Living in Detroit, Michigan in the mid 1960’s, music was the dominant force in the motor city. Everyone’s dream was to be a singer, so everyday wannabe singers flocked to the crowded front steps of Hitsville, U.S.A, later renamed, Motown with the hope of singing for Berry Gordy.
Motown was challenging the music businesses ideal of what the public wanted – and doing a great job of it. Berry was giving us Do Wop harmonies, but he was giving it to us on a more rhythmic scale, and with a beat that made listeners shake their stuff in a new key.
Berry Gordy had climbed the mountain…he had done what no other record producer could accomplish… he had improved the already established, and much loved, Do Wop style with a danceable beat.
In addition to amassing an incredible roster of talented singers and songwriters, Berry had also assembled some of the best musicians in the country to come and play his new Motown sound, they were The Funk Brothers.
The Funk Brothers was Motown’s house band that put the roof on the house that Berry built.
It was the period when artists like Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, The Spinners, and The Beatles ruled the airwaves. Everyone knew the words to their songs, when they came on the radio and we all sang along. Those were the days when radio DJs worked from play lists and songs were played in rotation, or hourly, so you could just about time when your favorite song would play. You could turn on the radio, no matter what time of day or night, and the disc jockeys would not disappoint. There was always a good song either playing, or waiting on deck.
The era of Martin, Civil Rights, and Viet Nam - a period of change, and Motown was helping to write the soundtrack of a country in the midst of change. Marvin Gaye was deemed too radical when he sang "Mercy, Mercy Me", but the dye had been cast.
The saying that everything old is new again can be true for music, as well. Musicians and songwriters dip into past decades to find great lyrics or an incredibly inspired melody all the time. Who would have guessed that lines from the song Hard Knock Life that I used to sing with my daughter when she was 5, from her favorite little girl movie, “Annie”, would be the hook in a rap song some 25 years later. The fact that the genre itself could have survived the firestorm it caused and still be around is a miracle.
Rap; the art of speaking a poetic and rhythmic message to music had a tough entry into the music scene. Critics said it would be little more than a footnote in the annals of music history, but the naysayers miscalculated the power of ghetto cohesion. They also failed to hear the tenacity and determination in the voices of desperation. Rappers had a market, and they knew their buyer, firsthand. They peddled their wares to the people with or without the help of white collars, or stores. Just ask the rappers who sold cassettes from their trunks and are now driving Bentleys.
Rap music is now the core of the industry and the mainstay for MTV. It is the money maker when it used to be the music that frightened suburbia to the point of taking up arms Tipper Gore-style.
Tipper Gore gathered support from the Gucci and Prada wearing suburban camp in her bid to suppress the female bashing lyrics of some rappers. I might add that I am not a proponent of female bashing rhymes, but I will defend their right of speech.
These days you can hear rap music filtering from many a suburban spin class, with soccer moms peddling to the beat while wearing the latest Baby Phat shorts.
Back in the day, as they say, the late urban poet Gil Scott Heron introduced us to a kind of educated Rap, like The Last Poets, who had been blowing urban American minds with their poetic lyricism since the 60s. I would like to think that Heron and others held the door open for modern day rappers, but I wonder if they will ever honor the trailblazer’s with any recognition.
My taste in music has always been unusually eclectic. I attribute some of that to my parents. It is because of them that I feel blessed for my exposure to all types of music. Where my mother was the maven of Motown, and loved the Temptations, Gladys, and Stevie, my father, on the other hand, was born with a tin ear so anything that twanged, clanged, or screeched was music to his ears.
I remember my father pumping up the volume to The Rolling Stones', “I can't get no, (Satisfaction)”, and watching as he tried with all his might to muster even a smattering of rhythm. I was only 8 years old at the time, but I knew even then that musical talent had eluded my poor father’s grasp, which meant I, too, was genetically predisposed to the same fate.
I will just be content to listen and tap my toe now and then, and snap my finger occasionally.