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Kevin Saunderson: “Black people don’t even know that techno came from Black artists”

Jaguar talks to Kevin Saunderson and Idris Elba about their Inner City collaboration, the roots of techno and the future of dance music

  • Jaguar
  • 22 October 2020

Last Spring, Inner City relaunched into the world with Detroit techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson at the helm, his son Dantiez Saunderson and vocalist Steffanie Christi’an. They started to tour a live show around the world, and ‘We All Move Together’ finally dropped in July, as the group’s first album release in nearly 30 years. The 12 track LP innovatively balances a nod to dance music’s past and Saunderson’s global influence, while pushing forward a new sound for the next generation of Inner City fans. Although touring wasn’t able to go ahead as planned, the album’s uplifting ethos is a balm of unity for the uncertainty of 2020. Actor, producer, DJ and label boss Idris Elba lent his rich, smokey tones to the album’s title track, with a monologue that sounds like the anthem of this new world.

How did you two meet and start working together?

Kevin: It’s funny, my wife at the time would say: “You and Idris should work together!” She’s a fan of his! I didn’t think much of it, but through time, somehow Idris was playing ‘Big Fun’ at a festival and I [saw] the clip. A buddy of mine (and original Inner City Live Tour Band Director), Dennis White sent me the clip, and I thought, “We should do something together! He’s playing my tune, he’s from the UK, he’s got some soul!” I checked out some of his sets, I knew he’s working on music, and I thought it felt right! So, I contacted my management and was like, “I wanna work with Idris. [Can you] see if he wanna get down and do something with us?” and my team contacts this team and… Idris can take it from there!

Idris: I got that call and I was like, “What?!’” You know what I mean, to have a legend like Kev, call me up and be like: “Yo, I wanna work with you!” I couldn’t work it out! At first I thought maybe it was just, “I heard you playing my tune” and that maybe we’d do a set together, and then when it came down to it he’s like: “I have this idea for a song are you down?” For me, it was definitely a real surprise. Interestingly, man, when we met, when I flew down to Detroit to go work in his studio, it was like old friends. Like, we don’t know each other, but we should have known each other somewhere in the world. I felt super comfortable and we ended up making two records in that one day, it was great!

Idris, how was the recording experience for you, and what does it mean to be part of this project? You all recorded at the studio in Kevin’s house, right?

Idris: First of all, you’ve got pre-conceptions of what you’re walking into. You know, this is a legend! I’m thinking, we’re gonna go to some corporate building somewhere and work in a studio that is comfortable… But I turned up at Kevin’s house. The first thing we did is sit in the living room and just chat! He has this great big piano in his living room and I just felt at home immediately and he’s like: “Okay man let’s go to the studio.” All my life I’ve been working out of very small studios, like bedroom studios, or spare rooms, and we go down to his basement and he’s got a tiny little studio in there. Like fully decked though, like official, as you would expect it. The sound in there was incredible and it was a little hot box and I was like: “Okay, this is how we’re doing it yeah?”

The recording was great, I was just jumping onto the vision. He had really placed out how he had seen me in it. It was still collaborative, but essentially, I was given this incredible poem to read out over this track. When I heard the track, I was like: “You don’t need anything on that, that’s a big tune!” But you know, to then bless it, it was a lot of fun!

Read this next: Kevin Saunderson "It feels like Black artists are being eliminated from dance music"

Kevin: I didn’t know what to expect meeting Idris. But like he said, when he came in through the door, we connected very well. I think we both felt comfortable. Idris just amazes me in the studio. He’s a perfectionist but he was just on point. He was great every time he said the poem. I was really wowed by his performance. Obviously, I knew he was an actor and all that, but as he came down here, you could just see his experience and how he just fit right in, grabbed it and gravitated. We had a great team around us, I brought my keyboard player in, I brought Tommy Onyx and Dennis White in, who worked with me with Inner City throughout the years…

Idris: and Dantiez!

Kevin: Of course, my son, who’s really a backbone of Inner City now. We had a great team of people around and everybody worked hard to make this project happen. [I was] real satisfied with the connection.

