“Life Provides Its Own Narrative:” An Interview With Quelle Chris

Will Schube speaks with one of the most consistently great MC's of the past few years about recent album Innocent Country 2 and working with tUnE-yArDs.
By    July 1, 2020

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Quelle Chris and I spoke a few days after the release of his stellar Innocent Country II. Reception was strong, his fans were happy, but Quelle sensed a pending doom. “Our specific industry is dying. ASCAP is holding its payments — this is dying, that is dying. They’re not really talking about it, but it’s dying. That comes with great concern to someone who is a full-time musician,” he explained. It must be wearing on a musician to begin every interview with answers about how they’re holding up, if their family is safe and healthy, if they’re able to survive without touring income, etc. But Quelle sees this as a reality, not any sort of extenuating circumstance. Perhaps a global pandemic is just an on-the-nose metaphor for a dying industry rotting within the corpse of an even larger dying industry. Then again, Innocent Country II is getting great reviews.

How do you keep going? It’s a question Chris and I return to throughout this interview. This was the year he was going to tour on his own, without the support of a larger artist atop the bill. He was optimistic. ICII sounds happier than its predecessor; Quelle was in a good place. “Life has its way of always bringing you back down,” he said with a chuckle. The Chris Keys-produced album is another stellar record in a discography that’s unimpeachable and one of the best of the 2010s. In a just world, not only is Chris not worrying about ASCAP payments, but he’s going head to head in a Verzuz battle with Open Mike Eagle. Alas, just it is not. Regardless, Chris persists, because there’s not much else to do. When you’re one of the best rappers on the planet you don’t go looking for day jobs. Rap is as competitive as any other sport, after all. If anything Innocent Country II proves that Chris is still approaching his peak ten years into this shit. The horizon may be impossible to spot, but when you find it, Quelle Chris will be standing there, armed with a new collection of songs. Same as it ever was. — Will Schube

You’re in Brooklyn. What’s it like right now? Is it still insane?

Quelle Chris: I don’t know. We’ve mostly been staying in, but it is. I think it’s not really the location, it’s the general climate of everything.

It’s extremely depressing and I don’t know if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Quelle Chris: There isn’t, that’s the thing. There are a couple flashlights, maybe a couple generators that might last for a little while, but we’ll see.

Do you get any satisfaction from putting out a record that people seem to love?

Quelle Chris: Yes, I do.

It’s the best of a bad situation I suppose. The climate has been so dark for so long. This feels so different. What’s it like putting out an album at a time like this?

Quelle Chris: Strange. It all seems so permanent yet meaningless to the same weight.

It’s like screaming into the void, a little bit.

Quelle Chris: It feels that way. It’s an embracing void, but a void, nonetheless.

But you have fans that come to you for every release, and they get a tremendous amount of joy from your music.

Quelle Chris: That’s what I do it for. It sure isn’t for the money.

Has going through this changed your perspective on doing it full-time, or are you so deep in it now that this is all there is?

Quelle Chris: It’s all I am, to say the least. The show must go on.

What were the circumstances around putting out this part two? Was it simply you being in Oakland and hanging out with Chris [Keys], or was this something that has been on your mind for a while?

Quelle Chris: All the 2Dirt4TVs, the constant conversation of revisiting – we tossed around in the past doing “Ni**as Is Men” Part II. Initially, we were trying to tap [Aesop] Rock to do all the production on it, but the TV show we were trying to pair it with ended up falling through. Me and D[ibia$e], we talk often of doing a second 2Dirt4TV. There’s always conversations, but this one was definitely sparked by happenstance. It was the right time, right place, right energy, and I was in the process of getting the ball rolling on what’s likely going to be my next project. Although the current circumstances have changed, I was in the process of working on it. It was going to be a lot of me travelling from state-to-state, working with my favorite artists and my favorite friends directly, which clearly isn’t going to happen anytime soon. But anyways, I was starting the groundwork – the blueprinting for that project. As me and Chris started making these jams, it was undeniable that it was happening. It was happening before we realized it was happening.

Did it start with a beat or two that you dug, or did you guys pretty quickly be like, “Here’s a collection of all the songs we’re going to be doing. Let’s go from here”?

Quelle Chris: No, it started out on the horizon, in our garage (it was an early one). Rarely, maybe for 2Dirt4TV ep. 1 or Ni**as Is Men, the collection seemed to somewhat form – instrumental-wise, canvas-wise, prior to the full-force writing process. But for the most part, everything starts off with a process, especially when it’s me and Chris and albums like this, Guns and Innocent Country 1, which was years in the making. It’s years of a building process. We take a song, we add on to them, we start a new one, we come back to this one and add a little more, do some arrangements and rearrangements, we add some instruments, etc. It’s always a building process.

How cognizant were you of the themes of Innocent Country 1 when you started penning the lyrics for this new record? Was it actively in your mind, or was it more of a looser, conceptual connection?

