Interview by Parisa Eshrati
In his most recent 2022 release, Deathfame, Detroit rapper and producer Quelle Chris breaks down the idea of success and stardom. "This album really is just leaning into being like...you know what? If none of this shit matters, then fuck it. You can find freedom or balance somehow within that attitude and be okay with it." In the latest installment of our Mello Music Group interview series, we spoke with Chris about the themes of the album, grief, celebration, day jobs, and more.
Your new album, Deathfame, is largely centered around balancing struggle with success, pain and joy, etc. I appreciate how the album explores these dichotomies without giving a definite answer or outcome. Where has the journey been taking you so far, if not to a finite answer?
Shoot man, I had albums that leaned far into optimism. The last record, Innocent Country 2, felt that way. I would say that Deathfame is more balanced just by way of survival. This one really leans into a "fuck everything" mentality. It's funny because I actually had an entire album that was going to be about balance. It was with me, Denmark Vessey, DIBIA$E and Knxwledge, and it literally was going to be titled Balance, but ironically it never came out. This one really is just leaning into being like...you know what? If none of this shit matters, then fuck it. You can find freedom or balance somehow within that attitude and be okay with it. So to answer the question, and I'm king of paraphrasing on the ass-end of all this, is that I find myself at "Fuck it.” [laughs] Like a very good, arguably healthy, arguably unhealthy fuuuck it.
That one line in "Alive Ain't Always Living" where you say "If everything happens for a reason / I ain't really got shit else to do" really sums that up perfectly.
Absolutely, that's one of my favorite lines on the album.
That line, and the album in general, reminds me a lot of this Sun Tzu quote from The Art of War that says, “Sweat more during peace: bleed less during war.” How does that general message, if at all, reflect the way you approach your art and the notion of success?
This idea of success is always perplexing to me. I don't know why, but I guess going back to what we were just saying, living means sweating and bleeding all the time. The way I interpret that quote is like a statement of preparation. As a hardcore member of the ADHD team, it can all start to feel inconsequential. I feel like it was all sweat until I decided to say “fuck all that”, so I’ve approached the notion of success by bleeding less and letting that all go. This is just my interpretation, though. I don't know exactly if that's what Sun Tzu meant, we'd have to pull out the ouija board to ask him [laughs]
There’s that lyric [in “So Tired You Can’t Stop Dreaming”] that says “If Heaven’s got a ghetto/Hell’s got a resort”. If you think of it in relation to that quote, it reflects the idea of whatever is, is. If you’re more conscious while you’re at peace, hopefully you’ll be able to survive or even thrive through the difficult times. If you didn’t die, then you made it through, you know? I think the word survival has a bad rep ‘cause it’s got a gritty emotion attached to it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing just to survive. It’s all about perception. It can be hard to cope with something you don’t really have a choice in. You’re born into the world and you just have to survive. You can try and prepare for things, whether it be art or music or success or life in general, but you never really know where life is going to take you. I acknowledge that my answers are very Libra-ish, but that’s just where I’m at lately.
The album name was partly inspired by how people don’t praise others until after they die, as we see a lot especially on social media. I’d be curious for you to elaborate on this idea, specifically how you use your own music as a means for both grief and celebration.
There are a few tiers to it. One would be the idea of success, which as we mentioned, is not a real thing. Success is rooted in our reality, yet is totally perception based. You could have all the money in the world and still be sad and wonder if you're truly successful or not. You could be completely broken and unflinchingly happy. The amount of artists that I've seen blow up and then not talked about again after like a month really made me start thinking that success is just non-existent. So, that's one aspect of the title Deathfame. Those of us who are clamoring in an Ahab-and-the-white -whale sort of way are ultimately going to die trying to reach something that doesn't really exist. Then when you feel like you've reached a successful point in your life, it becomes a challenge to sustain it. Now I have to figure out how to be successful again so that feeling doesn’t start fleeting.
