March 28, 2017

quelle

Detroit rapper-producer Quelle Chris has never shied away from honest reflection. Much of his solo work, including N***as is Men, Ghost at the Finish Line, and Innocent Country, offered thoughtful gazes into his psyche, ruminating on his art, his sense of worth, his creative spirit, and his place in the world. As meditative as it can be, Chris’ music is rarely glum—his lyrics often carry a sense of humor and a relatable frankness, reflected in songs like “Loop Dreams,” “I Asked God,” and “Addiction Cycles.”

Quelle Chris’ latest project, Being You is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often, is thoroughly colored by this introspection, making for a poignant, though often droll, journey of self-examination. Songs of swaggering self-love (“Buddies,” “I’m that Ni#%a”) are contrasted with brooding, contemplative affairs (“Popeye,” “Birthdaze”). The switches are jarring, but identifiable—self-confident to self-conscious all in one. These disparate senses of esteem are weighed throughout the course of the album, relating thoughts and questions that should sound familiar to anyone who’s taken the time to seriously reckon with themselves.

I talked with Quelle Chris over the phone about the inspirations and ideas behind Being You is Great… Through our talk, we dived into several philosophical arenas: the value in having wide range of influences, the role of outside opinions on our self-perceptions, the tricky nature of cultural criticism, and the merits of Nicolas Cage. —Nitish Pahwa


How does it feel to have the new project out there?


Quelle Chris: You know, it always feels good to get it out to people and hear people’s responses and get positive feedback. For me it’s kind of like—I know it’s not really the same, alright, it’s definitely not the same—but I liken it, in my stupid main brain, to having a sixteen year-old kid that’s finally leaving the house. And you’re just like, “Yes, finally, he’s gone! I can take some pants off!” You know what I mean? It’s good to get it out there, but there’s also a sort of…I’m just glad to not be thinking about it anymore. This one was about three or four years in the making, so I’m just glad it’s done. Now it can go out there, and work, and get me some money and bring some money back to me for once.


Being from Detroit, how instrumental has the city been to your career?


Quelle Chris: Oh, mad heavy. I’d say in the land of “Dilla changed my life” kind of way. I was in middle school and high school in St. Louis, but my older brother would always get to go travel back to Detroit and visit family and friends. Within that group of family and friends were Big Tone, 87, Loose Cannon. They had that whole hip-hop shop scene, and out of that, he would bring home cassette tapes of all these different albums. It was like, not just hearing that music and being like, “Yo, these brothers are stylin’,” but also hearing it and going like, “Oh wow, these are people I know!” Stuff that, at least at the time in my mind, was like Grammy-nominated music.

So, extremely instrumental, where it was people from Detroit that I was into, like, “Oh wow, I can do this too!” But it was also a lot of St. Louis, like Black Spade and Nato Caliph. A lot of those people kind of brought me in at different points in my career. Big brother type things, like, “Ah man, some little dude’s making good music, he’s trying to make music, let’s help him out!” You know, recognizing that talent.

So a lot of Detroit, a lot of St. Louis, but Detroit was very influential just…in life. Growing up, my father was—is!—a pianist and a drummer, and he was in a band with brothers when he was young. So there was always music. Always. I visited my uncle, there was always music. Always. Detroit and music and family are all merged together as one thing in my brain.


I know you’ve traveled a lot and lived in different cities. How do you think that’s informed your perspective and influenced your craft?


Quelle Chris: Well, that is just the natural way of being able to find yourself in all types of circles and around a lot of different types of people and a lot of different types of music and a lot of different types of cliques and scenes, to see like, “Oh, shit, this is how these metal dudes are doin’ it! This is how these punk rock people are doin’ it, and this is how these electronic people are doin’ it!” Just being able to be a fly on the wall to so many lifestyles. Sometimes not just a fly on the wall, but a drunk and extremely high person in the midst of it. Just a part of so many different things, when a lot of people only have what they’re used to. I think, in hindsight, I look at it like I forced myself to vibe through a lot of different things.

At the moment, I don’t think I consciously knew that’s what I was doing. Like, is it in my nature to be like, “Oh lemme just see, let’s start something new. Let’s fuck with someone new, meet new people?” But in hindsight, I was definitely feeling this catalog of moments. And also just talking—I’ve always hated my voice, my accent, how it formed over time. But it’s definitely a result of being, seeing around New York n***as, being around Detroit n***as, being around St. Louis people, being around Cali folks. It’s kind of caused a thing where I just don’t have the upstate New York accent, I just don’t have the Detroit accent, it’s a lot pulled from everything.

