Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the high-stakes saga of Max B and French Montana’s 2009 mixtape, a modern classic of New York rap.
It was the winter of 2007 and New York rapper Jim Jones had the biggest single of his career with “We Fly High,” a defining moment of an era where nearly everyone across the five boroughs wanted to ride around in pink Range Rovers and wear durags under their MLB fitted caps like a lost member of Dipset, the irreverent Harlem rap crew. In New York City public schools, on television, and even on the Giants’ roster, reenacting the jump-shot motion from the music video while shouting the song’s signature Ballin’! ad-lib from the top of your lungs was common practice. Before “We Fly High,” Jones was surely Dipset’s third in command, behind people’s champ Juelz Santana and their leader Cam’ron, who mentored Jones by convincing him that if he rapped about the hard life he lived, the money would come. Jones did just that with “We Fly High,” and the result was country-wide recognition and a guaranteed spot in New York rap lore. But while Jones was on BET’s 106 & Park with a chain around his neck and diamonds in his ears, the song’s co-writer, Max B, was sitting behind bars.
A decade earlier, a teenage Max B, born Charly Wingate, had been sentenced to eight years in prison for robbery. He spent his time locked up working on a character that he described as a combination of The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac, called Biggavelli—Max B for short. When Max was released in 2005, he met up with his childhood friend from the same building in Harlem, Cam’ron, who’d become immortal two years earlier, the moment he revealed his all-pink outfit in the “Dipset Anthem” music video. “Yo flee, you know I rap now,” Max said to Cam. “Let’s get this shit clickin’ like Dorothy’s heels.” Cam laughed him off, so Max met up with Mike Bruno, a hungry individual from the same block. Bruno saw it all in Max: the charisma, the swag, the endlessly quotable way he spoke. He introduced Max to Jim Jones, who was looking to form his own clique under the Dipset umbrella.
Jones put Max to work on Jones’ second studio album, Harlem: Diary of a Summer. Released that August, Max’s contributions to the album are undeniable. He shifted Jones’ style to a midpoint between the soulful chipmunk samples synonymous with Dipset and the menacing gutter raps of 50 Cent’s G-Unit crew. On “G’s Up,” Max is a star, with a memorable hook that outshines Jones’ stiff verses. Max’s two other credited features on the album use a rough melody that elevates typical street braggadocio into absurdist hood poetry: “Max B look like Derek Jeter on the shortstop/I’ll put the heater to ya’ soft spot,” he says smoothly on “Confront Ya Babe.”
But while Max B’s songwriting was elevating Jones’ career, Max was relegated to the shadows. In a later Doggie Diamonds video interview, as Max counts wads of cash wearing dark shades and jeans held up by a designer belt, and repeats his signature Maxisms like “wavy” and “owww,” he vents about his frustrations with Jim Jones. “I did eight years in the can, when I came home, my job was to come home and do this shit and go somewhere.” He unleashed his cartoon character-like persona, clearly tipsy from the brown liquor he usually sipped like apple juice, his Katt Williams-like perm swaying in the wind. “Not be working for a nigga in the studio, writing songs, while he the only nigga lookin’ hot, he the only nigga…spendin’ $5,000 on his bitch.” His requests to release solo material of his own were continuously pushed aside by Jones. Instead, Jones was focused on forming his ByrdGang collective—headlined by Max and the late Far Rockaway, Queens rapper Stack Bundles—and having them work on his third album, 2006’s Hustler’s P.O.M.E.” Max’s exasperation led him down a path that played out like an inept crook subplot in a Quentin Tarantino script.
Gina Conway was an ex-girlfriend of Max, who had recently returned to New York after spending time in North Carolina. According to testimony given by Conway, she was being pursued by a real estate and credit card fraudster by the name of Allan Plowden. One day in September of 2006, Plowden brought Conway back to his hotel room, where, in an attempt to impress her, he showed off a Louis Vuitton bag filled with an estimated $50,000 in cash. Later in the evening, Plowden and his business partner, David Taylor, went clubbing. Instead of joining them, Conway immediately called Max to brag, and the two began to orchestrate a robbery.
