What is the New Motown Sound?
Detroit's Black music scene may be more diverse than anywhere else in the nation. But, while some artists have household names, others struggle just to be heard.
Point to a spot on the globe. Any spot. Wherever your finger is pointing, it's likely a sizeable percentage of that population has heard about Motown.
Motown built the sound that was heard around the world—and still is being heard today.
There's even a musical on Broadway right now celebrating the glory days of Detroit's famous hit factory. Motown didn't just represent the best Detroit had to offer; it represented some of the best popular music the country had to offer to the rest of the world.
Motown was Black music. Motown was Detroit. Motown defined Detroit, and we were all proud of that. Then, in 1972, Motown packed up and left for Los Angeles, leaving little more behind than a long shadow and some memories. So did Black music in Detroit pack up and leave, too? How do you recover from something like that?
It's not easy—but then, "easy" and "Detroit" have never existed in the same ZIP code. And, for those who didn't know already, there was quite a bit of good Black music here in Detroit before Motown ever showed up. Whether the quality of the music is the same today as years gone by depends entirely on whom you ask and their age. Talk to some of the older musicians who were around during the days of Motown, and they may regard that era as the gold standard—and say that the standard has been declining ever since for a variety of reasons, including the loss of good music education in the schools.
But speak to the younger crowd, and you're likely to hear a more optimistic perspective that embraces an impressive number of talented young artists and producers, some who are on the verge of blowing up on the national scene—if they haven't already. Kem. Dwele. Big Sean. Ife Mora. Danny Brown. Ibrahim Jones.
You might encounter older musicians such as blues guitarist Billy Davis who, years ago, shared his knowledge with a young Jimi Hendrix before Hendrix made it big. In 2011, Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being the lead guitarist for Hank Ballard and The Midnighters.
There will always be the respect and love for the excellence of Motown. But folks will tell you that Detroit isn't just known for the hits of yesteryear anymore. Today is happening, as well.
"I wouldn't necessarily agree that Black music isn't as big (as it used to be) in Detroit. The difference is we don't have a Motown putting out all our music—or so much of it," says Drake Phifer, a local producer of "emerging and critical talent" who has operated his own music company, Urban Organic, since 2001.
"Technology is part of it. We don't have a singular force like what Berry Gordy was. It's more fragmented. The people of Motown had their finger on the pulse of the time."
It was Phifer who produced Kem's first show in Detroit at the Tangent Gallery in 2001.
About 300 folks showed up, he remembers, "but a solid 300." These days, Kem has grown to be one of the biggest musical acts to come out of the city, and he's one of the reasons Phifer and others are optimistic about Detroit's musical future.
Other reasons include Big Sean, whose highly anticipated album, "Hall of Fame," is slated for a summer release.
His "Finally Famous" came out under Kanye West's imprint label, GOOD Music, last year. And, Phifer says, he's considered one of the top rappers on the scene today. Big Sean has a song out featuring both Kanye West and Jay-Z, which is about as close to rap royalty as you can get. He recently announced he's teaming up with Royce da 5'9", and rumors are swirling that he is in collaboration with Eminem, too.
Danny Brown, another Detroiter who excels in the hip-hop genre, boasts a disc, "XXX," that was voted No. 1 album of the year in 2011 by SPIN Magazine—besting Rihanna and other star-studded names.
Bev Love and Charity join Kem on the R&B front.
"Charity was invited to perform at The Apollo last year and received a standing ovation," says Phifer. Charity also was recognized last year in JET magazine as someone to watch. So it's hard to argue that Black music in Detroit has come to a standstill. Black people are still here, and they're still making music—lots of it.
But how does it compare to the music of the Motown era? Or should it even be compared? Either way, some veteran musicians strongly feel that the quality has suffered. Not because the younger generation suffers from a lack of talent or commitment. Rather, the high level of musical education and training that many elders received in public schools and in the churches "back in the day" has all but evaporated.
As a result, they say, too many younger musicians lack the technical skills necessary to compose a basic song.
"Black music, to me, is that stuff that came out of Stax and Motown," says John E. Lawrence, a performing musician who currently serves as head of the music performance program and performing arts department chair at Washtenaw Community College. "Otis Redding. Isaac Hayes, in particular. Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions. Mavis Staples. The Chi-lites. Lou Rawls. I don't listen to the new R&B at all.
