“I’m Cold As Hell, You Feel Me?”: An Interview with Maxo Kream

Sun-Ui Yum sits down with Maxo Kream to talk growing up in Houston, his new tape, 'Punken,' and his family.
By    January 24, 2018

Maxo Kream’s music is distinctively and unsettlingly paranoid. The constant barrage of syllables and drumkit strikes aren’t arrhythmic—they’re on beat and relentless. Punctuation is a rare commodity, and Maxo’s breathless delivery swiftly becomes contagious. Paired with the unusual clarity of his voice and enunciation, the effect is powerful.

When I meet Maxo Kream, it’s not in the type of atmosphere that his music has taught me to associate with him—silence that always threatens gunshots, the scent of karo, tires screeching on Alief asphalt. Instead, it’s deep amidst the ceaseless hum of midtown Manhattan, at a table perched on the fringes of a food hall that just manages to sidestep the swirling crowds summoned by their 1 PM lunch break. But Maxo himself is calming and easy to talk to. He speaks rapidly, but never retreats on what he’s articulating. There’s resolution of the kinetic energy transmitted in his music through his assured demeanor.

Ever since he put Joey Bada$$ and LAMB$ on the same tape (2015’s Maxo 187), Maxo’s always been difficult to situate next to his peers. There’s an unmistakable adherence to traditional rap values—it’s not surprising to hear that both Jeezy and Nas rank among his biggest influences—but he’s also a sneering street rapper that’s also shooting videos with Father and Vince Staples in the A$AP mansion, the self-proclaimed bridge between SoundCloud and the streets. Accordingly, he’s been one of the most interesting rappers to arise in the last few years: He’s grizzled, unmistakably technically proficient, and the type of glue that makes sense for the mid-2010s rap scene.

But after 2016’s The Persona Tape, Maxo Kream has been unusually quiet, just another name that’s faded from the 2dopeboyz/Complex/Reddit conveyor belt. His output’s been largely limited to the brilliant “Grannies” (which appears on this album but was released last January) and a small smattering of assorted singles and features. But while we watched (or didn’t watch) him recede, Maxo was living—turbulently. In late 2016, he was arrested along with seven others on two counts of organized criminal acts, snatched from a Danny Brown tour date, and in late summer last year Hurricane Harvey whipped through and left his hometown under water while he was pinned down states away.

The core of Maxo Kream’s music has always been his narratives, and so that disconnect between how little we saw and how much we missed is immediately jarring on Punken, Maxo’s first project in over a year. As Maxo tells me himself later, it’s a project dedicated to fleshing out his persona, ensuring his fans understand the full scope of his decisions and the consequences.

Even if it doesn’t subscribe to the same sort of bleak and gray worldview that Maxo 187 did, it’s by some margin the best project he’s ever released. It’s an exercise in stretched musical boundaries: “Love Drugs” is the type of song that is unique to the Maxo catalog, collapsing all over its three minutes and change, and “Pop Another” is a Teddy-Walton-flipped Tame Impala sample that’s already been gobbled up by publications. And for the first time, the Maxo Kream persona seems to accept vulnerability—to the tumult of his family life, to percocets and syrup, to betrayal by his brothers for Coca-Cola and cigarettes.

The narrative of “maturation” for a rapper often comes with uncomfortable implications: that they’ve learned from their mistakes, that they’ve grown up, that they now “know better.” Maxo holds no regard for such paradigms. The title is a nod to his childhood nickname, and in retreading the path back to those years, the album does revisit familiar themes: drug use and abuse, coldly-committed crimes, and more tales from the constant and ever-expanding cast of the Biosah family. But ruthlessness isn’t enough anymore. Earlier this month, we sat down and talked about Punken, his family, and why he tells the stories he does over a couple burgers and a Coke that arrives twenty minutes too late. —Sun-Ui Yum


How’s New York? How’re you doing?


Maxo Kream: It’s cool, it’s cold, man—but yeah, I like it, though. I hope I get some good food, I don’t know if there’s good food out here.


You ever been here before?


Maxo Kream: Yeah, I’ve been to New York plenty of times. This is the first—when I first started traveling, this is the first city I came to on my own.


What are you doing in New York this time around?


Maxo Kream: I got Yams Day—you know, RIP A$AP Yams, I’m gonna pop out for that. I just dropped my tape, so I just got a media run, you feel me?


