The section of Trenton that lies in the shadow of New Jersey State Prison looks like the area around a poisoned tree where nothing grows. Stained mattresses lie in front of shuttered storefronts; broken glass from windows and bottles emits a dull luster across the street from a boarded-up bank; and large Budweiser banners hang outside bars that meet alleys full of rowhouses.
More than 1,850 inmates call the massive prison their home, but there’s probably only one that has been on MTV and recorded with some of New York City’s biggest names in 21st-century hip-hop. A quick Google search for this inmate will reveal stories of rap beef, different interpretations of the crime that put him in prison, and a huge trove of videos and photographs, all of which find him in the same uniform, like a superhero from the streets: a N.Y. fitted cap over braids, tight white T-shirt, designer belt barely holding up a pair of jeans, eyes masked by wraparound shades.
An empty plastic chair sits under the harsh fluorescent lights, waiting for hip-hop’s unsung hero: Charly Wingate, 35 years old, a son of Harlem, a father of four. Inmate 000904278D.
Cloaked in the lifestyle’s trappings—clouds of smoke, bottles of brown liquor, doe-eyed women—he appears in various settings: smoking a blunt on a stoop in Harlem; in a dimly lit studio, far from sobriety, with disparaging words for a former colleague; at the center of a frenzied crowd in a packed club; and always flaunting huge wads of cash, the material that was a blessing and a curse, the reason for his current incarceration.
In this context, he is known as Max B, or “Biggavelli,” a play on the nicknames of three rap legends: “Biggie” (Smalls), "Jigga" (Jay-Z), and “Makaveli” (Tupac). But in the current reality, his white tees and designer jeans have been replaced by the prison system’s khaki uniforms for the incarcerated. He won't be eligible for parole until November 9, 2042.
Even the Public Information officer from New Jersey’s Department of Corrections knows there’s something about this inmate: in a grey, windowless visiting room early one morning in May, he mentions that there have been numerous requests from the press for an interview, but this is the only one that has been granted.
An hour has been allotted, after a lengthy period of no private visits at all. There’s a cage on one side of the room, which prison officials initially offered to put the inmate behind. Instead, an empty plastic chair sits under the harsh fluorescent lights, waiting for hip-hop’s unsung hero: Charly Wingate, 35 years old, a son of Harlem, a father of four. Inmate 000904278D.
“I'm innocent/Wasn’t even there” — “Lord Is Tryna Tell You Something,” Coke Wave 2, 2009
If you’ve paid attention to any contemporary hip-hop recently, you’ve probably heard the phrase “Free Max B.” It’s been a consistent meme in the genre for at least five years, with everyone from Curren$y to Drake adding their take on it—even Jay-Z, who was soundly dismissed by Cam’ron in 2006 on “You Gotta Love It” (with a hook provided by Wingate), gave a nod on last year’s “3 Kings” with Rick Ross and Dr. Dre. On the cover of February’s XXL, French Montana proudly displayed his “Free Max B” T-shirt next to A$AP Rocky. All this for an artist whose output—more than 20 mixtapes, one full-length on a small independent label and a substantial number of hooks and verses with New York City’s Dipset/ByrdGang crews—was recorded in a relatively short period of time, from 2006 to 2008, sandwiched between jail terms.
After serving eight years for robbery starting at the age of 17, Charly Wingate was released in 2005, and via Cam’ron, a childhood friend, hooked up with the Harlem rapper Jim Jones and his ByrdGang crew. A series of hits (“Baby Girl,” “Confront Ya Babe,” “So Harlem”) followed, many of which had hooks and melodies that Wingate contributed, but disputes arose over compensation. Wingate’s contract with Jones limited his ability to earn what he felt was adequate, which resulted in frustration, and a nasty public beef ensued. (Jim Jones could not be reached for comment for this article.) It was during this period that “the incident” happened.
According to the State of New Jersey’s court report, on the evening of September 21, 2006, Wingate and his stepbrother, Kelvin Leerdam, were at a basketball court in Harlem with some friends. Gina Conway, a woman Wingate had been involved with on and off, arrived after spending the day with Allan Plowden, whom the court describes as involved in “mortgage, real estate and credit card fraud.” He and his partner, David Taylor, were known for “driving expensive cars around New York City,” and Plowden “often carried a Louis Vuitton bag containing cash, sometimes as much as $40,000.”
I think they made an example of him because he’s Max B,” says Next, head of the Amalgam Digital label. "You look at the guy and perhaps you’re going to make judgements of the guy because of the art form.
