Origin story: bringing it all back home with Kevin Saunderson

Our interview with the Detroit techno pioneer


Kevin Saunderson was there, right from the start — with helping to create the music in the first place, with fine-tuning the art of the remix, with running one of the first three important Detroit techno labels, and with helping to start a giant Memorial Day weekend dance music festival in downtown Detroit.

We meet for lunch, but he only has a ginger tea and a seltzer, as he is "on a cleanse." I choose Trinosophes in Eastern Market to meet up, because I am not on a cleanse, and am in need of a good coffee and breakfast sandwich. Also, there is a contraption in the corner that plays excerpts from original broadcasts by late night radio host Electrifying Mojo. "Mojo made records come to life," Saunderson says. "Once Derrick May told me to listen to him in, I think, 1980, I was hooked; I was part of the Midnight Funk Association." The Mojo-playing machine also leads to a discussion of Prince, who Mojo championed early on, and who Saunderson calls "my favorite artist of all time."

At 51, the former college football player retains his athlete's build. Saunderson stays busy, continuing to tour internationally for months out of the year, and to oversee his label, as well as still create new music. He is remarkably not full of himself; Saunderson is a warm and generous conversationalist who remains genuinely excited about his work, which remains techno music after three decades in just about every possible side of it. In fact, techno's become the family business, with two of his four children (Dantiez and Damarii) helping to run the label. Both make excellent music themselves — separately, and together as the Saunderson Brothers.

Saunderson was a key force behind the creation of Detroit techno, as a member of what we now know as the "Belleville Three," along with fellow Belleville High students Derrick May and Juan Atkins. Saunderson's family moved from Flatbush in New York City to Belleville when he was 9. I can't help but ask about his meeting with May, as it's one of the key elements of techno's creation mythology.

"It's true that I swung on him, and knocked him down for sure," he says. "Everyone said I knocked him out, and I'm not sure I knocked him out, exactly. But anyway that's how we became friends. It was so early in my time going to school there; that sent a message to not mess with that guy. Derrick moved into my house the second semester of 11th grade. He moved in because his mother moved back to Detroit, and she wanted him to finish out the school year."

May and Saunderson played football together, then ran track, and Saunderson also played basketball. "I kept myself out of trouble by at least being in sports, not getting caught up in fights," he says. I ask if it's true that the real reason he started his music career later than May and Atkins is because he followed sports into college, and only turned his full attention to music when he realized he'd never make it to the NFL.

"Well, let's look at it like this: Juan's definitely first because, you know, he was the first," he says. "He's the first one I'd ever seen with a synthesizer. I used to go over to his house with Derrick and he'd be doing his thing — in his own little world, deep deep.

"Now, Juan and Derrick, you know how you have your senior graduation party? Well my mother moved to Southfield, so I had the whole house in Bellville. We gave a party at my house, and that was Derrick's first or second time playing, but Juan DJed the party. It was a deep space party at my house. That gave me the inspiration to just say, 'Man, that would be cool.' But I still didn't really think that was my path, because I was going to college to play football. But it all subliminally was touching on me, it was my calling. It just took time for me to arrive."

At this party we'd all give up a body part to go back in time and be a fly in the wall at, Atkins spun a mix of Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Funkadelic, his own music, and Italo disco. "Juan had a clique, he had a following," Saunderson says. "You had this Deep Space organization, which was all these black, preppy, urban kids that would just go wherever. Might've been 200, 150 people. And when I say preppy, I mean very forward-thinking.

"They thought as futurists — that's the way I've seen it. They looked different. And they smoked these German cigarettes that smelled funny, just to be part of this clique. They had this this arrogant, confident attitude. But the music was still No. 1. You couldn't deny this great music being played. People were feeling it, whether it was Funkadelic, New Order, whatever — it didn't make a difference."

"Yeah, so [my career] came later," he says. "And Derrick's came a little bit before me, because he was really close to Juan, and he was Juan's salesman. He was under Juan's wing, he was learning at the same time. He believed in what was happening or about to happen with Juan that led to him, that led to us and many others.

"And the technology was just available then, at the right time. And we were the right people when it came out. To put that four on the floor, and the world began to dance off our music, slowly, and how it gravitated around the world. We were at the right place with the technology, but we also had some kind of vision that we wanted people to dance, a feeling that could be captured in audio. It was important, the technology. And not knowing what to do with it, like Juan might've known, but I didn't know, Derrick didn't know. We had to figure that shit out, and push buttons and try to figure out a language that we didn't understand, even though it was in English."

