It's tempting to listen to Son Little's music and place him in that revivalist-soul category alongside artists like Leon Bridges, artists you could easily picture performing in a smoky 1958 Chicago club or a sweltering 1961 Baton Rouge club, and you wouldn't be wrong, but you also wouldn't be right, because you wouldn't be really listening. Not really.
"Cross My Heart" was the song that pulled me into Son Little's orbit, a song that felt like cigarette smoke and heartbreak, and so "Cross My Heart" was the song I listened to right before I talked to Son Little. And during that listen, my 67th or 80th or 122nd, I'd given up counting long ago, I noticed something I somehow hadn't before. In retrospect it was obvious but also easy to miss, like a sunset when you've been staring at the ground; the presence of a drum machine.
While Little's whiskey voice and that cutting guitar took the song's spotlight, the foundation of the song was actually electronic. And so I spent the first ten minutes of my conversation with Son Little not talking about how much better music was "back then" or the roots of soul and R&B but about the genius of DJ Premier, crate digging and how he blends samples into his own music.
"A lot of the sounds you might hear, electronic sounds, I don't even think of them that way anymore," Little said. "They're all just sounds, they're all emulating real world instruments to begin with."
For Little there's really no difference between using the guitar as an instrument and using a MPC as an instrument, between DJ Premier and Curtis Mayfield, and that mentality allows him to blend and blur genres so thoroughly you don't even notice anything's being blended at all. It's also a mentality that's the natural result of a lifetime spent bouncing around the country, from Los Angeles to New York City to Philadephia, soaking up every influences along the way. And nowhere along that journey did he have big dreams of musical stardom, he only knew that he couldn't stop making music, needed to express himself, picked up jobs driving trucks because it gave him time to think, sing melodies in the isolation of a truck cab without the coworkers staring at him uneasily. And that reality, the reality of a truck driving aspiring artist, was his reality until very recently.
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"It's scary. To jump into a job that's dependent on your intellect and skill, that's scary, to trust in yourself like that," said Little. "But at some point you just have to do it and see. I'm a singer and a songwriter, so that's what I have to do."
Being able to focus solely on music meant the creation of his recently released self-titled album, Son Little, an album that many have attempted to place in an "old-school blues and soul" except now we know better, you and I. We know to avoid such easy terms and focus instead on the way the music echoes around our head and heart.
"There's this gap between the creation of a piece and when it's consumed by other people," said Little when I asked him how it felt to watch his album leave his control and enter the larger world. "Some artists can feel burdened by that, but a song can gain a new life when it leaves the nest, it gains a different life. It can become something new if you let it. That's pretty incredible."
Son Little knows he can't control whatever labels and genres and categories the larger world tried to place him in, frankly from our conversation I didn't get the impression that he cared much about his place in the musical pantheon, album sales or categories. Instead, I got the impression that he was a man who could still remember the smell of diesel fuel and day jobs, a man who always had been and always will be driven to express himself through music because he can't stop expressing himself through music.
And so in the spirit of Son Little and in the true spirit of Top Prospects, I don't care about those things either. I don't care what genre to place him in or if he'll one day go on to be a star. I only care about how Son Little's music makes me feel driving late at night, and it makes me feel connected, grounded, like he's singing about some part of my life even I can't identify, and that's enough, more than enough.
That's all I could ever ask for from music and from an artist because really, what else is there but feeling?
[By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]