We spoke with Quelle Chris about the making of his new album, DEATHFAME, and how he’s still testing the outer reaches of his potential after 20 years at the forefront of rap’s avant-garde.
Quelle Chris loves a well-placed distortion. Whether it’s an off-center tangent in conversation or a down-pitched snare tucked into the program of a loop culled in an outdated Ableton install, the Detroit rapper and producer can isolate and endear you to the oddest quality of seemingly anything. It’s the activating element in Quelle’s beat-making and writing that’s characterized each of his studio albums. And, ironically (if not intentionally), what tends to make them so hard to define.
The sonic and philosophical tinkering enters an urgent new phase on his latest album, DEATHFAME, which is out on Friday, May 13 via Mello Music Group. Across the the project’s 14-tracks, Quelle employs a hallmark deadpan and tender ambivalence in grappling with the chaotic mechanics of enduring and adapting to the pace of change, mining the discordant values of our digital lives and interrogating the underpinnings of celebrity, genre, and success funneled through the reality-warp of social media. It’s an album with the weight of a historically heavy two-year stretch on or offline. Joined by a dynamic ensemble of Pink Siifu, Navy Blue, MoRuf, Denmark Vessey, and Cavalier, he doesn’t shoulder it alone.
Quelle is reluctant to call DEATHFAME his “pandemic album.” In fact, it’s not at all the album he initially intended as the successor to Innocent Country 2. Released in May 2020, the spotless and soulful sequel to the rapper’s collaborative outing with Oakland-based producer Chris Keys, was arguably the year’s best album and should’ve been a moment to finally collect his flowers. But with venues indefinitely shuttered and most of the country months into lockdown, properly supporting a crowning work in his career was entirely off the table. Instead of leaning into the bitterness of being deprived a victory lap, Quelle uses DEATHFAME as a pained and intimate meditation on the gratitude, guilt, and grounding gospels gleaned from several years of involuntary solitude, fully embracing his powers and an earned slot at the forefront of rap’s avant-garde.
We caught up with Quelle Chris on a drenched early spring day in his adopted home of Baltimore to discuss the making of DEATHFAME, and how he’s still testing the outer reaches of his potential.
When did you start working on DEATHFAME?
A handful of weeks before I turned it in, actually. But I’d say it began at the concept of the big grandiose album I wanted to make — and I’m still going to make — but now it has to be like two albums later because the other shit that I got to get done. So, it technically started there. It evolved along the way in my brain to reach what it became, but the guts of it I got together rolling — at least of anything recorded — within a week. And then there’s all the things that I classify in my head or categorize in my head as the uncontrollable. Like, waiting for features from the homies or things like that where you’re going to be waiting as long as they want. In most cases I’m like, “Well, nothing’s happening until I get this verse because I know what it’s supposed to be.”
Sounds like it was made from a place of real urgency.
Self-inflicted, but definitely.
How did that take hold?
Getting to this album, there was a lot of breaking and rebuilding. There’s cleaning up from alcoholism, there’s getting diagnosed with mental things that my entire life I’ve never even put weight on but explained so much. That’s something that I’ve seen happen with so many people I know over these last two years. And I think it is from that being stuck inside with yourself for a long period of time. And then, when you have all these escapisms, it’s easy to feel natural in certain faults or chaos because you have things to merit them. When it’s just you and your wife, or just you and your kids, or just you and your husband, or just you and your partner, and you have nothing to really bounce it off of? Yeah, you have to face a lot of shit and do a lot of work.
So all that was happening during the pandemic. It wasn’t like I stopped, but the only thing that really mattered to me was making sure we were OK, me and my wife. And as the entirety of the idea of tour went away, which was one of my big financial crutches, nothing really mattered anymore.
And sometimes, in like a terrible way, it was “We just got to be OK.” Because, like you said…there was also the urgency of we don’t know what the fuck is going to happen. Is everybody fucking dying? And is everything going to collapse? Do we need to be somewhere we feel safe?
Can you tell me about the poem opening the album?
