By Chris M. Junior
The way Martha Reeves sees it, there’s really only one way to make great music: The Motown Records way.
This tried-and-true approach boils down to having world-class musicians playing together at the same time, providing a solid foundation for top-notch singers — just like the way it was done for Berry Gordy Jr.’s label back in the 1960s on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard.
Reeves says she recently had the opportunity to apply the Motown method to a song she did with The Crystal Method that’s part of the new music documentary “Re:Generation.”
The basic theme of “Re:Generation” has five electronic music DJ entities each writing and recording a song with notable artists from traditional music forms. DJ Premier works with rapper Nas and the Berklee Symphony Orchestra. Mark Ronson teams with R&B star Erykah Badu, rapper/actor Mos Def, jazz musician Trombone Shorty and others. Pretty Lights does his session with country’s Ralph Stanley and LeAnn Rimes, while Skrillex collaborates with surviving Doors members Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore.
And last but not least, Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland, known collectively as The Crystal Method, join forces with Reeves and select members of the Funk Brothers, the wide-ranging cast of musicians who served as Motown’s revered house band.
“Well, I was sought out [for this project], and I have no idea why,” Reeves admits. Once she became involved, though, Reeves was intrigued by the challenge of “changing a techno production into a live music production — to take a computer-generated song and turn it into one with actual musicians, like we recorded at Hitsville USA [a .k.a. Motown].”
The end result is the anthemic “I’m Not Leaving,” which Reeves says represents Detroit’s recovery from years of economic hardships. The song’s opening lines (“One child with a dream/for the city he changed the scene/Took debris of yours and mine/turned it into a goldmine”) are about Tyree Guyton. He’s the founder of the city’s Heidelberg Project, which aims to heal communities through art.
“[Guyton is] one of the reasons why I’m not leaving because there’s hope here,” says Reeves, who recently served a four-year term on the Detroit City Council.
Reeves seems pleased with the way “I’m Not Leaving” turned out, but collaborating with The Crystal Method was not without its creative clashes. There’s a scene that was shot for the movie showing Reeves seated between Jordan and Kirkland as they go over some of the possible lyrics to their song.
“So, I love ‘pieces’ — ‘smash the pieces/the very reason’ …” Kirkland says.
“Oh! Oh!” an obviously annoyed Reeves exclaims, turning away from Kirkland. “I ain’t gonna sing no smash no nothing — heck no. I ain’t smashin’ and I ain’t bashin’ nothing.”
Those lines were eventually scrapped from “I’m Not Leaving.” One that did end up making the final cut is both a respectful nod to her Martha and the Vandellas past and a call for positive action in the future: “Tell everyone that you meet/put the dancing back in the street.”
Reeves credits her music director, Al McKenzie, for bringing in what she calls “the best musicians we had in the city” for the 12-hour recording session. Those players included Funk Brothers guitarist Dennis Coffey, trumpeter Johnny Trudell and saxophonist Ernie Rogers.
“The last thing done was to bring in four of Detroit’s best backup singers, and we put the vocals down,” Reeves recalls, adding that putting the song together was like making “a 12-tier cake.”
Reeves looks back on her “Re:Generation” recording experience and says, “Techno music has its place in our history now, and I applaud [those who do it], but I really think that the Motown way is the best way.”
“Re:Generation” will be screened across the United States in select theaters on Feb. 16 and again on Feb. 23. Visit www.regenerationmusicproject.com for more information.
For a free download of the “Re:Generation” soundtrack, click here.