Born May 23, 1973, in Brooklyn, NY. Addresses: Record company--Columbia, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022. Internet--www.maxwell.appreciators.com.
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 depessed 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. 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 the'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."
by Mary Alice Adams
Signed to Columbia and released Urban Hang Suite, 1996; released Unplugged, 1997.
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.
- Selective Works
- 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/sfmaxw1 1.html (January 22, 1998).
- "Maxwell," http://www.vibe.com/archive/nov96/docs/maxwell.html (January 22, 1998).