What's going on: the Motown story

The label's Seventies hey day is long gone, but a young law student thinks he can turn it around. Chris Wells talks to the new boss, Kedar Massenburg, and to Diana Ross about its future
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The Independent Culture

Let's play Motown Pop Quiz. Come on, off the top of your head, name three Motown artists. Easy, you say: Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. Now name the guy who founded the company in Detroit during the Sixties. Slightly harder? No, that's right, it's Berry Gordy, the legendary entrepreneur who built the label into the biggest African-American owned corporation in America. But can you also name three artists currently on the Motown roster? Or identify the name of its present President/CEO? Time to phone a friend.

When Berry Gordy sold Motown to Universal Records in 1988, Kedar Massenburg was a 24-year-old law student. Now the little man from Brooklyn, the son of a single, welfare-dependant mother, heads the company he grew up loving, having weaved his way through small-time management and production companies, founded his own record label and launched the careers of hip new soul stars like D'Angelo, Erykah Badu and Chico DeBarge.

A year ago last January the giant Universal Music Group, formed from the merger of Seagram and Universal, handed Massenburg the biggest task of his business life: to turn around the fortunes of the most famous black music record company in history before it faded utterly away.

Twice since Gordy's exit has Motown attempted a revival. First, seasoned marketing executive Jheryl Busby tried to rekindle the company flame. In six years to 1995 he managed only one major commercial success - the group Boyz II Men, whose "End Of The Road" became the biggest selling single of all time.

But his failure to adapt to new musical trends like hip hop, nu classic soul and the new teen-orientated R'n'B led to his exit. Clearly desperate, Universal turned to former Uptown Records boss, Andre Harrell, a man whose triumphs had been built on street R&B acts like Jodeci and Mary J Blige, to give them some market savvy. Within two years he was gone too, albeit with a pay-off in excess of $5m, having failed to establish any new artists of note.

Up until a year ago Motown was regarded by almost everyone in the music industry as a graveyard. And while plenty of members of the public were still willing to come and stare at the headstones - the label rakes in an incredible $35m a year on its back catalogue alone - there were no signs of a new generation of artists ready to pick up where that long list of greats had petered out.

It makes you wonder why Massenburg is interested. After all, he was doing pretty well on his own. After law school, he'd hung out with and managed hip hop group Stetsasonic and later formed Okedoke Productions, a company that handled remixes for such as Mary J Blige, Third World and Chanté Moore, with Stetsa leader and close friend, Daddy-O. In 1995, the same year Motown were snapping up Andre Harrell, Universal offered Massenburg his first label deal and he took it.

By this time he was also managing emerging neo-soul man, D'Angelo, then about to change the face of American R&B with his 1995 début album, Brown Sugar. A little later he would look after the affairs of both Vertical Hold [featuring Angie Stone] and Erykah Badu, the Texan vocalist and now cultural icon whose Afro-centric lyrics and styling have also had a significant affect on modern black music. Kedar Entertainment had a nice little roster of artists - Badu plus rapper A+ and singers Chico DeBarge and Grenique. They had no historical baggage and a company head who had just been promoted to the position of Senior Vice President at Universal Records. Why would he give up all that to run Motown?

"Obligation," is the answer Massenburg readily gives a year on from his appointment, his enthusiasm for the task at hand showing no signs - yet - of allowing that sense of responsibility to turn into a burden. "I was in a position... well, it wasn't an offer I couldn't refuse, exactly, but I had no choice. I feared that my company would no longer be a priority if I said no. Secondly, I got to thinking, 'What if I came in my team did save Motown? Maybe we'd go down in the history book'. Suddenly I felt obligated to make the people who came before me look like they didn't know what they were doing."

But it didn't feel like everyone else's. On the face of it, Massenburg could have done with an artist like D'Angelo to lead his new venture. But artist and manager had parted three years ago, when D'Angelo began to feel Massenburg's plans for closer ties with Universal would leave him out in the cold at EMI.

Brian McKnight, who prior to the Seagram/Universal merger had no plans to join Motown, suddenly found himself switching labels from Mercury, where he'd had considerable success as an R&B balladeer. Happily, his conversion to the cause became complete when his first single, "Back At One", went to number one in America, his first ever chart topper. "What surprised me," says McKnight, "is how adept Motown's pop marketing team is. I didn't even know they had one. And no matter how hard Mercury Records tried for me, they just couldn't cross me over. Motown did it in three weeks."

Other people took some persuading, too, admits Massenburg. "Erykah Badu was like, 'What are you doin'? I'ma go with you wherever you go, 'cause I have respect for you - but are you sure about this?' And Chico DeBarge was like, 'Kedar, I hate Motown - they jerked my whole family. You asking me to go back to Motown?' And I said, 'No, I'm asking you come with me'. I had to convince Erykah and Chico that we had to put aside our egos and decide that Motown was bigger than all of us. If we can make this happen, then we'll have done a great thing."

So can he pull it off? Well, McKnight's two-million seller was a great start. It didn't help, though, when, after a protracted series negotiations about money and creative control, Boyz II Men decided to slide across to the parent label, Universal, instead of staying put at the label that made them. Diana Ross, who re-signed to Motown in America three years ago [though she's still on EMI in the UK], admits to feeling somewhat cold-shouldered by the new regime. "It's been a scary time for a lot of employees at the company, not just artists like me. When they moved the offices to New York they let a lot of people go - a lot of people who had given a lifetime to the company. Artists just don't know what their future might be.

"My last album got lost in the corporate shuffle when they switched from Jheryl Busby to Andre Harrell. When I talked to him about it, he wasn't really interested. My current album was finished right before Kedar came in. He seems to be someone who genuinely loves the history of the label and what it stands for, but when the changeover happened, not one person called me. I'm a minority shareholder, too. The insecurity can get to you, even if you've been around as long as I have."

Badu's second studio album is imminent and reported by the few who've heard it as wonderful. The former Tony Toni Toné star, Dwayne Wiggins, has a début solo set waiting in the wings, much admired female duo, Zhané, are due to hand in a third LP soon and then three survivors of the old brigade have brand new material ready to roll: The Temptations, the recently re-signed Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. Massenburg is, however, wary of the comparisons with the old Motown that the latter three might inspire.

"Motown will never again be the Motown under Berry Gordy. He didn't have any competition like the competition I got now. He didn't have to worry about all the musical genres I gotta look at.

"People were listening to Motown then as the music of the times and they are not listening to Motown now. With the help of people like Brian McKnight and Erykah Badu and Chico DeBarge and Dwayne Wiggins we can set about bridging that gap. But we are not going to dominate the pop charts like we used to.

"How can we? There are too many other companies out there for that. So please don't compare it with the Motown of yesteryear. Sure, I re-signed Smokey, but if you want to compare us with somebody, you should compare us with what Sean "Puffy" Combs's Bad Boy Records does after 2000, or what LaFace or Def Jam achieve. And remember, those people at Def Jam and LaFace have had 10 years to work on their vision. Give me some time and I'll stop people saying, 'Oh I love Motown - so who is on the label right now?' Give me some time and I'll turn it around."