Long gone are the days when Motown was “the Sound of Young America.” One could make a case for hip-hop being today’s sound of young America, but frankly it just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Popular music in the new millennium rarely reflects the harmonious, heartwarming spirit of soul in the ’60s and ’70s. Motown on the other hand in 2005 is both a monument of times past and a current label operating under the safe umbrella of Universal. This duality even determines their internet presence, as the label’s homepage is divided into MotownNow and ClassicMotown. A symbol of a different generation, Motown has never been truly down with hip-hop. After testing the waters with Jesse West and MC Brains in the late ’80s/early ’90s, Motown has for a long time strived in vain for hip-hop credibility. They had and still have a habit of signing already established artists (AZ, Q-Tip, Raekwon, Heavy D, Queen Latifah). They occasionally try the imprint thing (Naughty By Nature’s Illtown Records, Bezino’s Surrender Records), or make an attempt to jump on the Dirty South bandwagon (D-Lo Entertainment). In recent memory, the only rapper Motown fostered on its own was the talented Journalist, albeit with little to no success. Ironically enough, for some time Motown was run by a former rapper, Andre Harrell (of old school duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde), who together with Sean Combs threw up the very blueprint for a successful blend of hip-hop and R&B at Uptown Records in the early ’90s yet failed to repeat the trick at Motown.
Luckily, the somewhat strained relationship between Motown and hip-hop doesn’t affect the label’s latest attempt at bridging the gap. “Motown Remixed” contains fifteen classic Motown songs updated by a host of remixers, at least eight of which are familiar figures in hip-hop. Five to ten years ago, likely candidates would have been Puff Daddy, Chucky Thompson, Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins, Jermaine Dupri, Trackmasters, or Allen ‘Allstar’ Gordon for the R&B/hip-hop crossbreeding and David Morales, Masters At Work, or Armand van Helden for the house remixes, but lately the urge to play it safe seems to have subsided at the top floors of record companies. And so the line-up consists largely of people who may have made their mark in comtemporary music but don’t have the name recognition of Kanye West, Lil’ Jon, Timbaland, The Neptunes, or Eminem. Which definitely isn’t to the project’s detriment. In fact, on the hip-hop side of things it’s the lesser known remixers who make the most of their assignment. King Britt. DJ’s Z-Trip, Green Lantern and Spinna.
Z-Trip infuses the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” with the drums of a digger, turning a measuredly orchestrated pop tune into an extended jam session. Spinna expands the groovy parts of Eddie Kendricks’ ever-changing “Keep on Truckin’.” Green Lantern reduces the drums of Rick James’ “Mary Jane” to a thumping heartbeat. All three leave the melodical structure of the respective songs untouched, a clear gesture of respect towards the originals. The same thing goes for Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” to which DJ Smash Hunter merely adds a contemporary clubbish gloss. As expected, The Randy Watson Experience AKA ?uestlove and James Poyser take a different approach, constructing a completely new background for Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Given the Roots drummer’s experience with retro soul and funk (Nikka Costa, Joss Stone), it comes as no surprise that his dominant drums, accompanied by fellow Soulquarian Poyser’s organ, pay close tribute to the original without sounding much like it, resulting in one of the best contributions to “Motown Remixed.”
If “Motown Remixed” highlights any trend in contemporary club music, it’s that drums are allowed to sound like drums again, even if they may be programmed on a computer. The majority of these remixes feature very similar, slightly dry drums that may be presented in understated, spartan arrangements but aren’t forced to blend into some bigger picture. In the ’90s, a lot of these drums would have sounded similar to the ones Da Producers use for Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On,” the standard fat groove that automatically adds a touch of class to the most non-descript club tune (and in this case turns a legendary slow jam into a clichÃ©d dancefloor smash). Today club drums can sound rawer, funkier, more natural again, a trend many hip-hop producers have yet to latch on to. On a related note, the most bizarre remix here may be the Salaam Remi interpretation of the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” which, true to its subtitle “Krunk-A-Delic Party Mix,” offers trademark Lil’ Jon drums.
It is important to notice that the tracks remixed by hip-hop producers are not ‘hip-hop remixes.’ With many of them already having branched out into other genres, they know better than to simply give the hip-hop treatment to a Motown classic. The most stereotypical remix with a hip-hop twist here comes courtesy of Mocean Worker, who adorns Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate” with a breakbeat, scratches and Chuck D snippets. Veteran Easy Mo Bee on the other hand rightfully didn’t think of hip-hop at all when he reworked “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” by The Temptations, rather he felt like putting some hi-hats atop the lone snare and turning the volume down on the strings. Not everybody however realized that perfection only tolerates the slightest adjustments. DJ Jazzy Jeff & Pete Kuzma’s “Solefull Remix” of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” sounds highly professional, but their downtempo touch interferes with the timeless magic and will have you reaching for the original fast. The same goes for The Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” as interpreted by Futureshock AKA Hank Shocklee. After he leaves the intro as it is, it’s hard to accept his unimaginative drums.
Arguably an easier task was given to King Britt, who remixes the perennial b-boy favorite “War” by Edwin Starr. As long as that bassline keeps running and the crowd keeps chanting “War – what is it good for? (Absolutely) nothing!” people are going to be happy. All King Britt has to do is add some more percussive elements and his own touch via the inclusion of sax and piano and “War” works as well as ever, last but not least because of its never out-of-date message. Other noteworthy re-interpretations with less hip-hop relevance are David Baron and Rafe Gomez’ lush remix of Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm,” the “Tranzition Remix” of Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You,” possibly the most radical time-travelling attempt here, and finally the “Hotsnax Remix” of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tears of a Clown” by Full Phatt Productions, whose past remix gigs include Nelly, OutKast, Mary J. Blige and Ashanti.
Overall, this is a great CD for the summer months. From a hip-hop point of view, it is both an honor that so many of the genre’s producers were invited for “Motown Remixed” and a sign of maturity that the compilation still sounds so much like Motown. Most remixers can be recommended for staying close to the originals, even though starting from scratch can sometimes prove to be fruitful as well. Ten of these tracks are also available on a three-volume series of singles, several of them in exclusive extended versions. Either way, this is an acceptable way to (re-)discover the treasures of Motown, and if you end up buying the simultaneously released “Motown Unmixed” CD, all the better. Because whatever these artists later may have gotten themselves into (artistically and personally), their songs remain, and that’s something no remix will be able to change either.