The Value of Relationships: Why I Really Like A Strange Arrangement

Mayer Hawthorne - A Strange Arrangment album coverI was recently thinking about my long tail keywords that would be associated with my personal brand.  Thoughts on what I have been splattering all over the interwebs had me realizing that I obviously have a certain preference for artists I know personally.  You know what though, there is nothing wrong with that. At first, I figured it was my own ego finding a way to keep itself entertained, but that is far from the case. There are new artists I do not know at all that I check for on a consistent basis, but I find that there is a greater economy of music that comes from people I actually know and it is just as good as any music that comes from anywhere else.

I am reminded of a quote by Sole, where he said:

So eMCees I ain’t feeling you if I don’t know your real name.
Bottle of Humans

Ask anyone that knows me and they’ll tell you I quote this lyric often. After being an avid rap listener for 20+ years, I believe I have just about heard it all. There is little that really moves me anymore in the lyrical space. Occasionally, a Danny Brown comes along and reminds me of the good old days, but that is more nostalgia than refreshing brain stimulation. What moves me now is to hear “inside information” in a song provided by an artist that has shared a little something with me, regardless if it was voluntary or not.

My first experience with this was with the group Starving Artists Crew, who I can admit now that I really did not like at first if not for my man DJ Benny Ben letting me hear a taped recording of “Ill Na Na” in his car. After hearing said song, I found these guys had built a website promoting their latest 12″ and they had a message board on it. I used to post on this forum a ton and my interaction with the crew led to me finally meeting them in Detroit years ago. At the time of me meeting them, these guys had Major Dude status to me. They were selling crazy records overseas and even quite a bit in the States, so when I met them in real life I did not know what to expect. Well, they embraced me like someone they knew for years and it has been that way ever since. I am really close with a lot of guys in the extended crew.  Their debut album Up Pops the SAC is one of my favorite hip hop records, mainly because I know every little nuance of the record from firsthand accounts from members of the group. I cannot imagine what it would be like to listen to it without knowing the group how I know them.

I give this wordy anecdote to set up my brief thoughts on Mayer Hawthorne’s viral beast of a debut album – A Strange Arrangement (out now on iTunes, due to ship from Stones Throw very shortly). Basically, if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you have seen me mention this artist several times. “Staunch supporter” would not exactly be a misnomer at the outset, so it might as well be said that I do know Mr. Hawthorne as “Haircut” or “Drew” as those closer to him know him as. I knew of him before “the YouTube video” as the DJ/producer for Athletic Mic League and the producer/rapper/singer for Now On. Better yet, I knew him as a buddy who I happened to share a common passion – record collecting. I have gone digging and traded records with Drew in the past. I envied his old-school-but-functional jukebox that played 45s. For the longest time, he was just Haircut the beatdigger; the beatdigger who knew his breaks. It is this background knowledge that I have that allows me to appreciate his music a lot more. That is not totally why I enjoy his music though.

When I listen to a song like “The Ills,” I hear the distinct evocation of Curtis Mayfield. From the drum solo (an interpolation from Mayfield’s seminal classic “Move on Up”) to the falsetto vocal, it wreaks of a style jack. If I did not know Drew though, I do not know if I would appreciate it as much. You see, I am not the biggest soul/R&B guy. I prefer my soulful crooning to have some uniqueness to it, but I also prefer that it stays rooted in the great stuff that was made in the 60s and 70s. I have a short amount of bandwidth for most contemporary stuff because it usually falls short of what I need to hear. In this case, Mayer Hawthorne keeps his sound rooted in the classic styling of a forgotten era, but he borrows quite a bit. Then again, there is no one else that has really done a project like this, which makes it unique.

With all this said, there definitely should be some critical questions asked about how I feel really about this record though. Is A Strange Arrangement the best homage to 60s doo wop and soul? Honestly, no. Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi helped Amy Winehouse do that, with Raphael Saadiq coming into close second. A Strange Arrangement is more a niche record for open-minded record collector geeks like me than it is a genius piece of music. Someone might say it is for the cooler-than-you hipster set. As much as I do not want to go there, I cannot really disagree. That does not make it a bad record by any stretch of the imagination though. While it would be better if Drew spent a little more time developing his sound for A Strange Arrangement to have more swing and denser rhythm, but I know my dude never set out to be king doo wop singer/songwriter. More than anything, he is a wonderful victim of viral attraction. Did he live up to the hype that he has had bestowed upon his by the likes of fellow BES crooners Justin Timberlake and John Mayer? I would say the verdict is out and the people will soon decide. Mayer has been clear from the beginning of how he came to make the music and he has always gave respects to his influences, which ring ever so brightly over the course of his songs. Holland-Dozier-Holland and Curtis Mayfield should be proud of his strong adaptations of styles from their vast catalogues.

I have yet to read any “real reviews” of A Strange Arrangement, but I wanted to separate my personal proclivities from my usual more objective mind. I highly recommend this record to anyone that loves “feel good music,” but what I really want to get across is that a personal connection with an artist can go a long way. ARTISTS – TAKE NOTE: IT BEHOOVES YOU TO TRY TO BUILD RELATIONSHIPS FIRST BEFORE HOCKING YOUR WARES. You might find that people will be more receptive to your music if they like you.

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