Twenty years since Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite

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Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite

By the mid-’90s, R&B music experienced a bit of a renaissance in the form of a subgenre dubbed neo-soul. One of the artists leading this burgeoning movement in R&B was Maxwell. Hailing from the streets of Brooklyn, New York, he spent his late teenage years cultivating his songwriting talent on a Casio keyboard and perfecting his trademark vocal chops by performing in New York City’s club scene and at local venues. After being signed to a recording contract by Columbia Records in 1994, he began to craft the framework for his debut album. Using classic R&B and soul records as a foundation for the album’s creative direction, Maxwell was able to showcase his ethereal abilities as singer-songwriter on the eleven-song offering, as well as partnering with legendary producers and musicians Leon Ware, Melvin Ragin, and Stuart Matthewman, and newcomers Itaal Shur and Hod David. On April 2, 1996, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite would be released by Columbia Records, and it spawned four singles, including “…Til the Cops Come Knockin’,” “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” “Sumthin’ Sumthin’,” and “Suitelady (The Proposal Jam).” For the album’s twentieth anniversary, we spoke with Stuart Matthewman and Itaal Shur about their roles in constructing one of most enduring albums from the ’90s.

 

When and where did you first meet Maxwell?

Stuart Matthewman: I met Maxwell when he was already recording his debut album. By that time, he had already recorded “…Til the Cops Come Knockin’.” I was sent a demo of that song. I was asked if I wanted to work with a new artist to write and produce on their album. At the time, I was busy doing other things. When I heard “…Til the Cops Come Knockin’,” I said to myself, “What does he need me for?” [laughs] It sounded so fucking amazing. His voice and song were great. During that time, I was in the process of moving apartments, and I was doing a whole bunch of work on other projects. We starting to work on the Sweetback album and different things. A guy named Karl [Vanden Bossche], who was playing percussion for Sade, was doing a session with Maxwell and he contacted me and said, “I’m working with this guy named Maxwell. We’ve done some stuff together and he is really cool and dope. He is an amazing talent. He was asking about you. I think you should reach out to him.” So then I invited Karl over to my place because it was in New York. When he came by, he brought Maxwell with him. That’s how I ended up meeting Maxwell through Karl. We thought that we should get together and write a few songs. We wrote three songs together fairly quickly. We wrote “Welcome,” “Whenever Wherever Whatever,” and “Lonely’s the Only Company.” Then he was recording and doing a lot of overdubs. I hung out with him in the studio and I had my guitar, so I ended up playing on a bunch of other songs that he had written and produced with other people as well. After that, he got Mike Pela involved with the mixing process. Mike worked with Sade since her first album, so he became part of the family. This is how things started for us.

Itaal Shur: I met Maxwell through a mutual friend of ours named Gina Figueroa. We were all around the same music scene in New York City at that time. I was playing keyboards at this club called Giant Step. I was playing keyboards with a DJ and live musicians every Thursday night there. It attracted a lot of people with the same musical interests. Dominique Trenier had been managing me for a while back then.

What was your initial interaction with him during your first meeting with him?

Stuart Matthewman: Well, he came over to my place and we hung out. Maxwell hasn’t really changed after all these years. He was a really funny guy. When I first met him, he was funny, and he is still that way today. He sung for me and then we started working on the three songs I mentioned earlier. The first song we started working on was “Welcome.” It came from this bass line and it had a drum loop. During the first few days, we got together and wrote these songs. We were jumping from one song to another. I was living in Manhattan staying in an apartment in the Flat Iron district.

Itaal Shur: Well, he was obviously really good. [laughs] He was a natural. He had a golden voice and a real sense of who he was as an artist. At the time, he was working at this coffee shop. I remember he did a show at Irving Plaza, and he had a full band backing him. At this point in time, he was still working at the coffee shop. It ended up being a spectacular show. I think he was 19 at the time. I was really impressed after that show. It was obvious that he was talented and was going places very quickly. When I first started working with him, I was living in this little, tiny apartment in Brooklyn. I had a room that was the size of a couch. It was so small. My bed was underneath my keyboards and all my equipment. We wrote seven or eight songs in that room. It was a magical room. When I first met him, we hung out a couple times. After I moved to my apartment in Brooklyn, we began working on what we would become “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder).” We were able to write a lot of songs quickly because he could sing so well. He came up with so many things from off the top of his head as a vocalist and songwriter. He also had many good ideas for melody, lyrics, and music. He had a great feel for music. Certain feelings that he had for music was indicative to who he was as a person and artist. We went through a bunch of songs, and I still have them. It definitely wasn’t hard to make music with him. At my apartment, we wrote the songs and programmed some of the beats. I remember we went to another studio to iron out the song before we ended up going to Electric Lady Studios and actually tracking the whole song. These songs we wrote at my apartment were done in a home project studio.

