“I Got a Different Power. I Don’t Play With It”: An Interview With Maxo

Pranav Trewn speaks to Maxo about collaborating with Pink Siifu and Liv.e, using music as therapy, signing to Def Jam and more.
By    March 23, 2023

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Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.

Maxo is not interested in any narratives about the “rap game” or his place in it. The artist – who for the last eight years has recorded pensive non-linear monologues over mid-fi loops – affirms to me instead the core tenants of his sense of self, which remain consistent despite any movements in his sound, label, or features. How Maxo describes “Maxo” is as someone grounded in his local soil, who treats his musical gifts with reverence, and is incapable of being influenced by outside forces. “I don’t really do the scene,” Maxo tells me over the phone, pushing back when I mention some of the other characters in underground rap that he draws comparison to. “I mean I love these people, bro, these my people – but I don’t know nothing about no scene.”

So before I inevitably editorialize, as I am wont as a journalist, let’s begin with the facts. Maxamillian Allen split his time growing up in Southern California across Ladera Heights and the “IE” (Inland Empire). He was inspired to rap by his brother Sharp, who Maxo still describes as “one of the best rappers I’ve ever known.” He recorded his first project, After Hours with a classmate at Chaffey College who made beats under the moniker VIK, and then together proceeded to develop their styles and ambitions alongside other friendship-forged collaborators around Los Angeles like lastnamedavid and Pink Siifu. In an off-hand reference coveting Def Jam on 2016’s path-breaking gold in the mud EP, he caught the attention of Mike Chavez, who signed him to the storied label that he has since made his home.

Sometime around 2019, after Earl Sweatshirt rebranded with the frayed Some Rap Songs and MIKE had accrued his second “Best New Music” designation, that style of homebrewed sample-swelled soul practiced by Maxo and others felt like a new calling – a distinct genre within hip-hop with its own ambassadors and luminaries. Introverted “old souls,” who subscribed to a personal-as-political brand of poetry, formed their own informal ecosystems of tapes and tours that appealed to the “Lofi Beats To Relax/Study To” generation – kids raised on music as more of an individualistic experience than a communal one.

It was in this moment that Maxo released his Def Jam debut, LIL BIG MAN, which put him in conversation with those artists’ expanding profiles and opened doors for him to perform alongside folks like Fly Anakin and Navy Blue, who recently followed Maxo in signing to the label. Yet in retrospect, the tape was always operating in a wave of its own, unique in the force of Maxo’s on-mic presence; rather than obscure himself in layered clouds of holographic loops, he molded every hook and rhyme scheme around the clarity of his insights. It’s in this intentionality that Maxo has distinguished his career, which takes on new stakes with last month’s Even God Has A Sense Of Humor.

The project first took shape with its cover art, a photograph of three lifecasted sculptures representing Maxo’s various senses of self, which together stand in stark contrast to the anonymous silhouette from LIL BIG MAN. The album reflects this directness in his self-presentation, processing through pointed spiritual moments from the rapper’s last four years, from a seminal trip to Senegal to the release of his breakthrough project, SMILE. While many of his long standing collaborators return to soundtrack his conclusions, he also expands the range of his beats through new partnerships with Kareem Riggins, who worked with Maxo on the lush instrumentation featured on four tracks, and Dom Maker of Mount Kimbie, who executive produced the record after an accidental studio run in with the rapper. The music seamlessly blends live performance with presets, blurring their edges into something that sounds both crisp and broken-in.

And while Maxo does not entertain the idea that he is part of a scene, he does subscribe to the notion of family, something he believes is the root of the success of his ongoing partnerships with Liv.e and Pink Siifu. Even God Has A Sense Of Humor frames the power of those connections. On “48,” Maxo and Pink Siifu ride a sparkling Madlib joint with a passed-off flow that feels as lived-in as a secret handshake. Liv.e, who’s acclaimed Girl in the Half Pearl was released just a few weeks earlier, decorates “Both Handed” and “Like I Don’t See U” with her cool harmonies, playfully shadowing Maxo’s restless headspace.

