Dance Music Pioneer Kevin Saunderson: The Scene Is Still Failing Black Artists

Kevin Saunderson
Courtesy of Blue Raincoat Music

Kevin Saunderson

It's not an understatement to say that Kevin Saunderson has been part of dance music culture since the inception of the scene in the late '70s. At age 17, he attended the hallowed New York venues Paradise Garage and The Loft, where he was not only exposed to the house and disco being spun by future legends such as Larry Levan and David Mancuso, but to the social diversity of the burgeoning genre.

"You’d see different races and colors, some of everybody," Saunderson, now 55, tells Billboard Dance. "It was a good mixture, and it helped pave my path when I started to create music, because I made music for everyone. I made music for the world."

He's not exaggerating. As a teenager in the Detroit suburb of Belleville, Saunderson -- along with his high-school friends Derrick May and Juan Atkins -- developed the sound that would be come to known as Detroit techno. Influenced by funk and known together as The Belleville Three, this trio of producers pioneered one of electronic music's foundational genres, with their work and sound becoming a pillar of the global scene. The audiences who came to hear The Belleville Three play their heavy-hitting, futuristic techno at parties in Detroit during the early '80s were, like the artists themselves, all Black.

Surveying the landscape of modern electronic music, it's easy to forget -- or to simply never had known -- that electronic music was created by Black artists: The Belleville Three in Detroit, Frankie Knuckles and other early house producers in Chicago, Levan in New York and so on. White artists, the majority of them men, now dominate dance festival lineups and streaming services, with this trend becoming particularly acute as dance music exploded in mainstream popularity in the States during the last decade.

Saunderson's career didn't come without its own race-based challenges. He says the house-oriented music he made with his group Inner City in the the late '80s didn't get the exposure it could have because record labels tried to route it through R&B channels, and and not because it was actually R&B, but because Saunderson is Black. While Inner City experienced global success with their 1988 hits "Good Life" and "Big Fun," he says that because the group wasn't properly marketed, Inner City never really broke through in America.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has forced the music industry to do its own soul searching regarding the inclusivity of artists of color, Saunderson discusses how representation has evolved during his four-decade career in electronic music.

When you were pioneering electronic music in the '80s, did it feel distinctly racial or distinctly a product of Black culture? Or was that not something crossing your mind in that time?

Music was very segregated at that time, when I started making music. Musically, you had R&B radio, you had pop radio, and most tracks were rock 'n' roll and very pop and by white artists. Black artists would be on the R&B stations.

When we started creating the sound, it was only Black people who were listening to the music that was being made by myself, Juan, Derrick, Eddie Fowlkes, Blake Baxter and the handful of people in Detroit who were making this music and were all Black artists. We had a handful people who came out to dance -- like, 600 or 700 -- who’d come to just about every party. It was all Black. Simple as that.

The great thing about Europe was that they had a different approach. If your s--t was hot and they loved your music, they embraced it. That’s what ignited techno. ... But then when I got there in America, the first things they [said was], “We love your music, but you have to go through the R&B division first.”

That was so weird to me. I was like, “What are you talking about? This record’s for everybody. It doesn’t even fit in ... to R&B radio. It doesn’t mean Black people won’t like it, but we should just go across the board. Let’s just put the record out and let the people make the choice.” I got a lot of that type of stuff during those days.

Obviously mainstream dance music exploded in popularity in the States during the last decade. Within the context of that boom, did you and do you observe a significant racial disparity?

It grew into a multi-billion dollar industry. It grew into these festivals. So much came from our imprint on this music that led to other influences that led to the music being made by whoever was inspired, which is fine. America’s take on it, at least previously, was that this music was made by Europeans or white people only, and that Black people just didn’t touch it because it didn’t fit into R&B or hip-hop and didn’t have the same soul and feeling.

I think it became very commercialized with EDM, and you had all of these managers working with different promoters and bringing their acts in and trying to create a gimmick. Even the Kentucky Fried Chicken thing that happened at Ultra was just a disgrace to our music.

What's your take on the younger audiences that were brought into the scene via the EDM boom?

The good thing is that I believe the new generation is more open minded to all music. But it has to happen in our industry. You can’t leave out people like myself, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Carl Craig -- people who are doing it really well -- or just put us on the smaller stages. Not because we’re older and because we’ve been there and done that, but because we’re still great at it.

[What we do] just doesn’t have the same market value, and also people don’t know. People come in and they’re 18 years old and they go hear EDM, they go hear Deadmau5 or whoever, and they think, “Wow, that’s amazing.” But they don’t always get an opportunity to hear people like us. It’s perceived like the music comes from white producers from Europe and some Americans, when it’s not really true. We don’t get the big platforms as much as we should. It’s not equal, that’s for sure.

How do you account for that? Why aren’t young Black artists being developed? Why aren’t you and other dance world pioneers put on bigger stages?

Part of it is buddy-buddy, and everybody has friends they want to help. The other part is that I think people don’t necessarily feel like it’s a Black thing. … I think they just think it’s more of a white thing and that this is white peoples’ industry and music. … They don’t want to give [Black artists] the same opportunities, even though it’s deserved. I don't mean the people that are listening to the music, but the people who control it. It’s almost like their take on it is “That’s the past, and they’re Black.” I hate to say it like that, but that’s what it feels like.

