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The New Old Sound Of Motor City, Detroit


by Raina Koski



When it comes to the rich tapestry of American music, few cities have had as profound an impact as Detroit. Known as the Motor City, Detroit’s cultural legacy extends far beyond the automotive industry. One of its most significant contributions to the world is the distinct and influential sound that emerged from the city. From the energetic rhythms of Motown to the gritty guitars of garage rock, Detroit’s music scene has captivated audiences around the globe.


The history of Detroit’s music scene is a story of resilience, innovation, and the ability to adapt to changing times. With roots in the early 20th century, Detroit’s unique sound has evolved and transformed over the decades, reflecting the city’s social and economic changes. With the decline of the automotive industry in the late 20th century, Detroit faced numerous challenges, including a struggling music scene. However, in recent years, there has been a revitalization and resurgence of the city’s musical heritage, attracting artists from all genres.


In this article, we will explore the history of Motor City sound, the decline and resurgence of Detroit’s music scene, the revival of classic Motown sound, the modern artists embracing the Motor City sound, the influence of Motor City sound on contemporary music, and the cultural impact and significance of Detroit’s music scene.


The History of Motor City Sound

The roots of Motor City sound can be traced back to the early 20th century when African Americans migrated from the South to find work in Detroit’s booming automotive industry. This influx of talent and culture created a vibrant musical scene that blended various genres, including jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B.


In the 1950s, Detroit became a hotbed for independent record labels, with the most notable being Motown Records. Founded by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1959, Motown revolutionized the music industry by producing hits that crossed racial and cultural barriers. The label’s distinctive sound, characterized by catchy melodies, tight harmonies, and a driving rhythm section, defined the Motown Sound and propelled artists like Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and Marvin Gaye to stardom.


Alongside Motown, Detroit also had a thriving rock and punk scene, with artists like The Stooges and MC5 pushing boundaries and pioneering a raw and rebellious sound. Their influence on later punk and alternative rock bands cannot be overstated.


In the 1980s and 1990s, Detroit gave birth to a new genre known as techno. Developed by African American artists like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, techno blended electronic beats with futuristic sounds, creating a genre that would revolutionize dance music worldwide.


Throughout the decades, Motor City sound has continued to evolve, embracing new styles and incorporating diverse influences. Today, it remains an integral part of Detroit’s identity, showcasing the city’s rich musical heritage and its ability to adapt to changing times.


The Decline and Resurgence of Detroit’s Music Scene

Despite its rich musical history, Detroit’s music scene experienced a decline in the late 20th century. The city faced economic struggles, including the decline of the automotive industry, which had been a major source of jobs and prosperity. This downturn impacted the music industry, leading to the closure of iconic venues, the relocation of record labels, and a decline in support for local musicians.


However, in recent years, Detroit’s music scene has undergone a remarkable resurgence. The city has seen a renewed sense of pride and investment in its cultural heritage, with musicians, entrepreneurs, and community leaders working together to revitalize the music industry.


One of the driving forces behind this resurgence is the DIY (do-it-yourself) mentality that has taken hold in Detroit. Independent artists and collectives have taken the reins, creating their own opportunities and fostering a creative and supportive community. This grassroots movement has given rise to numerous music festivals, such as the Movement Electronic Music Festival and the Detroit Jazz Festival, which showcase local talents and attract visitors from around the world.


Another factor contributing to the resurgence is the growth of music-centric neighborhoods, such as Corktown and Midtown. These areas have seen a surge in new venues, recording studios, and music-focused businesses, creating a vibrant ecosystem for musicians and music lovers.


Additionally, Detroit’s music scene has benefited from increased exposure through documentaries, films, and television shows that highlight the city’s rich cultural heritage. Artists like Eminem, Big Sean, and Jack White have achieved international success, putting Detroit back on the global music map.


Furthermore, organizations like the Detroit Sound Conservancy and the Detroit Music Awards have played a crucial role in preserving the city’s musical legacy and supporting emerging talent. They provide resources, recognition, and networking opportunities that help musicians thrive in the competitive music industry.


With collaborative efforts and a renewed sense of optimism, Detroit’s music scene is once again a thriving cultural force. It continues to inspire and attract artists from various genres, ensuring that the Motor City sound will endure and evolve for generations to come.


The Revival of Classic Motown Sound

The classic Motown sound, with its infectious melodies, soulful vocals, and tight harmonies, holds a special place in the hearts of music lovers worldwide. In recent years, there has been a revival of this iconic sound, paying homage to the golden era of Motown while offering a fresh perspective.


Many contemporary artists have embraced the Motown sound, infusing it with modern elements to create a unique blend of old and new. The revival has seen the return of lush orchestration, catchy hooks, and heartfelt lyrics that capture the essence of Motown’s heyday.


