Rank Your Records: Quelle Chris Contemplates a Career of Art-Rap Oddities
In advance of 'Everything's Fine,' his new collaboration with his fiancé, Jean Grae, the Detroit MC looks back on his six solo albums.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Quelle Chris is walking along a street in Bushwick, Brooklyn, attempting to shield himself from gusts of wind while looking over a list of his back catalog albums on a piece of paper. “The idea is very interesting because it's really tough,” the MC and producer says as he figures out a tactic to order his music in order of personal favorites. A swoosh of wind is audible down the phone line, causing him to exclaim, “Oh, shit, I’ve got winter coat problems.”
Since the release of last year’s creative tour de force Being You Is Great! I Wish I Could Be You More Often, Quelle Chris’s profile has bloomed. Now he's gearing up for the release of Everything's Fine, a collaborative album recorded with his fiancé, Jean Grae. “It’s a beautiful album produced by me and Jean, performed by me and Jean, and featuring a lot of great people and a lot of great friends,” he says. Those friends include the comedians Nick Offerman, Michael Che, John Hodgman, and Hannibal Buress, who appear across the project, with Buress and Eric Andre crashing a video for the single “Gold Purple Orange.” Quelle also created animated visuals for the album’s second release, “Zero,” which turns Jean Grae into an assassin character adventuring through a retro video game (with a little help from the couple’s cat, Littles). If everything goes according to plan, Quelle plans to use the UnReal game creation engine to turn the concept into a couple of playable levels before the year is out.
After securing on a slightly less blustery spot to speak from, Noisey prompted Quelle Chris to dive deep into his back catalog of albums and play favorites.
Noisey: This album is a collection of some of your older music, right?
Quelle Chris: Yeah, it’s earlier projects and a combination of a lot of other projects. At the time I had the red Pontiac and I was living in Detroit. I would just kinda make the songs in the basement, throw them on the tape, ride around and listen to them, let the family hear them. I remember DJ House Shoes brought me out to a show and told me to sell them as CDs at Fat Beats. I still wasn't too hip and privy to releasing things on the internet at the time.
Do you remember how many CD copies you sold?
Not enough, is that a good number? But me and Denmark Vessey did the dual cover vinyl version and did like 500 copies and we sold all of those. At the time, I was done drawing like a billion versions of the same hand-drawn cover picture! I don’t have any copies of this one left for myself, but I’ve heard word from people that it's being sold on the internet for ridiculous prices.
Would you ever update or remake any of the songs from an older album like this?
No, never, that's that moment, you know what I mean? Where it's at is where it's perfect. It's the people around me, the environment—you don't have to touch it.
Is the title anything to do with New Order’s “Blue Monday” song?
No, it's Kurt Vonnegut, I got it from the book Breakfast Of Champions, Or Goodbye Blue Monday.
It might surprise some fans to see you’ve picked Ghost At The Finish Line in this spot.
The weird thing is, I would definitely not put Ghost At The Finish Line close to the bottom of any list but, you know, it's the nature of this wicked game you have me playing.
Can you break down the concept behind the album?
The idea is that you start the race, and along the race you meet so many different people that run along with you, and some of them run off on different paths, and some stay the race for a fair amount of time. So the ghosts at the finish line aren't just the people who cross the finish line with you but the memories and the spirits of the people who help make you who you are.
Where did you record the album?
A little bit in Oakland, a little bit in LA. I believe that's mostly it, except maybe one of the joints. I recorded one of the songs in El-P's crib, he was kind enough to let me use it.
What was El-P’s studio setup like?
You know, it was like equipment-like stuff. I'm not a techie like that, I'm not a gearhead or nothing. It was probably like MPCs and button-pushing things.
Yeah, button-pushing things! Regular music shit. It was a good session. It was the song with Black Milk on it, "Coke Rap War Game,” I think that was the song we recorded there.
Did you leave El-P’s crib in a tidy state or make a mess?
I don't know if I made a physical mess but I'm pretty sure around that time I was pretty hammered. I cannot vouch for everything I may have said or did.
You also persuaded the producer Alchemist to rhyme on a song, “PRX.” How did you go about doing that?
I did a set for House Shoes's birthday or something like that and I can tell that Shoes blacked out on me during a set so I was like, “Well, I'm gonna get drunk too.” I had a pretty raucous set—that would be the kind way of saying it! Alchemist was there and after the set I do vaguely recall saying, “I'm gonna get you to rap on a song, you're not gonna produce nothing, you're really a rapper, you're lying to me, blah blah blah.” Just being wasted. And, you know, out of all the things I did remember from that night I did remember that. So every time I reached out to him I reminded him and he knocked it out the park. He got his Bizzy Bone on on that one, I remember that!
This is the album that Chris Keys produced, right?
Yes it is. That was part two in the Too Dirt For TV trilogy, as it stands. That's with Chris Keys on the production. He’s an extremely talented brother, an extremely talented pianist, and just a real solid dude. Oh, and an avid gamer.
What do you remember about recording the album?
The crazy thing about Innocent Country is it was all made within the same time as Being You Is Great... The first song I did on Being You Is Great... was "Popeye" and in the time that I made that I was working on Innocent Country. It was supposed to be—well, if I was organized enough—like a companion piece. Innocent Country was supposed to come out and be more of like, here's what's wrong with y’all, and Being You Is Great... is supposed to be: here's what's wrong with me. That's why Innocent Country ends with “The Mirror.” Yeah, they were supposed to come out back to back.