So you’re from Houston, right—Alief?


Maxo Kream: H-Town, SWAT, Alief. Yeah, that’s me out there.


Were you there your whole life—born there, raised there?


Maxo Kream: Nah, I been back and forth from there and Fort Bend. Fort Bend’s like the suburbs, so I’ve been from Alief—that’s the hood, the hood part of Alief—to the suburb part of Fort Bend, back and forth, back and forth. Half-and-half of my life.


When’d you start moving around?


Maxo Kream: Every time my dad got locked up, we’ve been going back to the hood. Every time, we hop back and forth.


How’d you like school?


Maxo Kream: I hated school. I didn’t really go to school like that. I was skipping, you know what I’m saying? Gangbanging, hanging with the wrong crowd. When I went to Kempner, I started going to homecoming, stuff like that. Forget about school, I went from more of a bully, a fighter, to being like a class clown, everybody loved me, best dressed, rocking BAPE, Supreme, you know. Normal shit.


This is a time period you talk about a lot in your music and your interviews, which is about twelve to thirteen.


Maxo Kream: It’s more like twelve to twenty-one, really.


I know you’ve said in an interview that you felt like before all of the stuff that went on around then like your dad getting locked up, you felt like your parents were good enough to shield you from what was going on.


Maxo Kream: Yeah, yeah, especially my dad. I feel like if he had been around, I would’ve went to damn near Harvard. Some shit like that. He was real strict, you know, because I’m Nigerian, so they really, really believe in education. He was real strict, very dominant—like he would scream, and I would just be scared of his voice.

Then when he left, that guidance and that sense of father figure was gone. Plus, my older brother was ten years older than me, so he was in jail too. So I ain’t have no big brother, no dad, I had to go out there on my own and learn. Even when I stayed in the hood, I ain’t know that we was staying in the hood until my dad. Because I ain’t see it like that. You know, growing up, you don’t know. It’s just life, it’s just what you see in front of you.


What’s it like for you to look back on that part of your life?


Maxo Kream: Man, really—I look back on it, I’ll be like, “Damn, I really had a tight childhood.” Growing up was fun. Now you’re grown with bills, taxes, all that shit. You feel me?


Were you close with your family back then too? How was your relationship with your family members?


Maxo Kream: Man, we all tight. I got a real tight family. You know how families can be separated, not really talk. Nah, we all—me, my brothers, my sisters, my aunties, my momma, all of them, we all close on my mom’s side. On my dad’s side, they don’t fuck around with each other. They be on some “grrr,” competition type shit. On my black side, or my mom’s side, they’re more family first. No matter what we go through, family-stick-together type shit.


Was everybody in Alief?


Maxo Kream: Nah, I got people on the Broadside, Missouri City. Most of them were in Alief, though, between Alief and southwest. But it’s all the same shit, the southwest side of Houston, because you got Alief and Southwest Foundry: the southwest. That shit is the same, we’re just two different sides to it. But yeah, I got a lot of people on the southwest side. The southwest and north side.


Okay, cool. So is the grandma that you rap about your mom’s mother?


Maxo Kream: Yeah. My grandma on my dad’s side died when I was young, R.I.P. Ms. Biosah. But yeah, that’s on my mom’s side, on “Grannies” and stuff. She actually heard the tape, she heard the final shit.


Really?


Maxo Kream: Yeah, like “Why are you always…” She didn’t even say anything about the roaches at the end, she was talking about the rats. “Why’re you talking about the rats we have?” I’m like, “Grandma, we have rat traps all throughout the house,” and she’s like, “Well, ooo-ooo.” She’s more, she’s proud. She doesn’t want everyone to know all of our business all like that, but you know, that’s what makes the fans relate and I’m not gonna sugarcoat shit. You know how it is.


What did your mom say about it?


Maxo Kream: She called me—she loved it, she supports it. She’s behind it. My dad too. Because it’s something…and it’s legal. So he’s behind it.


So are you and your mom and your dad all still close?


Maxo Kream: Hell yeah. I talked to my mom before I came out here or I talked to her yesterday, and my dad, I talked to him three days ago and he was telling me he talked to my little sister about college, and she wants to move out of the dorm and shit. She be saying, “What’s going on in the city.” She goes to school in the countrytown, so I said I’d be a big brother, call ’em in, make sure my little sister’s on point. Tell her that my life is a façade, this is real, you know what I’m saying.


