Will a 'neo-classic soul' man be the salvation of Motown?

Posted: February 24, 2002

During the two years she spent recording her debut, Acoustic Soul, India.Arie heard Motown president Kedar Massenburg offer the same advice over and over.

The tireless producer and executive, who discovered D'Angelo and Erykah Badu and literally holds a trademark on the term neo-classic soul, had no quibble with the songs she was writing for acoustic guitar, songs that have led to a surprising seven Grammy bids for an artist with a shade-above-cult following. And he had nothing but encouragement for her lyrics - understated sermons on strength, courage and wisdom.

But there was one thing that Massenburg - whose label is up for 15 awards at Wednesday's Grammy ceremony - wanted Arie to keep in mind.

"He was always 'You've got to have some stuff for the trunk'. . . the people who won't pay attention [to the music] if it doesn't have that big bottom end," the Atlanta singer and songwriter recalled.

"His thing was, it's important to think about this record being heard by the hip-hop kids riding around with the big sound systems. . . .And you know what? He was right. That opened things up for me creatively."

It's that kind of gentle persuasion that has made Massenburg, 38, a revered pioneer of neo-soul and the man many believe can lead the venerable Motown out of years of hitless humiliation. He is also one of the few record executives whose insights have earned him the respect of his artists.

Badu describes him as a "bulldog," but says she listens to every suggestion, because, as Arie discovered, he has an uncanny sense of what works.

Not only was Massenburg among the first to realize the market potential of enlightened music that links hip-hop with elements of classic rhythm and blues,but he's used every career stop in the last decade - manager, producer and, since 1999,record company honcho - as a bully pulpit to champion artists who might otherwise have been ignored.

"If you walked into the urban department of a major label two years ago with an artist like India, whose reference points are acoustic pop and gospel as much as R&B,you'd have been laughed at," Massenburg says proudly. "Not now."

Sure enough, almost every label active in urban music has snapped up singers within the general neo-soul category. But none is more committed to the genre than Motown, which since Massenburg's arrival has aggressively signed new torchcarriers for what sometimes sounds like Kedar's Crusade.

Even those who grumble that Massenburg demands too much credit for a style others also toiled to create admit that he's taken a bold stand: If Motown is to reverse its decades-long slide,it will be with neo-soul.

Massenburg was way ahead of the curve. When gangsta rap was running hot in the early '90s,Massenburg, then a greenhorn artists' manager representing Stetasonic and Rakim, gravitated toward acts that conveyed hip-hop attitude but knew their way around old-school Stevie Wonder,Al Green and Curtis Mayfield.

That hybrid concept crystallized in 1993 when he encountered D'Angelo,whose pioneering CD Brown Sugar Massenburg executive-produced two years later.

"You closed your eyes and heard Marvin Gaye. And if you opened your eyes,you saw this guy in cornrows and a leather jacket." D'Angelo's street look helped him connect with hiphop fans, many of whom were unfamiliar with the soul masters.

It was an incendiary notion. Massenburg next produced Badu's groundbreaking 1997 debut, the Grammy-winning Baduizm; launched his own Kedar Entertainment imprint through Universal Records; and began to advocate for consciousness-raising music aimed at those who craved something more substantial than tales of bling-bling belligerence and sexual conquest.

That vision, shared by the Roots and others, gained momentum throughout the late '90s and exploded this year with the success of Arie, J Records artist Alicia Keys (who is up for six Grammys this week) and Hidden Beach's Jill Scott (who got three nominations last year and another this go-round).

The stellar showing by this year's ladies of neo-soul is both a validation of Massenburg's prescience and proof that melodic hip-hop can appeal to youngsters as well as the older "urban-sophisticate" demographic disenfranchised by crude rap posturing.

"There was a whole world of people who just lost interest" in music, said the compact Massenburg, shaking his head. Sitting in Motown's Manhattan headquarters, in a wood-paneled corner office tricked out with an elaborate $30,000 sound system, the University of North Carolina law school grad looks the part of the busy executive. But he talks about music with messianic fervor.

