R&B duo Rawls & Middle look to put the Buckeye State on the map.
Famed Clevelander Gerald Levert is dead. Canton gal Macy Gray? I just don't know about her anymore. Springfield native John Legend is currently out on the road (he's coming to town on the Parkway on Independence Day), but rumors of him abandoning R&B's lush fields for more poppy, mainstream pastures on his next album abound. He's already given fans a taste of the future with the recently leaked "Green Light," featuring special guest rhymes from Andre 3000. (The oh-so-bouncy tune sounds more suited for Andre, who once again kills it with his nutty flow.)
Elsewhere in Ohio: Blue Note Records kicked Dayton's Van Hunt to the curb last December and banished his much-anticipated third album Popular to the shelf.
Lyfe Jennings from Toledo is out there holding it down. But I always find myself saying, "He's just Anthony Hamilton with a prison record!" whenever I hear him perform.
So here comes hip-hop producer J. Rawls and singer/songwriter Middle Child, both residents of Columbus, to rhythmically represent the Buckeye State to the fullest. The pair have released an album--aptly titled Rawls & Middle--that's not only a decent collection of nu-soul numbers, but a shout-out to the state they call home.
"I'm always trying to represent Ohio," says Rawls, 34, one-half of the hip-hop crew Lone Catalysts. "It definitely doesn't get enough love, so I'm always trying to show what we can do, and let people hear that. People don't get to hear it enough."
Rawls & Middle is a spin-off of Rawls' 2005 album The Essence of Soul (which is a spin-off of his 2001 hip-hop compilation The Essence of J. Rawls). On that album Rawls produced tracks for many indie-soul artists including Eric Roberson, Aloe Blacc, Venus Malone and Child, who appeared on the most Soul tracks.
"And then," says the Youngstown-born Child, 32, "He finally said, 'You know, let's just do a whole album together.' And I was like, 'Yeah, let's do that.'"
With Rawls dropping the proper beats and Child dishing out the mellifluous vocals (that is, when she's not hitting the listener with some surprisingly effective rhymes), Rawls & Middle is some pleasantly executed underground R&B. They even give nods to artists like the Fifth Dimension and Sade, reconfiguring their best tunes in a couple of compositions. "We kinda wanted to have that old-soul vibe," says Rawls. "It just lets you give a good vibe and gives a nice feeling to the record."
Making the album was routine yet still spontaneous. "It took us about maybe five, six months," says Rawls. "We basically got together and we recorded. We had sessions pretty much every Friday for four or five months. And we just worked on the album. Some days we just sat and vibed. Other days we recorded two or three songs, you know? It just depended on how the day went."
Adds Child, "We kinda went with the traditional writer-producer team. He produced the music, put the tracks together. And I wrote the songs, came in and sang. There are a couple of tunes where I wrote the music. He wanted to use one of my acoustic songs, because I play acoustic guitar."
With 17 years of professional performing on her resume, you could say Rawls found a worthy, seasoned partner-in-crime with Child. She signed her first recording contract when she was 15 and moved to L.A. after high school. Back in Ohio she recorded her first album The Intro for an indie hip-hop label. Although the album got shelved, she went on to release it via CDBaby.com along with her next album Barefeet & Pregnant, which was a collaboration with her brother 1st Born. "It's a pretty small circle of us," she says. "We get together and get in the studio and try to make things happen."
And from the way Rawls tells it, it may get bigger soon. He assures me his label Polar Entertainment (which distributed both Rawls & Middle and Soul) will drop more music featuring Ohio artists in the future. "You'll hear more," he says. "You'll hear a lot more."
Hey, anything to keep this love rollercoaster of Ohio soul going, baby.