Sometimes I get asked what music I’m proudest of being involved with in the years I did A&R, an impossible question, but when the conversation turns in that direction, the title that pops into my head is Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite. Maybe because it was so difficult to get on the major-label runway, because everyone had different reasons why it wouldn’t work, different explanations about how it didn’t fit what was happening in black music two decades ago. The cassette had come to my office from a publishing company. I was looking for some songs, or maybe a possible writing collaborator, for another artist on Columbia, and although nothing on the tape felt like the right fit, it got under my skin; I heard echoes of music that I’d grown up with and loved, early Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, some of the great R&B and doo wop singers like Clyde McPhatter, Pookie Hudson and Lee Andrews. And the music was slinky and sexy. It made unexpected twists, had a seductive pulse. The tape said “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite,” and I had no idea who this Maxwell was, but I thought I should find out.
Not long after that, we met up at my office at Columbia, talked about what he thought this could be, and that began a long, long process of doing what it made sense to do: sign Maxwell to Columbia Records and help him fulfill what was already in embryonic form in the songs on the cassette, songs like “The Big Umbrella” which didn’t make it onto the album, and “Til The Cops Come Knockin’,” which did. There were executives at the label to argue with, hurdles to jump over at every stage, but Maxwell never lost focus, never stopped molding and shaping the music. When I thought songs were completed, it turned out that they weren’t: there were phone calls at home at all hours from him, wanting to re-sing or re-write or re-mix, because although no one else would notice, he would. He aimed for the platonic ideal of the record. And it came out as brilliantly as he’d hoped, an album that spoke to a new romanticism that had been missing in so much synthetic, inorganic R&B. Some people started calling it neo-soul, and that was fine. What it was, was ubiquitous.
Because finally, once all the smoke cleared and all the skirmishes – over artwork, over the title for God’s sake – were over, what was left was seamless and pure and beautiful. It had a flow to it, from the opening instrumental “Urban Theme” leading into “Welcome,” to the catchy come-on “Sumthin’ Sumthin,” to the simple elegance of “Whenever Wherever Whatever”…There were hits on the album – “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” could not be denied – but this was an album that was devoured as an album. You heard it everywhere you went in the city, in restaurants and stores, coming from cars and windows. It’s a remarkable experience, hearing something you’ve lived with from its earliest stages through its growing pains and to completion, being so universally embraced, moving so many people. Only a handful of individuals know all the hidden history of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, and I feel bound by the code of artist-A&R confidentiality to keep most of that unsaid. What matters most twenty years later is the impression it made and continues to make. There wasn’t a moment in the process when Maxwell wasn’t completely confident about what he was up to, and I hope that as he celebrates the 20th Anniversary of his Hang Suite, it gives him tremendous satisfaction to know he was right about everything.