Tafari K. Stevenson-Howard
Some songs just don’t date. Their ethereal magic represents a perfect moment in time between musicians that captures a zeitgeist, yet also appeals to younger generations for decades to come. Kevin Saunderson managed to achieve this with Inner City hits such as ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Good Life’, but a back catalogue of timeless classics isn’t enough for this original pioneer.
Along with his school friends Juan Atkins and Derrick May, Kevin was one of the founding fathers of techno, which burst out of Detroit in the late Eighties and grew into the multitude of offshoot genres that can be heard everywhere today from daytime radio to underground clubs.
The thirst for innovation that propelled his creativity back then is still just as strong. It inspires him to keep finding new paths of expression, such as his dark techno E-Dancer project. Thirty years after the release of the debut Inner City album, Paradise, Kevin is revamping the project for the 21st century. And it’s a family affair, with Kevin’s 26-year-old son Dantiez on board as co-producer and band leader.
Together they re-edited a selection of previously released remixes of Inner City tracks, by Carl Craig, House of Virus, Kenny Larkin and Samuel L Session, for the Inner City 30 EP, which came out on Kevin’s label, KMS, on March 8, 2019. In April they kicked off ‘The Good Life’ European tour in Amsterdam, which is the first Inner City tour outside of America for 20 years.
Kevin has three sons by his first wife, Ann Saunderson, a British-born singer-songwriter who has had a successful career in dance music in her own right. She has collaborated with a range of artists including Octave One, Slam and Supernova, as well as lending her vocal talents to Inner City. Despite this heritage, the boys had no interest in music growing up and the eldest, 29-year-old DaMarii, became a professional baseball player. The youngest is still in his teens but something shifted for DaMarii and Dantiez when they hit their twenties, Kevin recalls: “Going into music was never on the radar for the kids. They went to my gigs but the only music I heard them listening to growing up was hip hop. So it came as a surprise how they flowed into it, it definitely caught me off-guard.
“A lot of people say they want to DJ but you know time will tell, because you can’t fake this, you’ve got to love it and you’ve got to put into it to get back. I saw these things happening with the boys and when I realised they were serious I gave them more support. I wasn’t going to waste my time if I didn’t see that commitment. A lot of times in the beginning they’d ask me a question and I’d say, ‘Go look at YouTube first!’ I wanted them to get some kind of knowledge base without just asking me.” He adds with a smile: “But now I’m asking them for tips!”
Dantiez began DJing in 2012 and released his first EP, Undergo, on First Steps a year later, before joining KMS as head of A&R. When DaMarii suffered a shoulder injury that ended his sporting career, getting deeper into music helped to heal his disappointment. He and Dantiez released their first EP as The Saunderson Brothers in 2015 and regularly perform together since. Their next EP, Into the Dark, will be released this summer and they have gigs coming up in Detroit, including a back2back2back set with their father at the annual Movement festival.
When I started Inner City it was all about bringing people together, it was uplifting.
Dantiez says his foray into Inner City life came about by fluke. “It’s a funny story, I was actually in the studio just doing my thing, writing something one day, it was completely random and my Pops came in and heard what I was writing and was like, ‘Hey this sounds like Inner City man, you ripped me off!’” he chuckles. “I wasn’t really trying to do that, that’s just how it came out. So from there we decided we were going to revamp the project and add me to the Inner City line-up and I figured, why not you know, sounds like a cool idea to me.” As for DaMarii, Dantiez can’t see him joining Inner City any time soon as his sound “is more geared towards techno, a soundtrack kind of sound”.
After Dantiez and Kevin started jamming together, Kevin says it felt right to give the project a new lease of life since the band’s original co-writer and singer, Paris Grey, no longer performs. “Paris has retired and it was a group that I started so why kill it and create a new group? Inner City has a legendary legacy but now we’re moving into the future and also thinking about the next 15, 20 years down the line. My goal is not to be looked at as a heritage act.”
He says Inner City’s music is still relevant because it’s feelgood. “When I started Inner City it was all about bringing people together, it was uplifting. It was meant to be that way, both lyrically and spiritually. There was a void then that we filled and there’s still a void. People need to feel good and they need music that makes them dance and combines the club approach with radio tracks.”
Kevin and Dantiez released their first Inner City co-production, Good Luck, in 2017, featuring LaRae Starr on vocals. They decided to debut their fresh sound with a live show at the 2018 Movement festival, but needed a singer. Kevin says: “I always try to get my original band leader, Tommy Onyx, involved with my work because we have a history together. When I told him that Paris couldn’t do the Movement show he brought a singer, Steffanie Christi’an, to see me and when I auditioned her, I thought, ‘Wow, where have you been?!’”