Plowden had noticed Conway in the Bronx two days earlier, and, the court report says, after an unsuccessful attempt to “seduce” her, he made another play on September 21 by taking her shopping in New Jersey and, later, to a Holiday Inn in Fort Lee. At the hotel, he showed her the cash in his Louis Vuitton bag, which Conway estimated to be at “approximately $50,000.” After giving her a key card to his room, he drove her back to Manhattan, then met up with Taylor — they took two women to a club and then returned to the hotel.
After Plowden dropped her off, Conway took a cab to the basketball court to meet Wingate. She had called Wingate during her time that day with Plowden “to make him jealous,” and when she described Plowden’s money, Wingate reportedly made a plan. According to Conway, who was the only defendant to testify at the trial (on behalf of the State of New Jersey), Wingate directed Leerdam and Conway to go to Plowden’s hotel and steal his money. He called a cab driver, Mouhamadou Mbengue, to take Leerdam and Conway to Fort Lee. According to Conway’s testimony, Wingate pulled into a gas station when they stopped and told her he would “love her forever” if she “pulled it off.” He did not follow them to the hotel.
Once they found Plowden’s car, Conway and Leerdam went to Plowden’s room. Leerdam pulled out a gun, gloves and a roll of duct tape. Conway says she had not realized force was “part of the plan,” according to her statement, and when she was instructed to knock on the door, one of the women, Giselle Nieves, answered. Conway and Leerdam forced their way into the room, duct-taped Nieves’s hands, feet and mouth, and woke Plowden up at gunpoint. After being threatened, Plowden told them that the rest of the money (he had hidden $1000 under his mattress and put the rest under the lining of the room’s trash can) was in Taylor’s room.
With a gun to his head, Plowden called Taylor and asked him to come to his room. When Taylor arrived, Conway opened the door and Leerdam aimed the gun at Taylor, who tried to grab it. The gun was discharged and Taylor was killed. Conway and Leerdam took what they could from Plowden’s room and left; Plowden managed to free himself and chase them, but Leerdam pointed the gun at him and he backed down. Conway and Leerdam got back in the waiting cab and left.
Wingate was not present for any of the events at the hotel. He did not testify at his own trial, at which Conway was a witness for the state and Wingate and Leerdam were charged together. The legal definition of a conspiracy means that Wingate’s absence from the scene of the crime did not exclude him from any of the charges; his involvement in any discussion of the crime before it took place qualified him for separate counts of murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, robbery and possession of a firearm for unlawful purposes. An appeal last August was denied.
“I think they made an example of him because he’s Max B… you look at the guy and perhaps you’re going to make judgements of the guy because of the art form,” says Next, head of the Amalgam Digital label that signed Max B and released Vigilante Season in 2011. “He obviously was connected to [the crime]… but when you know Max, I don’t think Max sat down and created this elaborate plan to go and get money and strategically put it all together.”
During the period between the arrest for these charges and the trial, Wingate managed to put together funds for his $1.5 million bail partially by selling some of his publishing rights to Jim Jones, a short-term fix that now ultimately prevents him from earning much of anything from the Max B catalog. And so goes the great irony of Wingate’s career: for all the images of him flaunting wads of hundred-dollar bills, he and his family find themselves in a difficult financial period now, since all of his mixtapes are available for free online.
He’s still not completely out of the public sphere, though. His slang term "wavy" is still widely used. And Wingate’s voice, recorded over the phone from prison, utters the first words on Excuse My French, the latest French Montana album.
“His words to me [during the trial] was, ‘French, I can’t wait til I get this thing off my back. Once I get this off my back, we gonna make it to the top,’” says Montana, who met Wingate through mutual friends and later sought him out to collaborate musically. “When my album dropped, I made sure it was on his birthday, made sure he was on the first track. Because we both had the same kind of dream.”
“Picture Me Rollin’” —Public Domain 3, 2008
The body of work that Wingate recorded as Max B varies wildly in tone and sound quality from release to release: the hallucinatory grime of the Coke Wave tapes with French Montana is a world apart from the crisp G-funk of Vigilante Season. And lyrically, the themes explored throughout his music adhere to many hip-hop templates — inebriation, crime, misogyny, money, and an aggressive stance toward anyone with doubt in his status as the greatest thing in New York City, if not the world.
What stands out musically is Wingate’s sense of melody, his willingness to experiment with complex harmonies on verses, his ability to take the rhythmic pattern of a sample and expand on it vocally.
“As far as his melodies … they were second to none as far as I was concerned,” says Roc Marciano, a critically acclaimed MC/producer from Hempstead, Long Island, on a recent phone call. “In my opinion, he was the street version of what Drake is — the fans can have Drake, but the streets have Max.”