Max’s plan was to have Conway steal the money while Plowden was at the club. When Conway arrived, accompanied by Max’s stepbrother Kelvin Leerdam, Plowden was unexpectedly in the room. They woke him up at gunpoint. Unable to find a sufficient amount of money, Conway and Leerdam ordered Plowden to call Taylor. When Taylor arrived, Leerdam pointed the gun at him and after a struggle, the gun went off, killing Taylor. Conway and Leerdam escaped with all the money they could find, but when the police arrived, Plowden told them about Conway. When Conway was found not long after, she said that Leerdam killed Taylor and that Max set up the robbery attempt. Max was arrested and his bail was set at $1.5 million.
At almost the exact same time as Max’s arrest, Jim Jones released his third album, Hustler’s P.O.M.E. The project was Jones’ breakout moment and Max was featured on seven tracks, with writing credits on others. Despite Max’s pleas, there were no signs of Jones or the ByrdGang label coming to bail him out; he sat in jail while Jones went national.
After months behind bars, Max’s manager put up property to front his bail, but he still needed cash to cover the remaining amount—rumored to be around $120,000. Pretending to be Max’s white knight, Jones came up with an idea: Max would sign over his publishing rights to Jones in exchange for cash. Out of desperation, Max agreed. In the summer of 2007, Max B was released and Jones assumed he had his songwriting guru back in his employ to work on his next album and the upcoming ByrdGang group project. Max’s solo album remained on the shelf and he couldn’t profit off of any music released without Jones’ approval. With his trial looming large, Max finally reached his breaking point.
Like a comic-book origin story, Max B turned into a New York City vigilante. He gave interviews on DVDs and WorldStarHipHop that were more like wrestling promos, often drifting into the third person. Put a camera in Max B’s face and it was guaranteed he would clown rappers across the city he didn’t care for: Prodigy, Papoose, Hell Rell, and, especially, Jim Jones. During this time, Max went on a mixtape run that was equally as definitive as his interviews: Public Domain 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Million Dollar Baby 2, and Wavie Crockett. But Max B’s opus wouldn’t arrive until he developed a bond with another rapper who had a similar wish to make Jim Jones’ life hell.
French Montana was from the South Bronx, at the time most known for founding one of hip-hop’s most popular DVD series, Cocaine City. Inspired by the Smack DVD series, Cocaine City became notable for a glimpse at the street life through interviews with legends like Pee Wee Kirkland, guests like 50 Cent and Remy Ma, music videos, and freestyles (though the purpose of the series was to simply give French’s nascent rap career a platform).
At some point in 2003 or 2004 outside of a studio at the border of Harlem and the South Bronx, French was shot in the back of the head. He survived, and his attempted murderer was killed in the incident by friendly fire. According to French in a 2009 interview with DJ Vlad, he said that his beef with Jim Jones started when he found footage on DVDs of the Diplomat commenting on his near-death experience. In the Spring of 2008, while completing his mixtape Live From Africa, French was looking to record a Jim Jones diss track and to make it sting, he knew who to turn to.
“Waavvy,” also known as “Fuck Jim Jones,” is the first collaboration between Max B and French Montana. “Why don’t you tell me why you don’t love Max B no more, because yo’ nigga not workin’ for free,” wails Max B on a hook that sounds like it was recorded with a bottle of Grey Goose in hand. After the release of the track, Max B and French became inseparable. In true New York fashion, a city where hate is stronger than love, they bonded through a mutual disgust of Jones. Together, they stalked Jim Jones through the streets of New York, named a stuffed puppy after the Diplomat before stomping on it and running it over with a truck, accused Jones of attempting to blackball their careers, and constantly referred to a misogynistic incident involving Jones’ wife that became known as “She Touched It in Miami”—you know, normal things that friends do. It was all building to the release of Coke Wave, a joint mixtape they promised would be a classic. They were right.
