Marvin Gaye’s album, What’s Going On, has been called one of the great soul music records of all time. The album was showcased at a 1972 concert at the Kennedy Center in Marvin’s hometown of Washington DC. This week, the Kennedy Center is commemorating that live performance, and has asked select musicians to re-imagine “What’s Going On” — and I’m one of those musicians. (VIDEO)
Until the release of the album What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye’s best known songs, like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” focused on love and relationships. But in 1971, influenced by letters from his brother, who was serving in the Vietnam War, Marvin wanted to make an album that reflected America in 1971 through the eyes of a vet returning home; home where many black neighborhoods were still decimated after the riots of ‘68, and raised fists, the hippie movement, the women’s movement and urban poverty were boiling together on the streets of America. And the war raged on.
“When MG made this record, everybody’s brother could have gone to war. Everybody, themselves could have gone to war, so they personally felt connected,” said soul singer John Legend. Legend has been working on his own version of What’s Going On, to perform live at the Kennedy Center in a commemorative concert on Thursday, May 3.
“I start to realize my vocal limitations when I think about trying to do justice to Marvin Gaye’s incredible voice,” Legend laughed. “I imagine we’ll be somewhat faithful (to the original arrangement). We don’t want to 2012 remix it.”
That’s funny, because that’s the exact challenge I’ve been given. As a journalist, I write for Turnstyle and mentor young people at our parent company Youth Radio. But I also moonlight as a music producer. The Kennedy Center gave me the original recording session of What’s Going On to create a remix that flips Marvin’s music for my generation. So I get to unravel the original song, and then put all the elements back together my way.
When I first got my hands on the raw material, Marvin’s multitracks, I had to take a moment and let it all sink in. Here I was with the purest version of the song, that only a handful of people have ever heard. Before I let anyone else in on Marvin’s magic, I wanted to get to know the science of the music. I loaded up the tracks, pretty much playing conductor on my computer. I soloed Marvin’s voice, and then brought in the instruments one by one. And as I unpacked each instrument, I was floored by not only the simplicity of it but the rawness too: Marvin knew very well how to make a polished Motown hit, he’d been doing it for years. But that’s not what he wanted with this record.
I didn’t want to veer too far away from the structure of Marvin’s original song. So I wrote down the structure: a four bar intro, a pair of 12 bar verses, etc. From there, I kept tweaking the beat and working on my own verse for the remix. I rounded up younger artists too, who could write their own new verses. But I had to set a few ground rules for the young musicians, out of respect for Marvin. Stick to the core storytelling ideals of What’s Going On, find your own voice within it, and make it relevant to your generation.
Twenty-two-year-old Evan Childress wrote a rap for the remix. He was inspired the way the original album surfaced issues across the spectrum of American life. Childress wrote his verse about everything from pollution, to a lack of resources in his hometown of Richmond, California.
“In addition to thinking about the Trayvon Martin case,” said 18-year-old Rayana Godfrey, one of my singers on the remix, “I was thinking about my cousin, who was shot and killed last year.” Godfrey is from Vallejo, California, and the other singer on the remix, Skylar Bryant, is from Oakland.
We all felt Marvin’s spirit at different times, working on this remix. His lesser-known songs on the What’s Going On album, like “Inner City Blues,” focused on problems in America’s ghettos; problems that still “make me wanna holler” decades after the album’s release.
“Everything he said on that whole album is still relevant – like spot on – today,” Godfrey marveled in the studio. “And that’s kinda creepy, so I was wondering, like, was this man a prophet? Not like a prophet of god, but, a prophet of the time.”
Today’s soul and R&B singers often sound more like pornographers than prophets. I feel like such an old man when I say that, but I guess most younger people have just accepted all the hypersexed and shallow music embedded in our everyday lives. And the sad truth is, a lot of today’s music doesn’t feed the soul of those facing hardships the way it did in Marvin’s day.
Working on this remix, I was reassured of music’s power: the power to ignite or soothe the rage of a single mom who’s lost her job. Every song on the What’s Going On album exhibits a reverence for that power.
And even if there aren’t enough musicians these days producing albums that will help Americans cope…we can always reach back into the vault.
[What follows is the finished remix.]
A version of this story aired on NPR’s All Things Considered. (LISTEN)