Saunderson’s life changed when he moved to the affluent Michigan city of Belleville, 28 miles from Detroit, at 13. He quickly became friends with Derrick May through school sports teams, later meeting the older Juan Atkins. When May and Atkins began DJing at high school parties, he secretly travelled to Ohio in order to learn to mix over the course of a weekend. Once he’d perfected DJing, it wasn’t long before he started making music.
The DJ/producer was initially the most successful of the early Detroit techno pioneers, making music that blurred the boundaries between the sci-fi obsessed sound of his Belleville peers and Chicago house. He enjoyed huge international success under a variety of aliases, including Reese and Inner City.
In 2005, Saunderson sat down with journalist and author Bill Brewster to flesh out his story further and recall the birth of techno.
When journalists began writing about “The Belleville Three,” you were treated as if you were a real trio. How much did it feel like you were a team at the time?
It was that way. Obviously Juan [Atkins] was first and he set the pattern. He was a musician and he trained. He understood music. But what really made it happen was that Derrick [May] and I were inspired, maybe subconsciously, through Juan. We had our own aspirations outside of “the group,” shall I say, but as we developed the music developed. Derrick was taking Juan’s music to Chicago, meeting promoters, meeting the DJs and handing out records. So you could say Derrick started out as a promoter for Juan, just helping him to promote his music, but also, wanting to be one of the same.
Myself, I came along a few years later, but in enough time to make an impact. What happened is, Juan was doing all this Cybotron electro stuff. He didn’t really do tracks with a 4/4 beat. He didn’t really start doing that until me and Derrick started making music. Once he had seen that we were having success with all that, he started making it. So he was bouncing off us then. Juan had moved to Los Angeles, but he moved back to Detroit because of what me and Derrick were doing and the impact we were having on the scene.
Didn’t Juan get a deal in LA with Fantasy?
Well, he got that when he was in Detroit, but then he had another one later with some distribution chain down there. He came back to be a part of what was happening. That was when we started going to England. That’s when the whole compilation came together, the techno compilation. [Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit on Ten Records] Then we worked together. Juan helped me create my first record, he helped Derrick create a record, plus he helped us create and to understand how to arrange it, mix it down and get it to a final piece. I had all these parts, but I still didn’t know how to get it to a two-track and say, “It’s finished.” So he helped me get through that whole stage. That was “Triangle of Love.”
When you first started making records and people like Neil Rushton in the UK began taking an interest, how did that feel?
Strange and very weird. I didn’t really understand what the hell he [Neil] was talking about. License this, license that. I didn’t really get it until I came to England [for the first time], heard people playing my music and saw the reaction of the crowd.
When you made your records, who did you make them for?
Just for me.
But in terms of clubs, where did you think they’d get played?
I knew they would get played in clubs in Detroit, or where I obviously had a lot of experience. I always visualized myself being in the Paradise Garage, hearing my records on the sound system. That’s why sometimes I made very deep records, like “Just Want Another Chance.” Very dark and deep with dirty bass, because I’d been to the Garage and had those experiences.
You must have been pretty young when you went to the Garage.
Yes. I can’t remember how old. I had a beard at a young age. I don’t have it now because I would probably look about 85.
How was that, going to the Garage?
It was amazing. It blew me away. I never knew something like that could exist.
Who took you there?
My brothers and my cousins. We all used to go together and just dance. I went at least four times.
Was that on Saturdays?
I don’t remember.
I ask because there was the gay night on the Saturday that was known for being more wild.
Right. I probably went on both nights.
Of the three, you were the more commercially successful. Do you think that was because you brought that New York sensibility to it?
Definitely, there’s no doubt about it. My inspiration was a little different. I was into vocals. I was into Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, McFadden and Whitehead, Chaka Khan. Those were anthems to me, so it was natural for me to have that inspiration when I created my music. So when I’m making music I’m thinking about melody, I’m thinking about song, I’m thinking about uplifting tunes. Because that’s what I felt, I felt good.
How did that connect with what the other guys were doing? That kind of bleak and melancholic sound. Did that meet with you or were you doing something different?
I think I was really doing my own thing. I had my own vision, we were just using the same tools. It was a simple as that: we were using the same tools. But then I could go very underground and very deep and dark. I was versatile. I think I was just a little more versatile in my vision [than Juan and Derrick]. I liked it all. I wanted to make it all, I guess.
What was the first time you heard one of your records being played over here in the UK?