What was your relationship with your dad like immediately after he went to jail for the first time?


Maxo Kream: I was more like, “Damn, nigga, you’re just going to leave me like that?” I was lost, I’m a “junior,” I was real close to my dad. By the time he came out, it was over with. All that dominance that he thought he had—I listened to his words, but I was too caught up in the streets, so far in the streets that…you know, I was gangbanging and shit like that. So things he’d say to me like, “Oh, I’ll take your Xbox”—nigga, I’mma go out there, I’mma go slam and go get it myself. I really got like, renegade reckless. I felt like I was the man.

I’ve been the same size since I was thirteen. We even got into a couple scuffles and shit, get into it, bump heads, because we’re both very dominant. So our relationship switched from him being my dad to him being a partner, a friend, but he’s still got that…when he tells me something, I’m still going to listen. But all that screaming, trying to whoop me—I remember he tried to whoop me, I took the belt from him and threw it, pushed him. It was over with for that.


When did your brother end up getting out of jail?


Maxo Kream: Ju? He went to jail at eighteen, got out at twenty, then went back at twenty, got out when he was twenty-six. So I was like, sixteen, fifteen when he got out. Something like that. Around that time, my dad got back out too, so I was running over my dad, but my brother had the prison mentality. So our little kid shit I used to do with him, that I thought was cool, he’d beat my ass and tell me, “Nah, nigga, this is how you’re supposed to move.” Like, beat my ass.


I was just wondering because as I listen to your music, it’s the same names that come through, obviously, but I feel that it’s all filtered to me through events that happen, so it’s cool to hear the actual relationships. So I guess the big story I wanted to ask you about is what you rapped about on the second verse on “Roaches,” just curious what that was like for you outside of the words.


Maxo Kream: You talking about Hurricane Harvey?


Yeah.


Maxo Kream: Mind-blowing. I couldn’t believe it. You know, you read shit in the news like that all the time, but you’d never think it’d happen to you. It happens. It brought my family closer, it made me realize what I had. Don’t take nothing for granted, shit like that. It brought the city together. My fans actually helped rescue my people.


Yeah, what exactly happened there?


Maxo Kream: It was like, rescue crews and boats going around the neighborhood rescuing. So they helped rescue my family, and as the water went down, they helped clean out the house. When they found out that it was my house, my actual mom’s house, they went extra overboard helping me. Obviously I wouldn’t want them to just help me like that—help everyone, because the whole city was down. It wasn’t just the hood, the hood and the suburbs—the city was underwater, like there were alligators and all that shit, we’re country. But that really made me appreciate life and made me go harder with the music. So it let me react and just put it into my music.


When you were a kid, was music a part of your life?


Maxo Kream: Yeah, my mama loved Tupac. She was playing Tupac a lot. I went and discovered B.I.G. on my own. Except for his radio hits, I discovered a lot of B.I.G. on my own. Grew up on Tupac, my older brother liked DJ Screw and Houston music, Lil’ Keke, Southside. But when I started jamming music, I think the first artist I was ever really into was Nelly. “Andale, andale.” From Nelly, I went to The Game, 50 Cent. The Game was the reason I started rapping, between the Game and 50 Cent and Young Jeezy.


What about listening to that music made you want to rap?


Maxo Kream: I mean, the Game was gangbanging. I was gangbanging at that time. So he was in Cali, but I felt it. 50 Cent was just some tough bully. You got me fucked up, because my mom used to love Ja Rule, and my dad used to be jealous, like, “Turn this goddamn Ja Rule off!” So then when 50 Cent came out, coming at Ja Rule’s neck, I loved that shit. Like, “Yeah, fuck all that.” Ja Rule was a gangster, but he was always singing and shit. So 50 Cent, the Game…tight.

But when Jeezy came out, that was around the time I was at my grandma’s house when all the shit was going on with my big brother, he just got out, I’m full-fledged in the streets. Back then, they would have called me a dope dealer. I think my generation was like, “I’m a trap baby.” The first…when T.I. came out with Trap Muzik and all that. So I was going through all that, and since then, trap music and shit like that. I was actually writing rhymes, I wrote a wack-ass song.


