Dossier: Detroit State of Mind

We like to imagine his city, his region as being at the origin of a movement, the soul of a current. The Rastafarians have Ethiopia and Mesopotamia is considered the cradle of humanity, but can’t one imagine Detroit as the cradle of American counterculture?

A city in southern Michigan in the United States, Detroit takes its name from the “Detroit” river that crosses it. The city appears today in distress, with the end of the industrial era and the subprime crisis, Detroit is on the brink. In 2013, Detroit’s economic and social situation was dire: the debt stood at $ 18.5 billion. Moreover, the demographic situation is of the most concern with the loss of half of its inhabitants in 60 years. On July 18, 2013, the city declared bankruptcy. A sad reality far from the cultural richness of this city.

Motor City – Motown

Berry Gordy Jr. Founder of Motown

It’s hard to imagine the economic state of Detroit when you consider that it has hosted for years the « Big Three » (Ford, Chrysler, General Motors), the most powerful industries in the United States. The auto industry has branded the culture of this Michigan city. Like the Motown label (for “Motor Town”) created in 1959 by Berry Gordy who was inspired by it when it came time to find a name. The label is considered one of the most important in the history of music. Synonymous with an entire era, Motown’s Soul music was at the heart of the civil rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War and the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. With a large black community working in the smoking factories of the city. The automotive industry had an abundance of stars. Founder Berry Gordy was himself a younger worker on a Lincoln car assembly line in Detroit.

The sound of Motown landed in the 1960s, when segregation was still very present in the United States. Music was then a catalyst, an instrument of integration. During those years when racial tensions were at their peak, the gap between the whites and the blacks seemed impassable. Nevertheless, the federalism of Soul melodies backed by their lyrics has made it possible to lower tensions and bring men closer together. Motown wanted to reach as many audiences as possible with its popular music, capable of bringing together young people. The desire for emancipation is great and will find in this label a revealing soundtrack of the time.


The African-American community in the Detroit area was gradually gaining self-confidence and no longer hiding. She could be proud of her music broadcast in all the transistors in the country (Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, les Temptations…).

The influence of Motown in Hip-Hop

The influence of Motown is still present everywhere in musical culture both in the United States and throughout the world. The label’s artists have become real legends and are often cited as a reference for new generations.

The art of sampling, that’s what Hip-Hop feeds on and what could be more enjoyable for a digger than ending up in an old record store in Detroit buried under a pile of Motown-stamped patties. As we know, Double H producers are crazy about those old Soul vinyls full of dust. It’s clear that Detroit artists have a real comparative advantage over their rapper counterparts: they live in the holy land of Soul.

Detroit’s Hip-Hop scene is blessed with both a rich history and heritage, but also a bright future. It is certain that Detroit has always had an important place in the “rap game”. The grimy freestyles between scorching mics MCs never really stopped. With Eminem as the spearhead, Midwestern Hip-Hop has made its voice heard. And what about the impetus of the mythical group Slum Village who splashed his talent on the underground world.


James Dewitt Yancey (1974 – 2006)

Impossible to talk about Detroit without making a little aside on James Dewitt Yancey alias Jay Dee aka J Dilla. This producer is, for me, undoubtedly one of the most talented of his generation. We can even classify it in the “legend” category. With an opera singer mother, passionate about classical music and a bassist father, Jay Dee’s destiny was traced: music.

True self-taught, he very quickly began to play all types of instruments: piano, cello, drums, guitar. It is thanks to this musicality developed from an early age that he will become the exceptional producer that we know. After graduating from Farwell Middle School, Yancey enrolled in Davis Aerospace Technical High School. This is where he will start DJing and make his debut in student parties. It was in the 80’s that Yancey met T3 and Baatin at Detroit Pershing High School where he was spending his final year of study. The three of them set up the Slum Village group and quickly became the Hip-Hop benchmark for Motor City, in particular thanks to Yancey’s ultra-polished and polished productions. There follows a meteoric rise through the rap game and Yancey starts working with the greatest (Pharcyde, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest). He will become an essential and indispensable producer for the game.

