by Sterling McGarvey
Photos by Scott Spellman
If Derrick May is a man of opinions, Kevin Saunderson is a man who lets the music speak for him. With years of legendary production, from Inner City to E-Dancer, he has managed to put out a plethora of projects. He is a multi-million record-selling producer, yet he manages to maintain a great deal of underground acclaim. He is considered a dance music legend, yet he consistently puts out projects, rather than rest on his laurels. I managed to catch up with Kevin in Miami during the 2002 Winter Music Conference. While sitting poolside at the Marlin Hotel on South Beach, he had plenty to say about the state of techno, Detroit's role in the history of dance music, and his label, KMS Productions. However, in the wake of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival's 2002 lineup announcement, I contacted Kevin again to get an official statement regarding the DEMF.
Under the alias of Inner City, Kevin and vocalist Paris Grey created floor-packing classics during the late 1980s. Inner City grew to monolithic success in Europe. Between "Big Fun" and "Good Life," they have created tracks that have survived the test of time in a genre of music in which tracks have a higher turnover rate than a McDonald's fleet. The history between Kevin and Ms. Grey is actually "quite simple," he recounts. "Back in the beginning, in 1987, I think, I met her through a friend. I was doing some house stuff, some techno stuff in Detroit. A guy named Terry Baldwinshe was singing for him in Chicago, and he said [to me], 'Hey, man, have you heard of my music?' He was really pushing the tracks and her singing; I liked what I heard, so we laid down some tracks, and let her try; I liked what she did, and kind of kicked it off from there. The record came out on my label and on a couple of compilations, so we just kind of kicked it off from there. We decided to form a partnership and just kept doing it."
As for the cult-level success of "Good Life?"
"It's great. I did 'Big Fun,' and I saw it was uplifting. It touched people, so I said, 'Let's take it to the next level. Let's expand on that and really grab people.' Once I did it, I knew... That's good to see that my music touches people, and messes with their emotions, [but] at the same time it's in a way that it's uplifting and joyful."
Kevin is commonly referred to as a legendary, groundbreaking innovator of major proportions. However, he has slightly mixed feelings about his status. "That's cool, that's great, [but] I'm still around," he says. While he is honored that people regard him as such a huge figure in dance music, he eschews the idea of fading away into being simply a historical note. "It's good that people know the historythat's important. But also, at the same time, I'm around; I'm still doing it. I'm still making records. I'm still playing, so I don't want to be the one who people describe saying, 'this guy was amazing; he was unbelievable.' I want to be a combination of a historical figure, but also as someone who's still doing it today."
For anyone needing proof of Kevin's desire to keep his name out in the dance community, one need look no further than 2001's Area:One Festival, which he and Derrick May played on select dates. Among the corporate sponsors of last year's tour was Ford, who has been using Detroit's electronic musical heritage as a cornerstone of its Ford Focus ad campaign. "People are getting more educated as a result of seeing Detroit associated with techno," Kevin says. "I don't know if a lot of kids out here really care, but still, you know, we did Area: One last year, and it's helped a little."
One of his fellow counterparts in Detroit's oft-titled "Holy Trinity of Techno," Juan Atkins, made huge waves in early 2002 in his cover feature in XLR8R, in which he lambasted both trance as a genre of dance music, and record companies who push trance onto the masses as the predominant form of electronic music. He claims that trance threatens to dispossess dance music from its original African-American roots. In regard to Atkins' comments, Kevin says, "I think [trance is] more 'White-sounding.' It's generic, and a lot young people get into the music at first and don't know. To them, it's great. Then they hear some real music they don't really know, and it's like 'what the hell is that?' It's definitely the most popular, so that's why the majors get behind it. It's getting pushed the most. It's definitely not the best music, but it's the most popular."
