Early in our conversation about his new album Deathfame, Quelle Chris reveals that a good deal of the album was made in about a week or two. Upon further inquiry about that period from earlier this year, guessing that he would maybe share the secret to funnelling a sudden rush of creative energy, the conversation shifts toward the existential.
“Oh, I was dying,” the Detroit rapper says with a hearty laugh. “But I needed to get that out of me and get it done, and personally restart my line of communication between me and those that choose to care when I create. It had been two years. And there’s the psychological aspect: You’re starting to see certain people move again, everything is moving. And I haven’t started moving yet. And so the industry, per se, is moving on without me.”
The urgency to create he describes, more focused on survival than spawned from freewheeling self-motivation, courses through Deathfame. From the forged-in-the-fire resilience of “Alive Ain’t Always Living” to the title track’s burning sense of resentment, Chris is scrapping for every last dollar he needs to make it through. There isn’t much “prove yourself” energy floating around, but on “Feed the Heads” and “The Agency of the Future,” he’s rapping like he just went all in at the table and needs to cash out.
“I’m breaking my neck to go on tour, trying not to have to send out a Little Simz message, you dig?” he tells me, referring to a post where Simz spoke about postponing her U.S. tour due to the financial strains of touring as an independent artist.
True to its title, Deathfame is largely skeptical of those who pursue fame and the industry that stokes that pursuit, finding Chris pondering what sustained success looks like and poking fun at glib industry award shows. When he deadpans “If heaven’s got a ghetto, hell’s got a resort,” it’s a deflated acceptance of life’s cruel balancing act: There is no joy without pain or success without failure. Throughout, Chris raps with a calmness that makes it clear these aren’t new thoughts — these are songs that have been secretly writing themselves across his career. As a result, Deathfame comes off more measured than a searing resignation letter, existing somewhere between the fiery political satire of Guns, and Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often’s self-reflective mind garden, questioning if any of this is all worth it even as he accepts his flowers.
Against all odds, though, Deathfame remains optimistic, whimsical, and humorous, even as Chris dissects the ills of the industry and explores the nuances of greyed-out feelings like irritation. “How Could You Love Something Like Me?,” a late album highlight, could be an outtake from a pragmatic one-man show — Quelle Chris meets Samuel Beckett meets Stephen Sondheim. It sounds like he’s slowly descending to the ocean floor, his voice gurgling and echoes growing louder as the song extends into the void. With two brief verses, he captures the album’s uneasy feelings about the varied definitions of success and how the game’s rat race for fleeting recognition eventually consumes all its players.
The FADER: You moved out to Baltimore during the pandemic, right?
Quelle Chris: Yeah, we moved pretty much at peak. It was a ride because nobody knew what was about to happen. Especially with the initial rebranding of hatred, because at the time, we was out there marching and burning shit down, as I believe it's very necessary when for the right message and right reasons. Some shit had to get burnt down. I'm not mad at that shit. But when you're two Black folks trying to move in the midst of that, I guess if anything, [it] refocused tension, because that stuff never leaves... It's not like anything has really changed. There's still moments where it's a little better than it was.
I don't even feel like there's been change, but you can just feel that everyone is just in a completely different spot now.
Amplification of all things. That's happened over the last couple years. If you were depressed, and you had been neglecting it, it was right there. If there was any sort of falter in the stability of your career, that shit got amplified. If your kids kind of annoyed you, them motherfuckers really annoyed you for the last few years.
A lot of the beats on here sound really smokey, like it's all on fire, or you’re trapped in the middle of the Mojave Desert. But the rapping on it is still super zen. Where was your headspace at?
Maybe I switched it on, and then just didn't really think that it was on anymore. But I know going into it, I told myself to go into it like when I would be making joints in my mom's basement in Detroit. This isn't a negative assessment of where I was at going into Innocent Country 2, because that's my favorite album. But on Innocent Country 2, once I knew the direction, I went in with this intention of a lot of composition, and things of that nature. That's not to say this one doesn't have the same intentions, but one of the key intentions was to not worry so much and to let the songs and story form themselves, let the textures form themselves. It was more of a tape transition. Like with “Feed The Heads,” that was how I did the “meanwhile...” I was like, “Just do it.” Just enjoy the process of making songs like you normally would, instead of thinking about how it's going to translate to a listener. Let the listener come to you.
Right. We all have our own creative process. And the way we go about things may look different, but we might have a similar result.
That's always been one of my favorite things as far as working with other people especially. When you have the joy of working in the same room together, just watching how everyone reaches these end points of what ultimately becomes a finished product. A lot of time, it don't even fit the end result as far as the outside looking in. I’ll be like, “Your shit is so wild and nutty. And you are very stern about this.” Or like with me, especially early on in my career, people would be like, “Yo, it sounds like he's freestyling. He does it so lackadaisically.” I'm probably one of the most meticulous writers.
