How Quelle Chris Turned His Self-Doubt Into A Stellar Album
An argument with an ex led the Brooklyn-based rapper and producer to a new perspective — and his best record to date.
One day about four years ago, Quelle Chris found himself on a rooftop cooling down after an argument with his then partner. Their parting words — “Why can’t you be great all the time?” — were ringing in his ears, and gradually coalesced into a new sentence that would go on to become the title of his latest album: Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often. Reflecting the nuances and randomness of life, rather than painting an idealized, unified picture, Being You Is Great… is an introspective, funny, and honest rap album that reflects the breadth of the human experience.
“A lot of times arguments are just really good conversations had at a very loud level,” Quelle reflects today. We’re sitting at a wooden table in the living room of the first floor Brooklyn apartment the rapper and producer shares with Jean Grae, a veteran of New York’s hip-hop scene who also cultivates a multidisciplinary approach. The place is sparsely decorated with choice pieces of furniture and artwork on the walls. Quelle tells me that this particular quarrel made him think about the better self we all aspire to be, but who might not always be at the controls. In the days following it, he began to write and amass tracks that dealt with the idea of self-doubt; about how we stop ourselves from being great all the time, and the constant pendulum swing that comes with being human. “It’s about all these different states we can be in,” he says of the album, looking down at the table as he plays with a cigarette before lighting it. Quelle speaks in an unhurried manner, considering his words. “You want what you don’t have, but you also want what someone else has — and maybe even what you can’t have. We are very complex.”
Quelle Chris — the combination of the German word for “source” and his middle name — was born in New York from a family of Detroiters. His father’s work as a shoe designer kept the family moving around the country, but Detroit remains the place he most naturally calls home. Quelle first realized his calling to music in high school, following some youthful experiments. He emerged as a rapper and producer in the mid-2000s amid Detroit's effervescent scene with help and support from the likes of DJ Houseshoes and rap group Wasted Youth. Over the past decade his love of music has taken him across the country — he’s lived in Los Angeles, Oakland, St. Louis, Chicago, and now New York — and resulted in more than 15 albums, both solo and within various groups. He’s toured with Black Milk and produced tracks for Danny Brown’s breakthrough release, The Hybrid. Yet for all the work and achievements, Quelle still has to struggle to earn a living as an artist while battling with his confidence everyday. It’s a paradoxical situation he’s been grappling with for a while: being a working artist can encourage self-doubt, but making art is therapeutic.
“I need to make songs, but while making them I might think, <i>no one is ever gonna listen to this, it’s stupid, why am I doing this?</i> It’s this constant inner dialogue of figuring out not just what you’re doing, but also why.”
“I need to make songs, but while making them I might think, no one is ever gonna listen to this, it’s stupid, why am I doing this?” he explains. “It’s this constant inner dialogue of figuring out not just what you’re doing, but also why and realizing it’s not always for the same reasons. Sometimes it’s doing it for the love and sometimes it’s doing it cos I need some money.” Art is, after all, his job. The new album became a way to articulate how “it’s ok to have these different viewpoints.”
When I ask Quelle to define self-doubt he pauses for a minute. “On a personal level, it stems from childhood, social, and gender expectations,” he offers as a first, succinct answer. Then he elaborates, warming to the theme. As a working artist, he says, self-doubt comes from not having the safety net of a job to catch you. As a man, it comes from thinking you must take care of everything. And socially, it comes from those awkward moments when someone with a “real job” asks what you do. “Even though I feel super confident that art is what I do for a living there’s always that little hesitation,” he admits before letting out a nervous laugh. “In the context of this new album, self-doubt is all these things.”
Being You Is Great… explores personal and universal questions about self-doubt, shared moments, and the very human quest to achieve consistency in our daily mood swings. From the start, stories unfurl in a sequence of peaks and troughs: the tongue-in-cheek pep talk of “Buddies” versus the sullen mood of “Popeye" (who, in Quelle's universe, kicks his can but never eats the spinach). While Quelle is a central character in many of the songs, he also imagines others. The trio of “The Dreamer,” “I’m That N!@@a,” and “Birthdaze,” for example, stars a fictional rapper through whom Quelle explores the illusions of success and the alienation that it can spark.
Quelle handled about half the production on the record — with assists from Chris Keys, MNDSGN, and The Alchemist among others — and the variety of the beats reflects the emotional journeys detailed: laid-back funk and jazz horns on “Buddies”; claustrophobic samples and intimidating drums resembling weed paranoia on “Fascinating Grass”; a simple drum break, layered background vocals, and a stuttering melody on the uplifting “Great To Be,” which brings the album to an end with a double entendre about finding the inner you and “about being with Jean, being the plural you.”
The album was written over a long period because Quelle prefers to work at the pace of his thoughts. “Moments of growth happen at different times, sometimes you don’t get the answer to a question until later,” he explains. “That’s what happened with the music. Sometimes I wasn’t in the right place to do it even if I knew what it should be. And with this album I was able to cap it off with a real life situation — this relationship I’m in right now — and realizing that with all the flaws I’m still great.”
As with every album, this latest effort offered Quelle a degree of catharsis, but he knows that dealing with self-doubt is a lifelong battle. “I’m learning to be better with failure and at the same time being accepting of success,” he says. Love and creativity helps. “Everybody wants consistency but everybody wants to experience new things,” he later adds. “So where does it fall into place? Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s scattered and you just have to be able to pull in things when you need them, know how to access things, how to access different parts of yourself, access different emotions.” Social media makes it easy today to hide self-doubt beneath the veneer of a digital persona, a shiny but often fake single stream of emotion. It’s back to a paradox: you can be more confident by accepting that self-doubt is something we all have to live with. Quelle smiles before offering his own take. “There are three types of people,” he says. “Those who trip on a curb and curse, those who trip and act embarrassed, and those who trip and just say ‘fuck it’ and move on.” The morale? “Everybody trips, it’s how you handle it.”