© 2021 WYPR
50yrsHeader.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

25 Years Ago, Maxwell Did A Lil' Sumthin' Sumthin' For R&B

Maxwell (Eric Johnson)
Maxwell (Eric Johnson)

Around this time 25 years ago, a new artist planted the seed for what would become a new genre.

His name was Maxwell, and he sounded nothing like the heavily sampled hip-hop-inspired R&B musicians that dominated the airwaves.

His voice harkened back to the days of Motown. Maxwell’s silky smooth falsetto was accompanied by orchestra level instrumentation, and something that up until that moment had been left behind in the ’80s — the horn solo.

The album “Urban Hang Suite,” which turns a quarter-century-old this year, helped usher in an era of R&B called neo-soul. The new genre welcomed the likes of Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill.

Rolling Stone compared Maxwell’s debut record to Marvin Gaye’s 1978 album, “Here, My Dear,” writing that Maxwell’s exploration of monogamy and matrimony was almost like a response to Gaye’s exploration of divorce.

“Urban Hang Suite” is also known for restoring something else lost between the ‘80s and the ‘90s — deeply soulful music about Black people loving each other.

“I remember having a journal. I always have a journal,” Maxwell says. “And I said, ‘God, if you give me this opportunity, I promise to stay true to the creative thing that made me love Marvin Gaye, made me love Al Green, made me love ‘Here, My Dear.’ ”

For the album, Maxwell assembled an all-star team of musicians, including Stuart Matthewman who played with Sade, the late guitarist Wah Wah Watson, and Leon Ware, the late songwriter and producer known for making magic with Gaye and Michael Jackson.

Maxwell wanted to honor those musicians, who he considers the greats, because as times change, those legends often get “put out into pasture,” he says. But when he flew out to Los Angeles to meet Ware, he says Ware was “perplexed that a 20-something kid wanted to write a song with him.”

“Not sample his song, which is fine with me because I love hip-hop,” Maxwell says, “but the fact that I wanted to let him know that his impact to me was so important that I wanted him to be included.”

At that time in the mid-1990s, Maxwell says there was also “a movement of musicianship” happening in the United Kingdom with artists like Sade and Mica Paris. That sound also inspired his debut album, he says.

“There’s something about that African, soul, European, English, Southern, Black, hip-hop, street, urban element that I wanted to sort of encapsulate into the first record,” he says.

“Urban Hang Suite” made Maxwell famous and cemented his place in Black culture and soul music tradition.

But Maxwell started out in the music industry as an aspiring songwriter, and that’s where he wanted to stay — behind the scenes. He shied away from the public eye at first because of the scrutiny that often comes with being in the spotlight.

“I didn’t think my skin was thick enough for that,” he says.

But he says when he got the offer to make “Urban Hang Suite,” he realized something.

“When I got the offer to be signed, I went home, freaked out, number one. But then I also went home with the notion that I couldn’t live in the ‘what if,’ ” he says. “If I didn’t do this, then I would have a whole life of what if I did that? What if I actually stepped out? Am I that scared? Can it be that scary? It was a blessing from God, you know? And I just went ahead and I did it.”

Maxwell wrote and produced all 11 tracks of “Urban Hang Suite” — and that “what if” garnered a Grammy nomination in 1997 for best album.

The record starts and ends with two versions of the same instrumental — “The Urban Theme” and “The Suite Theme.” The first single was a song about police knocking at the door of a couple so enraptured, they stayed holed up in their apartment for days.

Blender magazine named “Till The Cops Come Knockin” one of the “greatest make-out songs of all time.” Maxwell was adamant that this song be his debut single because he says he was trying to make a thematic, concept album about Black love.

“I just feel like the relationship that we have with the police is always being Black is the problem and the fact that a song could talk about Black love being the reason why there’s a disturbance that we need to kind of look into,” he says. “It was so important to be able to sort of express that aspect of who we are as people, the part of being Black that is Black love.”

Maxwell’s second release, “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” marked his breakthrough into the Billboard Top 40 Charts. But even with this success, Maxwell felt like an outsider in the industry, he says. He recalls constantly trying to make sense of who he was — a Brooklyn kid with a Haitian mother and Puerto Rican father — in a world that largely sees things in black and white.

“I would hear it all the time, all the time from people in the neighborhood like, ‘Oh, you’re the island guy,’ ” he says. “You just didn’t feel like you were Black enough to people.”

And that’s where the mystique comes from: The reluctant star who chose not to have his face on the cover of his first album.

At the same time, Maxwell was also constantly compared to other artists, “like the phenomenon that is D’Angelo,” he says.

“He’s born in Richmond, Virginia. He grew up in the church. He’s got, all the boxes are checked for him,” Maxwell adds. “And I felt kind of a little bit of like an outcast.”

But through the process of making “Urban Hang Suite” and later albums, Maxwell says he found that confidence and toughness he didn’t think he had.

“The thick skin that I didn’t think I had, it was there,” he says. “And it wasn’t there because I had it. It was more so there because the music was dictating the destiny that I was supposed to get to eventually.”

Since “Urban Hang Suite,” Maxwell says the music industry has grown into embracing artists with multiple identities who highlight “the different facets of what being Black is.”

“I don’t look at making songs as like, well will I be No. 1? How many spins have I got? In this present day, how many streams do I have?” he says. “It’s a tradition that has given us an ability to sort of come together as people and to make the changes and to even therapeutically get through the hard, harsh days of what it is to be Black in America.”


Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Eileen Bolinsky. Raphelson also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.