Yet despite his status as a house trailblazer, Kinchen actually found his first success making Detroit techno in Kevin Saunderson's studio and ended up making R&B with America's A-list. On the eve of the release of his new compilation, House Masters, we caught up with the producer to talk $20,000 remixes, hanging out with Jay-Z and the stories behind his seminal remixes.
Everything they played on the radio was heavy, heavy, heavy R&B. But everything else they played, they would play faster. Even back then they would pitch the songs up. So they would almost be, not double time, but if a song was 100 beats per minute they would play to 130. It didn't have to be house music, it didn't matter what it was. Detroit always had a certain sound just for dance music. The city was just crazy about dancing. I think that's why Detroit techno became so big there, because on radio stations they would play (for example) an old Prince song, but they'd play it faster, so it sounds kinda trippy. Almost techno-y. So that's how that happened. I know that for a fact.
What radio shows were important back then?
There was a DJ named Mojo. Everybody in Detroit knows Mojo, I think even still now. He was the most influential DJ in Detroit by far. He played whatever he wanted to play. He talked a lot. He said interesting things. It's almost like whatever he said on the radio, the whole city followed. I didn't travel outside the city back then, because I was too young, but it seems like he played stuff that catered specifically to Detroit.
Was that the main inspiration for your first productions? You were really young when you started releasing music. I think 16?
That wasn't why I got into it. I liked listening to Mojo, but the reason I got into music was that I actually got into alternative music. Depeche Mode was definitely my favourite group back then. And then everything that was played that was that same kind of genre. Erasure, Skinny Puppy even. That was the kind of music I liked and that's what made me want to produce.
When you first heard house music did it stand out as something different?
When I very first heard it, I didn't like it because I was into something so different. I was into the synthy, big productions. You know, alternative music. One of the first house music records I heard was "Jack Your Body" where it's just drums and a bassline and a vocal repeated over and over. That was the stupidest thing ever for me. It's kind of ironic. But then, I got it. I started to understand it. And once I understood it there was no stopping me.
So how did you start producing? Was it as Separate Minds?
I started producing when I was 14. So by the time I was 16 I already knew how to make records. I met Lou Robinson and Terrence Parker from a mutual friend. They were already working as Separate Minds, it was their project, they already had songs done for it. They basically said, "Do you want to come help us make these records?" And I didn't really know about house music, and they kind of described it to me. I pretty much helped them.
I've always been heavy into video games, and coming from an alternative background, I liked to do stuff that sounded a little different. I didn't like to just copy something. I sampled a sound I had off a video game, and that was a track called "First Base." It was really kind of quirky, different. That was my first record. Kevin Saunderson, he had a label KMS, he was doing a Detroit techno compilation and he wanted to license "First Base" to the compilation. That's how I ended up meeting Kevin and working with him.
As a 16 year old, it must have been pretty exciting to be working with Kevin considering the success he was having with Inner City at the time.
Yeah, I was very excited. I have that record framed at my Mom's house. Everyone looked up to Kevin, he was doing really well in Detroit. I was proud of myself that I was working with Kevin.
What did Kevin teach you? Did he show you anything in the studio?
He didn't really show me. The funny thing is Kevin is kinda quiet and I'm quiet, so we'd just be working on something and not talking. I had 24 hour access to Kevin's studio. There was a studio that was in a loft in Detroit. One half was a studio and his company, the other half he would live there. I would go there and just make records.
What kind of studio was that compared to what you had at home?
What I had at home, I had like one keyboard a drum machine and a sequencer. That's it. But Kevin had everything. He had a giant desk, 24 track analogue tape. He had everything. But I've always been into equipment so I was able to just go there without an engineer or anything and kind of just work everything out. One time I went there and that's when I made "Burning." And every time I was making a track I was actually making it for Kevin to put out. But nobody wanted it. So I figured I'll put it out myself.
What was the initial reaction to the record?
I was so young then, and I didn't go out to clubs much. So I didn't really know people were into it the way they were. I knew the distributors kept calling and reordering it. So I thought that was good, but I didn't have any numbers to gauge next to it. So I didn't know what number was good or bad. I just thought, it's average I guess. It's not as though I sold 200,000 copies. I sold 20,000 copies. Now I find out that's pretty good for a first record by a little kid. And then Virgin ended up picking it up. They called me up and said they wanted to license the record. So I said, "Cool, let's do it."
Were you still living in Detroit at this point? I know you moved to New York in this period.
Well once Virgin signed the project, I moved to New York. I brought my equipment—I didn't have a lot—but once I got there I was pretty much broke. I was living with my girlfriend and kinda living off her. It's not like I said, "I'm gonna be rich in a year." I was just kinda going along with it. I knew I didn't want to get a job! [laughs] So I would get random calls from people wanting me to do a record for like $1000 and that's how I would make my money. It was like that for the first year and a half.
Did you go out much in that period? The early '90s were very much a golden era for New York clubbing.
I wasn't like a diehard club kid. I remember meeting Todd Terry, Kenny and Louie (Masters At Work) and became very good friends with them. It seemed like every weekend we would get in touch. It would be like, "Hey, you guys going out?" Or they would be playing somewhere. And I would go out and see them play and hang out.
