Anyone who’s ever heard of techno music, the Detroit sound, and house music in general owes a historic debt to the Elevator, Kevin Saunderson. From the life affirming joy of Inner City to the deep underground of Detroit techno Kevin has created, honed and continued to push the sonic limits of electronic dance and remains a legend, both underground and overground to this day. He took the time to speak to us
You moved from Brooklyn to Belleville at the age of 9. Did Belleville itself play any part in the musical formation and outlook of the ‘Three’. Just coincidence that you Derrick May and Juan Atkins were at school together?
When we moved to Belleville, I was still very young, and pretty wild with no real focus or direction. But hey, I was only 9!. I was into music, sure, but hadn’t really thought about it beyond that. I can say that I took ambition, an ingrained work ethic, and a strong will to succeed in whatever I did, which at the time was mainly about sports . Belleville itself was outside the city limits which helped keep you out of trouble and exposed you far less to the bad influences we may have fallen into living in the city itself. I suppose that it did help our creative side once we had found a balance. There was certainly nothing like an inspirational music teacher that help guide me in a musical direction from my angle anyway, I mean, I wasn’t even that into music in high school. Juan started making music in the last year of school, and I didn’t know all that much about it – I’d seen the equipment in his house and it had caught my eye and sparked some interest, but I didn’t really catch on until the last year of college.
When did other avenues like the sports fall away and the music take over?
Well, there were two things that really led to that. Derrick, Juan and myself in senior year did a party at my house, I suppose as a graduation party. But this was one serious graduation party, you had Juan and Derrick DJing – Derrick was still learning, opening those doors and experimenting, while Juan was already in the groove mixing together some really cool music with some of his own fresh stuff. But this party…..my parents had already bought another house and I was pretty much left with the old place for the whole summer before college, so this had to be the coolest house party in Detroit history, or Belleville for sure! That was the beginning of that glimmer of inspiration, the beginning of that love for DJing and mixing music.
Then later that summer, I went to New York to hang out with my brothers and got to go to the Paradise Garage a few times. So at that point, it’s in my system, I’m digging some stuff – not much of a dancer, but the music, the sound, watching the DJ, it was growing within me.
So I’m back at college after that summer and the football coach that had recruited me had been fired, the new coach comes in and we didn’t click. At that point I had to think to myself, which do I love more and which did I feel most inspired by. The answer was music. I saw the path opening up in front of me, and I’m thinking, I want to do this, I want to really try this….I want to be a DJ. Not make music, not at that point, I just wanted to be a DJ – simple as that. I was still heavily in contact with Derrick and Juan, and by then, Derrick was living in Chicago and he was doing his thing out there, hanging out with guys like Jesse Saunders and Farley who were already living that path, so by the time he moved back to Detroit, he really opened up my eyes to the possibilities out there and where I could go with it.
How big an influence was the Electrifying Mojo
Significant. He educated myself, Juan and Derrick in music far beyond what you heard on a day to day level. You know, you may hear one track or singles from artists like Prince on pop radio, but never whole albums. His show was out there playing stuff like the B-52’s, Tangerine Dream, New Order and Kraftwerk, – he would go deep and play obscure songs, entire albums, and developed our range and our love for music. It never fit the R+B playlists and pop of commercial radio, but took you into synthesizer based music – music that sounded different, that had been created differently.
Were you empowered by the DIY nature of electronic music?
It grabbed me in such a way that I didn’t want to do anything else with my time but keep working at making music. I kept trying, I kept failing, kept trying, kept failing, over and over again. It seemed so simple, just trying to get 2 machines to lock up, I mean I could spend 12 hours just trying to get the midi to work (midi is the system that synchronises machines so that they play in time). It’s one of those things, once you crack it, you’re that one step closer but all the while working the trial and error, making mistakes. And then suddenly you’re learning new tricks because you’ve put so much time in, remembering how to get back to parameters that really worked. But it was ground breaking at that time to be able to make music without having had any kind of training in theory, or instrument lessons – we made our own way
Can you tell us the story behind your first record, Triangle of Love?
