The visits were a secret Daddy and I shared. But I had no business there. I was just 5, 6 years old -- stomping around in my favorite gray cowboy boots in strange backrooms and funky juke joints. I took in everything: the smells, the profane conversations, the wicked laughter and the music. For me, it was all about the music on the box: Millie Jackson, Isaac Hayes, Little Milton, Tyrone Davis, Bobby Womack -- that old-head soul my parents dug.
And it blared in these dives where the men played pool and card games, where Daddy sipped Seagram's gin and flirted openly with the women in too-tight clothes. If Mama knew that I was in such a place, she would have broken her foot in my father's behind.
Van Hunt, a new artist on the scene, knows what I'm talking about. We're both 26. And when I was trailing Daddy in joints in Arkansas, Van and his pops were hangin' in musty dens in Dayton, Ohio.
"Through the eyes of a child, my father had a fascinating lifestyle," says Van, calling from his pad in Atlanta. "I loved sitting in the corner of a smoke-filled dope house, tapping my feet to the music while my father and his friends cussed each other out over a game of cards."
The 12 cuts on his self-titled debut evoke the greasy, lowdown atmosphere of those rooms where our daddies shone -- strolling around, pimped-out in buffed loafers and crisp pants.
Van, who will play the IOTA Club & Cafe in Arlington Sunday night, says, "I began to hear a soundtrack for the scenes and images to which I'd been exposed. I began to hear the words and melodies underneath the romance and the grit."
The album, which will hit stores Feb. 24, smolders with in-the-pocket grooves. Elements of Sly Stone circa '73 and acidic rock a la Funkadelic pepper the blend. For a hint of sweetness, Van throws in subdued strings and ebbing horns, rendering the ballads ("Seconds of Pleasure," "Her December," "Down Here in Hell With You") in a Curtis Mayfield-inspired falsetto. The amalgamation goes down smoothly. It's adventurous, evolved -- definitely nothing like the trite stuff passing for "neo-soul."
"Taste, as they say, is the enemy of invention," Van says. "I know the music I hear and what I want. But sometimes I have to let that go and not try to be so esoteric."
Quiet as it's kept, Van wasn't trying to be a recording artist. Since the mid-'90s, the artist worked behind the scenes, making a name for himself as a musician (brotha's fluid on the guitar, bass, drums, keyboards -- "whatever I need to play," he says). And he also established himself as an in-demand songwriter. He penned "Hopeless," a 1997 hit for Dionne Farris, and one of the prime cuts on the Love Jones soundtrack. He wrote and produced songs on Rahsaan Patterson's overlooked soul classic Love In Stereo. And he co-wrote songs on Cree Summer's Lenny Kravitz-produced debut Street Fairie.
Van's manager, American Idol's Randy Jackson, persuaded the artist to sing his own songs.
"He got me into the mental shape to be a recording artist," the performer says. "I was looking at the landscape out there, and thought I could sing the songs better anyway."
It was producer Dallas Austin, best-known for his work with TLC and Monica, who helped Van snag a deal with Capitol Records, which is in the midst of re-establishing its urban division with such acts as Chingy and Javier.
Van says, "Sometimes when you sign to label as a black artist, they expect you to have a certain appeal. It's like they think they know what appeals to your people better than you do. I had to just get in the mind frame of being open to other ideas and suggestions and not just the music I heard in my head."
Van knows that black folks aren't just diggin' on 50 Cent's inane rhymes or the Ying Yang Twins' booty jams. He also knows that the shades, the moods, the styles of black music run deep and vary wildly. For inspiration, the singer-songwriter looks to Thelonious Monk. Outside of soul, he loves the White Stripes, Police, even Culture Club. (Hey, I was huge Boy George fan back in the day.)
But, ultimately, what Van wants is just to make good music, to capture the funky essence of those times with his pops.
"The foundation for me is the songwriting and the craft," he says. "All I want is for people to hear the music. Just put me in front of an audience."
And feel the soul.
Van Hunt plays the IOTA Club & Cafe, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va., Sunday night at 8. Tickets are $10 at the door only. For more information, visit www.iotaclubandcafe.com.