Quelle Chris: I see people often go, and not to bring up other interviews within this beautiful interview, “I just feel like the concept is missing.” People feel that there needs to be this forced connection and concept, whereas from my perspective, all these stories come from my life within a period of time. To me, they’re all connected. The concept is in life, and specifically my life and those that are around me at the time, and those that are involved in the project. I think a lot of people are used to these formulaic, force-fed concepts, which is cool – there’s a place for that, but I’m not the one for that.

I think concept is deeper than a well, laid-out narrative because of this, for example: one day we were on a cruise ship doing comedy bits. Then the next day, we’re realizing that there was a very serious oncoming pandemic. Then the next day, we’re arriving back in Brooklyn and I was running around with a mask and gloves on, gathering up supplies for the home. Then the next day, we were shooting a comedy bit. Then that same day when we arrive back, I watched the stray cat we were taking care of in our backyard clearly die right in front of me. Then the next day, I had a great conversation. What I’m saying is, life, in its own pure, existing narrative, has no consistency. People are usually looking for some sort of structure, whereas I like to approach albums from the actual structure of life, which is a rollercoaster. It’s never the same all the way through. That’s where the narrative lies, and the concept is what it is because it comes from what was.

It’s almost like calling it Innocent Country 2 is distracting, or a way to camouflage the album and have people look more into what’s there. It’s its own work.

Quelle Chris: Well possibly, because Innocent Country 1 happened when it happened, and it happened with Chris Keys. This would be a continuation of me and Chris’s work together to that same degree of him doing all the production, and me doing co-production, and us completing the full project together. It is a continuation. I often find it interesting to understand the mentality – like, “When I hear the intro to the new album, I think that there has to be some TV show theme throughout the whole movie, and throughout the whole album.” I just don’t see things that way.

Did you all work in person on this, or was it mostly back-and-forth on the web?

Quelle Chris: It was about 60-40, or something like that. I spent a good amount of time in Oakland, doing a lot of recording and working out there. A lot of the core things – trying to be together to find those pieces and play those pieces and work through things together, as far as the instrumentation. From there, a lot of times the next process is where I step in and take in all the pieces that we have and form them, bringing them all together to form a bunch of little people.

How did you end up linking with Merrill from tUnE-yArDs? She appears all throughout the record.

Quelle Chris: Actually, on the aforementioned cruise – not this year, but the one last year – tUnE-yArDs were one of the headlining performers. We both had been familiar with each other, but we had never met. We had time to kick it a little bit on the cruise and hit it off, and we were like, “Let’s make sure we do some work after this.” It’s very commonly said and not very commonly followed through, but we actually did it.

What was that cruise like? How did you get involved in it, because I figured a cruise sounds like a nightmare, let alone now? What was that experience like for you?

Quelle Chris: The one this year, or just in general?

Just in general, but then specifically this year I suppose.

Quelle Chris: It was the JoCo cruise, and it was started by Jonathan Coulton, the singer-songwriter. He’s not known by name, but he did the music for the SpongeBob SquarePants Musical and things like that. It was essentially a floating convention of sorts, primarily catered to “nerds” and “nerd crews.” It’s beautiful. The first time we did it, we didn’t know what exactly to expect, and we also had no idea we’d be invited back every year for the last five years or so. It’s a beautiful space – a beautiful place to be creative and to be yourself, to share what makes you you with other people who are accepting of people just being themselves. I love the cruise. This last one was mighty interesting because of the timing, and halfway through, realizing we won’t be returning to the same world we left.

When was the cruise this year?

Quelle Chris: Early March, around March 3rd.

How long does it last?

Quelle Chris: A week.

As you’re out at sea, you’re starting to realize that it’s going to be different if you get back to land at all.

Quelle Chris: If we get back, yes. That was the other concern. Liz Phair had performed with us through this last one. She was, as were most of the performers, slated to be on the cruise, but opted not to for health concerns. But she still arrived to perform on land, because for the last few years, they’ve been doing land shows at certain stops. She mentioned how we were probably one of the last few cruises at sea, and she suggested that we stay on the boat forever. Given the nature of the cruise, it was packed with engineers, seamstresses, costume designers, doctors, and tech people of all ranges – so many different creatives. We were like, “Honestly, if we ended up getting stuck at sea, this is probably the best group of people to be stuck with.”

Create your own civilization out there. I don’t want to paint any broad strokes, but there seems to be a more pervasive optimism on this record than the first one. Was that mere reflection, or was that willful desire to approach it from a different way?

Quelle Chris: Mere reflection. Like I said, life provides its own narrative. At the time of Innocent Country 1, there was a general air that I could not break a lot of these chains that bind me to my faults – a lot of the repetitions of perceived failure, or just flat-out failure. Going into this world of mine started the battle of my issues with drinking, it started healing and changing processes of my personal relationships. I’ve been releasing albums for a little over 15 years, and this was going to be the first year that I’d be going on my own tour, not tagging along with more “well-known” artists. There was a lot of optimism, a lot of hope, “Maybe this is all going to pay off.” I think the filling of optimism in these songs are also the filling of optimism as a brewing at the time.

