Filed under: Interview
Kevin Saunderson, one of the legendary Belleville Three along with Juan Atkins and Derrick May, is a founder of Detroit Techno. From Inner City to E-Dancer projects, Kevin is a multi-million record-selling producer, but still manages to keep the respect of the underground as well as work on the Detroit Music Festival. We got a chance to talk with him about his recent success.
Interview by Laura Brown (ArcTokyo)
HRFQ : Is this your 2nd time to play at Air tonight? How do you describe your impression about this club?
Kevin Saunderson : The club is fantastic. It has a great soundsystem, it’s packed with people, it’s not too big, so it’s more intimate with the crowd. I especially like that I played downstairs. I love playing within the system — in the crowd. I think it’s better contact between myself and the crowd. I can feed off of them and they can feed off of me. It’s a great club. And that’s what you want when you’ve been doing this for as many years as I have.
HRFQ : I think you recently received International Achievement Award as part of this year’s Governor’s Awards for Arts & Culture with Derrick and Juan. How do you feel about it?
Kevin : It’s like all of the other awards. You appreciate it but you don’t expect it. I didn’t even know about it until I got it. It just goes with the legacy. As long as I’ve been doing it, it’s one of the things that keeps me going and inspired. It’s as simple as that. I’m appreciative that there is some recognition at home, for what we’ve done for music in the world.
HRFQ : About Movement Festival, I think you became an official co-producer of the event from this year. What kind of role did you actually have in cooperation with Derrick?
Kevin : I came in and dealt with all of the financial stuff, with paying people, paying artists, putting a budget together. Trying to put out some fuses — tempered people. I just came in to balance it. That was my main objective this year, because I came in with only the last three weeks to go. I had to focus on what really needed to be done. Made sure that everything was taken care of in a professional manner.
HRFQ : We heard Movement went really successful this year too. What do you think of the biggest achievement this year? And what was the most difficult part to go through?
Kevin : For me, the most difficult part was coming in when I came in. Really the communication wasn’t clear and I felt the festival was in jeopardy and it was. So that’s why I got involved. I think that people were always under the assumption that I was involved all along, but I really wasn’t. I was always a cheerleader for it and wanted to see it succeed, but I never was directly involved. That was one of the difficult things — coming in at the last minute. On the other hand, it did happen, and it happened in a great and fantastic way. So that’s quite important and was a success. Especially from the outside, it attracted many people from all over the world, from the local areas. It made income for the city of Detroit. So it is doing something for our community back at home. It’s bringing people together who don’t normally mix and mingle. It’s not just kids. Demographically, granted, the average age is about 24 years old, but you have some moms and pops, grandmas, some of everybody. People from different races. And that’s what our music does, it unites people from around the world. That’s why it’s been so successful. A world music that is unified and uplifting…
HRFQ : So are you going to take the same role at this festival in 2005, too?
Kevin : That will still be determined. I’ll be the producer/director of the festival. More info. will be coming out on that soon, so keep your eyes out and your ears open.
HRFQ : There are many young readers who know much about Detroit sound, but not really know how it was all started. Can you tell us how did you meet up with Derrick and Juan?
Kevin : I met Derrick and Juan when I was about 13 years old back in a suburb of Detroit, a place called Belleville. Went to school with them in junior high. Kind of just was around each other back then. Didn’t really get into music until my college days, as far as making it and wanting to be a DJ. But Juan was doing it first. He always had these weird ideas about music and instruments and nobody knew what they were, so he was kind of in his own world. But Derrick was good friends with him and I was close friends with Derrick. So that’s how the relationship get started with Juan. Me and Derrick met through sports. I can say that my college years, after high school – we went to high school together too – and then college came where we went our own ways. Derrick moved to Chicago, I stayed and went to Eastern Michigan, which is a university near my high-school. And Juan did his own thing. He was kind of separate. He’s always done his own thing, and keep quiet. He was releasing music under the name of Cybertron and it was getting played on the radio. It was a fantastic sound, and he called this sound Techno. So he was becoming popular in the local media and his records were being played all over Detroit. So all of that rubbed off and Derrick was in Chicago. He called me while I was in college, saying that he was going to clubs and DJing in Chicago. So we kept in communication during that time. Derrick then moved back, and then that put me more in contact with Juan. It made us all want to make music. It inspired me to be a DJ and I was really into the music all along, because I was originally from New York. Sometimes I would go back to NY during the summers and go to a place called the Paradise Garage. The music that came out of this loud soundsystem and the mixing that I was listening to was so inspiring. By being around people who actually were DJs and had equipment, that legitimized that that was what I wanted to do. So that’s how I started. 1984, and my first record came out in 1985. Then Juan, Derrick and me, we all had records out and Eddy Foks, from Detroit did too. So it was the first of it’s kind outside of Juan. So we kind of helped elevate the whole movement. Derrick was the innovator and I was the elevator. And what happened as we released it on our own labels, I had a label called KMS, and I released my music on my own label, mainly to control it, and it be able to play my own music also. At that time, I felt like there was a void in music, it needed more. I was playing a lot of electro, a lot of European music, disco. Wherever I could find records that were creative. The problem was that we were all playing the same records, because there wasn’t a lot, only a handful of them. That’s how it started and each year, it kind of developed further. I started Inner City which led to my commercial success records like “Good Life” and I’ve been making records ever since. And I’ve had many hits but also many underground hits. I think much of what you hear today is influenced from myself and the Detroit guys.