The first time was “Big Fun” being played by Paul Oakenfold at Spectrum, on a Monday night. Was it on a Monday?
Yes, it was.
It was unreal. It was the summer of 1988.
Was that the first time you came over?
Nah. I came over before then, maybe four months before, in the spring of 1988. Me and Derrick DJed at some techno compilation party for Ten Records.
Like a release party?
So the second time was the one?
Yeah. The scene had changed that quickly. I wouldn’t say the parties weren’t that developed when I first came over, but by the summer it had changed. I think I heard my records on a pirate radio station though, the first time.
Are you conscious of what you started?
Of course. It is what it is.
How did you feel when it was Europe that picked up on it and your hometown let it pass by?
I just figured, “Hey, y’all motherfuckers will catch up eventually.” You know, America is different because of segregation in video, segregation of the radio and all those different formats. It was hard for them to accept what we were doing as a new form of music that they could understand. You didn’t hear it on any format of radio or see it on TV, obviously.
But the inspiration was very European as well.
I wouldn’t say mine was. Not so much as Derrick and Juan’s was.
Were you buying those Italian disco records and the European synthesizer tracks?
I wasn’t necessarily buying them, but I was hearing them, through Derrick and Juan. But it quickly changed to what we were doing and what Chicago was doing. I did like what I heard. I was into New Order and obviously Kraftwerk. I think the real influence of European music was that you could make music with electronic equipment.
It was the technique.
Yeah. Some of the music obviously was really good, but it was that “I can do this all by myself,” realization. I was more infatuated with that than anything.
You were very much chasing the idea of making records that could be played in the Garage.
Not always, but certain records I made to be dark. “The Sound” had that simple bassline, a nice sound that was unique and a drum pattern. That’s all it did. If I had to pick one song that was made especially for the Garage, it was “Just Want Another Chance.” No doubt about it. The sad thing about it is, as soon as I started creating music and traveling [to DJ], the Garage was no longer, so I never got to hear one of my records in there. I got to hear some of the Chicago stuff, though. Yeah, that had an influence, a great sound system and a DJ playing music.
Do you think that with the music Derrick and Juan were making, they were chasing something different?
Yeah, a little, because Juan would call anything that was deep and dark “gay music,” but it didn’t make any difference to me. I’d say, “I’m not gay but I like the music, so it can’t be gay music.” I think he had a different approach towards it. I had an overall influence from NYC, plus from hanging around Juan, I picked some of the European stuff. I also got some inspiration from listening to people like the Electrifying Mojo, who played a collage or a fusion of different music.
Were Juan and Derrick really aiming at Chicago?
Well, Chicago and Detroit were going at the same time. Juan might have even started before Chicago. I think that was the market.
They were driving over there to sell records.
I did too. I drove most of the time. Derrick did earlier, but once he moved back I’m the one that had the car. Eventually we ended up taking our records and giving them to Farley, Chip E and Mike “Hitman” Wilson. As we were riding into town we would hear our tracks played on the radio, which was amazing. You get close to Chicago, turn on the radio, you got the mix shows going on. I heard “Triangle of Love.” So that gave us hope and gave us inspiration. Even though there wasn’t as much [going on] at home, there was plenty right next door.
What was The Music Institute like?
It was Detroit’s premier underground club. It was probably the best club that we’ve had, as far as that kind of vibe goes. It was at the beginning of a new movement that we were a part of. I didn’t experience it as much, because that’s when “Big Fun” started taking off and, before I knew it, I was traveling on the road. I played the opening night. I played the whole nights because Derrick was in Europe. I probably played for a few more weeks, then I was off and gone. I came back and it was quite amazing.
Did you play any of the big raves?
I played Raindance, stuff like that. It was special because people had so much love for music and togetherness. Half of that was the drug, too. It helped get people into the music immediately. I also think that it hurt music because when they started taking these drugs you could play a bad record and it became good to them. They couldn’t distinguish if it was good or bad: if it had some kind of sound, they would connect with it and it made them feel good.
I wasn’t used to being interviewed. I’m thinking, “Why you want to know that? Why is this important to you?”
What was it like when Virgin’s Ten Records offshoot came to license those tracks for the Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit compilation?