Steffanie is also from Detroit and the singer-songwriter brings an eclectic stable of influences. She performs gospel, soul, funk and R&B, as well as her speciality, rock’n’roll. She has toured the world as a guest vocalist for a range of artists, including hip hop star Taylor Mac, and has also released four independent EPs. Her debut solo album, It’s Complicated, came out in March 2019 after five years in the making. Kevin enthuses: “Her singing style is different to Paris for sure, Paris had this magical, delightful voice. Steffanie’s different, she can be more aggressive, she can grind, she can wail in a different type of way, and a lot of her influences are rock whereas Paris’s were soul and disco. They’re definitely different types of singers.” He adds with a hearty laugh: “I like them both!”
Kevin, Dantiez and Steffanie were joined by a full live band at the Movement show. “When we play Europe it’ll be a little different because we’re doing mainly clubs and won’t have the extra musicians,” says Kevin. “Steffanie will perform to the arrangements and Dantiez and I will be playing on top.
“The live shows are an education for a lot of people, it’s not the same band from the past. There are a lot of people out there who know the history but there’s also a young audience coming to see us and finding a new experience. Even seeing a band onstage playing dance music is atypical so it’s cool.”
Audiences can expect to hear updated versions of their favourite tracks as well as new material, which is planned for release throughout the year. Kevin and Dantiez are also collaborating with an upcoming British singer but don’t want to say who yet. “We’re working on an album’s worth of material,” says Kevin, “but we’re just going to roll out tracks as we like. Hopefully we can build a new fanbase as well as keep the old fanbase.
“The style of the new music is still in the dance mode, it’s still very housey and very uplifting. Dantiez is leading the direction and I try to make sure that it’s always positive, that’s my only rule in most cases. There are some love songs too but I even try to make those happy. Musically it’s a cross between Inner City, Disclosure, MK, and some experimental stuff on top.”
Steffanie’s different, she can be more aggressive, she can grind, she can wail in a different type of way.
Kevin says he feels “proud” to have handed over the reins to Dantiez. “We work great as a team. It also makes sense that he works on our music in the studio because generally he’s not travelling to the same extent I am. It’s a lot harder to stay focused on making music on the road. It also gives Dantiez the time to hone his craft; I’ve seen him jump tall leaps from where he started with production.”
Are there any father-son parties on the road? Kevin responds with his signature almighty laugh. “I don’t party at all no more! My philosophy is you go do your gig and get back and sleep, that’s the safest way to stay out of trouble and keep yourself healthy. People always try to get you to go to after-parties and and I’m like, ‘No!’ They always want to pass you drugs and I’m like, ‘No!’. I even watch my drinks, I only use a closed bottle and I keep an eye on it. I want no chance of nobody drugging me because there are evil people out there who want to see bad shit happen to people so I’m just cautious.
“Of course Dantiez is young so he has party moments but in general he’s pretty responsible. He learnt that early when I left him at a festival once! He was hanging out with me at Bestival in England and I told him we were leaving the next day at 10am before he went off to party. Well he wasn’t there the next morning! I looked around for him but eventually I had to leave. He made it back to Detroit though.” Dantiez adds: “I didn’t realise how big that festival was! Lesson learnt.”
In his 54 years, Kevin had seen it all in club culture, starting out by attending Larry Levan’s seminal Paradise Garage events in late 1970s New York. Even though he still loves vinyl he likes to move with the times and these days he uses USBs to DJ, as well as Ableton Live to produce. “Moving with technology stimulates me. The reason I’m here today is because I embraced the technology that became available to make music in the Eighties and I continue to do that. We were forward thinking and I’m still forward thinking. I’m also too old to be carrying heavy crates of vinyl around to gigs any more!”
Berlin institution Berghain is considered by many to be the world’s leading club and Kevin says he always enjoys playing there, as well as Tresor. However, he prefers Panorama Bar to the main floor. “I’m more into that section, the other section is a little too… uh, it’s pretty on the dark side for me!” he says with another hearty laugh. “It’s pretty wild down there so you know Panorama Bar’s perfect for what I want to do. But overall I would stay it’s still the best club.”
He has fond memories of his first time playing live in Berlin. “It was in 1989 just after the Berlin Wall came down and Inner City did a concert tour around Germany for 30 days. I remember going to the Wall and taking a piece of rubble that remained. I was performing our intro song, ‘Inner City Theme’, to a crowd of about 20,000 people in Berlin and that song has a really positive message, it’s all about bringing the world together. As I was using the mic I held this piece of rubble up into the air and it was just a magical moment. I’ll never forget that.”
Keep up to date with Inner City’s concert dates and releases on their website.