"Those people want to be inspired, and most of hip-hop is still talking about Bentleys and mansions. [The industry] isn't offering much to be proud of. Not to say that everything should be positive and cheery, but I want to bring back a little consciousness.

"I think that Motown has a legacy that shouldn't die. Its role in the culture is very important. Our generation may not have Billie Holiday, but maybe we'll have Erykah Badu shining a light."

Massenburg's goals contrast sharply with those of predecessor Andre Harrell, who was ousted from the Motown front office in a 1997 corporate shakeout. The flamboyant former rapper spent lavishly to launch middling talents such as hip-hopper Big Bub and R&B quartet La-Day while leaning on the storied Motown catalog to shore up the balance sheet. His legacy is Boyz II Men,which he inherited from an earlier Motown administration, and a lot of stuff now in cutout bins.

"It's not like I came here and started at ground level," Massenburg says candidly. "We were in the hole."

"There was nothing much in the pipeline when Kedar came," acknowledges Doug Morris, who as CEO of the Universal Music Group is Massenburg's boss. "I told him it would take years to [remake Motown], but I knew he was the one for the job because he's guided by a philosophy. You can tell he believes in the musicians he's finding."

The antiquated notion of artist development is key to Massenburg's approach. He has intentionally released far fewer records than Harrell, and has treated each the way a boutique label might, with thoughtful, "slow-build" marketing campaigns.

He handles all of Motown's financial decisions. (He says he's even balanced the books himself.) He has directed videos. He oversees the visuals associated with his artists: It was Massenburg's idea to package Arie's CD with a signature feather. He has streamlined Motown's staff from 120 people to 40. He has pared down the Motown artist roster, which includes holdover act Brian McKnight and Kedar Entertainment transfer Badu, both up for Grammys this year. And he has changed the label's focus from catalog reissues to new-artist development. (One new signing, Bob Marley's son Damian, is also Grammy-nominated.)

"It's to the point where the artists call me if they don't see posters up outside their shows, which is what you want," the detail-obsessed Massenburg said wryly. "I like it that my artists expect me to fight for them."

The artists say that Massenburg has been true to his word - a rare thing in the record industry.

"What impressed me was how from the very beginning he told me he wouldn't ask me to compromise my art. And he hasn't," says India.Arie,who will perform her "Strength, Courage and Wisdom" during an Al Green tribute on Wednesday's telecast. "We've gone back and forth, but he's earned my trust. You can tell when you talk to him that his main concern is the music."

It's too early to know whether Massenburg has turned things around at the once-proud purveyor of "the Sound of Young America," but there are indications that Motown is finally ending years of drift. There are the Grammy nominations for Arie and her labelmates. Some recent R&B signings - Lathun, Sharissa, 13-year-old Corey, and, especially, Remy Shand - are generating buzz. And now Massenburg is slowly turning Motown's attention toward traditional hip-hop: In the late spring, he'll release the first album by tart-tongued Philadelphia rapper Journalist.

"There isn't one type of music that's Motown music," says Massenburg, who believes neo-soul has yet to reach its full potential artistically or commercially. "I had to start with soul because that's what I know best. To me, one India beats any five ordinary hip-hop thugs. . . .

"What I'm looking for is people with a defined persona, and the ability to get their ideas across. I'm happy when the messages are positive, but that's not a requirement. Just giving people something to think about is enough."

That, and a little somethin' for the trunk.

Tom Moon's e-mail address is tmoon@phillynews.com.

Motown's 15 Grammy Nominations


* Record of the Year

* Album of the Year

* Song of the Year

* New Artist

* Female R&B Vocal

* R&B Song

* R&B Album

Brian McKnight

* Male R&B Vocal

* Male Pop Vocal

* Pop Vocal Collaboration

* Song for a Film, TV or Other Media

Erykah Badu

Damian Marley

* Reggae Album

"Men of Honor" soundtrack

* Soundtrack Album for a Film, TV or Other Media

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