Kevin Saunderson didn't just invent Detroit techno as part of the legendary Belleville Three with Juan Atkins and Derrick May. He also perfected the techno hit, catapulting the seminal D-Town sound across the Atlantic and onto the dancefloors of Europe, where rave culture was about to explode in the late '80s.
Saunderson's Inner City outfit, featuring vocalist Paris Grey, was the biggest thing in dance music during its heyday. Classic singles like "Big Fun" and "Good Life" would hit the top spot on the U.S. dance chart while also becoming top-ten hits in the UK.
But the most remarkable thing about Saunderson and his fellow pioneers is that there was no precedent for what they were doing at the time. No formula for these massive hits that sparked a dancefloor frenzy around the world. They were inventing the sound as they went along. This is more than evident when you hear Saunderson reminisce about these classic cuts.
1. Kreem's "Triangle of Love"
"My first record -- I think in '86 the actual recording took place. It really started with me having a vision of wanting to do my first song, but also wanting to have vocals involved. We shared a lot of equipment between the Detroit guys -- myself, Derrick [May], Eddie [Fowlkes] -- and we kind of wrote as a team sometimes, supporting each other. Didn't really know what we were doing, but it just worked out that way. I remember starting on the drum track, and Eddie came out with the little snare roll idea, started working on some music -- basic chords and stuff. Art Forrest, who was a trained keyboard player, we had him play some parts on it. Got the vocalist in -- I think she was James Pennington's girlfriend -- and just kind of went for it.
"So once that track was kinda closed, I wonder, 'Wow, how do I finish it?' Didn't know how to make it a final project. Well, Juan Atkins came into the studio and showed me how to mix it, EQ it, balance it, and make it final. He helped me establish that. He did a mix on it, Derrick did a mix on it, I did like a radio seven-inch edit, and that was like the beginning. And then Juan wanted to release the record, on his label Metroplex. First, it came out on Metroplex. But eventually, I ended up putting it back out on KMS, my label, 'cause I felt like I wanted to control my own records. It was KMS from that point on."
2. Inner City's "Big Fun"
"It started with me and James Pennington in the studio, working again. We came up with this riff that was really hooky and catchy, added some other musical parts that were either used or not used in the actual song. And Art Forrest, again, we had him play some extra stuff on top. The music sat around for a long time, it was just there -- I made tracks and moved on to the next track, and didn't necessarily finish every track.
"So a friend of mine, Terry 'House Master' Baldwin, he was in Chicago, and we kept in contact. He was digging the Detroit sound, and he was connecting us with the Chicago DJs and producers -- we had a good rapport. So he mentioned to me he had a singer, her name was Paris Grey, she sung on a couple records, and she would be great for that instrumental that I got.
"I took him up on that offer, talked to Paris, gave her some ideas an direction. She wrote 'Big Fun' to that music. And then I brought her to Detroit, took her to Juan's studio, because I needed more tracks. I only had an 8-track studio. I needed about 15 tracks and Juan had a 16-track studio. So we took it there, had it recorded, had Juan do a mix on it. It came out on a compilation album, on KMS Records, and from there it was born.
"I didn't know if Paris was coming to Europe, because by then we had signed with Virgin Records. So it was coming out on Virgin and had this massive buzz. It's very difficult for me to explain just how huge this record was. And she's back in Chicago working at her department store and was like, 'No, I can't come over there and blah-blah-blah.'
"I got the record label to give us a decent amount of money -- maybe ten or fifteen grand -- and she was on that plane. At the time, I had a replacement, singing for the video 'cause I didn't know what the relationship was gonna be. If you look at the first video, there was this lady in a red dress, at the time, that was gonna be the face, because I wasn't sure if we were gonna form into a group. Well, once Paris came over, did the video, and saw the results, she was in. We decided to be a team."
3. Inner City's "Good Life"
"I had a huge record, so had to do the follow-up. Something that was inspiring. It began with the Inner City riff that became so popular. I was supposed to work on it with James, 'cause James worked on 'Big Fun.' But James never showed up, and I wanted to keep moving. So I got it going. I laid down the main riff and a couple of parts to get it going, added some drums, sent it to Paris, she wrote, and it was magical. 'Good Life' was the perfect follow-up to 'Big Fun.' The rest was history -- a big massive hit again."
4. E-Dancer's "Heavenly"
"'E-Dancer' just happened with me at the studio vibin'. I just wanted to experiment around and try some different stuff that I hadn't tried. Just trying to be deep. But at the same time, melodic and catching something uniquely different. And I think I achieved that."
5. Reese Project's "The Colour of Love"
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"Reese Project was trying to help some of the local talents -- a lot of singers that came to me wanting to sing, wanting me to produce them. I couldn't produce everybody, so I picked a handful out, and we formed the group Reese Project, and everybody was featured on the album, and 'Colour of Love' was just one of the tracks.
"Rachel [Kapp] was kinda the main singer, she had the most powerful impact in her voice. Very uplifting too. Very soulful. She had a different take than Inner City. I created this track, and came up with this intro, that had this very kinda underground feeling, at the same time with these great sampled vocals of hers. And I added my vocals in there, just kinda vibin'. Great record."
Kevin Saunderson. With Cocodrills. Thursday, July 19. Mansion, 1235 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The party starts at 11 p.m. and tickets cost $15 plus fees via wantickets.com. Ages 21 and up. Call 305-531-5535 or visit mansionmiami.com.