The birth of our underground brand, Factory 93, not only brought on an adrenaline rush reminiscent of the renegade warehouse era of raving—on which Insomniac was founded—but it also had us thinking back to all the people, places and parties that made this whole operation possible. And with that came a burning desire to crack open our collection and dust off the classic records we couldn’t live without. Through our From the Crate series, we’ll be breaking out both seminal and obscure cuts alike, imparting some knowledge in the process.
“We don’t need a crowd to have a party / Just a funky beat and you to get it started, and oh / We’ll dance the night away / We’re having big fun/ The party’s just begun, yeah!”
It sounds simple enough: Catchy party lyrics, mesmerizing female vocals, and some, well, funky electronic beats. On its face, Inner City’s “Big Fun” may sound today like a CeCe Peniston, Crystal Waters, or Soul II Soul track to a less-trained ear. Peel its story back a layer, however, and it reveals Detroit techno’s first breakthrough to the mainstream. It not only marked an underground movement’s unlikely success story, but it was a victory that crosses racial and socioeconomic lines in a way the scene could have never anticipated.
In 1973, a young African-American boy from Brooklyn moved to a Detroit suburb called Belleville. The city, by his own admittance, was still very much so racially divided at the time. In school, he forged friendships with two other young men of color that would go on to change the face of dance music forever. That 9-year-old boy was one Kevin Saunderson, and his two schoolyard buddies happened to be Juan Atkins and Derrick May. Today, the three are lovingly referred to as “The Belleville Three,” credited with having created Detroit’s signature sound. Atkins has been tagged as the “Godfather of Techno,” May its “Innovator,” and Saunderson as the “Elevator.”
In the case of “Big Fun,” the year was 1988. The term “Detroit techno” was on its way to being coined, and a young Saunderson was in the early stages of what would become his prolific career. His keyboard skills could hardly spell out a melody on a piano. Atkins and May had spent many a night inventing the future of sound, inspired by the machines that punched, drilled and pounded cars out of Detroit’s automobile assembly lines. Listening to heavy doses of funk and early German electronic beats, they crafted a style they described as “George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator.”
Saunderson had been playing around with fellow Detroiter James Pennington (aka Suburban Knight and a part of Underground Resistance) on a sound that would become the foundation of Inner City.
“It was a chord, sampled, one note spread through the keyboards, replayed, mixed down with a pad and a few of our own notes,” he told FACT Magazine. “We had this unique sound.”
“Inner City’s sound naturally walks a line between Detroit’s basic, often grittier sequencing that nods to the dark underground, and the emotional appeals for hope, love and fun that are synonymous with pop music.”
Inner City’s sound naturally walks a line between Detroit’s basic, often grittier sequencing that nods to the dark underground, and the emotional appeals for hope, love and fun that are synonymous with pop music. But they probably hadn’t figured that out just yet. That’s because Saunderson had yet to locate Paris Grey and her voice.
Saunderson kept plugging away on “Big Fun” until he had a fortuitous meeting with Chicago’s Terry “Housemaster” Baldwin. At that point, the track had drums on it and piano notes added to it by Art Forest. At the time, the house scene in Chicago had been blowing up as a natural departure from disco. Baldwin told Saunderson in passing that his vocalist would be perfect for the track.
The vocalist he spoke of had lent her velvety, commanding vocals to his “Don’t Lead Me,” which still has a way of ripping up the dancefloor some 30 years later. She was also behind his hit “Don’t Make Me Jack (Tonite I Wanna House You)” on Housetime Records. Grey was a former gospel singer who worked as a makeup artist at a Chicago department store. She was reportedly happy to be paid $100 to work on a track and more or less carry on with her life from there.
Saunderson and Grey had a conversation, and she came back and sang the vocals to “Big Fun” on the phone to him a month later. It was love at first listen.
“It wasn’t necessarily the darkest, most underground track that we had ever done, but it wasn’t commercial, either,” Saunderson said. “These lyrics, and her melody, just send it over the top. Her voice was just so unique. It was an instrument itself.”
Saunderson took Paris to Detroit to record the song in Atkins’ studio. It was originally recorded on seven tracks (with an eighth for sync), and his friend’s studio had at least 16. From there, the hit was born. It was first released on Saunderson’s own label, KMS Records, and 10 Records, a sub-label of Virgin, as a part of the Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit compilation.
KMS had a hard time keeping up with both the demand of the song and the level to which it was being bootlegged. Saunderson eventually licensed it to 10 Records, and the rest is history. The single reached #1 on the US dance chart for a week and was the first of Inner City’s five releases to reach that top spot. It was a top-10 hit in the UK and peaked at #50 on the American R&B singles chart.
It was almost impossible to convince Grey to get on a plane bound for London to record the music video. She finally agreed in the very end, sealing her place in early American electronic dance music history.
That same year, “Detroit techno” became a term unto itself. UK dance entrepreneur Neil Rushton approached the Belleville Three to license their work, due to its wild success in his home country. The idea was to separate Detroit’s sound from Chicago’s, and everyone agreed to “techno.” It was a nod to Atkins’ earlier work with Cybotron, as “Techno City” was an early single. The Belleville Three helped drive their hometown sound well beyond the shores of the Detroit River, in many ways on the back of the surprising success of “Big Fun.” It was a win not only for Detroit, but for bringing the racial divide together—if only on the dancefloor—and it traced the first steps of a movement that today stands as one of the pillars of dance music.