Educating through the eras - a masterclass from a founding father of techno
Imagine sharing a creative vision that lays the foundations for Detroit techno. Imagine still spreading that message almost 30 years down the line. Imagine being dance music pioneer Kevin Saunderson…
With the word legendary rendered redundant due to wilful misuse by those in the hyperbole business (you know the sort – those in PR and marketing, OK, and some journalists too), how best to adequately describe Kevin Saunderson and his 25 years and counting in the dance music business? An icon? Well, certainly, but let’s settle for dance music pioneer as it captures Saunderson’s understated persona and his place in the dance music pantheon as one of the scene’s great innovators and visionaries. Think we’re kidding? Just remember his era-defining records made as Inner City, E-Dancer, Kreem, The Reese Project, among many other aliases.
After all, it was his vision – along with his great friends Juan Atkins and Derrick May back in the Detroit suburb of Belleville in the early ’80s – that helped lay the foundations for what we know as Detroit techno, house and all their glorious multi-faceted spin-offs. And today, nearly 30 years on from those first adventures in the DJ booth and on vinyl, the trio – snappily titled the Belleville Three – are still close friends. In fact, although much was made of techno’s original futuristic vision – it’s links to the technological advances prophesised in Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave book and sci-fi films like Blade Runner – when the three of them do get together these days, they like to kick back and reflect upon the old days and how far they’ve come.
“Oh, yeah,” Kevin laughs infectiously. “We definitely talk about the old days and who could have imagined that our vision – some of it intentionally, some of it unintentionally – would change music, the world of DJing and how it’s seen. It’s developed in a way that was obviously unimaginable to us back then. So, you know, it’s great to see. It’s an accomplishment. But it happened, and it’s happening.”
When he says it’s happening, he is, of course, referring to the relatively recent EDM explosion in his native America. For years it was blithely assumed white America would never ‘get’ dance music. Yes, there was a mild flirtation in the ’90s when the likes of The Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Orbital, et al, sold their version of dance music back to America, and other intermittent crushes since then, but there hasn’t been a full-on love affair before. And while others have been snooty about what is happening in America (the diluted nature of what is being packaged as dance music, etc), Saunderson – always a glass half-full kind of guy – is reaching for the positives. “There’s a real culture developing around electronic music,” he enthuses.
“When I first started playing it was so not happening. People were so naïve. When we were creating this music and developing this sound, at home it was all urban people. It was all black and I had a vision.
“There was no foresight so it took all these years educating and the scene evolving plus the internet and social media, and now, 27 years later, it’s gotten to the point where the young kids in America have jumped onto the music whether its dubstep, techno, progressive… they’re into it.”
So why didn’t it catch on in white America before? It did everywhere else. In Europe, when Inner City were reaching the giddy heights of the Top 10 Saunderson was fêted as a pop star. Techno acolytes worshipped his E-Dancer project (handily collated in the Heavenly album on Carl Craig’s Planet E imprint) and his mesmeric Reese bassline was one of the cornerstones of drum ‘n’ bass. But back home it was just like 30-odd years previously where the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other blues Gods were nobodies. “Traditional radio and TV channels like MTV controlled music,” explains Kevin, “and people didn’t know anything else. The internet kicked it all in. With social media, facebook, the internet… people started doing their research. You’ve got internet radio shows, SoundCloud… you can’t hide it from people any more. Yes, the scene here in America is a little more commercial, but in general people are more exposed to the music.”
So what does he think about EDM? Are the right people being recognised in America? “Not completely, if I’m being truthful, but I think there are some opportunities where that recognition is being shared. The average person coming into the scene might think of David Guetta or Avicii or guys like that because they have a lot more exposure in the mainstream, but, you know, I’ve played more in America since this wave started and so there’s an educational aspect to that. I did a tour [in 2012] with Richie Hawtin called CNTRL that educated people, and I think you’ll see more stuff like that. You might even see a tour with the Belleville Three going out and performing and educating.”
That noise you can currently hear is the sound of techno disciples the world over self-combusting in pleasure at the thought of the music’s holy trinity performing together. And while it won’t happen immediately, it looks very, very likely. “We’ve talked about it,” Saunderson says excitedly. “We’ve planned it, but it hasn’t got quite to the stage that we want it, but, yeah, I think it is something because as far as we’re concerned we are the beginning of this scene. And we’re still doing it. We haven’t lost the beat.”
As Saunderson himself recognises kids today don’t look at a DJ in terms of age, only in how good they are. “I play for my kids’ generation,” he laughs. “My oldest is 24, I’ve got one that’s 21 and one that’s 15 and they all listen to that music. I’m playing to new generations so there’s an opportunity to educate there.”
And that’s what Saunderson will be doing at Blue Marlin on December 27. “It’s generally people from all over the world who have made Dubai their home,” he says. “They recognise club culture from Europe, Australia, America or wherever, so when they come out they certainly appreciate the music because it’s a long way to get back to where they’re from.”
Recently, Kevin’s also been playing back-to-back with his son Dantiez, a budding DJ and producer in his own right. It appears the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in the Saunderson household. “We’re working on a few tracks together,” reveals Kevin. “He’s an upcoming DJ and becoming very good. It’s great to go on the road with my son and we play together. He’s picking up on what I started – he’s got his own vision – but we can connect. And it’s good for our relationship as father and son too. It’s unique: it’s work, but it’s fun and I can mentor him at the same time.”
So with the future generations of the Saunderson family tree firmly ensconced in the techno fraternity, the flip side of the coin should see the Belleville Three working on getting the acknowledgement they’re so obviously due. “What I’d like to see is more of an imprint of our legacy,” says Kevin. “The Belleville Three touring the world and also branded on stages. Having the Belleville Three area or stage. It would help educate people as to what this is about.” What about a Belleville Three album? Hype enquires hopefully. “We will,” he says matter-of-factly. “That will be part of the project. Definitely. I don’t know how much we can get Derrick on board, but me and Juan have already talked about it and getting Derrick in after we get about half way in. Derrick is a little more complicated when it comes to making music.” And when can we expect this frenzied bout of Belleville Three activity? “Definitely in the next two years.”
Blue Marlin UAE, Ghantoot Al Jazira Island Hotel, December 27, 1pm to 11pm. Tel: (056) 113 3400. bluemarlinibiza-uae.com