A young boy glides along a residential street on his bike, his backdrop, a deep blue night sky. Around him, streetlights glare like terrestrial stars, charting his way as he tears home, doing tricks on the pedals before he eventually parks the red bike in his garage.
“Who the fuck passed you the mic?” a voice repeatedly alleges in the background, over a boom-bap ridden beat. It’s the dreamy, lo-fi announcement video for rapper/producer Qari and DJ/producer/rapper Green Sllime’s collaborative tape Operation Hennessy, which released on February 13. The visual radiates nostalgia; before we see the boy—Qari’s 10-year-old brother, Noah—its opening scenes are interspersed with TV static as if someone’s flipping through channels on a remote.
When Qari describes Noah in person, a smile unfolds. “Ever since he’s been born, he’s been a light in my life,” Qari says. We’re in a small studio, at an undisclosed location. A Chicago flag is pinned to the back wall, while a Palestinian flag is wrapped around some piping on the ceiling. The space is nondescript, but Qari and Sllime’s personalities flood the room.
Though they haven’t released too much music together, the two are longtime friends and collaborators. They’ve jointly spent countless hours in the studio, with Operation Hennessy a testament to that time. None of the project’s songs were recorded or created with other songs in mind. “It’s circular,” Qari says of the seven-track tape, which has a runtime of just about 20 minutes. “It’s like a ball of hip-hop; just raps and beats.”
The pair first teased the project in fall 2017, when Sllime posted a video on Twitter of Qari rapping to the tape’s title and introductory track. “I sent @qariqariqari a beat, this n***a gon send me a facebook video like its 2006 so fuck it here yall go #OperationHennessy,” Sllime wrote. From there, the whole project took on mythical status. But at the top of 2019, the hashtag slowly crept back onto our timelines, accompanied by a hard release date.
Both Sllime and Qari grew up in Chicago. Sllime hails from the far south side neighborhood of Morgan Park, while Qari claims the entire city (“I have lived in more neighborhoods than I have fingers,” he tells me). The pair connected when Qari was 15, just before he dropped out of high school—when his world started becoming enveloped by music. He’d come by the studio where Sllime worked, the same spot where the solarfive-helmed production crew OnGaud recorded. Sllime remembers how “annoying” Qari and his friends were because “they were so young,” but that Qari could “already rap really well.”
Around then, in 2012, Sllime connected with Mick Jenkins and soon enough, began traveling the world as Mick’s DJ. But that sort of commitment meant he had to put producing and rapping on the backburner. As Sllime’s career accelerated, so too did Qari’s: in 2014, he formed the rap group Hurt Everybody alongside producer Mulatto Beats and rapper Supa Bwe. Unfortunately, the trio had a short run, breaking up in early 2016—but afterward, Qari and Mulatto began intensely working together, a time that spawned the 2017 EP Space Jam. On the project, Qari’s poetics creep up on the listener as he finds his pocket in Mulatto’s nebulous beats. And Qari is somewhat prolific, too: in 2018, he released the nine-song project No Time To Explain, which features production from himself, Mulatto, Cangelosi, and Sen Morimoto.
Operation Hennessy was bred and born from the times Sllime would come back home between tours, a process they didn’t hurry because their only intention was to make music with their friend. “We have something we genuinely love to do,” Qari says. “My favorite people are musicians—it’s like when you hang out with your friends, you do the same thing.”
Sllime felt similarly: “We’re both some chilling ass MFers; Qari will tell you I’m the black Adam Sandler. We were never in a rush to make a tape—we more so just like making raw shit and it’s easier to do so when we’re just kicking it. Come thru to smoke a blunt, I may be playing beats, he may hop on one.”
“When Sllime starts digging for samples, the room will fall silent. ‘Cause it’s like that,” Qari adds. “And we always know when he finds the one. But it’s crazy how he does it. He never fails. He always gets what he wants from the process. It’s mastery. As a writer, when a beat turns on that magic rap switch in my head, I know it’s special. The words fall from the sky. Sllime has that ability. So we always gon’ make shit.”
Sllime and Qari have known each other for so long that their repartee is almost flawless. When I ask Sllime why he took Qari under his wing, he affectionately teases the young rapper before they show love for one another.
“I feel like we’re both on some outcast shit. We both been outliers our whole life and we got similar tastes,” Sllime says. “He a smart motherfucker and I fuck with that. If it wasn’t no rap shit involved, we would probably still be getting high as fuck and watching Blade in the middle of the day.”
“He’s the most knowledgeable n***a I can think of off top about hip-hop that’s not an actual old head or a pioneer,” Qari replies, flattered. “Sllime is an encyclopedia. He has a doctorate in sampling. Not just chopping though—the entire process.”
While Qari has spent his entire career with Mulatto Beats—who’s more or less become Qari’s other artistic half—Sllime has become something of a mentor; someone who’s looked out and after Qari’s artistry. “We really been homies [for the past seven years]. He’s always teaching me shit and helping me refine my shit. He’s really a genius lowkey,” Qari says.
The care they have for one another, both as artists and friends, is evident on Operation Hennessy. On the title track, the tape’s first cut, Sllime makes room for Qari to introduce an aquatic throughline, as he intertwines the concept with a story about a love gone awry. Still, we only catch a glimpse of Qari’s disheartened tone and vulnerability; just as soon, he puts the guard back up, spinning us in another lyrical web. The project continues to undulate like that, like water.
“Most of the beats have they own soul or whatever,” Sllime says. “Each one saying something in terms of style or just the process, and [Qari] stepped into them all like they were individual worlds.”
We tap into another intimate moment on the standout song “Argonaut,” where Qari’s soon-to-be five-year-old daughter Loti’s voice appears at the beginning, repeatedly saying, “Green Sllime.” From there, Qari takes the song’s title—which refers to a dream Loti had about a purple octopus—and expands on it in his stream-of-conscious style, rapping about having eight arms, about octagons and spiders. He takes the listener on a ride as his words oscillate, building and unraveling, over and over again.
There’s something wistful about Operation Hennessy that’s reflected in the tape’s cover, where Noah’s shown paying for a bottle of Hennessy, an orange Fanta, and some snacks. Outfitted in a black coat and black beanie, and without any context, he could be from any decade.
That same contextual ambiguity is reflected in the music, too. With an emphasis on lyricism and soulful, boom bap beats, it’s like we’ve been taken back to the past. Together, as Qari said before, the two offer a solid course of "raps and beats," allowing us to reminisce on rap’s simpler times. But dig deeper, and references to modern pop culture pull you into the present. The project is punctuated with samples from the 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—and its title Operation Hennessy originates from the movie too, from the scene where Zissou (played by Bill Murray) guts rival Alistair Hennessey’s (played by Jeff Goldblum) boat for supplies.
You’d be remiss to think that just because Qari has a powerful pen and Sllime has a deep love for east coast rap, that Operation Hennessy doesn’t sit squarely within Chicago’s rap canon—that the work doesn’t call upon the city’s own lyrical traditionalists, acts like Juice, Crucial Conflict, Typical Cats, and Molemen. To understand the duo’s intention behind Operation Hennessy is to know a few things: one, both are characters; two, Sllime might be one of the funniest humans alive, and Qari’s authentic to a fault; and three, both hold lyricism to be paramount. Whether comical or serious, it’s impactful.
The pair’s relationship can best be summed up by the opening of Green Sllime’s only feature, on the tape’s last cut “What I Want”: “I’mma do what I want / When I want / Where I want / Can’t nobody tell me where to smoke my blunt.”