Kevin Saunderson

“no matter how big we became, it was always a struggle back home”

Back in June, Kevin Saunderson of Inner City made headlines when he claimed, in an interview with Billboard, that the music industry had failed Black artists. And he’s got personal anecdotes to back that up – recalling, over the phone to NR, the time himself and fellow Detroiter, Derrick May, played a festival in Australia almost ten years ago. The pair found themselves playing a stage with around 200 capacity; the Canadian EDM producer, Deadmau5, was on the main stage, playing to an audience maybe 20, 30, 40 times the size. 

It’s a story that captures dance music perfectly in a nutshell. Back in the 1980s, it was Kevin, Derrick and their high school peer, Juan Atkins, who pioneered and popularised techno in Detroit; young, Black producers making music for people like them. ‘Our crowd was 90% Black,’ Kevin explains – sure, the crowds were smaller than they are now, but that’s because EDM music exploded into a billion-dollar industry. An industry whose most well-known faces are male and white; Deadmau5, Skrillex, Diplo, David Guetta, and so on.

What’s the solution? Kevin thinks that it starts with promoters, agents and general management because, at the end of the day, ‘they’re who put music in front of you.’ There needs to be more Black management in the industry to ensure that people of colour are getting more opportunities and not being ‘taken for granted’; he sees it as a collective responsibility to bring other artists up. All that said, Kevin sees the scene as being in a good place, pandemic aside; there’s a more diverse sound coming through the next generation, much more so compared to back in the day. 

Kevin was born in New York, before moving to Belleville, a suburb in Detroit, as a teenager. It was there that he met Derrick and Juan, and it was also there that, together, the three would define the sound that became Detroit techno. The 1980s provided the perfect environment for a new genre to grow; in Chicago, there was house – pioneered by the likes of Frankie Knuckles and Marshall Jefferson, and in New York, there was disco (and later, garage). Though the scene in New York pivoted around gay culture, Kevin would travel back and forth from Detroit to New York for the music, going to legendary clubs like Paradise Garage to see Larry Levan play. It was an inclusive scene in an otherwise segregated music world;

“I was always inspired to make music for everyone because I was inspired by New York where it didn’t matter who the music was for.”

When Kevin formed Inner City in 1987, he brought that inclusive nature of the disco scene to the techno sound he’d found in Detroit. 

At the time, music by Black artists was regarded with hostility in America – something Kevin and Inner City found ‘no matter how big we became, it was always a struggle back home.’ It was when the band’s first hit single, Big Fun, recorded with vocalist Paris Grey, was included on British DJ, Neil Rushton’s compilation album, Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit (1988) that Inner City found success. And though Inner City’s second hit single, Good Life, is now recognised as a definitive anthem of the era, Kevin notes that no amount of global success changed their prospects back home. Artists who’d found success in the UK and beyond were met with doors slammed in their face back in the States; ‘they’d hear that agents are full up, “our rosters are full.”’ 

It never put Kevin off. Since those early days, he’s produced under many different names, from E-dancer to KS Experience, and in 2019, he brought Inner City back from retirement with the help of his son, Dantiez, and the singer Steffanie Christi’an. Back in August, the band released their first album as a new formation (and Inner City’s first in almost 30 years). We All Move Together is a celebration of dance music, from its formation in Kevin’s early career, to the present day. After being shown a clip of the actor and DJ, Idris Elba playing Big Fun by his friend Dennis White (Inner City’s original tour manager), the idea was floated to bring him into the mix for the album. ‘When I saw that, it sparked something to contact Idris.’ The result was the album’s opening track of the same name, in which Idris provides a spoken word history of the dance music industry. The album plays like a crossover between old and new, sidestepping the otherwise white-washed EDM scene. 

Working with Dantiez and Steffanie has given Kevin the chance to shape Inner City for a new audience, whilst being able to also keep its legacy going. When it comes to Steffanie’s vocals, it’s been great to create new songs that are shaped around her voice; ‘at the beginning, it was just previous stuff and that’s always difficult for anybody trying to sing someone else’s song.’ Kevin’s also open to using technology differently to the first-time round.

“Technology back then was more hands on, more hardware-based – you had to touch something. Software imitates what was done in the past, it’s recreating what I created.”

It was because of the technology that he got into producing in the first place, using sequencers like the Squarp, and drum machines like the 909, 808, 727. 

Kevin ‘appreciates both ways’ now – sure you ‘had to put the work in with the old ways,’ but newer software, like Logic and Ableton are shaping the future. It’s clear that Dantiez’s influence has rubbed off on his dad; it’s something Kevin has been sure to emphasise since Inner City reformed. And it makes sense because, at the heart of his music and the philosophy that underpins it, is a desire to push forwards. It was the futuristic sound of the German band, Kraftwerk, that had a huge influence on Detroit techno. How did a band from Dusseldorf end up on the radar of a teenager living in the suburbs of Detroit? Via the radio station of the Electrifying Mojo, who had a profound effect on Kevin, Derrick and Juan.

“Kraftwerk used technology to make music and it was so future sounding”

—Kevin explains. It provided the tools to create a definitive sound of the era, one that was able to reach a global audience without interference from the music industry guard. Risen from the ashes of a city decimated by the decline of the car industry that revolutionised the twentieth century, came a genre of music that would change the world once again. And, as Kevin points out, the legacy remains; ‘Detroit is Detroit – DJ’s always want to come to Detroit to play.’ 

Photograph · Scott Sprague
Thank you to the Prizm Network

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