ICONS; Kevin Saunderson – The Groove That Won´t Stop

ICONS; Kevin Saunderson – The Groove That Won´t Stop

It’s almost impossible to overestimate Kevin Saunderson’s influence on modern electronic music. Saunderson was instrumental in inventing techno in the mid-eighties with fellow pioneers Juan Atkins and Derrick May (a fellowship often referred to as The Belleville Three), was the first and only producer to translate the Detroit techno sound to the masses and achieve massive chart success with Inner City, made more classics than anyone and headed one of the most important techno labels in history for more than twenty-five years.

Looking back on Kevin Saunderson’s incredible career it’s hard to believe he actually stumbled upon music by accident. “I was more of an athlete at the time. I met Derrick playing football and on the running track. We couldn’t do that all the time though, so when we would hang out we’d go over to Juan’s house. He had all these musical gadgets, which we wouldn’t touch, but we really absorbed the atmosphere of the place. Later on music became more important. Derrick moved into my house for about six months, and he turned me on to a lot of stuff. Then, when I was at college everybody wanted to be a DJ. People were really into it.”

Shortly after Saunderson’s friend Juan Atkins made his first groundbreaking record as Cybotron with Richard Davis and continued his electro based techno experiments with Model 500 in the early eighties, something similar started happening in Chicago: the birth of house music. It was Derrick May’s move to Chicago that cemented the musical bond between the two cities and heavily influenced the sound Saunderson and May were developing.

“That was really important. Detroit had a scene, but it wasn’t like Chicago or New York because they had a lot more history with underground and gay clubs. We had a few that were similar like the Music Institute, but the level of the sound was not as good as places like The Paradise Garage.”

The Belleville Three

The Belleville Three: Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May

“At the time Juan was doing his techno thing and making that work, but his vision wasn’t straight four to the floor. It was me and Derrick who brought that sound into the mix. Chicago was a massive influence on that. We’d go to Chicago as often as possible at that point. We would arrive at the time that people were doing their radio shows and our records were being played on all these shows.”

The rest, as they say, is history. While Derrick May started his now legendary Transmat label, releasing a bunch of string laden and emotionally charged masterpieces, Saunderson started experimenting with a tougher techno sound on his own label KMS, creating the blueprint for the rave sound that would take over the European dance floors in the early nineties while also hugely influencing newly developing styles such as jungle and breakbeat with what is now commonly known as the ‘Reese bassline‘.

He was also the first and only Detroit techno producer to achieve massive crossover chart success with his Inner City project. Both ‘Big Fun’ and “Good Life’ were huge hits that brought the melodic side of techno to millions of people worldwide.

“I think Inner City was so popular because it had a truly unique sound. That sound is hard for people to imitate, mainly because of Paris’ voice.That was what really made that record such a hot one.” It was also a matter of chemistry. “We are both very uplifting and spiritual writers. That comes across in the track, I think. We had the gift.”

Kevin Saunderson TechnoSome twenty-five years and numerous classics later Kevin Saunderson is still on top of his game both as a producer and as a sought-after DJ, although times have changed considerably. The city that brought us Motown and techno and was once a shining example of the American dream with its immensely successful auto industry has now officially been declared bankrupt and is beginning to look more and more like a ghost town. Throughout all this turmoil, Kevin Saunderson has remained positive about the future of the birthplace of techno. “Detroit has never been an easy city. It has always been a struggle. Once the riots happened there was a real decline in Detroit. The city was really left hanging from that. People moved out into the suburbs. One thing that is for sure though is that there’s been a lot of talent that has come out of Detroit.

Hopefully it can turn itself around in the next few years. Sometimes a city has to go through something terrible like that for something good to happen in the future. New York went through the same thing. Look where it is now!”

Unlike a lot of his peers, he’s not complaining about the current state of affairs in America either when it comes to electronic music, with loads of kids getting into what the press now calls ‘EDM’ and the focus slowly shifting from music to entertainment.

“More people are aware of electronic music now and that can only be a good thing. When I grew up the whole scene was very elite. My sons and people who go to school in the States are now listening to electronic music. It may not be underground stuff but that’s fine. You have to start somewhere.

“There’s still a lot of great new music out there. Look at the beginning of music, there were no dance festivals. Now they’re cropping up all over the world. That sort of event really brings people together. It means that electronic music is for everybody. The question is how long it will take to cultivate in America. If kids start out listening to very commercial music and then go out to clubs where they hear a totally different sound, that can be quite confusing.”

Two of his sons have recently followed in their father’s footsteps taking up DJing and producing, but Master Reese made sure he didn’t make it too easy for them.

“I didn’t want to let my sons say they wanted to do music and not let them prove it. Two of them have really put the work in and are continuing to do so. I give them pointers, but I really make them work for it. If you want to make music it has to be really speaking to you. It becomes hypnotic if you are doing it enough.

“I see that in my kids though, they are truly engaged in what they’re doing.” Not to worry though. The 49 year old maestro’s not planning to let the next generation take over yet. He may have invented techno as we know it, made dozens of timeless classics and played in every major city in the world, but there’s still something left to be desired.

“I may have one thing left. I’d like at some point to have an event, or several events that I would curate. I would want it to provide a musical education, as well as offering young DJs a real chance to do their thing. I would also want it to be representative of the evolution of Detroit and its sound.”

Rogier Oostlander

Rogier Oostlander is the former editor-in-chief of Bassic Groove Magazine, one of the first magazines worldwide dedicated to house music culture in the early nineties. He now works as a record dealer and copywriter in Haarlem, the Netherlands.