Manufacturing may have moved elsewhere but these soundtracks have kept Motor City the epicenter of music.
Detroit might’ve put the world on wheels, but it didn’t stop there—it also created the soundtrack to blast out of your car stereo. That’s the unique set of qualifications you’ve got to consider when putting together a soundtrack for the Motor City—a city so defined by an industrial product that homegrown techno pioneers cite the sound of factories around them as an influence in their music.
From the black entrepreneurship that turned Berry Gordy’s Motown into a global force to Jack White’s guitar tone warranting its own chapter in the story of rock ‘n roll and a storied jazz legacy that demands its own section entirely, Detroit tends to arrive on the scene with something completely fresh, or at least bold enough to warrant a revision in the history books.
1969 by the Stooges, 1969
The opening guitar riff of “1969” off of the album that first introduces us to Iggy Pop and the Stooges in the same year certainly qualifies as something “bold enough.” Groups like the Stooges and the MC5 were defiant, brash and loud—and would go on to help lay the groundwork for the emergence of punk just around the corner in the next decade.
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) by Marvin Gaye, 1971
How do you select just one track from a label like Motown? If you have to, go with one of the label’s biggest and brightest stars at his artistic height. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was late to the game as a piece of soul-fueled protest music, but in a certain Detroit way, offered something unique—a slick, funky musical narrative that painted a picture of war at home in America’s inner cities while another war raged abroad. In James Jamerson’s opening bass line on “Inner City Blues,” you hear of the greatest bass players of all time give a masterclass in the Motown sound. (Yes, the Motown Museum is the touristy thing you must do when you visit.)
Miss Kane by Donald Byrd, 1973
Diving into Detroit jazz is a journey that requires its own separate set of bandwidth, but anything from Donald Byrd’s releases in the early 1970’s is a good place to start. Byrd’s blend of funk and fusion is operating at a high level on “Miss Kane.” Roll down the windows and cruise Belle Isle with this track on full blast.
Politicians In My Eyes by Death, 1975
The proximity of amp-busting power chords and Motown sound was sure to birth some hybrid efforts like the work of Death—a proto-punk group that recorded a demo at Detroit’s legendary United Sound Studios in 1975 that wouldn’t be unearthed until years later thanks to a high profile documentary that shed light on the group. This black punk outfit was recording years before Bad Brains would take the stage, blending punk and funk effortlessly.
Fall In Love by Slum Village, 2000
It’s important to remember the context surrounding this hip hop release—anticipation for Slum Village’s second album was building and neo-soul was dominating with legendary Detroit producer J Dilla at the helm of production for acts like Common and Erykah Badu. With Fantastic, Vol. 2 released in the summer of 2000, Dilla pushed the sound further, putting Detroit again at the epicenter of a musical movement and cemented his legacy in the span of just a few years. For an “only in Detroit” experience, stop by Dilla Delight’s in downtown Detroit—a donut shop owned and operated by Dilla’s uncle—to pay respects to the late great producer in delicious fashion.
5Lyk U Use 2 by Moodymann featuring Andrés, 2014
Moodymann is one of the most weirdly wonderful artists in the lexicon of Detroit musicians. He’s been a force to be reckoned with in house music for over twenty years. He’s become a folk hero for his reclusive nature, rarely giving interviews to the press. He throws one of the best soul skate events in the city and, after Prince passed away, Moodymann turned one of his homes into a makeshift Prince museum. There’s plenty of places to start with Moodymann’s music—and the blend of traditional pop song structure and house music on “Lyk U Use 2” might be a perfect jumping in point.
Seven Mile by Amp Fiddler & Will Sessions, 2017
Amp Fiddler is in the DNA of Detroit music at this point and it’s refreshing that a legend who first taught J Dilla how to use an MPC and used to tour with Parliament Funkadelic can still create at such a high level. On “Seven Mile,” Amp’s vocals are fleshed out by local funk group Will Sessions (think Detroit’s version of the Dap-Kings) to great effect.
2 Would Try by Black Milk featuring Dwele, 2018
There’s something satisfying about being able to include music released this year by a Detroit artist on a soundtrack for the city. Black Milk is one of the biggest names in Detroit hip-hop, pulling double duty as an emcee and producer where he proves to be his most dynamic. Joined by Motor City R&B crooner Dwele (he’s got a plaque for his vocals on Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”), Black Milk’s latest album “Fever” proves that Detroit keeps it moving on the musical assembly line even after most manufacturing jobs have moved on.