Nursing a pint of Stella Artois in the backyard of Do Or Dive, a laid-back bar in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, the hip-hop artist Quelle Chris is speculating on the origin of the thrift store jacket he’s wearing today. The fantastic garment features a large airbrushed image of a horse named Billy on the back and the name Jill stitched on the front. “My theory is Jill owned the horse named Bill, or was in a partnership with Bill—not romantically—but the horse is a free creature so who knows how he views his relationship with Jill,” Quelle muses. “Maybe Bill died and she made a jacket in homage to Bill. Now it’s ended up on my back.”
Beyond making a claim as hip-hop’s foremost equestrian sartorialist, Quelle has courted a reputation for crafting some of the most smart and creative rap albums of recent times. Following last year’s emotive state-of-the-nation project Everything’s Fine, which was recorded in tandem with his wife and fellow artist Jean Grae, Quelle’s latest release is Guns, an incisive project that digs deep into the way we weaponize attitudes and tools for positive or evil purposes in everyday life. It’s a record Quelle characterizes as “just a beautiful album about our beautifully twisted world.”
Over outdoor beers, I spoke to Quelle about why Guns is more like mushrooms than crack, how to overcome a fear of various animals, and the possibility of him endorsing his favorite brand of kitty litter.
Have you heard any reactions to Guns that have surprised you?
I haven't been surprised, but I do think that the thing about putting art out into the world is people perceive that art to be either more or less than what it means. On the first song, "Spray and Pray," I hear a lot of people saying, “Oh, it’s him putting himself in the shoes of a killer,” or, "It's him talking about his life growing up and using guns all the time.” Neither of those are anything the song is about—it's simply a metaphor using guns the same way I'd use the metaphor of a candy shop. It's a metaphor about growing up, always making music, learning, studying, watching people start and stop, going through the whole process of seeing how this thing operates.
A lot of times I get these complaints that my albums have this non-cohesiveness, but to me it all makes sense 'cause it all happened chronologically; so if it happened chronologically, then logically, it all makes sense, right? Life has moments and there's ups and downs and lefts and rights and shit that happens that makes no fuckin' sense to anything that happened the day before and that's how life is. I think people look for these uniform fuckin' albums where everything is just laid out for you, and I think life has nuance and the album should too.
Do you think people are too quick to make judgments about music these days?
I want them to take some time, breath it in. Some drugs you do it once and are like I'm not gonna do it again; some drugs you're like I need to understand this a little bit more. My drugs, I feel like you need to understand them a little bit more. It's not crack, you may not become a fiend immediately, it's more mushrooms—you do them once, you might have a bad trip, the next time you do 'em you learn to balance it more, then next time the world opens up to you.
Beyond music, I noticed on Instagram that you recently shaved your cat, Littles, for the warmer months.
Yes, he has a lion cut, which was great because it started to become like a war on the streets with the cat hair 'cause it's a long-haired and white-haired cat. The hair is everywhere. So the payoff was the humor of non-stop Labyrinth jokes 'cause he just looks like a Jim Henson puppet right now, but he's doing good.
He's an attitude-y cat and he suffers from PTSD, I think, because he’s a found cat. I believe someone owned him prior to us and he got out, like who knows, maybe the kids let him out. I’ve done that with a bird or two or a hamster. So he’s somewhat always worried he's about to get left alone again. But he picked us: He tried to hop in the Uber, he'd walk to the store with Jean, I'm not lying! One day we opened the door and he ran in and we were like, “Okay, I guess it's time…” He chose us. He's a cool cat but he's got some issues—but who doesn’t?
How are you finding living with a cat?
Oh, I've had multiple cats. This isn't my first rodeo. Generally though I've had more cat cats: I'll claw things, I don't like to be bothered, when company comes over I'll go and sit in my own place. So this is the first I-wanna-be-down Brandy butterfly dance cat. If there's a party going on, if y'all doing something, I wanna be there. I think it's the breed—I've read Turkish Angoras are generally dog-cats, basically bred to be companion cats. He likes to play fetch: He drops toys at your feet like a dog.
