From Motown to 8 Mile: Exploring the music landscape of Detroit

First published on, June 2018

Born in the factory and burnt by the fire, Detroit, Michigan is a city of industry; a city of riots; a ghost town. Once the thriving home of American car manufacturing, Detroit lost two thirds of its population in the late 20th century, a slow decline driven by economic depression, racial tension and suburban sprawl. Today, though Detroit is experiencing an intense creative renewal, its streets are littered with derelict houses – one fifth of all its buildings left boarded up or abandoned. But if great art is born from struggle, Detroit has delivered in spades.

Poor sharecroppers in Mississippi gave us the blues, and jazz came from the foot-stomping slaves in New Orleans, and from Detroit, Motor City, we got the soul motherlode in Motown Records. When Motown left town, Detroit served up legendary garage punk, the birth of techno and the pugnacious sound of Detroit hip hop, plus a few other gems besides.

Hitsville, USA

Throughout the early twentieth century, Detroit was home to a thriving jazz and blues scene that centered around the poor, black neighbourhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley on the city’s near east side. Culturally rich as they were, these neighbourhoods were slowly cleared away by urban renewal projects, with houses demolished to make way for a freeway, and much of that early music history lost.

In 1959, as Black Bottom began to disappear, a young songwriter by the name of Berry Gordy Jr bought a house over on West Grand Boulevard to house his newly-founded record label. First called Tamla Records, and later Motown, Gordy’s label launched a sound that became synonymous with Detroit. His first signing was Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. His first hit single was Please Mr Postman by The Marvelettes. From 1961 to 1971, Motown had 110 Top Ten singles, including classics from Diana Ross and The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Martha and the Vandellas. These Motown artists, and dozens more, brought a unique pop spin to soul music, and quickly won the heart of the whole world.

Dubbed Hitsville USA by Berry Gordy, the building on West Grand Boulevard is now the Motown Historical Museum, one of many significant historical sites dotted around Detroit. Devotees can find the early homes of Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross on Belmont Street in Arden Park, with Gordy’s ‘Motown Mansion’ close by, on West Boston Boulevard. Further out in Bagley are the houses where Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye once lived, and United Sounds Systems Recording Studios, where Gaye recorded What’s Going On, is still standing under the Edsell Ford Freeway.

The Fox Theatre in Downtown Detroit hosted countless performances by Motown artists and it is where you’ll find many touring stars today, of every musical stripe. Nearby, The Fillimore is a grand concert hall with a similar music vintage, which still echoes Motown soul. For a taste of Detroit’s jazz and blues history, visit Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Greenacres, which opened in 1934 and played host to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole, and still has nightly shows for an intimate audience. Cliff Bell’s Downtown is another hallowed jazz spot in Detroit, reopened in 2006 on the site of the original art deco club.

Detroit Rock City

At virtually the same time that Motown was exploding, a wildly different scene was emerging from dive bars and high school gymnasiums around the fringes of Detroit, solidifying around The Grande Ballroom on Grand River Avenue. In the 1960s, the nascent sounds of garage punk were created by two legendary Detroit acts, MC-5 and Iggy and the Stooges, while a teenaged Alice Cooper was cutting his teeth in the same underground scene. By the end of the decade, The Grande Ballroom became Detroit’s focal point for rock ‘n’ roll rebellion, hosting gigs by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Cream, and The Who. Lester Bangs, the greatest rock critic who ever lived, was a Detroit native, and he documented this scene in real time for CREEM Magazine. Later his protégé Cameron Crowe captured both Bangs and Detroit’s rock history in his biopic, Almost Famous.

Seventies rock exports from Detroit included Ted Nugent and Bob Seger, and the intimitable George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic. Then in the nineties, at the height of Detroit’s economic woes, a new and explosive sound began emerging. Detroit’s dirty, mangy, mutt of an indie rock scene birthed The Von Bondies, The Dirtbombs and the world-conquering White Stripes. Jack White founded his beloved Third Man Records label in Detroit, which was the original home of Touch and Go Records too.

Today, rock is alive and well at venues all over the city, including the legendary dive bar Small’s in Hamtramck and the Old Miami on Cass Avenue. Located just around the corner, The Magic Stick was central to the nineties garage scene and it’s still one of the best places in Detroit to catch indie rock.

8 Mile emcees

Drawing energy from the gritty, industrial landscape, Detroit hip hop has a dark and pugnacious flavour distinct from the east and west coast tribes. Early heroes from the city include Insane Clown Posse, who built an empire around the horrorcore hip hop sound, while local legend Esham developed a hallucinogenic style dubbed ‘acid rap’.

Artists like these inspired Detroit’s most famous emcee, who honed his skills in rap battles at the now-closed Hip Hop Shop and at The Shelter in the basement of Saint Andrews Hall. Eminem immortalised this late nineties scene in the film 8 Mile, which features sequences shot at The Shelter and other landmark hip hop venues in Detroit. Documenting his struggle out of poverty and into the spotlight, the film captures both the grime of the city and the explosive energy it inspires.

Danny Brown is the latest of Detroit’s high-profile hip hop exports, a rapper who emerged from the battle sessions like The Air Up There at 5e Gallery, and the rap showcases at Foot Klan Skatepark on Grand River Avenue. Both are still key venues for underground hip hop in Detroit, along with art/performance spaces like the Tangent Gallery on East Milwaukee Avenue and the nearby Untitled Bodega room at The Baltimore Gallery. The Shelter is still a major live music venue and a must-see for Eminem devotees.

The birthplace of techno

Parallel to all of this, informed by Motown soul and feeding into hip hop beats, Detroit gave birth to techno. Known as The Belleville Three, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May were high school buddies who ingested Parliament Funkadelic, disco, Kraftwerk and pop, and reorganised those influences via synthesisers and drum machines, creating early eighties dance music. They dubbed the sound ‘techno’ and founded a club, The Music Institute, and in 1987 Derrick May took Europe by storm with a single called Strings of Life.

Alongside The Music Institute, The Shelter hosted many Belleville Three shows, as did the Majestic Theater Downtown. The latter two were still key venues when the second wave of Detroit techno legends emerged, including artists like Jeff Mills, Carl Craig and Richie Hawtin. Today, Seth Troxler and Theo Parrish represent the best in Detroit techno, but the major venues remain the same. For underground gigs, check out the TV Lounge on Grand River Avenue, a cult space for techno and house music. The Leland City Club on Bagley Street is another favourite, famous for its industrial flavour. The godfathers of the scene are still active and still playing gigs around Detroit. They headline super clubs more often than not but on a lucky night, this is where you’ll find them.