When?


Maxo Kream: 2005. It was kind of a sample, like, “Last time I checked I was the man on these streets/They call me residue, I leave blow on these beats.”


Is there a first song that you ever listened to that really caught your attention?


Maxo Kream: There was a song on the Ruff Ryders CD. It was a song with DMX, Swizz Beatz, and Drag-On. “Do y’all niggas bust ya guns?/Hell yeah, we bust our guns/Do y’all fuck them ‘till they cum?/Hell yeah…” You know that song? I went to school and got suspended. I was like, “Hell yeah, we make them cum”—I didn’t even know what that was.


I feel like nobody is ever going to listen to your music and think, “Oh yeah, that guy is from L.A., he’s from Atlanta.” To anybody listening to your music, it’s pretty clear that you’re from Houston and that legacy is in your music. I was curious if you feel like there’s anything specific you took away from Houston rap.


Maxo Kream: Anything I took away, or took from?


I suppose both, anything that you feel influenced your music.


Maxo Kream: I mean, storytelling. The Geto Boyz, Scarface, and them niggas. I do a lot of storytelling. But that could come from the South or from the East Coast. Different flows and shit like that, I feel like E-40 got a lot of different flows. E-40 didn’t have the same flow on no song. But as far as the South, Chamillionaire. With the punchlines. The punchlines were crazy. Him and Paul Wall used to kill shit, back on the mixtapes and shit. I try to mix all that together, and then like, a lot of my storytelling comes from…the Game was my favorite rapper. Him and 50 Cent. Game, 50 Cent, Nas, Cassidy, Jeezy. Gucci. Shit like that. A little bit of all that shit.


Something that I thought was real interesting that you mentioned in another interview I was reading was your motivation for wanting to tell your own story. You’ve got a whole sector of your fans who are from a whole different lifestyle as you, and you really want to convey your story to them, so I just wanted to ask you about that.


Maxo Kream: Telling my story lets it be relatable. Whether you’re like, you work a nine-to-five, you’re a paralegal, you’re a prostitute, you’re the President of the United States, whatever the fuck. You feel me? Everybody got their own problems. Nobody’s problems are bigger than another one’s.

You might have an exam going, you might be trying to pass the bar. Or, it might be somebody who lost their friend and want to retaliate on murder. But no problem is bigger than the rest, everybody got a problem. Because you might get over your shit with your partner and move on, but that person that can’t pass the bar might commit suicide. We all got problems, we all deal with them, we’re all human, we all laugh, we all cry, we all switch. Everybody’s the same, we all got feelings. Some niggas be acting like they’re too hard. Nah, fuck that shit. We’re all human.


Yeah, absolutely. Something else that I noticed reading through reviews that people have written about your music is that people would be like, “Maxo Kream is cold. He’s scary. He’s remorseless.” And I thought that was interesting because I feel like that does your storytelling a disservice; I feel like you’re good about being vivid and human and honest about all sides of the stories you’re telling. Given that your motivation for telling stories is that you want the people who listen to your music who aren’t from your lifestyle to understand where you come from, to relate, does that ever bother you? Being painted as being cold or scary or remorseless?


Maxo Kream: It is what it is. If that’s what you get from me, that’s what you get from me. But I’m just being honest. I’m really funny and goofy, I’m really cool. I used to like Pokémon cards. Goddammit, I like Supreme, I don’t like BAPE no more. You’re just gonna love me or you’re gonna hate me. There’s a time period of my life where I was very grimy on that shit. That’s why I always go back and reflect, show both sides. But I know real stone-cold killers who are hilarious, the goofiest niggas. It’s all about how you treat your inner circle. On the outside, you might be, “Ooo-ooo.” But your inner circle, you feel me, it is what it is. Yeah, I’ve been getting that a lot. It’s been like that since first grade. Maybe it’s the way I look, the shit I talk about. It’s the truth.


what goes through your mind when you listen to old music you’ve made?


Maxo Kream: I’ll be like, “Damn, I was just spittin’ spitta.” I was super duper duper duper duper—man, I can still do that, but it’s hard to tell stories when you do that shit. But I can still do that. As a matter of fact, on the next tape, I’m going to bring some of that back. I’mma bring that back. And a lot of fans be like, “I want you to go in!” But you know what I’m saying, you want the old me, go jam my old shit. I can only bring you what I’m going through currently. What’s on my mind.


