Widely recognized as one of the originators of techno and a giant in the evolution of electronic-music culture, Kevin Saunderson (along with childhood friends Derrick May and Juan Atkins) began creating and performing his own unique style of kinetic, heavily percussive, sample-based dance music in Detroit nightclubs during the mid-1980s.
The sound quickly spread beyond that city, becoming popular in New York, Chicago, and especially Britain, where Saunderson's vocally, house-inspired tracks under the guise Inner City became mainstream radio hits -- though he has always and continues to produce underground techno under numerous other aliases, including E-Dancer, Tronik House and the Reese Project.
Prior to his performance this Saturday night as part of the second annual Great American Techno Festival, we caught up with the living legend to talk about electronic music's past, present and future.
Westword: In what ways would you say electronic music has changed since the beginning?
Kevin Saunderson: It's changed because technology has changed, and we went from the analog world, creating with traditional sequencers and many different channels, if you could port 'em. And now it's software-based and computer-based; it's not even a necessity to own any hardware.
So we went from the analog world to the digital world, technology-wise. Music-wise, it's just evolved into different branches, like a tree. Different parts and sections of the music have their own kind of directions now. Back then, it was pretty much techno, house, that's what it was. Now it's probably divided up into fifteen or twenty different pieces.
I've read that you grew up listening to Motown, soul and Parliament-Funkadelic, and later to Kraftwerk and Gary Numan. To what extent were you influenced by house and garage?
My influences came because of Juan Atkins and Derrick [May], who introduced me, partially, to the electronic world. I used to go to Paradise Garage, too, in its early days, so I was into a lot of disco, really. When I started to create music -- I think it was 1986 -- I had a different impression of music.
For me to develop, to make something, I think it just was inspiration. So, house music was really kind of parallel -- because Chicago was so close to Detroit, me and Derrick used to go there almost every two weeks on the weekend, and listen to the mix shows, to see if they were playin' our records, take our records to the DJs, and kind of network with 'em, just [make] a connection. And going to the clubs to hear people like Ron Hardy at the Muzic Box. Frankie Knuckles.
What were some of your other influences?
The Electrifying Mojo, a DJ in Detroit that played all kinds of music. Played marathons of albums, different artists, broke new artists, played stuff like Prince, B-52s, Parliament-Funkadelic, all that kind of stuff. That was quite influential, too, because you got so used to hearing one record, a hit by somebody and not hearing their whole album. So it was great for that, for educating me about music like Kraftwerk and stuff like that that I'd never really heard of.
Did you see electronic-music becoming as pervasive as it is in 2012?
No, I mean, not back then. But after it got going, I thought, "This is here here to stay." I knew that. After about five, six, seven, eight years in, it was like, "It's gonna be around." Technology is going to keep evolving, and the music is here to stay. This is the future. And in America, it seems like even though it's had a few passes, it seems like now even more, everybody wants to listen to some kind of electronic something, whether it's dubstep, or whatever. Hip-hop artists are sounding more electronic, too.
What gear are you currently using for your DJ sets?
I use Traktor. Pretty much, I use Traktor. I like playing with Traktor. I use S4, F1, S1 controllers, Maschine...it really depends on what kind of gig I'm playing for, but pretty much, I'm Traktor-based.
What about in the studio?
Studio: Logic, Ableton. I have Pro-Tools, also. Different variations of software synths that remind me of stuff from the past, and newer stuff, too.
Really, not too much, not really. My studio is based in my house now, so if I'm gonna use some hardware, I rent out a studio where I finish, and decide if I'm going to use a hardware piece. I got rid of all of my hardware, a long time ago [laughs].
Do you still call Detroit home?
Well, I live in Chicago now, but I still call Detroit home. I moved here six months ago.
What do you think of new guys from Detroit like Omar-S and Kyle Hall?
They're young. They're inspirational. They've been influenced by us, and other DJs from back in the day, so they've got a long history of music. They can play traditionally; they can play with CDs; they can play with vinyl...I respect what they're creating musically. It's always good to come up and be inspired and to keep it movin'.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I'm currently working on an E-Dancer record, so I'll have a new E-Dancer record out soon.
What can we expect Saturday night at Casselman's?
Great music. Good energy. I'm gonna keep it real. You're gonna hear some classic stuff, you're gonna hear some loops, you're gonna hear some new stuff. Gonna hear the spirit of the Lord with the music, coming through me.