Of all the Motown artists, Marvin Gaye was the deepest and often the darkest. Although Gil Scott-Heron is regularly credited with laying down the foundations for hip-hop, I believe Marvin also played his part. This article aims to pay tribute to his genius and lasting legacy within a hip-hop community thankful for his contributions.
The first thing you will notice when delving into the subject, is how often his name pops up through a broad range of artists. Who could forget 2Pac’s lyrics in “Keep Ya Head Up”, when Pac rapped:
“I remember Marvin Gaye, used to sing to me
He had me feeling like black was the thing to be
And suddenly the ghetto didn’t seem so tough
And though we had it rough, we always had enough”
What is most striking about these lyrics is the depth in which 2Pac is saying he was effected by Marvin. Instead of simply admiring his voice, 2Pac explains that Marvin left an imprint on his personality and character. It was Marvin’s music that made him feel like “black was the thing to be”. Gaye’s work brought a sense of empowerment to a new generation ready to give the World hip-hop. Even as personalities, both men shared many connections. They were considered sex symbols by women, pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in music, created classic protest records and died prematurely by the gun. Yet perhaps the strongest link of all was their highly sensitive nature working at odds with their paranoid tendencies. The tortured soul which Pac confessed to being through albums like Me Against The World, was similar to Marvin’s mind frame when he created music battling depression. In the interview to the right (at 2 mins) Marvin talks about trying to move men’s souls through his music. You can imagine 2Pac sharing the same sentiments regarding his own music.
Before Marvin, very few commercially successful artists were willing to address issues like war and politics. Before hip-hop brought attention to controversial issues, Gaye pushed the envelope with his album What’s Going On. He created a stir as big as any Public Enemy project and his iconic status grew as his work became more relatable to dissatisfied minorities. His bravery to stand firm when Motown owner Berry Gordy asked him to scrap the record is the stuff of legend. Hip-Hop fans today wish some of their hero’s would retain the same values. Although not the most obvious comparison, What’s Going On is similar in concept to Biggie’s Ready To Die, in that they both serve as a snap shot for the feelings of entire communities. Songs like “Things Done Changed” are a natural follow on to the questions posed by “What’s Going On”. Biggie, like Marvin, also performed songs which were brazenly sexual. Another gangster rapper, The Game included lyrics about Marvin in his two major singles “Dreams” and “Hate It Or Love It”:
“Studied all the classics start revisin my strategy
Cuz Marshall Mathers made it, Curtis Jackson made it
Head in the clouds wonderin where the hell Marvin Gaye went?
How do I say this, I’m livin’ for my son but I can’t figure out,
why I’m at my temple with this gun Wake up to a Jesus Piece like a Catholic Nun
The War to be a rap legend has just begun”
“Thinking how they spend 30 million dollars on airplanes
When there’s kids starving
Pac is gone and Brendas still throwing babies in the garbage
I want to know what’s going on like I hear Marvin”
– Hate It Or Love It
On “Dreams”, The Game mentions Marvin right after “studying all the classics” which shows the influence he had, even on an aggressive rapper like Game. In both songs Game mentions Marvin in the same breathe as rappers like Eminem and 2Pac.
Of course it wasn’t just the serious side of Marvin that influenced hip-hop. Big Daddy Kane sampled “Let’s Get It On” for 1989’s “Smooth Operator”. Kane’s pimp persona was no doubt inspired by the original ladies man. In 1995 Method Man featured Mary J. Blige on “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By”, a song which was recently voted the number one hip-hop love song of all time by Complex. The chemistry between the artists mirrored Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1968 version of the same name. Various hip-hop artists not only use Marvin’s sound, but take aspects of his onstage showmanship to a new audience.
Jay-Z sampled “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again” on his album American Gangster, prompting mixtape legend Mick Boogie to create an entire project mashing Jay-Z with Marvin Gaye called “Brooklyn Soul”. Similarly Z-Trip created a classic mix called “The Motown Breakdown” showcasing how elements of hip-hop and Motown are interchangeable. Even “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was expertly mixed with Gorrilaz “Feel Good Inc.” for the PS3 game DJ Hero. And we all remember how Jamie Foxx sang about playing “some Marvin Gaye” on “Slow Jamz” with Kanye West.
But there are certain artists who took their love for Marvin to a new level. Neo-Soul legend D’Angelo is famously elusive, and despite not doing an interview for 12 years he recently revealed how Marvin Gaye used to appear in his dreams; dreams so vivid he had to see a therapist. D’Angelo’s work with the likes of DJ Premier were at the forefront of the Neo-Soul movement, inspiring the legendary Mos Def who also made a tremendous tribute to Marvin on his second album The New Danger with the song “Modern Marvel”. Lasting 9 minutes, it reinterprets “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)”, a classic Marvin song. The lyrics are possibly the deepest of all hip-hop songs dedicated to Gaye:
“If Marvin was alive now, wow.
What would I say to him? Where could I start?
How could I explain to him? I know the minor world would probably look strange to him.
Would he feel like today had a place for him?
Global imprisonment, sickness, indifference
When he said, “Save the babies,” was we listenin?
When he said, “Mercy, mercy,” did he really know.. That decades later we’d still be killin folks?
Or did he hope that we would realize.. That we the first, the son of earth..
The moon and stars, the great beyond.. We black and proud, we brave and strong..
We raise it up, we quiet storm, forever fresh.. And keepin on..”
This piece in particular transcends the limitations of ‘soul’ and ‘hip-hop’ as titles. It merges the cultures into one for 9 minutes. Although there are too many songs to mention, other artists to pay tribute include Joe Budden, who created an epic piece called “Who Killed Hip-Hop?” which samples “Inner City Blues”.
Hip-Hop was in it’s infancy when Marvin Gaye died, but I can’t help feel it wouldn’t be what it is today without him. Perhaps this same feeling prompted underground artist B Dolan to make an entire song about Gaye’s passing. “Marvin” (video, right) is a heart-felt reflection on our loss.