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How Maxwell’s First Single From “Urban Hang Suite” Inspired Pharoahe Monch

Maxwell Monch

It’s a time honored tradition in hip-hop production to take something meant to inspire candle-lit copulation and transform it into a canvas for truculent and introspective prose. Typically it is some dusty, well-worn platter unearthed from a matriarch’s basement, an obscure record store or nowadays your auntie’s iPod. But in rare cases songs that haven’t even seen Presidents change office have sent hip-hop artists running to their samplers.

On April 2, 1996 Maxwell’s debut Urban Hang Suite was unleashed on an unsuspecting populous after being held up in label limbo for over a year. The first single was a sultry declaration of carnal war with an equally prurient music video called “Til The Cops Come Knocking.”

There’s no doubt that the slow burning guitar and percussion stimulated many nights of Blockbuster and chill, but it also inspired a decidedly more recreational groove. Less than three years later Queens bred MC, singer and producer Pharoahe Monch was working on his solo debut Internal Affairs and used the song to tell the story of a local hoop star named Donovan who traded dribbling the rock for slinging rocks.

“I was never opposed to sampling recent songs as long as they embodied the vibe I was looking for,” Monch tells WatchLOUD of his decision to use the relatively new song (and he’s not lying). “Plus a lot of cats wasn’t checking for that coming from Pharoahe or Rawkus. The guitars just spoke to me in terms of what a good Queens story should sound like.”

For his beat Monch didn’t simply speed up the vocals and overdub some drums. In fact, the most prominent sound in the instrumental is actually his own voice.

“I did that beat on the MPC 2000 XL and actually sung the note that he did in the beginning directly into the machine and transposed it. So those sounds you hear is actually me singing pitched into 5 notes. I took it to Lee Stone and transferred the drums into the SP-1200 so I could do the drum rolls old school style on the SP, running my fingers across the pads.”

However, there was one element of the song that Monch did reach back into his childhood for. On the hook to “Queens” Monch reinterprets the melody from a rare Flintstone’s song, an ode to their stone age stomping grounds called the “Bedrock Twitch.” When he sings “There’s a place I know where the people go, where you can catch dough and chill on the low, in south side…Queens, Queens,” he was channeling Fred’s singing alter ego, Rock Roll.

“I loved that song and melody and Fred murdered that vocally,” says Monch. “Shit like that is what hip-hop is all about i.e. Nice & Smooth / Das EFX that’s what we grew up on.”

The finished product remains one of the hidden gems on the now out of print 1999 album and was given the thumbs up by Maxwell.

“Maxwell ran up on me at some event in [NY bar] Joe’s Pub and said ‘Yo, I love what you did with that joint.’ He gave me a fist punch and kept it moving. I was like ‘Oh shit, Thanks!’”

Monch is among the millions of fans waiting for the follow-up to Maxwell’s 2009 album, BLACKSummersNight. Is he looking for new material to sample?

“I’m not sure, depends on where my head space is. But I’m a huge fan and I admire his devotion to putting music out in a timely matter, music that you can tell is not contrived but totally from the soul,” he concludes with a knowing chuckle. “Reminds me of someone.”

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