State of grace

May 25, 2005 at 12:00 am

Kevin Saunderson reclines at his desk, clasping his muscular brown arms behind his head. He’s looking through a window, which frames white and black clouds shifting across a windy Michigan sky. Muted sunlight streams into this small office, on the second floor of a building belonging to Detroit’s Submerge record label. At 40, Saunderson has a gentle face, yet strong and confident, fitting for his odd double life as international techno star and suburban homebody. Pondering a question, he brings his large hands forward and puts them in a prayerful pose against his chest. It’s just days until showtime for Fuse-In, the three-day electronic music festival that Saunderson has put together through, one gathers during a two-hour interview, the sheer force of his own will. If he’s nervous, he doesn’t show it.

Pressure? What pressure?

“I don’t feel it, to be honest with you,” Saunderson says. “I just believe that if I get involved in something it will be successful. We have so many people in Detroit who can help me to pull this off. We have contacts in Europe to make it work. I never felt like it wasn’t going to happen.”

There is a swagger in his voice as he talks, but it’s the swagger of a Barry Sanders as he politely hands the official the football after a spectacular touchdown run; or the quiet determination that marked the championship play of Detroit Pistons guard Joe Dumars.

“I’m a competitive guy, and I learned how to compete through sports,” says the man who held Sanders up as a role model and once imagined himself becoming a pro football player. “When I realized I would never make it as a professional athlete, and I got involved in music, I just continued to use my competitive drive.”

He needed to muster all of his competitive juices during the last five months of planning for Fuse-in — which has had past lives, first as the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (2000-2002), then Movement (2003-04). It has not been a smooth ride. Saunderson has had to deal with the stigma left behind by the previous administrative failures of Pop Culture Media, which promoted DEMF, and the almost-blind oversight of the festival by Derrick May’s Transmat company. (May has admitted to spending personal money to get last year’s festival up and running when some technicians refused to set up until they were paid for past services.) Many of the loyal grunts who’d worked behind the scenes the last five years have still not been paid. Some suppliers of key services such as sound gear and Web design have either threatened or filed lawsuits. Since Saunderson’s MusicLogical company was formed and assumed control of the festival, several key inside people have come and gone and come back again. Saunderson says he wants this festival to be financially successful so the sins — and the debts — of his predecessors can be vanquished.

Until earlier this month there was a question whether a festival would occur at all. Said question dissolved when Saunderson and a team of Detroit city officials, Submerge Records folk and festival supporters addressed Detroit City Council. The dealmaker came when the council agreed to allow Fuse-In to charge for an event that was once famously called the “world’s largest free electronic music” festival. The festival will now cost $10 per day or $25 for a weekend pass, setting a new precedent for events held in a public space in Detroit.

“We had no choice,” Saunderson said outside the council chambers the day the decision was made. “If it’s not a paid festival, then there is no festival.”

Of the work that he’s put into Fuse-In, Saunderson says, leaning forward in his chair, “It’s all worth it to me, because this music just has to be part of the Detroit community. We have to do it here. It’s not enough to play the records and expect people to come to the music. We have to bring it to them.”

getting what he wants is something Saunderson does as a rule. He has been pushing himself to personal heights since he was a high school student in the western suburbs, one of three teenagers who, in the early 1980s, became known the world over as “the Belleville Three.” The story has been told so often that it seems mythic, larger than the lives of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Saunderson could possibly be in reality. Yet, listening to Saunderson tell it, the success story of this futuristic sound is one built on old-fashioned values: hard work and luck, perseverance and passion, not to mention love for a wide-ranging variety of music.

“Derrick and I met in the 10th grade. He was already throwing parties with Juan [called “Deep Space”]. Those guys were listening to music that I never heard before, stuff like Kraftwerk and the B-52s that [the Electrifying] Mojo was playing [on the “Midnight Funk Association”] radio show,” says Saunderson, who lived in Brooklyn until he was 11 years old.

“I came out of a different background, going back to New York when I was an underage kid and sneaking into the Paradise Garage or The Loft. I was into Earth, Wind & Fire and Chaka Khan, and those guys were very European in their taste, with some Prince and Parliament-Funkadelic mixed in.”

Saunderson was on the basketball, football and track teams throughout high school, and did one year of football at Eastern Michigan. He says a pivotal musical moment for him came at a graduation party for the Belleville High class of ’82.

“Up until then, sports was still my main inspiration,” Saunderson says. “But, man, Derrick and Juan threw that party and the music was so uplifting, it was like a spiritual moment. The party was jam-packed. The experience of being in a room full of people — that experience being controlled by a DJ — changed my path in life.”

Sitting in his office, which is the de facto headquarters of MusicLogical, the production company behind Fuse-In, Saunderson looks exactly like what he is: equal parts jock, hipster, husband and father. He’s wearing a lime-green polo shirt that would look perfect when watching his oldest son, Damarii, play junior varsity baseball at Lakeland High in northwest Oakland County; but his dark pants and club footwear, and his black waist-length nylon jacket brand him as a producer-DJ who has been one of Detroit techno’s most celebrated names and faces for 20 years.

