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Image via Mello Music Group

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It’s been two full decades since Jadakiss dropped that brutal hip hop truism: “you know dead rappers get better promotion.” In the past few years, it feels like the pace of rappers’ deaths has quickened, giving us only enough time to issue a shocked tweet before absorbing more tragic news. The grim truth of Jada’s line is that a rapper’s death causes interest in their music to skyrocket, which often leads to a cynical pilfering of their vault for posthumous albums and admonishment of new fans from heartbroken true heads. In Quelle Chris’ mind, there’s been an amplification of the emotional social media outpouring when an artist dies, possibly due the more insular realignment COVID brought to our lives, and it disturbs him. He calls it “death fame,” the idea that to become a true cultural force, an artist has to die.

By any critical account, Quelle’s past decade has seen him on an immaculate run. He’s kept to a pretty consistent schedule: an album every year or two, filling the space between with as many exceptional guest verses as he can muster. “The Agency of the Future,” a sly grin of a song on the back half of his stellar new album, DEATHFAME, has him declaring as much: “Every year an album drop I’m on top of the Best Ofs/ And if I don’t drop, shit, I’m on someone album that was.” It’s boastful, sure, but it’s also imploring the audience to realize how deep his catalog goes and how good it all is. This — right now — is the moment to tell a friend to tell a friend, to dig into everything you hadn’t heard before.

And there is so much to admire in Quelle’s discography. The Baltimore via New York via Detroit rapper has explored self-acceptance on Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often; he’s examined the endless, ambient swirl of uniquely American violence on Guns; he’s offered blissful psalms for those who wish to feel more connected to the present moment on Innocent Country 2. When not on the mic, he’s made exceptional beats for the likes of Pharaohe Monch, Armand Hammer, Danny Brown, and Sean Price. He had a hand in crafting the score for the Fred Hampton biopic, Judas and the Black Messiah. DEATHFAME could be his most personal album to date, however, as he examines his own immense talent and struggles to be at peace while yearning for greater success.

The album switches between two distinct modes: matter-of-fact shit talk and wounded self-examination. Quelle would probably chalk it up to being a Libra, a fact he often cites as the root of his perpetual quest for balance between light and dark. The mood never feels heavy-handed or jarring, but rather quite endearing, gently inviting you into the lamplit rooms of Quelle’s mind. Underneath the warm, wooly production and behind the dry humor and seemingly infinite flow patterns is a fractured, flawed person trying his best to learn more about himself. The people that we look to to help us make sense of our own psyches — artists — are just as confused as we are.

I spoke with him as he geared up for the first leg of the DEATHFAME tour. In the midst of the perpetual wave pool of COVID, he likened touring to the anxious supply runs characters take in zombie movies. He sounded tired and excited, eager to share his newest work and hopeful the crowds would be there and be receptive. He knows he’s made one of the best albums of the year with DEATHFAME; it’s now up to all of us to recognize it. – Dash Lewis



Was DEATHFAME a pandemic record or at least a reaction to the past few years?


Quelle Chris: Not to strip away anything from the question but every album is a reflection of the past, you know? [Laughs] I don’t think there’s been an album I’ve made that isn’t a reflection on the past couple of years, or the past four years, or whatever.

Something that’s come out of this pandemic is that most [people] have reached some sort of self awareness. It’s been an amplification of everything. If you couldn’t stand your kids, you really couldn’t stand them for a good period of time. If you were faltering, or if there was any sort of weak point within the security of your job, it got amplified. Everything was amplified, including — for a lot of people — being inside all the time, having to face a lot, and figuring out how to fix those things when you don’t have the same access to outside distractions or certain comforts of relief.

So, I would say, that aspect of the album is definitely there: This is where I’m at, what does that mean? What am I doing? Why am I doing it? To what lengths am I willing to go for my own personal health? To what extent am I willing to break myself in order to do this job, in order to reach this goal?

Another thing with everyone being locked inside — I don’t have the numbers on this — but I feel like more people were using social media. When people died you would get this influx, this like two-day, three-day wave, of this showcasing of adoration. Look, I get it; I’ve been told that in certain ways I can be a little, like, cold. I do empathize and understand the act of being like “I just want to say this and give my respects publicly.” But like, Miles Davis don’t got a Twitter account! Why are you saying “I miss you” to him? It just doesn’t make sense! So to the very core — and very surface level — point or reason for the album is, “Just let me get that death fame. Let me get the fame that y’all give people when they die.”