Things really blew up for Saunderson and crew after the 1988 U.K. release of the double album Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, which has three Saunderson productions, including Inner City's "Big Fun." (Initially, Inner City tracks were Saunderson productions backing a Chicago-based singer named Paris Grey.)

That same year, Saunderson also helped to make the remix into the art form we know it to be today, with his acid house remix of Wee Papa Girl Rappers' "Heat It Up." "I did the first remix where I took out the artist's music, and used only my music," he says. "I changed the face of the remix; no one had done anything like that before. It changed the whole thing. I don't do many remixes these days, unless a friend asks, if Carl Craig asks me. I'm still headed toward the future."

Saunderson's label KMS — started in 1987 to release music by his friends and his own music — was one of the most successful and important early techno labels. The producer achieved bona fide pop chart success with Inner City in the U.K. not long after their 12-inch "Big Fun" was released there. "We went through the trenches of traveling, at least for DJs," he says. "When I first went to London, they had three TV stations, that's it. And it was raining, and it was very depressing for me, my first trip. The food was terrible, and if you wanted to call home on the hotel phone, they charged you like £10 a minute. Today, everything is much easier."

Saunderson also helped to influence early drum and bass from the U.K. with the so-called "Reese bassline," a sped-up and manipulated sample taken from his track "Just Want Another Chance," which wound up being woven through countless new tracks by junglists. That tune was originally released under the pseudonym Reese; Saunderson's best-known alias is E-Dancer, but he's also recorded as K.S. Experience, Keynotes, Esser'ay, and Tronikhouse. "I had too many aliases!" he says. Groups he's been in include Intercity, Tranzister, 2 the Hard Way, Kaos, Kreem, Reese & Santonio, the Bad Boys, and of course Inner City.

These days, the only alias he uses is E-Dancer, and the only group project is Inner City. "My son Dantiez is producing, and I'm kinda in the back," he says. "I step in and help with the project, but it's a new group and we're not using the original singer Paris anymore. We're looking for some more potential singers."

Saunderson relishes the live interactions with crowds. "DJing is 50 percent or more of what I do now," he says. "Making music is now about 20 percent. Label is about 10, because the boys are running that. I've been there and done that; now it's a new generation of kids and everyone has different ears, and I don't want everybody to be tied to my ears."

When Saunderson performs at his own curated showcase in front of so many thousands of people on Monday, May 30 at the Thump stage, it's got to be a good feeling. After all, this is not only his third year curating the "Origins" stage, but Saunderson helped to envision the fest in the first place. And though he couldn't play the first DEMF in 2000 as he was then on tour, he later helped to run and even back the festival when it was facing difficulty. Carl Craig had been the first artistic director, a post that then went to Derrick May, who called the festival Movement, and who faced great financial difficulties in 2004 when the city withdrew financial support to the tune of nearly $500,000 at the last minute.

In 2005, Saunderson stepped in and helped oversee the festival, which briefly changed its name from Movement to Fuse-In: Detroit's Electronic Movement. "I stepped in and put the money up to make it happen," he says. "It was tough, because in my heart I kept saying this was money out the door, but could I let him not have this festival? Derrick had done a lot for me, even though I knocked him out, and all that. I felt like that's the least I could do was to help the event happen — not just for him, but for the music community. So, I did that, and it still went bad." In 2006, Paxahau stepped in to change the name back to Movement, and stabilize the festival. And here we are, 10 years later, with the festival more successful than ever.

When asked about new music he's enjoying, Saunderson mentions Kyle Hall, but lavishes the most praise on his sons' music. The Saunderson Brothers return to his "Origins" stage. "Dantiez reminds me of me in many ways; he's got a lot of tracks, almost too many, [just as] I had all the aliases with different tracks. And his style is versatile. He can make a track with vocals, he can be techno, or he can be in between, and be very deep. The other son is more strictly deep techno, that's like his niche. The both traveled with me when they were younger, and were part of every [Movement] festival, every year. They have their own project coming out together on June 10."

"Kevin Saunderson presents 'Origins: Elevation'" will feature, in order of performance: Art Payne & Keith Martin, Stacey Hotwaxx Hale, Bruce Bailey, the Saunderson Brothers, Delano Smith, MK (Marc Kinchen), Guy Gerber, and Kevin Saunderson. It all goes down at the Thump Stage at the Movement Festival on Monday, May 30; starts at noon; 1 Hart Plaza, Detroit; movement.us; general admission for one day is $85; general admission tickets for the weekend are $175; VIP weekend tickets are $300.