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Early last week, the MID had the chance to talk to Kevin Saunderson via email and phone about his career, Detroit and Chicago’s history, his dream collaborators, younger producers that are catching his ear, and the rising popularity of dance music.
The MID: As a staple electronic music pioneer over the years, you’ve played in some of the greatest venues all over the world. What are you most excited about your set at The MID with Magda and Dusky, and how do you think your debut will differ from other experiences in Chicago?
Kevin Saunderson: I’m looking forward to playing in Chicago at the MID ‘cuz it’s a venue that I haven’t played at. I hear great things about the venue and the crowd that comes there. As far as playing with Magda and Dusky, I love to play with creative people, people who are inspired by the music, who love what they do. I do my thing no matter who I am playing with ‘cuz that’s all I can do. But I am looking forward to having a great experience in Chicago. I think this will be a little different I haven’t played in Chicago with that much lately. I played one tour with Richie, so this will be a little longer for sure. Really looking forward to it, you’ll see what happens.
The MID: Although Detroit holds a special place in your heart and musical career, Chicago deserves a lot of credit for the evolution of electronic music. How has Chicago’s music scene changed and grown over the years since you first got in the game?
KS: Chicago was right there with Detroit. Chicago was a great inspiration. I remember when I was making my tracks, obviously Juan Atkins was first, he was the first one I ever known to make a track called “techno,” “electronic,” “house,” any of that stuff, he was the first for me. I got to experience Chicago with Derrick May because he lived [in Chicago] while I was in college and I used to come down and check out what was going on. You had these two music scenes that were going on at the same time. Juan was making this music, and Jesse Saunders had some tracks out, and you had the record label Trax, then you had Derrick starting to make music, then I was making music, then this whole Hot Mix 5, and all this stuff was going on over this two or three year period that was really exciting, and great. And it was, it was out of this world.
It was such a love for the music. And the music was so powerful in Chicago. In Detroit, we made very good music as well. But we didn’t have that same kind of scene going on. So we always wanted to get from Detroit to Chicago and couldn’t wait to travel. When I was in school I couldn’t wait to get into my car drive up, and catch the Hot Mix 5, or the Super Mix 6, on the radio. ‘Cuz they were playing all these different tracks, and included in these track are Detroit tracks. I would start hearing my songs. My first tracks broke in Chicago. “Triangle of Love,” “Cream” “The Sounds.” You can’t tell us how to play our music, all that was just being played by every DJ so it was a big inspiration. And then going to the club and hearing people like Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, had a real scene going on in Chicago.
The MID: You are said to have been one of the originators of not only Detroit techno, but techno in general. Talk about how it all began and how you first came up with the concept after meeting Derrick May and Juan Atkins.
KS: Well yes, I was at the beginning, I wasn’t the first, but I was at the very beginning. I played an important role in creating this music and helping it grow. I went to Junior High with Derrick May and Juan Atkins. Juan Atkins was a little older, he went on to High School. He was the first that I knew that was into music, and could make music and understood how to read music. He was kind of in his own world. So me and Juan didn’t really connect, even though I went over to his house and hung out with Derrick, and Juan’s brother. We just all hung out and played sports together. And that’s how I kinda met Juan.
As time went on, I was in high school, Derrick moved to Chicago. That’s when I got up on more what Juan was doing, these Deep Space parties, got to go to Detroit for the first time. Experienced Electrifying Mojo, where they were playing all this time of music that was very innovative, from Kraftwerk to Tangerine Dream to B52s, lot of disco, soul, that’s how, you know, how I think it first started. Originally I was from New York, so I used to go back home, especially in the summer of ’82…there was lots of inspiration from all of this. As well as seeing Juan make music. Cybertron’s “Alleys of your Mind,” “Clear,” tracks like that that were quite amazing to me. Especially at the time. And then he made, which I call his first ‘house’ record, or ‘techno’ track, that was a different sound than Cybotron, which was “No UFOs.”
All that just kinda rubbed off. That lead me into making music. And once I started I couldn’t stop. I was making track after track after track. Connecting with the Chicago guys, people like Mike “Hitman” Wilson, Bad Boy Bill, Farley [“Jackmaster” Funk], all of ’em. I started my own label in the early days, just as Derrick and Juan had just started putting out records, and my records just started taking off, they were just doing well. I had several different aliases going on. And it just kept elevating.
I guess I was around in the beginning. I wasn’t the first, but I was there and the scene elevated around myself, Derrick, Juan, the Chicago guys, making music that was DJ friendly for ourselves so we could play it that ended up taking off in Europe and coming back to America.
The MID: Your Inner City project is what really put you on the map when Virgin Records’ Neil Rushton discovered the soon to be worldwide hit “Big Fun.” You were a game changer with this alongside the track “Good Life.” At that time, was anyone else creating this kind of sound?
KS: At the time when I created Inner City, there were some vocal house tracks like Xavier’s “You Used to Hold Me.” There were a few others, but it didn’t go to the level that Inner City did. Inner City had this magic about it.
Paris Grey (who is from Chicago and the lead singer of Inner City) and the music that I created was uplifting and had this almost like anthem type of feel where no one asked the direction I was going in; but it was very hooky. So we had very hooky music and very hooky vocals. “Two” was the first of the genre that grabbed the massive as any other big song or pop song; and we were doing TV shows and pop shows and all these things in Europe that just all of a sudden happened because the records were taking off and selling. I remember afterwards when we were having this success there was other groups kind of starting after us to pave their way into the electronic world of music.
