Quelle Chris is a constant force. Since 2011, the Detroit rapper—who currently makes his home in Brooklyn—has released eight expertly-crafted, thought-provoking albums and collaborated with the likes of Danny Brown, Open Mike Eagle, and Earl Sweatshirt. There’s a humble consistency to Quelle’s career. He’s always busy capturing creative moments, but he exhibits the importance of balancing restraint and self-curation in an oversaturated market.
“It’s a balancing act, more than it is a balance,” Quelle admits over the phone, with more modesty than necessary.
Quelle, 35, rarely misses. If the creative process is a balancing act, it’s one he’s mastered to a T. On past albums, like 2019’s Guns, Quelle offers social commentary with calm authority and a satirical smirk. “Just because you packing out here, ‘lax, fam, you ain’t 2Pac,” he warns on the album’s title track. At the same time, Quelle is unafraid to turn the satire on himself as he does on the impeccably titled 2017 album Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often.
Now, Quelle is preparing for the April 24 release of Innocent Country 2—a record which critiques our decidedly not innocent country, yet searches for hope anyway. “There are still ways to find peace,” Quelle says. “There could be lights at the end of the tunnel that coexist with the darkness.”
Innocent Country 2 continues the groundwork Quelle laid with producer Chris Keys five years ago on Innocent Country. Here, the two producers are perfectly in sync as they co-craft gorgeous beats driven by a “nucleus” of classic piano/bass/drum jazz, all performed by Chris Keys. Quelle has nothing but praise for his collaborator: “One of my favorite albums is Mike Oldfield’s [1973 album] Tubular Bells. When you look at the jacket, it lists all the instruments. And it’s like, Mike Oldfield, Mike Oldfield, Mike Oldfield. So we just made it so Chris could flex on them and make every instrument Chris Keys, Chris Keys, Chris Keys.”
Again, Quelle remains modest. The energy and craftsmanship he brings to his various flows and lyrics are essential to the optimistic outlook of Innocent Country 2. “Now I live, no lookin’ back, wouldn’t change it if I could / Uncle say, ‘come holla at me,’ I got somethin’ you should know / If you want for livin’ happy, gotta let them feelings go,” Quelle raps on “Living Happy,” a song in which Quelle dies and is reborn dancing with angels.
Though darkness persists, Quelle finds beauty in music, dancing, and art—an idea collaborator Big Sen embraces on the outro to late album highlight “Mirage”: “Sometimes it just be them seasons... Everybody’s fed up, and people don’t know what to do. So we make our art. And art is beautiful. But art is also the truth.” Quelle recorded the entire project before we found ourselves in a pandemic, but I can’t think of a more critical, optimistic, and timely message than the one Quelle delivers on Innocent Country 2.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: How did you initially link up with producer Chris Keys for Innocent Country?
Quelle Chris: I was living out in Oakland. Roc Marciano was out there working on music with Chris, amongst other people. One day, some shit went down. Chris came through to help. After we got the whole situation sorted out, [Roc and I] went back to Chris’ lab, and we just vibed. Over time, we just kept working. It’s hard to explain because it just synergized. Everything did. Innocent Country started years before it came out... maybe 2011 or something. It was a series of moments, which all came down to a contractual obligation. But that’s always the case.
Where did the idea for Innocent Country come from?
Innocent Country 1 and Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often were supposed to come out right behind each other. With Innocent Country 1, the theme was the mirror—like looking at yourself and being like, “Oh yeah, I do be fucking up.” And then there’s little hints of optimism too at the end, and saying, ultimately, everything is fucked up. Then, Being You Is Great was supposed to be the response to that—the outward expression of that feeling of internal failure. There’s a lot more facade, a lot more bravado, a lot more shit you do to survive. But then that didn’t happen; they didn’t come out together; a bunch of shit happened, and now we’re here.
Innocent Country 2 sounds more optimistic than part one.
Innocent Country 2 is the antithesis of part one; not necessarily a response, but a process. So in part one, everything’s fucked up, and everything will probably continue to stay fucked up. But in part two, there are still ways to find peace. There could be lights at the end of the tunnel that coexists with the darkness.
When you’re trying to spread optimism, are you writing for yourself or a specific audience?
I know some people that have a process. I can’t say mine’s the same all the time. It varies from moment to moment. You have to go with how the song feels. A lot of times, Chris would play something that he made the other day. If I like it, I’ll listen and be like, “Ooh!” He usually rolls his eyes because I pick the shit he doesn’t like. Then I put it on my phone, step outside, then something starts to come out. I don’t try to pressure it. I just let it happen. From there, it just unfolds into its own episode with a bunch of random shit. Some [songs] start on that day and finish three months later. Some start and are done by the end of the day.
When did Innocent Country 2 start to come together?
I got [to Oakland] for a show last year, and [Chris] gets to playing some joints. It just [felt] right. At the time, Chris was releasing a lot of beat tapes. He didn’t want to let go of [the beats] because these were for the tapes. But I managed to get a couple off of him, and we did a couple joints. “Mirage” was one of the early ones. I immediately knew who I wanted on that. So I’m just like, I’m gonna hit [Denmark Vessey and Earl Sweatshirt] both right now because it’s gonna take about 20 years for them. From there, I told Chris to keep sending joints. Then it was like, OK, this is gonna be an album.
“Mirage” is undoubtedly a highlight. I know it was recorded before the current pandemic, but Big Sen’s outro on that song is so timely as he talks about the necessity and beauty of art in times of uncertainty.
Sen wasn’t playing around. He nailed it. He came on like Morpheus; you know what I mean?
You co-produced the record with Chris. What was your collaboration process like?
For the most part, everything is Chris’ brainchild. The nucleus of it is Chris. Chris was always drumming. But then he really started getting up on his drumming, bass playing, and such. He was just flexing. One of my favorite albums is Mike Oldfield’s [1973 album] Tubular Bells. When you look at the jacket, it lists all the instruments, and it’s like, Mike Oldfield, Mike Oldfield, Mike Oldfield. So we just made it so Chris could flex on them and make every instrument Chris Keys, Chris Keys, Chris Keys.
What was your role in the production?
I played a lot of synths. A lot of our process... we’ll get that bass going. From there, I’ll be like, Chris, let me get this part. And I’ll replay things. On “Grease From the Elbows,” I did a rearrangement of the bass line, things like that. It’s a lot of add on, give, take, change, make it slick, figure out what’s popping.
You mentioned, “Grease From the Elbows.” One of the major themes of the record is hard work, something that I’ve admired about your career. How do you balance always working and being creative with restraint and self-curation?
That’s a hard one to answer. It’s a necessity. There’s so much that goes into that. How do you find that balance? You work at it, and you keep working at it. You keep trying to figure out what works and what things you’ve gotta get rid of in your life that aren’t working. But just keep working at it. It’s a balancing act, more than it is a balance.