Tuxedo's Mayer Hawthorne & Jake One Play 'Elegant Funk' and Dress the Part No Matter What

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Mayer Hawthorne of Tuxedo performs at the Empire Garage on March 17, 2015 in Austin. 

With a name inspired by formal evening attire, certain obvious assumptions can be drawn about R&B outfit Tuxedo. “I don’t remember the other names we had,” Jake One, the producer half of the duo, tells Billboard. “[Mayer] came up with 'Tuxedo’ and I was like, ‘Damn, I don’t like it because he’s going to make us wear tuxedos every night.’ And here we are. I’m in tuxedos every night.” Jake and vocalist Mayer Hawthorne just released their second LP as a pair, Tuxedo II

In the studio working on II, they spent much of their time battling over tempo. "Mayer always wants it really fast,” Jake One says. Slow grooves are his thing, while Hawthrone’s goal is simple -- “I’m trying to make people dance,” he says. 

The result is what Hawthorne, who favors Japanese designers Kyosuke Kunimoto's tuxes, calls “elegant funk.” The genre fits them well. As the two gear up for an international tour in Europe and Asia as DJs before their U.S. summer tour as a band, Tuxedo hopped on the phone with Billboard to talk about wearing tuxes during crazy-hot performances, an unexpected encounter with Mobb Deep's Prodigy, and how Hawthorne’s grandma influenced his natty style today. 

Jake, as someone who typically is more of a t-shirt and baseball cap kind of guy, how much selling did Mayer have to do to get you to wear tuxes nightly? 

Jake: I just trusted him, because that’s what he’s really into. So who am I to say what’s going to work? And it did give us a signature thing. I can recognize that as being a smart idea.  

Mayer: And it wasn’t a real stretch because the music fit the name. It’s not a stretch to wear high fashion tuxedos. The music was really classy. I’ve got to give Jake props on how much he’s come around on that. He’s really embraced that. 

I hear a few genres in your music. But mostly, it’s kind of like a mellow funk. 

Jake:  There’s different levels of Funk. With P-Funk, guys were wearing diapers on stage and shit. Then there was Rick James. And he was wearing some wis shit, too. But then you have Chic, who wore fitting clothing. We like to call our music ‘Elegant Funk.’ [What we wear] matches the music. 

Mayer: When we were watching clips of people we’re into on Top of the Pops or Soul Train, a lot of those guys wore suits and tuxedos. The Whispers always looked super sharp. 

Jake, you’re most notably a hip-hop producer who’s worked with some of the biggest names in rap. Have any of those artists seen you in a tux as part of Tuxedo and been surprised? 

Jake: Totally. I remember a moment when we were on tour in China and we happened to go on after Mobb Deep somewhere. And I hadn’t seen Prodigy in years. I went up to say what's up while wearing a tuxedo. He looked so shocked! He was like, “Wow, this is different.”

For me, it’s just fun. There are people who are just into Tuxedo and don’t know anything about me what I do [as a hip-hop producer]. And there are people who are into my hip-hop stuff who don't know about Tuxedo, and people who are into both and see that this is something I’m really into. We didn’t do this for a check -- we really did this for fun, and it turned into a thing. 

Mayer, you’ve always been someone, even as a solo act, who’s been into the suit and more of a classic look. Where does that sensibility come from? 

Mayer: My grandma Ricky -- that's where I got it from. She was the most stylish person ever. She had her own clothing store and even her furniture was stylish. I got my “Flashy, but classy” motto from her, too. Whenever she walked in the room, she was always the most stylish person in the room. She had her own thing and she really stood out. 

Hip-hop was my first real love, one that was my own and wasn’t my parents’ music. Initially, I was inspired by hip-hop fashion. Over the years, I kept the hip-hop sensibility, but make it my own. 

You two wear tuxes no matter the weather. How important is tailoring as far as fit and comfort? You have to be able to move on stage and not get crazy hot. 

Mayer: There are a lot of tricks. Tailoring is a huge part of it. Having stuff that fits you perfectly makes the craziest difference. I remember the first times that I was introduced to that—having a shirt that’s actually tailored to your body and not just made for your average American. It just changes your life. I had a few shirts that were tailored for me and I couldn’t go back to a regular shirt after that. 

For the stage, we get things tailored and, for example, we get the sleeves done a little shorter than usual because when you’re sweating or playing an instrument, you don’t want your sleeves in the way. Little tricks like that. The show clothes are always a little different from stuff we’re just wearing around. 

For the Jimmy Kimmel Live performance, your lapel had sequins on it. Details like that are key to making simple suits pop, right? 

Mayer: The details are everything. Even if the people who watched us on Kimmel didn’t notice, it’s important to me because that’s what makes it our own. That’s what makes it unique and I’ve always been about that.

You guys must have a strong rotation of suits on the road. 

Mayer: Yeah, a lot of times we’re doing back-to-back shows and we can’t wear them two nights in a row. We do too much on stage for that. We played a show in Japan where it was 100 degrees outside. 

Jake: That was kind of brutal. But the show must go on. 

Do you ever think of dropping the uniforms so that you can literally stay cool and perform? 

Mayer: James Brown would never have complained about that. It’s part of the show and part of the experience of seeing us live. People expect that from us and we give that to them, no matter what. In the moment, it’s not bad. And then when you get off stage, you’re soaked!

Jake: I try not to take the jacket off during the show. But there have been a couple of times where I’ve just had to say “F--k it,” because it was just insanely hot. 

Mayer, I wanted to talk to you about the smooth-talk intros on several of the tracks on this album. How much work goes into those and where does the inspiration come from? 

Mayer: It comes from Barry White and guys that I admire so much. Barry is my musical hero. He was the guy who you danced to in the club and then when you took your lady home to the bedroom, you listened to him there, too! That’s who I always wanted to be -- the guy who was always there. 

You help listeners start the night and finish the night. 

Mayer: That’s right! 

Jake: I remember when we did “July,” we watched [ Mayer] do the intro and we were all just dying laughing. It was so funny. 

Mayer: That was in one take, too! That was totally off the hip.