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Detroit's Commissioned keeps the faith with reunion shows, biopic

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2019

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Commissioned's latest reunion was unexpected — but perhaps inevitable.

The groundbreaking Detroit gospel group broke up during 2001, after a 23-year run, with only sporadic get-togethers during the interim. Its legacy remains formidable — 12 albums, four Grammy Awards nominations and six Stellar Award nods. Mostly, however, Commissioned stands out as a band that took gospel in a new direction, not without controversy, by incorporating stylistic elements from the secular R&B, pop and hip-hop worlds as well as more mainstream attire, sporting jeans, leather jackets and boots rather than the tuxedos and choir robes of its forebears.

"We did things so differently," co-founder Fred Hammond recalls by phone. "We were able to, as young people, take the sounds and the looks that were affecting us and our culture and mix it up with the traditional. That made us like, 'Wow what IS this group?!!'"

Now Commissioned is doing it again.

Hammond is joined this fall by co-founders Keith Staten, Karl Reid, Michael Williams and Michael Brooks — as well as Marvin Sapp, who joined Commissioned in 1990 — for The Reunion Experience. This 12-city tour is the group's first since the early 2000s. It comes as a biopic is being made about the group by the team that made the N.W.A. film "Straight Outta Compton," and accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award in August from the Pentecostal Assembly of the World Inc., which sparked the idea of doing more together.

"When they said, 'We'd like to honor you guys,' we know what that means," says Hammond, 58, now living and running his solo career from Dallas. "It means, 'Don't just come up and accept the award,' but, 'Can y'all do a concert?' So we said, 'Yeah, we'll do it,' and then that turned into, 'Well, there's a few promoters that say we can put some dates together' and blah, blah, blah....'"

Staten, 55, adds that, "We got on the stage and it felt like we never stopped. I guess being together reminded us of what a great thing God had put together in us. Being in the same room again let everybody say, 'Hey, we got a lot still in us. Let's do something special.

"One thing led to another and here we are now, together again."

Commissioned first came together in 1982. The products of Detroit Public Schools and city churches — Hammond was already playing bass for the Winans — were united by what Reid calls "the love of music," but of all music and not just gospel.

"I used to listen to rock ’n’ roll and WDRQ back in the day," recalls Reid, who lives in Northville and pastors at St. James Missionary Baptist Church on Detroit's east side and at the River Church in Livonia. "My brother was in a rock band back in the ’70s, and had me listening to America and Edgar and Johnny Winter. We were watching Philadelphia International. We all fell in love with Earth, Wind and Fire and Prince. We were church fellas and were doing church music, so we had to sneak to listen to secular music."

Staten, who attended the same church and was part of Sounds of Joy with Reid, recalls that "everybody was just doing music in the city and somehow ran across each other and got together and it was amazing."

"I remember when we first got together, just hearing the blend of Fred Hammond, Mitchell Jones and Karl and myself, it was like, 'This is unbelievable!' None of us are biological brothers, but we all sound like we grew up in the same family."

A musically self-contained outfit, Commissioned released its first album, "I'm Going On," in 1985 and was instantly a provocative presence in the gospel world — "breaking the mold," as Hammond puts it. And while traditionalists were rankled, Commissioned connected with a younger audience, bringing fans of secular pop, R&B and hip-hop into the gospel fold. "What we didn't know is that we were affecting a culture of young people that came up behind us," says Hammond, citing Boyz II Men, Jodeci and Jamie Foxx among those who have credited Commissioned as an influence.

"These are people who come up to us today and say 'You all made gospel cool,'" Hammond says. "They tell us, 'We thought it was corny or that you had to look super duper, not like you looked in school. You guys looked like everyday people.' So that was our gift. We were able to take from the (popular) culture and make it our own and make it work in church."

All concerned say Commissioned was driven apart by naivetι and the group's own momentum. "We'll all agree we were young guys and didn't have anyone around to tell us what to expect and how to deal with the business," says Staten, who now resides in Orlando, Fla., and maintains a solo career of his own. "We didn't know about dealing with money and publishing and management and all of that. A lot of things just went off-kilter."

Hammond, who has won a Grammy Award and six Dove Awards in his solo career, says time, maturity and nearly two decades apart has mitigated any differences between Commissioned's members. "Everybody saw the group from their vantage point," he explains, "and now we're kind of at a place of, 'Does it really matter?' We're in our 50s now, nearly 60. So, yeah, does it really matter anymore? I don't think so."

That answer, Hammond adds, was reaffirmed when Commissioned convened for tour rehearsals last week in Dallas. "We had lunch at the South Dallas Cafe, and we did more talking and just hanging out. After everybody ate we spent another hour talking and laughing — no business, just enjoying being together."

The reunion's future, however, is a subject for debate. The Commissioned members will all be involved in the biopic, which they hope will go into casting and then production next year. Staten and Reid predict that a soundtrack album might require some new music, and Reid says that "we'll look at the likelihood of doing a new Commissioned album, something altogether new, after that."

Hammond isn't as certain, though.

"I think we've reached a place in our lives where we've all become grown men with families and other businesses, and our schedules just don't match up," he says. "It looks like there might be these 12 (shows) and then say, 'Guys, take a final bow' — for me, at least, it might be. The rest of the guys may continue on, which would be great. But if this is a last hurrah, we're gonna go out and make it a good one."

Commissioned performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $25 and up. Call 313-471-7000 or visit 313Presents.com.

Web Site: www.313Presents.com

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