Detroit techno has always been urban music, from Juan Atkins’ deadpan technological reportage to Robert Hood’s Motor City minimalism. And when the smog gets too thick, Jeff Mills’ sci-fi and space science concepts offer a way out.
With a name like Inner City, the veteran Detroit act chose the most on-the-nose ‘urban’ stamp, but founder Kevin Saunderson flipped all expectations with the project in the late 80s. At the time, Detroit was suffering from the problems that extend to this day – industrial decline, mass unemployment and population flight. It was also the murder capital of the US.
But instead of succumbing to the grit and grind, Inner City offered an escape hatch. Working off the futurist techno template he’d earlier forged with Juan Atkins and Derrick May, Saunderson reintroduced disco and house elements into his sound, and along with former church singer Paris Grey, an inherent uplifting message. If in doubt about the ethos, their debut LP Paradise opens with a spoken word intro by Saunderson on ‘Inner City Theme’: “We as people in the world today should come together, and help one another. We should build our nation free from inner city decay.”
“Yeah, it was a positive and deliberate choice you know,” Saunderson says over Skype from his home (still in Detroit). “An ‘inner city’ can be an elevated thing rather than something really dark like in other techno. We were the opposite, for sure.”
Techno is also bound up in futurism, but there’s a growing contradiction that after decades of innovation, electronic music has built up its own legends and nostalgia industry. Saunderson has just recharged Inner City after decades away from recording, but he’s avoided a straight-up tribute act vibe — recruiting his son Dantiez on production and Detroit rock and soul singer Sreffanie Christi’An on vocals.
The family tie chimes with fellow Detroit pioneer Robert Hood welcoming his daughter Lyric into the fold to tour and record as Floorplan, a move Hood told me previously was “wonderful, challenging and refreshing”.
Kevin agrees, saying the collaboration happened by almost accident, pointing out: “I never trained Dantiez, I didn’t guide him in any kind of way musically. Actually I put him in many other different paths.
“But he was working on [2018 single] ‘Good Luck’ in the studio before it became that, and I was like, ‘Man that sounds like me!’ Listening to his production sparked Inner City starting up again, but also moving on.”
Dantiez, who’s beside his dad on the couch on our Skype call, says house and techno gradually, and inevitably, seeped in, and he eventually studied at the Dubspot electronic music school in New York.
“I was starting to get inspired by electronic music, I think I had a little electro vibe going on early in my career, then just touring with my Pops and just learning learning about the craft and the scene, going to parties and festivals… I just needed that experience to really shape my sound,” he says.
- ORIGINATORS: (From left) Saunderson, May & Atkins
If there are any gods of techno, the ‘Belleville Three’ of Saunderson, Atkins and May are held up as a kind of holy trinity, three kids who bonded over a love of Parliament and Kraftwerk at high school in rural Belleville, 30 miles from Detroit.
Atkins shot first with his dystopian electro project Cybotron and later Model 500, while May’s records such as ‘Nude Photo’ and ‘Strings of Life’ are still stone tablet techno classics to this day.
In 1986, Saunderson’s first track with Atkins — ‘Triangle of Love’ as Kreem — hinted at Inner City, with its soulful vocals woven through cosmic disco. Even then, Saunderson wasn’t up for erasing the human elements from techno. Detroit’s musical heart may have been torn out when Motown moved to LA in 1972, but Saunderson has been helping to map out the city’s soulful electronic side since his first radio shows, his DJ sets at the Music Institute and earliest synth explorations.
The native New Yorker (he moved to Michigan aged nine) was a wide-eyed teenager on field trips in the early days of NYC’s iconic house clubs, and recalls: “I grew up through the Paradise Garage listening to Larry Levan, listening to people like Chaka Khan, Stephanie Mills, Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, Donna Summer… you know, a lot of that stuff was inspired from Sister Sledge, ‘We Are Family’, ‘Lost In Music’, they all sparked an exploration for me.”
All the above fed into Inner City’s ‘Big Fun’, which became Detroit techno’s first big commercial success in September 1988, followed by ‘Good Life’ three months later. Inner City had five Billboard Dance Chart No1s and nine UK top 40 hits, kickstarted by ‘Big Fun’’s inclusion on the legendary 1988 Virgin UK compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit. Sauderson’s deep, soulful productions opened up techno for the takers, and it influenced commercial dance music for years — listen to ‘Ain’t Nobody Better’ off Inner City’s 1989 LP Paradise and try not to think of Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, which came out over a year later.
Catching up a few days after my chat with the Saundersons, new vocalist Steffanie says it’s a “full circle experience” singing for Inner City, and she adds: “When I was around eight or so, I can definitely remember hearing ‘Good Life’ and ‘Big Fun’ on the radio or at functions, I can remember dancing and singing along to their tunes without a doubt… it’s been a complete honour and privilege to perform these songs live. I mean these songs are known by people all over the world.”