Neil Rushton said, “I could get you a deal on this compilation.” I didn’t know about half of what he was talking about, but I thought as long as I don’t give up the rights to this record forever, it was something the three of us would go with. So they came to Detroit and there were these photographers from The Face magazine. It was definitely a different experience. I wasn’t used to being interviewed, especially by people talking about our music. I’m thinking, “Why you want to know that? Why is this important to you?”
Then you see the magazine come out and they’re talking about “the sound of Detroit.” Over time you get to realize the impact you are having on the scene and what it takes to potentially develop a movement. Obviously you need the sound, but without the media... I guess when media comes on board, what you really need is people. What happened with us, we had pirate radio [in the UK] and we had media, so it was happening in all different aspects.
It was Juan who came up with the name techno, wasn’t it?
Definitely. It was already techno before I thought about making my first record. “Techno City.” If you listen to Cybotron, you’ll see he was already using that word two or three years before I started making music.
When people came over to interview you in 1988, Juan was coming out with a lot of the science fiction stuff that he was into, Derrick was talking about the post-industrial city and they were both saying that was the influence for their music. Was that kind of after the fact stuff to sound good in a magazine or do you think that was for real?
It might have been for them. They grew up in the city of Detroit and then they moved to the country like me. I never lived in the city of Detroit. I went from New York to the country.
Did you ever go clubbing in Detroit?
Not really. Derrick took me to a bar once. I wouldn’t call it a club. There wasn’t that many people.
What about the Detroit Electronic Music Festival: does it finally feel like there’s some respect for the music at home?
Oh, there’s no doubt about that. It’s made a big impact economically. It does a lot for the city. It gives us hope for some new youth to be inspired, for some opportunities to be out there.
Is it a different constituency that’s coming out to dance?
It’s not just fans – you’re grabbing moms, you’re grabbing kids. The average age would be around 25 years old.
So you’re getting some of the people who were dancing in 1987?
Yeah. You’re also getting people who were dancing before them coming out, just because it’s an event that people want to be a part of. My goal is not to just make it a techno event. Obviously that’s where it evolved from, but when I started listening to music I had different influences from Prince, Parliament and Funkadelic, to the disco stuff. I’d like to see a little more diversity there, because I think that’s what music is about. That’s how we get inspired to make music. There’s nothing wrong with throwing in an act or two that’s a little bit different from what we normally expect.
There’s quite a purist attitude to techno.
Yeah. I think so.
Did you listen to Jeff Mills radio show back in the early 1980s?
Of course, because we were competing against each other at one time.
You were on the radio?
Yeah. Derrick got that radio show – it was called Street Beat. There were five of us. He was basically trying to implement what was happening in Chicago.
The Hot Mix 5 for Detroit.
Yes, the equivalent.
1984 or 1985, some time around then.
How did that go?
It was great for me. I was the young kid on the block and I was on the radio. I was spending 15 hours to do a half-hour mix show. Doing edits and making sure it was right. You ever hear those shows? It was quite a lot of work.
No. Does someone have tapes?
I’m sure someone does, but I don’t. I didn’t realize the value. That was going on and Jeff Mills came out with all this scratching and quick playing. He was playing the popular stuff too. Maybe now and then he’d squeeze in a house track or one of our records. He didn’t play records for very long, maybe for 15 or 20 seconds, and then move on to the next one. That’s how he made his name. Eventually it was just him and Derrick. Jeff was all over the radio: daytime, midday and at night.
He had three hours at night, didn’t he?
Switching focus a little, what other countries did you go to at that time?
I went to Germany with an Inner City tour for a month. I went to Tresor to see what was going on. It had a very industrial approach to music. Then you had the Berlin Wall coming down, so you had that coming together with the electronic music and the whole scene. It was quite special. I really wasn’t into that banging stuff though.
What’s your definition of techno?
I guess music made with electronic instruments, with human implantation.
You were very close to what was happening in Chicago, and very close to what was happening in New York. What makes Detroit music different?
We had more energy and we took more chances. I think Chicago was pretty safe. They were vocal oriented and they also could be pretty raw, but they didn’t do anything with effects. I remember Mike Wilson did a mix for me on “Bounce Your Body to the Box.” He came into Detroit and found all these effects. If you ever listen to that track, it’s very distorted with way too much effects, but it works. That was something inspired by Detroit. Our energy level was definitely faster, BPM-wise.
Why do you think that was?
I don’t know. New York had been around for so long and the music from there was always kind of groovy and down-tempo, all that Philly sound. I just think it was a different time.
This interview took place in London in March 2005. © DJ History