Heralded as the savior of soul music in the 1990s, Maxwell, the self professed former nerd, rocketed from relative obscurity to infamy with his romantic concept album, Urban Hang Suite. Maxwell’s debut album not only earned him a Grammy, three Soul Train Music Awards, and three National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Awards but it also earned him countless comparisons to the great soul singers of the 1960s and 1970s.
The depressed and dangerous section of Brooklyn known as East New York was where Maxwell was born on May 23, 1973. His father, who died when Maxwell was three, was from the West Indies, while Maxwell’s mother was of Puerto Rican decent. His mother did not allow him to play outside very often after his father died. He was a loner, who stayed inside the apartment reading the Bible and watching television, rather than play and socialize with the other children in the neighborhood.
Raised as a devout Baptist, Maxwell often attended church as much as five times a week while growing up.
Born May 23, 1973, in Brooklyn, NY.
Signed to Columbia and released Urban Hang Suite, 1996; released Unplugged, 1997.
Awards: Grammy award, 1996; three National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards, 1996; three Soul Train Music Awards, 1996; Platinum certification for Urban Hang Suite, 1997.
Despite his later successful endeavors in the field of music, Maxwell did not participate in the church choir when he was little. It was only when joined in with the congregation when they were singing hymns that people took notice of his voice. As he explained to Michael George in American Visions, “people heard me humming and said ‘Boy, you better go do something.’ But I never wanted to be in front. One of my biggest fears was … maybe I should just put what’s inside of me someplace deep. I’m madly private. I’m a very private individual.”
High school was not very easy for the shy, sheltered Maxwell, as he related to Chris Dickinson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “being into books, having the glasses, being in the back of the class. Knowing the answers but being afraid to answer. I’m not Einstein or anything, but I definitely went through a period of trying to be who I’m not.” He was nicknamed “Maxwell House Coffee” by his classmates who taunted and teased him. The soon-to-be ladies man had an extremely difficult time with women as well. Maxwell only had two girlfriends throughout high school and did not even attend his senior prom.
Things slowly started to change for Maxwell, once he discovered music. When he was about 17, a friend loaned him a beat up Casio keyboard and Maxwell began to immerse himself in the popular music of the secular world. Patriae Rushen, the SOS Band, and other Rhythm and Blues (R&B) artists served as musical mentors for the teenage Maxwell. Soul Fuze’s Warren Mason reported that in his Columbia Records biography, Maxwell stated that his influences were derived from the early 1980s because, “the early 80s had the perfect combination of computerized instrumentation with a live feel. Later the music got all into hip-hop and some of the dynamics were lost.”
Maxwell would barricade himself in his room for hours listening to music and practicing on the keyboard. He eventually taught himself how to play not only the keyboard but the guitar and some other instruments he had acquired by then as well. Also around this same time, Maxwell started to move away from the church as his interest in secular music grew and blossomed. He did not give up on religion, rather he delved into the spiritual side of life. Maxwell elaborated on this to George saying, “it’s like something bigger came into the situation. Loving God and loving higher things became rules: what you have to do and how you have to do it, and a particular method in how you reach God. For me, it became less about that and more about the universal message that he or she lives inside you and you are a part of it—that everyone is part of everyone. That whole thing came to play around the music.”
At 19, Maxwell started to play shows throughout the New York club circuit. He supported himself by waiting tables by day and performing his music at nights in his off hours from work. Through a friend of a friend, he was able to gain access to a 24 track recording studio and started to record songs for a demo tape that he began passing out to his friends. The demo caused enough interest in him that his first proper concert at Nell’s in New York City had a good turnout for the relatively unknown singer.
Between 1992–94, he continued to play shows and demoed some 300 or so songs. Interest in Maxwell was starting to develop as more and more people came to check out his soulful alternative gigs, including a writer from Vibe who proclaimed him the “next Prince.” Shortly thereafter, Maxwell signed a recording contract with Columbia Records.
Columbia reluctantly allowed Maxwell to have creative freedom in his contract. The label was even more hesitant to let Maxwell produce the album by himself, so they brought in a producer from Chicago, who only managed to last for the first few tracks. Despite this, Maxwell soldiered on writing and producing the various songs on the album. He had some high profile help from veteran session musicians who had worked with Marvin Gaye, Motown, and Sade. The sessions for Urban Hang Suite, as the album was called, lasted for much of early 1995, finally finishing in March of that year.
Although Urban Hang Suite was completed in 1995, it would not see the light of day for another year or so due to the fact that Columbia’s Urban Music Department was in the midst of a personnel overhaul. Maxwell decided it was best to wait out the change in staff. He began involve himself with writing and demoing songs for his next album, along with embarking on an African American college tour with Groove Theory and the Fugees.
