Smokey Robinson: Nelly Is the Closest Thing to James Brown

The music legend talks his new album and how the Country Grammar rapper reminds him of The Godfather of Soul.

Posted: 08/21/2014 04:00 PM EDT

Smokey Robinson is a living legend that has been making music for over 50 years. The Grammy Award-winning Songwriter Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee helped to lay the foundation of soul music at Motown as a member of the '60s supergroup The Miracles; through writing and producing hits for several artists, including The Temptations and Marvin Gaye; and as a successful solo artist. 

His latest album, Smokey & Friends, produced by former American Idol judge Randy Jackson, pairs the music icon with some of today's hottest and most influential artists, like Cee Lo Green, Mary J. Blige, Miguel, Ledisi, Aloe Blacc and  John Legend. The album features many of Robinson's classic and biggest hits reimagined as modernized duets.

Speaking to BET.com, Robinson recounts the making of this new LP, reminisces about his friend Michael Jackson and reveals how, of all the artists he's listened to throughout the years, Nelly is most like the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

Tell us about how your new album Smokey & Friends came together.
Randy Jackson is the producer. I've known Randy forever. I love Randy, he's my brother and to get a chance to work with him for the first time like this was a real joy. Randy contacted all these artists and asked them, "What is your favorite Smokey Robinson song?" It didn't have to be a song I recorded, just one that I wrote. That’s how it all came together. I’m very, very pleased with the album... Randy took those songs and made them sound brand new.

How does a legendary artist like you stay relevant?
If you love music, that makes you stay relevant. I write all the time and I'm writing a lot of original stuff now, so I'm hoping this album makes a way for it. Today, downloads and CDs are the secondary factor. For an artist to have longevity, they have to be able to perform and entertain people. Recorded music is just a promotional kind of thing. When people come to see you in concert, if you're not giving them a performance, you won't be able to last in today's music world.

What’s something you find least impressive about many of today’s artists?
Some of the kids that you're seeing nowadays are getting away with lipsynching their live performances. Back in my day, when I was first coming along, they would boo and throw stuff at you [if you didn't sing live].

Michael Jackson’s birthday is Aug. 29. As a Motown pioneer and someone who witnessed his genius from his childhood through adulthood, what are your recollections of him?
My recollection of Michael is probably the opinion of a whole lot of people on earth. I've been watching people since I was four or five years old. I've always loved entertainment; I've always wanted to be an entertainer all my life. I have tapes of Bessie Smith and Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Billy Eckstine, people like that when they were young. Somebody did a short film of all of them; I guess these were the first music videos. And I own copies of those films. So basically I've seen everyone. Before Michael came along, I would attribute that level of genius to Sammy Davis Jr. But the overall picture of it is, as far as the visual show, singing and overall talent, Michael Jackson is the best I have ever seen.

What's your take on Michael Jackson's estate using a hologram of his likeness to promote his music?
There's a Michael Jackson show in Vegas that is done by the people who did Cirque du Soleil. It's called Michael Jackson ONE. ... It's awesome.

Movie audiences witnessed Ray Charles immortalized in Ray and James Brown celebrated in Get On Up. Have you ever been approached about having a movie biopic done on your life?
Some guys have been working on that for me for the last couple of years. We're moving right along with it. I don't know when it's going to be in development, but they are working on it.

As the composer and singer of some of the most iconic music over the decades, which artists do you enjoy listening to?
Really everybody. I listen to everybody from Bach to Nelly. I love Nelly. Nelly's got some great stuff — his rhythms are the best. When it comes to the rhythmic feel of a record, nobody can touch James Brown as far as I am concerned. James Brown was the rhythm man of music. I haven't heard anybody who can touch him with the rhythms and the feeling of his tracks. But, the closest person to him as far as I am concerned who's doing it right now is Nelly. I don't know who's doing his tracks, but he's always got killer rhythms.

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(Photo: Donald Kravitz/Getty Images)

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