Dayton, Ohio is a cozy blue-collar city of about 160,000, sitting almost perfectly between Detroit’s soulful core and the folksy heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains. Crime has gotten a bit unpleasant there the last 10, 15 years, but for the most part, the place is still a pretty inviting stop along Interstate 75 in the Buckeye State.
Because of Ohio’s location, and that of the Midwest region’s central location in general, a lot of artists from the area say that their sound is a direct result of influences coming from the left, right, top and bottom of the musical map. Van Hunt’s no different, but he notes, “But you have to add the very farthest reaches of the north, south, east and west to describe my sound.”
Lure of the Dirty South
Hunt—carrying his all-encompassing approach to song—migrated south in 1996 to attend Atlanta’s Morehouse University. The young man who took up the drums and other instruments early on wound up staying because the South’s vibe was so strong. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he started running in the same circles as fast-rising producers Dallas Austin and Jermaine Dupri either. “I always thought I’d make it where I’m going,” remembers Hunt, who wrote the Dionne Farris hit “Hopeless” for the Love Jones soundtrack in ‘97. “I just never thought it’d happen this way, having to come to Atlanta.”
But why not Atlanta? A talented black guy in the music capital of the South? It just makes all the sense in the world, right? Yeah, if you’re a finger-snapping rapper or sex-obsessed R&B crooner, it does. However, if you’re an eclectic, guitar-playing performer cut from the same tassel-adorned fabric as Prince, the location presents its fair helping of obstacles.
Still, behind a priceless amount of diligence and some backing from Capitol Records, Hunt released his sexy self-titled debut in early ’04. The album was solid, too, with two cuts, “Down Here in Hell” and the Grammy winning “Dust,” groovy enough to have Sly Stone wondering where this kid came from. Unfortunately, the record only managed meager sales, peaking at #38 on Billboard’s top R&B album chart. Was the problem more with Capitol’s promotion or Best Buy’s uncertainty as to where it should place the CD?
“There is some soul in what I do,” explains the guy who performed with Stone at the ’06 Grammys. “But I really can’t claim that tag. Man, I want people to call it whatever they feel comfortable with. Whatever makes you get in the store and put your lunch money down, I’m with it.”
A solid two years passed before Van Hunt would come back after the masses’ $11.99. The record he’d do that with was called On the Jungle Floor, another cool blend of toe-tapping funk (“Suspicion” and “Hot Stage Lights”) and heart-tugging shrugs (“Daredevil, Baby” and “The Night is Young”) that tiptoed even further from the norm than his first time around the studio did. “I know what it is, intrinsically,” Hunt details about his style, “and I’m comfortable with that. It really doesn’t matter what you think at first sight. Once you get into the record, and really allow yourself to get into the record, you’ll understand it for what it is, for whatever it means to you.”
Though the CD debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart, Jungle Floor only climbed to #123 on the Billboard 200. Message board supporters may have pondered why Van Hunt’s winning style wasn’t matched by more store register chimes, but as for the artist, he never found the time. He was much too busy recording new material and finding a fresh label to call home.
At first glance, the laidback Blue Note Records (imprint to acts like Norah Jones and Anita Baker) might not sound like the ideal place for Van Hunt’s more risqué tones; then you pause and realize good music attracts to good music, be it jazzy horns, hip hop or honky tonk. The partnership seemed fine and an early ’08 release date was set. Then, in early December, the surprising announcement was made that Hunt and Blue Note’s sweet-sounding relationship would be short-lived and the two were “mutually” parting ways.
On the surface, the dramatic news doesn’t present Van’s latest CD, Popular, with the reinforcement it likely needs to succeed. Nevertheless, Blue Note (or whichever label ends up releasing the disc) hasn’t solicited outside help to promote it. That said, we still know the perfect place the album should go in record stores—the good music shelf. Popular is as polished as anything that’s been played in the bedroom for some time. If most everything else coming out is BET-sanctioned ear candy, this CD is a fine dessert wine to wash it all down with.
Complexity, Simply Stated
“Never has there been a time when men have so desperately needed a projection of things as they ought to be.” That’s Van Hunt quoting late novelist Ayn Rand. Amazing that someone can reference such a high-shelf writer and still release songs like Popular’s “The Lowest 1 of My Desires,” a lascivious ditty highlighted by an f-word accented chorus.
Simply put, Van Hunt is an elementarily complex individual. He’s ridiculously silly (“I laugh in my sleep like other people dream or snore”) but knows when to be serious (“I love that it sounds like I’ve paid my dues”). He’s that oft-clichéd musician who truly can’t be tagged one particular way. This smoothest of cats from Ohio dresses Bohemian, sings like Rick James and calls painter Zdzistlaw Beksinski, novelist Zora Neale Hurston and composer Johann Sebastian Bach inspirations… Wait, Van Hunt’s inspired by Bach?
“If it weren’t the basis for all modern music,” Van Hunt digresses about the classical sound, “you could limit it to a sound or category. What I find most interesting about it is that after centuries upon centuries of its developed mastery, we modern musicians haven’t found a way to improve upon these compositions or even move away from them vertically or laterally. We have only taken small parts of them and denigrated them beyond recognition and, in most cases, beneath the definition of music.”
Digest quotes like that last one with bewilderment, if you must. Van Hunt is used to it. Just trust that he’s in such a place artistically these days that he likely won’t even notice the blank stares. “There is a clearer view of my creativity on this album,” details Hunt. “I had an opportunity to listen to one of my 12-year-old demos the other day. Some of the material sounded as if it could have been a part of this newest record. So, while my ability or courage to articulate and express myself have grown, my ideals have remained full and intransigent.”
But therein lies the most vexing aspect to Van Hunt: This latest record would appear to be his most personal, true-to-self effort to date, yet it’s called Popular and takes more than the cursory look at obsessing over fitting in. If the semi-tame debut and semi-risky follow-up didn’t touch the nerve of the masses, why will this latest? In jest or not on “Turn My TV On,” Van calls himself “a celebrity on the message boards.” And on the self-examining title track, he swears that “compliments of technology, now everybody can shine for at least 15 minutes.”
Does he care about the glamour and the hits or not? For the answer, you have to travel back to the time when Jungle Floor was about to be released on the populace. “Whatever publicity I get can only help,” Van Hunt said then. “I don’t really care what people are saying. I know the record is good. As far as my own measure of success, I’ve achieved it. I worked hard. I went in [the recording studio] with my eyes open. I had a vision… This time I feel like, if this album takes off, I will have earned it and I didn’t just stumble upon it. It wasn’t no overnight nuthin’! That’s what I respect about the people who have gone on before me.”
Seventies soul legends the O’Jays and funk pioneer Bootsy Collins are Ohio natives like Van Hunt. Though the two acts don’t necessarily strike as the first points of comparison when talking about Hunt, they should be points nonetheless. Each came out the factory-filled, hardworking Midwest to touch a wider America with its craft. Van Hunt is a ways off from reaching levels of influence like those artists, but if he keeps producing inventive, spirited music (it probably doesn’t hurt living by a few Ayn Rand quotes either) the way that he has over the past four years, he’ll certainly touch his share.