Name: Kevin Saunderson
Occupation: DJ, producer
Current release: “Frisk”, Kevin Saunderson's collaboration with British DJ and producer Patrick Topping, is included in the soundtrack for The Batman.
If you enjoyed this interview with Kevin Saunderson and would like to find out more about him, visit his official website. He is also on Facebook, Instagram, and twitter.
"The first person I ever saw deejay might have been Juan Atkins. Because I was from New York, as I got older, I was able to see Larry Levan, so I went to Paradise Garage. I got a lot of inspiration from those types of DJs. I got to go to Loft club. So I was infatuated automatically with the DJ to keep the music playing. And New York always had these mix shows, stuff like that.
For me it was always about getting my hands on the tools and the timing. And that didn't happen until my first year in college, where I had an opportunity to hang out with some people who were DJing already on our school campus. They happened to know Derrick May. And that's how I got to know them and when they played, they had some 1200s. So I was just absorbing, you know, hanging out for hours and hours. And really just getting a chance to practise and watch some other people and follow them. And from there, I just developed, just to get my own equipment, which was not 1200s right away, but some belt-driven turntables from the pawn shop, but it got me going.
What really kicked me to the next level of DJing, was when I went to this seminar, which was in Ohio. It had some 1200s, DJ mastermixes on vinyl. It's not around anymore, it's gone. They had a DJ and what I learned from them is how to count bpm and from there, how to organise my records and keep the bpms close in the beginning. Once you know bpm, after all, you kind of keep your records in bpm order. You've got your 120s, your 90s. That made it a lot easier to mix, because there wasn't much pitch change. There was some, because it was fluctuating, but that really took me to the next level, gave me some confidence.
From there, I was a workaholic. I spent a lot of time mixing, playing around with my music.
My peers, people that Derrick knew, would say: Who's this cat? We haven't even heard of him! I wasn't even from Detroit – I was from Belleville, went to school there. So was Juan [Atkins], but I wasn't part of that Detroit clique. So I think people didn't want to give me any credit. But since I had this competitiveness and work ethic, they took me for granted. So it was just a challenge proving myself. But that didn't take too long.
I got my opportunity playing at a fraternity. It was called Phi Beta Sigma. Once I had that under my belt, I was able to do my fraternity parties on campus. So that gave me an opportunity to get gigs. After all, the real challenge was, who's going to hire me? These parties, including weddings, wasn't really stuff that I wanted to do.
At my DJ gigs, I also worked with instruments, the 909 mainly. You would mix it into your set and really just play different patterns. So that was the main focus: Change it up, play something different that people weren't really used to … and it felt creative! You were playing different rhythms that you didn't hear on records.
The problem with records back then was that you'd always feel that there was something missing. So either you would have to have two of one records, because you liked a certain part and wanted to play that part over. Or you would play the same records more than once, maybe three times in a DJ set. When I started, I didn't have a gigantic collection. I could only buy what was available and what I liked. Even a classic disco record that Lary Levan would play, I never only wanted to play just disco. So the 909 played a role in helping me experiment and fill the void that was missing.
And that's what led me into making music, because I got around to playing with that, after a while it go to be a bit monotonous with that same kind of sound. But it led me into making music and adding bass lines. So that was an important period.
I am a technology geek! I love trying new stuff, I love changing things around. But the first main reason when Final Scratch came out was that I was having major neck and back problems. I'd been carrying vinyl for so long in those big crates that it took a toll on me. So that was the initial reason. But then, through time, I just kept going with technology and supported that.
Do I think my approach to DJing has changed because of this new technology? I don't think so, no. I think in the beginning it was very challenging. At the time, I was able to play almost the same as playing vinyl, with extra bonuses. With vinyl, you could have a great disco track, but it might be very difficult to mix it out, because it was either very busy or you would have to wait for the break. A lot of DJs would wait for the break. Whereas with the new technology, you can create your own breaks. And you could make it long or short and create a new perspective.
So it does give you some creative differences that you are able to do. Of course, if you're playing vinyl on a great sound system, that's hard to beat. But creatively, you can do more with CDJs.
But I'm old school. I went from mixing on four decks to doing back to backs with Carl Cox and Derrick May. So I got a long history. But for me as a DJ, there's nothing to make people dance to great music and you enjoy the set. That's my approach to music.
I enjoy using the mixer quite intensely. That's always been there, right from the beginning. It's to add dynamics to my sets. One thing I didn't like about New York DJs … they created great music for what it was back then. But you would hear a record for 20 minutes, sometimes an hour, they would mix a record in for an hour. And I would get bored! +
Using the mixer, I took that up from Derrick May and Derrick took it up from Ron Hardy. He was one of the first DJs that I'd seen who would be working the mixer like that. It was just different and inspirational. So I've always had a little of that in me. It's similar to scratching. Actually, my DJ name in the days was Scratchmaster Reed. So I used a hip hop style, but I played techno and house and disco. So that was one way to do it, but after a while I thought that this approach with scratching might be good for hip hop and rap, but it was a bit too over the top for the kind of music I was playing. So my version of working with the mixer is my version of adding dynamics, instead of scratching. It gives it a human element and the crowd can tell, they can feel it. And you feel more engaged, too, once you're playing.
My state of mind during a DJ set is pretty relaxed. I've been doing this many, many years. But then I'm also doing some stuff with the Belleville three and that's a little more focused. Simply because there's three of us. So you need to pay a little more attention and be a little more aware at the same time.
I guess it also happens that I don't find the inspiration I need to perform at my best. And it may be little things, if only the weather.
I'll give an example. Me and Derrick May played a back to back set in Bali together. And it was outside, a beautiful venue. We set everything up, when all of a sudden, there was a massive storm. I mean, it poured. We're not used to that kind of weather, it was 6, 7 or nine hours non stop. So when it stopped, partially, it was almost when we were about to play. But by then, it was all washed out, the crowd had almost disappeared. Which was a little disappointing, because we really wanted to play. And you're obviously less inspired, because the elements didn't work out right. But when you feed off the crowd, you feed off the venue, you feed off the atmosphere, you help create that.
As a DJ, you have to adapt, you can't just play the same way. It's about playing good music, no matter what. If it's all washed out and you have two people, where you were supposed to have 20,000, there's not much you can do. (laughs).
You always look into the crowd. And by the music you play, by their reactions, by the responses, you kind of connect and engage that way. You can tell how they adapt to different songs, how the build-up is going. Depending on how young the members of the crowd are, they might not know the classic stuff that well. They might only know the current music. And that can sometimes be a bit of a challenge.
There was a point in the late to middle 90s, where the scene went to house to techno to progressive and trance and if you played at an event, where you had a lot of trance – let's say you're playing before Tiesto – then it's more challenging. When you're done with your set and the next DJ comes up, suddenly they're all going wild and they all stepped in!
It depends on how educated the audience is and it seems as though things are more rounded now and crowds are more diverse than they were back then. That does help the whole scene."