The MID: How do you believe your sound and the Detroit techno sound has changed over the years? Do you feel it’s always important for music to evolve instead of adapt?
KS: The Detroit sound has changed a little. It has gotten more diverse with different, younger producers that are out here now, but I think the roots of it all still pretty much goes back to the roots of the sound. It’s changed because of the evolution of technology and it’s become a little more modernized. And we still have guys like myself and Carl Craig especially who have been producing for years and never stopped. There’s been a bunch of talent that has come out of the city of Detroit still. You have Kyle Hall, you have Seth [Troxler] doing stuff right now. You have new younger producers including both of my boys who’s first records are coming out in April: They have their first releases coming out and releases out on my label, so we will see how that all goes. It’s an exciting time for music: electronic music, techno, house you name it.
The MID: We know that you served as Movement Detroit’s festival producer early on, paving a way for the underground to finally break through. What do you think the eventual success of Movement did for techno in general?
KS: Well I think that [the festival] established the music in a way where the community started talking about it on social media networks, and it really just started growing all over the world and all over our region and it made people connect a lot quicker than it did back when we were creating it because we had no way of spreading the sound before. Whatever they heard at a club, whatever they heard on the radio…they thought that was it. Now it’s different because the festival has been so successful these last 10-12 years that it opened the doors and got media exposure because of the mass amount of turn out that is continuous that come and all the artists that come from all over the world that want to play in a city where this music started.
The MID: On that note of education, what made you move from producer and DJ, to teacher and label owner of your record label, KMS?
KS: You know the love of music made me move into all those directions and having some control over what I wanted to do. I started as a DJ first. I learned by listening to a lot of records and practicing with a lot of records that I grew up listening to and that I was inspired by. Mixed in with the new house stuff at the time it was just the beginning, so after awhile I was like, ‘Man I need more music ,there’s not enough music.’ Now after getting good enough where I felt confident I could play, I started evolving it into bringing a drum machine to my DJ sets. From that it gave me a little more creativity to create more patterns and play something different. After awhile that became monotonous and I thought that it needed more than just drums. I got into making music because I started adding basslines to those drum beats and adding chords and adding little catchy lines and before I knew it I was becoming a creator and I was making it so I could play it too. So it was very well aimed at the dance floor and for DJing.
So now I’m a DJ, I can make the music. How do I get it out? Do I say hey I got a record can you sign it? I thought that was the wrong way. I thought it was best if I could take my own records because nobody could tell me a timeline of when it had to be mastered or when it had to be promoted or when it had to be put out or when it had to go to DJ’s. I controlled all of that and that’s what I wanted to do. It wasn’t for the purpose of making money. It was for the love of wanting my project out so I could turn around and play it on vinyl. That was the main purpose and by doing that it led to tracks going overseas and inspiring other people.
The MID: Who have you always wanted to collaborate with but haven’t had the chance yet?
KS: Daft Punk, actually. It’s something about their sound. They have just a very funky sound. I’m into disco and thought that would be an interesting combination. Who knows? One day you never know.
The MID: You were an integral part of Richie Hawtin’s Beyond EDM: CNTRL Tour and workshop. Do you now feel that the future of electronic music is here due to further interest from the masses about what goes on behind the scenes? What did you hope to accomplish by becoming a spokesperson for Richie’s workshop?
KS: I think that tour was definitely a great tour to do because it was educational and we also got to play in clubs. People are into electronic music more than they have been since I’ve been in it in the beginning, especially in America. Europe and the rest of the world have been on target with it for years and it has been accepted and established. But here I think it’s really gotten to the point where it’s accepted and it’s becoming more established and the support around it is here now. The youth are into it. It’s not like you have to influence them. Now we have different paths. Everyone has a different sound but it all connects in some way and the crowds will have an opportunity to experience it much easier then it was back in the day. I think it’s helpful for the scene and I hope me sharing my experiences as well as playing at the event alongside some great talent will give people more of a history lesson of it and influence them in some kind of way where they can pass it on and it can be a positive influence for the music that we have already been doing for 26 years plus.
The MID: In a new world full of recycled sounds and the hunger for success, what do you think future producers will have to accomplish in order to stick to the music’s important roots and try to keep it relevant?
KS: You know I think how you use technology plays a big role in what comes up and what’s new and how these new tools for creating music are generated to effect that new producer. But also those who might go back deep and look at history might start where they’ve been inspired from. I think the roots of music will always find a way to stick around. Everything goes in circles and also has the opportunity to evolve in different ways where that music has it own roots, so time will tell.
The MID: 2013 is a big year for electronic music. You stated on your Facebook page that you have a lot of exciting things in the pipeline. Can you tell us about any of them?
KS: In 2013 I am doing a tour, ‘Curators of Techno.’ It’s a lot of the talent from Detroit, the young talent (people like Seth), Kyle Hall, my son Dante Saunderson, and some of the other cats that I’ve played with like Kenny Larken, Stacey Pullen, Carl Craig, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, along with potentially new talent that hasn’t broke through yet. I’m going to be touring starting at the end of March in Paris, then I go to London and then I have several shows this year going into 2014 to play this circle of talent from the early days of the early producers like myself and Derrick and Juan and Carl creating this legacy of music to where we are at today. So in other words the evolution of Detroit techno and the way that the originators have influenced the talent that follow and the talent that follows continues to influence the originators. It keeps everything fresh, rolling and exciting.
Don’t miss Kevin Saunderson with Magda and Dusky this Friday at the MID. RSVP now for FREE entry at Clubtix.com.