Well I decided I wanted to do my first record. I felt that after getting comfortable with the drum machine and mixing records in with it that I was ready to go to the next level. Coming from New York, I always had a feel for vocals and melodies, so I was going to go with a vocal track. I had the whole thing laid out and ready, but at that point I had to get Juan in because I just didn’t know how to finish it. I had all these parts, the drums, the bass, the keyboard, the vocals and I knew how to record it, but I had no idea how to actually arrange it. Especially back then because we had none of the editing facilities modern equipment has, and so I’m there with everything running all at once across the mixing desk and I didn’t know where to go from there!! It was either mix it down live which was a one take deal, or arrange it and I was just stuck on how to finish it.
So I call up Juan and say ‘Hey man, I got this song I want to finish, but I can’t get it to the final version’. He came out to my place and took a look, but I’m telling you….he even CHARGED me for it. I had this Akai S900 sampler, one of the very few around back then, and he looks at me and says ‘Well I’ll do it, but I want that sampler’. Bottom line, I had to do it. I watched him use the EQ and use the effects, I paid real attention because this was costing me big!! But once I’d watched him, I knew what to do, how to mix it down completely and from then on, I was off and running – you couldn’t tell me nothing no more. But that price – that hurt me to give that machine up, I didn’t get another sampler for years, samplers were no longer a part of me. But ultimately, it was a small price to pay for setting me on my path to my career and to where I’m at today…
Tracks like Pennies for Heaven, Big Fun, Good Life and the whole Inner City vibe was pure uplifting soulful house.. What was Inner City all about?
Everything happens for a reason and the path was right for Inner City. It was always meant to be uplifting because while I was still working on my underground stuff, I still loved vocals. I think it was the combination of me and Paris Grey that made it so unique – she sang uplifting, she wrote uplifting, and my music complemented her and inspired her to write in the spirit I wanted to hear in those songs. The people I used to listen to like Chaka Khan and Evelyn Champagne King had always stayed with me, and I had always felt that kind of vibe. I never wanted to make just another typical record – ‘Baby I love you baby baby oo oo’ – that’s just dead to me. The success that followed basically happened because it was the right time and we had something very special.
I was never restricted or bound by the commercial success of Inner City, I kept on doing what I wanted to do, working on my other projects as well as with Paris. I experimented with Inner City, followed it’s path. I went from one album trying stuff like Till We Meet Again to Halleluiah on the next album, then went on to Praise. Everything I’ve ever done with Inner City has been totally my decision, and I never worried about continuing to have pop success, because, you know, it was just about making music and enjoying it. I did have an issue in America where they wanted us to be a bit more R+B, the record company was starting to pressure, but I stuck to my guns and did what I wanted to do.
You know…….I don’t know if there even was a pull. We just developed this unique sound built on all the influences and experiences of my life, a solid work ethic and just kept pushing to be the best, kept pushing for the next frontier and the sound grew……Simple as that!
Detroit always had that unstable line between technology and industrial might and being almost wholly dependent on one industry and a recession away from a wasteland– did that conflict leave its mark on you musically?
Heh heh…. The reality is, me Juan and Derrick lived in Belleville, half an hour away from Detroit, and we were some of the few black people living in that area. You just didn’t really see black people apart from ourselves. We never felt that crunch, never really felt the Detroit urban thing. Detroit and it’s economics and industry certainly didn’t impact me, I didn’t even go to Detroit until I was in high school, and that was just for a party, and I didn’t really go back until 88, after Big Fun came out…
But a lot of people associate your sound with the industrial vibe of Detroit.
Nope – definitely didn’t happen that way for me!!!!!