It’s like the same idea as the flowers before blah blah, but I guess a little more industry or art form specific. There are a lot of careers you could be successful in — almost endless. If you’re a successful mechanic, it’s because if I pull my car up and you bust that bitch open, you can see what’s wrong and you can fix it, right? You’re good at what you do. To be a successful artist has nothing to do with how good you are. I mean, it does, but there’s tons of scenarios where it can have zero to do with that. You can be the best at it and it means nothing.

It’s not like you can be like, “Yo, I’m a great rapper, so I’m gonna go apply for rap school. And then I’m gonna get my doctorate in rap, and then I’m gonna get a job in any city that I can move to.” It’s not like that. It’s this constant fluctuating thing where you can have it all and lose it all. The basis of your success is based on the opinions of others and whatever things are swaying those opinions. So, something like “death fame” becomes a lot more complex when you’re looking at that idea in the context of music. I want that death fame, but then at the same time it’s like, how much are you willing to give of yourself? How much are you okay with growing older or with not really liking a lot of shit, [lowers voice] or feeling like you’re better than a lot of shit, but still not necessarily personally and/or publicly achieving that label of success?



Do you think that the concepts of death and fame are complementary to each other or in opposition? I think about how you wrote the title as one word, but then when the tag happens throughout the album, it’s in two different voices.


Quelle Chris: Hmm, that’s interesting. I guess I didn’t even think of it like that. Complementary? I can’t draw the — you know the board in the detective room with all the lines — I can’t draw the connections with all that because it sounds too positive. I don’t necessarily think they go hand in hand or they complement each other, but depending on your perspective, and what position you hold, they could benefit one another. If you’re somebody that could financially benefit from the death of an artist — they can complement each other depending on how you use them.

When you’re an independent artist there’s this weird, folklore thing like, “If you’re struggling that means you’re gonna to be making better stuff.” No, no! You know what would feel really good? To not be on death’s door every day and to just enjoy making things. That would be amazing! I think we have that struggling artist thing that kind of makes us think about these kinds of ideas. And then, you know, we live in a capitalist society, so you work yourself to the bones until you die and your debt will live on. But no, I don’t think that should be a part of success.


The point that you’re making makes me think of those press releases where artists or bands are like, “This record almost killed us!” That narrative has never died.


Quelle Chris: And we bought it! We’re like, “Cool, they almost died doing this,” but that shouldn’t be the case! Why do we have to do this? It’s an industry that’s created to keep the product in a rat wheel. It shouldn’t be that way, but it’s been that way forever.


DEATHFAME strikes me as being very much about tension. It’s especially evident in the production. In the title track there’s that crazy distortion that happens in part of the beat that kind of obscures everything for a moment.


Quelle Chris: Yup, the [sings a low bass note and chuckles]. [dane.zone], who mixed and mastered it with me, I told him going into this work that I want that gutterness and that disturbance. [It’s] familiar, but it also has hints of realism. We clean everything up so much, you know what I mean?


Yeah, there’s tape hiss slathered over so much of it and there’s ways that you layer your voice that are almost unsettling. Then there’s times when you talk about beauty and [gratitude]. And, even though it’s couched in some shit talking, you mention drinking Kava Kava tea, which can be an incredibly relaxing experience.


Quelle Chris: [Laughs] Right, exactly. Think about today, and I don’t know what’s going on in your life. Today might be an awesome day, wherever you’re at. Where are you located?


I’m in Richmond, Virginia.



Quelle Chris: Yeah, Richmond. Okay, boom. So the weather’s probably pretty decent out there right now? I’m in Baltimore, so I’m sure it’s probably kind of similar.


Yeah, it’s about mid-60s or so, pleasant.


Quelle Chris: Yeah, sun’s out, you know what I mean? And there might be a point today where something from the past or from yesterday may dawn on you. Something you have to deal with may happen and you’ll have a little shitty moment. Hopefully not, but it happens. We really like to receive things in this way of perfection to the point that when things are normal — because, you know, people will say my music’s abstract; I would say my music’s pretty fucking normal — then it doesn’t seem right.

Why is it dark and also bright? Because that’s how shit is! When is it ever 100% one way or the other? I don’t know anybody that’s had that life. It’s always fascinating to me how that’s received with such discomfort when it should be received with an acceptance.


I think about when people get diagnosed with depression, get prescribed medication, and they’re afraid to take it because they think it might ruin their creativity. It goes back to the devil you know, right? It’s scary to not be depressed because you don’t know what that’s like.


