Motown Keeps the Spirit of Building Black Labels Alive

By Tristin Marshall

Plenty of Black entrepreneurs that have built empires in the music industry have been known to say they want to build a model like Motown’s founder Berry Gordy. Nas rapped on the 2005 Kanye West track “We Major” that he “thinks it’s time to build our very own Motown.” Chuck D tweeted that Motown was one of the best labels to ever do it because of the family-style competition that brewed between the artists, and believes they were so successful because they didn’t compete with anyone but themselves.

There’s much to be said about the Black music empires that have changed the culture over the last few decades like Bad Boy and Cash Money. What makes the Motown legacy so special, however, is that nearly 60 years later it is still a label that fosters and supports other legacies building Black culture.

Motown President Ethiopia Habtemariam gets it. A label traditionally know for its R&B acts who still boats a roster of NE-YO, Erykah Badu, and BJ The Chicago Kid, has transitioned into the new sound of young American–hip-hop. Gordy encapsulated Young America with 11-year-old Stevie Wonder, the teenagers of the Jackson 5, and the young adults that were The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, and Tammi Terrell. Rick James and Teena Marie provided party music and slow jams for their R&B generation, and Boyz II Men made love songs for their generation that have lasted a lifetime. However on a comparative level, artists like Migos, Lil Yachty, and Cuban Doll cover the spectrum of the Young America that needs to be re-tapped by the music industry of today.

Migos’ label Quality Control Music has already embedded their lasting stake in hip-hop history. As one of the hottest independent hip-hop labels right now, who boats some of the biggest acts including Migos, Lil Yachty, Lil Baby, and more, they expressed owing some of their business acumen to Gordy. “Every executive should study Berry Gordy’s blueprint: We’re an independent company, and we built our whole label around how Motown was built. The old Motown was youthful and groundbreaking; that’s what the new Motown is now,” Coach K told Rolling Stone in a 2017 interview.

Courtesy of: Complex Magazine

Quality Control Music joined in a joint venture with Motown in 2015, just a short time after Habtemariam was appointed to president of the label. Founders Pierre “Pee” Thomas and Kevin “Coach K” Lee have been known to praise Habtemariam for knowing what’s coming next in the the business. “The smartest Black woman in the music business [Ethiopia]. Thank you for seeing the vision when every one else didn’t,” Pee said on Instagram in praise of Habtemariam. The independent, Black-owned label has seen major success with their artists, including numerous nominations, No. 1 albums, and feature stories in some of the most legendary music publications. In this time where hip-hop is the most dominant genre in music, it’s time that Black labels support one another to continue to thrive off the foundation that was set many years ago.

Tony Perez and Robert “Robeo” Eleazer founded E.P. Entertainment in 2011, and is the home of acts including Grammy-award winning singer Alessia Cara, Sebastian Kole, and Dylan Hyde. Similar to the early days of Motown, there wasn’t much to the formula of success except to make something that felt right to share with the masses. “It was a simple motto,  build a company we were passionate about, that speaks to our culture, our generation and our peers, that can be revolutionary and empowering but still entertaining,” Perez  says of building E.P. Entertainment.

Courtesy of: E.P. Entertainment

“Ethiopia is one few black women that achieve that level success that you have to applaud and learn from. She has been championing for our success even before the decision was made to do a venture with Motown,” Tony Perez says of his relationship with Habtemariam.

Washington, D.C-based label 368 exemplifies what it means to bring a new sound to the forefront. Label CEO Andre “Dre” Hopson created 368 (which is D-M-V dialed on the telephone pad) to be a platform for artists in the DMV area, without them having to relocate to a larger US city. “I wanted to cultivate our own music scene here in our backyard. The DMV feels like Atlanta in the early 90s right now. We’re right on the cusp of becoming a music hub and I want to be at the forefront of this movement,” Dre told Motown. 368 joined the label as a joint venture in 2015. The first artist to break from the label is DMV native Chaz French, who released his debut album ‘True Colors’ in 2017.

The next label on the horizon is the 740 Project, run by Rahim “The Dream” Wright, Jesse “Punch” Edwards, and Charley Greenberg. The digital agency has delved into breaking artists, including the female rapper Cuban Doll, who signed to Motown in 2018.

Motown also inked a joint venture with Atlanta-producer Zaytoven’s imprint, Familiar Territory Records.

After being named the most powerful African-American woman at Universal Music Group by Billboard, Habtemariam told the magazine of how strongly she felt about the teams she has built over the years and the importance of them reflecting the audience they are trying to reach.“Real initiatives need to be put in place. If the people working on a project don’t look like the people you’re trying to touch with your records, there’s a problem.”

Although credited for some of the most classic songs in history, Motown’s most important duty is to continue to fuel the generation of the current time and to support the Black entrepreneurs that are doing such. Habtemariam told Rolling Stone in a 2017 interview, “I look at Mr. Gordy as one of the first black entrepreneurs that broke boundaries. We want to support young black entrepreneurs who built something special.”

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