And also, it’s always you. You also have a lot of different voices. You’ve seen cool [things] from a lot of different places, and I don’t realize when I do it, but I do. Because I know that comes out in my lungs too, man. Some songs I’ll approach it kind of this way, and I hear/feel comfortably and still naturally. Not like MC Hammer—going from MC Hammer to The Funky Headhunter—where you’re like come on dawg, that’s not you! I have the ability to naturally shift between my regular, nasally, blah-blah-blah approach, and also my regular, nasally, boom-boom-boom, like bars, just hit ’em with bars, and have different tones. I don’t consciously do it, I naturally am used to being like, “Oh, right now I’m here, and this is how I’m going to approach this and talk. And right now I’m here.” So I’m just so used to being in so many different places and having to adapt.


You mentioned seeing metal and punk groups—I heard you had a punk group yourself, back in the day.


Quelle Chris: I think what you’re referring to…that one wasn’t as much punk as it was…drug noise-rock? Industrial…crap [Laughs]? I don’t know if that’s a genre, but yeah it was called Drunk Uncle. They’re still really good friends of mine, and they all still make music in their own respects. That was more of a college band. Going into college, I was always listening to everything else. Always have, because of my pops—he had a wide base of music interests—and my brother, and everybody. I was always surrounded by everything. I was always still just a black kid with black friends, so naturally I would only focus on hip-hop, and going into college and being with this group of guys kinda opened me up to, “Yeah, you can do this stuff!”

So we started playing around with music—we used to practice in the basement of our dorm building. I just remember one day, when we went and we hung out at this friend’s place, and we told him, “Yeah, we have a band, and we’re the ones that practice in the basement.” And he goes, “Oh, that’s you guys playing that terrible music!” We’re like, “Yeah, that’s us! We’re the guys playing that shitty music every night!” We always wanted to put out an album that came with a blunt or a joint, and we’d tell people if you buy, you’d get a joint. We did a couple shows, but we never finished the full project. I still have those songs, and I still love them, but I’m not sure if the world’s ready for that yet.


Shifting gears here—I was reading your FADER profile, where you talk about how you sometimes doubt the purpose of your craft, like why am I doing this, who’s going to listen? When those thoughts hit you, what pushes you to keep going?


Quelle Chris: Honestly man, I wanna give you a really cool answer, I’m not really sure. I think it’s just survival. I want me and Jean to be comfortable and happy going into our later years and I wanna establish things that can be stepping stones to bigger and better work. I have a real addiction to making things, to creating things. It’s not on a hobby level with me. Constantly also trying to keep myself actively entertained by life.

But when reality sets in…the grass is always greener, you talk to friends who have five-figure, six-figure jobs that they see a certain amount of money and health insurance and all these things. And you find yourself going like…you put in a hour and 675 days of work into finishing an album, and you release it, and you check your iTunes sales…you see all the response, and it’s all this love and all this support, and then you actually see the money, and the sales, and you’re like, “Where is that support physically?” And it kinda makes you go, “What the hell am I doing this for?”

And sometimes I’m not really sure, man. I’m just gonna be honest with you. I don’t know why I purposely do this to myself multiple times a year. I think, just a love for…it’s that standard cliché, love for making music, and sharing it with people and giving people something different. And maybe there’s a part of me that feels obligated to do so, because I know, as someone that’s always looking for something to hear, [I like to] find things where I go, “Man, like, just listening to this makes me feel good.”

So I think there might be a part of me that just wants to fill that void for others, the way that it was filled for me by the people that I came up listening to. I will say it’s probably a combination of those things: it’s addiction, it’s enjoyment, it’s kinda like my drug, it’s my high. There’s a social aspect of it, and all of my friends—I would say at least 95% of my friends are creators, in whatever their respect is. You can’t help it. If you’re someone that plays basketball, a lot of your friends, you end up meeting with them at the Y and playing basketball. Naturally, a lot of my friends, I end up meeting up with them at a studio and making shit. Since you’re already just a regular, a lot of times, a lot of people don’t like to talk about hip-hop in this way, and I don’t know if because it’s not real…I don’t know. You know, it’s a job! It’s my job, too.