As far as his melodies… they were second to none,” says Roc Marciano. “In my opinion, he was the street version of what Drake is—the fans can have Drake, but the streets have Max.
The talent is evidenced by the rapid-fire, monotone flow from “Lip Sang,” off the Public Domain 3 mixtape (2008), that unfolds into a soulful croon; by the jarringly dissonant start to a chorus that somehow resolves gently on “White Lines,” from Vigilante Season; by the playful reinterpretation of Estelle’s “American Boy” (called "American Slore") on 2008’s Wavie Crockett tape. The high notes he reaches on “Not Going Home,” from Coke Wave 2, teeter on the precipice of being out of tune but still form a maddeningly catchy hook.
“I feel like there’s nobody like him. One of the most talented people I’ve ever met in my life,” says Montana. “He’s not scared to try new things, like singing, harmonies, just enjoying himself — that was the most important part, just enjoying himself as he was making that music.”
“He had a sound that didn’t sound like anyone… being very melodic on everything, opening up the door to not necessarily being perfect on everything,” says New York producer Harry Fraud, whose beats have been used by everyone from French Montana (on Coke Wave 2’s legendary “New York Minute”) to Action Bronson to Earl Sweatshirt. “For instance, a classical singer would say, ‘He’s off-key here,’ but he wasn’t really concerned with that.”
“He was a musician. I used to always tell him, like, ‘You like Ray Charles,’” says a friend and New York PR representative who goes by the name Hoffaman. “He was more than just a rapper. He liked to hear the sounds — he doesn’t do the average music. He don’t want you to give him a beat and then he just go in — he’d want to build and create the song.”
“However his case turns out, I would like the brother to be remembered. I feel like Max was too good of an artist to be swept under the rug and have people not remember,” Marciano says. “When he got locked up, I was like, ‘Damn, we just lost our next big star.’ I don’t mean New York’s next star, I mean hip-hop’s next big star, because Max was bigger than New York.”
“Mama say all my songs foul/Mama say all my songs sound provocative” — “Not Going Home,” Coke Wave 2, 2009
If Sharon Wingate believes in tough love, it’s because she has earned the right to do so. The oldest of eight children, all of whom save one, she says, have battled with substance abuse, Sharon has been through her own personal trials. She served a year and half in prison after a period of crack addiction. Her son Eric was killed in Baltimore in 1991 at the age of 16. Her daughter, Sade, the youngest Wingate child, was born under the influence of crack cocaine.
But Sharon has been clean for 15 years, and her perspective on her son Charly’s situation is shaped both by her experiences and her faith. Sitting in her parents’ apartment in Harlem, flanked by Sade, her niece Laura and her father, Gerald Barton, she cites the strong religious values her mother imparted to her children and grandchildren — including Charly, a talented kid who sang in the Boys Choir of Harlem, an older brother who would share whatever he had, a creative cut-up with a penchant for trouble.
When he was little, he kinda had like an alter ego. He could always find a corner and play with whatever he had and knew how to keep himself content or create something... He would have the towels around his neck so he could be like Superman.
“When he was little, he kinda had like an alter ego. He could always find a corner and play with whatever he had and knew how to keep himself content or create something,” Sharon says. “I could never keep clean towels or toilet tissue, because he would always take the toilet tissue and break it off on the perforated line and put it around capes on all his little men and stand them up and he would have the towels around his neck… so he could be like Superman.
“I remember when they took him… I remember me and my husband walking outside the [courthouse],” she says, her normally firm voice softening a bit. “He was saying, ‘Dag, Sharon, do you know how old Charly will be when he get out?’ He said, ‘He’ll be 106.’ And it was like my whole face just dropped to the floor.”
During Sharon’s period “in the streets,” as she says, her children stayed with their grandparents, where music was always playing, either the gospel their grandmother would listen to or something of their own creation.
“When I left outta here, because most of my job time was evenings — if my wife was out and then I had to go and they were all left here, this became like, the stage,” Barton says, gesturing to a corner of the living room currently occupied by a television. “For them to rant their inner feelings, the release of music. There was no restriction as far as music was concerned.”
A no-nonsense man who chooses his words carefully, Barton speaks with an equal amount of confusion at and empathy for his grandson’s situation.
“Long terms of incarceration have a profound effect on psychological thinking and behavior. I mean, it’s abnormal. You take away a person’s freedom, and there’s not very much he has to hold on to,” says Barton. “The incarceration, not being free to move about, like everybody else… it takes its toll.”
“Charly knew better, he chose to make his own choices. Like I was sharing, I used for like 15, maybe 20 years,” Sharon adds. “And I know a lot of the things my sons did comes from some of the things I did. Being disobedient, not listening to my mom, not listening to my dad. I'm not going to say that it was all their fault, but it was not all my fault either.”
