DETROIT RISING

‘It’s a new church. It’s Detroit.
It’s late 1959 And it’s our good fortune to have New hymns for our northern souls.’
Detroit-born poet M.L. Liebler was only six years old in 1959 but even at that age he must have understood place identity. The defining doxology of Detroit surely ‘got hold of him’, as they say in church, and decades later out came Liebler’s poem, Rhythm and Blues Fire.
Could any three combination of words describe Detroit better and all that we know about its musical, social and political history? As a unique American urban center, Detroit’s culture is one of melting pot diversity and extreme economic disparity with unparalleled innovation having sprung from artists surviving and thriving in both of those realities. From the sublime, poetic lyrics of Smokey Robinson (an original Motown innovator) to the genius compositions of J Dilla (who became a super producer of almost all things hip hop) Detroit is inextricably linked to America’s musical identity.
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1959 Pink Cadillac

THE SMOKEY ROBINSON EFFECT

Motown Records was founded in 1959 and presented a polished image of the soul pop genre which reflected a classic culture that the youth of mainstream America not only rushed to celebrate but, even more importantly to its success, also came to embrace as its own. Music and the baby boomers were on the move as a whole. In 1950 there were 25 million registered automobiles and by the decade’s end there were 67 million registered. Kids were out of the house and listening to their car radios with Motown as the soundtrack to their lives.
Smokey Robinson became the songwriting protege of Motown founder Berry Gordy and together they formulated a music method that was just as prolific and productive as General Motors itself. Smokey’s sublime, simple lyrics like ‘before you ask some girl for her hand now, keep your freedom for as long as you can now’ broke with tradition and created a code not just for making hit music but for also changing youth culture forever.

Where does genius like that come from? Musical inspiration is often a cacophony of lifelong sound; the rhythms a child hears around the house, melodies sneaking out from under an older sibling’s bedroom door, the nostalgic sound of someone’s voice and very often language itself. It was poetry that led Smokey Robinson to the musicality of words. In his childhood, he found the beauty and cadence of words spoken out loud by his Aunt when she would read him poems from her notebook. Now, at 81, Robinson (always the innovator) is exploring the rhythms and poetry of a new language. He taught himself Spanish and is releasing his first ever album recorded in a second language.





Smokey Robinson has written hit song after hit song for decades starting in 1960; Shop Around, I Second That Emotion, More Love, Tears of a Clown and Cruisin’ to name a few. As the words were flowing and magic was happening with the music, the backdrop of America was tumultuous to say the least. At shows in the South, audiences were separated with White kids on one side of the auditorium and Black kids on the other, often with a rope in between them. Once asked by a reporter if he thought entertainers should become involved in the Black man’s problems of the day, Robinson said, “Well, we are involved because we’re Black men. So, we are involved already.”

The Detroit Rising NFT series was created by renowned Detroit artist and activist Tyree Guyton. For these original creations, Tyree was given audio elements from the interview with Robinson. The resulting NFT series he produced consists of 2-D works, motion graphics presentations and a written testimony to his own scope of experience. Both animated pieces feature original audio of Smokey Robinson playing piano.

“Smokey Robinson and the Motown music was a medicine,”

says Tyree Guyton, “that was needed in this city at the time. I remember the Black experience was in sync with the music they were making. It was right on time and it was powerful.”
From the time Shop Around was released in 1960 until the 1990’s, the problems of the Black man in America had lessened or grown depending on personal circumstances in relation to the political and social culture of America itself. One aspect of the culture of music that changed drastically, however, was technical possibility and innovation. From a production standpoint, making music evolved into specialization. In Robinson’s era, he would write, produce, musically direct a performance and then be the performer on a song, usually recording one entire take on a reel-to-reel tape live in a studio. By the early 1990’s, producers were sampling beats and turning multi-track layers into one release serving almost as composers separate from a recording artist’s own words, music and performance. Enter the super producer.

ALSO KNOWN AS J DILLA

JAMES DEWITT YANCEY came into this world on February 7, 1974 in Detroit; the son of an opera singer Mother and a jazz bassist Father. Yancey was clearly destined for a life in music, however, Detroit was a very different city when he was coming up than it had been in 1959. The riots of 1967 had devastated the urban center, Motown had moved to Hollywood and there was no economic plan for rebuilding. The one thing that remained was innovation.
Just like Motown, Joseph ‘Amp’ Fiddler had been born in Detroit in 1959 and by the mid 1980’s he had played in George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic ensemble and was becoming a mentor to the young James Yancey. It was Fiddler who introduced Yancey to the Akai MPC sample machine thus opening a portal to the person who would quickly become J Dilla.

By the time Dilla turned 20, hip hop legends like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes and even Jay Z were coming to Detroit to seek out the producer prodigy. Then, Dilla bridged the gap between the old world and the new when at the turn of the millennium he began collaborating with Questlove, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and the neo-soul set forming a collective known as the Soulquarians.

Dilla’s genius was evident early on and throughout his career. His mother, known now in the hip hop world as Ma Dukes, says James used to work word search puzzles for hours on end often identifying words that she didn’t even realize he knew. Then it was Questlove who delivered the now famous analogy about Dilla’s supernatural skills at creating beats with samples when he said, “It was like watching someone solve a 10,000 word puzzle in record time.”

it is a constant cycle of artistry.There is no real beginning, no real end.
On his deathbed at age 32, Dilla used the MPC to create one of hip hop’s truly iconic orchestrations and only his second solo release, Donuts. After decades of producing sample tracks with sometimes up to several dozen sample layers and beats for all the hip hop legends he worked with, Donuts was Dilla’s expression and reconciliation with his own purpose, talent and immortality. The end track WELCOME TO THE SHOW on Donuts seamlessly connects back into the beginning track, ironically and almost assuredly intentionally, called DONUTS OUTRO to create an endless loop of creativity. There is no real beginning, no real end. It is a constant cycle of artistry.

Dilla passed away at the age of 32 in 2007, accomplishing more in those three decades and two years than most people will in a lifetime. His legacy, however, is still shining today. In 2010, the multi-instrumentalist composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson interpreted Dilla’s music with a 60-piece orchestra celebrating Dilla and his musical influences. The work was entitled Suite for Ma Dukes and was both recorded and presented live at such prestigious institutions as Lincoln Center in New York City and the Barbican in London.

In 2014, Ma Dukes donated the super producer’s MPC along with his Moog synthesizer to the Smithsonian Institution’s African American History Museum.

The unprecedented Detroit Rising NFT series created by artist Desiree Kelly, in collaboration with Ma Dukes, offers rare insight into Dilla’s early life and presents the first works of art from the life of J Dilla the world has been given since his passing. The series features two animated sequences based on the interview with Ma Dukes along with word search puzzles that give a nod to the gamification of NFTs but that are rooted in old school tenets. One word search features six J Dilla song titles. The other six feature one song title each. In order to solve these puzzles, you'll have to get familiar with the work of one of hip hop's most innovative producers.

“I think music production and art production are exactly the same.”

says Desiree Kelly. “You’re literally talking about putting pieces of something together into a whole so that becomes a system. Music producers get their sound and artists get their style.”