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. It’s the latter role to which he’s returned last year, reuniting with singer Paris Grey for The Future, Inner City’s first new single in 15 years, and for two very special live performances.
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 Lead Me and introduced the pair to each other. He brought her in to work on some instrumentals and she came up with Big Fun and Good Life. Things would never be the same. 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.”
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 Till 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.”
With hard-edged vocal The Future a true return to form for Inner City and with the band considering even more live dates, not to mention a brilliant new compilation mix album from Saunderson for Defected Records – KMS In The House – this decade looks like it could be the most exciting one yet for Inner City and Kevin ‘Reese’ Saunderson. Marc Rowlands put a few questions to him now that he’s back in the limelight.
Why did you move from New York to Belleville?
I moved simply because I was young and my mother who was from Detroit decided to move back home, and obviously me being 12 years old or so, I had to go wherever my mother went.
Have Derrick and Juan changed in terms of their personality since the early years when you first got to know them? Have their ambitions changed?
No Derrick’s pretty much the same person, has been since I met him. Very energetic, sometimes a little over the top, takes chances. He’s still fearless like he’s always been, just a little older now. Juan has changed a little, he’s a little more reserved, although he always has been to a point. We still have great talks about music and still try to push forward creatively, although Juan went through a point of not having any ambitions to continue to make music, we all did.
Had you heard Cybotron before meeting Juan?
No, I didn’t hear Cybertron before I met Juan cos I went to school with Juan when it was still being developed, so I was there from the very beginning.
What impact did Juan’s earliest productions have on you?
The impact that Juan’s music had on me was simple, it was different it was creative and it was electronic… it showed me that one man could make amazing things. It didn’t take a whole band so it was very significant. It gave me knowledge and belief and the will to think that I could do the same.
I read Juan taught you a lot of your earliest movements with studio recording equipment – Did it come natural to you to want to compete with your former teacher, or was it a daunting prospect?
Juan taught me how to finalise a record. I learned a lot about how to record from my brother, and had also seen Derrick do some recording, so I knew how to do that. What I didn’t know was how to take an eight track mix and turn into a stereo track, mixing all the different parts together. It’s not like these days when you can arrange everything on a computer screen and then just bounce it down, it was very different back then. Juan came over when I was recording ‘Triangle of Love’, showed me how to properly mix it, and from then on I was off and running, I was making a track a week. I’ve always been competitive; I want to be great and do great things and do my best at everything I can.
So many radical advancements in sound and music were made by you and your peers in the early days, it often seemed like one of you would release a record so revolutionary that nothing could be the same afterwards, until a few weeks later when another one of you would trump it or take it somewhere totally unexpected. Can you tell me, in your opinion, what were the pivotal ‘game changing’ records produced by Derrick, Juan and perhaps some of your younger brethren like Carl Craig?
The beginning was Juan and Cybertron. Then came Eddie Fowlkes with ‘Goodbye Kiss’. That was the next stage in the chain cos it wasn’t just Juan making this music, someone else had also made a track. And it was a good track – everyone was playing it in Detroit and in Chicago. Then Derrick came with ‘No UFOs’ which was his first production which was another cool, innovative track. So that was the beginning, it started with those records which inspired me to make my first track ‘Triangle of Love’ which was played heavily in New York and Chicago. It just grew from there, you can ‘Strings of Life’ and Model 500, then people like Carl Craig coming up with Paperclip People. Underground Resistance was pivotal as it took the sound in a different, harder direction. We all took different directions over the first few years to change the path of the sound of Detroit.
Were your ambitions first to become a DJ?
My ambition at first was definitely to become a DJ. I practised by butt off and was able to start DJing on the radio and playing at some small parties at the campus with my fraternity, and from there I was able to move it on to brining in drum machines and mixing them in with my records. After than I kinda got bored and wanted more. That’s when I started making music, and the rest is history.
When did you realise that you wanted to take it further?
I realised I wanted to take it further when I was running out of music to play and wanted more, so I had to start making it myself. This was probably about a year into DJing.
