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“I KNOW WHAT LOVE FEELS LIKE BECAUSE I HEARD IT IN THIS SONG”

As Motown boss Ethiopia Habtemariam guides her label’s legendary brand into a new era of cultural impact and prosperity, we asked her about the R&B records that shaped her musical outlook.

What was some of the first R&B you remember hearing?
Some of my first real memories growing up in Tuskegee, Ala., were hearing Janet Jackson and, of course, Michael Jackson. We bought my mother The JacksonsVictory album from 1984 on vinyl for her birthday one year; it was the one where they’d done the Pepsi commercial and Michael’s hair caught on fire. I have a fond memory of my father buying me my first stereo system and playing Whitney Houston’s first album.

I loved New Edition. I remember hearing them when I was really young. Bobby Brown and those late-’80s artists were massive, especially through my young-girl eyes. I was like, “Oh my God; they’re the biggest thing in the world.” And they were at that time.

I remember hearing En Vogue… There was a lot of R&B happening then but also people like Anita Baker, whom my father used to play all the time. Just having an appreciation for those very soulful voices and those lyrics… I was always about the lyrics. I think I was a pretty emo kid!

And then moving to Atlanta, I was a huge Aaliyah fan, the way her music progressed. I was a huge TLC fan. I remember Michael Bivins from New Edition; he created the whole Motown-Philly movement. He had Bell Biv DeVoe, but he also discovered Boyz II Men and a group called ABCDestiny’s Child, SWV, Jagged Edge, 112… And there was the Monica and Brandy of it all. I remember hearing the Fugees and Lauryn Hill’s voice for the first time. R&B was pop culture at that time. Those were my golden years.

It’s funny how with a stone-classic song, you might hear it when you’re really young and it’ll just completely enrapture you and you hear it decades later and think, “Yep, still true.” It means something different because you’re on the other side of so much experience, but it’s still true.
And you realize how much you still need songs that speak to that part of your life or can bring you back to that memory of what you were going through at that time.

But I can’t speak about my favorite R&B records from back then without highlighting some of the people who created them, songwriters and producers who’ve been so instrumental to the growth and evolution of the genre. I knew who they were because I was always reading the credits. I was not just a fan of the artists but of who wrote and produced the songs. I still think Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are some of the greatest of all time; I consider them curators of sound. Rodney Jerkins, Timbaland, Jermaine Dupri … what they did was really different and progressive. What Babyface and Dallas Austin did—phenomenal. And I’m not just being biased coming from Atlanta; there was genuinely a community of really talented individuals who created real masterpieces. Their work was built on R&B but it became mainstream pop culture.

What attributes do you think make R&B R&B?
There’s definitely a fresh approach to melody and production style that has continued to evolve over time. But it’s also about the voices that carry it out, of course. When you think about some of the artists who were at the height of the various eras, they all had these distinctive voices that resonated with people, which is why the genre continues to break through in pop culture.

I went to a Bruno Mars show once having just been to a Justin Timberlake concert and they both did “Poison,” and both crowds went crazy. Everyone knew it because it was a massive record for Bell Biv DeVoe. And that’s R&B—the song, the production, the voice and the vibe.

You mention how R&B has continued to evolve over time. The present generation of R&B artists obviously grew up with hip-hop and it informs what they’re doing. Do you remember hearing that stage of the evolution?
Right, the late ’90s and early 2000s. I remember hearing Mary J. Blige and Method Man’s “You’re All I Need” for the first time and understanding how game-changing it was. That was when you started seeing the R&B/hip-hop collaboration more and more. It was a reflection of where youth culture was. We were listening to hip-hop but we still loved R&B, so you had this fusion. There was a new boldness in some of the R&B acts; they developed more aggressiveness, an edge. I’m thinking about TLC, Jodeci, Destiny’s Child and definitely Boyz II Men.

