DETROIT – Putting your ear close enough to the pavement, you can still hear the sound of Motown music throughout its native city of Detroit.
In 1959, what’s now affectionately known as the Motown sound was born. With an $800 dollar loan from his family, Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Tamla Records, then adding the Motown label later that year, according to the Detroit Historical Society. Gordy purchased a property in Detroit that would eventually become known as Hitsville U.S.A., Motown’s headquarters.
In years to follow, Gordy and Motown records racked up over one hundred Top Ten hits. Legendary artist after legendary artist walked through their doors, including the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross.
While classic hits like The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” from the Four Tops continue to find their way into modern day culture, the breadth of all creations that came out of the Motown era is difficult to comprehend.
For Rob Silverman, who grew up in the Detroit area while the Motown era was budding, this genre is his favorite type of music as it connects generations.
“My favorite memory (of Motown) is by far a New Year’s Eve concert (in) 1999, Y2K.” Silverman said. “My childhood favorites, The O’jays and The Whispers performed. But, the most special part of the night is that I got to enjoy it with my late father and my young son.”
These feelings and memories are subsequently passed onto younger generations through personal experiences and Detroit’s culture.
Gerard Smith, another Detroit native, has the Motown sound weaved into his day-to-day routine in a unique fashion.
Smith serves as a senior editor and video host at IMGN Media, a part of Warner Music Group. There, he focuses on modern day rap and hip-hop music.
“Motown was one of the first iconic scenes for black music, which influenced (rap).” Smith said. “There are countless examples of Motown songs being sampled for rap music.”
Being from and growing up in the Detroit area, he has seen the sound and Gordy’s Motown Records open doors for others.
“Motown Records has a heavy hip-hop presence. They have been a key partner with (record label) Quality Control and (rap group) Migos for years. Quality Control just sold for $300 million. That doesn’t happen without Motown Records.” Smith continued.
On top of the influential label, Smith sees how the sound has created new avenues for local musicians, as well.
“In a way, Motown (music) set the stage for Detroit rappers like Eminem and Big Sean, and even more up-and-coming artists, to break barriers.” He said.
The pictures of these artists and Motown music legends drape the walls of Café D’Mongos speakeasy, a soul and jazz bar in Detroit that was around during the beginnings of Motown. In the same location, D’Mongos has now repurposed to cater toward younger crowds while continuing to play the same, classic sound.
“Walking into (Café) D’Mongos, you are smacked with Motown.” Justin Azar, current Detroit resident, said. “It’s close together, the music blares off the walls. You can feel all the history.”
Being able to mesh his social life with Motown history isn’t something that Azar expected. This history continues to be felt throughout the city.
To this day, the iconic Hitsville U.S.A. sign is prominently displayed on Detroit’s Grand Boulevard, where Gordy’s initial headquarters serves as a museum dedicated to Motown.
The Motown Museum is currently undergoing expansions to house interactive exhibits, a new theater and more, according to WXYZ Detroit. It’s set to reopen for visitors on Feb. 22, where the building also hopes to serve as a hotbed for emerging talent.
Part of the museum’s expansions include the development of Hitsville NEXT, which aims to be a creative and educational hub offering programs, workshops, masterclasses and events for emerging artists and entrepreneurs, according to the program’s Instagram page.
“Young people are coming here now and studying, learning to sing, write and produce.” Motown legend Smokey Robinson told WXYZ. “(They are) doing all of those things that we learned (here). The legacy is being carried over.”
The museum serves as a tangible slice of history to celebrate the sound’s legacy, as well as creates a platform for young performers, citizens and creatives to be inspired on what can be accomplished, from anywhere.
Through efforts from all who have felt akin to Motown, its sound continues to live on.