Kevin Saunderson and his childhood friends Derrick May and Juan Atkins — better known as the Belleville Three — took dance music into the future in the ’80s, using technology to create, define and popularize techno around the world. Little did they realize that their sonic experiments would launch one of the greatest and longest lasting youth movements the world has ever seen. To say that today’s beatmakers owe a debt of gratitude is perhaps too great of an understatement.
Where Atkins and May hovered close to the underground, Saunderson’s scope went wider thanks to crafting crossover classics like Inner City’s “Big Love” and “Good Life” in addition to producing tracks created under a slew of monikers (E-Dancer, Reese Project, The Elevator, etc.). Having weathered countless musical fads and trends, Saunderson, like his Detroit peers, has stayed true to his sound, never compromising and always thinking about how to push his sounds forward.
This year Saunderson’s KMS Records is turning 25, and The Elevator taking a rare victory lap with The Creators of Techno: KMS 25 – Tribute to Detroit, a massive party going taking place on Ma7 27 at St. Andrews Hall in Detroit featuring Saunderson, Kenny Larkin, Stacey Pullen, Blake Baxter, Terrence Parker, M.K., Kyle Hall, D-Wynn, Allan Ester, Buzz Goree, DJ Minx, Mike Huckaby & Mike Clark. Plus exclusive live performances from Kevin Saunderson’s own Inner City and Carl Craig presents 69 Live.
And if you can’t make the party, well, don’t worry. KMS will release a digital and physical box set next month featuring some of the label’s greatest moments.
We caught up with Saunderson in France on his way to Italy to find out about the early days of KMS and how his Detroit blowout came about.
Let’s get right to it and talk about the big KMS 25th anniversary party coming up in Detroit. Does it really feel like 25 years to you?
Kevin Saunderson. [Pauses] Man, it went so quick. I wish I could start it all over again! [breaks up laughing] People say that time goes quick, but I don’t think you really get it until you go through that period of time.
Looking back on 25 years, which releases stand out for you? What were some of the best moments for you?
Releasing my first record, “Triangle of Love,” on my own label and telling my brother about what I was doing. You know I’m making music now. He’s like, sure you are! So I go back to visit my family in New York where I am originally from and I’m hanging out at their place. Tony Humphries, who was mixing at the time on the radio, is on and “Triangle of Love” comes on in the mix. We were all excited, jumping up and down. That’s my record! That’s my record! That was so inspirational. It’s one thing to make a record but it’s a different level of excitement to hear it played on the radio. Especially at that tie when it was the beginning for me. I had this vision I was going to send my record to every popular DJ and get them to play it. I used to hear Tony at [Club] Zanzibar so that was a pivotal moment.
“Chez Damier, Mark Kinchen, Stacy Pullen, Carl Craig….they all started out releasing records on KMS.”
In 1988 when I did my deal with Virgin for “Big Fun.” You know I had this record on my label and it was selling like hot cakes. I couldn’t keep up with demand. It got so bad I went to the pressing plant….they were pressing my records and selling them to distributors. I had no way of knowing. So I learned an early lesson in the beginning. I wanted to build my label, but I couldn’t check the pressing plant everyday. When I signed I got more exposure, and I was able to travel back to England with my techno/house sound. I soon saw Paul Oakenfold on a Monday night at Spectrum in London and he played “Big Love.” I had never seen such a reaction to a record. It was the biggest day of my life and even at the Paradise Garage I hasn’t seen something like that. That record just touched people; it was a heavenly experience and it was magical. I was so touched by that experience and it give me a lot of confidence and belief in what I was going. I was no longer the kid who played football who wanted to make records.
Have there been any moments when you wanted to give up on running a label and pack it in?
Yeah, I’ve started and stopped and started and stopped [KMS] a few times. It’s hard running a label when you’re traveling the world and learning the business at the same time. When we started we were all naïve. Nobody told us how the music business worked. We learned from our mistakes, asked questions and made moves that we learned from. For instance, we did a Virgin compilation. They paid me and I paid an artist like Blake Baxter who was on my label some money. I didn’t know anything about royalties…we had some problems businesswise but we cleaned it up and learned about how the numbers worked. It was frustrating because some artists thought they were owed money when they weren’t. I had an artist’s wife show up at my house asking when I was going to release her husband’s album. Moments like that aren’t so great.
What about all the great names that came out of KMS?
Chez Damier, Mark Kinchen, Stacy Pullen, Carl Craig….they all started out releasing records on KMS.
How does that make you feel that you helped start their careers?
I’m proud. I still have good relationships with all of them, and we help each other out when we can. I feel great about that….I was in a position and I helped inspire and gave opportunities with my label and studio. It was all about the music back then — a true niche of artists who came together to be creative. Sometimes I left my studio open too much! But out of it came a lot of classics.
How did the idea for an anniversary party during DEMF come about?
I thought it would be nice to do a tour but then I thought it would be too hard and expensive. I thought the way to be most effective would to be to do it at home during the festival weekend. It wasn’t as hard as I thought but the only problem is massaging egos because everyone wants to play in prime time! Everyone has been very cooperative and we’re all excited. It should be a great event.
The party is at St. Andrew’s Hall.
Right. I wanted to do the party at someplace that was safe, close to the festival and wouldn’t have any problems with the law. I’ve done events there before so I know the building.
Tell me about the 25th anniversary box set dropping in June.
It’s going to be four or maybe five discs. We’re trying to decide if we should add one more. There’s some stuff I want to put on and take off. There’s also going to be a six-album vinyl sampler….and there will be stuff online. We’re pulling it together through master tapes, some of which had to be remastered.
We’ve talked a lot about the past, so I have to ask you the obvious question: what’s next?
My summer is pretty much full between doing Inner City shows and my DJing. I’m doing Bestival and lots of great festivals. It’s busy. I’m trying to get the next Inner City album done and work on E-Dancer. It’s all systems go.
Kevin Sauderson’s Big Shot Guest Mix from 2011 can be downloaded here.