Loop Dreams: An Interview With Quelle Chris

Loop Dreams returns as the nomadic Detroit producer talks about finding some of his more unusual sample sources and recording on karaoke machines.
By    August 24, 2020

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Loop Dreams is a monthly producer interview series. Each month, Max Bell talks to a producer about the artists, people, equipment, and events that shape their art. These conversations aim to offer insight and inspiration, history and context, to expand and fortify the beat making community.

Detroit has been a beat music Mecca for decades. Without their regional innovations, entire genres and international scenes may not exist. In the ‘80s, producer/DJ’s like Juan Atkins and Derrick May invented techno. Carl Craig, Jeff Mills, and their peers built on those BPM’s in the ‘90s. Then, of course, there’s Dilla. His precise chopping, the concussive thump and swing of his seemingly drunken drums—imitated but never replicated. The late James Yancey made drum machines feel human and became the bedrock for innumerable bedroom producers. (You could also devote chapters on hip-hop rooted beats from Detroit to Waajeed and Black Milk.)

Quelle Chris is part of this lineage. He briefly lived in New York and the Midwest, but he developed as rapper/producer in the D. Solo exploration on the SP led to observing peers like Swing Lo the Bro in the studio. Eventually, he was producing tracks on Danny Brown’s The Hybrid (2010) and XXX, flipping guitar solos between drums harder than Detroit steel (and Detroit Steel). Though Quelle has always received greater acclaim for his rapping. He’s had an excellent solo catalog since day one (if you haven’t listened to Shotgun and Sleek Rifle, rectify that), but he’s gained broader recognition following Everything’s Fine (2018), his joint album with life and frequent creative partner Jean Grae. On that album and 2019’s Guns, he was rightfully lauded for his thoughtful introspection and irreverent satire. With Grae and without, he aimed his scope at the president and himself (Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often), examined America’s allegiance to firearms with nuance and street-level insight.

Again, and perhaps inevitably, Quelle’s beats have always been secondary in critical evaluations of his music. They are mentioned tangentially or quickly, rarely praised or examined for more than a sentence. This is too bad. Quelle has quietly become one of the most interesting producers in rap. Consciously avoiding the style of his influences and Detroit forebears, he makes beats that are strange, quirky, and almost cartoonish (see “Super Fuck”), entire instrumental albums of dark, eerie, and quasi-dystopian suites (Lullabies for the Broken Brain). Interviewers rarely ask him about any of them.

Earlier this year, I asked Quelle if he would lend the name of his song “Loop Dreams” from Ghost at the Finish Line (which I reviewed in ancient times) to this interview series. He kindly agreed and said that he would love to talk at length about his production. Of course, sir.

What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation, which he held while out walking in Maryland. You’ll learn about his history, preferred equipment, fascinating “scavenger” like approach to finding samples and drums, and so much more. We spoke for just over an hour, but Quelle said he could talk for days. He’d been waiting a long time. — Max Bell

You had a pretty nomadic childhood. Did listening to the radio in different cities affect your ear?

Quelle Chris: Hell yeah. It’s hard to talk to young folks about this because now the general “urban” radio is so homogenized. When we would go from New York to Detroit, or when we would travel back from St. Louis or go to Atlanta, the radio would be completely different jams. On the R&B and so on and so forth stations in Detroit, you would get your late night and electronic mixes. You might come up on some Kraftwerk and then you get a bunch of Anita Baker. You get back to St. Louis and you might get more Barry White. But then there were the all arounds. You’re always going to have Frankie Beverly. It was the same with hip-hop. Even when we moved to St. Louis, everyone kind of treated me like I was from New York. We moved there from Detroit, but that’s because I listened to what they considered that “hip-hop” hip-hop. When I got to St. Louis, they were listening to UNLV, 8Ball & MJG, and all the Suave House stuff. Then Master P came into the picture and that was pretty much it. No Limit was everything until Cash Money showed up. It’s one thing to hear music. But there’s something about knowing people that fully embrace a particular genre of music or a particular style. It humanizes it. Fast forward to now. Everybody talks about “these mumble rappers” and all this stuff, and I’m like, “All these new rappers got style out the ass.” For me, maybe it’s different. Even though people kind of view me as more of a “lyrical” rapper—whatever that means, because they’re all lyrics—I have a human connection with southern styles of rapping and production. Juicy J is one of my idols.

