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Urban Renewal and Genre Revival: The Future of Detroit's Music Scene

I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Dave Brubeck, The Supremes, Benny Goodman, Elvis, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations.

As a child of the 1990s, I grew up somewhat of a musical outcast.

It’s why, in April, I stood at the very edge of the stage at Detroit’s famous Cliff Bell’s, joyous and speechless. Joyous, because I was seeing one of my favorite new musical artist live for the first time. Speechless, because there were at least a hundred other 25-35 year olds in there next to me, just as thrilled as I was. Cliff Bell’s was sold out that night for its Thursday night hosting of up-and-coming neo-soul artist Leon Bridges. In fact, the show sold out so quickly that my roommate and I were forced to go to Stub Hub and pay more than face value for admission. While he deserves every bit of the attention, it astounded me that Leon Bridges had people from my generation lining up an hour before hand to see him; the tables and chairs at Cliff Bell’s moved out of the way to pack the place in a way I have not seen in the five or six years I’ve been attending Detroit’s classiest jazz venue. And while Bridges is a mere year older than I am, you wouldn’t know it by listening to music. His voice, the musical stylings of his original songs, and the vintage amps and microphones that are used to record them trick your ears into placing Leon Bridges as a 1960’s competitor of Sam Cooke’s.

Yet there I was, watching a 25 year-old pretend it was 1955, with a crowd of ‘80s and ‘90s kids who were drooling over the type of music that was once social repellent back in my middle school years.

Leon Bridges hails from Texas, not the Motor City, but his draw of a sold out Cliff Bell’s to—almost exclusively—25-35 year-old Detroiters is perhaps a reflection of the musical interests of the youth in Detroit.

As Detroit’s downtown continues to revitalize and younger people move to work, live, and play in Detroit; as old buildings get renovated, new apartments go up; as new restaurants and coffee shops open every month and hip bars and breweries find homes within the borders of 8 Mile and Jefferson, how will the Detroit music scene unfold during this renaissance?

In Detroit’s storied history, through ups and downs, one thing has stayed consistent: Detroit has always been the center of musical movements, having profound effects on the history and industry of American music. Indeed, the Motown music begot from the halls of 2658 W. Grand Blvd took the pop music world by storm, topping the charts for decades, taking sounds and styles from Detroit’s jazz and sould scene and turning it into lucrative pop magic, inspiring everyone and everything in music from the Beatles to disco to hip hop. But as important as Hitsville was to the livelihood of American culture in the 1960s and ‘70s, Motor City music moved the world well before and after Berry Gordy.

When pop music began to form in the 1920s, Detroit was there at the forefront. The early Detroit jazz scene of Jean Goldkette and Don Redman attracted the attention of greats like Bix Beiderbecke, helping to inform the sound of the Big Band era in the 1930s and ’40s. Detroit also served as an important player in the evolution of rock music as groups like MC5, Death, Iggy and the Stooges, Alice Cooper and more paved the way for garage bands, punk rock, and hair metal. Artists like Bob Seger and Grand Funk Railroad mixed vintage rock ‘n roll guitar riffs with funky bass lines and soul harmonies (or as Grank Funk Railroad might call it, “Rock ‘n Roll Soul”). Detroit is also often considered the birthplace of techno/electronic music. Detroit Juan Atkins’ influence through the 1980s and 1990s cannot be overstated. Atkins’ work in the group Cybotron helped pave the way for techno music as a genre; a genre that in the 21st century seems to creep its way into pop music, rock music, rap music, and even movie scores. Then, of course, there’s the very palpable influence of Detroit’s ‘90s hip hop with J Dilla, D12, Obie Trice, Eminem, Big Sean, et cetera, putting Detroit on the map next to the East Coast, West Coast, and Southern rap scenes.

So, in a Detroit world in which young people pack to the brim of a jazz club to hear Leon Bridges, what Detroit musical artists are making waves? What are the young people in Detroit listening to? And what kind of music scene exists in a reviving city, if any?

Music has changed so much in the last few years; the industry has changed dramatically to the point where you wonder if geographical music scenes are even possible. In the ever-connected world that we live in, for better and for worse, musical styles are as universal as ever. Musical change and movements are no longer confined to singular municipal influences. The millennial generation reviving Detroit’s downtown and midtown neighborhoods is the same generation that has grown up expecting its music for free. From Napster to Spotify, my age group expects access to all different types of music all at once, which is probably why it’s hard to identify musical movements from region to region. We not only share our songs to everyone at the click of a button, we also share our musical conventions. Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole hail from opposite coasts, but both of their newest albums exemplify all walks of hip hop life from past decades (from Tupac to Biggie to Eminem to Kanye). Is there anything explicitly Texan about Leon Bridges and his music? Or is he as influenced by hipster soul revival from as Alabama Shakes (from Alabama, of course), Edward Sharpe from California, or Sam Smith from across the pond?

