Maxi Jazz had recently suffered from a sleep-depriving tooth abscess when he penned Faithless’ most enduring hit, ‘Insomnia’. His “I can’t get no sleep” refrain” has consistently thrilled millions of bug-eyed clubbers since the track was released in 1995, even though its writer’s inspiration came from a very different place.
“The lines about having no electricity and reaching for the pen in the darkness were also from real life,” he told The Guardian in 2020. “I had an electricity meter and when the money ran out you’d get six or seven pounds of credit and then – “Boom!” – the lights would go out. So I used to write by candlelight.”
Maxi was a hip hop DJ who fronted the Soul Food Cafe band and hosted pirate radio shows for a decade before he met producer Rollo in a London studio in 1995. After he was introduced to keyboardist, producer and songwriter Sister Bliss, Faithless the band was born almost instantaneously. A friend had connected Sister Bliss with “an amazing rapper from Brixton who’s a Buddhist,” she told Mixmag on December 26, three days after Maxi passed away after a long illness.
“And we just chatted and chatted about his philosophy and what it meant to be a Buddhist and all about our taste in music and then we made our first record which was ‘Salva Mea’,” she recalled. “Rollo asked him to write lyrics about frustration, like what it feels like to be so frustrated in your own skin that you just want to escape.”
Maxi touched on insomnia, hardship and the importance of self-love across Faithless’ debut album, ‘Reverence’ — his patent desperation and the band’s chosen name at odds with his own Soka Gakkai Buddhist faith. Social causes and Buddhist principles would characterise much of his lyrical output throughout his time with Faithless, which spanned 21 years and six albums until he left the group in 2016, forming a blues-reggae band called Maxi Jazz & The E-Type Boys the same year.
“Maxi spoke so eloquently about what it is to be a human being and navigate this very tricky thing called life,” says Sister Bliss. “Through his Buddhist practice he had a real blueprint for living a kind and abundant life and understanding that we are all one and he experienced it very profoundly and wrote about it.” Proving Faithless’ impact well beyond clubland, the band’s songs found fans in the likes of R.E.M’s Michael Stipe and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, who named 2004 protest song ‘Mass Destruction’ – which sees Maxi taking on misinformation, war, racism and inaction – as the track he wishes he wrote most in an interview with Q magazine.
Encouraged by the reaction to ‘Insomnia’, which attracted a huge global audience after Pete Tong pushed for a re-release of the track in 1996, Maxi more explicitly addressed the cleansing potential of clubbing in ‘God Is DJ’, taken from their 1998 sophomore album ‘Sunday 8pm’. “This is my church/This is where I heal my hurts/For tonight, God is a DJ/This is my church,” Maxi intones, legitimising the ritual of raving over hypnotic, biblical synths.
The potency of Maxi’s lyrics came from the palpable sense that he didn’t see himself as a god at all, but as a messenger, even as Faithless collected Mercury Prize and BRIT Award nominations and headlined festivals from Glastonbury to EXIT to Coachella. This was in stark contrast to the contemporaneous rise of the self-aggrandizing superstar DJ, and part of what made Faithless’ live performances all the more electrifying. “The way Maxi held the crowd was absolutely inspired,” says Sister Bliss. “And Maxi didn’t just drink that up in the crazed ego way you’d expect from the frontman, he always gave it back and there was this cyclical energy of the audience giving it to us and us feeding it back to them.” As punters themselves who had been skint and saved their hard-earned money to see their favourite bands, Faithless understood the importance of giving it their all on stage. “We never did a half-assed show, never,” says Sister Bliss. “He wouldn’t have forgiven himself.”
Alongside his political and philosophical musings, Maxi also liked to write about more earthly, carnal pleasures. It’s testament to Maxi’s songwriting that what might be the raunchiest lyric in dance music, “tearing off tights with my teeth”, is only the second most impressionistic line from ‘Insomnia’.
Even as an 11-year-old, I knew those words were rousingly risqué, and the combination of them, Maxi’s steady, omniscient delivery and the ecclesiastical arrangements made the hairs on my pre-teen neck stand up and trained my ears to appreciate so many club tracks that came afterwards. Undeniable enough to resonate far beyond the dancefloor and to infiltrate TV series and sports stadiums alike, ‘Insomnia’ had the momentous build and cinematic quality of Underworld’s ‘Dark and Long’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, but it was Maxi’s prose and sage narration that elevated ‘Insomnia’ from rave banger to instant classic.
The members of Faithless were still close after Maxi’s departure. Some of Sister Bliss’s last conversations with Maxi were about their plans to have him narrate excerpts from his life story on their next album, as they knew he was unwell. She says they’ll think of a way to realise that intention.
“Every record we make, whether with Maxi or without Maxi, has been to honour him and his message and consciousness, and his absolute sense of inclusivity,” she says. “That’s the point of Faithless — this is our church and this is where we heal our hurts, and there’s a lot of people hurting because of this news. So I do hope they find some comfort in the music, which will live on after we’re long gone.”
Annabel Ross is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter
Written by: Tim Hopkins