By A.D. Amorosi; photo by Kevin Scanlon on October 11, 2011
There is a great misnomer about soul man Mayer Hawthorne, the Ann Arbor native who started life as Andrew Mayer Cohen, modern hip-hop DJ extraordinaire, all-around nice guy and concerned Michiganer. The story going around that “Mayer Hawthorne” started as a bit of a joke is untrue. The truth is that there has never been a dividing line between who Cohen is and what Hawthorne has become; there is no schizoid differentiation. “Hopefully not,” laughs Hawthorne from his home in Los Angeles. “There’s no character that I’m playing. My new album will go a long way in getting people to know who the real me is.”
The hip-hop producer known as “Haircut” who occasionally worked as a member of Athletic Mic League was simply looking for royalty-free music to sample when he began making his own tunes, writing songs with melodies and hooks that he sang to himself for quality control. He did not start out as a singer, and certainly not the sort whose level of silken soulful seduction can (and does) rival old-school giants Al Green, Smokey Robinson and Curtis Mayfield, to say nothing of neo-soulers like Maxwell. “There’re no church choirs in my background. No inclination to sing,” says Hawthorne. “Singing for me was nothing more than an in-the-shower exercise before this.”
Stop a second: Everyone knows that if you’re from Ann Arbor or Detroit, you either wind up in hip-hop or garage rock. Does Hawthorne have punk rock in his blood as well as sweet R&B? “Hell yeah. I used to be a big metalhead, listened to a lot of Iron Maiden and White Zombie. I still do. I just bought the OFF! box set that’s blowing my mind right now. I could’ve definitely wound up a punk. I was talking to my pal who directs my videos about starting a punk group. I just have to stay focused on what’s winning for me,” he laughs. “You know, soul music.”
Without digressing too much, Hawthorne was spending more money than he was making paying for sample clearances, so he made his own music not for the public to buy or hear. He recorded them for hip-hop tracks, playing most of the instruments himself and singing. “I would never have put those out of it wasn’t for Peanut Butter Wolf.” Peanut Butter Wolf (aka Chris Manak, hip-hop producer and Stones Throw label owner) had never met the Michiganer until Hawthorne moved to L.A. Manak heard Hawthorne’s tracks through friends and thought they were lost Hi Records cuts. When Manak found out otherwise, well, that’s how 2009’s spare, simmering A Strange Arrangement came to be. As a singer, Hawthorne might not have known what he was doing (“During that first tour I had to cancel shows because I couldn’t keep my voice in shape”), yet instinct kicked in and lent guts to his voice—real emotion. As a musician and arranger, Hawthorne’s work on A Strange Arrangement sounds like it came from another place and time, and not a retro one. And like that last album, the new one, How Do You Do, is timeless and unique. “I love the music of the ’50s through the ’90s but I ain’t going backwards,” he says. “Let’s make magic now.”
How Do You Do does make magic. As a true, accomplished progression from his previous album, everything is elevated—especially the emotionalism of his singing and his lyrics on songs like “You Called Me.” He’s tearing his heart out there (“That song’s gut-wrenching”). So potent is Hawthorne’s prowess that he got Snoop Dogg to sing with the same dynamics on their collaboration “I Can’t Stop.” Hawthorne told the legendary emcee there’d be no rap on this new record, so the Dogg wrote and sung his own parts heartily (“I was blown away,” Hawthorne says). Even more provocative is “A Long Time,” the album’s catchiest joint that shows love to his Michigan home (“Means a lot to me, you know”).
The rest of How Do You Do is equally timeless, powerful and, more importantly, fresh. “I really do think of this as an introduction to who I truly am.” F
3 albums that inspired Mayer Hawthorne to make music
Every song is incredible. Creative, experimental, but still timeless and enjoyable for all. The first record that I thought of as a masterpiece from start to finish. All killer, no filler.
I've Got So Much Love to Give
He’s the Maestro and this is the Maestro at his best. Barry was a visionary orchestrator but with street sensibilities. And 30 years later he still gets young ladies in the mood. Elegant.
Fantastic, Vol. 2
No album has ever stayed in my deck longer. It was so different. So innovative. So confident. So Detroit. J Dilla’s my hero. All of Slum Village was. They changed my life.