features

Hitsville and Hip-Hop: Detroit's Rich Heritage

By Stereo Williams

Detroit’s musical legacy is beyond iconic; and its history is more than significant.

Detroit music is a pillar of American culture; and for so many, Detroit will always be synonymous with Motown. The legendary label that took soul music to the top of the pop charts and launched the careers of icons like Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations is etched into our cultural consciousness and has remained so for the better part of over 60 years. But Detroit’s musical heritage is just as steeped in Hip-Hop, and with Detroit rappers impacting and influencing the genre for decades, it’s not hard to see how the spirit of Berry Gordy’s famed label has continued through the D’s potent rap scene.

Detroit’s music scene is the classic soul of Motown, and it’s also garage rock, techno and punk bands, it’s jazz, and, most definitely, it’s Hip-Hop. Motown looms large as part of the city’s identity, and for music fans everywhere, Berry Gordy symbolizes the D’s can-do spirit, and his entrepreneurial focus set a standard that echoes throughout Hip-Hop labels even to this day: get it done—even when no one believes in you. After all, Gordy was a former employee of the Lincoln-Mercury automobile plant when he launched his label in 1959 with just an $800 loan. He brought along local talents like Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves to help establish Motown.

That can-do tendency towards individualism formed a foundation that Detroit Hip-Hop carried into the new millennium. Rappers in a city often overlooked by Hip-Hop’s mainstream figured out how to build their own incubator for remarkable talents, and Detroit Hip-Hop has some of the most varied and self-contained artists. Like Gordy in the city's motor city heyday, Detroit rappers carved a lane by believing in the talent right around the corner. This was a city that has never waited for anyone to tell it how great it is. 

In the early 90s, “acid rap” pioneer Esham launched his career via his own independent label Reel Life Productions; and in the mid 1990s, Friday night club parties at St. Andrew's Hall downtown and Saturdays at Maurice Malone’s Hip Hop Shop on 7 Mile Road in the northwest side helped launch Detroit’s Hip-Hop heyday in earnest. Hosted by Proof, the battles at the Shop would be a catalyst for the emergence of soon-to-be-superstar Eminem. Around the same time, a kid named James Yancey was beginning to make a name for himself as a producer. J. Dilla would become a go-to production wizard for established acts like The Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest before pushing his own hometown crew, Slum Village, to the forefront.

Taking cues from Esham, shock rap act Insane Clown Posse emerged in the 1990s, as a cartoonishly over-the-top act with macabre and controversial lyrics. They would develop one of the biggest cult followings in Hip-Hop, all from their own label: Psycopathic Records. 

The spirit of Gordy's Motown wasn't just alive in Detroit act's tendency towards self- sufficiency. It has always been present in the musical sensibilities of some of the city's most famed creatives. Dilla’s 2005 “Beat Tape #3” aka “The Motown Beat Tape” highlights the legendary producer’s ties to the musical legacy of his hometown.

As Detroit has been the subject of economic commentary and watched the automotive industry teeter on the brink only to bounce back, the city's fortitude is a part of its DNA.

On “Letter To Detroit,” Eminem makes it plain:

"There is a resilience that rises from somewhere deep within your streets. You can't define it, but you can feel it. You can feel it overflowing from the people who call you home. From people who are always proud to declare, 'I'm from Detroit.' You took our country from it's infancy, into industry. And your name still carries with it the idea of a nation built on steel, muscle and sweat."

Motown relocated to Los Angeles in 1972, but it remains inextricably connected to the city of Detroit. In some ways, the departure of Motown in the early 70s contributed to Detroit’s flourishing as an indie rap haven well into the 1990s. The music industry couldn’t see how much talent was there, so local artists had to go for self. That departure didn't obscure how much the label has always meant to the city; and the mainstream lull that may have been an obstacle for so many Hip-Hop artists decades later turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. When Detroiters broke through again, they did so with a fully-formed sense of identity, honed by a scene that had grown in spite of outside indifference. 

And Motown still has a foothold on contemporary music, even as Hitsville may not be the place where the magic is made. Via it's partnership with Universal and labels like the Atlanta-based Quality Control, it's maintained it's position in the industry. Rappers like Lil Yachty, Migos and City Girls are affiliated with Motown/Universal, and the name has remained a part of the fabric of popular music. 

Detroit's musical legacy is cemented. It's blue collar ethos and creative spirit has been passed down through the generations. And when it comes to Hip-Hop, that Gordy tenaciousness and vision has remained a part of how the city's rappers, producers and promoters have gotten things done. From Hitsville to Hip-Hop, Detroit is always Detroit.