Can you describe the experience of working at Electric Lady Studios during the recording process?

Stuart Matthewman: To be honest, I do most of my stuff from home. I had a little setup at home that I started on. After we finished the demos and preproduction work, we moved to different studios like Electric Lady Studios. He did a bunch of his vocals in Electric Lady Studios. I did overdubs on some of his other songs at Electric Lady. It’s so funny about that studio. It’s just a New York studio that people used because it had a cool vibe and it was a cool studio. I think we did some other things at Chung King Studios as well. I’ve never really bothered with working at a big studio with tape and a big Neve mixing desk. It’s just not the way I work. I work kind of in the box. I know how to get things working with plug-ins. As long as I had a good microphone and preamp to get it into the computer, it makes no difference if I’m in a studio or not. Some people like the idea of using a big mixing desk and going to tape because it helps them get an old school vibe. It doesn’t have that effect on me. Theoretically, it shouldn’t make any difference to the listener. The listener shouldn’t be thinking about how this music was recorded. On Maxwell’s album, listeners were listening to the lyrics, vocals, and the music. They weren’t asking themselves, “I wonder what mixing desk that was mixed on.” No one gives a shit about that as long as the song is performed well and mixed well. [laughs] At this time, I was using a program called Cubase, but then I’d synched it up to Da-88 tape machines. They were little tape machines that you tried to synch up to the computer. This was before you could do all the audio into a computer. With this album, we started out using Da-88 tapes that were made by TASCAM. This is how I recorded him.

Itaal Shur: It was a really good experience. Maxwell was very thorough. He wanted everything to be done as much as possible before we went into the studio, so we wouldn’t be wasting time or money. He didn’t sit around and spend his money because he understood that the money was coming from the label and it was all recoupable. Everything was running on schedule. There was no hanging out and bullshitting. We brought in the MPC and some of the guitars I’d sampled. We had a bass line that was played on a keyboard, but I was able to get Jonathan Maron to play the bass line. At the time, I was in a band with Jonathan called Groove Collective. When he came in to the play the bass line, it changed everything. I played the keyboards and a guitar lick or two that was sampled into the MPC as a repetitive part of the groove. When we got the studio, the arrangement, breaks, stops, and drum beats were all done. It was just about getting the live musicians to come in there to do their parts. Stuart Matthewman came in and played some guitar parts. We had some really good musicians. We did this all in one day. We were well prepared when we finally went into the studio. A lot of the preproduction work was done to make sure we were ready to go once we went to Electric Lady to start working. Our approach was very old school. We did our homework.

You mentioned earlier that you were around to add some music to other songs on the album.

Stuart Matthewman: Yeah. I wasn’t around for some of them when they were first being constructed, but I came in during the period of when they were doing overdubs and vocals. For instance, on the track “Ascension,” there would be a guide vocal and the main track down, then I’d come in to play some guitar on top of it. On other songs, I did the same thing and played my sax on them. I did the little guitar riff at the beginning of “Ascension” and the guitar solo. He had me to play saxophone on a bunch of the songs, too. There were other players on the songs. He brought in this guy named Frederico [Pena] to play keyboards on some of my tracks as well. People were interchanging. I’d play on other people’s tracks and other people would play on mine. There weren’t any egos while we were creating these songs.

Can you name some of the instruments you used in creating the music for the songs on this album?

Stuart Matthewman: On Urban Hang Suite, I used a Fender Telecaster on a few of the tracks or a Gibson Goldtop Les Paul guitar. As far as the programming goes, I used Cubase. I could record my bass into Cubase and chop it and loop it up. Everything was in my computer including drum samples. I used some acoustic classical guitar on “Whenever Wherever Whatever.” I used a wah-wah pedal and a thing called a touch wah, which is like a pedal that gives a sound of a wah-wah without using your foot. It does it automatically. It’s funny because Maxwell ended up having Wah Wah Watson on the album. He was the guitar player for Marvin Gaye; he was a huge influence on me as well.

When you were working with Maxwell on this album, did he play any instruments?

