It's a sunny September Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, and Drew Cohen is slumped comfortably in the breezy lobby of the historic Culver Hotel. The place is what you'd imagine Detroit's abandoned train station might be like if restored, which explains why Cohen, who happens to be the fastest rising pop star in the America, seems so at home as his skateboard leans incongruously against the luxury-of-another-era couch and he sprawls out in his camo shorts, rainbow-striped Adidas, rumpled blue dress shirt and Tigers hat (naturally), texting away on his iPhone with the lazy intent of a dude hooking up a gram of weed for an afternoon on Venice Beach.
If this were a year ago, he may have very well been doing just that. Back then, he was still DJ Haircut, late of Ann Arbor-Ypsi extended rap crew, Athletic Mic League (he's not hard to spot in the "Where's Waldo" group band shots; "Rockin' the Jew 'fro," he jokes). But L.A. has been home since 2007, when he headed West with the electro-soul trio, Now On, and was soon gigging with the likes of Breakestra and DJ-Rocc.
Haircut was a regular at a Sunday afternoon party called the Do Over, hosted by L.A. hip-hop and soul fixture Aloe Blacc. There, local legends — and L.A. hip hop has a million of 'em — spin for their peers. One Sunday afternoon, about a year ago, in fact — one of those in the house was Peanut Butter Wolf. Wolf is one of the city's most vocal and local DJs — every year he does a day-month-year-themed string of gigs (this year it was "9/9/9" — nine nights in nine different Southern California area codes (!) VJ'ing '90s music; next year's 10/10/10 will apparently either be a tribute to the roots of binary code computer music or Bo Derek!). Wolf also owns the indie hip-hop label Stones Throw, most recognizable to Detroiters as the home away from home for the legacy of the late, legendary J Dilla, who, now three years after his death, is a near mythic presence that weighs heavily on the L.A. sound. Artists like Flying Lotus pay homage to the great artist born James Yancey with every release, leading to Detroit MCs like Guilty Simpson being adopted by producers like Madlib, a onetime Dilla collaborator.
DJ Haircut was headed on that same slow and steady path to a respectable career producing indie-hop with Now On and AML. Alas, Cohen's beats, like Dilla's, relied on chopped-up but creditable snippets of old records — which, of course, became problematic.
"Athletic Mic League was getting big enough that we started having to pay to clear samples and that's really expensive," Cohen says, talking of the onerous task of gaining permission for use of songs, or parts of songs, from the respective copyright owners. So why not create his own songs to sample, then? Cohen's dad, who still plays with cover-band faves the Breakers ("They play every summer on Beaver Island," Cohen laughs proudly), taught him to play bass when he was 6. In high school, he was in a band with Andrew W.K. So he set up a drum kit, bass and guitar in his room back in Ann Arbor and gave it a shot. At some point, he busted out a mic too, and proceeded to channel the kind of sound only a crate-digger of his caliber could. (He's the kind of guy who can rifle through an anonymous stack at People's Records or Bob Mays' and pick out keepers in the same time it'd take a mere mortal to scrunch up his nose holding off that initial dust sneeze from the first scratched copy of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass' Whipped Cream and Other Delights.)
The result was two faux-Motown songs, rife with doo-wop heartbreak and buttoned-down soul.
"I didn't take it seriously at all," Cohen admits. "It was totally an experiment. I mean, I'd play it for family and close friends just to get a kick out of."
One of those friends was Noelle Scaggs, late of the R.E.B.I.R.T.H. and another Do Over regular, who urged Cohen to burn a disc for Wolf. He labeled it "DJ Haircut" and passed it along one Sunday. Cohen wasn't especially optimistic. "He gets a ton of people giving him their music, so I was like, whatever," he says.
But Wolf listened … and was initially confused. "I thought because he wrote ‘DJ Haircut,' it was some kind of DJ re-edit of an old record, like a bootleg," Wolf says. "Then he told me it was him. As in, he'd written it, played everything, and sang on the tracks. He did a good job of nailing it. I wanted to put it out because I liked it — I didn't know if anyone else would, because usually the stuff I like on my label is stuff not everybody understands." Cohen was surprised when Wolf sent him a contract, asking for a whole album.