Regardless of her support for Charly in his current situation, one thing Sharon is not willing to do is “sugarcoat,” as she puts it, when it comes to her son’s choice of lyrical content, which hits closer to home than she would prefer.
“You don’t have no business talking about women, [because] men used to do the same thing to your mother that you singin’ about,” she says, referring to her time as a crack addict on the streets. “You got a sister, you got female children and nieces and cousins, and they’re gonna be big enough one day to swing around a pole — you don’t want none of that happening to your family members, so why you singing about women?”
Even with a critical eye, the family expresses their respect for what he accomplished: turning a singular talent into something that became a living. But self-discipline can be hard to come by when turning from an ex-convict into a celebrity in a period of months.
“Bottom line, he lacked guidance and leadership. That’s a big empty in your life,” says Barton. “The influence in the streets is far more stronger than much of any influence that parents may have over the kids.”
“I'm proud of him, in a way, because he took a dream, he took a goal and he made it exist, and not only in his imagination,” Sade says. “But at the same time, he didn’t know what to do with it. It’s like somebody gives you a whole bunch of money, or just fame, and you always wanted fame … you get stuck in it, you don’t know which way to go.”
“This ain’t my first rodeo.”
“The moment Max got out of his car — his personality was so big, man. Time froze,” says Next of the first time he met Wingate. “When he got out of the car and started laughing … I was like, right away, this guy’s a star.”
This impression is one cited by many who know Wingate, and it is one that he lives up to as he bounces into the visiting room at New Jersey State Prison. “What’s good, people? Oh, I didn’t know y’all was white guys,” he cracks, the first of many jokes he’ll make over the course of an hour, punctuated by his trademark cackle. It’s a day after his 35th birthday, which happened to fall on the same day that French Montana released Excuse My French, and Wingate is obviously proud both of his former colleague and the relevance he still enjoys in the rap world.
When I came home you couldn’t tell me I’d be back in prison. I had it all figured out. I didn’t, but I thought I did. And bad things just happened, man. Sometimes you can’t foresee what’s gonna unfold, sometimes things just unfold in a way that’s uncontrollable... and next thing you know, you’re in a situation that you can’t get yourself out of.
He speaks of doing his time “positive,” which at the moment involves taking a correspondence course for a paralegal degree, a new experience for a man who, in his own words, was making “forty to fifty G’s a month, independently” off music after making bail in 2007. “I ain’t never really had to challenge myself, everything used to come easy to me,” he says. “The first couple courses is business and stuff. I found that to be more interesting than the paralegal course … [but the] book’s gettin’ thicker, it’s gettin’ tougher.”
Do you feel like your experience in prison is different this time?
Yeah, it’s much different. Back then I was younger. There was a point in my life where I thought, you know, when I came home you couldn’t tell me I’d be back in prison. I had it all figured out. I didn’t, but I thought I did. And bad things just happened, man. Sometimes you can’t, you can’t foresee what’s gonna unfold, sometimes things just unfold in a way that’s uncontrollable... and next thing you know, you’re in a situation that you can’t get yourself out of.
I got things goin’ on, but, you know, every day is a fight for survival in here. This place ain’t no game. Everybody think just ‘cause you in prison, like, you know, it’s cool, or I got street credibility. There’s nothin’ in here.
What do you mean?
It’s just nothin’ here. It’s a downer, no positive—nothin’ in here. Only thing you get out of being here maybe, maybe, is like, time to yourself, peace of mind, and even then, that’s interrupted by things around you, cause you got a bunch of other guys in here, you know they probably got their own problems, everybody got their own situation. And you got the officers—they come in, even though they goin’ home at night, they doin time too. There’s never a minute you can sit down, like, ‘Alright.’ (sighs) Naw, it’s always something, thinking about something, or trying to plan, or put something together, or worry about something. It’s a negative spot.
People give you a hard time because of who you are?
No, absolutely not. I'm who I am—like, you know, I'm Max B, but … these guys know me. Like I said, this ain’t my first rodeo, so before I was a rapper, you know—I came up in the street. I was in the hood—I'm from Lenox Ave. So I been around these type of guys all my life. My brothers, they all gangsters and stuff like that. I just was fortunate that I knew I found something I could do really well, and I just put it to usage.
Can you work on music here? Can you listen to music here?
[Sighs] There’s no music to listen to. It’s like, you got radio, local radio stations and stuff like that, but I listen to old stuff that’s more soothing. I don’t really listen to the local rap stations. I listen every now and then. My boy Frenchie, he doin’ his thing, so I listen when he come on, but... everybody else—pffft.