What were some of the first rap instrumentals that resonated with you and made you consider producing?

Quelle Chris: There was clearly rollover influence. There was Pete Rock and Prince Paul, Havoc and Alchemist. Around the time I started getting into making beats legitimately, it was a lot of local Detroit cats. I was hearing a lot of things from Big Tone and Loose Cannon (a good homie of ours from Wasted Youth). My brother would bring his beat tapes home. Slum Village, the Vol. 1 tape, and Dilla. And RZA, RZA in general.

In what ways did Dilla impact or inform your production?

Quelle Chris: I think it was the swing and the general approach. I never really made what you might call “Dilla-type” beats [laughs]. I think I was such a fan. When I’m into somebody’s stuff, I generally try to avoid sounding like them. I consciously and subconsciously divert from making things too close to them. When Vol. 1 came out, the idea of me making something like that didn’t even exist. By the time I got to a point where I was comfortable enough with making beats and I was able to craft my own approach, I was already off into another world. My early stuff was very generically boom-bap. [laughs].

What equipment did you use when you made your first beats? What did they sound like?

Quelle Chris: My brother brought home an SP-202. That was my first experience with hardware. He was like, “It’s like a keyboard but with pads, you know? It’s the same thing Dilla and everybody uses.” He was wrong because it was actually an SP-1200 and an MP that they were using. But close enough, right? When I first got on the SP, a lot of my early stuff was really inspired by early Wu. I was pulling the cryptic sounding samples I could. I would use the mic option on there and rent like a Wu- Tang or some shit like that, hold the SP up to the TV and record the music into the SP that way and flip it from there. Then we had a Dr. Rhythm. I wasn’t chopping and breaking up my own breaks at the time, so I was using the stock Dr. Rhythm drums.

What equipment or DAWs did you work with after that?

Quelle Chris: I know there’s a lot of people that really do like the techie side of things. You need those people. I need those people [laughs]. I started with the SP, then my SP died. Someone put me up on Fruity Loops in college. Then somebody put me up on Reason. Way later, someone put me up on Ableton. Between there, I would record on four-track recorders. I would record on karaoke machines. For me, it was always about finding something that can create sound and figuring out how to manifest what exists within you from that.

Did you have any producorial mentors along the way?

Quelle Chris: A little later. For me, the start was around Middle School. That’s when the SP came into the house. At that time, it was me just playing around with it. In my later teens, I was able to get out of the house more, and I went to college in upstate Michigan at Ferris State University. I was still kind of in my own zone, a kind of solitary production unit. When I came back to Detroit, I got linked back up with my older heads and peers, which was Big Tone, the Wasted Youth scene, and a lot of cats from The Hip Hop Shop like Swing Lo the Bro from 31 Flavors. That’s when I started seeing how other people do things. For the first five or six years of making beats, I wasn’t around any other people that made beats. When I came back to Detroit, that’s when I started catching game from cats that had been doing it. For me, [I didn’t have] mentors, technically. I think a lot of people are retainers of technical information. So they’ll be like, “Yo, what’s that hardware you’re using? What’s that software? How did you run everything through this? How do you sidechain this?” Sometimes I would ask those questions knowing damn well I wouldn’t remember the answers. What always stuck was being around people making music and catching a feeling for their energy in making it. It’s a weird thing to describe. But like Swing Lo the Bro would school me on original pressings and how to use the MP and get swing on the MP, and what break beats were. But the thing that I took from all that time was more how he bobbed his head to his music. He would be making something and the way he would be bobbing his head would not be focused on the 1, 2, 3, and 4. It would be more focused on the counter rhythm. That’s when I realized, “Even though the breakbeat and his rhythm section—maybe the bassline he’s adding— is riding more on the quarter notes, the way he’s bobbing his head shows that the emphasis is more on the underlying counter rhythms from the sample or maybe the hi-hat break.

What’s your preferred production setup today?

