[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
After I leave the Highland Park apartment that Quelle Chris shares, the Detroit-raised producer-rapper sends me a text: "Feel free to superimpose some knock-knock jokes into that interview. I just realized I was mad depressing."
The moral of the story is, never interview an independent artist right after he pays rent. Even the sharpest wits get stressed when their bank balance dips toward insolvency. And Quelle Chris is one of the funniest people I've encountered.
The first time I met him, he was a guest on a podcast I co-host. Without prodding, he unleashed hilariously profane tangents about Street Fighter II characters and anatomical evolution.
What makes him an excellent artist is his gift of balancing humor with savage hangovers, rampant depression and raunchy party music.
He has collaborated with and earned strong co-signs from some of the most respected underground artists, including Alchemist, Roc Marciano, Danny Brown and Black Milk. His music is humane and relatable without resorting to platitudes. But what makes it poignant makes it impossible to pigeonhole or easily market.
"Money stresses me the most, then my drinking problem. They go hand in hand. When I drink, I spend money, and then I wake up and get stressed, so I drink," Chris says in the one-bedroom, hardwood-floored walk-up, surrounded by DVDs and vinyl records, including his stellar Ghost at the Finish Line, released in October on respected indie rap imprint Mello Music Group.
It's a pigeon-gray Friday afternoon and he's wearing gray sweatpants, a puffed-out goatee and a Trash Talk windbreaker. Due to a key snafu, he's trapped in his apartment until later tonight. He was supposed to open up for the aforementioned Odd Future-signed Trash Talk last week, but the logistics got fucked up, so he ended up rolling with the hardcore band in Vegas and then Oakland -- where a lack of money left him stranded for four days. He's back in L.A. for now, where he's lived on and off for the past year.
"Ghost is less about dope lines than me saying I've fucked up a lot," Chris says. "[The songs are] basically confessionals."
Take the first rap lyrics on the album: "Waking up in the same place every fuckin' day ... stressed out, tryin' to figure out the best route/And the chest out, so no one knows that I'm stressed out."
The rest of the song laments the paradox of being a critics' favorite and a rapper's rapper. Props can't pay your bills. But Chris admits that 2013 has been his best year yet. He just finished a successful nationwide tour with Black Milk, dropped two well-received records and is slowly building a financially viable career.
It's the culmination of multiple phases. Chris grew up in Detroit, exposed by an older brother to the groundswell of underground rap booming out of St. Andrew's and the Hip-Hop Shop. He's been making beats since grade school but was eclectic enough to play keys wearing a blond wig for a punk band called Drunk Uncle. There were two quickly aborted attempts to go to audio engineering school. He has lived in St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco and L.A., but Detroit will always be his center.
Now, in his late 20s, things are finally coalescing. His music isn't instantly catchy, but it sticks to your ribs. He's the artist who doesn't lose fans once he's won them over.
"I might talk about struggling, but I'm hopeful that hip-hop has room for growth and expanding beyond what we already know it can be," Chris says. "I'm trying to make conversational and human rap music. Stuff that gets past my ego and that hopefully people relate to."
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