“I was just writing songs. However, I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to sequence them in a particular way so you could put the record on and just let it play.”
That’s how Maxwell describes the humble beginnings of the debut album that ultimately fostered his career breakthrough. Released April 2, 1996, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year by way of two special events. This weekend (March 27), Maxwell will mark the occasion with a performance at the 52nd NAACP Image Awards on BET. He won the Image Award for outstanding male artist in 2010 and 2017. Then on April 2, Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog division Legacy Recordings will release a remastered digital edition of the seminal album.
A foundational building block of the ’90s neo-soul sound alongside debuts by D’Angelo (1995’s Brown Sugar) and Erykah Badu (1997’s Baduizm), Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite conceptually explores adult romance, love, commitment and spirituality by cycling from first date to marriage proposal.
Signed in 1994 by senior vp of A&R and Columbia Records Mitchell Cohen, Maxwell wrote and produced on all 11 tracks, collaborating with his now longtime colleagues Hod David and Stuart Matthewman as well as Peter Mokran, Itaal Shur, Leon Ware (Marvin Gaye’s I Want You) and Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin, a member of Motown studio band The Funk Brothers.
The album’s savory fusion of jazz, funk, R&B and Quiet Storm balladry, coupled with Maxwell’s suave tenor and hynoptizing falsetto, spun off four popular singles-concert faves: “Til the Cops Come Knockin’,” RIAA platinum-certified “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” gold-certified “Sumthin Sumthin” and “Suitelady (The Proposal Jam).” After spending 78 weeks on the Billboard 200, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite has since achieved RIAA double-platinum status.
“You blink and then bam, here it is 25 years later,” Maxwell tells Billboard. “I’m not only happy about the anniversary but also for silent allies like [then-label] radio promotion executive Cynthia Johnson when this music wasn’t what was being played. And for all the collaborators and musicians…this celebration is for them more than myself.”
In the following interview excerpt Maxwell also talks about the rare creative freedom he had as a debut artist, the soul icon who inspire the album’s cover, the importance of celebrating women in his lyrics — and new music he’s working on through a new partnership with BMG.
It was rare at the time for new artists to call the creative shots, especially on a debut album. How did that happen?
I wasn’t aware that most artists weren’t able to have that kind of freedom. But the art involved in creating the album was what was truly calling the shots. Urban Hang Suite knew what it wanted to be. And Mitchell Cohen understood how much I loved and cared about the sound and impact of soul music; artists like Marvin Gaye meant the world to me. I don’t think anyone knew then that this was going to be a conceptual album. But Mitchell trusted me.
So maybe I was calling some shots, but none of those shots would have mattered if I didn’t have Hod. He and I co-wrote “Til the Cops Come Knockin’,” which had been in skeletal form since 1992. Then Stuart, a superstar with the band Sade, heard something of mine and wanted to work with me. That led to “Whenever Wherever Whatever.” For me it was about having a team of people that really believed in the tradition of soul music and in my ability, which I didn’t have that much belief in. I was a kid from Brooklyn who was just happy to be there.
Listening to the record again during the remastering, was there anything different you would have done?
I’m always prone to say I could have done this or that. Or to say maybe something’s a little flat or a little sharp. But after all this time, the album is what it was supposed to be. I’m so grateful that it stands up to the modern records of today. I’d written pages and pages and waited until certain personal experiences occurred to spark the engine and bring life to the record, which was released to very little fanfare. It wasn’t like I was No. 1 the first week. It was a slow, evolving process where people eventually discovered it.
That’s probably the best part: that it was listeners who made the album what it was. There were so many kinds of political interests at the time with regards to what got on the radio, what was going to sell tickets, who was going to be on MTV. And that still goes on in our industry. But I’m forever grateful to those college students, the cookouts during that summer and all the experiences in which I was able to be a fly on the wall through my music.
When did you know that fame was knocking?
It was summer 1996 and I’m walking down the street one day in New York on Sixth Avenue. I see people stopping and staring; people are yelling my name as they drive by and I’m hearing the song [“Ascension”] blasting from their cars. I’m like, “Whoa, wait a minute.” I used to walk around and nobody knew me or cared. Now my world was changing.
I’m grateful that most of my career started in my early 20s because I was able to enjoy my adolescent and teenage time. I later worked as a dishwasher, in hospitality and at a Pizza Hut. At one point, I stood in line in the snow trying to get my unemployment check. I had these real-life things to hold onto that kept me grounded through all the fanfare that followed Urban Hang Suite and beyond. I try to always go back to that person with each project that I release because that’s the truest part of me. The part of me that’s onstage is a result of the work I’ve done but it isn’t a result of the life I’ve really lived.
Beyond the music, what still resonates 25 years later on this album is your lyrical respect for women — especially as they continue to fight today for inclusion and equality.
The issues that all women face in life and business, especially just the day-to-day experience of Black women, is unlike anything. The inequality, the lack of reverence. Black women are always there for us: to forgive, to understand and clean up the political messes that we make. I felt it was a duty and very important to focus on that. It wasn’t something I had to think about because it was obvious. Like why wouldn’t you do that? It led to my covering Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” What a woman goes through has always been a major theme in what I try to write. Women should be celebrated.
Why were you featured on the back of the album and not the front?
There was a big conversation about how that wouldn’t be marketable. The Nirvana album [1991’s Nevermind] had a baby on the cover. And a lot of classic soul records didn’t always have the artists promoting their image. Being a young kid, like what in the hell did I know about marketing? I just wanted a cover that had this feel of a jazz record; something to put the music first more than anything. How I look should not supersede the work. It can be a complement to it or whatever, but it’s the music that matters to me the most.
Who really inspired the cover was one of my favorite artists in the world, Bill Withers. He had released a greatest hits album that featured a cigar, I think, and some wine or whiskey and a rose. And I thought, what a cool cover. Thankfully, the people at Columbia sided with what felt right for the album.
So when can we expect new music?
I’ve been working on so many songs for many years. “Pretty Wings” was five years old before it was release and “Lake by the Ocean” was five or maybe six years old. So I keep working on material and tweaking it. But I am primarily working on another album and meeting my commitment under a new partnership between my own record company Musze and BMG. I signed the deal a year ago but wouldn’t talk about because it would have been in poor taste to promote something like that when the world had shut down due to the pandemic. I’ve been waiting but now I’m ready.