Here’s a clip by new-school by way of old-school soul singer, and sometime hip-hop DJ in another life, Mayer Hawthorne. It’s “Maybe So, Maybe No”, a single from his debut 2009 record A Strange Arrangement, put out on indie label Stone’s Throw records.
The head of that label, one Peanut Butter Wolf, signed Hawthorne after hearing two songs from Hawthorne’s selection of demos, both songs sounding like tracks from the classic soul period immortalized between 1964 to 1974. This era is a common hunting ground for hip hop DJs looking for obscure samples to use in their work.
His efforts were fueled by his genuine love of music from this classic period, and aided by his Detroit-born parents who bought him 45 RPM soul records as gifts from the time he was a kid growing up in nearby Ann Arbor. This amassed library of soul singles enabled a love for the sound of vinyl records in general. As a result, his career as a DJ was ignited.
But, how did this guy also become a straight up soul singer, and one of this calibre, as well as a hip hop DJ? Well, this is where thinking of musical evolution in a linear way can trip you up. Here’s what I mean.
First, I think it’s important to understand how a hip hop DJ and producer must operate. To start off, in order to spin new jams in a live setting, they have to find sources for existing music, preferably on vinyl, and then find the central groove, riff, or hook. Then, they must creatively make it into something new, reinterpreted with other elements besides. Keen ears for sonic texture and attention to musical detail are essential to this exercise.
The tricky part is avoiding samples and combinations of samples that an audience has heard a million times before, while still making sure that the groove is seamless. And, most importantly, the legality of this dynamic has to be airtight when looking to put out a record, make money at it, and avoid getting sued for an uncleared sample.
So, what’s a young vinyl record collecting fan starting out do with all of these things in mind? Well, Mayer Hawthorne (actually, Andrew Cohen as he is known by his parents) decided to get around all these things by writing, playing, singing, and recording his own songs in a classic soul style, to be used purely as fodder for samples, not as material to be released as is.
But, the music took on a life of its own, hooked as it is into various strains of ’60s to ’70s soul music traditions out of Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago. These are sounds that Cohen fell in love with, even before he decided on a career in hip hop. “Maybe So, Maybe No” in particular sounds like a song the Spinners, or the O’Jays, or the Delfonics would have been proud to release in the early ’70s. Yet, it was written by a 20-something speccy suburban hip hop DJ living in the 21st Century *(see comments section below for a correction on this point).
In this case then, Cohen’s musical development is less a linear exercise, and more like a figure eight, or a mobius strip.
This is what comes of loving sounds out of a certain era, feeding it into a new musical context, yet also appreciating the artfulness of the original form on the levels of melody, structure, texture, and tone. When label boss Peanut Butter Wolf, himself a hip hop DJ, heard the songs, he offered to put them out as is. And Mayer Hawthorne & The County (‘the County’ being any group of musicians who plays the songs with him) was born.
Luckily, Mayer Hawthorne came up in an age where “new soul” sounds as made by people like Eli Paperboy Reed, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, and Amy Winehouse had established an audience for bona fide soul music rooted firmly in an established approach to record-making that’s decades old, yet still sounding thoroughly radio-ready in the 21st Century.
In addition, Andrew Cohen still pursues hip hop under another moniker, Haircut, showing that music is indeed an untamable beast where the imaginations and efforts of artists are concerned. It certainly isn’t about retro. In this case, music is proven once again to be pretty timeless, since in the end it’s about the artist’s ability to write and play top shelf material. This quality knows no genre, or historical period.
Mayer Hawthorne’s latest album How Do You Do, led by the heavy-rotation radio single “The Walk”, is out now.
For more information, check out the Mayer Hawthorne official website.
Also, check out Mayer Hawthorne on Live At Daryl’s House for more information, and lots more music.