What’s hip-hop and R&B without Motown? Thankfully, we’ll never know.
Above the windows of Motown Records’ legendary offices at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit read the words “Hitsville, U.S.A.,” and, boy, did that slogan ring true. Founded by Berry Gordy, Jr. in January 12, 1959, the iconic recording label was home to an assembly line of chart-topping black artists, musicians, and songwriters: Smokey Robinson, The Jackson 5, The Temptations, The Funk Brothers, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Isley Brothers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Marvin Gaye. Gordy had himself a hall of fame — and that’s in both the figurative and, as history would have it, literal sense.
This hall of fame became the heartbeat of American pop culture, producing over 180 No. 1 hits and constructing the musical, social, and cultural fabric for which it stands. It was the sound that changed America, and created the sonic DNA for today. For its insurmountable impact, comes an engrossing influence that reverberates across the board — especially within R&B and hip-hop. Take a look at the art of sampling as an example. It is the gravel to its foundation.
Within the catalog of any influential rapper and singer is an interpolation of a Motown classic. It was 30 years ago when Run DMC famously lifted The Temptations’ 1972 classic “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” for the Tougher Than Leather highlight “Papa Crazy.” In 1994, Mary J. Blige and Method Man updated Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s seminal ballad for a new generation in “You’re All I Need/I’ll Be There For You.” There’s no “Mo Money, Mo Problems” from The Notorious B.I.G. and Bad Boy without Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” and the sociopolitical resonance of a song like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” deserves its own thinkpiece. In 2005, Eddie Kendrick’s “Intimate Friends” soundtracked Alicia Keys’ “Unbreakable” and last year, Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” became JAY-Z’s testimonial on “Smile.” These sweet, smooth, and soulful orchestral arrangements gave artists the grooves to get lost in behind their lyrics, which effectively helped turn their I’s into we’s. As a result of this, comes some of the most important records ever recorded.
But anything that becomes incredible, begins with a connection to the people. And a big part of Motown’s transcendence was the emotional connection that its music established beyond the stereo speaker. For an artist, that parallel started with one simple question: why?
For Martha and the Vandellas on “Dancing in the Street,” it was a tribute to the street-dance parties that were once popular and, a few years later, that very song would offer light on one of black America’s darkest periods on the road to attain civil rights. For Stevie Wonder on “Village Ghetto Land,” it was pain and the heartbreaking reality of growing poverty and homelessness.
For artists today, this concept of “why” plays a major role in their narrative. On CTRL, SZA’s “why” was coming to terms with the concept of “control” (“It’s just a concept, a word, a fantasy,” she told The Breakfast Club last year). For Mary J. Blige on 1994’s My Life, her “why” was exhaling emotional pain. On JAY-Z and Beyoncé’s Everything Is Love, it’s the power of love. The “why” behind its supreme catalog is what helped Motown define, expand, and influence generations. More than pumping out hits like water, it installed a stylistic identity that saw the golden voices behind its music become full flowers.
When you think about the role that Gordy’s Motown played in the early 1960s, defining and presenting America black artistic expression in real time as the country endured one of its most polarizing decades in history, you can’t help but marvel at the business model. For all its accomplishments, this was an independent record company — an African American-owned label at that. With all the odds stacked against this dynamic, Gordy, his all-star roster of black artists, and his independent label managed to break through the proverbial glass ceiling to achieve widespread acclaim.
It’s this business model that has influenced the coveted moguls we have today, from Andre Harrell with Uptown Records to Sean “Diddy” Combs with Bad Boy, JAY-Z with Roc-A-Fella, all the way down to Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith with TDE and, as bigwigs in the new era of Motown, Coach K and Pierre Thomas’ Quality Control. “Every executive should study Berry Gordy’s blueprint: We’re an independent company, and we built our whole label around how Motown was built,” Coach K explained in a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone.
As the saga continues through the very music that dominates the pulse of America today, we salute one of the most-defining, culture-shifting juggernauts in recorded music history: Motown Records. Where would we be without this force? Thankfully, we’ll never know.
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