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.
His budding pro surfer career was sidelined after a reef-kissing wipeout at 17 left him with 150 stitches in his face. But Johnson found another way to stay in the swim during his college years, globetrotting in search of his own Endless Summer, making low-budget surf films, which turned out to be hits within the surfing culture.
When the self-penned acoustic music he recorded for the soundtracks began to attract a following of its own -- and after fellow surfer Garrett Dutton, of college radio faves G. Love & Special Sauce, decided to cover Johnson's "Rodeo Clowns" on his band's 1999 album Philadelphonic -- Johnson finally got serious about laying down the tracks for what would become his 2001 debut, Brushfire Fairytales.
But not too serious: First his manager and producer, J.P. Plunier (who also manages current tour mate Ben Harper), had to agree to a lax performing schedule centered on the international surf forecasts. As Plunier shrugged to a Sports Illustrated reporter, "How could I tell a kid who grew up on pipeline not to surf?"
Even today, with enthusiastic music critics already christening Johnson the next Dave Matthews and his concerts drawing the type of dedicated tape-trading pilgrims who follow the modern jam bands, Johnson's guitar case could easily carry a bumper sticker proclaiming, "I'd Rather Be Surfing."
"Music's fun, but I don't always play," he insists. "I get home from touring and I'll put my guitar away for weeks sometimes. I can go a long time without being interested in music at all. I kinda take it or leave it. It's fun sometimes, but it's never been something where I feel like I need to pick up my guitar every day."
Johnson's relationship with his surfboard, however, runs a little deeper. "Surfing's something I never get tired of," he acknowledges. "Whenever I get stressed out, that's where I try to go, either to the ocean or just some body of water."
It's a stress reliever Johnson recommends to other musicians as well. To hear the soft-voiced singer tell it, even Eminem might be jellin' to a happier vibe if only he got out of the house more often.
"I think it's important not to be stuck inside a studio all the time when you're making music," Johnson says simply when asked for the key to the carefree highway. "You gotta get out into nature."
Clearly, for Jack Johnson, the suckiest thing about being out on the road playing concerts throughout the U.S. is the lack of decent oceans around Raleigh, Cincinnati and Minneapolis.
"Sometimes, just for fun, we check out the water parks when we get in a new city," says the singer. "One time we were playing near Disney World in Florida, and some people told us about a place they were going to that was pretty cool. Turns out there are about four different water parks there and we wound up at the wrong one. We spent all day trying to go down these little slides that weren't even pushing us. When we finally met up with those people that night, they said, Man, you went to the kiddy park!' I remember us thinking it was pretty lame."
If Johnson can't always find the waves along his expanding concert treks, he at least manages to bring a bit of the ocean to his landlocked fans. Clint Roberts, a 23-year-old Phoenician who's seen Johnson in concert four times and boasts an extensive fan-traded library of homemade live CDs, testifies that a Jack Johnson concert is the next best thing to riding a tube.
"His show is simple, but it flows," Roberts says. "It sounds kind of dumb, but his music feels like a wave. Because there's no real breaks in the set, it all just kind of washes over you."
Like many of Johnson's faithful followers, who tend to wait outside the concert halls for a personal audience with the mellow-meister, Roberts, a physical therapist who's surfed a little himself around Hawaii and Southern California, would love nothing better than to spend a whole day kicking back with his idol.
"I've met him twice, and he's a totally genuine person," Roberts says. "But if there was one thing I could ask him, I'd just want to know what it's like being Jack Johnson. It seems to me he has such a unique life, making music, films and surfing. I imagine every day must be pretty cool for him."
That it is, Johnson admits. But occasionally the shy surfer does get a little weary of Oakley-wearing wanna-bes jostling for a glimpse through the soggy portal inside his head.
"Sometimes it is hard to cut things short with fans, 'cause they just wanna hang out," Johnson says, laughing. "But if we've just finished a show and we've got nothing important to do before we have to drive to the next city, it's kind of nice to sit around with the fans."
Truth is, Johnson can probably outlast any of his fans when it comes to a slacker staring contest.
"I always find the people who wait outside after the show are the kind of people I can have a good conversation with anyway," he admits. "So most of the time, I'll end up hanging out with them for hours, until I get the bus driver honking at me!"
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