HRFQ : In the early days, you had to work with some pretty basic equipment. What exactly were you using then and how did you get the most out of it?
Kevin : It started out with a drum machine. That’s how I took music to the next level. I went from DJing to making beats on a computerized drum machine. 909s and 808s made by Roland. After I got my skill level down, I understood the technology of the instrument and I started programming different beats. And what I did with those beats is that I started incorporating those sounds, mixing the drum machine in with records, so it became unique. There were beats and grooves that were quite exciting. So the next thing for me, especially since I wasn’t a trained musician, was to get a keyboard and find out how to bring more musical elements into those beats and I did that through purchasing a sequencer, and a couple keyboards like a DX100, a CZ1000. I started learning about sequencing and midi, the whole new wave of technology that I hadn’t been aware of. That’s partially because it was fairly new at that time and still being developed. So I came at a very unique time, in the early days of technology. But through learning and reading and making mistakes over and over, continuous hours of work, I was able to create new sounds by getting technical with the synthesizers, create whole new perimeters of sound by changing envelops and filters and just doing stuff which was very experimental, which made this music popular. A couple of lines that was very hook-y, kind of melodic and my influences from the past, the disco days, kind of helped shape the direction I was going in. So that’s how I got into production — just tried to elevate each time.
HRFQ : So many art forms have evolved because of surrounding circumstances – political unrest or injustice, and I think the “struggle” has been a huge aspect of the evolution of Techno sound too. Do you agree that struggle creates stronger or more influential art, etc?
Kevin : I guess you can say so. We didn’t have a lot of help when we were doing this. There were definitely some struggles there. We were under-capitalized, we didn’t have lots of money to put these records out. We had to do deals with people, some good and bad, some learning experiences. So there were struggles in that sense, that happened in the beginning. Also people who didn’t want to hear the music, people who didn’t want to support it, record shops and distributors. So we then found a niche and ways to get our music heard and it became so popular that it couldn’t be stopped. Through pirate-radio stations, that played music that was unique and different. Fortunate enough for us, London was a key part to help us develop. In the London media, it was a very important part of developing this electronic sound and getting it known. It was like a virus or something that the country took in. It obviously inspired other countries too. But there were definitely struggles. One time, all of my equipment was stolen. But I found a way, with two pieces and then I got a hit record, so…
HRFQ : Do you like what’s happening in the underground music of today? Can you tell what you are currently listening to?
Kevin : There are always tracks that get me excited and keeps me in it. I wouldn’t say there is any particular artist — I don’t follow the names and the artists a lot. I just pick the records from the shop, and mark them up and play them. I love what they do to the crowds and that’s been my approach to music over the last 15 years or so. But overall in the scene, there are still some places you can go in the world, new areas that are trying to grasp it. I played in Dubai and that was very interesting because I never thought I would be playing over there. And in Shanghai is still a new market.
HRFQ : What other new projects are you currently working on?
Kevin : I don’t have a lot. I worked on a new Inner City 12″ called “Say Something” that will be coming out. It works really well at the clubs. I did a tag-team with Carl Cox in France and there is a DVD coming out soon. We did a big show in Rotterdam with 12,000 people so that’s coming out.
HRFQ : With you label, KMS, what are you now focusing on?
Kevin : We’re putting out a lot of back-catalogue and classic records from myself for the most part.
HRFQ : You’re usually using Final Scratch on your DJ sets now, is that correct? Are you using any other new technologies?
Kevin : Sometimes. Now I usually use FS as a back-up. I don’t use it as my main catalyst instrument. Just depends on what kind of mood I’m in, what I want to play. If I’m going to do an old-school set, I’m going to use FS because I have a lot of records in there from the past. FS is about the newest for me.
HRFQ : How do you think the dance scene will evolve over the next years?
Kevin : Everything goes in a circle. Certain scenes will stay consistent, certain scenes will die and certain scenes will explode. My overall goal is to get the US on the same page. Now for the festival, we’re going to take it region by region and now we’ll just work on the mid-west region and get it to the point where it needs to be. And then we can look at bringing it elsewhere.
HRFQ : Last question, can you tell us what’s your “love” and what’s your “hate”?
Kevin : I love my kids and family. That’s definite. I do love traveling around the world, seeing new cultures and experiencing them. I love movies. I hate liver, I can tell you. I’m not a hateful person, so that’s about it.
HRFQ : Do you have a message for the Japanese fans?
Kevin : Come to Detroit for the festival!! Experience it on the other end. Thank you for the support.
End of the interview
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