Which makes it all the crueler we are where we are now.

Quelle Chris: Isn’t it? On Innocent Country 1, there’s a song called “Murphy’s Law.” Sometimes I come back to laugh at myself.

“Shame on me for thinking things would end up alright.”

Quelle Chris: That’s why they pair. People try to find the connections, and like I said, the connections are in life. They’re much deeper than what you hear on the record; the record is there as a shared experience, and the stories behind it are the real fuel.

One of my favorite parts about the record, and more generally your approaches, is that the featured artists are so diverse in sound and style, yet it all flows so seamlessly. It’s a real art form to be able to integrate all those different voices so smoothly. You got Siifu and billy woods on a track, and although they occupy a similar terrain, they couldn’t sound more different on record. How do you go about approaching the way you piece together these collaborations and the way these different voices fit?

Quelle Chris: I listen to my heart, as corny as that sounds. It’s a learned inclination. A lot of people don’t take the time to understand production, as by definition, a lot of people think it’s making a good beat and finding a good rapper to rap on it, then shoving it down people’s throats. To me, producing an album is putting your hands deep in there and finding that energy. A lot of people go for names, a lot of people go for hype, a lot of people go for homies – technically I do too, as far as homies. It’s more about fulfilling, listening to what you can’t hear, and listening to what can be felt more. That’s why (and I’m not saying this to blow my own horn) I know all my albums, especially within the last decade, are timeless. They never age because it’s not about producing for now, it’s about producing for what’s eternal– what feels right more than what’s right on paper.

With Innocent Country 2, there was a lot of listening to moments. billy woods being on there – I was on my way to the studio and I happened to run into woods. We talked and I was like, “Come through to the studio.” With Black Twitter, the structure of the album was supposed to be way different. There was a whole skit I was supposed to do of Tracy Morgan’s “You’re not Black if you haven’t” bit from the movie Totally Awesome. We were back at the lab, and Nelson Bandela happened to be stopping by casually, and I was like “Me and Mosel have these harmonies going on. Do you want to join in?” He took that, took it a whole different way, added some extra shit to it, and brought in that part at the end. A lot of it is allowing the songs to birth themselves, rather than forcing them.

But there are also moments where I could make it better, like with Starr Busby. We had actually done a song prior to that – I lightly fleshed it out, did a light arrangement, and sent the instrumental to her. She damn near sent back a whole song, so I was sitting there prying over it, trying to figure out how to take what she had written and figure out how I can incorporate myself into it. As time was going on, and as the arrangement of the album was starting to come together, there was a only a couple of places it could fit well, where listening all the way through, it felt like life, not like the “album.” I was sitting there, pondering over the beat for “Make it Better,” which was a late send from Chris. He sent it primarily as an interlude, and I took that 20 second clip that he made and fleshed it out, wrote my verse, and sent it to Starr like, “I know you already went ham on this other one.” I wrote this half-verse because I had planned on writing a couple more verses over it, and Starr sent back the chorus and her verse, but for time’s sake we didn’t end up doing it together in the same room, even though we were only a handful of miles from each other. She sent that back, and I was like “Oh. I’m not writing anything else.”

Sometimes you have to let the song be what it is, rather than force it. But sometimes you have to really work it, like “Graphic Bleed Outs,” where we started while in Oakland, with Merrill. I gave Merrill the rundown of it, she wrote the hook, and then me and Chris played with that one for a while. Full disclosure, Chris despised that song. He despised it for I don’t know what reasons. There were tones in there that didn’t agree with him. Chris has a very keen ear, and that got to him to destruct chords and destruct harmonies. But towards the end of the latter portion, I brought in Melanie, and we had been trying to catch each other and make this work for a second in the process of making the album. She came in, and in one take, she really beat that solo up. From there, we fleshed out the strings a little more, and then what seemed to be a scattered idea, in my opinion formed one of the strongest songs on the album. You have to keep your feelings out. I’ve done the “I’m just going to sit here and get some beats and bar-up albums.” I’ve done this albums. I’ve done that albums. I’ve done albums of all different types at this point. My approach to it, and my disdain for doing what I’ve already done, has played a part as well. Once I realize this is just doing what someone else has done, I start to shy away from it. If it already exists, why do I need to make it? If I’ve already done it, why do I need to do it again?

That’s why you’re one of the best doing it. Every release you’re putting out is exciting, and it’s a whole new world. Just know that you’re very appreciated, even if it doesn’t always come through financially. Especially now.

Quelle Chris: I know. I don’t even say this in a braggadocious, rapper-type way, but I definitely know everything I make is great. Be it people like it now, or like it later, or even never like it, I know the value of what I do because I have a very deep understanding of hip-hop. Not just an understanding as the listener, but as someone who is literally in the fold of all the people people listen to. If people knew the people I know, personally or workwise, they would be extremely mad I’m not doing songs with every person. But again, that’s not what it’s about for me.


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