A road trip for your ears: Max Herre takes us on a poetic journey between past and present

Athen, the new album by German rapper Max Herre, is coming out at the end of August. It musically captures a mesmerising sense of longing – for past times, for long-forgotten dreams and for what could have been. This album is an emotional and musical milestone for the hip-hop artist from Stuttgart. In revisiting a significant place of his past, Max Herre has arrived at a new destination and re-discovered a sense of creative urgency.

For over 20 years, Max Herre has shaped German hip-hop and R&B. He entered the stage at a time when hip-hop culture was still inventing itself in Germany, and much has changed since these early days. The 46-year-old rapper has become a husband, a father and what could be called a hip-hop veteran, although as he points out quickly it’s nothing more than a label. He is simply part of that very first German hip-hop generation, so all eyes are now on him to see what ‘grown-up’ rap could look (and sound) like. The truth is, that Max Herre is and has always been a versatile musician, who incorporates different influences from Bob Marley to Stevie Wonder and, of course, German legend Udo Lindenberg.

“I was absolutely convinced Udo Lindenberg waved at me.”

“The first big concert I went to as a kid was Udo – in 1984,” Max remembers fondly. “I was absolutely convinced that he waved at me. In Stuttgart’s big Schleyer-hall and amongst all those people, he picked me and waved – or so I thought. It’s funny, because thirty years later I actually found myself performing with Udo on that very same stage. Of course, I told him about that special moment as a kid. I have no idea why I was so convinced back then, but it impacted me a lot.”

As a teenager Max already knew he wanted to do music professionally, but he finished school and enrolled in university anyways. Or at least that was what his parents thought. He admits: “I didn’t actually attend uni – but I only told my father about that ten years later when my career had already taken off.”

From Freundeskreis to the solo career

The big breakthrough happened in 1997 with the hit single A-N-N-A, when Max was the frontman of the band Freundeskreis. During that time, the concept of the FK-Allstars, a collaboration of over 15 artists such as Afrob, Sékou and Max’ future wife Joy Denalane also emerged. After a few years, his solo career happened fairly organically.

“We all came from a different musical context, so it was always clear that we eventually wanted to explore different avenues. The way we produced our music also changed and became a lot more sophisticated,” he recounts. “I remember when we moved from our little studio in a former garden shed into a professional studio in the centre of Stuttgart. Suddenly, we had a lot more opportunities and we were able to record big bands, violin orchestras and choirs. We were growing with our craft. I also got together with Joy, who I wanted to artistically ‘meet’ as the soul singer she is and in addition to that I moved to Berlin in 2002, so there were many new beginnings anyways. But it was never a conscious decision to stop the band and do a solo career – the others and I just followed what we found musically interesting at that time. The solo career developed from that organically.”

Seven years have passed since his last solo studio album Hallo Welt! was released. However, during that time Max enjoyed a lot of success with his MTV-Unplugged album, which went platinum. He was also awarded ‘Hip-hop artist of 2014’ by the prestigious Echo Music Prize in Germany.

Searching for the new album in far-away lands

After that, it got a little quiet around the rapper, who spent time in Tel Aviv and Addis Ababa. His plan for the next album was initially very different, as he explains: “My journey first took me somewhere else entirely because I wanted to explore spiritual jazz and ethio jazz – music that you wouldn’t traditionally associate with hip-hop. I had the idea to follow the music you once found on an old vinyl, meet the artists behind it in their country and then tell their story together in a song. So, I didn’t actually want to make an album about my own journey.”

He pauses and laughs: “It was a really great plan, to be honest. Some wonderful music developed from it, but in the end, I had trouble writing the lyrics. I thought I was going to become a musical journalist and capture those stories – but I couldn’t do it justice. So, after all those journeys I came back home and let the quiet around me settle in. I reflected on what it feels like when big plans like that one fail. When you look inwards and ask yourself what the stories within you are, the ones that haven’t been told yet. They are hiding away in tiny cracks of your mind and they have never been fully thought through.”

“My story is a placeholder for their own.”

Athen is the new album, which emerged from this reflective time in Max Herre’s life and the search for his own story. It deals with the subjectivity of failing and the power of new beginnings. But it is also a pioneering work because it allows vulnerability and it maybe even carries a sense of departure to this mysterious ‘grown-up’ rap.

Athens is a place where Max spent a lot of time during his childhood because his father moved there, and it became a magical destination he would continue to visit frequently with his own kids as well. Many memories, some more recent than others, play into the creation of the new album.

The single Athen brings up long buried feelings and tells the true story of a failed road trip to the Greek capital, it’s a musical poem of lost dreams and old chapters. “My friend and fellow artist Tua helped me write the lyrics for the single and together with Maxim we detangled the memory of when I wanted to drive to Athens with a girlfriend and it just wasn’t the right time,” Max says. “Generally, I hope to connect people through telling parts of my personal story. A piece of myself becomes their own, they find themselves in the emotion. In that sense my story is just a placeholder for their own.”

The songs on the new album are a musical powerhouse of emotions. They hit home, capture you immediately and draw you in closer, beat by beat. The versatility of the musical choices but also of context is significant. Max Herre effortlessly manages to bridge the gap between places and generations. He tells us about shared memories and fateful blows – always on the path to new opportunities and constellations. It might be a cliché, but we all know its truth: when one door closes another opens, and Athen brings this old wisdom musically to life in the most beautiful way.

A perfect listen during a trip in the car – or on a plane, as Max adds with a little wink.

Athen is out on 30 August 2019.

TEXT: MARILENA STRACKE | PHOTO © ROBBIE LAWRENCE

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