Kevin Saunderson tells us why Inner City’s 1988 chart monster ‘Good Life’ was the right song for the right time
“My mother’s from Detroit originally, but she met my father, fell in love and moved to New York at a young age – and I was born there. I grew up in New York until I was about nine years old, then my mom took us back to Detroit for a couple of years, to a place called Inkster, and I moved to Belleville when I was 12 years old. That’s where I ran into Derrick May and Juan Atkins.
“We went to elementary school together and I met Derrick on the football team. He was friends with Juan’s brother, Aaron. We’d get together and hang out, but Juan was an older cat, and we didn’t really communicate with the older people in school. But from that connection, we started to be influenced by Juan’s dream of wanting to be a musician – Derrick was first, and by the time I got into 12th grade it started rubbing off on me.
“I’d been inspired by the Paradise Garage and Larry Levan, and I loved to hear singers like Chaka Khan and Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King. I went to the Paradise Garage with my cousin. I went probably five times in my life, and it was an experience. By this point, I’m older and Juan has music going on with Cybotron, he’s a star to me.
“He DJed a party at my house for everybody who graduated in my class, and it was off the chain. Three hundred people from all over Detroit, then Derrick gets the opportunity and jumps on the decks. I saw him on the tables and I thought, ‘Man, that’s cool – that’s like Larry Levan’. When I started, I could not be stopped. If you put the work in, you’ll get results.
“Inner City began along with James Pennington, who also went to Belleville High School, but was a little younger than me and Derrick. If there had been a Belleville Four, he would’ve been the fourth member. Me and him were just experimenting, and he was around for the initial idea for ‘Big Fun’. I transformed it, brought in a keyboard player and a writer named Art Forest. It was a group effort. But my vision was still to do a vocal record.
“I became close with a producer named Terry ‘Housemaster’ Baldwin, and he kept saying, ‘My singer, man, you should let her check this track out, this track is hot and she sounds great’. I said, ‘Yeah, let’s give it a try’. I had a conversation with Paris Grey first. I said, ‘Keep it happy, I love uplifting things’. Maybe three weeks later she called me on the phone, sung it to me, and I loved it. She did an amazing job. I took her to Juan’s studio to record it, and we did it in two takes, maybe three.
“At this point, Inner City was just my project, but I wanted to team up with Paris, so we developed ‘Good Life’, the single that followed. I invited James Pennington to come in, but I never heard back from him, he just disappeared. Paris wrote ‘Good Life’ the way she wrote ‘Big Fun’, with the same flavour and I decided I wanted to make this a continuous partnership with her – she was an amazing writer and singer, just unique. That’s when Inner City really came into being.
“‘Big Fun’ was a hit in 1988, but ‘Good Life’ was the next level, you couldn’t ask for a better follow up. Everybody wants a good life, and it makes you feel it’s got something you need. It wasn’t just the lyrics, it wasn’t just the vocals, the music was powerful as well. It got into you and made you feel good. It just transcended. My hope when I created it was to make people keep dancing. I was thinking of people like Sister Sledge and Chic… ‘Good Times’ was an important record for me, and ‘Good Life’ was my version of that.
“It was killing it – going to Number One in the clubs, destroying the dance charts. From there it just kept evolving and getting into the pop charts, which I didn’t even pay attention to, and from there we started doing shows. My goal was to be a producer in the background, I never thought I was going to be the frontman, to be out there, but I found I had to be. I did performances with people like Diana Ross and I didn’t expect that.
“It took a while even for Detroit to get onto us. America was very segregated and somewhat racist, but in Europe everyone was embracing this music. London was a little depressing at first – we didn’t have no internet, no mobile telephones, in hotels you could only call for a minute because you couldn’t afford it. We were mainly playing in pop clubs, but as time went on, into the summer of 1988, it was like a virus growing. House was big, techno was big, and the crowds were going crazy. I was going to places like the Astoria, Heaven and The Haçienda… I was part of the experience and the love, the people and the music.
“The ‘Paradise’ album was called in because of the success of the singles, so we got right into it. Nothing matched the first two singles commercially, though. They were the right songs at the right time. The scene kept changing so quickly – it migrated and turned into something different. Scenes started forming everywhere. But it wasn’t about hits for me, it was about making music that I felt great about.
“We had all the success early, touring around the world, then Paris had a family and my family kept developing too, and Inner City took a back seat. I reached out to her maybe five or six years after we stopped, so we did a little, but it wasn’t the same. Time just kept passing, and before you know it, she said she’d retired, she wasn’t interested in continuing, she didn’t want to travel at all. I couldn’t force it – you can’t make no one want to be inspired about being creative, it has to come naturally. So that was the end of Inner City as we knew it.
“Then my son, Dantiez, started jumping into music himself. When I heard him in the studio, it was like another me, and he loves vocals too. I helped him finish off a song he was developing called ‘Good Luck’, and we released it as Inner City in 2017. It was the initial spark, just a test. So that’s how it came back, and it brings Inner City into the future. People still need uplifting songs and to feel good, and I think there’s maybe a void for that out there.”
Inner City’s ‘We All Move Together’, is out now on Armada Music