'Motown Remixed': It Works

Motown's success has made its musical catalog one of the most recognizable in American history. Oliver Wang says it takes some guts to tackle these iconic tunes, but the producers have pulled it off.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

By the end of the 1960s, Motown Records had enough number-one hits to leave The Beatles, Beach Boys and Elvis in the dust. Motown's success has made its musical catalogue one of the most recognizable in American history, but is it too recognizable to be remixed by younger producers from the worlds of hip-hop and house music? Reviewer Oliver Wang doesn't think so.

OLIVER WANG reporting:

It's safe to say that everyone, at some point, somewhere, has heard a Motown song. However, most probably haven't heard Motown quite like this.

(Soundbite of "Tears of a Clown")

SMOKEY ROBINSON & THE MIRACLES: (Singing) Now if there's a smile, a smile, a smile, now if there's a smile on your face, on your face, on your face, on your face, on your face, it's only there trying to fool the public, but when it comes down to fooling you, now, honey, that's quite a different subject.

WANG: That was, of course, "Tears of a Clown" by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles but reworked by the Full Phat production team, one of 15 classic soul songs transformed on the new "Motown: Remixed" album.

(Soundbite of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine")

Unidentified Singer: I bet you're wondering how I knew, baby, baby, baby, about the plans to make me blue...

Backup Singers: How?

Unidentified Singer: ...with some other girl you knew before.

Backup Singers: Whoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo.

Unidentified Singer: Between the two of us girls, you know I love you more.

WANG: The Detroit label is the latest to green-light a remix project. Earlier this year, another soul music powerhouse, Atlantic, released a similar though far more tepid compilation called Atlantiquity. On the jazz front, Verve has enjoyed three successful volumes of its own adventurous remixes, but "Motown: Remixed" faces a greater challenge because of how intimately acquainted people are with the music. Motown songs are considered classics, suggesting that they've already attained a level of perfection that no amount of tinkering is going to improve.

(Soundbite of music)

WANG: More importantly, how does one fiddle with such familiarity without offending the millions of fans for whom Motown songs are signposts from their own lives.

(Soundbite of "I Want You Back")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) When I had you to myself, I didn't want you around. Those pretty faces always make me stand out in a crowd.

WANG: To the considerable credit, though, most of the album's remixers recognize that their job is not to update or improve on anything but rather to find new ways of presenting these revered songs.

Unidentified Man #1: All right. Stand by and I'm going back up to the top.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: One, two, three.

(Soundbite of music)

WANG: To remix the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," DJ Z-Trip went back to the original master tapes. And there he isolated each track--guitar, bass, drums, vocals--and then rebuilt the song from the ground up with a sparser, funkier sound.

(Soundbite of "I Want You Back")

JACKSON: (Singing) When I had you to myself, I didn't want you around. Those pretty faces always make you stand out in a crowd, but someone picked you from the bunch. One glance was all it took. Now it's much too late for me to take a second look.

WANG: The producers take a different tack on their remix of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." Rather than radically reformat this bedroom anthem, they identify the core elements of Gaye's arrangement and interpolate them through new instrumentation. Call it the `something borrowed, something new' approach.

(Soundbite of "Let's Get It On")

Mr. MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) We're all sensitive people with so much to give, understand each other. Since we've got to be here, let's live. I love you.

WANG: The best tracks of the album follow a similar aesthetic. The musical or vocal essence of each song is carefully isolated and the remixers hang their handiwork around that core. This is a tricky balance, though, and some songs likely tip too far to the contemporary to satisfy purists.

(Soundbite of "I Want You Back")

JACKSON: No! Get up, girl! Show me what you can do!

(Soundbite of music)

JACKSON: (Singing) Shake it, shake it, baby. Come on now! Shake it, shake it, baby. Oh-oh! Shake it, shake it, baby. Whoa! Shake it, shake it, baby. Whoa! One, two, three, baby, whoo-ho, ain't been seeing you, baby. Nah, nah. Do re mi, baby, now that's how easy love can be.

WANG: For a younger generation, the album's integration of hip-hop and dance music creates a point of entry, but many of the remixes are careful to retain what made these songs magical in the first place. Again, it's not that any of these Motor City songs needed a retread but the ride on new wheels still feels smooth.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: Each day through my window...

MONTAGNE: Oliver Wang is a music critic based in San Francisco, an editor of classic material, "The Hip-Hop Album Guide."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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