Mayer Hawthorne may have grown up in the shadow of Motown, but his arrival into this world, circa 1979, was just a little too late for any real-time awareness of the label's golden years. Of course, you'd never know that from listening to his debut album, which has already earned him favorable comparisons to Smokey Robinson and Curtis Mayfield.
"I grew up listening to hip-hop and J Dilla," says Hawthorne, whose Motor City accent is an odd complement to his retro-geek persona. "I learned a lot from my father — who still sings and plays bass in a classic rock band in Michigan — but the other half of what I learned about soul music came through hip-hop."
Hawthorne, whose favorite soul artists include Isaac Hayes and Impressions singer Leroy Hutson, spun records long before he started making them. So how did his soul inclinations fit into the rest of his deejay set?
"I've always been a deejay of all styles of music," says Hawthorne. "I used to spin a lot of hip-hop, but hip-hop essentially came from soul and disco, so I would always work a lot of that into my set. You know, I'd play the Whole Darn Family's 'Seven Minutes of Funk' and then throw in Jay-Z. I was always trying to educate people a little bit as I'm spinning and having fun at the same time."
Ironically, Hawthorne is more concerned with educating himself these days. He clearly deserves the critical accolades that were showered upon his debut album, A Strange Arrangement, which was released last September on Stones Throw Records. And "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out," originally released as a heart-shaped 7-inch single, is a perfect showcase for Hawthorne's smooth high-tenor vocals, sweet soul songwriting, and deep-in-the-pocket arrangements. Yet Hawthorne confesses to being a virtual naïf when it comes to crooning.
"Honestly, I'm still trying to learn how to sing," he says. "I've been singing professionally for, you know, maybe a year. Before that I sang in the shower and that was about it. But, you know, I didn't know anything about singing when I went in to record this album, and I still know very little about singing. But I'm learning a lot every day."
It was on the basis of just two songs that Hawthorne got signed to hip-hop producer Peanut Butter Wolf's Stones Throw label, whose eclectic roster has ranged from avant savant Gary Wilson to J Dilla, Hawthorne's personal hero. Writing, arranging and producing the album himself, Hawthorne obviously rose to the occasion, but not without considerable effort.
"I'm the kind of guy that will record a bassline 150 times in a row," he admits. "It's not because I necessarily need it to sound amazing, it's just that I need it to sound like I hear it in my head."
Hawthorne says the biggest bond between him and his boss is a love for strange music that, as he puts it, "doesn't necessarily get recognized by the mainstream, maybe because it had an odd chord structure or melody or format."
Of course, sometimes even that can't stop you. Just ask Hawthorne about the influence of J Dilla, the justifiably revered artist and producer who emerged from the Detroit hip-hop underground and whose profound effect on contemporary music lives on four years after his death.
"He was a master of audio engineering, and that's really what a lot of people don't understand about him," says Hawthorne. "Not only was he incredibly musical with his beats — you know, nothing was ever out of key in a Dilla beat. He really understood music, but he also understood the importance of mixing it. The way that his snare would crack and the kick would punch, nobody else can do it like that."
Brave New Wave
Hawthorne recently got the chance to revisit his own hip-hop roots when he was commissioned to remix Snoop Dogg's "Gangsta Luv," which was released just last week. He's also been recording with Nottz, who has produced tracks for Kanye West, Busta Rhymes and Biggie Smalls.
But Hawthorne's most unexpected musical departure is likely to be — wait for it — a New Wave album. Or New New Wave, as Hawthorne calls it.
"It's very inspired by early '80s Cabaret Voltaire, Gary Numan and Ultravox, but there's also a lot of hip-hop in there too," he says of the album, which is already mastered and due out within the next few months. "It's a total departure from anything anyone's heard from me."
As are some of the covers the band will be performing on this tour. Hawthorne, who's "threatening" to take on T-Pain and Jamie Foxx's "Blame It," is already doing cover versions of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," the Isley Brothers' "Work to Do," and, most bizarre of all, Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky."
"It seems like it usually goes over pretty well," he says of ELO's vocoder-enhanced '70s hit. "I think a lot of people subconsciously kind of know that song, but I'll bet you 99 percent of them couldn't name the artist."