You don’t hear any stuff you like?
Not really, naw. I don’t know, maybe it’s me, maybe I'm old-fashioned or something, I think it’s like, all the new music got a certain sound to it. It’s like, you can tell it’s like, 2013. How can I explain? It’s got like a robotic, auto-tuney sound — not just rappers. All new artists got it. It’s like you can tell that this is a new artist, like she’s young, or he’s young, to where, if you listen to like, Anita Baker, it’s just timeless and it’s smooth, and it’s like, you know that’s Anita, and you know that was back in the 80s sometime, and it’s gonna be good from now, til like, 2050.
But people can’t send you beats or anything like that? Do you have anything to listen to it on?
No, we don’t got no computers… no CDs, no computers. The computer is like, for law library purposes—nothing online, no e-mail, like in federal corrections. It’s like, resources are very limited, next to none. This is prison, so everything here is like — I know you seen Shawshank Redemption, right? That’s more — yeah, like that. Real Old Testament prison, real old-school, real... [thumps table].
Do you have a poster of Rita Hayworth on the wall?
Naw, no Rita Hayworth — the only difference between this and Shawshank Redemption is, you dig through one of these holes in the wall, you gonna end up in someone else’s cell. (laughs) You know what I'm sayin’? (points at Department of Corrections press officer) He know — that’s why he over there smilin’. (laughs) Ain’t no sheetrock in here, this is all steel and concrete. You wanna get out, you gotta do it diplomatically. Same way you got in, that’s how you get out.
Do you have a plan for that? Stuff you’re working on? Is getting the degree part of that?
No, that got nothin to do with that. The degree is just something I wanted to do for me personally. I just wanted to challenge myself academically. I never been really a school kid, I always got kicked out of my schools, I was disruptive. And I never liked that about myself — I never was able to challenge myself academically. The farthest I got was my GED. I thought that was like a college diploma right there.
We workin’ on gettin’ out, man. I got some things in the works. I didn’t really want to talk too much about the case, or my means of gettin’ out. I don’t want to make any promises to people, but, every moment that goes by here, I'm working on getting out. I'm still positive — I believe I'm gonna get out. It might take a couple years, but I have the right resources.
How was it that you got into music?
It probably came from, you know, my brother, rest in peace, my brother Eric... when I was staying with my grandmother back in like '87ish, '88, he used to go in and out of town… he was into music real heavy. And the last time he left he left me a big sack of cassette tapes. And on these tapes, were, everything, all the DJs — this was back when cassette tapes were like 120 minutes, and Kid Capri and Starchild and Brucie B used to make all the mixtapes. And they used to put all the old music together, all the Frankie Beverly and Maze, and Luther Vandross—all the great artists, they used to mix them up and blend beats and put ‘em together. And I loved my brother, I idolized my brother, so I wanted to listen to what he was listening to. And he used to say, ‘Yo, watch my tapes till I come back, don’t let nothing happen to them.’ And I just held on to them and I learned the music, and just studied and I always listened to the music. It was him that turned me on to like, N.W.A. and stuff like that, and I listened to the music, even though my grandmoms, she was real, very religious—rest her soul, God bless her soul—she was real religious, so I wasn’t really allowed to listen to that type of music in the house. So I would put it to my ear real low and learned to go outside to listen to it, and I started gettin’ in trouble.
That’s where it really came from, just experience. My mother and them, they would be in the room getting high and partying, and the parties I would have at my house resembled the parties that my mother had. Might have been a different drug of choice but, we used to stay up three or four days, partying, we got women in there, we in there doin’ everything my moms and them used to be doin’. And they used to listen to music, and it all stuck with me. So as I grew up and I started making music, all that music just started coming out of me. So that’s why a lot of inspiration comes from around my area, around my hood. That’s why I'm always—when I'm out, I was always in the area, cause a lot of ideas and inspiration I take from my area and what I do every day. I might say something funny, and if everybody laugh I might take what they said and make a record out of it.
Even all the harmonies, too?
I just don’t know where it came from. It wasn’t something I was doing when I was 5 years old, you know? Some people great at the guitar, they great at swimming, they great at sports, they been playin’… tennis, Serena was playing since she was seven. I wasn’t doing rap music, I just started when I was 19 or something like that, 20.
But it’s more than the music. I think you gotta be all-around. I think you gotta have a personality. It think you gotta have imagination. I think you gotta have a certain look, to even come into the game. It’s so oversaturated with guys comin’ in, everybody just follow a certain trend. It’s all about originality. Them the people that soar: originality, people with personality, people that everybody love, their character. People buy into your music, they buying into your lifestyle, what you’re saying. So, if you full of shit? Who wants to buy music from somebody’s that’s full of shit? That’s the music on in your ears and your brain your soul, and every day—your lifestyle, you’re using that music.
