Taking Techno to the Max

The man on the right, dressed in a white shirt with black pants and a pullover black cap, leans forward on the leather sofa and talks about where he's just been. The other man, in a grey V-neck sweater and charcoal pants, shifts back and forth in a leather chair a few feet away. He responds by talking about where he's going.

"I just came back from playing in — where was it? — Oh, yeah, Germany," says Kevin Saunderson, the man in black and white. He chuckles at his momentary lapse in memory. "Wow, sometimes you have to think about it when you do it so much."

Carl Craig, his colleague in the global techno scene that they, along with a handful of other Detroiters, helped create, says he is on way to the UK the next day. "Sometimes it's hard to know if you're coming or going, that's for sure," Craig says.

Saunderson, 42, and the 37-year-old Craig have been on this Detroit to Europe weekend shuttle going on three decades now. Derrick May, with whom they are co-headlining a special New Year's event, could not make this interview in part because he was preparing to leave for a gig in Italy. May, 43, has been dubbed "The Innovator," Saunderson "The Elevator." Both attended Belleville High in the early 1980s and, along with the slightly older Juan Atkins, have been widely mythologized as "The Belleville Three." Craig attended Detroit's Cooley High and was once called the "Boy Wonder" when he was still in his teens and making tracks for Saunderson's KMS and May's Transmat labels. He later started his own Detroit-based Planet-E label.

Craig and Saunderson are having this conversation about Detroit Techno in a most unlikely place: the office of the music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. They will be ringing in the New Year at the DSO's Max M. Fisher Music Center with May and special guests Theo Parrish and Al Ester, two Detroit house music legends.

A brief history of futuristic music

It's an old story that bears repeating: Craig, May and Saunderson are three of the most significant musical pioneers of the late 20th century, crucial to understanding the waves of electronic dance producers and DJs who came in their wake. By combining Detroit soul and funk with European synth-pop in their productions, and by simply reducing the live experience to a dark, loud room with a DJ and dance floor filled with squirming bodies, they made turntables, mixers and great records the bedrock of the world party.

But Saunderson and Craig say they are not resting on what they accomplished in the 1980s and 199os. Their equipment has changed, from classic analog hardware — used to synthesize and sequence early club hits like "Big Fun" and "Good Life" by Saunderson's group Inner City; and "Throw," which Craig released under his project called Paperclip People — to new digital programs like Pro Tools, Final Scratch, Ableton Live and Serato software and plug-ins.

Craig says, "The idea behind techno was that it was futuristic music that needed to be reinvented all the time. It's always changing, being remixed and becoming something totally different. Finding ways to make music with new technology is part of the evolution of the music."

Saunderson says he mixed live video as part of his recent Elevator World Tour. "It's a little history lesson for the kids who weren't there," he says. "I play the classics and stream video. People need to know how this all came about." Saunderson says he's also planning a CD anthology of many of his best tracks, to be remixed by other artists.

Craig has been busy on numerous recording and mix projects, including recent recordings for Fabric UK's DJ-mix series, a compilation called Kings of Techno (with Parisian Laurent Garnier) and dark new dance tracks by his apocalyptic alter egos, Tres Demented and Demon Days.

Craig has more works in the fire. He will be performing his music with classically trained musicians in Paris this summer, and he is working on a high-tech/space-jazz project with musicians associated with Detroit's Tribe Records. The label was active in the 1970s and featured musicians like Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison and the late Harold McKinney.

"I want to do something like what we did with the Detroit Experiment," says Craig of the 2003 release that included contributions from Detroiters Amp Fiddler, Jeremy Ellis, Invincible, Belgrave and others. "There is so much music that has come out of here, and it's very important to get it out for people to hear."

Giving something back to a place
What lifts Craig, Saunderson and May to another level of discussion is their devotion to the place that helped shaped their lives. All three men played huge administrative and creative roles in producing the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (DEMF), which began in 2000 and will be staged for the eighth consecutive year in May 2007. Now put on by Ferndale-based Paxahau, the event might never have happened had not Craig come on as its first artistic director, with May and Saunderson later holding together an under funded enterprise with contributions from their own wallets.

"We thought exposing this music to a new audience in Detroit was historically important," Saunderson says. "We did it to say that this is music that is alive, that it's something that has to be experienced."

Saunderson sees the New Year's Eve party at the DSO in similar groundbreaking terms. "This is an opportunity to get the music out to more people who might not know it. I also like the idea of us boys from the hood playing in a sophisticated venue like this."

Craig says that electronic dance and classical music are forging new working relationships in places around the world. "(Former Detroiter) Jeff Mills did it in Spain, it's been done in Seattle and other cities. I want to keep exploring it and see more of my work interpreted by symphony orchestras."

In Detroit? "Yes, I'd love to make that happen in Detroit," Craig says. "We look at this as the beginning of fruitful relationship with the DSO. It's a great opportunity to do this event, with hopefully more to come."

The Detroit Legends of Electronic Music event is Dec. 31 at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit. The party begins at 10 p.m. and goes until 4 a.m. General admission is $55 and VIP tickets are $100. After Dec. 25, prices go up to $75 and $150 for VIP, which includes valet parking, light hors d' oeuvres, private bars and bottle service. For more information or to purchase tickets go to www.detroitsymphony.com

Walter Wasacz is a Hamtramck-based freelance writer, photographer and DJ.


Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson

Carl Craig

The Box at The Max

Kevin Saunderson

The DEMF at Hart Plaza

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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