The Secret History Of Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite
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....
In 1994, pop singer George Michael lost a lawsuit to Sony, the parent company for Columbia Records, to get out of his 15 year contract in the UK in hopes of gaining more creative control over his career that he felt had stalled, in part because of a sex symbol image that had been cultivated in the group Wham and his discontent with promotion of his album, Listen Without Prejudice. Hip-hop was the king of New York, though no one knew then that it was the golden age of hip-hop. It just seemed that the hits kept coming and more creative hip-hop artists were continuing to get signed. Nas’s debut album Illmatic was released that year on Columbia. And the group Sweetback, featuring members of Sade’s band had formed that year, including guitarist and saxophonist Stuart Matthewman. The term neo-soul hadn’t been coined just yet.
Cohen had a friend at another label who talked about an artist D’ Angelo who was the next coming of Prince.
“A friend of mine was working with D’Angelo the same time I was working with Maxwell and it was like, Who’s gonna get it out first? In a way it was like an A&R competition,” remembers Cohen. D’Angelo’s debut album Brown Sugar ended up being first and was released in 1995 and was wildly successful.
Meanwhile Maxwell had been signed to a development deal at Columbia. The label was still building confidence in him and feeling him out, pinpointing his strengths.
“There was an unorthodox way to his methodology and the sound of his records that didn’t necessarily chime in sync with black radio,” said David Passick, who represented Maxwell.
Or so was the presumption, held even by Maxwell himself.
“In many ways, I think D’Angelo, artists like Omar, the whole black British thing was really powerful to me because they really did their own thing,” says Maxwell. “I felt like there was hope for what I was trying to do. Like I wasn’t out here alone. I was grateful, but I was scared at the same time. I was scared that it would be over very fast and I would be a one-hit wonder.”
As a new artist, Maxwell was given time. A luxury for any artist, but perhaps more general fare for a brand new artist for the simple reason that they don’t have a fan base waiting for their next project. He experimented and reshaped the album. He completely rewrote and refashioned the lyrics for the single “Sumthin Sumthin” in the middle of recording it.
“With him it was always evolving,” said Cohen. “It was always like I got a different idea. I want to go in and cut this vocal or rewrite this lyric. He was very meticulous.”
The album turned out to be an extended love song, starting with the funky, Roy Ayers-style intro, “The Urban Theme,” and leads into the intimate, wah wah-heavy funk and plaintive vocals on “Welcome” before he gets bold asking for what he wants on a classic dance tune “Sumthin’ Sumthin’ co-written by Leon Ware (who composed and wrote Marvin Gaye’s "I Want You" and singles like Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are” and Minnie Riperton’s “Inside My Love). There’s more laid-back romanticism on "Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)"--a mix of Quiet Storm and danceable rough funk, with overtones of gospel. There were many comparisons drawn to him to Prince at the time, the single, “Dancewitme,” with his falsetto was the closest musically to Prince, while “…Till the Cops Come Knockin’” was somewhere in the middle between Janet Jackson’s “Anytime, Anyplace” and Prince’s “Darling Nikki” in its sexual demands before it slows down even further with traditional ballads “Whenever, Whenever”; “Lonely’s the Only Company” and “Reunion.” The climax comes after with “Suitelady (The Proposal" with a marriage proposal and a resignation for monogamy. The last two instrumentals “The Suite Theme” and a hidden track, after several minutes of silence, an instrumental, abbreviated version of “…Till the Cops Come Knockin’” provided a relaxing, cigarette-smoking aftermath. Maxwell wrote and produced every song on the album and was involved in every detail on the production of the project.
He honed his performing skills by performing showcases around New York and watching VHS tapes of Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. His publicist Miguel Bageur set up a performing showcase where industry insiders were able to preview some of the songs.
“It was a great show,” remembers music and culture writer Michael Gonzales who attended that night, “I’ve never seen another artist, besides Bilal give such a great debut. A lot of artists, their early shows were very stiff. He was very well-groomed. You have to consider who he was working with. The guys from Sade’s band. They already had the sound down.”