You mentioned playing a lot of video games with Chris Keys. How do you balance that with being productive?
The trick is to just don't be productive! That's the trick.
What’s your recording process like with Chris Keys? Do you talk about the concepts of the songs before making them?
I think at that time I would be at Chris's spot in Oakland and we'd just smoke, chill, watch random shit, get food, listen to some music, make some beats, write songs, repeat. There was no real structure like that—it was about letting the songs come as they can. These songs [on Innocent Country] weren’t made in one particular visit or one particular season—it was over a course of years. One of the earliest songs on Innocent Country had to be from 2012, possibly 2011, and that's when we met and recorded "We Want It Alive." I work at a slow speed. I don't really make albums that fast, I just let them form.
How would you describe the vibe of this album?
It's just some solid-ass songs. I felt like I wanted to do it like Michael Jackson where it's not about some sort of growing narrative—it’s just good hip-hop song after good hip-hop song.
You have Roc Marciano on a few tracks. How did you hook up with him?
Through House Shoes, I believe. I'm 100 percent positive it was through Shoes. I was out in Oakland and he was up in Oakland at the same time... No! You know? Hold on, wait, my bad, actually, I feel it was Chris Keys, I want to say Chris Keys. [Pauses] I can't recall! It was someway through Shoes and Chris Keys but it was definitely up in Oakland.
As an MC, what do you appreciate most about Roc Marci’s style?
Especially his most recent album, it's just some real good way with word patterns. Even when he wants to be a little more reserved with it, he still finesses it in a way that's like lacing butter over some bread, you know what I mean? I always love that. He just has a real respect for the craft; you can always hear that. It doesn't even matter if you're a big fan of someone's style, you can tell that they have a real respect for the craft.
The cover of this album is an illustration of someone at various ages. Is that you?
Yes it is.
Which life stage character has the best haircut?
Hmmm... You know, there's one that's not in there when I had my hair permed, so if the pictures kept going...
Why did you pick your latest album for the second spot?
That's possibly because of my own, you know, love for it but also just kinda the love that it received. It was a different experience. To me, I felt like I wasn't really saying shit or doing shit on this album that I had not already been doing. I'd say the only difference was maybe I didn't go too hard on the raps and it was more about the whole aesthetic of the songs on Being You Is Great... I don't really think I did too much different but for some reason it really resonated with people and that means a lot as opposed to feeling like you're talking to nobody.
Why do you think more people seemed to get into this album?
I don't know. Maybe timing, maybe it's a slow build like more and more people are listening and talking about you. You know how that goes. Maybe it didn't necessarily resonate with more people—maybe I just heard more feedback. Maybe it was the message and how it was delivered and, I think, when somebody has somebody saying, “You're good, you got it, look, it ain't all perfect, nobody's perfect, if you're good you got it,” it's better than feeling bad, you know what I'm saying?
Do you remember if there was there one moment when you came up with the album title and overall concept?
Yes I do. But I'm not gonna tell that story. But I wasn't in a good place with myself, that's for sure.
You have Jean Grae guesting on the song “The Prestige.” How was working with her?
I thought I was coming off a little hard to be honest but I already knew what was gonna happen: I was gonna give her the joint and then she was gonna go ape shit. It was great. In all of the time we've been together it's not so often that I get to watch her rap. It's less often than other things. It was great watching her record—she’s so sharp with everything and everything has to be just right. But I tend to be, “Eh, shit don't sound right, that's cool.” To watch someone you respect work is always an awesome experience.
Did you talk to Homeboy Sandman much about how you wanted to present "Pendulum Swing,” the song that closes the album and has your verses going back and forth?
Yeah, I think I hit him with the initial idea—but not too specific in the way we're gonna literally be like a pendulum—and he real quick got back to me with his verse. I actually had laid the song out a little different: I think at first I had me, and then him, and then he did another take of the same verse, and then I did another take of my verse again, so it was without a chorus. But then I felt it worked better with the chorus and that’s the way that I did it.
Why is this your number one album pick?
It's the nature of how the album's laid out, how it goes from having fun and really laughing about things to getting deeper into the conversation about the way we deal with those things. It has a good mix of everything. The funny half has a different feel to the second half of it. A lot of times the albums I like the most are just about my mood, so that one had something for every mood a little bit more for me.
Did you plan to structure the album that way before you started writing it?
It kinda happened that way. The album is pretty much 99 percent me and Cavalier and the album kinda formed out of having conversations with him to the point where at some point making the album, I'd sit down with a beat I had made the day before and he would sit down with what we had, and it would almost be like we wrote it together. We were just having conversations up in his crib at the time and letting those moments just hanging out form into songs. It kinda just formed that way. After smoking and drinking so much, you're bound to have a real conversation come out of it.
When was the last time you listened to the album?
I would say definitely within the last couple of months I've listened to songs. "Addiction Cycles," I listen to that a lot and "We Eat It" is another favorite of mine. I listen to it often.
When you listen to the album, does it take you back to a moment in time?
Not so much as some of the other albums because it was a shared moment and I almost listen to it in a way like it’s a Cav album featuring this dude Quelle. It's an album I kinda listen to more as a fan than the person who made it.
What’s this dude Quelle like on the album?
Ah, man, the dude was kinda wild! He's got a real ill way of approaching real everyday shit. Yeah, man, the dude can spit, I think that's really the top thing, the dude can rap his ass off. He sounds like a cool dude.