Quelle Chris: Today, I run off Ableton. I generally use the multitrack window. What I mostly do is spend hours and hours—from about 12 AM until 7 AM—watching and listening to anything and everything. I’ll listen to seven hours of noise radio. Seven hours of Taiwanese commercials from the ’70s and ’80s. Just kind of a search for anything that gives me that jolt. Then I run it back into Ableton. I’ll usually do one full session where I make multiple beats. My go to BPM is 88, I usually run things into Ableton, head straight to 88 BPM and start playing around with everything I got. I’ll start like a folder for each day. I’ll label the folder the day and fill it like Supermarket Sweep. Then I’ll go through and play with everything. I really like utilizing the Internet now. A lot of that comes from just my joy in the past. In the early 2000s, I used to grab a bunch of VHS tapes or sit on PBS and wait for some random strange documentary to come on. Then I would run that into four-track recorder. I like finding things. I’m an audiophile in the more scavenging way. I’ll find something from anything. I walk around my phone or and a portable audio recorder and pick up sounds of steps and construction. You can find awesome rhythm in everything. People will hear certain breaks that I make and be like, “Where’d that come from?” I’ll be like, “That was the part where dude was running down the steps in Annie Get Your Gun.” I’ve been using Ableton since about 2011 when I made Shotgun and Sleek Rifile. It’s such a simple program and a complex program at the same time. For me, all I need is the simplicity. In addition to that, I work with a lot of good homies and great people. I’ll kick it with Chris [Keys] for a couple months and gather a bunch of drum breaks and stuff from Chris. Also Chris Peters, the brother from Detroit. We’d kick it with him and gather a bunch of guitar sounds. I also like going around and gathering sounds from people. I’ll collect them and then occasionally at night, sit and play with everything. Never assume anything can’t be used. That’s kind of my, my motto.

Do you make beats daily, or is it a spur of the moment thing?

Quelle Chris: It varies. If I’m in album mode, I’ll usually be a lot more die hard with it, every day or every other day. For the most part, I am really spontaneous. [Making music] loses a lot of its joy when it becomes over scheduled. I enjoy searching through some stuff, finding things, and flipping those. Then I’ll come back a day or two later, clean those up, and see which things I like from that particular beat making session. But I’m not much of a schedule producer. I know a lot of people that do that. A lot of times it has to do with their lifestyle. For me, it’s just the feeling. Some days, I can spend the entire day from sunup to sundown just coasting and making beats, finding and hunting and making beats. I am a late night person, but my body is starting to reject my late night appetite, so it’s getting harder to stay up and work on beats like I used to. I’m a chaser as well, which is terrible with COVID and everything going on. I really like walking around and letting those feelings come to me. I’ll hum rhythms and drum patterns into my phone. Then I’ll get back to the crib and be like, “I gotta make this one.” Sometimes you nail it. Sometimes you’re way off, but what comes out of it is better than anything you could’ve imagined. It’s a really fun process.

If you aren’t sourcing drums from the natural world, where do you get them?

Quelle Chris: Lately, a lot of my drums have been via Chris Keys. I get a lot of them from old commercials. I get a lot of them from crime dramas. I love crime dramas, especially like late ’60’s to mid ’80’s crime dramas. There are a lot of great drums in there. A lot of action and horror movies. Back in about like the late ’90’s to the early 2000’s, I went through a lot of vinyl. That was me going through a vinyl phase. My father is a super huge audiophile, so he had vinyl, every tape, every CD from damn near every genre. What my father didn’t cover, my older brother was bringing the hip-hop and rock & roll into the house. There was an abundance of different things to play with. So early it would be CDs, records, and tapes that were available to me. Post that, I would sit and watch TV with a mic on me and pick up whatever came on. Right now, a lot of the things that I kind of get are from different people I know that drum. Outside of that, just hunting the old TV files. I just did one break that was from a point-and-click adventure. It was the sound when the main character falls down a pipe… I get a kick out of that taking things that I know no one else would have used and then finding rhythm in them.

How did learning to produce inform your rapping? Do you think rappers who don’t produce would benefit from trying it?

Quelle Chris: In my career, I have far more respect for the people that I work with production-wise. A lot of times—unless it’s Pharrell or someone like that, where the producer’s name is big—people don’t even think about the producer. When you see someone talking about the song, they’ll be like, “That [insert rapper] beat.” The voice sometimes seems to get the credit for the beat. If anything, it makes me a lot more considerate of the recognition of who’s producing and what parts they played in making the song.

When you’re making beats, do you know immediately if it’s something you’ll rap over? Or do you know which are best left instrumentals?