I believe the fusion of R&B and hip-hop was how the term “urban” came about; so many R&B artists were putting hip-hop features on their records and so many hip-hop artists were putting R&B artists on their hooks that everything just started being categorizing as urban.

It feels like some of the female artists working in R&B today are taking it in sort of a singer-songwriter direction, maybe bringing the genre back to something a little more intimate.
Look at the success of Summer Walker or even SZA, whom I’m a huge fan of. I don’t know if Doja Cat would consider herself an R&B artist; she probably considers herself a pop artist, but she has a lot of R&B influence in the music she creates. I think she’s a total creator. I’m also a big fan of hers.

I was thinking recently about how consistently R&B has explained love and sex to us, from “These Arms of Mine” to “Heartbreak Anniversary.”
Yeah, they have the conversation. There were songs where I remember telling friends at a really young age, “I know what love feels like because I heard it in this song.” Not that, as a kid, I actually felt it myself, but you could hear it in the music and you could feel it even though you hadn’t actually experienced it yourself. Those are some of the best records of all time. There are just some themes that never go away, no matter your age or ethnicity or anything else, and love and all that comes with it is always there. I think R&B has encompassed every aspect of love, whether that’s love of family, love in a relationship… the good, the bad, the ugly—R&B gives you all of it.

It’s interesting to think of both the artists and the behind-the-scenes talent you’ve mentioned as heirs to the Motown tradition, the legacy of which you preside over. What did that music mean to you growing up?
I remember loving Stevie Wonder’s voice, which connected with me as a young kid in a really deep way; I’ve always had a deep, deep love and appreciation for Stevie. But I can’t tell you the first time I heard Stevie or Marvin Gaye or The Supremes—Motown artists have always just been in my life.

As far as some of the later artists, I was a big DeBarge fan when I was young; I remember hearing “Rhythm of the Night” and watching those videos and seeing that family of talent and how great their voices were. But the real tipping point for me was in the ’90s, that Boyz II Men/Motown-Philly era. I was a massive Boyz II Men fan. It felt groundbreaking. They had this distinctive look and it was a group and it was aggressive, but it was still R&B. It was fresh, and they had those amazing voices. I also think that music was just relevant to where I was at that time in my life; that era really resonated for me personally, and it was a reintroduction of Motown to the culture, like a fresh perspective on the label.

When I first came to Motown, I felt like some things had gotten a little lost; people didn’t remember that the label continued to have artists that were groundbreaking and truly reflective of the time. Rick James and Teena Marie… Motown continued to transcend. It’s important to remind people of that.

Tell me about some of Motown’s current R&B artists.
I view Tiana Major9 as something of a flagship for the label. We have an artist from Atlanta named ELHAE who’s immensely talented… Asiahn, who’s based here in Los Angeles… We have Bree Runway out of the U.K., who’s a mix of R&B, hip-hop and pop. She might not want to be included in any genre specifically, but I have to mention her because she’s just completely bad-ass and super-talented. Then there’s this kid Emanuel out of Canada. We also have some young hip-hop acts you can tell have been heavily influenced by R&B; their melodies feel like R&B records.

I’d love to find an amazing girl group. I’d love to find a great R&B guy group, because clearly I can reference several that we know were massive. I think it’s only a matter of time before we find that.

You have a rare vantage point—what else do you see happening in R&B?
There’s a real resurgence in the R&B space, especially if you count the influence of R&B in some of our pop acts, like “Peaches” from Justin Bieber; a lot of the records he’s created are R&B records. To see Brent Faiyaz doing what he’s doing and Bryson Tiller and even Chris Brown, who’s consistently carried the R&B flag…

For the first time in what feels like a really long time, we’re seeing a lot of different artists proudly working in R&B, and it’s dope; it’s amazing to see that happening. It’s great to have been a fan of R&B my whole life and see the growth of the genre we’re seeing today.

Center photo above: Jeff Harleston, Marc Byers, Habtemariam, Berry Gordy, Steve Barnett, Michelle Jubelirer and Bruce Resnikoff

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