After Columbia’s Urban Music Department had completed their personnel overhaul, both the label and Maxwell were reluctant to release Urban Hang Suite. Columbia feared that the listeners would fail to comprehend Maxwell’s romantic concept album and image. Maxwell himself did not help the matter any by refusing to allow his picture to be placed on the album’s front cover, preferring to have the track listing and pertinent information about the album to take the place of a photo of him. The label reached a compromise and placed a shot of him on the back cover.
Columbia reluctantly came to an agreement with Maxwell to allow the music, not his image speak for the album. Urban Hang Suite was finally released in America in the spring of 1996. The album’s sales were slow at first but began to grow through word of mouth. Maxwell rationalized his appeal to Vibe’s Quohnos Mitchell as “it’s about being real and true to your flow. My flow is about music. People identify with honesty and risk. Some artists use their lives as a gimmick or gift to get them to the next level. I’m not about that. People enjoy music that opens them up to and takes them on a journey.”
To his fans, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite lures them into the heart of a romantic encounter that ends with a marriage proposal. The honest, sincere sexuality has struck a collective nerve with many in his audience who have built, renewed, or refined relationships based on the many messages found in the songs from Urban Hang Suite. Maxwell explained his romantic notions to George as “yeah, I’m a big sucker for the cheesy, mushy stuff. But I’ve always been. I think that comes from my grandmother and the other West Indian women I know. And most of them are the foundation of society in the islands. There is such a respect for commitment and sacrifice. I think that women represent the ultimate sacrifice in their daily lives, and I go crazy when I see them.”
Maxwell’s main muse was women as he told Interview’s Dimitri Erhlich, “I think creativity is innately feminine. Obviously women at 12 or 13 get either cursed or blessed with the fact that they’re vessels for human life to come through. And that’s what music—what creativity—is to me. I guess being a man is a truly physical state and mentally it’s a little bit limiting. But what I’m talking about is not a person’s ‘female side’ or ‘male side’. The only way I can pay homage to that feminine thing—not necessarily women but to what they represent as creative forces—is by getting artistic and making music.”
Maxwell’s emotive power seduced not only significant numbers of both the urban and pop audiences but critics as well. Urban Hang Suite achieved platinum certification in America in March of 1997. Later that year, he released the Unplugged album. In commenting on the new soul revival in music, Maxwell told Entertainment Weekly’s Larry Blumefeld that “everything out there musically was inspired or influenced by something from the past. It’s not about creating some super-fresh new thing. If it doesn’t lend itself to your history, how is it going to extend to your future? That’s what’s really brilliant about looking into children’s eyes—you can see their parents in them.”
Urban Hang Suite, Columbia, 1996.
Unplugged, Columbia, 1997.
American Visions, April-May, 1997.
Billboard, January 13, 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, January 24, 1997.
Interview, May, 1997.
People, April 21, 1997.
“Maxwell,” http://members.aol.com/soul4luv/soulfuze/maxwell/sfmaxwl1.html (January 22, 1998).
“Maxwell,” http://www.vibe.com/archive/nov96/docs/maxwell.html (January 22, 1998).
—Mary Alice Adams
R &B singer, songwriter
The classic show-biz cliché of the shy, awkward, and sometimes taunted adolescent who grows up to become a successful sex symbol and entertainment personality describes the life of the soul singer Maxwell. The Brooklyn native, who has been compared to soulful crooners such as Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pender-grass, emerged in 1996 as part of a new genre of African American artists known as the “neo soul,” “vintage soul,” or “New Soul Clan” movement. Along with artists such as the Fugees, D’Angelo, and Tony Rich, Maxwell exhibited the identifying characteristics of this new breed of R&B artists: lyrics that give voice to intense personal expression, creative control over the music, and a unexpectedly successful debut.
Maxwell, who uses only his middle name in order to protect the privacy of his family, was born in New York City in 1973. His parents’ marriage was a fusion of two cultures, Puerto Rican and West Indian, and he spent much of his life in a rough section of Brooklyn called East New York. Maxwell’s world fell apart at the age of three when his father died in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico. This tragedy forced him to confront the reality of death at a very early age and he often obsessively prepared for the future. He would line up his school clothes for the entire week ahead, carry cereal in his pockets in case he got hungry, and rubbed soap on himself so he would be prepared for his next bath. Maxwell also became a very devout Baptist. “I wanted to find out where my father went,” he told Essence writer Jeannine Amber. “Everyone was like, ‘He went to heaven,’ and I wanted to know where that was.”