This time around, Maxo’s pen feels less searching than usual. Instead, his lyrics consolidate hard-earned lessons, carefully cataloging the wisdom he’s earned for safe-keeping. But rather than freeing, this knowledge weighs on Maxo’s disposition, and his stories of survival can feel more cautionary than celebratory. Beyond just the tone of his music, it’s a quality of his thinking that holds true in his day-to-day. “I could definitely have more fun with it,” he admits, refering how he has treated his growing status in rap. But his sense of purpose is absolute, and stands apart from how he believes others disregard their gifts: “It’s hard for me not to take it serious ’cause of where I come from. Like, I can’t play with this.”

Yet Maxo is currently in high spirits, eagerly awaiting the months ahead of traveling the country on tour as he slowly emerges from the relative isolation of recording the album that will take him to those places. He answered the phone with a sing-songy greeting, warmly introducing himself before kicking us off by generously asking me the first question.

Maxo: Are you good? You feeling alright?

Feeling great. I’ve been listening to the album on repeat since I got the advance, but now it’s out in the world. How has it been since?

Maxo: Crazy. We had a release party at Leimert Park, at this spot called Harun. I did the LIL BIG MAN release event there too when that album dropped. A few people that helped me do it the first time are not physically living in this realm no more, so we had to double back for them one time. You know what I’m saying?

Keep it as a tradition.

Maxo: You feel me.

Let’s start with the title, Even God Has a Sense of Humor. Where did that originate?

Maxo: I’ve come to see it has so many meanings, because I have a different answer for people whenever they ask. I think it just encapsulates the moments where you’ve gone through something but you could look back on it in a lighter manner and realize what you was taught through it. Like that’s God’s humor. It’s just embracing the pain differently, seeing it differently. I feel like He has a sense of humor too, because we His reflection. We be laughing at stupid shit sometimes too.

It reminds me of Mavi, who last year put out his album Laughing so Hard, it Hurts. When I spoke with him, he explained that title as having a similar energy to what you’re describing.

Maxo: Laughing so hard it hurts, yeah. Smile through it. Mavi my like-minded one.

Let’s talk a little bit about the scene that is brewing alongside you.

Maxo: To be honest, I f*ck with who I f*ck with, but I don’t really do the scene. I ain’t really no scene n*gga like that. It’s more so just like, I f*ck with my homies that I f*ck with every day and who I see every so often. I feel like I’m cool with who I’m cool with, but I’ll be on my own shit over here, man.

100%. Does that frustrate you? With reviews and profiles, you do get lumped into what some other folks are doing in rap.

Maxo: I understand the comparison because people want to…actually, I don’t understand it all the time. I get it because we kick it and we rap, but at the end of the day these is really just the homies. I don’t really have too many songs with these n*ggas. I mean I love these people, bro, these my people – but I don’t know nothing about no scene. And sometimes it does feel like the blogs be having to simplify for the consumers, you know?

Which makes sense, I don’t knock it. All publicity is good publicity. And it’s my name with people that I respect and that do this shit and are some of the best to do it. I ain’t complaining at all, for real. But sometimes it do get a little… Like, I’ll be over here on my own, and if you really pay attention and ask around, it’s just different over here. I feel like at this point in my career and path musically, it is time to focus in on what’s around me.

Shout out lastnamedavid for real, because that’s my man. I was creating with him since 2016 on my first music, and to have him still intertwined in what we doing and what I’m on? The breadcrumbs trace back. So when you actually do your research, you could see, “Oh damn, this dude made SMILE? But he also on Even God Has a Sense of Humor?” He has three or four joints on here. It’s like a really different level of what I’ve been doing, you feel me? I don’t even think the scene really reflects my progression in this whole world of music accurately. That’s just how I feel.

Thank you for elaborating on that. It’s easy shorthand for blogs to say that “you kind of sound like this, so we’re just gonna name you all together.” But you’re right, you don’t rap on each other’s songs all that much.

