Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May were high school pals with Juan Atkins in Belleville, just outside of Detroit. It was Juan who started making other-worldly proto-techno music first in the early ‘80s, mainly under the names Cybotron and, later, Model 500. He taught Derrick May to mix, and the two of them would put on Deep Space parties and produce mixes for the radio show of influential spinner The Electrifying Mojo on WGPR.
“After we graduated from high school, Juan went to some college, Derrick went off to Chicago, I went to play football in Eastern Michigan University — but we kept in contact with each other,” Kevin Saunderson tells DJ Mag. “Especially me and Derrick — we were close. Derrick kept me in contact with what was going on — ‘Juan has this record coming out, Juan has this’ — and then Derrick moved back to Detroit from Chicago and he told me about his house experience.”
Kevin tells DJ Mag how he got into making music himself by watching Derrick make his first track under the tutelage of Juan, but that he was more interested in becoming a DJ at first. “Derrick and Juan played a party before we all went off to college, it was called Deep Space — it was this organisation that Juan had, a theme, they put it together,” he says. “Derrick would warm up for Juan, and then Juan would come on — and he was The Man. He played this party at my house, it was for all of my high school peers before we all went off to college. I thought DJing was real cool. That was an inspiration.”
Originally from New York, Kevin would often go back for the summer, and in 1982 he got to go to the legendary Paradise Garage. “I heard Larry Levan playing on a serious system — not in a house — and there was an atmosphere that I could never even have imagined,” he recalls. “You walked out the club, and it was daylight — it was 12, midday. That was a very inspiring situation for me.”
His American football career at Eastern Michigan University took a downturn when his coach was fired and the new coach didn’t even want to know his name. Derrick May had alerted him to some fellow students at the university who were playing fraternity parties on campus. “They were playing real progressive, ahead-of-its-time music — for the time,” Saunderson says.
These new friends let Kevin DJ, and by the mid-‘80s he was playing out regularly and releasing his own productions on Juan’s label, Metroplex. After a few technoid releases, he started to look at setting up his own label, KMS, and he made a track called ‘Big Fun’ that was closer to house music in tempo and feel. “I like melodies, I like vocals, I was from New York, so I was used to all these tracks about 120bpm, very groovy,” Kevin says. “I was influenced by Detroit too, so I had both sides — and I enjoyed both sides. It just depended on what kind of a mood I was in.”
British DJ Neil Rushton came over to Detroit looking to sign tracks for the compilation he was putting together — ‘The New Sound of Detroit’ album. Kevin offered up ‘Big Fun’, a single he had already been promoing himself, and with the help of this Virgin compilation it became a smash in Europe and the US.
Kevin had produced ‘Big Fun’ with James Pennington, and featured vocals from Paris Grey. “Inner City started with me and James Pemberton, but I was waiting for him to come — ‘James, I’m ready to start the next record!’ — and he never showed up,” says Kevin. “I decided to keep it moving.”
Working on a new Inner City track, Kevin played the main hooky keyboard riff himself, added some drums and a little string part before fleshing it out with the help of a keyboard-playing buddy. Using rudimentary equipment — a Casio CZ-5000 synth, a Roland TR-909 drum machine and not much more — they laid down the main instrumental part in Kevin’s apartment in a few hours. Then Kevin called upon vocalist Paris Grey again. “The vocals were 100% Paris on ‘Good Life’, I just gave her some direction,” Kev explains. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t want it to sound like ‘Big Fun’ but I want it to be in the same family, I want to follow up with a feel that’s similar’.”
Renting a professional studio for 24 hours to finish it off, he was instantly happy with the results. “When I finished it I thought, ‘Wow, this sounds like a follow-up, this sounds just how I imagined, I think it’s better than ‘Big Fun’, it has a different type of energy. It’s like the elevation of ‘Big Fun’,” he says.
The timing was good, as Virgin had asked for a follow-up after the comparative success of ‘Big Fun’ — it had cracked the Top 10 in the UK. “Good Life’ got love right away,” the Inner City man recalls. “The original version that I created was almost like a radio version — just a song and the music, and it was short, so now we needed an extension of that.”
He got remixes from Juan, Derrick and Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, and the package smashed into the UK charts at No.4 in late 1988. The track was huge at raves and acid house clubs, its accessible universal qualities defying categorisation. “I was very aware that we were thrown into that whole pool of music that was coming out,” says Kevin. “I went to the acid house parties when I was in England to check them out, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is a movement’.”
Saunderson had named his outfit Inner City after putting out a wiggly techno record ‘Groovin’ Without A Doubt’ by Inter City a year previously. “That was a mistake, it was supposed to be Inner City,” he reveals. “It related to growing up in the inner city. I just wanted to let people know that it was an urban style of music, even though it wasn’t what the normal urban or black crowd would hear.”
At the fraternity parties, Saunderson had generally played to black crowds as they were kind of segregated that way, but he always dreamed that he’d play the white parties too. After the success of Inner City, he started playing to all sorts of mixed crowds across Europe and as one of the Belleville Three he would be hailed by European crowds for many years to come as a legendary techno DJ and pioneer.
For obvious reasons, Derrick May was dubbed 'The Innovator', Juan was 'The Originator', while Kevin — by way of Inner City's 'Good Life' — was 'The Elevator'. “Inner City helped elevate the scene — not necessarily techno, but the whole electronic scene,” Kevin believes. “It wasn’t techno really, I was making music that fitted into the scene, that worked, that was more house than anything — it crossed over. But as the years started going by, we know about the impact of it all now.
“‘Good Life’ is a song that’s going to touch people forever, it’s gonna inspire people, change their mood when they need it, it’s definitely going to make them dance — whether the original or a remix,” he continues. “It’s that kind of song. It wasn’t the intent to make a record to be a hit, it was the intent to make a record that could be played in the clubs that had a melody, which reminded me of when I used to go to hear Larry Levan play Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King or Chaka Khan. There were some great dance records — disco records — and it was my interpretation at the time.”
Citing the Carl Craig remix as his fave 'Good Life' revamp, Saunderson was to become equally revered for his work in underground techno over the past 25 years under various aliases such as E-Dancer, Kreem, Reese Project and The Elevator, and for the Reese bassline that was pinched from his 1988 'Just Want Another Chance' track by assorted drum & bass producers and warped to buggery in the subsequent decade.
“Yeah, I had this other side, this dark, deep Reese side that drum & bass DJs were influenced by,” he confirms. “It was totally underground, dark and different, I had many other aliases that fitted into the techno world as well as the house world.”