PawPaw Rod: Capricorn cowboy’s groovy pop-rap tips hat to Motown

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’ll see opening the bill for your favourite act. This week, LA-based PawPaw Rod rides into town to discuss his superb debut EP and a childhood love of The Temptations

PawPaw Rod knows who he is, musically speaking. With just three singles to his name and a debut EP – the straightforwardly-titled ‘A PawPaw Rod EP’ – the Capricorn in cowboy boots has already established a sonic personality that magpies from elements and mutates genre, like if Gil Scott-Heron was trying to pack out the dancefloor. PawPaw Rod, or Rodney Hulsey, is several things at once.

Raised in Oklahoma, Rodney relocated to LA four years ago. The move, and its shift in perspective, was considerable, and inspired recent single ‘Thin Lines’; a shifting groove touches on the anxiety of trying to establish yourself in a new environment, particularly a megacity like Los Angeles, with a long history as make-or-break creative hub.

“I have a line in the song, ‘being broken isn’t always a bad thing’” he says. “I think when you come to LA you see people who came here who didn’t succeed in the stuff they wanted to do, you see people who have succeeded, you see people in the middle. So it could break the expectation you had of the place when you first got there. ‘Thin Lines’ was a reflection of that.”

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While LA undoubtedly made its way into the music, Oklahoma has also left its stamp. ‘A PawPaw Rod EP’, is laced with sunshine, a Californian light setting over louche beats. But it’s also not necessarily tied into a specific, local heritage. PawPaw Rod is not trying to enter into any sort of ‘West Coast’ canon.

“One of the cool parts about Oklahoma, especially growing up rapping, is I felt like there weren’t any rules,” Rodney says. “There wasn’t a sound people went by, so you could pull from different genres, without anybody saying ‘yo, this isn’t our sound’”.

‘A PawPaw Rod EP’ is fluid like that. It blends ‘60s soul with hip-hop, mixing warm melodies with a sharp lyrical sensibility. ‘Lemonhaze’, for example, shifts from a melodic groove into a rap verse and back again, with self-aware lyrics (“why you worried about the little things? / it’s the big shit that’s gonna kill you anyway”) riding over an elastic beat studded with bright horn riffs. It’s designed to carry thoughtful lyricism in an absorbable way, sure, but it’s also just about allowing people to enjoy the moment he’s created.

“When I did more rapping, with more traditional sounds, a lot of my stuff was me trying to spit bars at people. And what I noticed in the crowd was that I had people’s attention, but it was also a lot of people [nodding their heads], really trying to listen,” he says. “And as I got older, I wanted them to be able to dance a little bit more, to have a little more fun with it and move their body to it.”

Much of this sensibility is also informed by a childhood obsession with Motown, both the sound of the music itself and artists who made it: the way they looked and the shape of their creative lives. “For some reason there’d always be this rerun of this biopic about The Temptations that would come on like every Friday, and I never missed a day,” says Rodney. “The same with this Jackson 5 biopic that would come on. I would always watch those and just love the process of being an artist, especially back then.” He laughs. “Maybe it was just the Afros that did it for me.”

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PawPaw Rod
Credit: Ragan Henderson

The process of being an artist in 2021, the state of it at its most basic level, might not be all that far removed from the things that made you an artist in the ‘60s, but of course the mode of delivery has drastically changed. And that was even before the pandemic hit, which somewhat inconveniently was about the time that PawPaw Rod signed to cult tastemakers Godmode [Channel Tres, Yaeji].

By the time he came to release debut single ‘Hit ‘em Where It Hurts’ in September 2020, the streets were deserted, as those in COVID hotspots across California sheltered in place. “It was just me on my phone, looking at the numbers. It was bittersweet, because I was in the house, but I had obligations to be creative, which was exciting.”

It is exciting, too, to be at the start of something. With ‘A PawPaw Rod EP’ about to enter the world, Rodney is poised to kick off a new phase:  the EP release, the promotion and then, hopefully at some point, some live shows. Then more writing, more music. What is it he’s hoping to get at?

“I think in life in general I want to be pretty honest, and my music is like an open book,” he says. “I’m constantly trying to learn from my mistakes, and be as self-aware as I can, so I would like that to reflect in my music.” With the considered, self-aware ‘A PawPaw Rod EP’, he’s off to a strong start.

PawPaw Rod’s new ‘A PawPaw Rod EP’ is released September 17 via GODMODE

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