How aware were you of the massive social and cultural impact Acid House had in the UK
I felt it. I came over in early 1988 to do a couple of remixes, DJ a bit and do some promotion for the Ten compilation album that Big Fun was on. Then I came back in the summer, and just that quick, the movement had just started booming and growing like a virus. When I’d first played the clubs, it was kind of like America, you know, a bit poppy, nothing special and no real underground – you had the Hacienda in Manchester and Heaven in London, but that was about it. Then when I came back, only months later you had all kinds of things going on in London, all kinds of clubs, all kinds of events. Then it started spreading throughout England and evolved into these huge warehouse parties. I experienced all of that, and then the change from house to techno, from 91 hardcore to drum n bass – I was there time and time again, kept coming back and I lived and experienced that whole movement. I went to them all, not just to perform or to play, but to breath it and to make sure that I was aware of it and a part of it often just by going to hear a DJ play or to go and watch the crowd. I may not have been there every week, but I lived it
Did you run into any problems on the business end of the music?
I was pretty fortunate. I had some good people around me, some good advisors, my brother was a manager from Brass Construction , so I already had some insights on what I didn’t know. Then I ran into Neil Rushton who was a superb manager, and for years we had a great relationship – he did right by me and we had a great run. I released as much as possible on my own label and so I really didn’t get into any ugly business deals. The worst that happened was getting stiffed by promoters on a few DJ gigs…….but that was in the beginning!
You’ve had more aliases than half the CIA – do you like being undercover?
Well at the time I thought it would help. I was making and releasing all these different kinds of music and each style had a different inspiration. I was inspired by what I saw in the UK so I wanted to use breaks – I always liked breaks, they change up the music, they‘re funky and gave a different flavor and a different energy to my music. I came out with stuff like Tronik House, then Reese was the deeper side of me, dark deep and moody, Paradise Garage style, very underground real Music Box flavor. Inner City was my vocal club sound. (Editors note – the list goes on). So I had all of these aliases because I was just making so much music and I didn’t want to put them all out under one name. These days though, as I continue to make music, it’ll definitely be limited to 2 or 3 aliases!
Tell us about KMS records and where you’re going with it?
KMS is designed to mainly release my music and a couple of artists that I really love who I may want to do a remix of also come out on my label from time to time.
I just released History Elevate through Fabric and KMS. That’s done and out with remixes from some of the greatest producers and DJ’s of the day as well as a few of my classic remixes. I’m working on some Inner City stuff, we’ve been touring all summer – great shows and great response and we’ve got a new Inner City record in the works, and something new from Kevin Saunderson.
Would you call yourself spiritual?
Do your kids get in the studio?
At one time, my middle son used to get in there quite a bit, but he somehow floated away and I’m still waiting for him to come back! My youngest who is 11 now is into music theory so I think it’ll flow with him, we’re going to start some kind of lessons with him, so we’ll see. My oldest is more of an athlete and sports orientated, so he never really got in the studio, but then he’s doing poetry and his melodies are really good
The influence you had was immense. Looking back – any reflections
I feel that I’ve been blessed. This was my path. I thought I was going to be a football player and I ended up as the music man, the innovator, the elevator. I accepted that years ago and realized that this is my true love. I’ve been blessed to have been able to give something to people, to inspire people, to touch people because it just inspired me further to stay with and keep on doing what I do….
To celebrate Kevin Saunderson’s mammoth portfolio of musical genius, KMS & Fabric Recordings join forces and unleash a retrospective of Kevin’s work with a brand new compilation ‘History Elevate’ featuring a heavyweight selection of classics. This hefty package includes remixes from the maestro with tracks from Cerrone, Pet Shop Boys and Octave One and his first ever remix for Wee Papa Girl Rappers ‘Heat It Up’ (1988), among many other jewels. This journey through Kevin’s incredible musical history also features some of his own penned hits, including some Inner City gems, all remixed by top producers including Luciano, Carl Craig, Simian Mobile Disco, Claude VonStroke, Mike Shannon and many more.. ‘History Elevate’ is a must have retrospective collection for any Kevin Saunderson fan
INTERVIEW TAKEN FROM
LSD MAGAZINE ISSUE TWO – BOOTING OFF THE DOORS