That’s my mother. It’s a poem she wrote. I’ma butcher the original name but I titled it “Those Endearing Young Charms” for this. It’s about going into the chaos that is the world and learning to live with it, which is kind of an underlying theme of the album. Not necessarily the chaos of the world but the chaos of the idea of success, and is it good or bad to even want it? Like, you want it but why do you want it? And then, also because it’s the song you play right before you blow up, you know what I mean? It’s the exploding piano gag from Looney Tunes, when the guy would walk up and play the wrong note and it just goes boom.
It feel like you’ve kinda embraced the chaos here. You once described your last album, Innocent Country 2, as a way of breaking off from a corrupted world and building something new for yourself. Is DEATHFAME an extension of that idea?
No, that ship got caught in the storm and ended up on a completely different island. But the map and the long-term goal is still the same. And this is all speculative clearly, but I feel like had the pandemic not happened — if we were able to do the run and the appearances and we were able to really get out there and do the album like we wanted to, we would have a completely different narrative around it and a completely different route.
Do you feel like the pandemic robbed you of an opportunity to properly support the album?
That’s one of the greatest hip-hop albums I ever made. After it was done I was like, “Oh yeah, OK, cool. Grammy’s are next,” and not like, “Oh yeah, OK, cool, restructuring my entire life is next.” So, I think I went into that with a certain level of optimism for change. And it’s not like I necessarily lost that optimism or that vision of change and growth, but the realities of where I was at and where I thought I was at were —
They were at odds. So little did I know I still had a lot of growth to do. I think that’s generally the case but the pandemic amplified things. In hindsight, I think things would’ve bubbled the way I first saw them, but the last two years perspective-wise and accountability-wise — and just learning myself and my place in my relationships with everyone around me — it’s like that silver lining shit. Like, did I lose or did I win? It’s hard to say, but I definitely went into that and was making that album in a time of extreme change.
Is this the product of that period of change? Yes. Is it what I foresaw it being? No. At the same time, I’ve had to be telling my manager, “Don’t worry. I know we’ve been out of the loop. I know we see everybody moving. Don’t worry. Because once I’m moving again, it’s over.”
But you weren’t entirely inactive between albums. There were singles, features, and the Judas & The Black Messiah score.
Well, yeah. We murdered that thing. Actually, it was what me and Chris did that changed the whole trajectory of what they did with the score. Shaka is a long time homie. We used to live together — me, him, Cav, and a bunch of other people. As he was going into making this movie, I think he already knew, “If there’s anyone that’s going to know what I hear when I’m seeing it, it’s going to be you.” So, as they started getting the dailies back and stuff, I would be in the room. We were going through it and I would make little notes on my phone. Then me and Chris kind of crafted it from there. Fred and Mark did a lot of the pieces, but me and Chris did about five or six pieces that ended up in the film.
At a time when nothing really mattered anymore, Judas and the Black Messiah mattered because we had already started it in a room in a brownstone in Brooklyn, and you could smell all the instruments and the strings and everything in there. And then we got back and there was none of that. So we had to work on that movie in a very interesting way. There was no being together. We were all just sharing stems and ideas and things, but it came out awesome.
What does the title mean to you?
On a really bad night I was laying down and it popped into my brain. Amplified, probably by social media, I thought about how, when somebody dies, it’s just instantly all over the place, and how there’s no relentless celebration of people until they pass. Maybe it’s the general idea of sympathy or sorrow that allows us to let down our guards and go public with our appreciation. But for what it’s worth, as pitiful or regular as it is, you have that thought where you’re like, “Well, if I wasn’t here, everybody would finally show me the love that I deserve.” So it’s like a different way of saying flowers while I’m here. Maybe a little more extreme but I guess that’s because I have a very cave man-ish way of expressing things I feel.
I think there’s also just a general monkey on the back of anyone that’s trying to be successful at what they do. Especially if it’s a career path where your success is based on people’s appreciation of you, which may have absoultely nothing to do with your actual skill. If you’re a doctor, it doesn’t matter if people like you. You’re going to be successful because you know how to cut motherfuckers up. Like, I know how to cut motherfuckers up. But there’s all these other unrelated things that play into whether I’m successful or not.
You’re someone uniquely capable of making fluid and comprehensive albums both entirely on your own and with a committee. When and how does that call get made?
