On December 14th, 2010, at the grand opening of The Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas, virtual unknown Mayer Hawthorne gave a surreal performance on the casino floor. Like a man outside of his own time, Hawthorne’s brand of blue-eyed soul captured the crowd’s attention, harking back to the Vegas lounge singers of the days of old. A star was born.
Mayer now has three solo albums to his credit—one released on pioneering indie label Stones Throw Records, and two with Universal Republic. His music evokes the feeling of classic tunes by The Isley Brothers, Steely Dan, and Hall & Oates, but the sound is fresh and contemporary. In October of 2014, he graduated to performing on much larger platforms, gracing the Life Is Beautiful festival’s main stage, following a high-wire demonstration by Cirque Du Soleil’s dancers from The Beatles’ Love show.
“Damn, I didn’t know I was going to be following The Beatles and a bunch of acrobats and shit,” Mayer says to the crowd, who were still unsure if he deserves their trust. “But here goes.”
Mayer’s slightly polished, but still rough-around-the-edges style shines through his music, personality, appearance and performance, gracing the stage in a swanky, blue kung fu suit, yet unashamed of the gold crown that visibly sits upon his left lateral incisor. Amidst covers of Bel Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” Mayer slowly gets the crowd on his side. During the performance of his own track, “Designer Drug,” which finds him grooving on stage with a Selfie Stick and a Gopro camera while periodically taking breaks to pound on the drums, the naysayers and the apprehensive have slowly, organically become the converted. He sends a message that says he’s not above the crowd, he’s one of them.
That highlight of the Life Is Beautiful set was ironically only a bonus track on Mayer’s 2013 LP, Where Does This Door Go. Produced by Jake One, it marked the inception of Tuxedo, their new collaborative project. Jake, who is known for producing beats for underground rappers like Brother Ali and mainstream giants like Rick Ross and Drake, took a different approach to producing the March 3, 2015 self-titled album release. Jake put aside the sampler and employed all analog synths to capture the sound of late 70s/early 80s, post-disco boogie music, meshed with early 90s g-funk and Mayer’s vintage vocal style.
Cuepoint spoke to the Tuxedo duo about the new project.
You guys are both known to be hip-hop heads, so its not surprising to see you collaborate on this Tuxedo project for Stones Throw. Give us the story on how this whole thing came about.
Mayer: Jake and I met at a rap show in Seattle and exchanged mixtapes. I gave him a copy of this mixtape I did called Shoot The Duck and he gave me a copy of a mixtape he did called AR Music. We looked at the tracklists and they had some of the same songs on them. They were both heavily, early 80s, what we call “jheri curl funk.” And I just remember being blown away like “I can’t believe there is another person in the world that cares about these records.” At the time, this was around 2005 or 2006, I think. Literally nobody cared about these records, nobody was digging for that stuff.
It was like Jerry Knight, Bernard Wright and The Ritchie Family, stuff like that. Nobody was checking for that stuff at the time. Now those records are on the wall at Amoeba for like $30, $40, $50 or whatever, but at the time nobody cared about those records. So we just kind of kept in touch after that, and Jake ended up sending me some tracks that he made that were inspired by the music on those mixtapes. I remember he sent me over a few by email and I was just blown away by how authentic they sounded, because he was using all of the real, original analog synths. I wrote some songs to those tracks and sent my ideas back to him and he was like ‘Man, we might really have to do this for real.’ It kind of snowballed from there.
Jake: I don’t exactly remember the year, but I think I did the first mixtape in 2003. I was starting to do a lot of rap stuff, and it was going good, but I was just getting burnt out on it. I was just doing these mixtapes as something else to do, just for fun, of stuff I was listening to. Somehow we connected, I feel like [Detroit DJ] House Shoes told me about Mayer, and I ended up checking him out at a show in Seattle. We exchanged tapes and it was a lot of the same songs. It was just funny. It was really a hot thing at the time. Probably a year later, he did I party in L.A. and I played with him, and Dam-Funk, and YG. That was maybe 2005, probably. Ever since then we were homies. He wasn’t singing or none of that was going on at that time. Eventually I started trying to make beats in that vein of those songs for something different. I was learning how to play piano a little bit, so it was just kind of a way to test all of that out. I never really had the skill to come up with chords back then, I just didn’t really understand it.