Well that's what made me start doing dubs, that one thing. Because I did a vocal mix —I don't know if you've ever heard the original of "Push The Feeling"—but it's slow kind of R&B or soul. But I liked the vocals a lot. I did the vocal mix. But I guess it was still not what they wanted.
I was going to Detroit to see my family, and Marci (my manager at the time) called me and she's like, "They don't like the mix Marc. You're going to have to do it again." Well I said, "I've got a flight to catch. I can't do it." She was like, "Marc, they paid you a lot of money and you've got to do it."
I was really upset. My studio wasn't together because I was leaving, stuff was on the floor. I remember my mixing desk was on the floor. I had two JBL monitors; one of them was blown so I only had one monitor. I did the mix as quick as I could, because I was kinda upset. I did it in probably 30 minutes.
While I was doing the mix Marci sent a messenger to pick up the DAT because I had to leave. So I finished the mix, the messenger comes, then I leave. I come back to New York maybe two weeks later and I listen to it and I'm like, "Wow. This is good!" I called my brother and said, "Scott, you gotta hear this!" That's when I knew I had a monster.
So how different was the dub to the original vocal version you made?
Totally different. Now I Iook back, I probably see why they rejected it. It was really musical and it was probably just too much for what they wanted.
How much were you getting for a remix back then?
$20,000. My mixes at that point were still kind of steady, I had at least three mixes a month. After Nightcrawlers I had about four a month.
Which is crazy now! Did that stop the need to ever want to tour or DJ?
Well, I stopped remixing when that price was the same. Everyone just wanted another Nightcrawlers. I just thought, "Nah, you're taking the fun out of it now!" So I started doing more R&B, more production where royalties came in. My whole dream from the beginning, I probably said this in an interview when I was 18, I want to be like a Quincy Jones. I want to be a producer that produces a lot of a different acts. I thought, well, it's probably a good time to start that now. While I've got money, while I've got work coming in. So at least I can try and branch off.
You actually got to meet Quincy Jones didn't you? Were you signed to his agency or something?
I had a meeting at Motwown and I had a Rolex on, a $20,000 watch on. And this guy named Jay Brown came in the office. Back then, people that were into R&B and hip hop, they didn't know about house. To them, house wasn't popular. So he said, "What do you do?" And I didn't tell I made house, I didn't tell him I was MK, I just told him I was a producer. He said, "Let me hear some stuff." So that night I took him some CDs. He took them back to LA because he worked with Quincy. He called me the next day and said "Quincy wants to sign you." It was literally that quick.
Then Jay Brown started managing me. From that point on I was on a bunch of projects. SWV, Tevin Campbell. Then Jay Brown started working with Jay-Z, which meant I started working with Jay-Z and hanging out with Jay-Z.
You had a release on Omar-S's label recently. How did that come about?
The funny thing is my friend called me and said, "Omar-S wants to put out one of your records." I was like "What record?" "4th Measure Men record" So I said, "Yeah, let's do it." It was simple as that. Let's make it happen. Done deal.
Was that an unreleased record?
That was a re-release. It had been out, but there were a couple of 4th Measure Men records that I put out that were just quiet.
Todd Edwards on MK
MK's first influence on me was his most ground-breaking remix, Nightcrawlers' "Push the Feeling." An extremely catchy and melodic hook was this remix's signature, but no one could figure out what the vocal was singing. That was because it wasn't singing anything. MK took bits of the original vocal, and pieced together his own vocal hook. No one had used vocals like that before. It was a brilliant concept. I attempted to emulate and imitate this vocal styling. I especially loved MK's remix of The Pet Shop Boys' "Can You Forgive Her." If you listen to my remix of J.D. Braithwaite's "Love Me Tonight," you will be able to hear how inspired I was by MK's Pet Shop Boys remix.
Even the other musical elements of MK's work were very different from other producers at the time. His tracks were soulful but had something more...perhaps more futuristic. MK's use of vocals became the cornerstone of my musical style. Since I didn't have access to many contemporary instrument sounds, I started using vocal cut-ups as the main musical elements in my tracks. Though my sound continued to evolve, I can say with 100% certainty, without MK's influence, there would be no Todd Edwards.
Actually I found my hard drive from when I lived in New York. I have literally hundreds of songs from that period. They're not finished, but some are mostly finished. Some with just basslines and organs. There's tons of stuff on there.
Would you ever want to do anything with them?
I don't know. It's weird. I think after this trip to Europe I will.
So all the time you were producing pop stuff did you realize the influence your records were having on UK garage and producers like Todd Edwards?
I knew about Todd but UK garage, I had had no idea, especially before the internet was big. I didn't DJ and I didn't go out so I had no idea. I had some idea because people would tell me but I've more been hearing about it in the last few years. It's kind of shocking, because you hear it and you're not expecting it.
Well, anyone who grew up in Britain in the '90s would have found your music pretty inescapable, even in the years after you stopped producing house music.
I mostly know from YouTube. I'll look at one of my old records and see how many views it's had and think, "Wow." Literally every comment is a good comment. I'll look at other people's songs on YouTube and see bad comments. I've never seen a bad comment on mine!
That's got to be nice!
When I'm feeling down, I can always look on YouTube and lift myself up!