This ubiquity would’ve seemed bizarre to the early Detroit innovators. Until ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Good Life’, techno had been largely ignored by the mainstream — especially in the US, where cultural and racial segregation had earlier led to embarrassing, ugly protests like the ‘Disco Sucks’ rally in Chicago in 1979 that saw ‘real’ music fans burn disco vinyls at a baseball stadium. The ‘real music’ clique still exists, but thankfully lads reminiscing about Oasis and Kings of Leon headlining Glastonbury are becoming more marginalised as pop music becomes genre-free.
For better or worse, dance music, along with its fellow 80s folk devil hip-hop, has simply become modern pop music, kickstarted in part by a desegregation of music.
Saunderson Snr recalls a much more closed off scene when he started DJing: “I remember we would play for a small handful of people on the campus when I went to school at Eastern Michigan University. Man, it was all segregated. Black fraternities were the only people I had the opportunity to play for really. And then I saw all these other parties going on with the white fraternities. It looked like we had our parties and they had their parties—just drinking beer, no dancing, listening to rock’n’roll, punk rock. And I was like, ‘This music is for everybody, they just don’t know what they’re missing!’ I thought to myself, ‘One day, we will all dance as one’.”
He says the on-campus attitude was just a symptom of the wider cultural channels, with MTV pushing a certain white rock agenda until there was an actual protest to get Billie Jean played — with Michael Jackson the first black artist to be on MTV rotation, two years after the station launched.
“In the mid to late 80s you had MTV pushing maybe the wrong kind of techno, or no techno at all,” Saunderson says. “You had media that really controlled the perception of the people in our country and everything was already segregated — black radio, white radio, rock radio, R&B radio… it was like your music had to fit your community.
“And look where we are now — slowly but surely that has changed. I mean, it’s a complete u-turn from when we first started. All music connects in some kind of way, You know what it boils down to and how it touches you.”
Many younger EDM fans — and DJs — have been accused in recent years of ignoring the pioneers of electronic music in their Tomorrowland/Electric Daisy Carnival arms race to the bottom, reducing dance music to numbskull builds, drops and fancy dress gimmicks.
Like Jeff Mills previously, Kevin is diplomatic and charitable with the commercialism of dance music, saying “you have to let people enjoy the freedom of the music, freedom of expression, freedom of speech”. He’s less generous with “maybe a gimmicky record that supersedes a great track and whitewashes away the good stuff”.
He adds: “You know, the general public didn’t know black people had anything to do with techno or don’t assume we had an impact on the creation of this — just because the sound came back from Europe and then it was pushed over here a little bit.
“You know, it’s like if people pick up a book that’s 300 pages, and they open it at the 100-page mark — they don’t really get it, they don’t perceive where we are. But now, through social media people are educated a lot easier and music obviously is shared through streaming. People can actually hear underground music even if they don’t go out. It’s just the evolution of time and technology.”
- Photo by Tafari K. Stevenson-Howard
In the last decade or so, documentaries such as Requiem For Detroit, Detropia and Burn have painted the city as a flaming, decaying shell that’s decades past its tipping point. But like the artists moving into Victorian mansion squats on the outskirts of the city in Detropia, culture lives through it.
Saunderson is heavily involved in the city’s electronic music festival Movement, and the mayor declared a Detroit Techno Week in 2016, while awarding the Spirit of Detroit honour to The Belleville Three, Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance, Carl Craig, Kelli Hand, Eddie Fowlkes, Paxahau promoters and the Submerge Techno Museum.
But aside from the international influx during Movement, Saunderson says “they’ve rebuilt the city in many ways”, adding: “It’s kind of changing, where it’s not a ghost town anymore… you see activity, you see growth, you see jobs being put into the city. Hopefully, it’s going to lead to more support for the arts and music as well, anything is possible.”
Dantiez says he has spent “a few years outside Detroit, in New York and Chicago… but I always end up back here… I grew up here my whole life, it’s the community and family I know… I guess it’s just home.”
For the time being, the Saundersons and Steffanie are being uprooted from Detroit for the first Inner City tour in decades, after a few summer festival shows. Kevin says the older tracks are “modified and tweaked”, and they have about “eight or 10 songs just about finished”, with an album “probably next year when we feel it’s the right time”.
He’s buzzing that it’s not just been an ageing techno vets’ day out at their shows, as “I don’t want us just to be like a ‘classic band’. Obviously we keep the same kind of elements but it’s updated”.
He adds: “Recent sets seemed to work better for a younger audience than older. You know, we play some shows where people come out who ain’t been out since 1995. They’re like [joke OAP voice] ‘That’s Good Life but it’s a little bit faster, it’s a little bit tougher’. You know, they’re trying to put their hands up at the right parts but you certainly can tell they really want the old, OLD 1988 version!
“But that’s part of the process, part of the future. And we’re pretty much sticking to uplifting, melodic songs. We’re just trying to touch people’s spirits through our music and our words.”
- Inner City play Button Factory in Dublin on Sunday from 7.30pm as part of Diskotekken’s 10th birthday. Keep the party going in Tengu from 10.30pm, with sets from Kevin Saunderson, Donnacha Costello, Eamon Doyle, Cignol (live) and Simon Conway. See eventbrite.ie.
- Inner City’s new single Believe is out today (Friday) on Armada Music.