Before you went away the first time, was there a Max B? Or did that come after your first bid?
No, that was just a name I came up with… that was just something I created, it was all part of the character. That was my persona. There’s an art to this, I believe. I really believe there’s an art to this, I swear. And when you comin’ in this game, you gotta put a character together, what you gonna do. You can either give ‘em you, you know, or you can live in your character. Me, I been away so long, and not been in the ghetto so long, that by the time—when I became Max B, I didn’t know how to switch off Max B. I was always Max B. That’s who I grew into—Max B. Charly was like… [laughs]
When did that start?
When I was in prison [the first time] I used to look in the mirror, and I knew there was no way I was going back to that street corner. There was no way I was gonna be nothin’—I already knew. That’s when I became in the character. I just knew within myself. I just knew that Max B was the brand, it was this name, it had flair. That’s who I was, since like, 2000.
So when you came out the first time, how did you get involved in music?
I didn’t know nothing. I was just arrogant, I was young. I still was wet behind the ears, and I was on parole, so I really couldn’t really do nothing. I never even been in the studio, but I knew something. I just knew — you know. My man took me in the studio, it was like a little $15 an hour, little booth, I went in there and laid over some vocals over an instrumental. And he looked at me, he was like [raises eyebrows] — I looked at him, I was like, ‘Yeah, I told you.’ He was like, “Yeah, we gotta do more.”
So we started goin’ to his brother’s house, but his brother — even though I wasn’t in studios, I knew the sound was off, I was like, something wrong, he was using reverb, so I was like, “we gotta get in a real place.” So I was supposed to meet up with Cam and do some stuff and got to the real studio and get some stuff, but—I was on parole violation, I had a warrant out for my arrest, and I got arrested for like, pissin’ on the curb. So I went back in for 10 months. Which I felt, which I think was needed, ‘cause I wasn’t ready. I still was on parole, I needed to be all in with this thing. Living with my mother, sleeping on the couch, small apartment, I couldn’t have girls over, so that was a distraction. I did eight years — I want some girls! That was a distraction. Parole coming to my house, I'm staying out late after curfew, that’s a distraction. Everything was a distraction.
It was a beautiful thing when [ByrdGang] first started. We was a good team. Everybody was on the same page. Music was gettin’ done. We could have been the next G-Unit, we could have been the next D-block. We had a nice sound, we was great together. And I stood out.
So I was like, ‘You know what—let me do this 10 months. Get everything off my back, and I'm gonna come home right. I’ll be—go all in with this thing.’ and before I went, I made some contacts. I met with Cam—Cam’ron, who I grew up with, but that wasn’t my contact. The contact was with Mike Bruno, and [pause] Jim Jones.
I did the ten months. I came up with another name: Biggavelli. Which, I just—my head really got big. You know you got an idea, an invention, and you know it’s gonna be a success, and you just know, only you know that you have it? That’s what I thought I had, so I was real arrogant with it. When I came home—[snaps fingers] I met up with Jim and Bruno. I came home in January. By March I was working in the studio with these guys, by May that year, 2005, we were shooting videos. We was on MTV. By that summer, I had a six-figure advance. So I was like—everything happened quick.
So I started working on records. I did "Confront Ya Babe," I did "Baby Girl," I did "G’s Up." That was the album right there—we was puttin’ it together right there on the spot. [Jim] was like, "Yo, this gonna be on the records. These gonna be albums right there." So I told Jim, "Yo, we need a new sound. Y’all got the typical Dipset sound." I was like, "Naw, we can’t do that. We gotta go real New York with this thing, like, this new flavor I got right here." So once I got everyone on board, we was takin’ off. ByrdGang was takin’ off.
What kind of flavor are you talking about? What do you mean, "this new New York thing"?
I just had a new sound like nobody was used to. And my work ethic was uncontrollable. That’s the first thing that they gravitated to: my work ethic. My leadership in the studio. Once I learned what I could do, I became more arrogant. Jim started giving me the green light—when he wasn’t there I was in charge. So it was like, "I'm gonna do what I want in that course of time." I recorded over 200 something records with Jim. I tucked some away, cause you know, if you leave me around the safe I'm gonna take some off the top for me. It’s only right. I'm the guy. He’s never there, I'm putting in all the work. So I said, "Just for insurance, I'm gonna take a few of these just for me, just in case." I winded up using them—I had to—as ammunition. But we’re gettin’ to that, when the war started or whatever.