So that’s also what drives me a lot is I gotta pay rent, I gotta do all this stuff that you do. I gotta keep my life going, I gotta keep food in my belly. So there’s that, and then there’s the unknown, where it’s like, “I don’t know why the hell I’m doing this, but I’m drawn to do it.” Maybe that’s kind of like destiny or fate calling. There’s the part I don’t understand, where it’s like I don’t know why I feel so drawn to do it, but I have to.


A big reason I’m so drawn to this album is that sort of introspection—it really resonates with me. It also interests me because hip-hop has always had an emphasis on the individual, but in the past, it was about being resilient and strong. But then you also had Scarface, the “Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me” type. Nowadays, there’s a motif of looking at yourself, being more confessional.


Quelle Chris: I think it’s just life and time. Everybody has their own process. And I can’t speak on how those songs came to be—I can say why they worked, because they’re speaking to emotions that people actually feel, including arrogance and grandeur. People feel that too, or wanna feel it, and need sometimes that boost, too. I would say, personally, to assume what’s happening to me has happened before. In high school, I even thought about making a porn movie, and I thought that was the most lyrical shmyrical shit I’d ever come up with before. And I think that with time and with growth, with certain people you feel like you have a different responsibility to not just what you’re giving to other people, but also to yourself, because everything—this interview right now, every interview I do, and every song I release, it may not be today, it may not be next year, it may not be 10 years from now, but somebody will see, and to them that will be what you are, always.

Someone may not hear it right now, but whenever they do, that’s who you are, and you can’t take it back, you know what I’m saying? So when you’re whatever types of crazy shit, and then four, five years later, someone walks up to you and they go, “Man, that song in which you said ‘Yeah, I’m about to take a can of dog poo and stick it in her bootyhole,’” and you’d be like, “Dang, yeah, I said that? Wow!” And man, that’s not how I feel right now!” So you realize, you’re not just loyal to other people, but you’re loyal to yourself too—what you’re putting it in your own personal time capsule.

At least, that’s kind of sometimes how I feel. I like to say dumbass shit and get into all sorts of dumb shit too, but I also realize there has to be a balance, because this is what I will be forever remembered as—outside of people that know me personally. If you don’t know me personally, this is what you’re gonna know me for. If I’m gonna put it out on the line, and put it in that eternal form of recorded music, then I need to put whatever I am in it, then at least I can look back and always go, “I wasn’t lying, I wasn’t frontin’, I wasn’t giving people bullshit.”


Where do you think lies the line between genuine self-love—looking at yourself and broadcasting that to the world, being happy with yourself—and narcissism?


Quelle Chris: Shit, I don’t know, man. I think they’re blurred a lot of the time. It’s not just how you view it, it’s sometimes the way people perceive it. You might just think you’re being like, “Yeah, I love myself!” And then someone else watches you like, “That n***a Quelle there mad cocky.” That’s not even what I was trying to give you!

You’ll hear a lot of what Migos is doing, and they’ll be talking all this shit on [their record]. And then you’ll watch a Migos interview, and they’ll be mad humble and shit. So sometimes you don’t know, it’s hard to really say what’s…it’s tough. Because perception and what people know and don’t know plays a lot in it. So that’s a tough one. I don’t know if I have an answer for that one, man. That applies more than just music, I think that’s just in life, and how you interact with others, how you’re able to interact with yourself, and then how you’re able to carry that over into…yeah, I don’t know if I have an answer for that one. Maybe I need to think about that one.


Yeah, that was kind of a big question.


Quelle Chris: No, it’s a good question! It’s kind of one of those questions that might need a little bit of volley. A little bit of not just what I think but kind of maybe where you stand on it, like what are your thoughts on this? I’m asking you!


Oh, really? I think it depends on a lot of perspectives. Because, like you said, one day you could just be walking out there, just feeling yourself, and then someone else could tell one of your friends, “Wow, he’s being real cocky today.” And then your friend will tell you, “All these people have been saying you’ve been acting real cocky lately.” Something similar to that has happened to me before, and I’m just like, “Man, I don’t think I was being cocky!”


Quelle Chris: And you’re like “Nah, I was just having a good day!”