Quelle Chris: Mm-hmm, yup. This is one thing I was mad about with the pandemic, right? Like you remember — [Laughs] “Do you remember?” Neither of us remember — but you know when World War II was going on? They was like, “Fuck it! Bury them in Looney Tunes and Three Stooges shorts. We gonna bring all the joy!” In the pandemic, I was like, “It’s nothing but horrible! Y’all not doing y’all jobs!” That gets into the power of music and the deeper powers of what pushes music and why certain things might have more funding. But you know, there’s something to just being like, “I just want to hear some shit that I don’t have to think about all that shit.” [Laughs] I get it.

I think I’m good at it. I think I’m kind of direct with putting people in “places,” you know? But I do know — maybe it’s the Libra shit or something — it’s hard for me to ever just say something is good without saying it’s also bad. I definitely got to work that out; it’s probably not the best strength to have. But I know it comes out in my music at this point. I’m pretty aware that, against my will, regardless how straightforward I think I’m being, there’s always gonna be some dark and some light.


In my reading, your music seems very existential. There’s so much humor and it seems like you are really keyed in to the absurd.


Quelle Chris: Yeah, but sometimes I fear that it might be a “birds of a feather” thing. Like, I’m keyed into the absurd because I’m absurd, you know I mean? It’s a realization I’m coming to, so now trying to work on being a little less absurd. [Laughs]


What shape does that take for you?


Quelle Chris: You know, a starting point was quitting drinking. I’m not a violent person at all. It’s not like I get drunk and am that type of person, but like…


It would take you to a different place?



Quelle Chris: I get drunk and my explorative nature expands. I’m already a person that’s like, “Ehhhh, sure, whatever!” So, if I’m drunk, I’m like, “Climb the building? Fuck it! Let’s do it, I don’t care.” Which isn’t a good thing to carry on into your adult life. [Laughs] Because you break easier, and things around you break easier. So, those are starting points, but I think it’s constant. Everybody reaches certain points at certain times, and you just gotta do your best not to lose too much along the way.

I was talking to a homie and he was asking, “Do you find being sober you make music better? Or do you find when you’ve been drinking you make music better?” As you work through this process, sobriety is always an ongoing thing. Even things that “end” never end because you still have to work within yourself, with the scarring. What I told him is that I was going through and testing different things. I didn’t smoke tree for a long time, just kind of being like, “Let me see.” Depending on your relationship to whatever thing you’re addicted to and how much of an impact it has on your personality, as you’re coming out of that place — which is a big and hard thing to do — you have to relearn yourself. I went through and am still going through those processes of figuring out what things fill these voids or why I act certain ways. When it came to music, I discovered it’s not any different. I’m good at this. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time working and getting better at.

I think, as with any creative venture, certain things always play a part, so maybe there’s a great song I would have come up with next week if I was drinking whiskey every day, but I’ll never know. I also know that there’s a great song that can come up next week without it. I don’t like looking at it like becoming a more serious me. It’s becoming a me — to the topic of DEATHFAME — that can, if I’m lucky, live to enjoy the proverbial fruits of my labor. That’s more important than anything. I’m always gonna make great shit, but what use is me making a bunch of great shit if I die? My mom always be like, “Health is wealth. You can make all the money in the world but if you ain’t got your health then the shit don’t matter.”


How tied to becoming sober was DEATHFAME? Is that how a song like “How Could They Love Something Like Me?” comes about?


Quelle Chris: Yes, somewhat. That song is kind of an ongoing thing. People might one day wake up like, “What do I do to deserve this? I’m just me, the dude that used to poop his pants in sixth grade.” A lot of that song stems from the relationship between me, music, and the idea of fandom. How could you idolize me when I’m just a mess myself? People will ask me for advice and I’m like “I don’t even know, man!” I don’t generally say that, I try my best to answer, but sometimes that’s how it feels. Why are you asking me? You have a pretty stable and solid job, tell me how you did the shit. I know I’m here on stage and it looks really cool and shit, but you had enough money to pay for this ticket. Tell me what you doing! [Laughs]

It’s that kind of duality. You don’t feel like you’re worth it. I talk to a lot of my musician friends and [they’ll] be like, “Man, I’m trying to finish this project but I’m just not feeling like people trying to fuck with what I’m doing right now.” It takes friends and family, people that love you, being like, “Nah, you’re fooling. From the outside looking in, you’re the shit.” It’s hard to not have those feelings like, “Why won’t something good happen to me?” Because I be fucking up! Mad bad shit be happening, but when something good happens, can you even appreciate it?


It’s hard to know what you’re doing while you’re doing it.


