The E-Double and the Trouble Man: Marvin Gaye and Erick Sermon “Turn on Some Music”

Perhaps one of the most surprising singles of the first half of 2001 has been Erick Sermon’s collaboration with the late Marvin Gaye. Dating back to Natalie’s eerie duet with her late father Nat King Cole on Unforgettable a decade ago, recording technology has allowed such digitized duets from the grave. These songs are like the Dirt Devil commercials with Fred Astaire, the film Forrest Gump or the recent Alcatel commercials where a digitized Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to an empty mall at the site where the 1963 March on Washington was held. Many audiences have been disturbed by such gimmicky attempts at selling vacuum cleaners and potted distortions of historical events — and also by these posthumous musical recordings. In one particular instance jazz guitarist Pat Metheny was quite frank in his disgust with Kenny G for his digitized duet with Louis Armstrong. Music aficionados and classic soul listeners are also likely up in arms at “Music”, Eric Sermon’s digitized duet with the late Marvin Gaye, who was murdered by his father on April 1, 1984.

The song is included on the soundtrack of the forgettable film, What’s the Worst That Could Happen? which features Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito. The soundtrack also includes a digitized duet with Craig Mack (“Here comes the brand new flava in your ear…”) and the late Frank Sinatra singing “High Hopes” of all things. While the Mack/Sinatra collaboration comes off as cheesy camp that will do little to introduce the classic vocalist to younger audiences, the Sermon/Gaye track is a brilliant re-working of an alternative version of a little known Marvin Gaye track from his 1982 Midnight Love recording that genuinely will have the effect of introducing Gaye to the hip-hop generation. Midnight Love was the last recording that Gaye completed before his untimely death and it garnered him his only Grammy Awards in what was a celebrated and important musical career.

Marvin Gaye had been in a state of exile, first in Hawaii, then England and later in Ostend, Belgium, for roughly two years when he completed the Midnight Love sessions in the spring of 1982. Gaye left his Los Angeles home two years earlier after the IRS repossessed his house and home-studio because he owed back income taxes. Gaye was a notorious procrastinator who liked to work at his own pace despite the high demand for Marvin Gaye “product”. Gaye’s home studio allowed him to work through the artistic and philosophical contradictions that marked the best of his music, notably on projects such as What’s Going On (1971), Let’s Get It On (1973), and the critically disparaged Here, My Dear (1978). The latter recording, which in retrospect may be one of his most brilliant, was largely inspired by a court-ordered deal in which Gaye’s royalties from the recording would be used as alimony payments for his former wife Ann Gordy Gaye, the sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy. (Gaye recorded for Motown for much of his career.)

At the time his studio was seized Gaye was tinkering with a recording of Big Band standards, originally charted a decade earlier by Bobby Scott, called Vulnerable, and a project called Love Man that was conceived as a return to the classic ’70s Gaye. During that classic period he had become the quintessential “love man” on recordings like the aforementioned Let’s Get It On and I Want You (1976). Love Man was eventually scrapped though the musical tracks became the basis for Gaye’s final Motown recording In Our Lifetime (1981), a recording that captured the self-contained psychological thriller that was Gaye’s life and mind.

Recorded while Gaye was in Hawaii, In Our Lifetime instigated Gaye’s break with Motown as the label released the recording before Gaye was “finished” with it. In heavy debt to the IRS, in the throes of a second divorce, and addicted to weed, cocaine, and crack (according to Gaye biographer David Ritz), Gaye was grasping for life, at least in the philosophical sense, when then CBS VP Larkin Arnold reached out to the singer to plot his return to the music charts. The product of Arnold’s outreach program for CBS was Midnight Love, which was released in November of 1982. The lead single from the project, “Sexual Healing”, became Gaye’s first major pop hit in almost a decade and would earn him his first and only Grammy awards for Best R&B single and Best R&B Instrumental (for the b-side of “Sexual Healing”). Not one of Gaye’s best recordings — “Sexual Healing” was the project’s only hit single — Midnight Love nevertheless remains inextricably connected to his body of great work, because of the infectious “Sexual Healing” and the fact that it was the last recording released in his lifetime.

