As a member of the Belleville Three with Juan Atkins and Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of Detroit techno, one of modern dance music’s most durable subgenres. Saunderson’s work with Paris Grey as Inner City was particularly crucial in establishing Detroit as major player in the future of rhythm: the single “Big Fun” was featured on the seminal 1988 compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit, and it became a crossover hit in the U.K., helping to draw attention to the rest of the artists on the mix and inject the term “techno” into popular culture.
“Big Fun,” which melded a strong female lead vocal with gurgling mechanical funk, also hit No. 1 on the Dance Clubs chart in the U.S., as did the next three Inner City singles. Saunderson and Grey proved that this music could be both resolutely underground and commercially successful. “‘88 was crazy,” he remembers. “I heard Inner City everywhere, no matter where I went.”
Despite that initial breakthrough, the longevity of the music was never guaranteed. “You still had rock and roll that was pretty dominant,” Saunderson notes. “People didn’t really understand anything about dance music. We had instant success in Europe, especially London. London pushed the music. [But] in America, it didn’t have the same impact. It never really had the support.”
Consequently, he sounds surprised by the resilience of the form, which appears to be thriving decades later. “I didn’t have that kind of foresight,” he tells Billboard. “My foresight was that this music was for the world – any kind of race, any kind of culture. It’s kind of shocking to see the longevity of it. I’m still doing it and I’m doing it well. I’m traveling around the world and finding new audiences. That just means it’s meant to be and the vision from years ago is true: it’s for everyone.”
Detroit’s contribution to this democracy of dance has been celebrated in the city nearly every year since 2000 at the Movement Festival. For the third year in a row, Saunderson – who has helped run the event in the past – is in charge of a showcase on Monday, May 30, the final day of Movement. “ORIGINS: Elevation” brings the likes of Guy Gerber, MK, and Delano Smith to the Made In Detroit stage. The day culminates with a 90 minute DJ set from Saunderson himself.
The producer stresses the importance of a diverse lineup in his showcase. “I try to look at the Detroit talent, somebody from overseas – always try to make sure it’s rounded.” “It’s about generation, innovation, and regeneration,” he adds. “From when I started creating this music with Juan and Derrick until where we are today.”
He takes the regeneration part seriously: in 2015, Saunderson revived his E-Dancer moniker, which had not released new music in more than a decade. He plans to follow last year’s “Foundation” single – a dry, no-nonsense track that fellow Detroiter Stacey Pullen later incorporated into his Balance mix – with “One Nation” later this summer. “Inner City is a more vocal project,” Saunderson explains. “I always like to write uplifting, spiritual based music. E-Dancer is downright dirty, underground, deep, dark stuff.”
He has also helped today’s dance music more indirectly as well: both Saunderson’s sons are now DJs, and they will play together at his Movement showcase. The father confesses to being taken aback when Dantiez and Damarii ended up following in his professional footsteps. “I never expected it,” he says. “Dantiez moved out: ‘Dad, I’m gonna try to get my life together.’ Then he moved back six months later. And when he moved back, he said, ‘ya know I’ve been DJing.’ I said, ‘what you mean you’ve been DJing?’ I was shocked when he told me that.”
“It’s easy to say something,” Saunderson continues. “But when I seen him in my studio and on my turntables mixing around the clock, I kept saying, ‘this boy’s serious.’ I took him around the world so he would have a good vision.” Eventually the younger brother followed his sibling’s lead, and the first Saunderson Brothers’ release, “Other World,” is due out June 10 on their farther’s label, KMS Records.
It’s easy to imagine a dad clashing with his son while attempting to create music, but Saunderson suggests that the process is conflict-free. “It works pretty easy. Most parents you get into it with your kids ‘cause they’re doing something you don’t think they should be doing: ‘you need to be doing this, you need to be practicing.’ But I don’t need to get into it with them, ‘cause they love it.”
“If you’re gonna do it, do it,” he concludes. “Live it, let it be a part of you. It’s 24 hours in my house: the beat don’t stop.”