Maxo: Everybody that I make music with are real factors in my life, you feel me?

Separate of any scene, you do have some regular collaborators. lastnamedavid of course, but also Pink Siifu and Liv.e.

Maxo: These are both real people that have been in my life, that have really influenced moments. They are not just collaborators.

Keiyaa is probably the furthest I’ve went with a feature. I really just love her music. I f*ck with her because I’ve met her a few times – we cool on a “Hey” basis, but I don’t know her like that.

Why do you think you work so well with Pink Siifu or Liv.e? What makes them not just people in your life, but good collaborators?

Maxo: Liv.e, we’ve been through real life moments. I mean, that’s my ex. Pink Siifu, that’s my brother. I remember when he stayed in East LA, he used to clock off at the Ebell Theatre. I used to pull up to his little apartment – it was crazy looking in there. We would just smoke blunts ‘til we could not breathe. And then from there, next thing you know, I’m kicking it with this n*gga every day. Every day I’m pulling up from the IE off work too, just trying to kick it. I met Siifu at Poobah Records. Ras G, rest in peace, would be up in Poobah, and it was the first place I went with VIK before I was even making music.

Let’s go back to the beginning a bit more. When you started rapping, who were you trying to emulate?

Maxo: Starting out, I was literally just trying not to inflict self-harm on myself, so I had to release. I was going through a lot with my family and shit at the time when I first started creating. I felt like it was from a space, which it still is, that speaks to me therapeutically. As I be saying, and I’ll be getting tired of saying, but it’s almost like I have to express, and it’s just my vessel of expression. That’s the root of it for me. That’s really what I was trying to do.

When I was first rapping, I spent so much time just trying to figure out how I wanted to sound on the mic and get used to my voice. My brother influenced me to start rapping and he’s still like one of the best rappers I’ve ever known. I heard my brother rapping, but n*ggas grew up on this shit. I heard every Wayne mixtape. I heard when motherf*cking Mobb Deep signed to G-Unit. The culture was me. I grew up on everything. Everything kind of my influence.

Did you ever think that you would turn this into something where you’d land at a place like Def Jam?

Maxo: I’m not the type of n*gga to have any ties to no corporation, morally, you feel me? I said it in a song one time before any of this was even a thing, like “I’ll probably never get a deal, but if I do I hope it’s Def Jam,” and then years later they hit me up. I said it nonchalantly, just rapping in a state where I ain’t recognize the power of words. So then when that shit hit me, I was like, “Damn bro, this shit crazy.” I kind of had to.

They just reached out? Who from the label connected with you?

Maxo: They just reached out randomly. The dude that worked there that got me on it don’t even work there anymore! But I still talk to him, we still cool. It was a mission. Like something connected, something for that dude to be there and see me. ‘Cause the time a n*gga got signed, bro, was before Griselda. Was when everybody was trying to sound like Playboi Carti. I was not. The climate was crazy. So it was like, that was really a risk. Bro damn near lost his job for that.

But he put on some real shit, so he never gonna lose his job. That’s what n*ggas don’t understand within this music business. Shout out Mike Chavez.

Regardless of whatever scene people wanna lump you into, there are only a few people who are doing music the way you’re doing it. And you’re one of a very select few doing it on a place like Def Jam.

Maxo: Yeah, but now I see the climate is starting to change ’cause we’ve been consistent on what we’ve been doing out here. So n*ggas have no choice but to recognize it. And now the table is flipping and it’s like, hold on, “These n*ggas? They them ones.” But to be honest, it’s like people found out too late.

You started off doing music independently. How has having this label behind you changed the way you’re thinking about releases?

Maxo: My whole thing with this shit for the longest time was just trying to get the most people to hear this as I can. I always knew what the music was going to be. What Def Jam helped me with was to be able to get some Karriem beats and tap in with him. Or just really have a check for n*ggas, you feel me? Just pay myself. They helped me be able to pay n*ggas so n*ggas know I wasn’t playing. But I also do want it to be known that the creative flow does not exist on anything label related or any money put into it. Like we can make a song on whatever. The label just helps me do what I feel like I want them to.

