Mainstream music as we know it today wouldn’t exist without the blueprint mapped out by Berry Gordy.
When you talk about Motown, there is so much to say on the skillfully stylish beats, catchy hooks and standout vocals that captivated the globe. You can speak on some of America’s most influential artists — like Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson — who forged their legacies by developing their everlasting sounds under Motown. You can even mention some of the iconic live performances and music videos that still draw thousands of views on YouTube.
What isn’t said enough is the influence Motown music has had on modern music. Founded by Berry Gordy Jr. in Jan. 1959, the iconic recording label was home to an all-star lineup of legendary Black artists, musicians and songwriters — Smokey Robinson, The Jackson 5 and The Isley Brothers to name a few.
This hall of fame lineup became the heartbeat of American pop culture, producing over 180 No. 1 hits and introduced a new sound that soon became the fabric of music as we know it. For example, you immediately know a Michael Jackson song, not only because of his voice but also by the unique vibe — the soul behind it. That was the case for Motown music. You didn’t have to even know the artist’s name to know that it was Motown music.
Motown’s sweet, smooth and soulful orchestral arrangements gave artists and listeners the grooves to get lost in their lyrics which effectively helped turn their I’s into we’s — building a community during a time of segregation. As a result, some of the most important records ever recorded were eventually sampled into songs decades later.
Take a look at some notable Motown samples throughout the years:
- U Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer (1989)
Original: Superfreak by Rick James (1980)
- Overnight Celebrity by Twista (2004)
Original: Cause I Love You by Lenny Williams (1978)
- Mesmerize by Ja Rule feat. Ashanti (2002)
Original: Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart) by Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye (1973)
- Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke feat. T.I. and Pharrell Williams (2013)
Original: Got to Give It Up by Marvin Gaye (1977)
- Mo Money Mo Problems by The Notorious B.I.G. (1997)
Original: I’m Coming Out by Diana Ross
- That’s Life by 88-Keys feat. Mac Miller and Sia (2019)
Original: Benjie by Valerie Simpson (1972)
- Car Thief by Beastie Boys (1989)
Original: I’ll Bet You by The Jackson 5 (1970)
- Back to Sleep by Chris Brown (2015)
Original: Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye (1982)
Aside from sampling, Motown’s legacy directly correlates to that of pop music, particularly vocal groups. The record label popularized the concept of pop/R&B boy and girl groups, with iconic acts like The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and The Jackson 5. They gave birth to contemporary groups like Boyz II Men, New Edition, NSYNC, Destiny’s Child, TLC and Fifth Harmony.
Motown music laid the foundation of what the modern music landscape looks like now. For example, Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-Grammy-winning album DAMN has prose and production that hit the zeitgeist of Motown’s mission: the acknowledgment of Black excellence and creativity.
The biggest influence that Motown has played on modern music is the simplest part of Motown’s transcendence. The label was great because of the emotional connection that its music established with the audience. Every song had a ‘why’, and the artist poured that ‘why’ into their lyrics and delivery. Listeners felt that why in a way that moved them.
For Marvin Gaye in “What’s Going On,” he cautioned Americans during a time of racial tension and a mystifying war. For Martha and the Vandellas on “Dancing in the Street,” it was a tribute to the street-dance parties of the time. For Stevie Wonder on “Village Ghetto Land,” it was pain and the heartbreaking reality of growing poverty and homelessness.
As for today’s artists, that “why’” still exists. In the months of racial tension set off by police brutality, H.E.R. powerfully told the tale of the victims of police brutality and systemic racism in “I Can’t Breathe.” For Mary J. Blige’s 1994 album ”My Life,” her “why” was exhaling emotional pain. Sam Smith’s album “The Thrill of It All” is his journey out of a place he never wants to go back to.
The “why” behind Motown’s extraordinary catalog is what helped define, expand and influence generations after. More than tossing out hits like dollar bills, Motown installed a stylistic identity that saw the golden voices behind its music become music’s most admired musicians.
Motown redefined pop culture in America, creating a space for Black creators to be excellent on the mainstream. The legacy of Motown lives on through the dominance of contemporary genres influenced by the existence of assembly lines put together by Berry Gordy. In other words: modern music is Black music, and it would have to experience a radical shift to divorce itself from the house Motown built.