2020’s Inner City looks a little bit different. You’re now working with your son Dantiez and vocalist Steffanie Christi’an. What is it like working the studio all together compared to back in the day?

Kevin: It’s completely different [compared] to back then! It was very easy for me as father, and Dantiez as son, to connect and create, because a lot of stuff he had already started reminded me of me. It actually started out like a joke, like: “Hey man, you’ve ripped me off!” when listening to his tunes in the studio. I was like, “He sounds like me!” And I’d seen his work ethic, which was most important to me, that he stayed in that studio like 18 hours a day, and that’s what really grabbed me. I thought, “He ain’t just playing”, he’s engaged in the technology, creating, learning and he’s inspiring me! So when we reformed Inner City, Steffanie was obviously a magical piece! [Our previous singer], Paris Grey was Paris, no one sounds like her, she was unique - but Steffanie added a different character to Inner City, as Paris had retired. Steffanie can perform so well on stage and is so dynamic. So we all connected really well on this album. I was travelling a lot, and would just communicate with Dantiez when I was travelling about what I liked, what maybe he should take out. He would get the track going, and I would finish it, that’s how it usually works. I would mix it and add a few elements after he got it going and I got the vocals or lyrics like I wanted. We’re all about positivity and uplifting in most of our tracks, so I kept that theme still.

Given how this year’s been and the global shift we’ve seen with Black Lives Matter movements, this album and opening track feel like an anthem of solidarity. How do you relate the nature of the album to what’s been happening across the world?

Idris: This world hadn’t really gotten to where it is now when we recorded this song, but, as Kevin says, the Inner City message is one of positivity. I always imagine ‘Good Life’ - when I play that song, and I played it at Coachella - it’s that instant recognition, and a moment that everyone shares. I always felt like Inner City tends to make music imagining how people are going to feel it and Kevin had imagined me on this way before I got on it. The song has real techno-grounded roots in it, but still has that rise and feel. What I imagined when I was speaking these words was, how I want people to have that unity, and I want them to hear it from my voice and soul. When we play that record and look around the world, honestly, you couldn’t ask for a song that encourages unity in a way that we couldn’t have prescribed. It’s not like a happy song, it’s not melodic with a chord structure that you can sing, it’s almost tribal. On the dancefloor, it really gets people feeling that emotion. When you look at it now and you think about Black Lives Matter, the underlying messaging is: no matter what we do, we all have to move together, right? We all have to, no matter how we cut it, whether it’s COVID-19, whether it’s racism… None of this works, unless we move together. For me, there’s an incredible parallel between the words in that song: the sonics, who made that song, and then, the junction of where we are right now. I hope it becomes anthemic in that sense. When we all can stand in a big dancefloor, or a field, and Kevin and I come out and play that song, I want us to all look around, hold hands and put our hands in the air and just celebrate that. That moment is in the future. Right now, we can’t stand together and party like that. When that happens, the song is gonna hold an anthem for DJs and festivals and people.

Read this next: Idris Elba "The musical part of my life is really liberating"

Kevin: I always thought when I was creating this music, that it is always for everyone, and we can move together and it brings people together, on the dancefloor. I know I’ve inspired a lot of people in the world, and they come up to me and they say, “Your song changed my life” and that really touches me when I know that at one point this music had a small hand to people listening to it, and how it’s grown throughout the world. Originally, it was really only in Detroit - there was like a group of 800/900 Black, enthusiastic, futuristic kids that wanted to be a part of this new movement that we started. As it developed, my whole thought was like, “It’s not just for Blacks, it’s for everybody, every race, everywhere in the world”. Now, we’re talking about 35 years later, you see how the impact of this music has affected the whole industry, people’s lives, and careers… And it’s important that we can move together, and it can bring people together. And I’ve seen it already in certain aspects in music over time, but maybe also people take stuff for granted in life. And now because we’re going through this pandemic, I think it’s the right moment, and the right message, and hopefully like Idris says, it can become this anthem and something we can remember and appreciate over time.

