Detroit urban music has a rich and diverse history, encompassing genres like Motown, funk, soul, hip hop, and techno, and featuring legendary artists such as Aretha Franklin, J Dilla, and Juan Atkins.
Detroit is known as The Motor City or Motown. Rock ‘n roll fans call it Detroit Rock City. To urban music fans, it is the home of The Motown Sound named after the record company Motown.
Detroit Urban Music Over the Decades
Detroit in the 1960s was a major center for the development of African American music, particularly soul and R&B. The music from Detroit in the 1960s was characterized by a blend of soulful vocals, catchy melodies, and danceable rhythms.
The 1970s was a pivotal decade for Detroit’s urban music scene, with Motown continuing to dominate the airwaves while new genres and styles began to emerge.
Motown remained a major force throughout the decade, with artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and The Temptations continuing to release hits. However, as the decade wore on, the label began to face increased competition from other record companies and genres, and by the end of the 1970s, Motown’s dominance had begun to wane.
The 1980s was a time of transformation for Detroit’s urban music scene, as new genres and styles emerged and old ones continued to evolve.
One of the biggest changes during the 1980s was the rise of hip hop music in Detroit. Although the genre had been around since the 1970s, it didn’t really take hold in the city until the early 1980s, when local DJs and MCs began to create their own unique style. Groups like the Electrifying Mojo and the New Dance Show helped to spread the sound across the city, and by the mid-1980s, Detroit’s hip hop scene was in full swing.
Alongside hip hop, techno music also emerged as a major force in Detroit during the 1980s. The genre was pioneered by local DJs like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, who combined elements of funk, soul, and electronic music to create a sound that was entirely new. Techno quickly became popular across the city and beyond, and Detroit’s music industry began to adapt to the changing times, with new clubs and venues opening up to cater to techno fans.
Despite the rise of hip hop and techno, other genres continued to be popular in Detroit during the 1980s. R&B and funk remained popular, with local groups like Ready for the World and The S.O.S. Band scoring hits on the charts. And although Motown’s dominance had waned by this point, the label continued to release music throughout the decade, with artists like Rick James and DeBarge finding success on the charts.
Detroit’s urban music scene in the 1990s saw the rise of several influential hip hop acts, as well as the continued growth of the city’s techno music scene.
One of the most notable hip hop groups to emerge from Detroit during this time was D12, a rap collective formed in 1996 that included future superstar Eminem. The group’s debut album, “Devil’s Night”, was released in 2001 and was a commercial and critical success, featuring hit singles like “Purple Pills” and “Fight Music”. D12 continued to release music throughout the 2000s, but their success was overshadowed by Eminem’s solo career.
Another important Detroit hip hop act from the 1990s was Slum Village, a group formed in 1996 that included members J Dilla, Baatin, and T3. Slum Village helped to define the “alternative hip hop” sound of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and influenced a generation of underground hip hop artists. J Dilla’s production work on Slum Village’s early albums helped to establish him as one of the most innovative and influential producers of his time.
In the techno music scene, Detroit remained a global leader, with artists like Carl Craig, Derrick May, and Jeff Mills continuing to push the boundaries of the genre. The city’s annual Movement Electronic Music Festival, which began in 2000, has become one of the world’s premier techno music events, attracting thousands of fans and performers from around the globe.
The Detroit urban music scene in the 2000s continued to produce notable hip hop and R&B artists, as well as maintain the city’s position as a leading center for techno music.
One of the most successful and influential artists to emerge from Detroit in the 2000s was Eminem, who had a string of multi-platinum albums and hit singles throughout the decade. His 2002 film “8 Mile”, which was loosely based on his own life, also helped to shine a spotlight on Detroit’s hip hop scene.
Other notable Detroit hip hop artists from the 2000s include Big Sean, who rose to prominence with his debut album “Finally Famous” in 2011, and Danny Brown, who gained a following with his unique blend of alternative hip hop and electronic music.
In the R&B scene, Detroit produced several successful acts, including Dwele, who had a hit with his 2003 album “Subject”, and the girl group Electrik Red, who were signed to Def Jam Records in 2008.
Meanwhile, Detroit’s techno music scene continued to thrive, with the city’s annual Movement Electronic Music Festival attracting top international DJs and electronic music producers. The festival also helped to highlight the city’s rich musical heritage, with many performers incorporating elements of Motown and other Detroit-based musical styles into their sets.
Famous Urban Music Artists From Detroit
Diana Ross: Born in Detroit, Diana Ross rose to fame as the lead singer of The Supremes, one of the most successful girl groups of all time. She went on to have a successful solo career, with hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Upside Down.”
Smokey Robinson: Born in Detroit in 1940, Smokey Robinson was a singer, songwriter, and producer who became one of Motown’s most successful artists. He had numerous hits, both as a solo artist and with his group, The Miracles.
Mary Wells: Born in Detroit in 1943 and signed with Motown in 1960. She was the label’s first female star, with hits like “My Guy” and “Two Lovers.” She left Motown in 1964 but continued to have success as a solo artist.
Martha Reeves: Born in Detroit in 1941 and joined Motown as a secretary before being recruited as a singer. She became the lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas, with hits like “Dancing in the Street” and “Heat Wave.” Reeves was also active in the civil rights movement and was a strong supporter of the Detroit community.
Levi Stubbs (of The Four Tops): Born in Detroit in 1936 and was the lead singer of The Four Tops, one of Motown’s most successful groups. The Four Tops had hits like “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch).” Stubbs’ distinctive voice was a key part of the group’s sound.