Quelle Chris: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. So I [sing], “Screams, they mustn’t hear the screams. That horde don’t follow.” I got a lot of songs where, in my mind, the intention is talking about how crazy certain shit is. But then someone’s talking to me at a show like, “Yo that’s my favorite song!” And I’m like, “Damn, I felt like I was trying to say this shit isn’t cool.” [Laughs] That was the starting point of where my brain was at when writing it, but ultimately it’s just a song expressing that general idea that you’re worth something. Basically, coming to some point of acceptance of the fact that I’m not perfect but it doesn’t mean that I’m not worthy of love or appreciation.


That age old thing of the most vulnerable song connecting with the fans the most stays strong. Artists are always like “I wrote this and didn’t think it was going to connect” and people are like “That’s my favorite song.”


Quelle Chris: Yep, all the damn time. I think that’s something that I consciously played off of. At some point it became subconscious. I remember when I did Shotgun & Sleek Rifle. My manager, John, put it out. There were songs where he was like, “I don’t know about that song as the single.” I would be like, “You wrong, dog.” I had to trust myself and be like, “It’s the shit that doesn’t sound right that’s the best thing for the moment.” I started going against that inclination to think people aren’t gonna like it. Now I kind of lean into it naturally. Maybe to a fault?


It goes back to that idea of tension that’s at the heart of everything you’re exploring.


Quelle Chris: Kind of a contained freedom?


Yeah! Within borders there’s the infinite, right?


Quelle Chris: Or like an intentional freedom.


Yeah, exactly. You set up boundaries for yourself so that you can end up pushing them. I find your music fascinating because you never really use the same flows or find the same pockets and I wonder how you find those things. You can go from melodic sing-songing into a kind of Southern bounce like on “Cui Prodest.” You find very interesting pockets and I’m curious about your process with that.



Quelle Chris: I was having a conversation about a lot of MCs that are really fucking good to me. People will play stuff for me and I’ll be like, “That was dope.” And they’ll be like, “Did you not like it?” And no, I loved it, but my reaction may seem a little subtle because, at this point, I’ve been rapping and been around amazing artists since I was a kid. I’ve heard a lot of patterns. When you do something for so long, you speak the language and can predict things. You know everything about it to some extent — you never know everything, but you know what I’m saying, right? You understand a lot more than some people do. So when writing, it’s almost like a gag reflex. If I’m writing something and I’m like, “I’ve been here before,” or if I’ve heard it done like this before, then it almost breaks me to do it. There’s time I’ve done it, but like, “Ugh, I did it — and I know it sounds dope to everybody, but I took that route. Pusha T would have done that.”

I’m not old, old. I’m like, 37,38. I don’t know how old that seems to people but it’s not old to me. When I started rapping, it was still those A&R days when everybody was looking for the next, new, something-you-haven’t-heard thing. Let me add that there was also the same wave of abundance of people making the exact same song. Hip Hop in the 90’s was arguably the most beautiful time of [the artform]. Also, there was a lot of n***as making the exact same shit. But one thing about that time period was there was a celebration of say, Redman sounding completely different than even EPMD or Keith Murray — n***as that fuck wit each other, they just all sound different. It wasn’t like a gang and they all were exactly the same; the thing that made them dope was that everybody was different. It recaptivated your love for Hip Hop every time you heard somebody rap. There’s so many just amazing MCs out — amazing! — From every walk of life, dog. The more styles I hear, the more it just makes me want to just find more new things. It’s a beautiful time.

But like I said, I don’t think it’s intentional. I’ve seen people be like, “Yo, Quelle just be trying to be different.” I do! It’s important to know that I make it for myself, because if I don’t love it, then why would anybody else? I think the feeling that goes into music is transferable even if it’s not dope. But next to that, I make shit because I want y’all motherfuckers to like it! I want you to play it for your grandma and she loves it. I want you to play it for your dog and your dog dances. I don’t write shit to turn people off. But I also have, at this point, a natural deterrence to making something that you’ve already listened to. If it’s already there, why would I do it again for you?


Does it take you a long time to write?


Quelle Chris: I can be a fast writer, but I can be a very slow writer, naturally. At least with my knowledge of myself at this point. I don’t know if I can necessarily gauge. I don’t know if I’m a fair judge, it just kind of happens. If you’re teaching a class, like if you have a ballet person to teach a class, they could probably break everything down for you. But I’m sure that someone who’s just a cold ballet dancer, after fifteen years they know all the technical things, but certain things become natural. You be like, “So how do you” — what’s the word? Pure?


Pirouette?


Quelle Chris: Yeah, “How do you pirouette?” I don’t know. You just just do it.


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