It’s no secret that dance music’s Black roots and recognition of Black artists are too often overlooked. The genre has developed over time and now, house and techno line-ups appear very white and lacking evidence of the Black heritage. Also, many Black artists have not been credited for the music they’ve made, and example of this is Chicago House Music pioneers Larry Heard and Robert Owens deciding to sue Trax Records for $1 million for allegedly unpaid royalties after all these years. What will it take for the world to see that dance music is Black music?

Kevin: I want to try to do more locally to bring Black artists back into the music. There was a point where, it was Detroit and Chicago, then obviously it grew through the UK and everywhere in the world caught on, but I’d like to start some kind of school here in Detroit that will help and inspire young artists to be creative, give them knowledge. I think we need more Black people in agencies and it can be more rounded, cos there’s obviously plenty of talent out here. But Black people, at least in America, don’t even know about how the foundation of this music came from Black artists. Obviously, hip hop took over at a certain point, and when our music was taken off overseas, it came back to America, very European and feeling different. It didn’t have the same kind of soul, and that’s okay because that’s how we created it, but it felt different. So we didn’t have that MTV [moment], we didn’t get the same exposure as some of the other artists who came back with this music and I think people just need to be more aware and try to do more. A lot of times in the scene, you get the same artists over and over on a line-up, and that’s what the crowd today sees, and that’s not necessarily the most talented act out there. Especially in America, the opportunities are not as fair. So I think by helping new artists, you need to be able to help and develop the future of young artists, like my son, and somewhere in between. My whole theme is the past ,the present and the future - we need to represent that. There’s a film being made called ‘God Said Give 'Em Drum Machines: The Story of Detroit Techno’, that they’ve been working on for a few years, it explains a lot of history about the Detroit side. But we do need to educate, we need more Black agents, we need more Black artists into the scene as they don’t have a way in as much. I can help a few people but it takes more than Kevin Saunderson to do this!

Idris: My dad says that “history maketh man”. If it wasn’t for Kevin, if it wasn't for the pioneers in Detroit and Chicago, who really moulded this sound, none of this would exist. We know that everything is circular. There’s a lot to be said around technology in music. Kevin made drum machines - which is a special piece of equipment that generated a sound that you can only get in that drum machine. Fast forward to the technology and engineers coming out of Germany and Amsterdam and Europe, there’s a slightly different model that is way more accessible, you see a lot of expansion. And then the technology moves on; now you can make the same song on an iPad or an iPhone. And with that you have to say respect - there’s an expansion of that innovation, but you can’t really deny where its roots come from.

So for me, even just having an opportunity for someone like me, who’s a Black actor, pays homage to the legacy of Inner City in my sets, that’s me paying it back towards history. I think that is how we build that cycle back so people understand where this music comes from. I loved watching Kanye chop up that Mr Fingers sample and people going, “Oh I didn’t know this was an old Chicago song” and breaking it down. It is that circular nod to the past that’s gonna keep the origins of dance music alive, that’s a key component. In my music, I’m always imagining what this might play like back in the day. Essentially, that was majority Black people. When I play places like New York, you go into those clubs, especially Brooklyn, there’s Black people and it’s a mix. The groove is just funkier and the vibe is funkier. I play Ibiza it’s a slightly different vibe, different soundscape, but for me, I fuse all those worlds together, so it doesn’t matter who’s in the room, they’re gonna get some of that funk that I love, that I grew up on. We won’t be able to ignore history, you can’t.

On my label 7Wallace, we have N: Fostell and Bluey - these are young, Black producers who are younger than me, and are influenced by the old. We have to keep that engine going. As far the line-ups are concerned, I really don’t know. I think there’s lots that needs to be done. I think promoters and festivals around the road need to remind themselves of where this music started and how we can pay it back to that.

You both had big plans for touring this year - with Inner City’s live shows and Idris’s Hï Ibiza residency. Live music is in a very difficult position, clubs are closing, people are losing jobs… How do you think we build our scene back up again?