I listen to certain people, there'll be a cold verse, no arguments there, but there'll be these things where as someone that's been writing for so long, and so hyper focused on the craft of MCing, I'll be like, “That line right there was just the next thought, the easiest reachable thought after that.” And I have a block in my brain where those lines will come to my head, but I just can't do them. Then I can't move on until I find that right line. The way that I record is where I think a lot more of my looseness comes from. I allow more mistakes, and more nuance in the delivery.
I talk to a lot of younger rappers, and they're mainly punch-in guys, and say like, “I got to make sure I'm saying this line exactly the way I want it to be said,” versus, “I want to make sure I'm writing this the best way that I can.”
A lot of hip-hop fans have, in one way, over- and mis-dissected the process of writing, and the things that they hear. I hear a lot of misinterpretations of similarities between rappers, and patterns. But then at the same time, it's beautiful and exciting, because for a long time, we knew the difference. But through the ‘80s and the ‘90s, if they had somebody rapping on a movie, or a TV show, you would be like, “Oh, these people have no understanding of this shit.” Their understanding of it is, “It's just rhyming words.” It's beautiful to see people understand these things, but there needs to be more longform conversations about the almost endless variations of approaches and styles. Then you can get into the music theory and the technical veins of everything.
But that’s just on the — I'm definitely using the wrong word — ethereal level of what we do as MC's. That's not even to get into the power of words, and the casting of spells, and it gets larger from there. It's good to see people going this direction where you see people hyper-dissecting patterns. And you have, over the last however many years, the emergence of “who uses the most unique words” and all that type of stuff. But it's still too data-based and analytical. There's not a focus on the soul of these verse creations, and that's really where the most technical and intricate things come in. Not this simplification of what we do in order to industrialize things.
How did you come up with the title for this album?
At its core, it's that general idea [of] giving someone their flowers while they're still here. But I guess maybe a little more specified in a way where we were talking earlier how everything is amplified, especially with social media. If somebody dies, then for three days, all you hear is all this adulation. So I'm just like, on the very surface, it's like, I want that death fame. Let me get that fame you get when you die. And then as it breaks down throughout the album and is addressed in different ways, it becomes more nuanced and vulnerable.
If you're a successful doctor, it's because you can cut a motherfucker's heart out and put another heart in. It is 100 percent based off your skill, right? In entertainment, or specifically for concerts and music, it's not 100 percent based off your skill. If anything, at times, it's hardly even at all based off your skill. It's based off of how close to fame you are. And how much you're willing to give yourself, brace yourself, be okay with growing older, be okay with all these different things, to appreciate yourself, to think you're the coldest, to know you're the coldest, to be the coldest, to constantly grow, all of these different things that have to do with this idea of success within this industry. And not to mention money, right?
This industry is built around forcing all of its cash cows — its literal cattle that they own and sell, which are the artists — to a kind of death race. This rat race for something that is technically always fleeting, which is the adoration of others. I can't be a successful artist unless there's some sort of adoration. I can be a successful a lot of things without adoration, if I'm just the best at it. But this comes with this extra layer of, “how far am I willing to push myself to death, or even to the point of actually dying in order for you guys to deem me successful?”
Right, especially with how Black artists get treated in rap and other genres. It's like they’re more valuable to labels after they've passed away. Which is heartbreaking.
It's a marketing point. At this point, it is such an industry that even when there is that kind of friendly label owner, artists be like, “he been looking out, she's looking out, or they've been looking out, and they care about their artists…” You're still a product. You're a product of constantly fluctuating value. Every second of the day, your value changes.
Why did you go with “Alive Ain’t Always Living” for your lead single?
To reach a point of acceptance of where you're at, or even on the extremes. I don't even get off into these extremes, but the extremes of some of the emotions addressed in the album... “Why do you accept me when I'm just a regular fucking person? I be fucking up too. Why do you think I'm great?” And I think to get to that point, you reach some level of what that first song is, which is, “I'm grateful for everyone that's gotten me to this point. I'm grateful for everything that has happened up to this point, and this is where I am, good and bad.” So I feel like that song is like going to therapy.
I feel like it was important to open an album that addresses all these things by going: “Yeah, I hate that this is this way, I love that this is this way. But let me make it clear before I even get off into anything that can be applied to your own life, or interpreted to whatever way as music tends to be.” People have songs they listen to. The same song they listen to when they're sad, somebody listens to when they're happy. Interpretation is a part of art. Let me make it clear that I'm okay with this. I don't want you to listen to this album and feel like, “Fuck everybody. I ride for Quelle.” I want you to do that, but I don't want you to specifically listen to it and have a championing, or to feel sad about anything.
I feel like it was important to address that immediately. Because I get that some people, with Being You Is Great, they're like, “That's such a sad album.” And I'm like, “There's nothing sad about that album.” I don't want people to feel bad for me listening to this album or to be like, “Yo, Quelle is mad underrated.” I just want people to genuinely enjoy it as it is.