Tonight, he’s flying to Manchester, England, where tomorrow he has a DJ gig. The next day, Saunderson performs in Amsterdam. This is a typical weekend for him. His work takes him around the globe in short, quick bursts: Thursday out, Sunday or Monday back home. He’s been everywhere, he says, including Asia, Eastern and Central Europe, Australia, South America — many times over. His frequent flyer miles have exceeded 2 million. In 1988, Saunderson met his wife, Ann, in the UK. A native of Birmingham, England, Ann Nanton was a singer in then-pop star Samantha Fox’s backing group. The two were married a year later at the home of Saunderson’s minister. There were 10 or 11 people at the wedding.

“We didn’t need anything big or extravagant,” he says. “That’s not me.”

Damarii was born in 1989, and two other boys, Dantiez and Diaz, were born in 1992 and 1999. All attend schools in the Huron Valley district — the Saundersons live in White Lake Township — and all are active in sports and music.

“My older boys have talent in sports, and Damarii plays on a traveling summer baseball team that goes to Ohio and Florida. He’s very competitive. My middle son (Dantiez) reminds me of myself. They’ve both got that athleticism and ambition I had as a kid,” Saunderson says. “The youngest is only in first grade, but he feeds off his older brothers. They all love music and they mess around with it, creating tracks. They have diverse tastes, but it’s mostly hip hop, like with all kids.”

Saunderson likes to spend as much time as he can with his family — “seeing movies, going bowling, doing ordinary stuff” — not only because it brings discipline and stability to the household but because “it makes me happy. It’s me. When I’m home I go to bed at 9, 9:30. I get up and go to the gym, do yoga, play basketball.”

success didn’t come without struggles for Saunderson, who admittedly had to play catch-up to his more musically innovative classmates, Atkins and May. By the time Saunderson started trading in his football pads for turntables and production equipment, Atkins was already defining techno for the global underground with his synth-pop group, Cybotron. May was learning production and DJ skills by immersing himself in the house scene in Chicago, where he moved after high school. Other DJs jealously guarded their records and equipment, making it difficult for a new guy to get in practice time.

So what did the burly EMU lineman do? He began to compete.

“I went to a weekend DJ seminar in Ohio. I registered for $65. I learned how to release the record off the first bar of the measure,” Saunderson says. “Then I went to a pawn shop and got some belt drives [turntables] and started practicing.”

While Saunderson was schooling himself in the DJ arts, Derrick May had moved back to Detroit and was beginning to build a scene via a radio show called Street Beat. The two were reunited, Saunderson says, “by the crazy music Derrick was playing on the show; not saying anything, just playing music like I never heard before.”

So Saunderson started playing the crazy stuff too, but he did it in sweatpants and sneakers, performing at frat parties in Ypsilanti and East Lansing. He looks slightly more “techno” now, but in the early days he says he didn’t wear the preppy clothes, the Italian shoes or smoke the right cigarettes to make him fit in. Even after he started making his own tracks, he was still regarded as an outsider in the Detroit scene.

It was outside interest and interpretation of what Detroit was doing that brought history to the door and changed Saunderson’s life forever. In 1988, Saunderson, May, Atkins and other young producers (including Blake Baxter, Eddie “Flashin” Fowlkes and Anthony “Shake” Shakir) were “discovered” by British tastemaker Neil Rushton, who assembled 13 tracks for a compilation on a Virgin UK subsidiary called 10 Records LTD. Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit introduced the sound to a far wider range of clubbers — in England, the European continent and Japan — than the artists were used to in Detroit. The sound blew up wherever it went, becoming the new dance sound of planet Earth.

One of the tracks on the LP stood out. It was Inner City’s “Big Fun,” which Saunderson produced with vocals by Paris Grey. The infectious, soul-stirring song was techno’s first real crossover hit. It’s easy to tell why: It’s a simple piece of music with a happy message. Its warmth destroyed the notion that techno had to be cold and sterile. But Saunderson heard a different take from his peers in the city.

“People here said it wasn’t real techno, that it didn’t rock like what they were used to at the Music Institute,” he says, recalling the venue at 1315 Broadway where the local scene thrived in the late ’80s. “It was ‘too commercial for the underground,’ people said. But it put even more eyes on Detroit around the world.”

With Inner City, Saunderson traded playing sweatboxes like the Music Institute for performing in front of huge crowds in stadiums such as London’s Wembley, and being chased by schoolgirls — “it was like the Beatles, man, like a dream” — in Liverpool. He became a star then; and quietly, efficiently, he has maintained that status for more than 15 years.

Saunderson links the experience of that initial success to how he sees the challenge of putting on an event on the scale of Fuse-In.

“It’s about the diversity in the music that makes it special. It was the fact that Inner City didn’t sound like the stereotype people had of techno. It’s the diversity of the kind of music we have [at Fuse-In] that will make it special,” Saunderson says, putting on his jacket for a photo session to take place out on the street. “I have seen the love and passion people have for this music. There’s something in it for everybody; and it doesn’t exclude anybody. That’s why I believe in it, and why I know I have to keep it going.”


Read more:

By the beat
Quick hit Q&A profiles of Fuse-In attractions.

Technical English
A handy idiot's guide to electronic music lingo.

The Detroit legends
The locals who put Detroit on the electronic music map.

The intercontinentalists
A glimpse of Fuse-In international must-sees.

Fuse-In satellite parties.

For information on Detroit artists mentioned, visit

Walter Wasacz is freelance writer based in Hamtramck. Send comments to [email protected]