One of the key figures in the revival of classic Motown sound is Leon Bridges. Hailing from Fort Worth, Texas, Bridges burst onto the scene with his debut album, “Coming Home,” which draws heavily from the Motown sound of the 1960s. His smooth, velvety vocals and timeless songwriting have garnered critical acclaim and helped reintroduce the sound to a new generation.


Other artists like Charles Bradley, Michael Kiwanuka, and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings have also contributed to the revival, bringing their own unique interpretations of the classic Motown sound. They capture the energy, passion, and soul that made Motown so beloved while infusing their own personal touch.


Furthermore, the resurgence of classic Motown sound is not limited to solo artists. Bands like Fitz and The Tantrums and Lake Street Dive have embraced the Motown influence, creating a modern twist on the sound with their energetic performances and vibrant arrangements.


The revival of classic Motown sound extends beyond just the music. Broadway shows such as “Motown: The Musical” have proven to be hugely successful, depicting the rise of Motown Records and bringing the iconic songs to life on the stage. These productions have introduced the classics to new audiences and reignited interest in the Motown sound.


The continued popularity and influence of Motown’s classic sound demonstrate its timeless appeal. It serves as a reminder of the cultural impact and lasting legacy of the Motown era, inspiring both artists and listeners to appreciate and celebrate this iconic genre.


Modern Artists Embracing the Motor City Sound

The Motor City sound continues to influence and inspire contemporary artists across various genres. These artists pay homage to the rich musical heritage of Detroit while adding their own unique flair and modern sensibilities, keeping the spirit of the city alive.


One such artist is Janelle Monáe. Known for her eclectic style and powerful vocals, Monáe incorporates elements of funk, soul, and R&B into her music. Her energetic performances and socially conscious lyrics echo the spirit of Detroit’s music scene, carrying the torch of innovation and pushing musical boundaries.


Another artist who embraces the Motor City sound is Mayer Hawthorne. Born and raised in Michigan, Hawthorne infuses his music with retro soul and Motown influences. His smooth vocals and infectious melodies capture the essence of classic Motown while adding a modern twist, appealing to fans of all generations.


Additionally, indie-rock band The Black Keys have drawn inspiration from Detroit’s gritty garage rock sound. Their blues-infused rock music features raw guitar riffs and soulful vocals, reminiscent of the iconic garage bands that emerged from the city in the 1960s.


Furthermore, hip-hop artists such as Danny Brown and Big Sean proudly represent Detroit’s music scene. Danny Brown’s unique blend of alternative hip-hop and experimental beats reflects the city’s boundary-pushing mentality, while Big Sean’s energetic flow and catchy hooks capture the vibrant spirit of Detroit.


It’s not just musicians who are embracing the Motor City sound. Producers and DJs such as Moodymann and Carl Craig have been instrumental in keeping the electronic music scene in Detroit alive. Their innovative productions, rooted in techno and house, pay homage to the city’s legacy while pushing the boundaries of electronic music.


The modern artists embracing the Motor City sound not only showcase the versatility of Detroit’s music scene but also demonstrate its ongoing influence across different genres. By incorporating elements of Motown, garage rock, soul, and electronic music, these artists keep the legacy alive while infusing it with contemporary sensibilities.


Through their music, these artists honor the rich history of Detroit’s music scene while adding their own unique voices, ensuring that the Motor City sound remains relevant and vibrant in the ever-evolving landscape of the music industry.


The Influence of Motor City Sound on Contemporary Music

The Motor City sound has left an indelible mark on contemporary music, influencing artists across genres and shaping the musical landscape in profound ways. From the rhythms of Motown to the raw energy of garage rock, the impact of Detroit’s music scene is evident in the work of numerous artists today.


One genre that has been heavily influenced by the Motor City sound is indie rock. Bands like The White Stripes, The Strokes, and The Black Keys have all drawn inspiration from Detroit’s garage rock heritage. Their raw, unpolished sound and catchy melodies pay tribute to the energy and authenticity of the city’s music scene in the 1960s, creating a resurgence of garage rock in the modern era.


Furthermore, the influence of Motown can be heard in the pop and R&B genres. Artists like Bruno Mars, Beyoncé, and Justin Timberlake have incorporated elements of the Motown sound into their music, infusing their songs with infectious rhythms, soulful vocals, and tight harmonies. This blend of old-school charm and contemporary production has created a unique fusion that appeals to both nostalgia and modern sensibilities.


The Motor City sound has also made its way into the world of electronic music. Detroit’s techno pioneers have left an enduring legacy, shaping the evolution of dance music worldwide. Artists like Carl Craig, Derrick May, and Jeff Mills have pushed boundaries and pioneered new sounds, influencing generations of electronic musicians globally.