I like beers that are a little more crisp but not bleeding into the citrus realm, like get your citrus the fuck outta here.”
You’ve gone with a Stella today.
Yeah, I usually like Belgium-type joints, the La Fin du Mondes, a 9% or higher beer. Stella isn’t really on the sharp end like that—I like beers that are a little more crisp but not bleeding into the citrus realm, like get your citrus the fuck outta here. I like things that are crisp and have a good sharp taste and I like when they’re strong, ‘cause it’s a different taste you get when they’re strong. So at this bar, Stella was kinda the leftover choice, but I wanted something a little more sharp on the Belgium tip, the Belgium triple type.
What sort of beers were you into when you started drinking beer?
In the past it was cases of Miller, cases of Pabst, cases of whatever was cheapest. I remember my first taste of beer was on a Fourth of July—I don’t remember what age I was—but my dad let me taste his beer he had and I thought it was disgusting, the fuckin' worst thing. Honestly, I didn't really end up drinking until late by American standards and super late by European standards, but it was closer to 19. I started smoking weed and doing things like ‘shrooms, but then I remember the first time I got drunk and it was like a window opened. All these years of me being like, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” They became, “Oh, it makes sense, I get it!” It was a good equalizer. Then that led to a string of craziness.
Would you ever consider opening your own bar?
I was kinda part of a bar in Chicago. Would I ever do that again? Fuck no! Just dealing with drunk people and rambunctious people and people may not even be drunk but it's 3 a.m. and that's when people start to act crazy! Nah, I'm not dealing with that ever again. But if I was, it would be a nice small hole-in-the-wall and you can come in there at 2 a.m. when all the other bars close and you can buy yourself a six pack of beer or if you want you can buy one of my bottles from the bar. It would be nice and small—it would hold 20 people comfortably, a nice chill spot open from happy hour 'til whenever the fuck. Not a lounge, just a good hole-in-the-wall dive that's specifically for people in a good spirit. But I would be a terrible bartender 'cause everybody's drinks would be too strong.
What do you usually play on the jukebox in a bar?
Some nights you want nothing but '90s R&B, some nights you want nothing but good hair metal bands, some nights you want some hardcore shit like you want some people to come in and be playing some Melvins and then go off into some hardcore rock, some nights you might want to play a bunch of electronic. The thing is just have a well stocked jukebox and let the crowd determine it for themselves and the most dominant crowd gets the music.
What sort of stuff are you currently listening to on your phone?
This is a list of the songs I've been listening to that aren't my own music or someone I know: Some Chakra, like the Korean shit, some of their joints might be the Sade of the Korean shit; Children of the Mushroom; Officer! who make really good abstract rock type shit; The Box; The Horde. A lot of random shit.
Is this music you listen to for enjoyment or are you always looking to see if you could sample something?
Sometimes you've got to just love a song. These songs are good—I don't need to make something out of it. You ain't gotta make something out of everything! Let some shit just breathe. Unless you're doing something that extrapolates it and brings something new to it, let it exist. If you're going to make something worse, get the fuck out of here and let the song just exist!
Going back to your latest album, it has a track titled “Box Of Wheaties.” Are you a fan of the cereal?
You know, I've never had Wheaties, never eaten them—they’ve just kinda been a part of the fabric of life. I'm a fan of their design. I want to be on the cover, still… The first rapper on the cover of Wheaties. But there’s too much competition. There's no way. I'd walk in there and walk out. It's like there's people like Offset out there. I'm not gonna beat Offset for a cover of Wheaties. I know my place, I'm not there yet.
What could you be on the cover of?
Fresh Step kitty litter—they got the crystals with fuckin' Fabreeze in them! The thing is, some people do clumping litter, but I'm like a two-day person. I know people do it by the week, but I'm like two days, that's enough, let's clean this shit out, so crystals are good. I could also be the Marlboro man. Give me the horse and the motherfuckin’ whole get up—I’ll ride on Billy!