"What's the name of these guys?" a man asks me, nodding toward the band setting up on stage. I tell him it's Marvin and The Experience. "Are they any good?" asks the man, who looks to be in his mid-to-late forties.
"Yeah, they are. They're kind of 'new school' Soul/R&B. Kind of something like Usher ..."
He looks puzzled when I mention Usher, so I add, "Kind of like, oh, Marvin Gaye being suave and confrontational fronting Booker T and the MGs."
He smiles. This seems to satisfy him. He watches Marvin & Co. set up some more and then turns to me and says, "I like black bands."
His comment sticks with me as I watch Marvin and The Experience perform their first set.
It's a high-energy groove, led by a self-assured, sweet/rough-voiced frontman — highly polished, but just dirty enough to make you shake your ass. Watching Marvin Hawkins perform is something like watching the illegitimate (and biologically impossible) son of LL Cool J and Marvin Gaye — there's a street punk toughness, but plenty of suave to go around. And you get the feeling that maybe sometimes Uncle Prince came over and babysat for him and taught him a couple of tricks as well. Black? White? As long as the music is good, who cares?
"It's a passion," says Hawkins of his drive to write and perform music. "I grew up in a household with Gospel and Soul music, (and also) Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Peabo Bryson, George Benson ... but I also grew up on Hip Hop. Depending on where we are, we can take the shape of our venue. I just have a love for music in general. I'm a graduate of the School for Creative and Performing Arts, and I was trained in classical musical theater and percussion. So, through my background and through meeting people (that play) other genres of music, that, specifically, has molded me into the person that I am. Music is healing to me.
"And I need healing right now," he adds, "because I have a cold."
Playing together for a little over a year and a half, Marvin and the Experience was originally conceived as an original R&B/Hip Hop/Soul project, in collaboration with Hawkins' partner, Akira Shelton, an owner of a production company in New Jersey. The band is now comprised of Hawkins (lead vocals/percussion), Reginald Johnson (music director/keyboards/vocals), James "Phil" Johnson (keys), Jeremiah Green (drums), J.T. Dickman (bass), T-Sly (guitar), Mia Jabbar (vocals) and David "D-Griff" Griffen (MC). The "brand" of music they play is "FunkHopSoul," as Hawkins describes it. Not R. Kelly, exactly, nor P-Funk, but somewhere in between and perhaps beyond.
"With the current status of popular music today, you have more of a mesh of musical styles and genres," Hawkins says about the band's ability to adapt to just about any situation. "You've got Nelly with Tim McGraw, you've got Beyoncé and Jay-Z, which is Hip Hop and Pop/R&B. You've got Mary J. Blige, the queen of Hip Hop/Soul ... she kind of invented that genre. We follow along those lines. We kind of mesh."
When not getting Experienced, Hawkins "meshes" with other bands as well. He currently drums for the Alt.Rock Elliot Ruther Trio, and he's also played with local Reggae-based bands Kadouz and Admiral Walker. But he prefers his role with The Experience.
"I can (be both a front person and a drummer), but there's something about giving my all to the people (right) in front of me," Hawkins says. "There's something about singing, being able to look at people right in their eyes and (have them) feed off your raw energy, your vibe. They're riding on those waves. It's just exhilarating."
As an audience member, the feeling is mutual.
MARVIN AND THE EXPERIENCE next plays Dec. 17 at the Rhythm & Blues Cafe. The group's first single, "Hey Hey," on Brown Room Records, is due out soon.