The Secret History Of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite

20 Years Later: The Secret History Of Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite

“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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