The other thing is like, you know when a celebrity dies, everyone expresses their love and interest after they're already gone. My favorite thing now is when someone leaves an “RIP” comment for someone that died on some other post that's not their own. Not that the deceased person can read it anyway, but now it's just so far removed now. I try not to be a curmudgeon, but that title of Deathfame came to me in a more negative aspect. Most of the artists that I love coming up now are telling me that I helped inspire them along the way. It's such a great feeling, but at the same time...I'm still broke. People can tell you you're a legend but don't realize off the tour you're still hustling. So really, what is fame? If anything, it feels non-transferrable. It's more of an idea.
But like you said, there is a lot of celebration in this music too. It’s not always nefarious. I understand people aren’t always going to express interest in the moment, because it’s like they say, you don’t know what you have ‘till it’s gone. We all have phases in our lives where certain music affects us in a grand way, and your life might change and you may not listen to it anymore, but those memories are always there. I may not listen to Slug on a daily basis anymore, but that music brings back a lot of great memories for me. We can’t carry attachments throughout our whole lives, we just have to cherish things while we can.
While most reviewers call this album “abstract” hip hop, you’ve said how you consider it to be pretty straightforward. Where do you think that level of disconnect lies? Do you think it says something about how people approach these themes in general?
You know, I don't even think it's specifically topic-based. I grew up on hip hop during a very rampant era. I’m not here to be one of those people to say everything was better in the ‘90s, but I can at least say that variety was more celebrated then. The A&Rs would get paid to go out and find someone that was new and fresh, then that person would end up in the magazines. It was all about fighting for something different. Then these more skeezy, profiteering people would just find another version of the same person that's popular at the moment. I really think that's what happened, as with any corporatization of any art, it becomes more normalized for there not to be as many options. It tends to happen with any genre that the more easily accessible option becomes the norm.
I feel like my music is considered abstract purely because it's not repetitive sonically throughout. When something is not predictable, it's not a "regular" listening activity. The natural reaction for me growing up listening to music was to either like it, or if I didn’t, at least want to understand it a little more. I think that’s due to things being less divisive then. It was all just hip hop. Maybe there was gangster rap, but the scene was so new and hadn't been so subdivided yet. None of it sounded the same - from coast to coast everyone had a different style, but it was all just hip hop. I think having such a strong label on my music puts a certain expectation on my sound that doesn't always work in my favor. People won't be able to hear my music for what it is. If you go into an album without expectations, you can find yourself subconsciously expanding your own horizons.
On your Twitter bio it says “ex-Blockbuster employee” so I gotta ask, what have been some of your other day jobs growing up?
I've done it all [laughs]. Blockbuster, banks, food delivery, ride sharing companies, all the fast food chains, and so on. I worked for Five Hour Energy for a while years back in San Francisco. Someone saw us smoking weed on break in the Five Hour Energy car and called the company headquarters in Michigan, which is a weed haven now but at the time was like...Jesus' asshole. The boss called me immediately and said you can either do a drug test or leave, so I quit right there [laughs]. But it’s cool ‘cause that’s when I decided to go full-time with music. I had been making and recording albums for years before that, but eventually Mello Music Group reached out and wanted to work with me. But yeah man, you name a job, I did ‘em all.
That's crazy 'cause Five Hour Energy is a way more intense drug than weed!
Oh it's crack dealin'! Don't even get me started. The percentages on the bottle are only if you drink half the bottle, and even half the bottle has like a thousand times more B12 than one human needs. It's straight liquid coke.
I know you have a Patreon to fundraise for an animated series you’ve been working on. A lot of the info is Patreon exclusive but I was wondering if you’d be able to talk a little bit about that series.
I do wanna talk about it, but I don't want nobody to steal my idea [laughs]. Soon though.
Can’t wait. What do you have coming up that fans should be on the lookout for?
I'm producing a new album that's gonna be coming out on Mello Music. It's gonna be featuring every artist that matters on the face of the Earth. Working on more animations with several different artists, Denmark Vessey and I are working on a new Crown Nation album with Alchemist. I've done a lot of features lately, and you know…just looking forward to not dying between now and next year and then maybe doing this all again!