Yo lemme tell you, it’s taken so much for us. Me and my people really some soldiers with this shit, bro. We making moves so n*ggas could understand. N*ggas was not understanding like, why we doing this? Now we’re here.

What was it like tapping in with Karriem?

Maxo: I really f*ck with Karriem – that’s my dude. We actually got to tap in on some real shit – me, him, and his engineer. It was so cool creating together because we was so new to each other, but we had some familiarities within the people we knew. I ain’t never done no shit like that, but he ended up just being cool and we ended up having like a good creative flow. Everything just was meshing for real.

It feels like each of your projects is a bit of a time capsule for where your head space was at while recording. Same thing for this one. It feels as though we’re in your head with you for 42 minutes. Was there anything you set out to convey, or was it after you got out of the booth that you recognized what you were saying?

Maxo: My goal with this was to just get things off my chest and also let myself know how I’m feeling. In moments where it’s all scattered in my brain, sometimes I need to put it on the wall. I was trying to just communicate, letting myself know how I feel and then let other people know. It’s interesting because this album says a lot more about myself than I could ever say in one sitting. And sometimes I’m like, damn people don’t grant me enough time to really get to know me. That’s why I be on my own shit. I remember the homie Alexander Spit told me, “It’s crazy ’cause I know you and I’m listening to this and I’m like, this is really Max.”

Is it ever difficult being so transparent to people listening who you don’t know?

Maxo: I kind of realized that after the homie told me, “this shit sad” [laughs]. I was just like, “damn, yeah.” I was at my mom’s the night it dropped. I’m with my brothers, and my mom was like we finna play it, beat it if you don’t wanna hear it. So she was playing the first few tracks, and then I walked out because I had to set up for the party. I drove back to the crib and she called and was like, “Everything you went through in these past four years was in this album.” And then she started crying, and then I started crying. Because she knows, you feel me? I was just like damn, because that shit so deep – it was so much I needed to have in conversations, but sometimes they came too late.

No one listens more closely than your mom. They’ll hear every line in there.

Maxo: It do kind of f*ck me up just with strangers, but then it’s like, you know, less shit I gotta tell n*ggas.

You’ve talked in previous interviews about this formative trip you took to Senegal with your mom. What about that experience opened your perspective?

Maxo: In Western civilization, I think we tend to overcomplicate things. A lot of things matter over here that don’t being over there. Obviously less is still less, but it’s like they have each other. It just brought me back to growing up with my brothers, to the root of what we really need. And then when I came back here, it was like everything felt toxic. Now I’m back feeling regular and acclimated to it. But over there, it just makes you look at what matters for real.

I was happy, you know? I noticed over here we not happy. They had less, but they happy though. That was important to me.

When we talk about your music, it tends to be written as sad and contemplative. Going through the process of making music and touring – is this experience joyful for you?

Maxo: I think sometimes. A lot of times I could definitely have more fun with it. It’s hard for me not to take it serious ’cause of where I come from. It’s almost too important to me. Like I can’t play with this, you feel me?

I ain’t trying to be on some policing n*ggas shit, but it’s really like I got a different power. And people just be out here bullshitting with it. Especially if I’m noticing the mind God gave me…how I’m thinking is something I need to maintain. I need to speak up. I don’t know, I don’t play with it.

You have anything in particular you are looking forward to this year?

Maxo: Doing shows and shit, and seeing places for sure. Just popping out more in general. I’ve been in dungeon mode, just head down, working and living. But I’m trying to move around and spread the gospel.

This album is a big accomplishment, and it seems like a lot of good things are to come. Are there any goals that you are hoping to realize in the next couple years?

Maxo: I mean, I already tried escargot. Anything tangible is a blessing, bro. I know we gonna go up because we doing what we supposed to be doing. So we just gonna keep doing what we’ve been doing and sticking to the plan.

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