Quelle Chris: I’ll put a lot of ice cold beats to the side waiting for the day that the right person picks them. Me and Homeboy Sandman have been working on a project, and I told him early in the process that it felt so good because he was picking all the beats that I was waiting for somebody to rap on the right way or hear someone rap on at all. There’s a lot of times I’ll make something and I’ll be like, “This shit is cold, but it’s not the right one for me. There’s someone out there that it’s waiting for.” At the same time, I’ll make something and think one of two things: 1. I’m using this one, especially if I’m in album mode. 2. I go, “This one is so cold that I don’t have a home for it yet. But I’m going to keep it to myself until I do find a home for it.” I’ve had beats for decades that I’m like, “It’s so ice cold, I don’t want anyone else to have it.”

On the topic of decades-old beats, do you think many people remember that you produced on Danny Brown’s The Hybrid and XXX?

Quelle Chris: It’s one of those things people bring up every blue moon. Because of where I was at career-wise at the time, people would come up to me and be like, “You heard this Hybrid album? The production is cold.” I was like, “Yeah, that was me.” That would happen a lot, and it sucked. But going through the years and maturing, I think what means the most to me is knowing the impact that it’s made. Personally, on other people’s lives, the impact that Danny going from that album to XXX and beyond that. It’s been so long that it’s interesting to see people becoming familiar with me as an artist and go back and be like, “This thing I used to listen to was made by this guy I just discovered.” It gives them a reason to dive in deeper to my history and career as an artist. It’s a really cool thing now. It’s a little easter egg, a gift that keeps on giving.

Is it fair to say you have an affinity for sampling guitar solos?

Quelle Chris: Definitely. During that time, it was a lot of rock. I’m a big rock fan. I was also in a rock group. Recently we did these albums in Detroit, Racehorses are Resources, and a couple songs I contributed were more rock heavy. But during that time I was more into rock. I would pull a lot of things from prog rock groups. At the same time, I really liked pulling things from metal and all the variations from the ’70s to the ’80s and even the more psychedelic stuff from the ’60s. I really like the grunge and texture of it with vocals.

When I listen to a beat like “Super Fuck,” I see cartoons in my brain. Same thing with “Dumb for Brains.” There’s a certain playfulness, a zaniness. In the past, you’ve mentioned that watching TV inspires you to create. Are cartoons part of that diet?

Quelle Chris: Definitely. You had a lot of the ’50’s and ’60’s cartoons that would use a lot of drum transitions. The early Hanna-Barbera [cartoons] used a lot of funky rhythms and funky drums for walking or chase scenes. Cartoons are definitely a heavy fixture in the process. But that just goes back to me diving into anything and everything. Anywhere there’s sound, there’s samples.

Lullabies for the Broken Brain is dark, dissonant, eerie and at times pretty expansive. “Peace & Pain” is Twilight Zone to me. How do you classify that record? Does beat tape do it justice? And to that end, do you think there’s a distinction between beat tape and an instrumental album?

Quelle Chris: At this point, I think it’s up to the artist to decide what they want to classify it as. When I hear “beat tape,” I think about the actual tapes or CD’s that I would get from producers that would have a bunch of beats on them. That’s what I would always call a beat tape. And an album that’s all instrumental-based seems more like an instrumental album to me. But separating the two could be misconstrued as a way of diminishing one or the other. Instrumental album seems to have more of a grandiosity to it, whereas beat tape sounds more simple. I wouldn’t say I would differentiate between the two, outside of the argument that one that would be considered a beat tape would be more hip-hop oriented. I wouldn’t say that Lullabies is more of a beat tape or more of an instrumental album. I would say it’s both.

Has working with Jean (or working near Jean) informed your production? Is there anything she’s asked for sonically that has been a challenge or made you reevaluate things?

Quelle Chris: Even early in our time working together, we really embraced what each person is great at and encouraged that. I’d say that Everything’s Fine was really a bigger leap into being more collaborative as far as the production side. There are songs like “House Call,” where I had made what was basically the core of the beat, and she was like, “It could use a little bit of this.” I was like, “O yeah, drop some of that on there.” It was a lot of back and forth. I think that idea of being open to someone else adding to and enhancing what you’ve made… Jean allowed me to feel more comfortable highlighting all those different sounds and styles and genres that I work within and feel more playful in exploring them.

Today, are there any producers who make instrumental records that you listen to for pleasure, inspiration, or both?

Quelle Chris: I couldn’t really tell you a specific artist that I listen to, but at the same time there’s a lot of styles and a lot of sounds going on right now that I do appreciate. I don’t find myself listening to a lot of instrumental albums because I find myself working on music more than I listen to it.

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