Yeah, exactly!


Quelle Chris: And then there’s sometimes moments when someone will be like, “Yo, how you feelin’ today?” And you’ll say something kinda facetious or something, and they’ll be like, “Man, that n***a Quelle is in a bad place.” And like I’m not in a bad place, that’s just kinda how I felt. I don’t feel bad about it.


Definitely, that happens to me all the time. I think it’s really easy for people to just misinterpret the things you say or the things you feel and just any of the vibes you give off, you know?


Quelle Chris: And then there’s sometimes moments when someone will be like, “Yo, how you feelin’ today?” And you’ll say something kinda facetious or something, and they’ll be like, “Man, that n***a Quelle is in a bad place.” And like I’m not in a bad place, that’s just kinda how I felt. I don’t feel bad about it.


Definitely, that happens to me all the time. I think it’s really easy for people to just misinterpret the things you say or the things you feel and just any of the vibes you give off, you know?


Quelle Chris: Right, right. Like it’s easy for people to focus on one thing. Nowadays, I’ll get a lot of reviews that’ll be like, you know, “self-aware and something something rapper Quelle” and, “funny rapper Quelle.” There was a point where it was a lot of, “weed rapper Quelle.” And I would get those ones and I’d be like…I mean, I talk about weed, because I smoke weed, but these songs are about way more than just that. So a lot of times, people will kinda pick and choose what they wanna focus on, and I don’t know how that happens as a collective, because a lot of times when I hear other people’s music and see what other people say about them, I’m like, “That’s not what I got from that!” [laughs] You know what I mean? Totally not what I picked up on that.

I guess that would be the most simplified way to answer that. I think it just all boils down to perception. Like, “Buddies,” some people hear that song and they go, “Aw man, that song inspires me.” Some people take that song and they go, “Aw man, this n***a’s silly as hell, I don’t even know why he’d make this song.” Some people say, “Aw man, this song is silly is hell, and it just makes me laugh.” Some people go, “Aw man, this song is whack as hell, because he’s just talking about himself.” You know, everybody can take the exact same teaspoon of sugar and have a whole different response to it.


That’s interesting when it comes to art. Like, something I write about your album could be completely different than what someone else writes about it. And I guess it depends on your own personal reservations, too. Most of the time, when I’m reviewing records, I haven’t talked to the rapper, I don’t know their life outside of what they let slip on the record, I haven’t had a sit-down conversation with them. So it’s kind of tough to bring a balanced perspective.


Quelle Chris: Yeah, it’s tough! Because all you’re getting are these words. My words don’t just come with my background. A lot of times, they come with the listener’s background. So when you hear a song like, “I fuck with myself” [“Buddies”], you could be in a place where you’re like, “Man, I really needed to hear that message.” Or you could be in a place where you’re like, “Man, some dickhead that I know was just on that type of shit and I don’t fuck with people that be feeling like this.” My music and my words are kind of a conduit, but when people hear them, they don’t hear them from my perspective so much as they have placed them in a place where [the words] fit in within their view.


I’m kind of curious. For you, as an artist, whenever you’re reading reviews or analyses of your work, does it really bother you when people go off the rails of what you were intending? Or are you more like, “That’s an interesting way to put it?” With an album like Being You is Great, an album that’s extremely personal, what are your thoughts on other people trying to interpret that?


Quelle Chris: I wanna answer this politically to a point, because I don’t want people to feel like they have to bite their tongue. I’m not aggressive in that way, like I don’t say, “Shut your motherfuckin’ mouth about me!” But there is a part of me that, because a lot of [the albums] are personal to me, it befuddles me when I [read a piece] and I’m like, “Oh shit, how did you…how did you get that from that?? Like that’s not what I was saying! To me this song is clearly about watering a garden. And you heard it and you were like, ‘It’s a social evaluation of Trump’s presidency.’” So yeah, it does bother me, but I feel like it happens so often that I don’t really feel like I have the time or energy to rectify them all.


I wanted to ask you about your production style. Who are your biggest inspirations?