Itaal Shur: Well, I heard all the songs from the album because I was hanging out with him a lot. I think I played a couple things on keyboards for “Sumthin’ Sumthin’.” He would share songs with me in their nascent form. Something people don’t know is that Maxwell plays different instruments. From what I remember, he worked more on his demos and put things together from his little home studio. The song I wrote for him I don’t remember him playing on it. We worked out everything that I was playing to a T. He was very hands on. He’d say, “I don’t like that chord. This sounds better here.” He’d pick and choose what sounded the best to him. Maxwell is old school in the sense that he likes to make decisions when he records and not leave things to be interpreted in multiple ways later down the line.

How would you describe the collaboration process and working relationship that existed between you and Maxwell during the making of this album?

Stuart Matthewman: He was very musical. He played a little guitar and keyboards. He knew he didn’t want to be the one playing the instruments. He wanted to be the front man and to surround himself with great musicians. His approach was pretty similar to Sade’s. Sade’s not a guitar or keyboard player, but she has really good taste. Maxwell would pick up on things that I’d be playing and want to use it. He was very much involved with the production of the music. We were confident with the way everything was sounding. Actually, the record company sat on the album for a year. We had the album finished before D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar came out. They put some stuff out in Europe first and worked it like that. It was very frustrating for us because we’d finished the record and wanted it to come out. I think they were trying to figure out how to market it. We recorded the songs for this album in a small room at my place into a laptop, including his vocals, and I mixed it that way in my home, too. He had an amazing voice and amazing control of his voice. He could sing quietly or loudly all the way through his range. Most singers if they’re singing low, they can sing quieter, but if they sing higher, they have to sing louder. Maxwell could effortlessly go through his whole range. It was something I had never come across before. He had an amazing pitch.

Itaal Shur: There was a similar ethos that was happening around that time. All of us were into soul, funk, and classic music. Hip-hop was sampling that stuff, so we wanted to actually play it, but we wanted our sound to fit in on hip-hop radio stations. We made sure that we didn’t play things with too many notes but still sounded live. None of that could have happened without a great singer like Maxwell. We were heavily influenced by Marvin Gaye. I think Marvin is who Maxwell really identified with the most. We would listen to a lot of Marvin Gaye and other classic music like Sade, Kate Bush, Tears for Fears, and Mary Jane Girls. We also listened to Brandy, TLC, and Mary J. Blige. I remember he said one day, “We can’t have that open cymbal from that “Impeach the President” beat.” At that time, it seems like everyone was using that beat. He was working with Peter Mokran, so R. Kelly was a big influence, too. There was just a hodge podge, man. When I was working with Maxwell, I’d put on a beat and start playing something, and he’d say, “Yeah. I like that. Let’s go here with it.” It was about working together in the same room and coming up with a groove that fit the vibe of where we were going. Maxwell was sculpting this record to have a certain sound because he wanted to have that lover man appeal, as opposed to the Lenny Kravitz and Prince’s universal pop thing. He wanted to get his audience first, then he could do whatever he wanted.

Give me some insight into the creation of the songs you co-wrote with him for this album.

Stuart Matthewman: On “Whenever Wherever Whatever,” I started off doing part of the chord sequence in the song, and Maxwell said, “That sounds nice. What is that?” Then, he started singing, and while he was singing, I was changing the chords around what he was singing. We wrote the song together while I was playing an acoustic guitar. We decided to keep it really simple. We added a little bit of a synth piano to it and some strings from the keyboard. There’s a funny story about this song. When we mixed the song, there was a guy from Columbia Records that was going to come down to listen to what we were doing. We spent all day mixing this song with Mike Pela. At the end of it, we thought it sounded so beautiful. It ended up being a single and they put out a video for it. But when we mixed it and the guy from the record company came by to listen to it, we proudly played it for him. At the end of the song, he said, “It sounds great. How far along are you with this recording?” [laughs] We were like, “Oh my God, really?” He thought we were still recording it. I think he expected it to have this big drum sound with synths.

“Welcome” came from a drum beat that I had. It was a drum loop, then I was playing my bass and I came up with a bass line for the track. No one really used a bass with a guitar pick. It was kind of a thing that was done in the ’70s. Musicians didn’t really do that type of thing anymore, so we thought it would be cool to play the bass riff with a guitar pick. And gradually, I added some chords and different sounds. When we went to do overdubs, we ended up getting live percussion on it which always helped if you had a drum loop. We used to do that with Sade as well.