He put out “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” he played me this song and I was like ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could sing,’ and I gave him one of the tracks I was working on and that’s how the whole thing came about.
So Tuxedo is directly influenced by these jheri curl funk / boogie records?
Mayer: Anytime I’m making music I want to make sure we aren’t just rehashing what’s already been done, because that’s no fun. It’s all about bringing it to 2017 or whatever and making it new. We were definitely heavily influenced by Chic and One Way and a lot of those old disco records, but we also brought a lot of Nate Dogg and west coast g-funk and of course our hip-hop backgrounds into it as well.
Jake: I would say a combination of Daz, Snoop, Nate Dogg, Death Row era, that stuff for sure. Battlecat. Leroy Burgess, who was a producer in the late 70s / early 80s who did a lot of amazing boogie stuff. Cameo. Con Funk Shun. A lot of these groups are the first groups as a kid I remember. A combination of those two things.
I think what makes it different from other guys that are doing funk or whatever is that Mayer, he just has his own thing, off the top. His voice is different, the way he writes is different.
Is Tuxedo the first time you two have collaborated?
Jake One: There were Tuxedo songs that we had already done that ended up on Mayer’s album. “Henny & Gingerale” was definitely something that we made for this project that he found a place for on his record. “Designer Drug” was another one that he re-made a little bit to fit with what he was doing on his project, but it originally started off as a Tuxedo song. The first song was done in 2007 and it’s the first song on our album. There are two songs we did in 2007 and they are both on the album, revamped.
We finished it last year, it’s funny the songs are from all different time periods. When Mayer did his last album for Universal, we cut three or four of the songs then, because he was thinking about using them, but they just sounded so much different than the rest of the record, so he decided not to put them on there.
Mayer, aside from Jake handling all of the production, what is the difference between this project and your solo material?
Mayer: We used all original analog synthesizers and real drums on this record. Ain’t nothing like that real thing—Marvin Gaye and Tammi, they said it. There is a definite magic in the real thing that you can’t get digitally. You feel it, our records feel different than everything else out there because of it.
Jake: I incorporated a lot of that stuff into my rap production, but definitely when we started working on this stuff I was just learning how to play. I’m still always buying records [to sample], but I just kind of went crazy buying keyboards—and I still am—but it just works perfectly for this sound. You can’t really do this kind of sound with a plug-in. I hear a lot of people try to do that on tracks, but it just sounds like a computer version of it. Even if they have good ideas, it’s not the same thing.
And Mayer’s not singing falsetto as much, maybe only one song on the album. That’s kind of his signature thing on a lot of his songs, especially the early ones. It’s definitely a lot more—electronic is not necessarily the word—I think it’s closer to his last album in some of the things he’s doing. Obviously me doing the tracks is different than what he usually is doing.
What are these key instruments used on the album?
Jake: The Memorymoog, it came out in the late 70s or whatever. The Juno Roland Keyboard. The CS01 Yamaha. It’s kind of all over the place. Mayer played a bunch of guitar on the record. He played live bass on maybe two songs. There’s not that much live bass on there.
Jake, how different is it for you producing these kind of tracks versus your standard hip-hop production?
Jake: I mean it’s definitely night and day. But I feel like some of things I’ve done on this along the way have found their way into my rap beats a lot more. Not a lot of those have come out. I did one for Wale and one for Dom Kennedy that definitely came from this. There’s been a couple of other things here and there. Not sampling is pretty drastic just off the top. There’s no sampled music on this, so for me that’s a drastic change. Some of the ideas I started off on my own, some of them I worked with on with a young keyboard player/producer named Swish.
And tempo-wise, I just never have done anything this fast. For instance, something like “3 Wishes” I did for J. Cole. If you probably put that at 100 BPM it might sound like one of these songs, but its like 70 BPM. It’s even some of the same kind of chords and instruments, it’s just a different feel.