There’s a big difference between being a dance music producer in a studio and putting yourself centre stage, leading a band in front of a large concert audience, but I guess that’s something Inner City’s success allowed you to do. Was that something you’d also wanted to pursue, or did circumstances thrust this role on you?
I’ve always been a producer of dance music, but I’ve also always wanted to incorporate vocals. I used to hear Larry Levan playing Chaka Khan, Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, Stephanie Mills, and those records were all just extended versions of the ones you’d hear on the radio. Those kinda records were always a part of me, and the underground was a part of me too. DJing was one thing and being on stage with Inner City was another. I’m not so much a performer, I’m more there to put the pieces together and co-ordinate things.
You released your first production on Metroplex. Why did you not stay with releasing your music on the labels of your friends? Why did you set up KMS? What/who were your main inspirations in doing so?
Because I wanted to have control of my own music, and when I saw Juan and Derrick speaking to distributors I was thinking “I could do that”. I’m a very ambitious person, so that’s why I left Metroplex and started KMS.
Please tell me where these words come from ‘Reese’ + ‘Ahnonghay’ + E Dancer?
Reese came from a shortened version of my middle name which is Maurice. Ahnonghay was vision of a kind of tribal god playing beats across a jungle landscape, a vision that I had in just a few seconds. E-Dancer is electronic dancer, simple as that.
After scoring big hits with your original songs ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Good Life’, why did you decide to release a cover version vocal in 1989, namely Stephanie Mills ‘Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’?
Stephanie Mills was one of the tracks that Larry Levan would play and I just thought it was the perfect time to try and recreate something that I had always loved, and I thought that Paris would sound great on it. It worked out that way, it was a big hit and it worked in the clubs as well.
Although a different song, was ‘Do You Love What You Feel’ inspired by Rufus and Chaka Khan?
I don’t remember Paris saying she was inspired by that, I had no particular inspirations when I was creating the music, but I can’t answer that 100% cos Paris wrote that song.
What do you think people mean when they talk about a ‘Reese bassline’?
It’s simple, the Reese bassline is that deep, dirty bassline that a lot of drum and bass artists use, and it came from that song, ‘Just Want Another Chance’.
What do you think people mean when they talk about ‘Detroit techno’? – I’ve heard you use the term and you seem comfortable with it. A lot of Detroit Djs are less generous about the term and do not really acknowledge it.
Detroit techno is the beginning, in my opinion. It’s how it evolved from disco into the DJs producing music alongside advances in technology. We were creating music for ourselves that ended up working for the crowd. I don’t know if a lot of Detroit DJs are less generous about it; it was the beginning, so that’s what it was.
Do E Dancer, Reese, Inner City and Kevin Saunderson all have their own sound? How do they differ?
E-Dancer is definitely my deepest, warmest sound. Reese was really the beginning which subsequently evolved into E-Dancer. Inner City definitely has its own sound because there’s vocals, there’s melodies. They are no real ‘Kevin Saunderson’ releases, I’m just behind all of it.
Presumably the early records you, Derrick and Juan made did not have much of an impact that you could see in the locale where you were living – when did you all become aware that this music was connecting with a lot of people? Was it through sales figures?
Detroit came later, but we used to drive to Chicago with Juan’s records, my records, Derrick’s records and give them out to all the radio DJs on WBMX and GCI, Farley, Trippy, all of them…and they would all play our stuff. When we were playing our stuff at home, people thought it was cool, but they didn’t really know. Then when Big Fun came out people started to wake up to the sound. It still took until the late 90s though before Detroit really came to accept it in general, even though there was a club we used to play at called the Music Institute which became really popular.
When was the first time you heard about the European, perhaps specifically British audience reactions to this music in the early days? Was it from Djs that had visited here? What did you think about such scenes?
I got a real vision of it in ’88 when I came over to do a little DJing, then by the time I got back in the summer the whole thing had gone crazy with the acid house and techno movement. That’s when I realised it was for real.
After having such success with Big Fun and Good Life was any pressure exerted on you to move Inner City in a specific direction musically?
