3:48pm

Thu May 3, 2012
Music News

'What's Going On': A New Generation Answers

Originally published on Mon May 21, 2012 7:00 pm

Until the release of What's Going On, Marvin Gaye's best-known songs focused on love and relationships. But in 1971, influenced by letters from his brother, who was serving in the Vietnam War, Gaye decided to make an album that reflected America through the eyes of a vet returning home. Many black neighborhoods were still in ruin after the riots of 1968, and raised fists, the hippie movement, the women's movement and urban poverty were boiling together on the streets of America. The war raged on.

"When Marvin Gaye made this record, everybody's brother could have gone to war," soul singer John Legend says. "Everybody, themselves, could have gone to war, so they personally felt connected."

What's Going On was showcased in a 1972 concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Gaye's hometown of Washington, D.C. Thursday night, the Kennedy Center is commemorating that performance by re-creating the concert with the help of Legend and other artists.

"I start to realize my vocal limitations when I think about trying to do justice to Marvin Gaye's incredible voice," Legend says, laughing. "I imagine we'll be somewhat faithful [to the original arrangement]. We don't want to 2012 remix it."

In fact, that's exactly the challenge the Kennedy Center gave me, a journalist who moonlights as a music producer. As part of its Marvin Gaye tribute, the Center asked me to create a remix that would flip Marvin's music for my generation, using the original multitrack recordings of the song "What's Going On."

When I first got my hands on the raw material, I had to take a moment and let it all sink in. Here I was with the purest version of the song, which only a handful of people had 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. As I unpacked each instrument, I was floored by not only by the simplicity of the song, 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, so I wrote down an outline: a four-bar intro, a pair of 12-bar verses and so on. 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.

Evan Childress, 22, wrote a rap for the remix. He was inspired by 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, Calif.

"In addition to thinking about the Trayvon Martin case," says 18-year-old Rayana Godfrey, one of the singers on the remix, "I was thinking about my cousin, who was shot and killed last year." Godfrey is from Vallejo, Calif., while 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 says. "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 What's Going On 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.

Brandon McFarland is a producer at Turnstyle News. His "What's Going On" remix was produced at Youth Radio in Oakland, Calif, and his story was co-produced by Nishat Kurwa. You can watch a short documentary and learn more about the project at the Turnstyle News website.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Marvin Gaye's 1971 album, What's Going On, isn't just a great soul record. It's a great record that spoke to a generation. In May 1972, Gaye performed the album live at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, D.C., his hometown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

MARVIN GAYE: One, two, three, four.

SIEGEL: Tonight, the Kennedy Center celebrates the 40th anniversary of that performance with help from singer/songwriter John Legend. As part of a youth media education program, the Kennedy Center has also asked one young producer to re-imagine the song, "What's Going On," for his generation.

Here's Youth Radio's Brandon McFarland.

BRANDON MCFARLAND, BYLINE: Until the release of the album, "What's Going On," Marvin Gaye's best known songs focused on love and relationships.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE")

GAYE: (Singing) Oh, I heard it through the grapevine. Oh, it just about blew my mind. Honey, honey, yeah.

MCFARLAND: 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 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

GAYE: (Singing) Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother.

JOHN LEGEND: When Marvin Gaye made this record, everybody's brother could have gone to war. Everybody themselves could have gone to war and so they personally felt connected.

MCFARLAND: That's soul singer John Legend. He's working on his own version of "What's Going On" to perform live at the Kennedy Center.

LEGEND: It's humbling. I started to realize my vocal limitations when I think about trying to do justice to Marvin Gaye's incredible voice, but I imagine we'll be somewhat faithful. You know, we don't want to completely try to 2012 remix it.

MCFARLAND: That's funny because that's the exact challenge I've been given. I moonlight as a music producer and the Kennedy Center gave me the original recording session of "What's Going On" to create a remix that flips Marvin's music for this generation.

So I get to unravel the original song and then put all the elements back together my way. Do I really need to tell you how unbelievably awesome this is? I mean, this is my raw material.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRING ORCHESTRATION)

MCFARLAND: I had to take a moment to 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

MCFARLAND: I loaded up the tracks, pretty much playing conductor on my computer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

MCFARLAND: I soloed Marvin's voice and then brought in the instruments, one by one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

GAYE: (Singing) Oh, you know we've got to find a way to bring some understanding here today. Oh...

MCFARLAND: 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 actually thought the piano was doing more than it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO KEYS BEING PLAYED)

MCFARLAND: It's only playing the melody just by itself. I didn't want to veer too far away from the structure of Marvin's original song, so I wrote it down. Four bar intro, a pair of 12 bar verses and so on and so on. 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.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wait. Start over. Start over.

MCFARLAND: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) I didn't know where to kind of start.

MCFARLAND: I had to set a few ground rules, out of respect for Marvin. Stick to the core storytelling ideas of what's going on, find your own voice within it and make it relevant to your generation.

EVAN CHILDRESS: There's no pity in the city where fellas known to lose their life, what's right and not really prone to choose.

MCFARLAND: Twenty-two year old Evan Childress wrote a rap for the remix. He was inspired by the way the original album surfaced issues across the spectrum of American life. Childress wrote his verse about everything from pollution to lack of resources in his hometown of Richmond, California.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON REMIX")

CHILDRESS: (Singing) The comfort that we got to risk as being in poverty. Homeless making property, home invasions to robbery. Mercy, mercy me in a murky, murky sea rather life as a fish than a life tough as this.

RAYANA GODFREY: In addition to the Trayvon Martin case, I was thinking about my cousin, who was shot and killed last year.

MCFARLAND: That's 18-year-old Rayana Godfrey, one of my singers on the "What's Going On" remix.

GODFREY: Because I say everyone with a trigger thinks they should pull it and justice never comes for the ones hit by the bullet because, you know, we still don't know who killed my cousin. We don't know if that person will ever be caught or will ever go to jail. We don't know any of that. That's the case for a lot of people who lose relatives due to violence. There's really never any justice brought to the family.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

GODFREY: (Singing) And mothers want more than a knock on the front door saying, sorry for your loss. (Unintelligible) if they could stay alive.

MCFARLAND: 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 want to holler decades after the album's release.

GODFREY: Everything he said in that whole album is still relevant, like spot on today and that's kind of creepy, so I was wondering, like, was this man a prophet? Not like a prophet of God, but like a prophet of the time.

MCFARLAND: Today's soul and R&B singers often sound more like pornographers than prophets. I feel like such an old man for saying that. I guess most younger people have just accepted all the hyper-sexed 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 sooth the rage of a single mom who's lost her job.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHOLY HOLY")

GAYE: (Singing) Come together wholly holy.

MCFARLAND: Every song on the "What's Going On" album exhibits a reverence for that power.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHOLY HOLY")

GAYE: (Singing) Power. Oh.

MCFARLAND: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON REMIX")

MCFARLAND: (Singing) You bring some loving here today.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

MCFARLAND: (Singing) For the world to see (unintelligible). Yeah, what's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) What's going on? Hey, what's going on?

MCFARLAND: (Singing) What's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) What's going on?

SIEGEL: That's musician and producer Brandon McFarland singing. He produced that song and our report, along with young musicians at Youth Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON REMIX")

CHILDRESS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

SIEGEL: To hear the full track and learn more about the What's Going On Now Project, go to NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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