For decades Detroit has been synonymous with danger and decay. Once a bustling metropolis famous for its music and manufacturing, Michigan's most populous city is currently on the brink of bankruptcy, with one of the highest crime rates in the country.
But the D's not all doom and gloom. Detroit has a growing silver lining thanks to the hard work of ambitious, creative (mostly) young individuals who call it home. They've taken it upon themselves to turn the neglect and dilapidation back into a vibrant community.
The second installment in our multi-part series on Detroit focuses on the City's thriving though music scene.
Since the days of the iconic label Motown, which housed internationally celebrated figures like Marvin Gaye, David Ruffin, and Michael Jackson among others, Detroit has laid its foundation as a city embedded in music.
These days the soul that was originally established by Motown has been replaced with hip-hop backed by soul samples and gritty beats. Led by Berry Gordy, artists then spoke about love and life; today hip-hop artists tend to speak about money, power, respect, and a sense of struggle. With well-documented events shaping Detroit’s legacy, like the 1967 riots and the city’s recent declaration of bankruptcy, it would be an understatement to say that the region is in dire shape—something its artists have always channeled into their creative output.
“The main thing you can hear in all our music is the real passion in it with some sense of struggle,” said T3, member of Slum Village, a group synonymous with Detroit. “That’s the one thing I think that ties us all together—our sense of struggle and the things that we went through being natives of Detroit.”
This struggle within Detroit’s music seems to be systemic of the industry itself. In some areas there seems to be a lack of unity, or the semblance of a few artists monopolizing the scene on a mainstream/underground level. However that all changed to a certain extent after the passing of legendary producer/MC, James “Dilla” Yancey in 2006, which devastated the hip-hop community while also helping shine a light on the music coming from his hometown.
Now, seven years later, there seem to be some who believe that there's a huge gap between the Dilla era and the city’s newer artists. It's the classic argument: people feeling either overly entitled or under-acknowledged. On the other hand, there are those who do feel that there's a true sense of unity amongst established Detroit figures like Black Milk and Eminem who reach out to the younger generation of artists.
“When you talk to people that have been around, they talk about a bottleneck that prevented Detroit hip-hop veterans from getting their shine,” said MC and poet, Will See. “Like Eminem would be the only one to get attention from the industry. Is it really a renaissance or is it just more attention to what has consistently been growing and bubbling in Detroit? Now, you have Royce, Danny Brown, and Big Sean bringing more mainstream attention to Detroit.”
For years, Detroit has had a sound that became synonymous with the area: soul-driven, tight instrumentals, and a raw, organic sound. But Sean and Brown represent an era of artists who are excelling on a mainstream level without having to rely on the 'traditional' Detroit sound. These two, like many others, have in turn created their own style and gained both national and international success without coming off like direct graduates of the School of Dilla. It's thanks to individualist sounds like these that Detroit is seeing a whole new musical fanbase.
“There’s a lot going on. You have Danny Brown on one spectrum and you have Big Sean in a whole other spectrum. Two different fanbases, both from Detroit,” said T3. “That brings a lot of focus to the D because now, it’s not just in one section. When Slum Village first came out, it was just us. The fans are so diverse around this Detroit movement. I think that’s why it’s like oh, OK, there’s talent here. These guys are doing their thing because you have two big artists from two different sides of the scale.”
With the widespread popularity of these two figures, room has definitely been made for other new artists to leave their imprints as well. Asking the question of whether or not Detroit is experiencing a renaissance comes with a lot of skepticism, because calling it that could potentially downplay all those past decades of great music. It would also mean overlooking the momentum that Detroit has been creating for years musically, so perhaps a more adequate term would be a revitalization.
“I guess there is innovation in what we’ve been doing, but renaissance people with voices are sensationalist and then everybody else kind of repeats it. I wouldn’t say that there’s not a renaissance, but I think that’s not the right word,” said rapper Quelle Chris. “There is a real blast and unique approach to rap if you look at the newer artists coming out of Detroit. They are all artists that have unique voices and unique sounds, which in rap is essentially what's most important.”
The new approaches to rap that Quelle alludes to can be found in the emergence of these budding artists coming from the region. With five projects on their discography including Detroit Revolution(s), Clear Soul Forces has created a sound that is no doubt paying homage to Detroit, yet with their own realities, ideals, and style. In the same vein as Clear Soul Forces are artists like Red Pill, the Black Opera, Jahshua Smith, Nolan the Ninja, to name a few. And it's not all just hip-hop acts either—more and more musicians are popping up in this revitalized space with entirely different musical genres, like indie-pop group, fun.
Fun. caught waves with their Janelle Monae-assisted, Grammy Award-winning single “We Are Young” from their latest installment, Some Nights. The song pushed the group into mainstream success as the track was heard virtually everywhere. Although they're currently based in New York, group member Andrew Dost is from Detroit, and the group does most of their recording in the Motor City. Also fitting into the indie pop scene is duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., who are signed to Warner Brothers. The two came together in 2010 to create their EP, Horse Power, and now several projects later are making a name for themselves and the D by performing tracks on late-night shows like Conan.
“I think that somehow, being from Detroit brought some authenticity to us,” says Josh of from the band. “I think being from Detroit has made it easier for us to make our kind of music. I think if we would have come from Hollywood or something, it would have been perceived in a different way.”
These new acts are having a chance to pop up, perhaps because D music comes with the unwritten rule of respect. With iconic figures like Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye helping lay the foundations of a strong legacy attached to the music of the region, which was then continued with groundwork laid by Dilla, Black Milk, Elzhi, Phat Kat, Waajeed, Ro Spit and others, people expect to receive quality music from Detroit.
“There’s a lot of competition here in Detroit because we make good music. We produce great producers and MCs and just great artists in general. There’s a lot of competition here,” said producer Apollo Brown.
“Well, we’re the most imitated, whether people want to admit it or not,” reflected member of the Left, DJ Soko. “More importantly, we do better than everyone else with the least resources. We have changed a landscape without having to rely on anyone else while having minimal resources at our disposal.”
“There’s an expectation that’s already been set,” added MC Quelle Chris. “I don’t think I’m ever going to fall off because not only the artist, but the people who are receiving it, are already going to know if it’s coming from Detroit expect better.
“People don’t have to prove themselves these days. I’m from a generation where you had to battle everybody. You couldn’t just put out something because not everyone was going to hear it because there was no internet,” Chris continued. “So, you had to prove that niggas wanted to listen to you. You couldn’t just walk up and say ‘I have a CD out, so I’m already popping.’ I think a lot of people are getting away with a lot of shit, but I think Detroit, we’re always going to hold to that standard since there’s a certain level of respect for it. It’s kind of up to the artists that are still making music from Detroit to uphold that standard.”
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Image from Chapter 44: Fools Gold - Detroit Rock City