Moreover, the majority of pop music in the first half of this decade has been informed by revival genres. Yes, we live in a time where it’s neo-everything. Neo-folk, neo-funk, neo-soul; not unlike the landscape of blockbuster cinema, pop music is full of recycling and resurrecting the conventions of decades past. And it’s not simply that we are nostalgic for genres, we are nostalgic for quality. There’s a strange phenomenon happening in the music industry. As Spotify and streaming culture has ushered in an almost ‘80s-like convenience-over-quality standard to our listening practices, the people of my generation have somehow fallen back in love with the vinyl record; respecting the artists, making an effort to hear their music the way it was meant to be listened to.

And really, that nostalgic practice—creating new endeavors by applying the worthwhile lessons of the past with the consciousness of modernity—that is used everywhere in popular culture is so very earnestly Detroit. We are a city and a region bent on reviving our neighborhoods to the quality in which we idealistically remember them being years ago. And why shouldn’t that be reflected in the music that Detroiters create and listen to?

In many ways, it is. Some of the best Detroit music out there is being created with reverence to older styles of the genre. Here are a few that fall into that category…

Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas are making waves as the Detroit representation in the extremely popular female neo-soul/rock/pop genre. Hernandez recently made an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman promoting the release of her 2014 album Secret Evil. While there is an obvious Amy Winehouse influence in Hernandez’s voice, there’s definitely a White Stripes and perhaps even a Detroit Cobras inspiration there as well. The Cobras are a female rock band from the ‘90s who took ‘50s rock and spun it with modern punk sounds. Hernandez’s hit “Sorry I Stole Your Man” is absolutely evocative of that sound.

You can catch Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas at the Mo Pop Musical Festival at West Riverfront Park on July 25th.

Detroit’s representation in the hip hop scene is always busy and productive. There have been many artists and groups who got their beginnings in Detroit and have made it big. It’s been an appropriately huge year for Detroit’s Big Sean, whose album Dark Sky Paradise debuted at number 1 on Billboard 200. Young people from Detroit and just about everywhere else are listening to Big Sean.

But on a more underground level, Detroit is always a hotbed for budding hip hop talent. This year sees the third mixtape from my favorite hip hop group, Detroit’s own Clear Soul Forces. I was first introduced to the group by their Youtube hit “Get No Better”. I first heard it and listened to their first mixtape, Detroit Revolutions, back in 2012-2013. I was instantly hooked, realizing there was a contemporary rap group out there that identified with me on a geek level as well as with my Detroit roots. Filled with comic book, movie, and video game references, through their first two mixtapes, Clear Soul Forces proved themselves the masters of uplifting nerd culture while injecting poignant (and sometimes depressing) philosophical phrases like “Taught to reach for the stars when we was little kids, now it’s smoke clouds cause the sky is what the limit is.” Their new mixtape, Fab Five (yes, named after the Michigan Basketball team of which there are audio and lyrical references to) is no different, and more. Keeping with a similar tone, Clear Soul forces keeps with their own neo music as Fab Five uproots memories of 1990s hip hop. It’s just straight rap, in the best of ways. Sometimes ATLiens, sometimes A Tribe Called Quest, Fab Five is always Clear Soul Forces, provided some of the best flow and lyrics you’ll find in the genre, laced with Detroit and Michigan references (tracks like “Orange Faygo” come to mind).

Fab Five is currently on Spotify.

In a world where Bruno Mars can do his best Morris Day impression and still stay popular, a post-disco, ‘80s-funk sound has somehow made a comeback in today’s pop music scene. And who better to capitalize on such a fad than Ann Arbor’s own, falsetto-junkie Mayer Hawthorne. Hawthorne spent his first two albums with an attempt to recreate the Motown sound with modern twists, employing, at times, hip hop elements (Snoop Dogg makes an appearance on his sophomore album, How Do You Do). Hawthorne’s third album, Where Does This Door Go?, featured neo-genre mixing of every kind; from Hall and Oates to Steely Dan to Billy Joel, the album features all sorts of throwbacks to older styles of music. His new endeavor, a group called Tuxedo with a new self-titled album, takes the popularity of nu-wave funk and puts it into full throttle. Tuxedo is such a nostalgic sounding album, it does to ‘80s post-disco what Leon Bridges does to soul music. Now based in L.A., Mayer Hawthorne definitely continues to cling to his Motown roots, except these days he’s sounding a bit more Rick James than Smokey Robinson.

You can catch Tuxedo on Spotify as well.

Kale is the co-founder of Woodwords, a Detroit blog about everything pop culture.