Itaal Shur: On “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” we were using the MPC and we had some things already programmed into it, but the chorus of the song wasn’t written yet. He had the verses done, and we spent time doing other choruses for this song. At first, the song was called something else totally. Later on, it turned into “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder).” This song went through three or four different chorus ideas. He knew that the track had potential, even though it didn’t have a solid chorus. We kept making the track better and better, so that when we went into the studio, he could spend a little more time trying out some choruses on a good microphone. He did a lot of work on his own. There were certain songs that were the influencers of this song. At the time, we were hanging out at the clubs and there were classic soul songs that were the benchmarks that we were looking to update. The main one was “Before I Let Go” by Maze. That song was a big influence on “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder”). If you listen to the beginning of “Ascension,” the melodic melisma he does with his voice is very similar to “Before I Let Go.” We weren’t just throwing down a groove and trying stuff. We were old school. We had a song, and we wanted to make sure at bar 32 a drum fill would be there. We worked out the arrangements. Back then, we went into a larger studio to cut the live instruments so we could get a better sound. The majority of the song was already mapped out. It was just a question of filling in the blanks with the live musicians instead of the programmed parts.

Take me through your process of programming the tracks for this album.

Stuart Matthewman: I’ve always used Cubase because I’m not really a keyboard player at all, but I do all my programming with the keyboard. I can’t sit down and play the piano for my family at Christmas. I’ve done film scores and I can write music gradually on a piano or keyboard. When I was playing against the computer, I could see what I was playing and I could change the notes around or tighten things up if I didn’t play it very well. It’s just the way I’ve always worked. With guitar, I’ve always liked to keep things simple. I’d play along with the backing track and I’d do a guitar take all the way through the song. I’ll listen back, and I’ll just choose little bits that I like and move them around the song and maybe repeat them. It’s always been a cut and paste type of thing with me.

Did you guys have a set studio routine for when you were in the studio working?

Stuart Matthewman: We were kind of all over the place. We didn’t have a massive budget, so we would get studio time when we could. I used to do most of my parts in the control room. When I played my sax, I went into the live room. All my guitar and keyboard parts were done in the control room where the engineers sat. I’d have my computer set up. For me, it’s easier to record that way.

Itaal Shur: We would get started in the afternoon, and we worked really fast. There wasn’t a lot of time spent hanging out. We were aiming to get the job done. We went into the studio to work and to make stuff happen. Sometimes, he’d walk in the door and say, “I have a great idea. Let’s start working on it.” He had a complete vision for things he wanted in his career. Mitchell Cohen, an older, middle-aged Jewish guy from the label, gave Maxwell the freedom to be himself. It was a real plus.

Are there any interesting behind-the-scenes stories that happened in the studio while you guys were in the recording process?

Stuart Matthewman: Well, everyone calls Maxwell Max now. But when he first came out, he didn’t like people calling him Max, especially if you didn’t know him. It wasn’t like he was being a superstar or anything like that. It’s weird when you first meet someone and they automatically shorten your name, you know what I mean. I just remember Maxwell was doing some vocals, and we had an assistant engineer who was in the studio just for that day to put his vocals down on tape. While Maxwell was singing, the engineer pressed the talk back and said, “Hey, Max. Max! Let’s do another take.” And there was this long silence. He didn’t say anything, so the engineer pressed the button again and asked, “Hey, Max. Do you want to do another take?” Again, there was silence. So I went over to the engineer and said, “Try saying Maxwell.” The engineer asked again, “Hey, Maxwell. Do you want do another take?” Maxwell answered, “Yeah.” [laughs] He wasn’t being a diva or anything. I think he was a bit irritated.

As you look back twenty years later on the impact this album had on popular culture, what are your feelings about being involved with its construction and its place in history?

Itaal Shur: Maxwell really fought for me to be on this album because I didn’t have a name as a songwriter or producer at that time. He really pushed for me to be involved. We were in the scene but the label wanted big names to be a part of his record. I have to give it to him and thank him for pushing for what he believed in. I will always be grateful. Being a part of this album is something I’ll never forget. Maxwell is one of the best artists from the past twenty years and there is a reason for that because he is not just a great singer but a great entertainer. I think what Maxwell was trying to do was to capture a bit of that Michael Jackson and Prince universal sound with this album. It just made people happy and the music was multigenerational. It was a special time for all of us because we had an outlet for our creative expression which was neo-soul. When we did “Ascension,” I thought it was real music, but I thought it would never be popular. Then it became popular. I was totally surprised by it.

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