Remembering K-Maxx, A Musician and DJ Who Helped Revive Funk in the Bay Area

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Influential DJ, multi-instrumentalist, rapper and producer K-Maxx died on Dec. 29, 2020, the same day he released his final album. (Courtesy of K-Maxx)

A fixture in the Bay Area’s underground hip-hop, funk and boogie scenes for over 20 years, K-Maxx (a.k.a. Kenyan “Ken” Hopkins) died unexpectedly of unknown causes on Dec. 29, 2020. KQED was scheduled to interview the San Francisco multi-instrumentalist, producer, MC and radio DJ about his new album when we learned of his passing. Selections is a funky, love-laced dance record that now reads as a fitting last dispatch from a well respected artist.

“He was a brother, an amazing musician, and a cherished friend to all. Words escape us as we are still in shock,” reads the announcement of K-Maxx’s passing on his Instagram. Among the most common comments were memories of K-Maxx's positivity, big smile and penchant for deep conversation.

K-Maxx was a prolific musician and producer, though his voice is perhaps his most enduring legacy. He spent well over a decade behind the mic at 89.5 FM KPOO in the Fillmore, lightly lisping as he threw down fire tracks on his four-hour Friday night show, Ghetto Gumbo. While Gumbo was billed as a hip-hop program, it grew to encompass a breadth of adjacent genres. K-Maxx played modern roots reggae, Roy Ayers and The Crusaders’ 1979 hit “Street Life” alongside tracks from Outkast, Fashawn and Common. His knack for connecting the dots between funk, soul and hip-hop were unparalleled on local radio.

Roots in ’90s Hip-Hop

The same could be said of K-Maxx’s progression as a musician and producer. Raised in a musical household with a jazz-head father and a mother who was into funk and soul, K-Maxx “always had an open ear.” Speaking to Chicago’s Cherries Records in 2015, K-Maxx said, “I just approach [music] from a grassroots, organic kind of way….I’m just trying  to capture [feelings], and I don’t know what that’s going to manifest as, but when I sit down at the keys or the workstation I try and figure out what it might feel like to be in that moment.” Over 15 years, K-Maxx released three self-produced albums on his own Arielle Records: Sumthin’ Ta Roll Wit (1994), Still Rollin’ (1996) and The Whole Woo Wop (2009). Each project came hard with head-bobbing beats and sensitive, shrewd lyricism that stood out among the Bay’s prolific hip-hop scene. They still sound fresh today. 

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While K-Maxx’s first two albums featured beats created from samples, by the late ’90s he’d committed to playing all the instruments on his tracks. “It’s like cooking some food, all from scratch, man.  Every ‘klank,’ ‘click,’ all the guitar riffs, all the bass, all the drum tracks, the lead vocals and the background vocals is all me,” he told Cherries. “I was doing hip-hop beats growing up and…I love the art form in itself, but when it’s time for business you have to get clearances and all that, and it just made me more interested in the science behind it, why that record sounded like that.”

Woo Wop was K-Maxx’s last hip-hop-centric output; its ’80s-inspired track “SupaDrunk” a funky hint of what was to come.I didn’t really wanna do [hip-hop] anymore anyway, so I just turned up that other pilot light on the oven,” he told Wax Poetics magazine in 2014. K-Maxx was digging into the slower, drum machine- and synth-heavy funk sound known as boogie. “That kind of sound is my musical Wonder Years, that coming-of-age time,” he said.

Boogie emerged in defiance of the “disco sucks” movement—a more queer, more Black, more underground sound. “What we call boogie is what grew from the ashes,” K-Maxx told Bandcamp in 2019 in an article about the genre’s modern resurgence. “It provided another energy where people could vibe, mingle and bring different cultures and communities together.”


Ushering in a Boogie Resurgence

K-Maxx soon found kindred spirits in the Sweater Funk DJ crew, then operating out of the basement at Chinatown’s Li Po lounge. By the time Sweater Funk moved its weekly Sunday night party from Li Po’s dark basement across town to The Knockout, K-Maxx had become the 10-person crew’s de-facto MC and host. “What Sweater Funk really did was validated the shit,” he continued in the Wax Poetics interview. “I’m no longer inside of my head thinking I’m doing something [interesting].” In 2013, K-Maxx and Sweater Funk released a four-track self-titled EP of groovy love songs, each earnest and danceable without being cheesy. (K-Maxx’s Sweater Funk collaborators declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“It’s not terribly known that a lot of modern funk is rooted in the Bay Area, specifically Oakland and San Francisco,” journalist and Needle to the Groove partner David Ma wrote in an email. “With Sweater Funk’s long-running events, boogie and its adjacent genres have been celebrated in a small yet vital scene that imparted influence far beyond the Bay Bridge.”


New York City DJ Natasha Diggs first heard K-Maxx’s Cherries Records 7-inch from 2015, and would regularly play “SupaDrunk” at gigs. “I just thought it was so fly and had its own thing goin’ for it,” she said. While she mostly knew K-Maxx online, Diggs said she “could feel his sweet spirit in our interactions and through his soulful music, always unique and true to him.”

“We will keep his legacy alive by continuing to play the treasures he left us,” she added. 

K-Maxx continually kept it moving, bringing that distinct Bay sensibility to a variety of projects. He collaborated with Dan the Automator, Andre Nickatina, Nick Wisdom, Too Short and Tower of Power vocalist Lenny Williams (for whom he produced and co-wrote the singleTuesday), always bringing a blend of hip-hop, funk and soul influence. K-Maxx also had a slew of releases on various labels, and was featured on multiple compilations. K-Maxx took a multi-year break before debuting what would be his final project, released the day he died.

The self-released Selections radiates positive energy, the same kind K-Maxx’s friends and colleagues reminisced about following the announcement of his death. Written before his mother died and produced after, Selections’ six tracks were an attempt to fill a void. “My mom, who was my heart and my best friend, passed away and I was lost. I didn’t want to think about music for a good while and didn’t know when I would,” K-Maxx said in a statement about the album’s release. “Slowly, I began to feel a void from not making/releasing music. Then, of course, the pandemic hit us all. I decided to stick to my gut instincts and proceed forward.”


Running through the core of Selections—as with most of K-Maxx’s work—is the feeling of a singular love. “I’m tapping into the era when people truly expressed how they felt about each other and did it unabashedly,” he continued. “The bond between two people can be such a powerful union. I want to encourage it through the music. You should dance to it too, even if it’s in your PJs in the living room.” While K-Maxx definitely had more to give, his uplifting vibe and dedication to putting out deeply danceable music will be long-lasting.

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“His songs felt earnestly carefree and the songwriting remained consistent through the last 10-plus years,” Ma said. “While his death seems understated, his impact cannot be. The funk resurgence as we know it probably wouldn’t have had such an impact if it weren’t for K-Maxx’s quiet consistency through the decades. Ask any longtime DJ in the area, and they’ll lovingly tell you the same.”