As Tuxedo, Mayer Hawthorne and producer Jake One draw on G-funk and ’80s boogie to make you dance
“Every time we got together and worked, it felt like summer camp,” recalls Seattle producer Jake One, half of Tuxedo. This year sees the debut album for the duo, a project fronted by singer Mayer Hawthorne. However, it’s not their first collaboration together. In fact, the album sessions date as far back as 2007, as Jake One told us when we sat down to discuss the project.
The two met at a hip-hop show back in 2006. After exchanging some mixtapes they had created of boogie tracks, they found a common musical bond. “I didn’t even know he was a singer at that time,” Jake One remembers. “I wasn’t really a singer at that time!” Hawthorne comically retorts. Three years later, however, his solo debut album, A Strange Arrangement, would land on the ever-respected Stones Throw label.
It wasn’t long before Jake sent some tracks inspired by those tapes. “I couldn’t believe how authentic they were. I wrote songs to them and sent the ideas back,” Hawthorne says, “and it snowballed from there.” The end results are dance-floor pleasers, and even some bedroom teasers.
Over the next few years, the two would work together on the How Do You Do bonus track “Henny & Gingerale,” a “Got to Give It Up”–inspired track with a G-funk twist. Underpinned by a wicked bass line and Hawthorne’s multi-layered vocals, the track oozes house-party mixtape opener both in vibe and lyrics. A couple of years later, they paired up again for 2013’s “Designer Drug.” But the song got lost in the shuffle, as juggernaut Justin Timberlake debuted “Pusher Love Girl” around the same time, which was quite similar in content. However, “Designer Drug” did land a spot as a bonus song on Hawthorne’s Where Does This Door Go that same year.
Both of these Hawthorne songs were ideas that he and Jake worked on with a new group in mind. As Hawthorne notes, “We recorded a lot of songs that didn’t make the Tuxedo album, and some of them we were able to fit on other projects.”
For those who have heard some of the album’s tracks on the group’s SoundCloud page, clearly an early ’80s vibe pervades. Hawthorne credits groups like Shalamar, Roger and Zapp, and Chic as inspiration, while Jake One notes Leroy Burgess and One Way from yesteryear, and name-checks G-funk artists like Battlecat, DJ Quik, and Warren G as more modern acts he looked to. Hawthorne is quick to chime in: “One Way! Yes!”
Seasoned hip-hop producer Jake One—who has worked with Chance the Rapper, Drake, Rick Ross, Snoop, Ghostface, Rakim, and MF DOOM, among many others—was venturing into unfamiliar territory. “This is definitely the first non-rap project I’ve produced. I started making these tracks as a break from doing hip-hop and churning out beats all the time. I was learning to play keys a little bit, and it was always something I wanted to play around with.” His display in versatility is quite pleasing. The bounce vibe in a track like Tuxedo’s “The Right Time” stands in stark contrast to work he’s done in the hip-hop realm for G-Unit–related projects, for example. Much of the material on the self-titled album would feel at home on a 1981 R&B chart, which is a credit to its musicality. While it sounds of the period, it also doesn’t sound derivative.
Throughout his career, Hawthorne has been able to jump from one style to another effortlessly. A Strange Arrangement had a classic late-’60s and early ’70s R&B feel to it, while another side project of his, Jaded Incorporated, explored more modern dance vibes. He points out, though, that it’s not a conscious decision to jump from decade to decade: “I don’t really think about time periods when I’m making music. It’s more about creating a mood and a feeling. I wanted to make an album that was only about dancing and partying. It was important to us that we update it, and not just recreate old music.”
One other element that Hawthorne is proud of is his confidence in his singing. Over the last couple of albums, his falsetto has taken more of a back seat. “It’s not really a conscious thing. I’ve just learned how to sing now. It’s interesting because you can’t unlearn it. When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing. I listened to Curtis Mayfield, Eddie Holman, and the Stylistics, and I said that’s how I want to sing, but I didn’t understand what that meant. It’s hilarious for me to listen to those early records now. It’s like playing a grand piano but limiting yourself to only one-third of the keys.”
Musically speaking, the sound of the album can be attributed to their use of vintage analog synthesizers. Jake even employs some great string stabs—evoking a disco feel—on “The Right Time,” a song that Hawthorne states might be his favorite on the album. Nick Brongers contributes the strings on the album opener, “Lost Lover.” Hawthorne also adds some great guitar licks to their album, joking with the self-deprecating comment, “I actually sound semi-legit.” However, the technique displayed on “Watch the Dance” will lead you to disagree. He’s completely legit on his instrument. Furthermore, group collaborator Swish is burning up the keys on numerous tracks.
The anthem from the album may be “Number One.” It’s hip-hop in reverse. Jake told us how the two had wondered, “What if [Snoop’s] “Ain’t No Fun” was an interpolation of something from the early ’80s?” The two of them took that notion and created a much more radio-friendly version, creating a nostalgic nugget that owes its roots to the early ’80s R&B and early ’90s West Coast hip-hop. As the track opens, Hawthorne rewrites the dearly departed Nate Dogg’s classic verse, flipping the tone to focus on more positive game-spitting, before going into the memorable pre-hook “ ’Cause I have never met a girl / quite like you in the whole wide world” before a revamped chorus appears: “You’re number one / Second to none.” It’s a piece of smartly constructed pop and songwriting all in one.
Of course, it also doesn’t hurt when you have a legend like John Morales mixing the album with the “OG disco touch,” as Hawthorne notes. Both members were familiar with Morales, having seen his name on lots of classic disco records. So when they found out he was still mixing, they decided to reach out to him. With the album done, they sent him the album to allow him to give them the classic sound. Hawthorne tells a funny story about how Morales wanted to make twelve-minute versions of every song. “We had to wrangle him in a little bit and make it more 2015,” he recalls. However, it was important to both Jake and Hawthorne to get Morales involved to get “the songs to sonically feel right.”
Tuxedo is a great-flowing record. Hawthorne and Jake were very adamant that they weren’t going to mail this one in. “We were always together in the studio when we recorded anything. That was partly why it took so long, but I think it came out way better as a result,” Jake recalls. While many of the tracks started in his Seattle home, the two recorded together in various places.
A dozen tracks comprise Tuxedo, although they both confirm many more were recorded. “There will definitely be some exclusives that aren’t on the album,” Jake says, “floating around in various formats.” Stones Throw is releasing the album, as Jake One and alum Mayer Hawthorne felt that the label would have a better understanding of what they were trying to accomplish. While Hawthorne may have some frustrations with the major-label system after releasing three albums via Universal Republic, none of it shows through in his work with Tuxedo. It is among both members’ strongest works to date.
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