“Yeah I’m driving, but I should be alright to talk…”
Speaking to electronic producer and DJ Kevin Saunderson while he’s at the wheel of his motor makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the mechanised funk he’s famous for was originally manufactured in Detroit, the once great hub of the American car industry.
Times have definitely changed but while Detroit is now a smouldering financial wreck of a city, Kevin’s musical career is at polar opposites. Astonishingly, his pop-slash-dance-act Inner City are celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2013 while he continues to produce, remix and write quality electronic fodder under a variety of different guises. Outside the studio, Kevin is a much revered DJ when it comes to playing rushing, devastating club music. Underneath the exterior of this assured family man (who’s driving his kids around when we talk) beats the chrome heart of a techno warrior.
Originally from New York, Kevin ended up moving to Detroit as a kid and going to high school with Juan Atkins and Derrick May, a trio who later became known as the Belleville Three. They bonded over a love of synths and sound, started making music and techno was born.
“We met each other in the first year of college back in 1982,” Kevin explains in his thick Brooklyn drawl. “I wanted to be around people who had Technic 1200 turntables and all this special vinyl. That became my new school. I was going to school but learning about music and records. Technics were all I wanted. This just led down a path of elevation which evolved into creating music as well.”
The sounds the trio beamed out of Detroit helped restore its reputation as a music hub and inspired generations of musicians, artists and DJs. Techno, alongside Motown and the MC5, ensured the city was seen as something other than one big factory belching out cars.
While his legacy stretches on, Kevin’s first steps into music making were made on what we’d now deem as fairly humble beginnings. However, this gear played no small part in shaping the futuristic sounds he became known for. “I had an Fostex 8 track recorder, a 2 track recorder and some DX1600s. I started using computer software on a Commodore 64, then 128. It was all pretty primitive but so we were at the time,” he laughs.
While helping wire up the original circuit board of techno, it’s as Inner City that Kevin really made his name. The group enjoyed nine top 40 hits in the UK and a string of big selling albums while this year sees him marking their anniversary with a release of remixes of classics such as ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Good Life’. While it’s astonishing how his meeting with the group’s singer Paris Grey was through a chance recommendation by Terry ‘Housemaster’ Baldwin, it’s even harder to believe that the duo failed to realise their music’s crossover potential.
“I started writing after I’d go to a club and watch Larry Levan or Ron Hardy. They’d be playing underground nights but would always find a way to play a great vocal track. They played from midnight until midday the next day, these marathon 12 hour sets where you’d hear vocal records for 20 or 30 minutes. I always wanted to make songs like these, big songs that could be played in a club. It was my dream and Inner City was how I achieved that,” he says.
Inner City’s success also happened to dance in time to the wave of change sweeping across the UK’s music, club and counter culture in the late 80s. As Kevin says, within six months the whole country was knocked sideways by a wave of giddy acid house addled euphoria with his music proving to be the perfect soundtrack to the so-called second summer of love. Good Life and Big Fun were the perfect anthems to the carefree craziness of the time.
Kevin says: “The summer of ’88 was an important time. It was just very unique. I came over to the UK earlier in the year and there were some clubs like the Hacienda but not really much exciting music going on. But it changed so quickly. Six months later the scene was going crazy. Warehouse parties, acid music coming in. Inner City came through at just the right time.”
While Inner City were taking on the charts, his technical ability and forward thinking production techniques were also helping set the bar for the way underground producers worked and the styles they adopted. His 1988 remix of Wee Papa Girl Rappers is a record he looks back at as a real career highlight.
“It was the first remix where the producer used more of his music than the original band,” he explains. “I only used some of the vocals but it was a moment for me because it was the first of its kind and at the same time the record company didn’t know how to respond to it. They were just like – “Where is their music? Where did it go?” The record ended up being huge and started a trend for other producers to work in this way.”
Fast forward some years and Kevin has a reputation which is the envy of many a producer or DJ. While his songwriting credentials are second to none, he’s very much revered as one of the godfathers of contemporary club culture – and there’s no let up just yet. As well as the Inner City remixes, he’s also working on new tracks with the group and hints at a future tour. He’s also continuing to plough his time into underground dance music with his KMS label, helping mentor new and exciting talents. However, Kevin’s sceptical about the state of the music industry and how dance music labels can survive in 2013. There’s total deluge of music created by the increasing prominence of digital.
He says: “There’s still a lot of great talent and music out there. The hard part is there’s so much going on it’s hard to get a track noticed by somebody. It seemed like there were lots of records being released back then but now everybody is a DJ, everybody is a producer – it’s like going to Hollywood. Everybody’s in the film industry. It now seems that everyone is in the music industry.”
“As a DJ, you play music because you love it. You search for great tracks and there’s plenty out there for you to play. If you’re a record company, you need to sell good music to make money. It’s a different story. It’s a lot harder to play that game. Music is now used as a tool to promote yourself so you can perform and do more shows.”
Despite these worries, it’s clear from the Kevin’s energy and enthusiasm radiating down the phone that he’s lost none of his love for music, music making or playing these records to the crowds who still flock to see him. If only time would slow down, he laments.
“It goes too quick. I can tell you that. It feels like I just started this whole music thing a couple of years ago.”
Kevin Saunderson plays the FOUND: Shoreditch Street Party alongside Frankie Knuckles on September 21st; head here for remaining tickets and more info…