Bars, Beats and Hip-Hops Underground Rebirth: An Interview With Maxo

I recently read an article on what hip-hop fans and industry professionals have called the “death of hip-hop,” covering how for the first half of this year, not a single hip-hop song or album claimed the number one spot on the Billboard 200 or Hot 100. Any true hip-hop fan can tell you that this is a terribly inaccurate and surface-level analysis of the state of the genre.

Yes, over the past three years, we have seen a rampant decrease in mainstream, commercial raps, but the place where great hip-hop is made is thriving more than ever: the underground. As the genre moves away from large-scale releases from artists like Drake and Travis Scott, the movement of rappers whose masterpieces exist below the charts is growing at a rate never seen before, and I cannot think of a more exciting example than Maxo.

While the L.A.-based rapper is no rookie to the game, with his mixtape origins dating all the way back to 2015, he remains a fresh source of consistently introspective bars that flow over beats ranging from classic Madlib production (“48 feat. Pink Siifu”) to trippy, atmospheric instrumentals from the one and only Beat Butcha (“2 for $10”). Fresh off the release of his final Def Jam record Even God Has A Sense Of Humour, and subsequent solo album Debbie's Son, I got the chance to catch Maxo at his Montreal gig, and even managed to ask him a few questions over Zoom the next day. After this experience, It's apparent that the rapper is in the midst of his renaissance. 

After an electric opening performance from the Washington, DC rapper Sideshow, who I highly recommend checking out, our small crowd of 30-odd people were treated to one of the most unique evenings La Sala Rossa has ever had the honour of housing. Within his 20-minute set, Maxo only used the stage as a table for his drinks. Performing directly from the floor, embracing and rapping along with the crowd, Maxo gave an intimate performance that will be remembered by me, and undoubtedly by the rest of the crowd, much longer than any mainstream, stadium tour, hip-hop concert will be.

As he moved from bar, to stage, to the middle of the floor, Maxo kept up with every bar and beat from his newest album, crafting an atmosphere that can only be described as trippy. Almost as suddenly as the rapper's set began, it ended, with Maxo abruptly walking out of the venue's front entrance, performing a veritable Irish goodbye. That wasn't enough for the Montreal crowd, however, who followed him out and met him on the venue's front steps, then coaxed him back into the venue to get a few pictures and have some truly genuine conversations. While this intimate and personal style of performance is nearly opposite to what I expected coming in, it made the message of Maxo’s mind-bending, melancholic music hit harder than ever before.

Maxo solidified the power of his live performance when I got the chance to sit down with him, as he drove down to Toronto for his next performance. “It communicates the best, it gets [the message] across the best […] The full energy presence, you really feel it,” he stated contemplatively, with the same insightful haze he bore in his performance the night before. There's a certain serenity to Maxo that shines through in his music, but it's not until you have a conversation with him that you see that he seems genuinely at peace.

He did chirp up when I brought up the idea of a “Maxo renaissance” that seems to be going on right now, with the artist having dropped two albums, performed at Flog Gnaw, and put out a performance film in Berlin, all in the past 9 months. “I feel like I just got into the NBA, or any professional realm. Everything before this was practice… like college.”

Maxo continued by touching on how he is the only music man in his family, which meant that there was nobody to really learn from on his come-up. “I had to learn first hand, going through a lot of things… But I think now I’m at the point where I'm intentional with it, my language is meeting up to my skill, what I want to say I'm able to say… I’m becoming more aware of it.”

Aside from the obvious upgrade to Maxo’s lyrical ability on both of his recent albums, there is a notable shift in production, from the beat selection, to the song composition, to the overall tone of the tracks. While this is partially due to his sonic evolution, it can mainly be attributed to his utilisation of a much broader catalogue of producers, which includes some fairly big names. “I'd be cool if I just made a whole tape with Madlib, I see that in the foreseeable future.”  While working with big-name producers certainly makes for great music, Maxo’s style really shines when he's combining forces with a longtime collaborator, who produced the rapper's entire 2018 album SMILE. “Me and Lastnamedavid been building something from like a skeletal place, ‘cause also that's my homie. Like I damn near grew up with him.” This is evident in much of Maxo's music, especially on SMILE, where every song seems to flow together, like one coherent piece of work.

In terms of a full switch up in sound, however, Maxo seemed a little more hesitant; especially in the punk direction that the underground seems to be moving towards, (such as, Paris Texas and AG Club).  “I'm not no punk”, Maxo explained, “I would more so probably dive into some house shit,” which I'm sure would be a welcome pivot in sound for any fan of the scene.

Even after working with such big names in production, Maxo still seems to have a very philosophical outlook on the music industry as a whole that you don't see too often anymore, especially when it comes to his influences. “Really, what influences me is more so real people, real things… actual people I grew up with and I get to talk to rather than just music.” After our interview ended, due mainly to Maxo’s obligatory tour bus driving duty, I was left mildly stunned at what I had just witnessed: a truly humble, down-to-earth rapper, on the verge of becoming what can only be described as underground royalty. 

After what I’ve seen and heard over the past couple of days, I can wholeheartedly endorse you checking out Maxo’s music. If you are a fan of any kind of hip-hop, or poignant, soul-stirring music in general, I cannot advocate for anyone more. Check out Maxo’s two 2023 releases, Even God Has A Sense Of Humour and Debbie's Son anywhere you find your music. While you're at it, keep an eye out for Maxo's next stop to the 514; if it's anything like the experience at La Sala Rosa this week, it's definitely something you don't want to miss.