Lyndon French

The Family That Raves Together, Stays Together

Kevin Saunderson and his sons Dantiez and DaMarii are Detroit techno's first family.

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Jun 7 2017, 9:21pm

Lyndon French

When I meet Kevin Saunderson backstage at Movement festival on a rainy afternoon in May, he is seated at a table with his entire family in the artist lounge, eating an early dinner. Leaning back in his chair, he greets me with a warm smile and introduces me to his wife Sharmeela, as well as his elementary school-aged daughter, who sweetly shakes my hand. Across the table, his 25-year-old son Dantiez gives me a cool nod, while his other son DaMarii, who is 27, arrives a few minutes later, dropping his backpack on a chair like he's just gotten home from school.

As they crack jokes and tuck into a sauce-drenched BBQ dish served on plastic plates, it's clear that the Saundersons are a tight-knit crew. But the family's sense of connection goes even further.

After years of tagging along to their dad's gigs, both Dantiez and DaMarii started DJing and producing their own music in their early twenties. So far, they've remixed the likes of Green Velvet and Carl Craig, as well as releasing original solo tracks on labels like Defected, Nervous, and of course, their dad's long-running imprint KMS, where Dantiez also heads up the label's A&R department. Earlier this week, Dantiez released an EP called Radiator in collaboration with Joe Mesmar and Mr. Bizz.

At this year's Movement, the boys also played together as The Saunderson Brothers on the THUMP stage, along with co-headlining a KMS afterparty with their dad and Robert Hood as Floorplan. But while they remain deeply connected to the Detroit techno their father pioneered, Dantiez and DaMarii also say they draw inspiration from contemporaries who've pushed beyond the traditional Detroit sound, like Seth Troxler and Marco Carola.

After dinner, as we move through the artist lounge, Saunderson stops every few seconds to shake hands with people he knows. His deep voice booms through the room as he jokingly refers to his kids, asking his friends, "Have you met my brothers?" We eventually sit down at a table at the far-side of the room to have a chat about what you learn from raving together as a family, and the differences between the older and newer generations of DJs in Detroit.

THUMP: Kevin, you used to sneak into clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Loft in New York with your cousins when you were a teenager. What was that like?

Kevin Saunderson: I didn't sneak in. I was maybe 17, but I had a beard so I looked 21, and I just got in. I went with my my older cousin—he took me for the first time with some of his buddies. I saw them disco dancing and everything, I was like, Wow, this is cool! When we'd leave, you'd think it's still nighttime because it was dark inside, but it'd be like, 12PM midday.

Was raving and music always something that you did with your family?

Kevin: A little. My mother had ambitions of being a singer; she sang with The Marvelettes before they became The Marvelettes because they went to high school together. My older brother Ron was a tour manager for [Brooklyn funk group] Brass Construction, then he became part of [New York R&B/funk band] Sky, because Brass Consumption, BT Express, and Sky had some of the same members. So he was around when the early technology, like synthesizers and MIDI, were being made.

When I first started getting into music, he would give me advice on what to buy and how to use it. It was really difficult to read the Roland manuals because they were written in poor English and difficult to understand… and I had no clue what the hell I was doing.

Raving doesn't have anything to do with rebellion for us. It's straight family.—DaMarii Saunderson

Dantiez and DaMarii—considering that your dad is a superstar DJ, what does rave culture mean to you? Is it still a form of rebellion, or is it a family activity?

DaMarii Saunderson: It's definitely a family thing. Raving is something we experience together. Before, I never saw myself being influenced [by my dad's career]. But the more I started going out with my pops, and seeing what he actually did—the way he controls the crowd—it was inspiring. So raving doesn't have anything to do with rebellion for us. It's straight family.

Dantiez, you started out listening to EDM, right?

Dantiez Saunderson: I started clubbing really late. Besides the few clubs that [my dad] took me to—and Movement, which I'd gone every year because he was playing—I didn't start going to clubs with my friends until after high school, when I was 18 or 19. EDM was the popular thing then. Eventually, I found my way to the music I love now in the underground scene.

DaMarii: I was a sports fan and played baseball, but things turned south. I was looking for what I wanted to do next, and started traveling with my dad.

What programs and equipment do you guys use when DJing and producing? How would you say that your DJ styles differ?

Dantiez: We started with Traktor and controllers [for DJing]. For producing, we use Ableton, and [DaMarii] dabbles in Logic.

