It might seem weird that dance music pioneer Jesse Saunders, widely considered the creator of the first house music record (“On and On”), hasn’t been a bigger presence in Las Vegas’ vast club scene. But the Chicago legend (who now lives in Las Vegas) doesn’t play the top 40 hits heard all over the Strip—he prefers a deeper musical exploration. Lucky for him—and us—Drai’s Paradise dayclub operation was seeking just that for its new Wednesday industry party, which Saunders now commandeers every week. He’ll also be hosting a screening of the Unsung documentary Frankie Knuckles and the Roots of House Music—followed by a performance at the monthly Fever party—at Sahara Lounge on April 15.
How did the residency come about? I did my birthday thing at Nacho House [at Tacos & Beer] a few weeks ago and Fernando [Alva, aka DJ F3R] came through, who has been running the pool at Drai’s over the past few years. This year they gave him two more days [to program]. He came over, said he enjoyed my set [and that Drai’s was] giving him more leeway to do more housey things. He said "I have the Wednesday now as an industry party, more of an upbeat, hands-in-the-air kind of thing. I don’t have a huge budget, but if you want to join us, I’d love to have you." I was like, why not?
Given the direction of the party, do you already have an idea of what kind of music you’ll play? You know, I’ve never been one to really put together in my head what I’ll play for any place. Having said that, I'll play the more Balearic-type stuff that I’d play in Europe or Miami. A lot of the stuff is more Afro-Cuban, a little more Latin-infused, but still groove-music, putting you on a journey of all the different styles.
Monday and Tuesday is more chill. Wednesday is more in-between, with more industry types of people. It’s not like I’m playing prime time like I'm at a club, but it’s a little more uplifting and danceable.
You’ve famously avoided playing on the Strip. Does it feel good to finally have a space there that welcomes your craft and legacy? Yeah, definitely. I’ve never been opposed to playing on the Strip, [only] someone telling me what to play and how to play it, and me not having creative control. If you go back to Utopia days and Club Ra, that was all house, before all this madness took over the clubs—the hip-hop and now EDM. [House] was the sound of Vegas, and for Vegas to go back to that feels great.
You mentioned on the Facebook event page for the Unsung screening that people will be able to see why it was controversial. What’s the controversy? First, people believing Frankie [Knuckles] to be the godfather who started the whole thing, which was a little disjointed. Second, a lot of people who are believed to be players weren't mentioned. Third, I caught flack because I basically directed the piece. I started announcing that it’s in the can, all edited and airing on this date, and people were like, what does Jesse have to do with everything? It was a big thing. Majority of it was that they thought it was the story of Frankie Knuckles.
People think Frankie played a bigger part of [the beginnings of house] than he really did. When you see the documentary, it gives a different perspective. We love Frankie and his DJing, but all of his accolades and press are not necessarily deserved. Myself and Steve Hurley and [Farley] Jackmaster Funk, we’ve always been like, we need to tell the real story. When the people at A. Smith [& Co.], the production company, approached me on it and had me come in as a consultant, I was like, this is our one chance to tell it.
You’ll be performing at the throwback Fever party after the screening and Q&A. Will you be playing old-school house music from back in the day since that’s what the Unsung episode and the Fever party theme are generally about? No. I come from that era but it wasn't the era I played in. All the old-school deep house and disco has never been what I play. I play more up-and-coming and progressive and my own productions and remixes. If I find something that's older and has a new vibe, I’ll play something like that. Harry A will be playing [old school house] before and after the screening.
Do you think the Vegas house music scene is evolving? I certainly see some progress, definitely. This is the first time I’ve seen some in a while. Jesse Saunders at Drai’s Paradise (with F3R and David Serrano), April 12, doors at 11 a.m., free. Also: Unsung screening & Fever party at Sahara Lounge, April 15, 7 p.m., free.