Platinum-selling recording artist, label boss, festival promoter, true innovator in the pantheon of popular music, cultural champion, cracking DJ: there’s a lot to be said about Kevin Saunderson.
His influence runs deep, through both adopted hometown of Detroit, and music culture as a whole: as one of the Belleville Three, the high school trio which also includes Juan Atkins and Derrick May, he irreparably changed the face of electronic music; with Inner City, he gave it some of its most memorable tunes.
The genesis of today’s enormous techno scene can be retraced straight to Kevin, Derrick and Juan, as their formative experiments on rudimentary hardware sketched a blueprint for a genre that was yet to exist. By absorbing Kraftwerk, cutting-edge funk, local radio stalwart The Electrifying Mojo’s electicism, and all manner of new synthesiser and drum machine-led pop music, the Belleville Three broke new ground as musicians and DJs in the 80s.
Saunderson’s comparatively late start as a producer – kicking off in ’87 under the moniker of Kreem, with E-Dancer and Reese two of the more well-known names to follow – inadvertently gifted him a headstart. With the eruption of house music a few hours down the I-94 in Chicago, Saunderson married Detroit’s raw sound to more tactile, pop-leaning sensibilities. Inner City was born, and global success followed.
Between “Big Fun”, “Good Life”, debut album Paradise and a number of follow-up singles, Inner City (Saunderson and vocalist Paris Grey) amassed 12 UK top 40 hits and over six million records sold worldwide during their peak. A dancefloor-dominating remix by Luciano in 2008, and a globetrotting reunion tour in 2012, underscores the longevity of Inner City’s classic sound.
His nickname of ‘The Elevator’ is apt: for his role in transporting Detroit’s new sound to a wider audience; as anyone who has seen him perform live can attest, his high-energy, high-spirit and high-impact DJ sets; and for spending the past 35 years of his life progressing the culture he helped create.
Operating in tandem to his golden run as a producer in the late 80s and early 90s, Saunderson’s own KMS record label – a remarkable 30 years strong in 2017 – has chronicled the early footsteps of R-Tyme, Blake Baxter, MK, Chez Damier, Derrick Carter, Bicep and even Saunderson’s son and regular DJ partner Dantiez more recently.
A special 12” series in 2008 called History Elevate, released in tandem with fellow polymath Carl Craig’s Planet E label, brought contemporary names like Mathew Jonson, Simian Mobile Disco and Loco Dice into the fold, proving his nous for fostering relationships with each new wave to come through techno’s gates. 25th anniversary compilations and numerous reissues have followed suit.
Saunderson has a behind-the-scenes role to play, too: he is intertwined with the history of Detroit’s flagship Movement (formerly Detroit Electronic Music Festival / Fuse-In). Having produced the event in the mid-2000s, the last handful of years have seen repeated invites from Movement to display his ORIGINS showcase at the festival, bringing acts like Delano Smith, Phuture and DJ Minx under his curatorial umbrella.