There seems to have been a little bit of a new funk, disco and soul revival in pop music over the last few years, with artists like Daft Punk, Mark Ronson, Cee-Lo, Aloe Blacc taking a more traditional approach to making music and seeing great success with it. Do you feel that this is looked at as a novelty?
Mayer: I think there’s no real formula to it. I think there are cases where it does feel like a novelty and there are cases where it feels real. It’s honestly something that I don’t think about that much. I try not to think about that stuff. I just try to make music that I think is good and I try not to think about what else is popular and make what feels good to me. Good music is good music and good music is always going to win.
Jake: I kind of felt we were on the right path the whole time when I heard [Daft Punk] “Get Lucky” and [Bruno Mars] “Treasure.” When I heard those, I felt two ways about it, like “Damn man, they kind of beat us to it,” since we had been sitting on these songs for so long. But then I was also like “that’s good, because that’s going to make it easier for us with what we are doing.” And I like the songs. It’s just dope to hear songs that I like being played everywhere. You can’t really say that about pop songs in general, at least I can’t.
There’s a difference between something being successful or just something being blatantly pop. It’s rare for something like “Treasure.” Those songs aren’t formatted like pop songs usually are right now. And it helps that it is Bruno Mars because he is a big star, who also just wrote a good song in that vein. The same thing happened with “Get Lucky.”
But I feel the thing with what we are doing that is different is that we are pulling from G-Funk in a lot of ways. That sound inspired a lot of this album, which obviously came from the early 80s stuff, the Death Row era stuff, and producer Battlecat, who was a huge inspiration on me, he’s just incredible.
Do you think that we are on the path of a return to traditional music production?
Mayer: I think we are definitely moving into a completely new era of music production. The digital era of being able to make a record on your laptop has changed everything. It’s so funny to me when I walk into a recording session in the nicest studio in L.A. or New York, this multi-millionaire studio with a Neve console and all of the greatest outboard gear, the best compressors and limiters and amplifiers, and the producer walks in and sets up his laptop, plugs in through the auxiliary, and doesn’t use anything in there. It’s kind of hilarious but that’s what’s going on. For whatever reason, making music has just gotten so easy now that anybody can do it on their laptop. It has definitely changed the whole game.
Jake: I just think it kind of comes down to the quality of the song, more than anything. If you have a song with a star artist, you can make a hit doing a record traditionally, but not everybody is going to be able to do it. I think more than ever there is a gigantic division between generations. I don’t know if a thirteen year old kid is going to love “Get Lucky” like I would, or what we’re doing. Or maybe they will, because they don’t even know where it came from. I think of myself and how I reacted at that age. I didn’t know all the James Brown songs that all my favorite rap songs were sampling. I was just like “that’s Eric B & Rakim’s beat.”
Tell us a little bit about what to expect from the Tuxedo album.
Mayer: The entire record is about partying and having fun. It’s about dancing, really. The cover of the album is a couple dancing. That’s truly what the record is about, dancing. I wanted to make a record that was truly about that, because my solo records aren’t as simple. I wanted to be a departure from what I normally do. And for Jake as well, obviously this is a crazy departure from he usually does. I mean he’s known for making the hardest gangster rap beats for Drake, Rick Ross, Wiz and Snoop. So I wanted it to be the same type of obvious departure for me. I like that everyone that hears it, it makes them feels good. The record just feels good, and that’s what its all about man.
Jake: It’s an entire album of dance music. There are two songs that are slow, mid-tempo kind of stepper joints. But besides that it’s uptempo, I don’t even want to say just funk because it’s not even that simple. To me, I wanted to make something that makes you feel good, that is not sauce. It’s a super fine line. So, we definitely achieved that. It’s probably the thing that I am most proud of that I have done, as a project. Playing all of these instruments and just creating from scratch is a whole different challenge.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
Jake: Shit, a lot or rap stuff. Wale’s album, which will be out right after Tuxedo. Dom Kennedy.
Mayer: Yeah, I’m working on a new solo record right now, but I got a ways to go on that. The focus right now is on Tuxedo. It’s all Tuxedo all the time right now.
Are you wearing a Tuxedo at this very moment?
Mayer: Uh… I’m...
Just say “Yes.”
Mayer: Yeah. I slept in it last night.
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