Motown cemented Detroit's reputation as a soul music capital. However, it can be argued that no city has had more impact on gospel music than the city of Detroit. From the Franklin family to the Clark family to the Winans family and the Rance Allen group, Detroit gospel artists have created memorable gospel music for more than six decades.
One feature of Detroit gospel artists is the ability to make music that has great crossover appeal without sacrificing a strong and explicit Christ-centered message. Over the last 30 years, I could turn on secular radio and hear the music of The Clark Sisters, the Winans, The Rance Allen Group, J Moss and Fred Hammond being played in times other than the normal gospel music time slot of Sunday morning between 6 a.m. and noon. Currently, you can turn on the Tom Joyner Morning show and hear Marvin Sapp's "Never Could Have Made It," being book-ended by secular songs.
Hammond and Sapp are both alums of the legendary gospel group Commissioned. The group was formed in 1982 by Hammond, Michael Brooks, Karl Reid, Keith Stanton, Mitchell Jones and Michael Williams. The lineup changed over the course of the 17 years that Commissioned stayed together. Sapp was one of the people who joined the group in 1991 when Staten and Brooks left. Throughout the lineup changes, one thing remained the same: Commissioned consistently made explicitly Christian music while employing the melodies and production values used by secular R&B, funk and hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s. In doing so, the group influenced a generation of youth oriented gospel performers that energize the genre today such as Israel, Kirk Franklin and fellow Detroiter J. Moss.
The group was notable for fusing the soaring vocals and tight harmonies that had been a feature of gospel quartet singing for years with R&B-influenced instrumentals. Hammond, one of the founders of the group, learned much about how to fuse the sound without sacrificing the message from his work as a musician with The Winans and from the R&B on the radio at the time. This should not be surprising because secular and sacred music have always been linked. And the group's name probably gives a hint to its philosophy. Commissioned takes its name from Christ's command - or the great commission - to take the gospel to the world. Commissioned's music reaches out to the youth. As Reid said in a recent interview, nobody was making youth oriented gospel in 1985 when the band dropped the debut album I'm Going On. The Commissioned style came forth on that album in tracks such as "I'm Going On" and "You've Got A Friend." A live version of both songs is featured on The Essential Commissioned.
Clearly, fusing spiritual music with secular genres has long been a subject of debate in gospel music, going back to the days when a blues musician named Thomas Dorsey started penning gospel songs such as "Precious Lord Take My Hand." Those debates were pitched during the 1980s when Commissioned came on the scene. Commissioned managed to overcome the resistance by never playing down their music's Christ-centered message. That, in turn, made it possible for today's praise teams, choirs and gospel rappers to use popular music to while making ever-stronger statements about their love of Christ.
And even though Commissioned broke up in 1999, the band's members continue to leave a giant footprint on the gospel music world. Hammond and Sapp lead their own gospel groups while producing music for other performers. Other Commissioned alums such as Brooks and Byron Cage have earned praise and awards as leaders and producers. Brooks, for example, has produced the group Witness, a Detroit based female group that features his wife, Lisa Page Brooks.