good heart for music,” he says. “Juan Atkins led me into DJing which led me into making extra beats to play in my set. Then I started learning how to play basslines, putting a lot of work in, just elevating it form there. If I couldn’t play something I could hum it to someone.”

Despite the perceived distinction between Detroit techno and Chicago house, the sounds of the two cities had much in common. “I felt like we were very similar in a lot of ways. It was almost parallel. When people like Jeff Mills and Mike Banks got involved and started making music with a really tough industrial techno approach then it was like night and day but before that we fitted really well into the Chicago mix shows. We might have been a little faster. I didn’t sound like Derrick, Derrick didn’t sound like me, and Juan sounded kind of different too.”

A friend of Saunderson’s, Terry “Housemaster” Baldwin, had just made a single with a singer called Paris Grey, Don’t Make Me Jack (Tonite I Wanna House You) and introduced the pair to each other. He brought her in to work on some instrumentals and she came up with the jubilant sentiments of Big Fun and Good Life. They echoed the utopian spirit of Chicago house records like Sterling Void’s It’s All Right (later covered by the Pete Shop Boys) and Joe Smooth Inc’s Promised Land, but combining the tough, futuristic grooves of the Detroit scene with the vocal energy of R&B and gospel was a new and powerful hybrid.

Producing dance music back then was a different world. “You could spend 10 hours just trying to get the tape machine to sync with the sequencer!” Saunderson remembers. “There were times I was in the studio for 48 hours straight and half the time was just figuring shit out. You couldn’t afford much equipment so when you got something you really had to master it to get the most out of it.”

On a visit to England in 1988 Saunderson realised that a mythology had built up around the Belleville Three: “magazines, cover stories, all that stuff.” To his even greater surprise, Big Fun became not just a massive club record but a pop hit. “I just wanted to make tracks I could play in the club,” he says. “I didn’t even see the pop side.” Within months he found himself feeling uncomfortable on Top of the Pops. “It was very odd,” he says, smiling. “I didn’t care about being the face of this group. I just wanted to make music and DJ but because of the success they said this is what you gotta do. It might take me eight hours to play the perfect bassline in the studio. I’m not a trained musician so it definitely felt funny to be on shows like that where you have to mime.”

Saunderson found himself a reluctant pop star, playing big concerts. “The real challenge was becoming more comfortable with doing high-level stadium shows. We did Wembley Stadium with Debbie Gibson and stuff like that. We went on tour with SOS Band and Kool and the Gang. The record company here was pretty cool. America was kinda screwed up. They’re like: You gotta make music for black radio. Well I just want to make music. I don’t go out to make a style of music.”

At the same time he helped to revolutionise remixing when he worked on We Know It by short-lived UK rap duo the Wee Papa Girl Rappers and came up with a whole new track, an intense, acidic groove with just short snatches of the original vocal. “Previously you’d just go back in and make the breaks longer,” he explains. “Larry Levan, Shep Pettibone, all that. But I listened to this song and I thought I don’t really like a lot of it but there’s a part of the vocals I liked, and that’s the only part I used. It was so huge that it led other DJs to change their approach. And that’s what the record companies wanted – our input over their act. Some of the bigger artists were offended by it. They didn’t even understand that shit: ‘I don’t hear any of my music!’ Then we remixers thought we’re giving too much away. But I guess it helped everything grow.” Over the following decade Saunderson continued to produce imaginative remixes for the likes of New Order, Pet Shop Boys, The Shamen, Paula Abdul and the Lighthouse Family.

Inner City had five UK top 20 singles (four of which also topped the US dance charts) from their 1989 debut Paradise. On subsequent albums Fire (1990), Praise (1992) and Testament 93 (1993) they evolved their sound, making it subtler and more soulful. Less chart-friendly too, not that it bothered Saunderson. “My favourite track I ever created was Til We Meet Again. It wasn’t four-on-the-floor like Big Fun and Good Life. I had a different kind of inspiration. My focus was on what comes out of here,” he says pointing to his chest, “and not being stuck on trying to be like the hits.”

By the time of 1995’s Your Love/Hiatus single Paris wanted to concentrate on raising her young daughter while Kevin, who had a family of his own, wanted more time to DJ and make underground tracks as E-Dancer. “Inner City took up a lot of time because of promotion. People didn’t even know I was a DJ until years later.” They dissolved the group, releasing a posthumous version of Good Life (Buena Vida) in 1999, with remixes by younger Detroit talents Carl Craig and Stacey Pullen.

After several years DJing and coaching a youth baseball team, Saunderson is looking forward to a relaxed reunion. “It’s just important to make music and if we love what we make we want to release it. If people want us to perform we’ll perform. Keep it easy. There’s always been something going on. I’m still out here. I’m still doing things. Derrick and I about the past, talk about the future, talk about today. Detroit’s a small family.”

Whatever happens next, those early songs still sound as fresh and joyous as they did back in 1988. “They still have such an impact today,” Saunderson says fondly. “These songs will go on after I’m long gone.”

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