The resulting single — released on heart-shaped red vinyl, no less — was, of course, "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" and "When I Said Goodbye." A thousand copies were pressed — and they were gone three days later. Stones Throw threw up a YouTube video of the heart-vinyl spinning on a turntable with the audio and within months, it had broken 100,000 views and now has almost a quarter million. Within months, "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" became the underground hip-hop/mainstream character-driven pop smash that even Asher Roth — whose good-timey bongwater rap just slipped quickly into irrelevance — and Eminem just couldn't pull off this year. (Let's face it, Em came off like some overbuffed West Hollywood gym queen trying to mine the same snarky, stale tabloid territory of "My Name Is" 10 years ago.)
Blame it on the times; honky hip-hop's blunt delivery just doesn't seem as likable as a nerd who looks like a Nixon campus-campaign volunteer — complete with black frames, cardigan sweater, skinny tie, high-water cuffs and all, crooning comfortably in a Pharrell-falsetto against a backdrop of a double chin and double-digit unemployment. Especially on a track that starts off grinningly close to Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" (mash-up forthcoming, no doubt) and Slum Village's "Fall In Love," but somehow manages to end up in Smokey Robinson "Tracks of My Tears" territory (well, almost). Factor in sincerity so dry that its only sarcasm is implied, and you have a stylized ballad of noncommittal love masquerading as heartbreak. Los Angeles' influential KCRW DJ Jason Bentley called it, "My new favorite song of all time," while Mark Ronson — the guy in the snug suit twiddling Amy Winehouse's knobs who never met a cover he didn't like to borrow equity from — could only say, "I have no idea what it is, old or new, but it's fucking good."
In the meantime, Cohen became "Mayer Hawthorne" (in typical nom-de-porn, it's his middle name and the street he grew-up on) and began writing more songs.
"Honestly, I didn't think about the songs, which is funny because, in high school, I'd try to write them and they'd all suck," he says. "But these just came out."
As much as Cohen sounds like he'd done his share of late-night Motown karaoke to an audience of empties, he "actually hadn't done much singing at all," he admits. "Really, whatever came out came naturally." What was hard, though, was nailing the exact sound he was after. "I'm a total perfectionist, like, I can hear the whole song and everything in my head and I have to get it to sound like that," he says. "I'll play a bass line 100 times just to get it right."
It took six months — but he got it right. The resulting debut album, Strange Arrangement, presents 10 jaw-droppingly accomplished originals that sound equally effortless. So does his obscure cover of New Holidays' "Maybe So, Maybe No," marked as it is by its swooping, velvety-rollercoaster rhythm. "It's the 16th notes on the hi-hat," Cohen explains, his right hand air-drumming like a hummingbird. "You can play it with two hands and it's easier, but it won't sound as good."
It's this reverence that, for as flippant as the single seems, saves it from the novelty also-rans (see: Afroman's "Because I Got High" and Primitive Radio Gods' song with the B.B. King sample and the way-too-fucking-long title). In other words, it doesn't sound like a joke and guest horn player-arranger Will Sessions — yes, Detroit's own Will Sessions — sure as shit doesn't play like it is. It is, however, fun.
"That's the Pee-wee's Playhouse ‘Word of the Day,'" Cohen says, perking up, "‘Fun!'"
Sure, it's a doughy hip-hop DJ from Ann Arbor, but close your eyes and he's channeling Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson effortlessly, while drifting into Elvis Costello ("Let Me Know"), the Funk Brothers and the occasional Jimmy Sommerville porcelain falsetto, even a wry wink to Cohen's hip-hop defaults, namely the Prince-guitar-squealing weed ode called "Green Eyed Love" that closes the album.
Speaking of which, back in the Culver lobby, Cohen's definitely not texting a pot hookup, although he should be.
"You can tell I'm totally overwhelmed," he laughs, a little nervously, actually. He and his six-piece, the County, are loading up a van and heading out on their first headline tour at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning. With back-to-back European and follow-up U.S. tour dates to follow, this is Cohen's last Saturday off for a long, long time … and he knows it. His voice already has the first hint of a rasp, the result of his (and band's) proper L.A. debut — a sold-out show at the legendary Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip — just two nights before. "To have it go from something nobody was supposed to hear to selling out the Roxy — there's no wrapping my brain around that," he says, clearly still more Drew Cohen than Mayer Hawthorne. Not that anyone at that show — which was all, all Mayer Hawthorne, by the way — could tell.
