Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite is an album that spans generations. As it reaches its 20th anniversary, it’s hard to imagine the bumpy ride it took to get here.
Maxwell‘s debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996) is generally recognized as the middle child of a trio of albums–bookended by D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar (1995) and Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997)–that remade r&b just before the turn of the millennium. As it turns 20 today, it is perhaps easier to see how it fits into the grander spectrum of soul that runs from Prince, Sade, Terrence Trent D’Arby through to Miguel and Robin Thicke. Harder to see clearly is the singular struggle it took to create and release it; to understand it less as either a trend or a trendsetter, and more as an intensely personal, individual statement, that had to overcome both internal and external doubts to find its own moment. Which brings us to The Secret History of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite.
It’s not so much that Maxwell is an enigma to be demystified. His intentions are clear. His focus has always been on making art that means something to himself first before it reaches anyone else.While working odd jobs around Manhattan as a teenager—as an usher and popcorn attendant at a movie theater and a waiter in The Coffee Shop in Union Square, (a place that was the incubator for lots of soon-to-be stars) Maxwell was furiously writing songs–about 300 of them, to be exact–and then going to school after his shift.
“I met Hod David at The Coffee shop where I was a busboy at night,” Maxwell remembers. “I worked there ’til like 3 in the morning and then I had to get up and be to school by 6. And then I had crazy homework. I was trying to make money to buy instruments by picking up dirty dishes.”
Maxwell wasn’t telling any of his friends what he was doing. He was just quietly writing songs.
David would go on to co-write with Maxwell three of the songs on Urban Hang Suite: the lead single “…Till the Cops Come Knockin”; “Dancewitme” and “Suitelady (The Proposal Jam).” But it would be a long road to get there.
Mitchell Cohen had taken the helm as an A&R representative at Columbia Records after leaving Arista Records. He was looking for new material to bring to Columbia and had been assigned to find collaborators for another artist. A friend from the publishing division Almo/Irving Music gave him a cassette. The cassette was titled “Urban Hang Suite.” Cohen was intrigued by the title and loved the music, but knew it wouldn’t work for the artist he was working with. Still, he was curious enough to have a sit down with Maxwell. The demo had five songs. Only one would make it to the album….