There’s been a lot of shit going on in your life the last couple years—so at any point, if I ask you something you can’t talk about or don’t want to, let me know. I guess something that I thought was interesting was, looking back at your catalog now, in this “new generation,” you’re one of the only project-oriented rappers. You’re one of the only ones who center their music around projects. The only single I can think of that you put out that didn’t end up on a project is the Lil Uzi track. Is that intentional, something that you mean to do?


Maxo Kream: I’mma give you a secret. That’s on a project coming out soon.


Is that music you’ve made recently too?


Maxo Kream: Yeah, it’s music that didn’t go on this tape because of the flow of the tape, but it’s so good, I’m doing a project around that. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m still gonna have singles, but I’m just gonna be very project-driven. I don’t want to bite my tongue, but you’re definitely gonna hear more from me this year than last year, for sure. Last year was—it was “5200”, and goddamn “Grannies” and the Uzi song. But you guys gonna see more projects this year, for sure for sure.


Is there a reason you put out your music through projects so much, and don’t just drop shit every week?


Maxo Kream: I mean, I think it’s…I’m a ‘90s baby, but just like how I said the Game, 50 Cent, I’m real stuck in that era of projects and shit like that. Like, bro, I could be jamming Nas, Papoose, then Lil Pump come on, Lil B might come on, goddamn Trouble and Gucci, and goddamn, maybe some Jay-Z, I don’t really jam him like that, I’m a Nas fan, but I like music. I just jammed Limp Bizkit, shit like that. Remember Linkin Park had that one song I used to fuck with. Kid Rock, shit like that. I love music.


When you’re listening to music on your own time, do you think most of it’s rap?


Maxo Kream: I really got into listening to music because I used to control the classroom, like, the teacher couldn’t even teach. I stole the iPod, gave it to my nigga, he put the music on, and teachers would actually let me listen to the iPod because I’d be talking, disrupting the class. So shit, I used to have music on that shit. I remember the first one I stole during summer school, I put Dedication 2 on there with Lil Wayne. So, that’s what really started me being deep into it. I mean, like I said, I jammed the Game and 50 Cent, it was on CDs and shit, but when I stole the iPod, you feel me…


Something else that really struck me with the new album is that you’re always telling stories, but I feel like the stories you tell on this album are a lot more honest than the stories you’ve told before. I think the one that always stands out to me is on “Grannies,” when you talk about your uncle and you say in the same bar, he’s the one that you looked up to the most but you’ve also seen him stab somebody.


Maxo Kream: He was my favorite uncle, I didn’t look up to him, those guys were bums.


I was just curious if you feel like your approach has changed, or if you feel like it’s just a reflection of where you’re at.


Maxo Kream: I mean, you know, with Maxo 187 and The Persona Tape, I’d be like, “Yeah, I’ll come through, kill your whole family.” Nah, but this is more like, this is the back side of it. Like, you do this, this will happen. Be more realistic, you know what I’m saying, bro? Goddamn, so many kids are looking up to me. Like, “Yeah, I did this, but this what happened.” Behind that. People telling you over there, “Go punch his bitchass.” But I’m not telling you, you’re gonna go to jail, end up getting tased, shit like that. People wanna hear that, but a lot of people go through that kind of shit. Everything I spit is real, you feel me? So I’mma be real. Even all the shit, the Maxo 187 shit, all like the bang bang shit, all that shit was real. So I gotta give you the real side too. There’s pros and cons to everything.


You said in an interview that you feel like you’re the bridge between the streets and SoundCloud, and I was curious how you see yourself between that.


Maxo Kream: I could do a song with Playboi Carti, and then I could do a song with goddamn 03 Greedo. I could do a song with Uzi, and then go do a song with goddamn J-Dawg, or Trouble, or Gucci, Scoota. Or I could do a song with Fredo, and then go do a song with Father.


Yeah, one of the first times I saw a song title by you it was “Cell Boomin” featuring Father, and I was confused—like, is this a SoundCloud dude? Last question, how are you feeling right now in general?


Maxo Kream: I’m cold as hell, you feel me? I’m cold, but I’m feeling great. Hell yeah, making money off speaking the English language. Shit, fucking right, I’m really gonna speak some more.