Mayer Hawthorne: Ann Arbor's Best Export Since Iggy Pop

The Hip-Hop producer turned Soul performer may not be a household name, but has made two of the best records of this millennium. And he's seriously fucking cool...
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The Hip-Hop producer turned Soul performer may not be a household name, but has made two of the best records of this millennium. And he's seriously fucking cool...

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Music is a fucking wonderful thing, isn’t it? Seriously, I know everyone loves music – or at least any normal person does – but there are fewer greater feelings in the world than discovering a brilliant song for the first time that instantly has you hooked; one of those tracks that you know from hearing the first few bars that you’re going to listen to endlessly and never grow tired of. That is, after all, the real reason artists make music: to entertain, captivate and inspire the people; to form that wonderful, unbreakable bond between the artist and audience and put on a performance that they’ll never forget.

Unless I’m watching the telly or a film, 99% of the time I’ll have music on in the house. It can be one of my all-time favourite records, something I’ve listened to since I was a kid, or it can be a song by an artist I’ve never even heard of – it doesn’t matter. When it’s the latter, though, I’m always hoping it’s something new that’s going to have me scrambling to the laptop to find out who and what this is; I live for that sense of excitement when you discover something new that really blows me away. This is how I first came across the incredible work of one Mayer Hawthorne.

Back in 2009 a mate of mine, who goes by the name Oxton Soul Boy, put a mix together of his favourite songs from the past year, and he sent me a copy. There were 20 really dope songs on it, and I loved them all – it still to this day gets listened to regularly. It was all really funky stuff: from Erykah Badu to Method Man & Redman; from Marvin Gaye to Mos Def. But there were three standout tunes (it was one single mp3 file, but I knew it was the first, fourth and eighth tracks I loved the most). Track number eight was ‘Let Me Show Ya’ by Jazzanova featuring Paul Randolph, which is an awesome tune; the other two were by the same guy.

The file had been uploaded on a random file sharing site and so I didn’t have a track listing when I originally heard it, but I really needed to know who sang these two songs. They sounded like early 70’s R’n’B tunes, but with a funky, modern twist; they had what I’d class as Hip-Hop drums and the bass lines were running through my head or getting hummed around the house all day. I was tearing my hair out until I finally got my hands on the playlist. Track one was ‘Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out’ and track four was ‘Maybe So, Maybe No,’ both sung by Mayer Hawthorne. Who? Never heard of him; he didn’t even have a Wikipedia page!

It turned out Mayer Hawthorne was a guy from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who was signed to Stones Throw records – which, by the way, is one of the finest independent record labels out there. The first thing that struck me, and hopefully this isn’t taken the wrong way, is that he was white, and a Jew at that. A soulful Jewish guy making the two most infectiously catchy songs I’d heard in years. Mind = blown. He had an album out called ‘A Strange Arrangement’ which I downloaded instantly, and played. And played. And played. And played. If it were a CD it would’ve been burned out by the end of the week.

It’s a truly stunning record. Without doubt one of my favourite ever albums. It’s classic soul with a contemporary twist; the perfect fusion of old and new. My Ma, who brought me up mostly on Motown and old school Reggae, couldn’t believe it was released in 2009, and that the songs were original. I put it on to my iPod after a couple of days after I got it and the entire album already had over 30 plays on iTunes; it had progressed way beyond an obsession. People, go and procure ‘A Strange Arrangement’ by any means necessary – but try and get it legally, support the smaller record labels that still produce real music for the people, nah mean?

The story behind him becoming an artist is fucking cool, too. He started off as a Hip-Hop performer in high school, met these kids who he knew only through playing basketball with, and he eventually formed a Hip-Hop crew, The Athletic Mic League. The crew didn’t have a DJ, so Hawthorne, a record collector since he was a kid, volunteered. He became a Hip-Hop producer rather than a performer, and was making beats throughout college. Even when he graduated, he’d work other jobs on the side just to make enough money to live on so he could focus on his music. He formed another group, Now On, with IX Lives and Jackson Perry, and, like many budding musicians hoping to make it in the industry, they moved to LA.

The crew were making waves in Cali, but it was getting to the point where making Hip-Hop beats was just too expensive; Hawthorne would sell a beat he made for $500, but end up having to pay $1000 to use the sample. Eventually he decided to make his own songs to sample, thus saving costs on paying royalties. After he made a few tracks, a friend introduced him to Peanut Butter Wolf, the president of Stones Throw Records. Hawthorne emailed PBW the tunes; he loved them, and asked if he could release them on Stones Throw. Thinking it would be a cool little side project 1,000 copies of the tunes were printed and released; those 1,000 copies sold out in two days.

The first song released on Stones Throw was ‘Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out’ and it was printed on a 7” red heart-shaped vinyl. Six months later, ‘Maybe So, Maybe No’ came out on 12” vinyl. Six months after that, the album was released, and it acquired some pretty famous fans. Snoop Dogg, who is the only artist to collaborate with Hawthorne on either of his first two albums (Snoop features on the track ‘Can’t Stop’ on ‘How Do You Do?’, Hawthorne’s follow up album), declared him as his new favourite artist after he heard ‘A Strange Arrangement’. Kanye West, Justin Timberlake and John Mayer amongst others have all publicly declared their love for Mayer Hawthorne, too.

Fans over here may have heard of Mayer Hawthorne as ‘The Walk,’ his first single from ‘How Do You Do?’, Hawthorne’s second album but first release with a major record label (Universal), was remixed by Rizzle Kicks, and they shot a video for it together. ‘HDYD?’ is a fantastic album in its own right but, for me, it just didn’t have that same pull from the off that the debut record did; you should still buy it, though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still funky – without giving it some pretentious title, I can best describe his music as soul music for Hip-Hop heads - and makes you want to bust a move, but it’s much more polished than ‘ASA’ is. You can tell Hawthorne is still finding himself as a solo soul man.

What is clearly evident from his photos and videos, however, is that he is seriously fucking cool. Always dressed out in well-tailored suits and immaculate kicks, the man is effortlessly suave, geeky specs and all. ‘Flashy but classy’ is how Hawthorne describes his fashion sense, but it’s a certainly a doff of the cap to some of the pioneers of soul who inspired him both as an artist and a fashion icon. His image is not something that was forced upon him by the record label, but the natural inclination of a man who dresses to impress. As he says, he puts on a show, not a concert, and you have to look the part.

I find music writing, by and large, to be incredibly arrogant and overtly grandiloquent, a truly hypocritical statement if you've ever read any of my stuff on here. Still, I'm not one to read album reviews - I make my own mind up on stuff, and, given the shit in the charts, why would you trust the mainstream music sites? But the internet is a wonderful tool that can be used to share wonderful music from all corners of the globe, and the only way to combat the dirge of repetitive, soulless, commercially successful records that have infected the ears of the gullible and the ignorant is to spread the word of those artists out there keeping it real. Artists like Mayer Hawthorne. Now go out and get his albums, you bastards!

You can follow Alex on twitter @woolfc.