Idris: People are fearful of their health. It’s gonna take some innovation around how we get people to feel confident in spaces like that, where we can party together and celebrate this music and culture. During this time, the live streams and seeing the use of technology as a way to get people into this space is an incredible movement. It shows that the music won’t die, it’ll just innovate. But the industry will need some sort of injection, in terms of ensuring people’s safety, ensuring people go without the risk of getting sick, quite frankly - that’s gonna take confidence. And the other thing, without sounding too cliche, the music just has to be good and the music has to keep coming. It’s the oil that runs the engine. If there’s no big tracks, then there’s no thirst for people to get out there and celebrate these big tracks together. And that’s something that I know is going to be a struggle for musicians that make their bread and butter from selling a song or getting a gig somewhere, and they can’t do that. So that’s my fear - the innovation stops musically and people get less creative. I think that eventually people will come out to clubs, and festivals and we’ll see a lot more outdoor festivals, and landowners need to figure out a way to help this industry survive and we can keep moving. It’s an interesting time, I’m hopeful and try to stay positive and I think that the whole industry will support each other and get back to some version of normality.

Read this next: Kevin Sanderson in The Lab

Kevin: I agree. The streaming has been a lot more popular now. It’s not the same vibe, but it’s still a way of expressing yourself and putting music out there and passing time until it becomes safer or people feel confident that they can go out and enjoy themselves in a safe environment. I think we just need time, we need to keep the faith and it will bounce back, it’s just gonna take time, it’s not just gonna happen overnight. We’ve still got a little way to go and we’ve got to do our part by being smart and not going out. Sometimes when you’re hungry and you need to eat, it can make you create in a different way too! Some of that passion and emotion comes out when you have all this time in your hands. There’s a lot of great music that can be made and will be made, I believe! I think about when I first started making music, I didn’t have a dime in my pocket, and I definitely made some of the best music and some of the best magic came out in moments during those times. So that’s gonna happen again for many artists. We’re already working on another Inner City album just because we have time on our hands, we love making music, and we feel the need.

You two have another collaboration in the works, right?

Idris: We’re super excited about that! It’s a song that I wrote and I was nurturing it for a while, it’s quite a soulful tune and a bit different to my tech-house vibe. I remember travelling to see Kevin and thinking: “Man, I hope he digs this vibe here”, I mean, you’re gonna go to the godfather of soulful house and play him something and I was half expecting him to be like “Nah”. But I sent it to him and he was like: “Yeah man, you’ve got something! Let’s see when you get in and we’ll just take it from there”. That’s a terrible impression, but you know!

Kevin: [Laughs] It was a great tune! My ears took to it right away Idris, when you played it to me. He had a lot of the elements already there, then Dantiez beefed up the drums a little, I had my keyboard players add a chord, Idris added a different bass and before we knew it we brought Steffanie in to sing it, we wrote a little pre-chorus going into the hook… It all came together real well and it had such a soulful vibe and it was just touching. I’m excited for that tune as well!

Idris: Defected heard it in one of my sets, during streaming. It was originally gonna come out on my label 7Wallace but Defected, they have a real knack for this type of record and they’re going to do a real interesting job on how to make this record a classic. When Kevin touched it, it just went through the roof! The way it was mixed, and how each instrument had its own space, the compression, the way they gated it, and then the bass! And then of course, the way the vocals sit on it now, it has a real classic vibe to it. Kevin, I didn’t get a chance to thank you properly, but thank you for doing that with me man! You don’t understand how much kudos you gave me man, having a tune with you like that bro, seriously!

Kevin: Pleasure, man.

Kevin, what’s the future of Inner City looking like?

Kevin: We’re gonna keep on working, with Stephanie as our main singer and with ZebrA OctobrA as well (who’s also featured on the album), they’re local here, so we can stem stems, work with each other and write. And we’re just gonna keep creating. Our next album is heading towards very experimental on one part and the other’s very soulful, so we already have a path where we’re headed. So when things come back together, we’ll be out there touring both albums, and with some of the classics, that’s the plan!

‘We All Move Together’ is out now on Armada

Jaguar is a DJ, broadcaster and journalist and a regular contributor to Mixmag. Follow her on Twitter

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