Stevie Wonder: Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Stevie Wonder moved to Detroit as a child and signed with Motown Records at the age of 11. He became one of the most successful musicians of the 20th century, with hits like “Superstition” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
Aretha Franklin: Though she wasn’t technically from Detroit (she was born in Memphis), Aretha Franklin moved to Detroit as a child and began her music career there. Her soulful voice and gospel-influenced style made her one of the most celebrated singers of all time, with hits like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools.”
Yusef Lateef: Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but he moved to Detroit in the 1940s and became an important figure in the city’s jazz scene. He was a multi-instrumentalist who played saxophone, flute, and oboe, and he was known for his innovative and experimental approach to jazz. Lateef incorporated elements of Eastern music and other world music traditions into his work, and he was a pioneer of the fusion genre.
Donald Byrd: Born in Detroit in 1932 and was a trumpet player and bandleader. He was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the 1950s before launching his own successful career as a solo artist. Byrd was known for his soulful and lyrical playing style, and he was also an influential educator who taught at Howard University and other institutions.
Geri Allen: Born in Pontiac, Michigan, but she spent much of her career in Detroit, where she was a key figure in the city’s jazz community. She was a pianist, composer, and bandleader, and she was known for her versatility and range. Allen was also an educator and mentor, and she was committed to promoting diversity and inclusivity in jazz.
Big Sean: Born in California but moved to Detroit as a child, and he became one of the city’s most successful hip hop artists in the 2010s. His style is characterized by his smooth flow and catchy hooks, and he has collaborated with a wide range of artists from different genres.
Danny Brown: Born and raised in Detroit, and he became known for his gritty and unapologetic lyrics, as well as his unique delivery and experimental beats. Brown’s style has been described as “avant-garde” and “psychedelic,” and he has been praised for his ability to push the boundaries of what hip hop can sound like.
The Temptations: Formed in Detroit in 1960, The Temptations were a vocal group known for their smooth harmonies and flashy choreography. They had numerous hits, including “My Girl” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
The Four Tops: Another vocal group from Detroit, The Four Tops were known for their smooth harmonies and catchy hooks. They had numerous hits, including “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”
Marvin Gaye: Born in Washington, D.C., Marvin Gaye moved to Detroit in the late 1950s and signed with Motown Records in 1960. He became one of the label’s biggest stars, with hits like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “What’s Going On.”
The Supremes: Originally known as The Primettes, The Supremes were one of the most successful girl groups of all time. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard grew up together in the Brewster-Douglass housing projects in Detroit and signed with Motown Records in 1961. They had 12 number-one hits, including “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Baby Love.”
J Dilla: Real name was James Dewitt Yancey, was a producer and rapper from Detroit who became one of the most influential figures in hip hop during the 2000s. He started out as a member of the group Slum Village, but he eventually went on to produce tracks for a wide range of artists, including A Tribe Called Quest, Common, and Erykah Badu. Dilla’s production style was characterized by his use of soulful samples, unconventional drum patterns, and off-kilter rhythms, and he was known for his ability to create a sound that was both innovative and deeply rooted in the traditions of hip hop and R&B. Tragically, Dilla passed away in 2006 at the age of 32 due to complications from lupus.
Royce da 5’9″: Real name is Ryan Montgomery, is a rapper and songwriter from Detroit who has been active since the 1990s. He is known for his sharp lyricism, versatile flow, and ability to switch between different styles and moods. Royce has collaborated with a wide range of artists over the years, including Eminem, Jay-Z, and DJ Premier, and he has released several critically acclaimed solo albums. He is also a member of the hip hop supergroup Slaughterhouse, which includes fellow MCs Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz, and KXNG Crooked. In addition to his music career, Royce is also a successful businessman who owns his own label, Heaven Studios.
Ready for the World: Formed in Flint, Michigan, in 1982, and was originally called “Legacy”. The group consisted of six members, including three brothers and two cousins, and they played a mix of funk, R&B, and rock. In 1984, they signed with MCA Records and released their self-titled debut album, which included the hit single “Oh Sheila”. The song reached number one on the R&B charts and number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100, and helped to establish Ready for the World as one of the top R&B groups of the 1980s.
The S.O.S. Band: Formed in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1977, but several of its members were from Detroit. The group’s name stands for “Sounds of Success”, and they played a mix of funk, R&B, and electro-pop. In 1980, they signed with Tabu Records and released their debut album, “S.O.S.”. The album included the hit single “Take Your Time (Do It Right)”, which reached number one on the R&B charts and number three on the Billboard Hot 100. The S.O.S. Band continued to release music throughout the 1980s, scoring hits with songs like “Just Be Good to Me” and “The Finest”.
Rick James: Born in Buffalo, New York, but spent much of his career in Detroit. He began his music career as a teenager, playing in various R&B and soul groups, before signing with Motown Records in 1977. James released his debut album, “Come Get It!”, in 1978, which included the hit single “You and I”. He went on to release a string of successful albums throughout the 1980s, including “Street Songs”, “Throwin’ Down”, and “Cold Blooded”. James was known for his flamboyant style and high-energy performances, and helped to establish funk as a major force in the music industry during the 1980s. His music continues to be influential today, and he is regarded as one of the most important and innovative musicians of his generation.
Dwele: From Detroit who gained critical acclaim for his smooth vocals and jazzy, neo-soul-influenced sound. He first gained recognition with his 2003 debut album, “Subject”, which featured the hit single “Find a Way”. His subsequent albums, including “Some Kinda…” (2005), “Sketches of a Man” (2008), and “Greater Than One” (2012), were also well-received by critics and fans alike.
Electrik Red: Formed in Detroit in the mid-2000s. The group consisted of four members: Naomi Allen, Lesley Lewis, Sarah Rosete, and Binkie McComb. They were signed to Def Jam Records in 2008 and released their debut album, “How to Be a Lady: Volume 1”, the following year.