How Motown Records Got Its Groove Back

Thanks to a new crop of talented singers and an embrace of Southern rap, the venerable label has once again become one worth watching

Migos and Lil Yachty are part of the crop of artists revitalizing Motown Records. Credit: David Rams, Kenneth Cappello

Through the Sixties and Seventies, Motown Records was a culture-shifting force: Founded by Berry Gordy in 1959, it became one of the world's most successful black-owned businesses, an independent, trend-setting, discrimination-defying juggernaut. Names like Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 only hint at the label's legacy.

Unfortunately, Motown has been hobbled ever since. Starting in the late 1980s, the label was absorbed by a series of large corporate entities, losing both its standalone status and its identity. Boyz II Men, Brian McKnight and Erykah Badu provided no small successes in the Nineties and beyond, but Kedar Massenburg, who helmed Motown from 1999 to 2005, describes its path over the last decade as "ever-shrinking."

"I've watched it go from 200 [employees] to 100 to being basically looked at as an imprint," he says. "I would hate it for it to just go away, which is what tends to happen with legendary African-American organizations." In 2011, longtime Motown recording artist Erykah Badu went so far as to tweet, "Motown folded."

But surprisingly, the label has transformed back into an organization worth watching. Three young singers – Kevin Ross, La'Porsha Renae and BJ the Chicago Kid – all recently scored sharp singles that earned Urban Adult Contemporary radio play. And crucially for a label once dubbed "the sound of Young America," Motown is enticing teen listeners again, establishing its first significant beachhead in rap with artists like Lil Yachty and Migos.

"With the hip-hop side and what they're doing with singers, they're getting the best of both worlds," Massenburg says. "I think they're on the right path."

The decline of Motown was in many ways inevitable given the remarkable evolutions of the label's tentpole artists – like Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye – along with the development of the one of the biggest stars of all time in Michael Jackson: It stands to reason that no label could continue to function at this level forever. Nonetheless, Motown deserves part of the blame for its icy streak. As hip-hop became more popular in the 1980s, R&B responded by slimming down and toughening up. But Motown maintained its old stable of stars, all recording for fewer and fewer listeners, and many of the label's new additions were explicitly modeled as throwbacks. Think of Johnny Gill, often compared to Seventies great Teddy Pendergrass, and Boyz II Men, whose ornate, feathery ballads reached back to the glory days of Motown vocal groups. While these acts enjoyed commercial success, they elaborated on old traditions rather than starting new ones, leading to creative stasis.

The label's refusal to adapt hurt profit margins, which led to its acquisition by a series of parent companies – first MCA in 1988, and then Polygram, which announced its plans to buy Motown in 1993. Danny Goldberg, who oversaw Motown from a distance as the head of Polygram's Mercury Records group, remembers a label with "costs that were wildly out of proportion to the sales."

Motown changed hands again when Seagram consolidated Polygram with Universal Music Group, and Kedar Massenburg ended up in charge of a label he remembers as "already buried in the ground." He pushed Motown towards the style that he helped name – neo-soul. The sub-genre's emphasis on the principles of 1970s R&B was a temporary hit for the label, if not a sustainable path forward, and Massenburg picked up Indie.Arie, Kem and Erykah Badu, who are still on Motown's roster today.

But as the corporate re-shuffling continued, Massenburg was replaced by Sylvia Rhone, and even Motown's staunch attachment to R&B tradition disappeared. The label was joined with part of Republic, then cut away and put under Island Def Jam. 

"It wasn't really Motown anymore, it was just an imprint owned by Universal," says Sha Money XL, a veteran producer for 50 Cent and others who also spent time working as an A&R at Def Jam. "You didn't feel the aesthetic of something black-owned, the aesthetic of something that had great cultural acts," Sha adds. "It really became nothing."

The label's lack of identity was exemplified by major missed opportunities. Motown executives failed to recognize the potential of Bruno Mars, signing him and then dropping him. Drake even mocked Rhone for passing up the chance to sign him in a song on his 2009 mixtape So Far Gone. This period is like Motown's lost weekend: Hardly anyone who was signed after Massenburg left still records for the label.

After years of corporate dismemberment, Motown unexpectedly found itself benefiting from an outside takeover that allowed it to reestablish a coherent artistic vision. Universal's purchase of EMI led to the break-up of Island, Def Jam and Motown; Motown returned to L.A., where Gordy had moved it in 1972, and became a subsidiary of Capitol, another prestige brand. Ethiopia Habtemariam, previously the label's Senior VP, was promoted to president.

