Strolling into Six Feet Under, a restaurant on Atlanta’s Eastside, Van Hunt looks like a jive-era GHOST summoned from the cemetery across the street.
He’s Fat Albert’s lean and sharp-eyed Rudy, bedecked in a bright green button-down over a logo T-shirt, skintight black-and-white striped slacks and a brown slouch cap. At 27, he has an adolescent’s buttery skin and the wary eyes of a musician too savvy to brag about his record deal. For now, he’s touring; proselytizing his sultry blend of Isley Brothers vocals and Sly Stone grooves.
“I just call it classic American music,” he says, raising his eyebrows and leaning toward the tape recorder so the sparse tufts of his goatish beard brush the mic: “CLASSIC AMERICAN MUSIC.”
Capitol Records calls it “postmodern soul.”
Decades ago, James Baldwin—Hunt’s favorite author—wrote that although in music there is nothing new, musicians risk “ruin, destruction, madness and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen.” This is truer for Hunt than for most. Like Baldwin, he’s lived a life of voyeurism within society’s margins; the soul of his songs was there all along in the days and nights of his strange existence.
He is, after all, the son of a pimp. While Hunt was supposedly too young to understand the situation, he periodically visited his father in a duplex where Dad held the lease of both units and “a lot of strange women” lived on the other side of the wall. The arrangement allowed Hunt to do something he really loved: paint. But even in a town as busy as Dayton, Ohio, someone’s bound to notice a whorehouse. Eventually, Van’s dad had to take a straight job in a factory that was so hot in the summer that he faked insanity to escape to an asylum—where Van saw him once more before moving with his mother to Dallas, Texas.
In 1988, as an eighth-grade saxophone player in the Oak Cliff Junior High Symphony, while watching the choir director play Van Halen’s “Jump” on keyboard, Hunt tried it himself. While he was playing, some high-school guys came in to listen and asked him to join their band.
He played keys and some bass, laying down the rhythm for AC/DC and Van Halen cover tunes. And—if the band was feeling progressive—R.E.M.
The infrequent spate of gigs ended shortly after the lead singer contracted pubic lice and the band, including Hunt, advised him to shave absolutely everything. He did, and while the look worked for Bob Geldof in The Wall, it didn’t go on the high-school circuit. Meanwhile, Hunt’s musical personality—nurtured by his mom’s Isley Brothers collection and her boyfriend’s Richard Pryor tapes—was maturing
independently from everything going on around him. As the flamboyant ’80s dulled to the grungy drone of the ’90s, the chasm between Hunt and the modern world grew.
He found himself drawn to the liner notes of Sam Cooke’s and Sammy Davis Jr.’s recordings. A photo of Cooke taken at The Copa in 1961 held an almost spiritual allure for him and prompted him to explore the history of R&B, blues, bebop and the Big Band era. He found the same sort of glamour in Ray Charles and—closer to his own era and more passionately—in Prince.
At the same time, Hunt entered Morehouse University, colliding with popular culture in Atlanta’s hip-hop mecca.
“I think the reason hip-hop grew to be so big in the ’90s was that it matched the ’90s,” he says. “The ’90s were all about marketing; it was all about the image and glorifying a product and hip-hop was the perfect music for that.”
He often skipped class, ending his marketing-analyst mother’s willingness to pay his tuition. Abandoning the pre-law track, he dropped out of Morehouse, friendless, as he’s spent most of his life. The problem with friendship, Hunt says, is that he feels as if he’s living in the wrong time, a difficulty that robs him of the commonalities of music and television and fashion.
“I am a songwriter in rebellion against my era,” he says, and in fact, a closer look at Hunt’s post-Morehouse life reveals a modern era not so different from the Great Depression. He worked for a janitorial service for $100 a week before taxes while he lived in the dorms, but after dropping out, he needed more money. He then worked for a uniform service, picking up soiled uniforms and delivering laundered ones to the General Motors plant in the grey-concrete industry-scape of Doraville, Ga.
“These men had worked 40 years banging out cars and there I was going through their pockets looking for change,” he says. “If I found a few dollars, I would eat that day.”
He didn’t last long there. One day while his supervisor was in the bathroom, he wrote her a note and quietly walked out. The note said, “I’m sorry, but I know I’m meant for something better than this.”
Hunt called a small-time producer he knew and did session work until the producer went to prison for selling drugs. But the studio owner’s wife told Dionne Farris, who was looking for a guitarist, about Hunt.
Hunt couldn’t play, but he said he could and quickly learned the song required for the audition. He also sang, which helped, and about a year after quitting the uniform service, Hunt wrote Farris’ half-million-seller “Hopeless.” Soon after, producer/songwriter Dallas Austin vetted him to Capitol Records. Now, Capitol sells about 5,000 units of Van Hunt weekly.
Recently, after appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Hunt was introduced to Prince at Hollywood hangout The Sky Bar. The superstar didn’t seem human—more like an idol kept polished by those who worship him. He told Hunt he’d been hearing good things about him and asked him to stick around so they could talk. A few minutes later, Hunt and the people he was with, including Nikka Costa—who shares Hunt’s manager—were inexplicably hustled out of the club before the conversation could take place.
In the darkness of the car, Hunt told the others what Prince said, but a separate monologue was playing in his head. He had just met the heir to the Ray Charles/Sly Stone legacy and he didn’t feel that a crown had been passed. He didn’t feel chosen. Instead, for the first time, he felt accepted.
“I still feel like I’m living out of my time,” he says. “But it’s only now, with the acceptance of my record that I’m feeling like it’s okay, I’m cool now—I’m affecting my culture.”