Disclosure’s travelling festival series Wild Life stops in Michigan’s metro Detroit area, and in just a matter of seven hours, the event manages to encompass the timeline and history of dance — seemingly unintentionally. On one end of the spectrum is Kevin Saunderson, one-third of the Belleville Three and a pioneer of Detroit techno. However, on the other end is the English DJ duo, arguably today’s fastest rising electronic music act. Also on the roster are Erno the Inferno, Tom Trago, Ryan Hemsworth and Schoolboy Q, but it is the juxtaposition between Kevin Saunderson and Disclosure that strikes a chord.
In 1987, Saunderson recorded the backing track of ‘Big Fun’ before recruiting Paris Grey for vocals. It grew in popularity in the United Kingdom, and soon became an international sensation. Techno was all the rage in dance music, particularly overseas in Europe as opposed to its Detroit origins. The late ‘80s were a bright spot in techno history, and Kevin Saunderson was one of its biggest shining stars.
Yet fast-forward nearly three decades later and times have significantly changed. As the underground once held reign over dance music culture, today’s industry sees mainstream house and deep house governing charts — and Grammy-nominated Disclosure are at the helm. To witness Saunderson and Disclosure sharing a stage is like watching the past and present of electronic music collide, hinting at what’s to come in the future.
The crowd is young. Most were born at least a decade after Saunderson’s ‘Big Fun’. After asking a few high school-aged attendees in the crowd if they know who Kevin Saunderson is, they reply no: they are here for Disclosure and Disclosure only. Although it might seem odd that a self-proclaimed “electronic dance music fan” doesn’t recognise someone of Saunderson’s magnitude, a creator of the techno music that spurred a worldwide cultural revolution, but it isn’t unusual at all. In fact, it’s expected.
Today’s younger generation is growing up in an era dominated by mainstream “EDM culture” where the underground is all but forgotten. The luxury of listening to any electronic music, aside from mainstream house in major market radio, is virtually nonexistent in America.
A decade ago, Detroit radio was home to a station (WDRQ) that played lesser-known Chicago house and other variations of dance (including Detroit techno), but this is no longer the case. Even magazine covers such as Billboard, which revolves around Top 40 pop, have Disclosure gracing the cover. “Raves” are now mostly replaced with glamorous bottle-service clubs. So why would a teenager who grows up in the modern world of electronic music know who someone like Kevin Saunderson is, a proprietor of the underground?
The younger crowd may not know his history, but they soon find out. Although just a name to many at first, Saunderson leaves his presence lingering with a memorable set. He plays early at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, just a little after 5:45 PM, kicking off with dark techno as “Kevin Saunderson—Elevator of Techno” flashes across the LED DJ booth he is spinning in. The crowd seems to recognise his importance instantly. Maybe it’s the prominent aura that radiates off his persona or the command he holds over beats, that flow effortlessly. Maybe it’s the cheer that erupts from the adult portion of the audience. However, he quickly disregards the heavy techno and dives into more house-laden dancefloor sizzlers. His son Dantiez even joins him in the booth.
Saunderson drops a remix of Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg’s ‘The Next Episode’ before grabbing the mic to address his thrilled audience.
“What’s up, how you feeling out there?” he asks. “I am Kevin Saunderson, one of the creators of this music. From the beginning, until now, all around the world.” Saunderson is well aware that many people before him are unacquainted with his history. However, the crowd still erupts. “Do y’all know where house music is?” he continues. “Do you know where techno is? And deep house?”
He pauses briefly, and smiles. “It’s good to have it home!”
Saunderson immediately dives into ‘Good Life,’ the classic groove resonating with the crowd, who love every second. From this point forward, the set transitions back into techno (and remains in that realm), now embracing a sound typical to Detroit with synth-heavy, deep basslines. It’s as though he is trying to introduce the crowd to the basics of techno — and the crowd is ready and willing to learn.
Prior to Saunderson’s set, Detroit’s own Erno the Inferno (real name Ernie Guerra) plays an opening disco set. He is both shocked and pleased that fans wholeheartedly dance to Blondie’s 1980 smash hit ‘Rapture’. Next follows Tom Trago, with a set that continuously crosses over from house to tech house and back again.
Ryan Hemsworth’s sound that follows seems out of place — at first. The opening minutes of his set feel uncomfortable after nearly three hours of disco, house and techno, as Hemsworth chooses a heavy dub, ambient vibe mixed with glitch and trip-hop. Half of the crowd looks perplexed and the other half loves the evolution. The new sound continues for some time, before Hemsworth drops an unexpected remix of M83’s ‘We Own the Sky.’ Then, his style flips a 360 and becomes a combination of upbeat, fast-paced house and hip-hop — he even remixes Kanye West’s ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’. What is a shaky start levels out into just the right vibe to introduce rapper Schoolboy Q, the line-up’s only non-DJ act.
Schoolboy Q’s name might look out of place on the Wild Life Detroit roster, but this is not the first time he’s played a festival with Kevin Saunderson. Both were booked at Electric Forest in Northern Michigan just a few months ago. Schoolboy Q (real name Quincey Matthew Hanley) brings the energy, delivering a hype performance that revs the crowd from start to finish; he has the entire front row singing along at the barricade. It is a breath of fresh air for the daylong event.
Hopping around onstage from left to right, he shouts, “I’m ready to have fun and turn up!” The crowd screams and he tells them, “HANDS UP! Hands up, hands up!” Fans keep their hands in the air as Hanley runs through ‘What They Want’ and his hard-hitting jam with Kendrick Lamar, ‘Collard Greens’, among others.
The Schoolboy Q set is short but impressive. Nevertheless, the real showstopper of the night is Disclosure. The production is one aspect of the duo’s grandeur and magnificence: Disclosure’s stage set-up includes four massive cryo guns that shoot blasts in the air every few minutes. However, the bigger and more significant feature is the quality of the music. Disclosure kick off a nearly two-hour set with ‘When A Fire Starts To Burn’. Their DJ booth is lit ablaze by white and pink lights that illuminate Guy and Howard Lawrence, as they spin a series of techno tracks. With a packed audience before them, they ask the crowd, “How you feeling, Detroit?” After a moment’s pause, they shout, “Let’s do this!” and plunge into jackin’ house with a remix of Breach’s ‘Jack’. Disclosure soon drops one of their ultimate hits, the rework of Pharrell & Jay Z’s ‘Frontin'’. And the hits keep on coming, as ‘Help Me Lose My Mind’, ‘F For You’, ‘Voices’, and ‘The Mechanism’ follow. But the set highlight is the closer — Disclosure end their performance with a remix of Chic’s ‘Le Freak’, driving the crowd absolutely wild and closing out the night with a bang.
“You know what’s strange?” muses Guerra (Erno the Inferno) as Disclosure drop their final beats. “Everyone is dancing to a straight-up disco track right now.” To witness a younger generation enjoy such a classic sound proves that quality music transcends time, and that the future of dance music is bright.
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