In spite of the perceived threat that trance presents to producers who fight fanatically to keep the Soul in the music, Kevin remains optimistic. "We just gotta keep doing our thing. I've found that when I've been playingI've been playing a lot, and especially in the US latelythat people are starting to come around. I did the Area:One Tour, and you had [big name] people like Paul Oakenfold playing, and whoever else, but kids partied still." While headliners such as Oakenfold, Carl Cox, Outkast, and Moby were the critical draws for many of the festival-goers, Kevin maintains confidence that the sounds of Detroit reached out to the crowds, yet remains unsure if that will come out in record sales. "I would say they were partying more to the stuff me and Derrick were playing than to any of the other music that was being played," he says. "It might be a good sign; I don't know if that means it will generate more sales of the music. It's hard to get some of the records we play. In France, they put it right out there in your face; it's marketed totally different. So that changes things."
When asked about techno's lukewarm reception in Black America, and in scholarship regarding Black musical history, Kevin says, "[Techno] should be included, and finally, steps are being made to change that. There are some people in Detroit who are going to be putting together an exhibit of techno at the African-American Museum, and [also of] the different movements in different cities. We need stuff like that. We need support like that to help it be known. That's the problem in the Black community now. They know nothing of the music or the history. At one time it was all Black. It's amazing how it's shifted completely."
Kevin's desert island album choices are a little tougher. "Oh, man. Uh... one thing you need to know about meI'm not a good title man," he says as he laughs. After a bit of brow-furrowing, he comes up with Parliament Funkadelic's One Nation Under a Groove, Prince's Controversy (or was it 1999?), Kraftwerk's Computer World, "something from Earth, Wind & Fire, but I can't give you a name," [to which I said it was okay, and that I've been caught singing "September" at the top of my lungs in traffic on more than one occasion, so anything Earth, Wind & Fire is good], and "something from Chic."
Derrick, Juan, and Stacey Pullen get in a fight, and Carl Craig referees. Who wins and why?
"Who gets in a fight?"
He laughs after I repeat the scenario.
"Umm... I would say... Juan wins. He's kinda like, almost... the Father. He's been putting Derrick in his place since he started. I gotta go with the cat that's been around the longest, you know, and Stacey's kind of quiet... "
His feelings on playing Atlanta are slightly mixed. "Well, actually, Derrick did the Atlanta date for Area:One, but I did come before then and play [eleven50 in March 2001]. It seemed okay... I don't know if I played the proper party there, though, you know? I don't think I played a proper party. You had half of these kids who knew what was going on, who were into it, and the other half maybe didn't. It was just kind of strange."
However, his attitude toward the nation as a whole is much more positive. "America's been getting better, though. I just played at Avalon in Boston. And I played Denver, at a place called the Church. I'm seeing that a lot of places feel that the mark of Detroit is not bad at all. I just played in Ann Arbor at Necto. I do my own parties every now and then, so I think that this country is kind of ready for it. Detroit, even though we have to fight for our space to get in there and stay in thereunfortunately, we don't get approached to do these toursmost of the time, we try to keep it real."
With the controversy surrounding the Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2001, from the firing of Carl Craig as Creative Director to the heavy corporate sponsorship that differentiated it from the 2000 Festival, Kevin has his doubts about the fate of the 2002 DEMF. "I don't think the festival this year is in the best interest of the music or the artists that worked to develop this scene." Ironically, in spite of his highly public stance against Pop Culture Media [the sponsors of the festival who are currently involved in a lawsuit with Craig], he was put on the DEMF lineup without his prior consent. "If this is right, I would know. I've been around it long enough. I think she's [Carol Marvin] taken the wrong path. I've had to disassociate myself."
As for the rest of 2002, Kevin's got a very full plate. "I am currently touring and promoting the mix album from Trust the DJ that's coming out. I think it's coming out, or very close to being out. After that, get a little studio work done, me and Derrick are doing a 4-turntable tour, another mix CD (I'll be promoting that in the Fall), a few Inner City shows in Europe in August. Product wise I've got some remixes, like Randolph Paul on my label, Das Closer, my own stuff, working on a Kevin Saunderson album called the E-Dancer. I've got a few things in the works, a couple of 'Big Fun' remixes floating around right now, and the classic is being reissued."
Got all that?
He says, grinning, "I'm still doing it, man!"
Special thanks goes to Barbara Deyo at Boldface Media for her assistance in arranging the interview.
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