"The production, the songwriting, the artistry—it's not the same quality. I can't think of one song that's been recorded by a new artist that's worthy of a remake later on in life. In my time, originality was prized. In the new school, all they want is replicas. I think, as an educator, it's my duty to let kids know what's a good song, what's a good arrangement, what good music is. There are still a number of younger musicians who are studying jazz and learning their music and are doing great things."
Kevin Carter, a Detroit native who has been an active and versatile performer on the local scene for several decades, comes from a well-known musical family that includes his brother, internationally acclaimed jazz saxophonist James Carter, his cousin, internationally acclaimed jazz violinist Regina Carter, and vocalist Robert Carter, his brother who now spends much of his time working in Las Vegas.
He agrees with Lawrence that the quality of the music has suffered, and he blames primarily the loss of music education in the public schools. As for what comprises "Black" music, to Carter, it's simply "music in general"—because "Black music is pretty much the basis for everything."
"We had (good music education) available to us for free when I was coming up. Not anymore," says Carter. "You don't hear real songs anymore."
Something else affecting Black music in Detroit is something that actually impacts all musicians here—namely the sheer difficulty of making a living playing music in this city. As a result, far too many musicians don't have health-care insurance, among other problems, which results in the long, worn tradition of musicians supporting one another in times of crisis via fundraisers. This perpetual stress has an impact on the music scene, too, that may be more difficult to detect.
"Starvation affects creativity," as Carter puts it. But so does not having a place to perform.
Keyboardist Phil Hale, who for years ran the very popular weekly late-night jazz jam sessions in Greektown with his brother, drummer Milton Hale, before moving the event to Detroit's Harbor House this year, says he began his career as a full-time musician when he was just 10 years old.
His Uncle Willie, a church organist who died when Phil turned 11, schooled him. By age 12, Phil was playing organ himself.
"It ain't nothin' like it was when I was coming up in the '70s," says Hale. "There were so many clubs that were open then that are now closed. It's hard to be a straight-up band anymore. All the bands are made up of music mercenaries" who rotate around town, in and out of various bands. Which might explain why so many great Detroit musicians, both young and old, felt forced to leave their city to find a better chance at broad success.
Ife Sanchez Mora is the daughter of Francisco Mora, a widely respected Detroit-based Afro-Latin drummer/composer who performed with a long list of jazz royalty including Sun Ra, Max Roach, Marcus Belgrave and Kenny Cox.
Ife's mother, Teresa Mora, frequently performed with her husband at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. When Ife Mora was a youngster, she remembers being surrounded not just by music but by musicians—and learned from many of them. As she got older, she began experimenting with a variety of styles and was active in the Black punk-rock scene, as well as Detroit's techno scene.
"I learned a lot from (techno pioneer) Derrick May," she says.
But despite her family's deep Detroit roots and artistic legacy, Mora left Detroit six years ago, bound for New York City. Although not that enamored with New York as a place to live, she doesn't mention plans to move back here anytime soon. In fact, she'll be heading to Los Angeles later this year.
Still, her love for her birthplace (she grew up near McNichols and Schaefer roads) and its history is evident, and her smile brightens noticeably during a Saturday evening conversation at a Corktown hot spot when she recounts her performance at the Detroit Music Awards the previous day.
She talks about how proud she was to play on the Fillmore Detroit stage—and to be so warmly received by the hometown crowd. On her recent independently released album, "Fire Inside of Me," the raw, hard-edged song "Detroit Blues" incorporates the city's grit directly into its sound and lyrics.
"You know, back home, they breed 'em tough, yeah. You better not mess with a girl that's this rough," she says. "No matter what you may think of this town, you can't keep this girl from Detroit down."
She adds, "I do hope to be able to come back and perform here more often."
Mike Malis, a young jazz pianist raised in Grosse Pointe who recently graduated with a BFA from the University of Michigan in 2011 after studying under his mentor Geri Allen, currently is anchored in the Detroit jazz scene. He also studied with master trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and pianist Bess Bonnier. As a non-Black practitioner of what many would characterize as Black music, he offers a unique perspective.
