: One Step Ahead
by Michael A. Gonzales
Earlier this week singer and multi- instrumentalist Van Hunt premiered his newest single and video Vega (Stripes On) and I couldnt be happier. Not only is the track together like soul claps and toe taps, as the singer harmonizes over the sultry groove, but the video is playful, arty and makes you want to dance like its 1999. Reminding me of a dope blaxploitation theme song, the brother returns to the viral airwaves and he aint half-stepping. Eleven years after his self-titled debut was released by Capitol Records, its good to see a cool soul bro still making music that is funky as a jar of pickled pig feet.
Vega (Stripes On):
Releasing his first disc at the end of the so-called neo-soul era, Van Hunts singles Down Here in Hell (With You), Dust and Seconds of Pleasure, were inspired by blues, Bowie and boogie down funk. The album would go on to be nominated for a Grammy Award. Born in 1970, Van Hunt came from Dayton, Ohio. In Dayton, the blackadelic city that gave the world with funk bands Slave, Lakeside and Zapp, baby boy Van he was not only rhythmically blessed, but his daddy was also tight with the mighty Ohio Players.
Indeed, the same group, whose blistering singles Funky Worm, Fire and Love Rollercoaster served as the soundtrack for my own youth, was like an uncle to the kid. Growing-up, those cats were my heroes. My father is friends with the drummer Jimmy Diamond Williams, so to have a group like this come from my hometown is incredible, Hunt told me in the winter of 2004.
At the time of our interview, we were in Williams basement where a few of the Players, including lead singer Sugarfoot, were gathered. Their playing, arrangements, everything, was always dynamic. When I was a kid, I used to draw pictures of their Mr. Mean album cover.
After graduating from Fairview High, Hunt went down south to Atlanta, where he played on sessions for supa producers Dallas Austin, Organized Noize and Jermaine Dupri, but it was when he hooked-up with singer Dionne Farris (as well as her then-manager Randy Jackson that his musical life began to change. I met Dionne when I heard she was looking for a guitar player and a keyboardist Hunt said. After touring with Farris, he was asked to write the singer a song for the Love Jones soundtrack. That track, Hopeless, was a smash. That was the first song I ever sold, which was so encouraging.
Five years later, when I received Van Hunts debut joint, Id never heard of him, but was instantly drawn into his expansive and expressive soundscapes that were clearly inspired by a many different types of material, but still retained a funky soulfulness that was his own. I think its a great record, Diamond said. The vocals are great; the kid has a lot of talent.
With the Ohio Players looking on and big daddy Hunt across the room shooting pool, me and Van talked about his world.
Michael Gonzales: What was the first record you can remember buying?
Van Hunt: Well, the first one I bought with my own money was “Electric Mud” by Muddy Waters. I was in a used record store and someone pointed it out to me. I opened it up and saw dude getting his hair done; I had to have it. That same day, I bought P-Funks “Black Hole”.
MG: What motivated you to be a musician?
VH: I always wanted to play; always heard stuff in my head, but I didnt really focus until I heard the second Prince album. My father bought the album home one day and said to me, You should be like this cat, he plays all his stuff. I was seven or eight years old, but I remember because it was the first time I ever read an album cover. Thats when I thought, Maybe this is something I could do. Like mom goes to work, maybe this can be my work. My first instrument was the saxophone, then drum and bass; later, I learned guitar and keys.
MG: What was it like growing-up in Dayton?
VH: Its hard to describe unless you lived here. I used to run with my father a lot, and saw a few situations that more than likely I shouldnt have seen, but it later fuelled my imagination. Just seeing the fellas sit around and talk, playing cards and messing with women, all of that later came out in my writing. I still go to pool halls to soak-up and check out things.
MG: You toured with Dionne Farris in the beginning of your career. What was that like?
VH: I didnt like the road at first, because I more of a studio rat. But, now I like it a lot. Ive learned how to improvise on stage.
MG: The Muddy Waters/blues influence can be heard in your beautiful single Seconds of Pleasure.
VH: That started out as a fast, punk rock song and one day I just decided to slow it down. I really liked it then. I love me some Muddy Waters, but I was also thinking of Sugarfoot, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye when I was recording Seconds of Pleasure.
MG: One of my favorite songs on the album is the beautiful What Can I say?
VH: Those lyrics were very personal. My woman lost her mother. She says her mother comes to her in dreams in the middle of the night and she hates to see her go. That song is all about when she connects with her mom and just wants to hold on.
MG: For a first album, you had some pretty stellar musicians playing alongside you including former Prince/ Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin who played on a few tracks including Precious and Hold My Hand.
VH: I told my engineer that I needed a guitarist and he said, I got one for you. When I got down to the studio, Wendy was sitting on the couch waiting for me. I couldnt believe it. She played on about eight tracks and was very instrumental. We became good friends.
MG: While working on the album, what was your process?
VH: Most of the work was done at home, before we even went into the studio. Make sure the hooks are there and the chords are working with the melody. Most of the love goes into the track when Im at home, but the work happens in the studio. Making this album, there was fearlessness, or maybe ignorance, I had. I listen to what I like, be it Iggy Pop or Chuck Mangione and apply it to what I do.
MG: What goes through your mind when you hear yourself referred to as neo-soul?
VH (laughs): With what Im doing, I try to stay one step ahead of the categories.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), DAngelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.