Bumbershoot: Motown Crier

Charting Mayer Hawthorne’s rise from hip-hop DJ to retro-soul buzz-boy.

"Curtis Mayfield might be my favorite musician of all time," says Mayer Hawthorne. "And Smokey Robinson was a huge influence, too. A lot of people don't know that Smokey Robinson wrote songs for the Marvelettes and the Supremes, and almost everybody on Motown. But you can always tell a Smokey tune regardless of who is performing it."It takes a strong bent toward soul music to make statements like that, and it's even rarer to hear them coming from a 30-year-old white guy who moonlights as a hip-hop DJ. But most things about the L.A.-based Hawthorne are unexpected, from his vintage '60s apparel (worn with Air Jordans) to the music he makes. Born Andrew Cohen, he's only recorded music under the name Mayer Hawthorne for a little over a year. But his ability to create music that at times sounds 40 years older than it is has captured the attention of people around the world. Vanity Fair, NPR, and the BBC have all paid him a visit.Hawthorne concedes that some of the attention may be undeserved. "You know, my music is heavily inspired by '60s soul and Motown, but I wasn't even alive in the '60s. So I think it's impossible for me to create a sort of a time-capsule album like everybody is saying I did." The album he's referring to, the aptly-titled A Strange Arrangement (due out Sept. 9), is full of songs that at first sound like they could be remastered Stax Records B-sides. In actuality, it's all-new material that Hawthorne created in his own bedroom, using programming equipment and instruments he plays himself.The first time Hawthorne's catchy single "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out," a slightly doo-wop-style breakup song, was placed in my hands was at SXSW in 2008. Hawthorne, then spinning under the name DJ Haircut, handed it to me himself. One of the last songs on a CD sampler he and his hip-hop group, Now On, were passing out, the tune stood out immediately.Hawthorne admits he didn't think much of the song at the time. "I was a DJ and hip-hop producer first and foremost," Hawthorne says, "and soul music was an experiment on the side that I wasn't taking serious at all."Hawthorne credits his decision to dabble in vintage soul partially to geography—Ann Arbor, Mich., where he grew up, is only 45 minutes away from Motown—but even more to his love of digging for vinyl. "My dad was a big influence on me, and I used to listen to Motown in the car with him as a kid," he explains. "He would tell me about the songs on the radio and that was an influence for me. And [later on], whenever I would dig for records, I was usually digging for the samples that I heard in a lot of my favorite rap songs. I was always trying to find the samples that J Dilla used. He was the master at finding that classic soul stuff."What's unique about the way Hawthorne arranges his songs is that he throws in new effects, be they bleeps or drum-machine kicks, to hint at the freshness of the product. Live, he plays with a band, the County, who help fill in his songs' horn and rhythm parts."I think if you listen to it, more people would agree that it feels new and not just throwback," he says. "My intention wasn't to create a throwback album. I think you can hear just as much J Dilla in my music as you can Smokey Robinson."His Bumbershoot gig this week is the initial stop on his first U.S. tour. To a guy who only a year ago was passing out free CDs on the street, every day has got to feel like a dream that he hopes never ends."I did a DJ gig at Amoeba Records [in Los Angeles], one of my favorite record stores in the world, last weekend," he says. "When I walked into Amoeba, I received an ovation of applause. There were a lot of people waiting for me to start my DJ set, and I saw my record on the top shelf of display. After shopping at Amoeba for so long and seeing all of my idols' records on the top shelf, that was beyond reality for me. That was when I knew the dream had come true."jcunningham@seattleweekly.com

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