Maxwell’s mother also had a difficult time dealing with his father’s death and, for a time, he was raised by his grandmother. Church became an integral part of his life and he learned many of the Scriptures by heart. Since his mother greatly feared for his safety, Maxwell rarely went outside or played with other kids. He often spent his days reading, watching television, studying the Bible, and attending church services. Although he sang during services, Maxwell did not sense that his voice was unique or unusual. He rarely even talked, let along sang—“I just didn’t feel as though I had anything to say until music came into my life,” he said in an interview with Michael
At a Glance…
Born May 23, 1973, in Brooklyn, NY. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Singer and songwriter; signed with Columbia Records, 1994; released debut LP, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, 1996; appeared on MTV’s Unplugged, 1997; released Embrya, 1998.
Addresses: Office —c/o Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave. New York, NY 10022.
George for American Visions.
When Maxwell was in high school, a friend gave him a used Casio keyboard. He brought it home and played for several hours without even taking off his coat. Already a fan of what he called “jheri curl soul,” which was the trademark of early 1980s acts such as Patrice Rushen, S.O.S. Band, and Rose Royce, Maxwell began to teach himself how to play a host of instruments. He practiced tirelessly and soon emerged as a promising rap artist, a difficult transition for someone with a strait-laced reputation. “It’s not like stepping onto the scene was the easiest thing for me,” he told Mark Coleman in Rolling Stone years later. “I got laughed at initially.”
In 1991 Maxwell gave his first live performance at Nell’s, a Manhattan nightclub. During the next two years, he wrote and recorded over 300 songs and played frequently at small venues throughout New York. In 1994, Maxwell signed with Columbia Records and recorded his debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite in 1995. However, due to an extensive reorganization at Columbia Records, the album was not released until March of 1996.
Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite was a homage to romance and commitment. Maxwell wrote many of the songs on the album following a brief relationship with a woman. Although he never saw her again, Maxwell still had deep feelings for her. As he confessed to Essence, “To this day, when, in my mind, I’m begging, in my heart and soul I’m begging, Please be down with me, I never walk over [to her]. The rejection thing is too much for me.” Maxwell produced and wrote all of the songs on Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, exhibiting a level of artistic control uncommon in the recording industry.
Sales of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite climbed steadily and, in 1997, the album went double platinum. Two tracks, “Whenever, Whereever, Whatever,” and “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” received extensive play on radio stations. Maxwell also attracted legions of swooning female fans. While writing a profile of Maxwell for Essence, Jeannine Amber attended one of his concerts and noted that Maxwell’s female fans were uninhibited about demonstrating their devotion to “this suit-wearing, crazy-haired, looking-like-he-walked-out-of-1974 young thing…. [allegedly] the first one since Teddy Pendergrass to whip women into such a frenzy,” she wrote. Maxwell’s appeal to female fans can be traced, in part, to the fact that he writes respectful songs about them as objects of desire. “It bothers me how women are treated in pop songs,” Maxwell told Coleman of Rolling Stone “I’m doing my best to pay some long-overdue respect to African American women.”
Maxwell successfully “crossed over” to white audiences in 1997 when he appeared on MTV’s Unplugged artist showcase. That same year, he released an album entitled Maxwell Unplugged. This album expressed Maxwell’s appreciation for the music of other artists and included his renditions of songs by Nine Inch Nails and British singer Kate Bush.
In 1998, Maxwell released an album entitled Embrya. Embrya offered a wide range of musical styles that segued effortlessly into one another, from ballads to the classic soul to Latinesque funk. Anita M. Samuels noted in Billboard that “the lyrics read much like poetry, evolving into themes that encompass sensuality, unity, and a profound respect of womanhood.” The album included songs such as “Luxury: Cococure,” and “I’m You: You Are Me and We Are You,” in which Maxwell pays homage to his Latin roots by singing two verses in Spanish. Time writer Christopher John Farley called Embrya “subtle… he [Maxwell] forces listeners to really listen, to confront the emotions in his songs rather than avoid them through the cathartic escape hatch of volume.”
Maxwell is a sensitive, idealistic soul. In an interview with Michael George in American Visions, Maxwell described himself as “a big sucker for the cheesy, mushy stuff…. I think that comes from my grandmother and the other West Indian women I know. And most of them are the foundation of society in the islands. There is such a respect for commitment and sacrifice. I think women represent the ultimate sacrifice in their daily lives, and I go crazy when I see them.”
Despite his role as a singer and sex symbol, Maxwell still craves privacy and focuses his attention on his music. Although he would love to get married and have a family, he admits that it will be difficult to find a woman who can accept his lifestyle. “What I do is so difficult for most women to deal with sometimes,” Maxwell remarked in a press release accompanying Embrya “I immerse myself in my work to such a degree that there’s no time. But I’ve learned a lot from women. I’ve learned about subtlety, and that intimacy is also about the spiritual and mental connection that occurs. It applies to everything, to how you view art and listen to music and deal with your friends and make business decisions.”
Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, Columbia, 1996.
Maxwell Unplugged, Columbia, 1997.
Embrya, Columbia, 1998.
American Visions, April/May 1997, pp. 41–43.
Billboard, January 13, 1996, pp. 16–18; July 20, 1996, pp. 1, 81; June 6, 1998, p. 22.
Essence, November 1997, pp. 95–96, 174.
People, April 21, 1997, p. 176.
Rolling Stone, July 10–24, 1997, pp. 36–38.
Time, July 6, 1998, pp. 85–86.
Additional information was provided for this profile by press materials found at http://www.musze.com
Best-selling album since 1990: Now (2001)
Hit songs since 1990: "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)," "Lifetime"
Along with fellow performers Angie Stone, D'Angelo, and Erykah Badu, Maxwell helped define the late 1990s "neo-soul" movement, which, veering from the tough hip-hop sound, infused modern R&B with the kinds of lush, rhythmic funk and soul grooves popular in the 1970s. Like 1980s superstar Prince, Maxwell produces, writes, and plays most of his own material, basing it on his romantic and spiritual experience. In this way, his music is more direct and personal than the slicker, heavily produced sounds of artists such as Boyz II Men and Usher. At the same time he avoids the raunchy explicitness of singers such as D'Angelo and R. Kelly, focusing instead on the romantic side of love.
Professionally Maxwell uses his middle name, keeping his full name confidential to ensure the privacy of his family. Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Puerto Rican and West Indian parents, Maxwell suffered the death of his father at an early age and found comfort through singing in church. In his teens he bought a small keyboard and began composing songs, eventually recording them as demo tapes in a professional studio. After performing on the New York club circuit in the early 1990s, Maxwell signed a contract with Columbia Records in 1994. Initially his future with Columbia seemed anything but promising. He recorded his first album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, shortly after signing but saw it delayed for a year due to internal management problems within the company. When finally released in 1996, sales were slow until word of mouth spread. Gaining power through a hit single, "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)," the album eventually went platinum and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
In a 1998 interview with the BBC, Maxwell described Urban Hang Suite as "a rough sketch of a moment in time," based on a past romantic relationship. Unified by themes of love, matrimony, and commitment, the album has a cohesive feel further enhanced by Maxwell's influence on every track: He wrote the songs and played many of the instruments. In addition, he recruited the expertise of veteran guitarist Wah Wah Watson, whose funky style enlivened many R&B recordings of the 1970s. The most important ingredient in the album's success, however, is Maxwell's voice: Gliding and seductive, it recalls classic singers of the 1960s and 1970s such as Smokey Robinson and Curtis Mayfield. On the tender ballad "Whenever, Wherever, Whatever," Maxwell exudes the gentle purity of a choirboy, singing highly and sweetly. The lyrics reinforce one of his favorite themes, self-renunciation in love: "Take my heart and my love / Take of me all that you must." "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" became the album's biggest hit on the strength of Maxwell's smooth, creamy falsetto gliding over a sensuous groove. On other
songs, such as the sinuous "Sumthin' Sumthin,'" his voice displays a compelling tough edge more in keeping with the gritty side of R&B. Taken as a whole, the album bears a cumulative power that increases with each listen.
Performing on MTV's Unplugged in 1997, Maxwell proved that his initial success was no fluke. Released as a live album later that year, Maxwell Unplugged finds the singer expanding his horizons through an intimate, ethereal version of "This Woman's Work," a ballad originally recorded by artsy rock performer Kate Bush. Singing with subtlety and passion, Maxwell is movingly vulnerable on lines such as, "I should be crying but I just can't let it show." Referring to his sudden commercial success, Maxwell tells the live audience, "I never thought this would happen," a statement in keeping with his shy, self-effacing public personality. Although most critics felt that Maxwell's next in-studio album, Embrya, obscured his romantic message in obtuse songwriting and overlong tracks , his 2001 release, Now, was a return to form. Maxwell is at his best on "For Lovers Only," a ballad enhanced by a pedal steel guitar, an instrument usually associated with country music. Another ballad, "Lifetime," became a hit on the basis of its strong melody and Maxwell's sincere, emotive vocal delivery.
A multitalented musician who oversees each aspect of his recordings, Maxwell fashioned a reputation in the 1990s as an old-fashioned love balladeer, applying his sweet-tempered voice to supple, fluid rhythms. As he gained stardom Maxwell became a gentle sex symbol, known for music that stirred emotions while creating a backdrop for romance.
Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite (Columbia, 1996); Maxwell Unplugged EP (Columbia, 1997); Embrya (Columbia, 1998); Now (Columbia, 2001).