By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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The "slap" comes about three and a half seconds into Jack Johnson's new album, On and On. The unplugged mellow gem's opening song, "Times Like These," begins with a single, perfect Cat Stevens glissando elegantly strummed on Johnson's guitar.
Then the 28-year-old singer-songwriter and, not insignificantly, diehard surfer smacks the strings of his trusty old acoustic like a frat boy slapping a buddy on the back, and instantly sets down a rhythm that would make even hip-hop fans snap to attention.
It's the defining moment for an up-and-coming folkie -- the point in his quietly strummed introduction where the player either nails the elusive hushed groove of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" or fumbles through a feeble, wooden cadence that could make even Gordon Lightfoot snore.
Perhaps in keeping with Johnson's upbringing as a surf legend's son raised on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, Johnson executes the "slap" with the precision of a pro longboarder locking into a 12-foot swell at Rincon, and he rides the rolling rhythms all the way through the CD's 16 tracks.
It's a natural gift for timekeeping that hasn't been lost on the other members of Johnson's little trio, bassist Merlo Todlewski and drummer Adam Topol, or the surprisingly growing contingent of hip-hop and R&B fans who've been showing up to bounce at the junior Jimmy Buffett's laid-back luaus.
"That's the one compliment I get from the other guys in the band," Johnson says from his home in Hawaii. "They say I've got good time. And they say that's rare among singer-songwriters. 'Cause they've played with other guys, and they say most of the time they're just trying to hold the guitarist back or push him forward to keep him on the beat. So they're always telling me it's nice to play with a guitarist who can stick it on time."
Hip-hop heads are giving the double nod to Johnson's sample-worthy slaps, too -- something of a surprise to the beach party balladeer.
Johnson really subjected his rhythmic chops to a pop quiz when his trio, just starting out on the club circuit, played a Detroit nightspot where half the crowd that showed up thought they were coming to see the Black Jack Johnson Project, a hip-hop clique led by rapper Mos Def and named for the famous boxer. Instead of that funk supergroup, which also boasts members of Living Colour, Bad Brains and Parliament/Funkadelic, they got three modern-day Jeff Spicolis in boardshorts and flip-flops.
"It was funny," Johnson recalls. "Nobody knew who we were then, and half the crowd that showed up were all these hip-hop kids thinking they were gonna see Mos Def. We kind of felt bad, and we couldn't refund their tickets because we were too smalltime. But I gave out some free CDs, and they all stuck around for the show."
Todlewski and Topol, who Johnson says listen to a lot more hip-hop, Latin and reggae than he favors, did their best to funk up the rhythms. But Johnson just stuck to his reliable slap -- "this kind of muted percussion thing I do on the strings," as he describes it -- and was pleased to see FUBU headwraps nodding to his beats.
"It was pretty cool," the unflappably humble Johnson admits. "They all seemed to dig it."
Maybe the natural ebb and flow of Johnson's rhythm guitar has something to do with his all-encompassing love of surfing. That odd sensation you get when you hit the sack after a long day at the water park and you still feel like you're being buoyed by the waves? That's the same tingle Johnson feels all the time when he's strumming his guitar.
"Surfing is about learning how to flow, and I'm sure that helps when you're playing music," he says. "I know it helps for me."
Surfing also gets Johnson's creative juices pumping. "That's usually where I feel the most inspired," he continues. "Being off on a boat on a surf trip. You get away from all the phones and fax machines and e-mails, and your mind gets pretty clear. So I end up writing quite a bit of songs out there."
If you're Jack Johnson, an admittedly privileged white boy who learned to surf at an age when most kids are learning to ride a bike, you work things out so that you can record the songs for your second CD between waves. Just listening to the laid-back schedule Johnson and his buds kept at the Hawaiian studio they used to record On and On is enough to convince anyone they're trapped in the wrong line of work.
"Every morning, we'd spend half the day outside surfing or just hanging out before we'd even get in the studio," Johnson says. "Then we'd take a break before sunset and go surf some more, then get back in for a few more hours at night."
While the media attention swirling around the rugged, good-looking beach boy has been heralding him as pop's novel "surfer turned singer," it's clear Johnson's first love is and always will be surfing. Encouraged to take up the sport at the tender age of 4 by his dad, longboard legend Jeff Johnson, and his older brothers, Trent and Pete, Jack quickly became a pipeline prodigy, scoring a Quiksilver sponsorship at 14 and three years later becoming the youngest-ever invitee to the Pipeline Masters, the Wimbledon of the waves.