[It's tough] when you know that what you’re playing is great, or better than a lot of these artists that are out here and you’re trying to get through and agents keeping saying, “We don’t have room on our roster.”

There’s new talent coming up that’s really good, so those opportunities almost have to come from people who’ve been in the industry like myself, but I’m still out here myself traveling the world doing gigs, so it’s not as easy to produce that. Carl Craig has an agency here in Detroit that’s helped some people, and it’s a diverse roster like it should be.

What do you aspire for the scene to look like?

It should be women, Black, white, wherever you’re from, as long as you have a talent and a sound that you want to promote ... because otherwise, you get these gimmicky artists that make s---ty music that becomes popular and makes millions of dollars, when they’re not really talented and it’s just all about marketing. A lot of people lose out. More talented people don’t get known. But if they’re making money, they’re just going to repeat it. So you get s---ty music and people get EDM all mixed up with techno, and there’s all sorts of confusion.

Do you feel like the people who produce the biggest dance music events, let's say Ultra or EDC or Coachella, have a responsibility to book more Black artists?

I think so. The problem is that many of the people in power in these companies don’t really care, and they don’t know. Some of them also came in way after the fact and they don’t care about the history or integrity of music -- they care about the money. So yeah, they’ve got a responsibility to correctly represent the culture they’re profiting from, but the responsibility in their mind is only to make money.

Have you had any personal experiences with that type of thinking?

I talked to a gentleman at one of the leading global agencies. A promoter friend told me to call him because I recreated Inner City and we were going back on the road and we did some touring and were working on a new album. I thought, “Let me get a U.S. agent who’s got some power and has a good roster.” I left a message, and he called me back.

So the guy, I’m talking to him and he was like, “Hey how can I help you?” I said, “This is Kevin Saunderson and I wanted to talk about maybe doing some future business and touring together.” He said, “Well, who are you? I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know who you are.”

Wow. Then what happened?

I was thinking, "First of all, if you call me back you should do some kind of search." Especially if he’s the top guy, at least ask some of your agents. He’s older than me, so he should know. The point is that he’s very arrogant, and I didn’t know if it was a color thing or what. But he was like, “I don’t know your music, I don’t know who you are, and we take top artists around this agency.” It was a bunch of bulls--t. I was like, “You shouldn’t have even called me back. This was a waste of my time.”

He didn’t even let me finish what I was trying to say. I was giving him some history, but I’m not some old fart who doesn’t know what’s up. I play around the world, and I understand the music. I created this music. And as old as I am, I’m a futurist still. So for him to say “We’re not interested,” I was like, “Well I’m not interested either after having this conversation.” If you don’t have those platforms … we have to go through a different agent, and we have to start smaller and work our way up.

So it was a strange conversation. Even for me, recreating this brand and already touring the world, doing stuff like Glastonbury, killing it at Glastonbury and in Europe, I’m still fighting for Inner City to move forward as we’ve restructured the act.

But how is a young artist supposed to get an opportunity when you have all of these executives at high levels blocking them for whatever reason, whether it's racial or they’re just unaware?

I was talking to the Jersey Club producer DJ Sliink a few weeks ago, and he was saying the only really big plays he’s gotten is when he’s gotten a co-sign from Skrillex and other white gatekeeper artists. He’s a leader in his respective scene, so what can younger developing Black artists do to even get noticed?

Yeah, it’s tough. I don’t have the answer, to be honest. You need the opportunities. These festivals like to book the same artists every year, and it’s a problem -- it’s a real problem. There are only a handful of Black artists, but there are a lot of talented ones out there trying to make it, so there’s really no excuse.

You pioneered electronic music, so not getting that respect and acknowledgement in the States has to be hard.

It’s been frustrating. I will say that it’s improved over the last year, for me. I don’t know if it’s improved overall. I’m going to say overall it hasn’t, because I haven’t seen any of the young upcoming producers cracking through.

I don’t see Kyle Hall from Detroit playing that many American dates. I don’t see my sons. I can put them on shows, and I put them on some shows with me, but I don’t want to over put them on shows. I want talent to shine through. You wonder like, “They’re making music. How come an agent won’t or hasn’t taken them on?” They are the future, and you have other people like them out here. We need the youth to continue the movement.

I hate to say this, but you almost feel like somebody is basically eliminating Black artists and producers from participating and being part of the scene. So once I go off and die, and other people who’ve been around from the beginning are gone, who’s left? We’ve been doing this 35 years. If there’s talent, they should have the same opportunity or better opportunities.

What can white people in the industry do to be better allies?

Everybody should be treated equally. I think there should always be a certain amount of Black talent on your roster. How can you have a show connected to house and techno, but have a very limited number of Black artists? How can we influence any other Black artists who want to be a part of it? How can we influence Black people if they don’t think it’s Black music in any kind of way now? We have no potential to grow.

But you can make something that can grow even larger than we already have by bringing people together. Even when I did the festival in Detroit, I produced it a bit for a year … I was the one who made it more diverse and started bringing in some hip-hop artists so we could start crossing paths to see how it would affect the sound, to see … how we could move forward with the sound by exploring its relationship with different artists, and how that would blend a new sound which has the potential to bring in Blacks and whites and people of all different colors in unity.

That, to me, is what our music does, and it does it well.