"My ancestors were all Greek immigrants, all of whom came to America sometime between the 1910s and the 1950s," he says. "The question of what qualifies as Black music is a question that's being hotly debated right now. I play Black music, but I myself am not Black. Does that make me a Black musician? That doesn't seem quite right to me.
"This music that once had clear racial and socioeconomic boundaries simply does not anymore. Perhaps we need another word to define this globalizing art form of ours."
As for Detroit, specifically, the music landscape is a scrambled scene—but one he embraces wholeheartedly.
"At this point, I have to say that Detroit is pretty off the map in terms of the music industry," Malis explains. "For that, you have to be in New York, L.A. or Nashville. Maybe Austin. But that's it. Everyone else is basically off the map.
"But Detroit is an amazing town to experience live music. Some of the best in the world, across genres, are here. That's why I'm here. The fact that the record industry isn't here gives me freedom to be experimental. The fact that there are amazing musicians here gives me the opportunity to grow."
Gisele Caver, a lifelong Detroiter and retired police sergeant, has been heavily involved in the city's music scene for years. She remembers her childhood days on Detroit's eastside, where it wasn't unusual to see a gathering of kids singing doo-wop under the street lights in front of her house as parents observed from the porch. She remembers dancing behind Edwin Starr at the 20 Grand Club with her cousin at the tender age of 13, and she recalls Sunday matinees at big clubs.
Later, as an adult, she managed Detroit jazz trumpeter Rayse Biggs' recording studio for 19 years—and also worked as business manager for David Myles and The Mylestones.
She currently operates Key of Gee, a local music and entertainment information website.
Like Phil Hale, she bemoans the shortage of performance venues where local artists can stretch out, grow and showcase new material—or simply perform in front of an appreciative crowd.
"From 1920 to 1970, there were approximately 120 jazz and blues clubs in southeast Michigan," she says, referencing Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert's 2001 book, "Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-1960." Today, the number of clubs offering live music is barely a handful, by comparison—and good luck trying to find local music on the radio.
"The thing that hurts me most about the industry is all these fabulous musicians—and nowhere for them to be heard. That hurts. WJZZ-FM (107.5) and WGPR-FM helped a lot of artists to break out, but that's gone now."
Still, Caver remains hopeful about Detroit's musical future when she considers such programs as "In Accord," founded by Al McKenzie, former musical director for The Temptations and a graduate of Interlochen Center for the Arts.
In Accord promotes musical opportunities for young musicians and regularly awards scholarships to Interlochen for the most promising youngsters. The Detroit Black Music Awards is another reason Caver feels hopeful. The DBMA has been held the first Sunday of every August at Bert's Warehouse Theatre in Eastern Market since 2009, when it was founded by vocalist Misty Love as a means to give more recognition to Detroit's Black artists—whom she felt were routinely overlooked by such high-profile events as the Detroit Music Awards.
"I think the Detroit Music Awards are just not aware of these people. They don't go where we go," says Love.
Take, for example, Bassist Ibrahim Jones, son of trumpet great Felton Jones and a 2012 DBMA "Bass Player of the Year" winner (as well as a nominee for "Musician of the Year" in 2011). A graduate of Cass Technical High School in Detroit—where he was honored as the top high school bassist in the state by the Michigan School Band & Orchestra Association—and Wayne State University, Jones has served as the bassist in Oprah Winfrey's Broadway hit show "The Color Purple," as well as "Rebirth of the Cool" and "Ain't Nothin' But the Blues."
He's also worked as music director for many Detroit plays, such as "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Sarah, Ella and Pops."
"The DMA is more centered around White rock 'n' roll, although more Blacks are getting recognized now," Love says. "They didn't know how to go in the 'hood and find these spots we've been going to for years."
Not that Love herself has been overlooked, having received one gold, six platinum and 10 diamond records for singing on the hit album "Devil Without a Cause," with Kid Rock, according to EmbarcoEntertainment.com.
"Everybody around the world thinks so highly of the Detroit music scene. We need to know what other people think of us.
"Detroit needs to recognize how other people are recognizing us. In other countries, we're up on a pedestal. We need to keep that legacy going."