Marvin Gaye's scandalous hit from 1973, "Let's Get It On," is suddenly a hit all over again, only this time retooled and set to a new groove by remixers Paul Simpson and Miles Dalto. The groove is called steppin', a style of dance music born in Chicago and popularized by R. Kelly's mega-successful single "Step in the Name of Love." With origins a half-century old, steppin', in the words of Kelly, "is not just a dance. It's a culture. It's the way we live." He paints a picture of partners "holding hands, swinging and swaying, turning and twisting and dipping." Kelly sees steppin' as a romantic counterpoint to a world of conflict and crime.
When I first learned that Marvin's masterpiece was being recast in this mold, I was skeptical. After all, "Let's Get It On" is one of Gaye's great signature songs, a sly and beguiling anthem of sexual seduction that hardly needs help or repair. And in 1981, when Motown changed the final form of Gaye's album In Our Lifetime without his permission, he was furious. "Would you dare re-touch a Picasso painting after he declared it finished?" he asked. "Hell, no!" he answered. And with that he left the label, pledging never to record for Motown again. He never did.
I was prepared to honor Marvin's memory by decrying this unauthorized act of musical vandalism. But when I heard the song, now subtitled "The MPG Groove," my outrage turned to astonishment. This "Let's Get It On" was more compelling than the original. Marvin seemed to soar to new heights—if anything, the remix proves Marvin's resilience as an artist for all seasons.
Marvin Gaye is to soul what John Coltrane is to jazz. Both have spawned several generations of disciples. Both have distinct styles that inspire emulation. Both are traditionalists and, at the same time, purveyors of the avant-garde. Both explore the spiritual source of their creativity.
As a beleaguered spiritual seeker, Marvin projected an especially complex charisma. He was blessed and plagued by the paradox of fueling secular songs with sacred passion. There's something extreme, even radical, about his infusing—and confusing—a longing for God with a longing for sex. When I met him in the late '70s, Marvin was aware of English metaphysical poets like John Donne who, in the 17th century, employed art as a means of seduction. He saw "Let's Get It On" serving the same purpose. Gaye was also fascinated by how, later in Donne's life, the poet used sexual imagery to invoke a connection to God. In his own tradition, Marvin pointed to singers like Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Sam Cooke who had harnessed the vitality of their childhood church to craft hot hits. Because Marvin's own childhood church was Pentecostal—his father was a store-front preacher who disapproved of rhythm-and-blues—he never shed the guilt of singing outside church. He lived and died with the conflict of serving two masters: the spirit and the flesh. He sought liberation through God as fiercely as he sought liberation through sex. The energy of this unresolved dilemma drove much of Marvin's music. That same combustible drive can be felt in the work of those who followed him—everyone, say, from Prince to D'Angelo to R. Kelly. It's hard to imagine these artists developing their careers without Marvin's model: You do more than allow conflict between body and soul; you place that conflict at the heart of your art.
"Let's Get It On" was the most moving expression of this paradox. Coming just two years after his high-minded socio-political meditation "What's Going On," it brought Marvin back to his body. At a time when sexual liberation was in the air, Marvin claimed his message was simple: Forget your hang-ups, forget your puritanical past, just give in. But with Marvin, simplicity is never simple. " We're all sensitive people," he sings at the start of the song, "with so much to give." But if "Let's Get It On" starts out as a line from a guy to a gal, it ends up in prayer. Marvin prays for sanctification through sexual union, and that the sensual joy of his childhood church wash over the confusion of his adult life—a somewhat irreconcilable position for him. Once Marvin told me, "Beyond sex is God." Another time he said, "Beyond God is sex." But the disharmony of Marvin's life became the source of his harmonious music. When his life spun out of control, he found solace in the studio. "I'm a genuine recording artist," he once said. "That's the only place I'm happy." Despite his success, his radical faith in sex, so to speak, was more than some record companies could take: A decade after releasing "Sexual Healing" and shortly before his death, Marvin wrote and recorded a song he called "Sanctified Pussy." The label—this time Columbia—changed it to "Sanctified Lady."
In the steppin' remix, the groove is more glorious than ever. More relaxed than the original syncopation, which was co-created by Marvin and his cohort Ed Townsend, the new beat refers back to the easy swing-and-sway of jitterbugging of the '40s, the sock hops of the '50s (where "The Bop" was all the rage), and the Soul Train line of the '60s and '70s. Semi-choreographed and low key, the moves are more polite than assertive. Partners face one another, come together, break away only to reunite, all the while gently gliding to the beat. In "Step in the Name of Love," R. Kelly himself directs the dancers: "Step, step, side to side, round and round, dip it now, separate, bring it back, let me see you do the love slide. …" In contrast to the simulated sex of feverish dance floor gyrations, steppin' slows you down and chills you out. Steppin' polishes off the rough edges. It returns to innocence. Sweet funky guitar riffs echo pre-disco groups like Archie Bell and the Drells. Steppin' invokes the corner candy shop, the school gym, the neighborhood rec center. While halting dance moves that punctuate rap, steppin' is never bumpy. Steppin' is smooth. R. Kelly sees steppin' in almost ritualistic religious terms. In " If I Could Make the World Dance," his heartfelt tribute to Marvin Gaye in his recent Happy People CD, dancing is equated with praying. Dancing brings out our best, our sweetness.
So to combine the sensibility of Kelly's steppin' with Marvin's message of sacred seduction seems not only right but righteous. Marvin, who in the '70s looked back to his doo-wop roots of the '50s, is an introspective/retrospective artist perfectly suitable for perpetual reinvention. As a Christian who longed to be born again, his rebirth is realized by other artists whose struggles mirror his own. The anguish of Marvin's original vocal, cushioned by this ethereal syncopation—entirely new and entirely old—creates a state of bliss. "Let's Get It On" becomes a clarion call, directing us to the freedom of the dance floor.