There was a little pressure but not from the UK, from a US label – they wanted it to sound more black, more urban so it would work in America. I did what I wanted in the end, I didn’t want every record to sound like Good Life or Big Fun, I wanted uptempo and downtempo…I made the music I wanted to make.
Why did Inner City cease recording in 2001?
The reason Inner City stopped recording was that Paris had a baby and wanted to dedicate more of her time to her. We were all a little burnt out from touring and travelling so much, so we decided to take a break. I focussed on my own productions for a while. The reason we got back together was because we toured in 2008, enjoyed it, felt re-inspired and by this time Paris’ daughter had graduated from high school, so she had more time to dedicate to Inner City. The timing was good.
Is everything else on hold while you concentrate on Inner City again or will you still be issuing music under some of your other aliases? Will KMS continue to issue records while you focus on Inner City?
I am currently working on an E-Dancer record. Probably from now on I won’t have as many alter egos as before, it’ll just be Inner City and E-Dancer.
Your new mix album for Defected has quite a lot of contemporary music on it – how do you keep up with new releases? Do you shop online, in record stores or do you access music in other ways?
I do shop online for my records, people send me stuff but I try and listen to as much as possible. I’m sure I miss plenty of good stuff cos there’s just so much music out there these days, but I like what I like, simple as that. And it doesn’t have to be one particular style.
Outside of music, you support sports, specifically baseball. Do you have any other unfulfilled ambitions that you are determined to pursue?
I managed a baseball team. My sons played, my eldest was very good and played professionally for a while. I grew up playing football and basketball mainly, so it was a different sport for me to take on. I love sports, I still love going to the gym to work out when I can. I love to sweat! Musically, I hope to score a movie one day, if I have the time and I’m lucky enough to be given the opportunity.
Do you think that alien beings have visited the earth? If yes, do you believe that they have done so in secret or do you think that it is a secret that is being kept from us by other humans?
I think anything’s possible. I think it’s not just human’s as we know ourselves. So yes, I believe there have been or will be alien beings at some point during our history on the planet.
Has Barack Obama disappointed you as a president?
No, Barrack Obama hasn’t. He’s only been in office a few years, it takes time. The Bush’s had control for 12 years between the two of them, so they had plenty of time to do what they did.
What’s your favourite George Clinton-related track?
One Nation. A powerful message about unity.
What’s your favourite album of all time?
All N All by Earth, Wind and Fire.
In your opinion, who are the top 5 most important figures or groups in music that have contributed to the heritage of Detroit?
Underground Resistance, Carl Craig, Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson if I can include myself.
To celebrate the release of Kevin’s new mix album for Defected Records ‘KMS In The House‘, as well as kindly arranging this interview for us, our friends at Defected have offered us competition prizes available to two winning entrants in the following quiz. The question was set by Defected Records and the prizes are a copy of the new KMS ITH CD and a cool Defected hoodie (they retail at £40 each and are exclusive to Defected).
Which UK queen of dubstep, who was behind the track ‘On A Mission,’ recently covered Inner City’s ‘Good Life’ for her live shows?
All correct answers should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org Monday 5th March.
Winners will be notified shortly afterwards and prizes will be posted directly to you.
From Disco to Detroit techno and beyond – The Inner City story in videos.
Check out this exclusive chronological YouTube mix by Kevin Saunderson:
Funkadelic – One Nation Under A Groove 1978
Kraftwerk – Computer Love 1981
Cybotron (Juan Atkins) – Clear 1983
Kreem – Triangle Of Love 1986
Reese & Santonio – The Sound 1987
Kevin Saunderson – The Groove That Won’t Stop 1988
Reese – Just Another Chance 1988
Inner City – Big Fun 1988
Inner City – Good Life 1988
Model 500 – The Chase (Juan Atkin’s version) 1989
Inner City – Do You Love What You Feel 1989
E – Dancer – Pump The Move 1991
Inner City – Pennies From Heaven (Kevin Saunderson’s Tunnel Mix) 1993
Inner City – Ahnongay 1995
E-Dancer – The Human Bond 1995
Kevin Saunderson feat. Inner City – Future (Kenny Larkin Tension Mix) 2011