Gaye was purportedly working with Barry White for the follow-up to Midnight Love at the time of his death in 1984. A year later CBS would posthumously release Dream of a Lifetime which included unfinished and raw tracks that Gaye was working on at the time of his death including “Savage in the Sack”, “Masochistic Beauty”, and “Sanctified Lady”, which was originally recorded as “Sanctified Pussy”. A relative flood of previously unreleased Gaye material became available after his death, including Romantically Yours (1985), the earliest versions of the Bobby Scott Vulnerable charts, and “Piece of Clay”, which was included on the soundtrack for the John Travolta film Phenomenon. In 1997, the full Vulnerable sessions were released, exposing Gaye’s luscious and layered approach to standards. Had he survived, these recordings would have garnered Gaye newfound artistic appreciation. In 1998 Sony released the Midnight Love & Sexual Healing Sessions with little fanfare and not much promotion. Apparently, Erick Sermon was one of the few people in the industry who paid attention.

Sermon has had a solid decade-plus career as one-half of the stellar “east coast gangstas” EPMD, who first emerged in 1988 with their Sleeping Bag debut Strictly Business, filled with certified east-coast classics like the title track and “You Gots to Chill”. On the strength of their first two projects EPMD were signed to Def Jam in 1990, releasing Strictly Business the same year. Sermon, affectionately known as the “E-double”, and his partner PMD (Parrish Smith) later formed the Def Squad, an artistic collective that at various times included K-Solo, Das EFX, the most “beautifullest” Keith Murray, and the indefatigable and blunted on the “regla” Redman. With the breakup of Sermon and Smith’s partnership in the mid-’90s — they later reunited for the underwhelming Back in Business and Out of Business — Sermon established himself as an in-demand producer working with his regular Def Squad crew and folks such as Bounty Killer, LL, Method Man, and vocalist Dave Holister. As witnessed by the crates he dug in for Redman’s debut Whut? Thee Album, where he helped reinvigorate the career of the late Johnny “Guitar” Watson with his re-casting of Watson’s “Superman Lover” on Redman’s “Soopaman Lover”, Sermon is a legitimate sound archivist. Thus his use of Gaye is not surprising.

While Gaye’s music has been consistently recalled by R&B vocalists like El Debarge, Christopher Williams, Kenny Lattimore, Bilal, and D’Angelo, it has not had an obvious presence within the world of hip-hop, the notable exception being Brand Nubian’s use of Gaye’s Trouble Man soundtrack on their damn-near brilliant In God We Trust (1993). Ironically Trouble Man, a largely instrumental recording written for the Robert Hooks film of the same title, really portends that kind of urban malaise that hip-hop has so effectively referenced. A dark, murky recording with brooding introspective melodies that reeks of late-1950s Hard Bop sensibilities, Trouble Man evoked the kind of sinister urban landscape that What’s Going On‘s “Inner City Blues” only hinted at. That landscape would be later refigured in a host of cultural products ranging from the Batman film franchise to Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers. Though the late Tupac Shakur consistently recalled Gaye in the way that he chose to layer his vocals — Gaye’s Let’s Get it On and Vulnerable are the best examples of Gaye’s extraordinary talents in this regard — Sermon’s production on “Music” may be one of the first successful attempts to make Gaye’s artistry relevant to contemporary hip-hop and mainstream urban audiences.

Sermon, whose slow drawl-lisp is reminiscent of the novelty Rapping Duke recording of the mid-1980s, wisely gets out of the way, making Gaye the centerpiece of “Music”. The song begins with a bass-line that deepens and embellishes the bass track of the Gaye original(s). The first voice heard on the song is that of Gaye singing “Just like music”, a refrain that gets repeated throughout the song. Sermon’s lyrics are meant as a tribute to “music” and its importance to his life. For Sermon, music creates an alternative sphere where he can retreat from the world and find some semblance of catharsis. In the first stanza Sermon relates the power of music, stating he uses it to “relax my mind, so I can be free / and absorb sound that keep me ’round…To keep me flowin’ and keep me goin / and keep me growin’, and keep the E from knowin’ / what happens out there, is not my concern”. At one point Sermon says “without my music…” at which point Gaye is heard singing in his signature yowl “Oww! I’ll go crazy…”. That moment is one of many where Sermon and Gaye interplay with each other. At one point later in the song, Sermon suggests that “any problems, music’ll be right there / Together we make a perfect match / Is that true Marvin?” to which Gaye responds “Yeahhhhh!” in his classic falsetto. The song’s chorus features Gaye singing the refrain “Turn on some music, I got my music”. Not simply a gimmick — though I wouldn’t put that past the NYLA label and its distributor Interscope or Sermon for that matter — the song allows Sermon and Gaye to bond with the music that was so important to both their lives across time and consciousness in ways rarely realized by most digital gravediggers.

