Mayer Hawthorne started his career in music DJing, rapping, and making beats, but soul music has always held a special place in the heart of the Detroit native. “When I dig, I’m digging for soul records,” he told Laura Weber in a 2008 interview with Michigan Radio. “Soul music, for whatever reason, has just always been my favorite.”
After spending his early years as a DJ/rapper/producer for the group Athletic Mic League, Hawthorne decided to take his love for soul to the next level by recording some demo songs as a side project. “I was making rap, and this Mayer Hawthorne stuff was just some fun stuff on the side,” he explained.
Hawthorne had the inspiration to mess around with soul during the early stages of his A Strange Arrangement debut, but he didn’t have the necessary equipment to record his vocals. So he improvised. “When I started making Mayer Hawthorne’s solo joints, I didn’t have a great microphone — I still don’t have a great microphone,” he said in an interview with Beat M Up. “I just started recording the vocals through an old pair of headphones. It lends to that sort of old-school sound.”
“I was tired of paying sample clearance for a lot of the hip-hop tracks that I was making. So I decided I would make my own samples.”
Further lending to the old school sound was Hawthorne’s decision to play instruments — mostly by himself — instead of using samples. Cuts like “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” may sound like they feature sampled drums, but the whole song is composed of live instrumentation. “I was tired of paying sample clearance for a lot of the hip-hop tracks that I was making,” Hawthorne explained in a 2011 interview with Urbanworld UK. “So I decided I would make my own samples.”
After Hawthorne met Stones Throw Records founder Peanut Butter Wolf through a mutual friend and sent him a couple demo tracks via email, Wolf decided “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” had promise and pressed 1,000 copies on heart-shaped vinyl. “At the time we didn’t know if we’d be able to sell even 1,000 copies of it,” Hawthorne told MOWNO in an interview. “Those first 1,000 copies sold out in two or three days. It’s just been like that for this whole project.”
Hawthorne later described his drive to record soul songs as, “Crazy. They just shoot out of the sky, into my head, and I have to record them,” in an interview with Michigan Radio.
“I just started recording the vocals through an old pair of headphones. It lends to that sort of old-school sound.”
Fans of his numerous collaborations, four solo albums, and projects with producers 14KT and Jake One should be thankful Hawthorne took a chance and sang those early songs into a busted pair of headphones. He showed the world what “fun stuff on the side” can turn into.
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