Billed as a record-release party, it was still a Detroit night in L.A.: AML's Buff 1der and 14KT opened; Cohen flew in Serato-soul Michigan DJ Benny Ben to play. The night was, again, all Mayer's, not Cohen's — the character and the accomplishment, from the first swirly tones of "Maybe So, Maybe No," which the live drummer nailed down to the last 16th note on the hi-hat. As did the rest of the band, even the bass player, who looked more like a member of the Banana Splits than a neo-soul revue. If A Strange Arrangement is sorta like Asher Roth singing on Amy Winehouse tracks, live, it's like Eminem fronting the Electric Six. Mayer Hawthorne, in character, is as much a construct as a prodigy (Slim Shady, meet Lumpier Lighter!) and the irony-free/sucka-free delivery of the coat-and-tie-band (especially the Christopher Walken look-alike guitar player prone to fits of face-twisting shredding when he's not holding down the usual Motown upstroke) so grinningly earnest. Even the ELO cover, "Mr. Blue Song," is funner — not funnier, but funner — because it's played so straight. There was no corny celebrity-jocking so typical of L.A. events either ("Raphael Sadiq came upstairs to say ‘Hi' afterwards but that was about it," Cohen explains; House Shoes and Wolf were otherwise the biggest names there). Nope, just a room full of hip-hop heads and the music-curious getting down. Mayer even included "Rest in Peace" shout-outs to Dilla, Baatin and DJ AM at the end of "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out," which, live, includes a perfectly arranged slice of — you guessed it — Slum Village's "Fall in Love."
So, how the fuck did this all happen in such a rapid manner? The short answer is: Twitter — and iTunes, of course. If Cohen's having a hard time wrapping his head around the Roxy sell-out, then having Kanye West, Justin Timberlake — even Deepak Chopra! — tweet their approval must feel like a tear in the time-space continuum right in the crotch of his ball-hugging dress slacks. Just weeks ago, a free iTunes download of "Just Ain't Working Out" had the track outcharting both Jay-Z and Kings of Leon.
Explains Cohen: "The people at iTunes just really liked the single. Usually it's huge record companies fighting over getting that free download spot." John Mayer — whose culture-spanning includes shredding at the Michael Jackson Memorial in L.A. last month and adding ax to Jay-Z's concert last week — tweeted: "To preview it is to buy it."
"You can't buy publicity like that," Cohen says. "[Mayer]'s got, like, over a million followers." Perez Hilton, one of the only celebrity tabloid chroniclers with decent taste in music, has the video for "Just Ain't" up on his blog. "It's a little bizarre that that's the signal something is blowing up these," Cohen admits.
As for the future, well, as Josh Glazer, Detroit expat and content director of Urb Magazine, muses, "It'd be nice if he can sustain sales past 30 days on iTunes, which isn't the most reliable barometer of lasting appeal." Fellow ex-Detroiter and former Urb editor Scott Sterling says to hate the game, not the player; that is to say, Mayer Hawthorne might not last, but Drew Cohen most certainly will.
"I find Hawthorne's success indicative of America's penchant for gravitating towards the familiar, especially during times of hard social-economic times," Sterling says. "He's definitely playing in territory mined by Mark Ronson — and Stones Throw is the perfect label for him. It's big enough to get him the proper distribution and press, but small enough to give him the support and attention sorely lacking at the majors right now, especially as a new artist," he says. "I have a hard time seeing him blowing up crazy-big, but that's to his advantage. There's no reason he can't have a steady and long career, as opposed to being another flash in the pan."
Steady and long was his original trajectory, of course, before Deepak and Perez started tweeting. But now the offers are coming in and rapidly. The Roots want to work with him, he says, although that sounds as much like destiny as opportunity, given the Philly soul and Motown connections. Oh, and Snoop Dogg wants him to do tracks — then again Snoop asks anyone big to do tracks. (One can only wonder how long it might be before Jagger — who's never seen a youthful trend he doesn't want to "add" to the Stones' modern sound — comes calling.) The best offer so far, though, he says, has been from Wu-Tang's Ghostface Killah.
"You ever talk to Ghostface?" Cohen asks, perhaps not realizing it, rhetorically. "It's surreal. ‘Man, I saw you on the Internet, we need to do a record, like 12 songs, whatever, whatever, whatever …' It's just like his records."
Cohen cracks a smile. He has to — for a guy who's devoted his life to making music, it's something he whipped off casually in his bedroom that's (finally) getting his name on the lips of kids and music lovers. "It's frustrating," he says. "I moved out here to be a hip-hop producer and DJ." He will be one, of course — he just has to get behind the mic and sing his ass off to make it happen.
Mayer Hawthorne & the County play Saturday, Sept. 26, at the Blind Pig, 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555. With Buff 1 and 14kt. Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org