“Music” is loosely based on a Gaye composition called “Turn on Some Music” which originally appeared on the Midnight Love recording. One of the most affecting tracks on the recording, “Turn on Some Music” is largely a song about Gaye asking his lover to “put three albums on baby” while they make love “long, long, long”. In its own right it is an interesting spin on the relationship between romance — sex really — and music. Gaye biographer David Ritz recalls how the singer read him lyrics of a song called “I’ve Got My Music” which was a “treatise on music’s ability to heal the wounded heart. The story was intensely and unmistakably personal”. “I’ve Got My Music” was an early incarnation of what would become the album cut “Turn on Some Music”. Ritz notes that the “gist of the song changed completely; the song was no longer about healing the heart. Marvin was taken by the struggle for sexual strength and the pressures of long-lasting lovemaking”. In this regard the song was a natural progression within a project that Gaye hoped would be commercial. As Gaye intimated to Ritz, “I’m worried that I’m getting introspective…no one will listen. I can’t afford to miss this time. I need a hit”. Midnight Love of course provided him a hit with “Sexual Healing”, highlighting the sexual fixation that would dog Gaye in his final years, hence tracks like “Sanctified Pussy”.

Gaye in fact recorded earlier versions of “Turn on Some Music” that became available to the public with the release of the Midnight Love & Sexual Healing Sessions in 1998. The double-CD includes two alternative versions of “Turn on Some Music”, including the aforementioned “I’ve Got My Music” and an earlier vocal-only version of “Turn on Some Music” which is where the Gaye vocals on “Music” are drawn from. The only constant in all three versions of the song is an opening section, which differs in minor ways. In particular, Gaye’s lyric “‘Cause music’s been my therapy / taking pain from all my anatomy” is consistent on all three versions. The basic sentiment of this lyric is of course represented in Sermon’s own original lyrics on “Music”. On the “Turn on Some Music” track that appeared on Midnight Love, the later verses of the song explicitly document Gaye’s lovemaking event with lines like “The second jam, girl is falling down / we’ve been one hour, still I got the power” and later, “Turn up the sounds / sounds drown out the screams / Come rock with me / Straight to side B / The time has passed / An hour and a half”. Gaye’s lyrics of course recall an earlier technology where continuous play meant sticking three or four albums on the six-inch stem of an automatic turntable instead of putting a CD on shuffle.

On both the earlier versions of the song, the lyrics in the second half are dramatically different than those that appear on the “Turn on Some Music” that was released in 1982. In the vocal version of “Turn on Some Music” that was made available on the Midnight Love sessions, the section that would later begin “The second jam, girl is falling down…” instead begins “Music is the soul of the man / Music makes a happy day / Music makes the clouds flow by baby / your music kiss my tears and dried my eyes / Your music makes me want to sing / Girl, music is a joy to bring / Music is my heart and soul, more precious than gold”. This section of the song is laid intact on top of Sermon’s bass-line beginning the section of “Music” where the track ceases to be a Sermon/Gaye collaboration and essentially becomes a “new” Marvin Gaye track. The song continues through an improvised section that is present on all three versions of the original Gaye track where the late singer sings “la-da-da-da-daaa-dah-dah-dah…doo-doo, doo, doo, doo” as the song fades. The closing is reminiscent of the closing of Gaye’s “Please Stay (Once You Go Away)” on his landmark sexual “treatise” Let’s Get It On (1973).

The Midnight Love and Sexual Healing Sessions, like the recently released What’s Going On sessions, offer a unique insight to the creative process of one of the 20th century’s most affecting and provocative artists. Gaye would often improvise lyrics as he worked through different melodic strategies — lyrics that were often important in their own right. Listening to Gaye’s creative process also captures emotional states that are often missing from the finished product. Thus there is something very powerful listening to Gaye moan “aw shit” on the alternative vocal version of Midnight Love‘s “Till Tomorrow”. For Sermon’s part, he was faced with the daunting task of bringing to “life” one of the grand icons of African American life and American music. Sermon succeeded because he adhered to some of the best principles of hip-hop. Whereas hip-hop samples have often blatantly distorted the intent and integrity of the original versions, Sermon’s “Music” remains true to the basic premise of Gaye’s original composition — one that Gaye ironically distorted himself in an effort to be more commercial. Thus Sermon’s “Music” serves to preserve Gaye’s legacy as an “introspective” artist. Lastly, Sermon’s “Music” highlights the best aspect of hip-hop, namely its ability to appropriate, re-figure, deconstruct, and re-animate existing texts — “Marvin Gaye” being a major late-20th-century text — creating something that is new and distinct that only adds to the significance of the original.