It was a beautiful thing when we first started. We was a good team. Everybody was on the same page. Music was gettin’ done. We could have been the next G-Unit, we could have been the next D-Block. We had a nice sound, we was great together. And I stood out—I stood myself out. Just because—I'm not gonna ride somebody’s coattails. "One day, when we finish this, and you make your millions, I wanna make me some millions." You know what I'm saying? That’s how that went. Personalities, egos clashed. I guess maybe at some point he was feeling threatened by my presence—animosity started. People started disrespecting each other. When you amongst men, men gonna disrespect each other. Just like guys in here disrespect each other. There’s gonna be a fight, somebody’s gonna get hurt. That’s all that happened. Money, disrespect—they don’t mix.
How long after that did the incident with Gina and Kelvin happen? It was all in the mix. Everything was crumbling with Jim. That’s not an excuse for the situation, I'm just saying. That’s what made me drift, to where I wasn’t supposed to be. Because it was hard being around these dudes. Like, I can’t do what I love, what I'm here to do. I know that’s why God put me here. I'm here to make this music right here, to put this thing together. They was fucking it up for me.
Jim, all of them. They was just fucking it up. They was under this impression—I think they all adopted this from Cam’ron—they were all into this impression that the new guys must pay the dues, and they don’t deserve this, and when they go out on a show they only get $300. I'm like, "What the fuck, are you fucking kidding me?" I'm like, "Number one: I do all the fucking records around here. Number two: all the records we producing in the studio—these are fucking singles you puttin’ out, radio spins! Where’s my shit? Why when I go perform at a show, and you making excess amount of dollars, you making ten, fifteen grand, how the fuck is you giving me $300? I'm doing eight, nine fucking records! I'm out here sweatin’ too! When you got drama and beef in different cities, and motherfuckers is throwing chairs on the stage—they throwin’ them shits at me too! I want money." This is what all the beef start stemmin’ from. I always needed money. I'm like, "I need money. I can’t live off $300. Naw, man, you gotta pay me accordingly. Or let me make my own money. Let me get my own manager, or assistant. Let me book my own shit."
It’s just a sad situation. This whole ordeal, I'm just saddened by everything. Even the victim, the family, everything. Unfortunate events occurred. And you can’t change them. But I'm sad that I'm held liable.
There was arguments, there was disrespect every night in the studio. To where, I didn't want to go in. Some nights he had to call me: "Yo, come and work." "I don’t wanna go. I don’t like this shit no more."
I got out on bail in 2007, summertime. My bail was like $1.5 million. No way I think I'm gettin’ out. I'm thinking, "Who’s gonna come get me." But we found a way. My tangible songs, I was able to sell some publishing to those, for some money. When I got out of prison, my buzz got bigger, I became more recognized. People was runnin’ up on me in the street—"Yo Max, let me get a autograph." Soon as I got out of prison, my man Bruno said, "Yo Max, when you come home, you gonna be something special." So I see the buzz, I see the energy. And when I came home this time, it was the same thing with these guys in the studio. No recognition, like, "Come on, give me my proper due. Where’s the etiquette here?"
This time I was so flared up and angry. I had got some songs on the radio, and then waited 'till them songs got in rotation with [Funkmaster] Flex, and let everybody get a little glimpse of me this time, I put out another mixtape. And then once I knew I had the buzz, I went in the studio, stole a few more records, my records, and I started something I knew the city, the rap game, was gonna eat up. I started a beef. I had to. It was me against the world.
One of the things you were saying is how you became Max, and Charly just got left behind. Do you feel that with all the pressure, especially with the legal troubles, that it got darker?
I think it did, because, my trial, to me, was unfair. Because any time the judge give you instructions not to go on the computer, when he’s giving instruction to the jury, "Don’t go on the Internet, don’t talk about it..." But who’s to stop that person from going home and clicking on his mouse? And look up the person that they’re either gonna convict or find innocent.
When they click on me, they see rap beef. They see me smoking weed. They see me womanizing. They see me cursing on my records, throwing money in the air. Just real "niggery," real ignorant—but that’s what I do. That’s Max B. And like I said, it was hard to separate the two, which I should have done. Which was a necessity before I went to trial, and should have been done as soon as I got out.
But it just seems like I got worse. Late night, booze, drunk binges, car crashes. You name it, I was involved. All out on bail—you know how many times I got arrested? I got arrested like five times, on five weed violations and DUIs—out on bail. It wasn’t like I was reinventing myself or trying to do something, some charity work or something—just something positive. It wasn’t nothing positive. It was back to the studio, back to the lifestyle. Back to the crazy life, and had I beat this case… I couldn’t even tell you what I’d be doin’.