Furthermore, the influence of Detroit’s music scene extends beyond specific genres. The city’s DIY spirit and emphasis on authenticity have resonated with artists in various fields. From hip-hop to folk, artists from different backgrounds have embraced the ethos of Detroit’s music scene, incorporating elements of its sound and attitude into their work.


This influence can even be seen in the production techniques and recording styles used by contemporary artists. The raw, minimalistic approach that characterized Detroit’s early recordings has become a sought-after aesthetic, with artists purposely incorporating imperfections and lo-fi elements as an homage to the Motor City sound.


In summary, the Motor City sound continues to have a profound influence on contemporary music. Its impact can be heard across genres, from indie rock to pop, R&B, and electronic music. Artists around the world draw inspiration from Detroit’s rich musical heritage, incorporating its distinct rhythms, melodies, and attitudes into their own work. The enduring legacy of the Motor City sound is a testament to the cultural significance and enduring impact of Detroit’s music scene.


Cultural Impact and Significance of Motor City Sound

The Motor City sound has had a profound cultural impact and holds significant significance in the musical landscape. From its influence on social change to shaping the identity of Detroit, the Motor City sound has become a symbol of cultural heritage and musical excellence.


One of the key cultural impacts of the Motor City sound is its role in breaking down racial barriers in music. Motown Records, in particular, played a pivotal role in introducing African-American artists to mainstream audiences, transcending racial divisions and promoting unity through music. The success of Motown artists like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Stevie Wonder paved the way for future generations, inspiring artists of all backgrounds to celebrate and collaborate across racial boundaries.


Moreover, the Motor City sound became a soundtrack for social change, reflecting the cultural shifts and political climate of the times. Motown’s soulful anthems, such as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” addressed social issues and provided a voice for marginalized communities. These songs, with their heartfelt lyrics and powerful messages, continue to resonate with listeners today, reminding us of the power of music to inspire and bring about positive change.


The cultural significance of Detroit’s music scene extends beyond Motown. The gritty energy of garage rock from bands like The Stooges and MC5 captured the rebellious spirit of the city during tumultuous times. Their raw and authentic sound served as a form of cultural expression and rebellion against societal norms, influencing subsequent generations of punk and alternative rock musicians.


The Motor City sound has also shaped the identity and pride of the city of Detroit. It has become an emblem of the city’s resilience, creativity, and cultural heritage. The music emanating from Detroit serves as a point of connection and a source of pride for its residents, reminding them of the city’s rich history and the contributions it has made to the global music scene.


Furthermore, Detroit’s music scene has become a tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the world who seek to experience the city’s musical heritage firsthand. The iconic Motown Museum, Hitsville U.S.A., has become a pilgrimage site for music lovers, a place where they can immerse themselves in the history and legacy of the Motor City sound.


In summary, the cultural impact and significance of the Motor City sound cannot be overstated. From breaking down racial barriers to amplifying social issues and shaping the identity of Detroit, the Motor City sound has become a cultural touchstone. Its influence continues to permeate the music industry, inspiring artists, and resonating with audiences worldwide, ensuring that Detroit’s musical legacy will endure for generations to come.



The Motor City sound has left an indelible mark on the world of music, showcasing the vibrant and diverse cultural heritage of Detroit. From the infectious melodies of Motown to the raw energy of garage rock and the pioneering spirit of techno, the city’s music scene has influenced artists across genres and continues to shape contemporary music today.


Despite facing challenges and a decline in the past, Detroit’s music scene has experienced a remarkable resurgence. A renewed sense of pride and investment in its cultural heritage, combined with the grassroots efforts of independent artists and collectives, has breathed new life into the city’s music industry. Detroit’s music-centric neighborhoods, the growth of festivals, and the support of organizations dedicated to preserving the city’s musical legacy have all contributed to this revival.


The revival of classic Motown sound and the embrace of the Motor City sound by modern artists highlight the enduring appeal and influence of Detroit’s music scene. Artists across genres have drawn inspiration from the city’s rich musical history, infusing it with their own unique styles and perspectives.


Beyond the realm of music, the impact of the Motor City sound extends to issues of social change, racial unity, and cultural pride. Detroit’s music scene has played a significant role in breaking down barriers and providing a platform for marginalized voices. It has shaped the identity of the city, serving as a symbol of resilience and creativity.


The cultural significance of the Motor City sound can be seen in the tourist attraction it has become. Visitors from around the world come to Detroit to experience the city’s musical heritage firsthand, reinforcing its importance on a global scale.


In conclusion, the Motor City sound is a powerful testament to the enduring impact and significance of Detroit’s music scene. It continues to inspire and captivate audiences, celebrating the city’s rich cultural heritage while influencing generations of artists. As Detroit’s music scene evolves and adapts to changing times, it will undoubtedly continue to make its mark on the world stage, ensuring that the Motor City sound remains a cherished and influential part of our musical landscape.