Maxwell had some of the industry’s best working on the album, including Stuart Matthewman from Sade’s band, guitarist Melvin “Wah Wah” Watson and certified hitmaker Leon Ware. Itaal Shur scored his first hit, co-writing with Maxwell the single “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder).” Maxwell had a keen gift on how to track down the best talent and convince them to work with him. Though “Ascension” would eventually become a hit, peaking at #36 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #8 on the R&B charts, it was the sexy, Teddy Pendergrass turn-out-the-lights kind of aggression of the single “..Till the Cops Come Knockin” that would be the lead single and the lead video. It was the one single from his demo that made it to the album.
Eric Johnson had been photographing Maxwell since he was a teen, including the picture where Maxwell wears a wild Afro and an intense come-hither gaze that would become the back cover art. At the time, Johnson was taking pictures for major stars, including the cover photo of Vibe with Biggie Smalls and Faith Evans. Maxwell insisted on an esoteric cover that included a pair of metallic gold high heel shoes and a track listing on the cover, a throwback to a time when liner notes were an important part of the package.
So, did the gold high heels belong to a young lady that inspired the concept album? And who was she?
“We worked together at the restaurant and all this stuff happened,” he says about the love interest that inspired the album. “She wasn’t really a first love, but definitely a first-past-18 love.” It’s all he will reveal.
Johnson would also direct the video for the first single, “…Till the Cops Come Knockin.”
“Maxwell was like the love child between Prince and Sade,” said Johnson. “We worked together well. I am all about the texture and the warm vibe of things. We wanted the video to be gritty and soulful and stylish. He already had a really great style. I’m partial to imagery that captures your spirit. The publicity photo was everything. I was like, Dude, you have to use it.”
Many of the women in his videos were brown-skinned and rocked naturals, a departure from hip-hop videos at the time. Hip-hop soul was the music of choice, grittier, bombastic and overtly sexual: with groups like Guy and Total, and singers like R. Kelly.
“The great thing about Maxwell as a young kid he had a very specific sense of what he wanted to do,” said Passick. “Not just the music, but in every aspect of promotion, marketing, he was very detail-oriented about the art and the visuals. He broke the mold for traditional black videos at the time, the artwork was different. All of the aesthetics and approaches to things were singular to a sense of self that was pretty freeing. Like David Bowie or Marvin Gaye, there was a singular sense of self that wasn’t created by anyone. That’s ultimately what makes great artists.”
Having his videos on heavy rotation on BET also helped to break him. “His videos did really well. His and Erykah Badu’s,” said Nikki Webber, who was the associate producer for BET’s Planet Groove at the time. “Once they went on heavy rotation their album sales went way up.”
"Urban Hang Suite was a revelation," says Tom Constabile, music editor of Platform.Net, the online voice of Trace Magazine and numerous other progressive publications in the late '90s. "We were all seeking outlets to write about cross-over, multi-genre, hybrid appeal jams and artists. Personally it's always been a perfect record to me. Aspirational both sonically and thematically, it answered a call to romanticism that was equally as passionate, sexual and urgent as the hunt for new flesh."
According to Passick, there was great enthusiasm around Sony to developing Maxwell as an important artist, including Sony International.
But there was division about how to market him. “There was a thought that we were doing something that was not in the urban mainstream,” remembers Cohen. “Even in the black record division at Columbia, they were thinking this is going to be challenging.”
It was a legitimate concern. Before the album was released, Maxwell toured as an opener for the Fugees on the black college circuit. He was boo’ed off stage as soon as he walked on at Morehouse presumably because the crowd was impatient for the headliners and weren’t feeling his bohemian image.
The project was shelved for a year, more because of internal label politics than anything else, according to label executives who worked the project at the time.
“It was frustrating, having the thing totally finished and watching everybody get their album released and feeling like, What’s wrong with me,” Maxwell recalls. “Sitting on the sidelines and just kind of having to wait for the company to figure it out. I realized I was supposed to prove to the universe, How much did I want this?”
Suffice to say, he wanted it. Once it was ultimately released, the album went double platinum and peaked at the #8 slot on the r&b album charts and the #37 slot on the Billboard 200. Maxwell sold out Radio City Music Hall for three nights, an unheard of feat for a new artist according to Passick.
“It spoke to me that the base I never thought I had loved the music,” Maxwell reminisces now. “It never had to be dumbed down or I didn’t have to act a certain way. The album worked for everyday black people. It shows how diverse we are and how music can cross boundaries and people.”
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