Habtemariam is tactful when asked about Motown's prior treatment by its corporate bosses. "That scenario wasn't the best scenario in place," she says. "We focused on what would be the best opportunity to really grow as a label and get the resources we needed. Like Motown, Capitol has an historic presence that means a lot to a lot of people. It's been much better for all of us."

The latest iteration of Motown started with a slim roster that included three artists – Arie, Kem and Badu – from the Massenburg era. Ne-Yo, one of the most astute R&B songwriters and singers of the 2000s, moved over to Motown from Def Jam as an artist, songwriter and Senior VP of A&R. Habtemariam and her other Senior VP of A&R, Ezekiel Lewis, had already signed BJ the Chicago Kid and Kevin Ross, though neither had released music through the label; La'Porsha Renae came aboard later after finishing in second place on American Idol.

BJ, Ross and Renae are un-trendy singers squarely in line with Motown's historical strengths. Like Gill or Massenburg's neo-soul cohort, all three flaunt, rather than flout, their links with tradition. Renae has the brassy tone, once popular in southern soul, that is almost extinct in R&B's mainstream; BJ celebrated three Grammy nominations by releasing a tribute dedicated to Marvin Gaye.

"I view them in the classic sense of Motown: young, gifted, vibrant artists, a testament to the sound that Motown had so much success with," says Terri Thomas, Operations Manager and Programming Director for Radio One, who has been adding Motown's young singers to her playlists at Houston's Majic 102.1. Bryson Tiller, a popular R&B singer on rival label RCA, agrees with Thomas, describing Ross' debut album, The Awakening, as "true R&B," and adding, "Hat's off to him for keeping the R&B sound alive."

The price of being off-trend is frequently exacted on the radio. Songs embraced first by the audience of Urban AC are rarely picked up by Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop programmers, who want to pull in a younger crowd. Still, Ross' lovely, understated "Long Song Away" managed to climb to Number 12 on the Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, a small triumph.

Breaking away from Island and Def Jam also means that Motown can aggressively sign cutting-edge rappers, finally acknowledging today's "sound of Young America." (Motown had never had much success in hip-hop beyond the 1991 Top 40 hit "Oochie Coochie" by M.C. Brains.) Many of these rappers have come through a connection with Quality Control – the Atlanta independent label founded by seasoned hip-hop operators Pierre Thomas and Coach K – which also serves to rekindle Motown's links with black-owned business.

In the past, "there wasn't a need for us to focus on [rap], because we had our Def Jam partners who did hip-hop," says Lewis. When the label relocated under Capitol, it didn't have a single rapper on its roster.

Habtemariam and Lewis moved to change that immediately. "[Lewis] being a songwriter and producer, and me coming from a creative background, we both understood that we can't say it's just one genre of music that we're in," Habtemariam explains. "We definitely wanted to be relevant to youth culture and where it was going."

"The original Motown was always rooted in youth," Thomas, Radio One Programming Director, points out. "The canvas may be painted a little differently now. But [working with rappers] speaks to the spirit of how and why the label was established."

Two years ago, Motown entered into a joint venture with Quality Control to take advantage of the indie's expertise in the strains of southern rap currently dominating the airwaves. Habtemariam also sees this alliance as a step towards reestablishing the vision of Motown's original founder. "I look at Mr. Gordy as one of the first black entrepreneurs that broke boundaries," she notes. "We want to support young black entrepreneurs who built something special."

Initially, the liaison with Quality Control connected Motown with OG Maco, of viral "U Guessed It" fame, and Young Greatness, who scored his first hit with the irresistible "Moolah." Last year, Motown signed Lil Yachty, the self-proclaimed "Kings of Teens," and he subsequently cracked the Top 10 on the Hot 100 twice as a collaborator. In 2017, the label added Migos, a trio enjoying months of cultural ubiquity, and Motown hopes to capitalize with a new record from them by year's end. A Quality Control compilation is slated for summer release, and an LP from Atlanta rapper Rich Homie Quan is in the works as well.

The historical significance of Berry Gordy's accomplishments helped convince Coach K, who was being wooed by multiple labels, that Motown was the right home for Quality Control. "Every executive should study Berry Gordy's blueprint: We're an independent company, and we built our whole label around how Motown was built," Coach K says. "It was a perfect match. The old Motown was youthful and groundbreaking; that's what the new Motown is now."