That’s a good question. I think it’s a mix of circumstance and vision. Sometimes, there are moments where my vision is beyond what I feel like one person can give. Or sometimes it’s self-centered — I just don’t think anyone can cap this as well as I can. I got to do it myself. I got to go link up with Chris and be like, “Let’s get this shit off the paper.” It’s like a conductor knowing their instruments, knowing why you want them there, and then trusting your instinct. Having faith in the people that you fuck with, having such an understanding of hip-hop and emceeing and actually knowing what real skill is, and knowing who has the skills to facilitate certain things.
The roster for this one is stellar. Do you have a favorite contribution?
That’s a tough one but all those motherfuckers, really. Everybody came through and did it. Everybody’s part in it is just as important. Sage’s verse was really a rider for me for a while. MoRuf’s verse was a rider for me when he first sent it. But I also didn’t have a lot of the rest of the album done yet. But all of them. All of them are just as cold and just as important.
Is there anything you learned about yourself while creating DEATHFAME?
I’m not sure if it’s something I didn’t already know but I guess in the process — making it, writing it and all that — it would be that I’m both very close to what I think success as an artist could be, and also still very far away from it. Whichever one is more true, I still have a lot of work to do. I think something I learn every album is that I feel like what I can express just through hip-hop alone, it’s still out of my sight.
There was a period after Innocent Country 2 when all this shit was going on. There was never an “I lost it” moment, but I don’t care anymore. Like, what does this matter? I’m going to release another album. A bunch of people are going to like it and then some people are going to say it’s weird. I’m not going to go up a tax bracket. I don’t care. But every time I do get from point A to point B, I’m not necessarily reminded of how cold I am or how dope I am. I already know that. What I’m reminded of is how much doper I can get.
To people, it looks like an album. But for me, it’s just a blip and a sign of what there is to still create. Every time I do an album I’m reminded that I’m still very small, regardless of how it looks to everyone. Finishing this album is a big thing because every album is important and big, and it’s these moments that’ll tone me one day and it’s something that always sticks with me. When you make a album, that’s there forever. Someone that doesn’t hear everything else, that’s what you’re always going to be in their mind. The magnitude of it never escapes me but at the same time, from my perspective, it’s just another beginning. I still have so much to learn not just as an artist but as a person.
A lot of the album seems to center on notions of success and testing, if not rediscovering, your own potential.
Well, another thing I learned is no matter what comes of this, it’s kind of what I do. I was having a lot of reservations about things that weren’t in my control, or things that will never be in my control. Will I ever be what I consider famous? There’s absolutely nothing I can do to make that happen. Not even a lot of money, because I’ve seen a lot of labels dump tons of money into artists that never blow up.
But what does your version of success look like?
I don’t have the answer to that.
Then why bother worrying about it? How do you know you’re not already there?
Because I’m still thinking about it. I may always be like, “There’s more,” or there’s something else. But the thing is, I don’t know exactly what success is. I can put a monetary number on it. I could say success would be having this amount of money, having this amount of security. Knowing that when I wake up I don’t have to think about these things. Knowing that these things are in place that are being managed by these people in this thing. Success might be not wondering what the fuck is next. But then at the same time, when are you not going to be wondering what is next? Will I ever be successful enough if I’m always going to want more?
Success sounds like freedom to me.
Yeah, it is, and it’s a tough thing to say. But I feel like it’s easier encapsulating what I don’t want it to be. What I don’t want to do is see family members struggling. What I don’t want to do is not be able to have to — at the drop of a dime — afford my wife anything that she wants. By all general standards, I have a very successful music career. And this might sound like some millenial shit but I shouldn’t be working this hard just to live. If I’m going to work this hard all the time, just to have to figure it out day-by-day, then it ain’t going right.
But successful, to me would be not having the stresses of it. I don’t need to be Rihanna but I know a lot of artists that are comfortable. I’m still at a point where I’m fighting for the respect, the fandom, the financial gains, the merit, the accolades. It looks good on paper, but until I ain’t got to think about that shit, then maybe a part of me will never feel successful.
At this point in the pandemic it feels — probably deceptively — like we’re on the other end of it. Are you finding any relief in how things are settling?
I mean, there’s a lot of potential for things to go really crazy again. But where we’re at right now is a nice cool spot. I’ll accept the shit out of this, just for my personal sanity.