Do you feel like it was better for Charly that you didn’t?
Naw, I ain't gonna say that because, people need me. I got kids; my kids need me. I just never knew how to separate the two. It’s like it just jumped in me and that was it.
Have you learned anything about yourself since you’ve been here?
I still act the same way, I'm still selfish in some ways. I don’t like to be that way but sometimes it’s just uncontrollable, like an uncontrollable beast. And I just be prayin’ on it, hoping that I can grow into being a man, just humble, just chilling out. Just being easy. Being Charly.
What you’re talking about is a character, who’s like a shield. And your family has been through a lot. Is this a way to shield yourself from dealing with a lot of that stuff? There’s been a lot of bad contracts, and things have gotten stalled, and a lot of "wrong place at the wrong time" situations on top of all this other stuff.
[Long pause] You don’t want to, but… I don’t even know. It’s just sad, man, my whole life. Charly wasn’t nobody, he grew up in the ghetto, I was always in trouble. Charly is like, just Charly. Max is…Max makes the moves, Max do’s the do’s. Charly’s just like, "You stay over there."
It’s just a sad situation. This whole ordeal, I'm just saddened by everything. Even the victim, the family, everything. Unfortunate events occurred. And you can’t change them. But I'm sad that I'm held liable for something that I was limited, next to not even being really involved… It’s just crazy the way it unfolded. And the way that it unfolded—it gotta be something deep, something spiritual. Have you ever been in a situation where everything bad happens? It usually don’t happen like that. If four or five things bad happen, you gonna get one good thing outta that.
One little thing could’ve been different and I wouldnt’ve been here. I always think about the way everything played out, I be like, "Damn, even if this one thing woulda been said, this woulda been different," but it wasn’t.
Maybe this place is meant for me to get back into who I am. Maybe it is. I don’t know.
I think what you’re talking about is—you know your song title, "Lord Tryna Tell You Somethin"? Does that apply to this?
Absolutely. Indirectly, I'm saying the same thing. Absolutely God be talking to you, giving you the signs. You just gotta open up and see them. Sometimes I be so shut out, I don’t even see them. I be missing my blessings. They there, they still there. Out of all this I'm going through right now… I'm still not in an all-the-way-messed-up situation.
I'm still better off than most people. Even though I'm in here. There’s a positive. There’s a way out. I still got a lot of appeals left. I gotta keep it going man, ain’t no stoppin. I'm here, I'm on this earth, my eyes is open, my brain is working. I gotta keep going until God stops everything. French’s album just dropped, I got two joints on there. It could be rougher. My man could’ve been a sucker. Could’ve been like, “Fuck Max. I'm not puttin’ him on.” But, [he’s] on Hot 97, on promo shows, like “Free Max, free Max.’ They know I'm still here.
What do you tell your kids about your situation?
They too young to really understand the logistics. I just tell ‘em that I love ‘em. "Daddy was bad, Daddy got in trouble. That’s why you need to be good and listen to grandma, before you be in here like me. You won’t be with me, you’ll be like me."
They real little, they tiny. Them years are not to come yet. Hopefully I can be back in the mix before they get to that age.
At some point, they’re gonna get old enough—what are you gonna tell them about Max B? Not necessarily the case and the trial, but that character? Charly is a father and has other responsiblities; Max B is like this superhero who has no responsibilities and lives the lifestyle. How do you reconcile those two, and how are you going to talk to your kids about that?
I would just tell them, "Listen—don’t follow me, my way. You can pursue my profession, but don’t follow me." I never thought I was a role model of any sort. I was just reckless, irresponsible, and I loved very little things.
You know, I didn’t do things right. They can learn from me. They can use my life as a blueprint of what not to do and what to do what I’ve done and do it better. They do have an advantage—I can tell them, "This is where I went wrong, this is the wrong path I went down."
That be like my worst nightmare sometimes, to figure out how can I tell them or how can I explain to them certain things about parenthood and responsibility, because I don’t really know these things. I didn’t like to play by rules, that’s the reason why I'm here. And that’s another thing I’d tell them: "Look, you gotta play by the rules, because society is built by rules. Whatever you do, there’s rules involved. Whenever you don’t follow rules, there’s consequences."
I'm gonna get back to the family, get back to just being Charly for a little while. Even if I was to get out, man, I might not even go right back into the studio. Spend some time with the family, get my head on straight, get back to just being me.
How long do you think it’s been since you’ve been "you"?
[Sighs.] Man, I don’t even know…it’s been a long time. Been years. This character is not letting me go. And I want to let it go. Maybe it’s a fear, right? Like something you’re letting go, but you’re actually not letting anything go.