When hip-hop meets Motown: 5 minutes with Mayer Hawthorne
Despite being a self-proclaimed vinyl junkie and technology geek, musician Mayer Hawthorne is far from your average nerd. Signed to top hip-hop record label Stones Throw Records, with a critically acclaimed album and a sold out international tour under his belt, Hawthorne, 30, is well on his way to becoming a veritable soul sensation. In his recent debut album A Strange Arrangement, Hawthorne channels the plaintive croons of Motown legends like Smokey Robinson, while his experience as a hip-hop producer brings a modern edge to his nostalgic tunes. We caught up with him in Williamsburg before he performed at the Knitting Factory last Thursday.
Your music is so clearly influenced by your hometown of Detroit. Did you listen to Motown a lot as a kid?
My father owned an auto parts store called Great Lakes Harbor and Auto. I used to go to work with him and we’d listen to Motown and oldies on the radio; I would ask him questions about every song. My father played bass guitar and he taught me to play when I was six years old. My mother played the piano and sang and danced tap and ballet. We were always listening to music.
You live in LA now. How does it compare?
I love living in Los Angeles but no city in the whole world has more soul than Detroit. You can feel it just walking through the streets. But LA is a world of opportunity that Detroit is not.
How did you decide to print your first single, “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” on a heart-shaped vinyl?
It was my idea to press the red heart record. I wanted to make something for all the vinyl nerds like me.
Some critics have described you as simply a good genre songwriter. What do you say to that?
Anyone who listens to my music can tell that it’s not really retro. It’s heavily influenced by Motown and classic soul but I wasn’t even alive in the heyday of Motown. I used to be a metalhead; I grew up listening to Megadeth, Public Enemy and the Smashing Pumpkins. I think those modern influences come through.
Have you had any mishaps on your tour so far?
Last night our DJ mixer broke so I just took it apart myself, fixed it and put it back together. I went to University of Michigan for computer science so I’m sort of a mechanical nerd.
Tell us about your album cover. What’s with the unusual texture?
Jeremy Deputat—one of my favorite photographers—shot it in this old cafe in downtown Detroit that’s basically been untouched since the 1960s. As a finishing touch we added an alligator skin texture to the cover. Alligator shoes are a huge part of Detroit fashion so that was my little hat tip to them.
Photo: Doug Coombe