DaMarii: As far as DJing styles, we'll take a good thing from [our dad] and incorporate it. But we have our own music that we like, which he might not play out. We all have different ears.

Dantiez: DaMarii's style is a little more dark and deep and techno. I'm maybe known for more funky, soulful, house-y productions, but I also like techno.

Kevin, how would you say that the DJ market has changed for your kids? What challenges do today's DJs face compared to when you were first starting out?

Kevin: I think it's the diversity in music styles. Today, you gotta pick your niche—there aren't many house DJs that play trap, or trap DJs that play techno or house. You gotta find your own way, and it's a challenge to decide that.

It's more complicated than when I first started. Music made a more powerful impact [back then], because there was less of it. If you had a record that was hot, every DJ played your record. Now, there are so many avenues [for musical discovery] that it's impossible to know every record.

Do you guys work together to make music? What's the collaborative process like?

Kevin: Dantiez is now a member of Inner City, and we worked on a new track, "Good Luck," that we just had out. We're working on a few more tracks together.

Dantiez: Sometimes we're all in the studio at separate times and will just send each other projects. We've also sat down in the studio and vibed together, so someone's on the drum machine, and someone else on the synthesizers.

Kevin, are you a very hands-on coach?

Kevin: It's different when you have kids. Before, it was just me, so I just did what I had to do to get my tracks done. Now, if [Dantiez or DaMarii] are working on a track, I give suggestions—like, Yeah! I like that, that's the way it should be. I'm not hands-on unless I need to.

Kevin—you obviously cast a pretty big shadow. Dantiez and DaMarii—do you find yourselves pushing into different musical territories to escape that shadow?

Dantiez: I have a big hip-hop background, so you'll hear a lot of hip-hop flavors and 2-step flavors from me. But it doesn't come right away. You gotta be patient to find your own sound.

Do you feel like there's a big generation gap between the older and newer generations of DJs in Detroit? Do the up-and-comers and old-school guys support each other?

Kevin: To be truthful with you, I don't know if [today's DJs in Detroit] talk to each other! When I grew up, every DJ was at every party. They really loved the music and were inspired by other DJs.

I'll give u an example: When I wanted to be a DJ, Derrick May introduced me to these guys Art Payne and Keith Martin who had Technics 1200 turntables. You had to have your hands on those. Derrick was like, "Hey, this is my buddy Kevin; he's cool." So I got to hang out with them, touch their turntables, listen to their music, make a tape, or just go to their apartment and hang out. It wasn't just me— it was 20 other people like Eddie Folkes all hanging out. It was the beginning of the movement.

I don't know if it's like that anymore. It seems like everyone is in their own world, doing their own thing. There's no connection and support for each other. But that's just what I see.

DaMarii: I actually agree. We might look back at who the old guys are, but for the most part, everyone is doing their own thing.

Dantiez: The scene is a bit oversaturated. It's almost like a trend—everyone wants to be a DJ and is trying to get ahead. But I feel like there's still a good amount of support, especially with people you look up to and respect in the scene.

I collab with a lot of people, but it's very cliquey now. There are multiple communities competing, instead of just one. It's also not just house and techno anymore; there's trap and EDM.

But there's also the internet, and communities form on SoundCloud and Facebook rather than just the city where people are living.

Kevin: That's one thing: you can collab a lot easier now. Before, you had to be at the other person's place or in the studio together. So that's easier now. I'm working on a track with KiNK, and I send him parts and he sends me parts [online]. That's kinda nice.

Do you think that the same scene you came up in would have been possible if the internet was around?

Kevin: Yeah, it would have been possible. It still starts from the foundation of electronic instruments, no matter what. Messing with that allows you to create. Back in the day, there weren't many collaborations. You just had the equipment, and you made your music. I would hear Derrick or Juan's music and be like, I wanna make a track like that! Time was no issue.

Kevin, you have always been something of a futurist—I think you said in an interview once that Detroit is the most futuristic city because it experienced the technological revolution first. Do you still feel the same utopianism towards the future?

Kevin: I think the future has to happen, because we want a tomorrow no matter what. Technology could also end all this—we could all be dead within minutes. But you gotta go with the future. We have to evolve as a human race, always, because how can we move forward otherwise?

The good thing about dance music is it brings people together. Color or race doesn't make a difference—it's for everybody. It's a happy vibe, and that's a great feeling for people. It's easy. You don't even need to send a message. You come together to a world of positivity and openness.

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