Unfortunately, two years after the release of the majestic Jaylib (2004) in collaboration with Madlib, Yancey passes away (February 10, 2006) following a rare blood disorder. Carried away too quickly, Jay Dee remains and will remain the reference of the underground world of Detroit. He was considered by many to be a genius who was always one step ahead of his time. Detroit mourns its legend, but the young guard is ready to take over.


Jay Dee in search of the rare pearl

Motor City comes out of the shadows

Eminem and Royce Da 5’9 ″ are the first artists to have succeeded in establishing themselves outside the borders of Michigan. The first one really exploded in the middle mainstream solo, but also through his group D12. As for the second, his career was slightly more complicated, in particular due to his quarrel with Eminem and Dr Dre. Not to mention his little passage through the prison box (and without going through the starting box or touching the $ 20,000!). However, the dark-glasses rapper continues to ride his rap hump.

Royce Da 5’9 ″ reminds us of the long road traveled by the Hip Hop community of Detroit:

« When we first started, if you went anywhere abroad and said that you were a Detroit rapper, nobody cared. We kind of have a name now. We’ve grinded to the point that we’ve created a standard that I’m very proud of. We have to live up to that standard. »

At the veteran level, Guilty Simpson is doing pretty well with his recent signing with the Stones Throw label and let’s not forget about the DJ, the very good House Shoes which punctuates the evenings of Detroit clubbers.

Eminem-Royce Da 5'9 ''

Concentration of Eminem and Royce Da 5’9 ″ before a show

Youth with fangs

The city is now on the brink of financial abyss and is on the verge of being placed under trusteeship by the governor of the state of Michigan. A calamitous economic and social situation where jobs are scarce and where houses abandoned to their creditors are multiplying in certain neighborhoods. In this gloomy context, local Hip-Hop is full of nuggets and does not abdicate, on the contrary. The next generation is on the way and has things to say.

It is time to wake up. First by the MC / Producer Black Milk who was one of the first to restart the machine. Far from the scene mainstream he has established himself in the industry as one of the most talented and prolific rappers / producers of his generation. Let’s not forget either Elzhi (ex-Slum Village) which took off solo. How to talk about succession without mentioning the talented Apollo Brown, which has been able to breathe new life into local production with a sensational entry into the game thanks to the sublime album Gas Mask (2010). An opus in collaboration with The Left, two local lads (Journalist 103 and DJ Soko). An album that reminds us that the ghost of Jay Dee still hovers over this mythical city. Apollo Brown is a child of Motown, he has an ease and a rather disconcerting ease to combine old Soul samples with drums loops to blow your eardrums. No doubt, Detroit producers have that in their blood.

Pure and hard MC side, it’s Danny Brown who has impressed lately with The Hybrid (2010), XXX (2011) and Old (2013). He has proven to be a safe bet in the rap game. He knew how to impose his paw, his trademark. A drug addict travelo look, hypnotic beats for an authentic and quirky rap.

As for the young girl, we can also appreciate the breakthrough of the group Clear soul Forces. A new crew that is working together and trying to win at the national level. Clear soul Forces, a quartet composed of: L.A.Z., E-fave, J-Roc et Ilajide. Google will tell us that the group was born during a sleepless night when the 4 MCs recorded their respective sets in a studio where by coincidence Royce Da 5’9 ″ also made the music vibrate. mic for his album Street Hop (2009). Taking their courage in both hands the 4 lads decided to make Royce listen to their vocalizations. Impressed by the 4 kids, the MC suggested they form a group. Clear Soul Forces was born.


Danny Brown hair in the wind

You will understand, Detroit is full of good artists. The harshness of life in this city shaken by financial difficulties and rising crime, pushes young people to take the mic to express themselves. The aim of this paper was by no means to draw up an exhaustive list of all the actors of the game of Detroit, but to try to introduce you to the artists who have shaped the HH history of this city. Detroit has always been rocked by music. Motown launched the movement of this black American counter-culture, a launching pad perfectly suited to Hip-Hop in (a) spirations. A door ajar which has allowed many artists to emancipate themselves. Indeed at the beginning of the article I was talking about the cradle and believe it or not, but Detroit is also considered the cradle of Techno music, but that’s another story …