Executive produced by Dame Grease, Coke Wave was released in February of 2009. Like Max B and French, Grease felt that New York’s household names weren’t giving him the respect he had earned—he emerged in the ’90s producing for The Lox, Mase, and contributing a majority of the production on DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell is Hot. Grease’s beatmaking on the mixtape unifies the capriciousness of both Max B and French and is the factor that brings their colorful imaginations to reality.
On “We Run NY,” Grease interpolates Sting’s “Englishman in New York” into a celebratory Uptown head bopper. “I Warned U” is similarly spiritual, as the trio spin Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” into a soulful ballad for anyone that has ever worn a Pelle Pelle jacket and NBA jeans. “I warned you/The right way/I warned you/Now look what you made me do,” French belts on a woozy hook, maybe the best that has ever left his mouth. Max B surfs over the production with a swag that justifies every third-person DVD monologue he’s ever done.
The mixtape’s centerpiece is “Coke Wave,” a track that shows what the three are capable of when it’s all clicking. Max B sounds like he’s hungover singing a lullaby about drug dealing and heartbreak, French Montana’s relaxed delivery is like having a conversation with an incredibly high mob boss, and Grease’s funky production is timeless. No matter what sound Dame Grease laces them with, Max and French never step out of character; they’re going to talk about moving weight and bad decisions they made after sipping too much Remy Martin.
French Montana is the grounding presence, Dame Grease may be the glue, but it’s hard to be enamored by anything outside of Max B’s animated street poetics. If you close your eyes long enough, his stories can make you wake up on a stoop on Lenox Ave. in 2009. He can painfully howl over a cinematic Young Los beat made for fare evading (“Here It Is”), he can make songs for the backroom of an NYC strip club (“Stake Sause”), or emotionlessly describe a day cruising through the city avoiding the NYPD and rivals looking for a payday (“It Gotta Be”).
Coke Wave arrived during a time in New York where the city was in a desperate search for who was to be next after Dipset and G-Unit. But instead of sticking to New York’s hardened street rap, Max B and French Montana made the next wave whatever they wanted. They could hop on a classic Dr. Dre instrumental and infect the beat with the spirit of New York summer. Or could go back in time to the shiny-suit ’90s era to show off their ageless bravado and toss some subliminals at Jim Jones while they’re at it: “Backtrack two years ago I was with niggas straight hatin’,” Max says—you can picture him cackling in the booth with a plastic cup at his side after spitting that one-liner. There were no rules.
In the months following Coke Wave, Max B’s trial reached a verdict. Gina Conway testified, Max B did not, and he was found guilty on nine of the 11 charges including felony murder, aggravated manslaughter, and conspiracy. On September 3, 2009, Max was sentenced to 75 years in prison. One of the final songs he recorded while free was “Never Wanna Go Back,” a rare time where he addressed his situation in the music. “I never wanna go back in there/Life just isn’t fair,” he sings painfully, losing the optimism that made Coke Wave feel celebratory.
Over a decade since Coke Wave, Max B’s legacy has only grown. Some of that credit belongs to A$AP Yams, who introduced a younger generation to Max B’s music and injected his spirit into the A$AP Mob. But more so it’s been because of French Montana who has never stopped saying “Free Max B,” as murky reports of sentence reductions surface every year.
In 2010, Max B was officially released from his obligations to Jim Jones. His debut album finally arrived in 2011, titled Vigilante Season, of course. The album is no Coke Wave, but feels like the closing of a chapter that Max B had been desperate to complete since the days when he first conceived the Biggavelli character. “We all gon’ die, but who gon’ leave a legacy, who gon’ be remembered the biggest,” Max B said in an interview with Hood Affairs shortly after his fallout with Jim Jones. He spent his short-lived freedom trying to cement a legacy; Coke Wave is that moment.