Quelle Chris: Big Tone from Detroit, Loose Cannon from Detroit, Black Spade, I, Ced—even though I didn’t really know that was them that were pickin’ out a lot of those sounds—from St. Louis. I had a Def Jux period—El-P, who was a blessing because I was actually able to record a portion of Ghost at the Finish Line at his crib. Jay Dee, of course. My father. David Bowie, Yes, Johnny and Thom Yorke. The list goes on and on. King Crimson—and this is just me doing surface things, because I’ve listened to so much different shit. I’m saying the big people right now. Mr. Bungle, [Captain] Beefheart, Zappa—people that touch on every genre. Pete Rock…everything that I’ve been blessed enough to come across has been a part of how I view music.

A long list of minimalists, industrial, and noise music. A lot of the tapes from the ’80s—songs everybody always brings up in hip-hop, when it comes to sampling and all that shit. A lot of these guys, they weren’t even taking it as far as we were! They would take a clip from a movie and loop it for six minutes and put that on the album. And that type of stuff inspires me because I’m like, “Shit yeah, I ain’t gotta go to where everybody else goes, I can go anywhere!” A lot of film recording music, things like that. A good homie of mine, he’s been doing a lot of film recording lately and I really wanna get out there and do that with him because I love that stuff, just the clicks and the clacks and the sound of…life.

I couldn’t really place my finger on what my major influence would be sound-wise because as time has progressed, especially getting to this point, it’s just kind of an amalgamation of everything I love. I can definitely say that my peers—my older brother, Big Tone, Loose Cannon—coming back and being around these people who I was listening to, their beat tapes—like, actual tapes—and be like, “Wow, this is crazy, like you could take these types of songs and you could do this with them?”

Those were definitely the strong ones, but really, when it all comes together, it’s a good mix of everything. There’s probably nothing, music-wise, that hasn’t pushed me or influenced me. I could tell you the least influential one is probably country. I don’t mean folk or bluegrass. Country music is probably the [genre] I listen to the least. Which is funny because my mom just got on this new kick over the last summer where that’s her favorite genre. And I’m like “Where the hell did that come from?” So I could tell you my least, but as far as what’s been the most influential on me? Everything, dawg. Everything. And I’m not even getting into everything my dad listened to, all the soul and the funk and the James Taylors and the classical…I don’t know, man, everything.


IThe sheer range of the people you listed is pretty incredible.


Quelle Chris: And I think the biggest thing I pull from all of that, being exposed to so many things, isn’t as direct as, “This inspired me to make this,” but I would say being exposed to all these things inspired me to realize that music doesn’t have to be something. You know, it doesn’t have to be this or that. It can be almost nondescript in its existence. [Being You is Great…] is a hip-hop album, and I’m not one of those people that goes, “Naw, it’s just music, this is an artist.” Like, no, it’s hip-hop, but it can be whatever I want it to be and still expand but also exist within the constraints of hip-hop.

The music can be whatever you want it to be. It’s self-expression. There ain’t no laws, there ain’t no rules. I know I come from the old school, per se, so I know a lot of people that’ll be like, “You can’t sample this! You gotta make sure you get it off vinyl!” But in time, I’ve learned there are no rules, because it’s just about creating something that you feel is true to you or the moment. That’s really all it is.

To hear music from so many different types of people made me realize that they weren’t worried about that. You don’t need to feel like you have to give somebody something like, “I’m about to make me a classic hip-hop record and bring it back. I’m about to do this, I’m about to do…” You know, don’t be so contrived about it. Just make what makes you feel good, and there’s gonna be people out there that are gonna want to hear it too. It may be five people, it may be five million people, but at least you brought something to the stew. You brought some carrots when there weren’t any carrots.


You’ve said before that you like to draw sounds for your beats from bad movies on TV. What are some of your favorite “bad” sources?


Quelle Chris: Well, sometimes they’re not bad, they’re just…meant to enjoy. I will say the most recent terrible movie I saw that I enjoyed the shit out of was Just 4 Kicks, with the twin brothers. I love a really bad movie with a really bad actor. I don’t think it drives her nuts, but I know Jean [Grae] always gets a kick out of it, she’s like, “What sort of shitty movie are we watching today?” I love a good Nic Cage movie, I love a bad Nic Cage movie, I love a Nic Cage movie in general. If Nic Cage is in it, I don’t give a shit how bad it is, I will watch the whole thing.


I also love a good Nic Cage movie, no matter what.


Quelle Chris: Yeeeaaahh! Goddammit! How can you hate Nicolas Cage? That n***a’s great!