Q&A: Qwel Talks Career, Religion, and Igloos | Bleader

Q&A: Qwel Talks Career, Religion, and Igloos


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  • Photo of Qwel by Santos-Isensee Photography
Local rapper Qwel has earned a reputation for his distinctive lyrics and his outspoken views on controversial topics, both as a solo artist and as a member of Typical Cats, a group that coalesced around Hyde Park's WHPK in the late 90s and gained an underground following with the release of a self-titled debut in 2001. Since then Qwel has put out a flurry of albums, EPs, and singles (at least 17 total, all on Galapagos4), touching on subjects ranging from commercialism to creationism, and his style has been described by J. Edward Keyes for Rolling Stone as "occupying[ing] the same bleak terrain as Francis Bacon paintings or The Dark Knight . . . Old-school attitude with a manic edge." Qwel is one of the support acts for Doom and Mos Def this Saturday at the Congress Theater, and I caught up with him for a talk in advance of the big show:

You mentioned in an interview with Strictly Underground several years back that you prefer working in a group [Typical Cats] to working solo. That hasn't really been the case for a while, has it? And why the divergent careers after such success as a group?

I still do prefer working in a group. Typical Cats is still working on a third project as of now, and as far as focusing projects around a group as of late, I still have been in a sense, I guess. [With solo work] I have compensated by enlisting one producer at a time as my partner in crime, per project. This gives me the outside input that I lack being the only person responsible to the project.

Could you tell me a little about the Cats project—what it will be like in contrast to the first two albums? I guess what I'm getting at here is that when I was going to all your shows around 2001-'03—after the success of the first album—you guys seemed to be at the top of the game in terms of Chicago underground hip-hop. But since then there has only been one album and the crew has focused more on solo careers/other projects than on the Typical Cats. Why, with all that momentum, did you guys drastically slow down your amount of output and performances? Do you ever see the Typical Cats making a concerted effort to make a real go at it again—annual albums, touring, et cetera?

There's no tellin' where life'll lead us. I think we all know that Typical Cats is all of our favorite stuff collectively. I think we are just getting our ya-yas out till then. We know that when it's time it will be time, so we are very careful to chose our circumstance. In this very overhyped, publicity-driven music era, we have collectively decided to wait this one out for now. As far as the next album goes . . . all I can say is bangers.

Your lyrics have often included the homophobic slang that's prevalent all over rap, but more remarkably, they sometimes have pro-life messages (see "A.D. $19.99"), which isn't exactly the norm in the liberal-leaning underground hip-hop circuit. How do you explain fans with opposite political/personal views nodding their heads to these songs at your shows? What do you think about Tim Tebow?

I don't know who Tim Tebow is . . . As far as the homophobic slang goes, it was just a thoughtless and unnecessary adaptation to my surroundings. As far as cats vibing to some of my songs that they don't agree with topically, I think it's a credit to the sound we have. I think a song can be valid whether or not you agree with its precepts to a certain degree, but in fact I was surprised to realize how many people in underground music do agree with a pro-life conservative view. I would have never guessed.

Tim Tebow was the quarterback for the Florida Gators—he's been pretty outspoken on his pro-life views, and recently caused a big ruckus with his pro-life commercial during the Super Bowl. . . . But what I find interesting here is you saying that the anti-gay slang was "thoughtless and unnecessary." Does that mean you've come to a different view on homosexuality? If so, how does that fit in with your religious views? Also, where do your creationist and pro-life philosophies come from? Is this something you grew up with? Developed?

That's right, I remember hearing about his big campaign with his mom, right? I would say that my use of colloquial vernacular should've been more thought out . . . could've been precise and not so profane, maybe . . . you live and you learn. My thoughts on homosexuality have not changed. Though I think what we are discussing is a misuse of a word associated with homosexuality . . . for me the word "faggot" never reflected a specific hatred in its cultural context, but that's before giving it a more mature thought. On a side note, though, I do feel that any human being so consumed with his or her sexuality that it overtly and offensively intrudes into how he or she talks, walks, dresses, smokes, eats, socializes, shops, votes, et cetera is perverse. Now the thing that we overlook is that there are offensively sexually obsessed people of both sexual orientations. Both are gross to me.

Well, my pro-life philosophy comes out of my thankfulness that my mom didn't have me ripped apart with pliers and suctioned out of her body. But the fact is, I am a man and fortunately never have to make that decision. Thank God.

My beliefs in creationism come from a very intense study of biology, physics, and astronomy. I am currently working on a degree in engineering at Purdue. I love science. I believe things adapt. Evolution is a fairy tale made up by a bitter theology major with no scientific background whatsoever. It has contributed to eugenics, though. I see eugenics is on the comeback these days.

In terms of fans who might not catch everything you say, how was your response from the recent tour in Japan? As an artist who invests so much thought in lyrics, what do you try to deliver to a crowd that's there for something else?

Good fucking question! Well, if you are an igloo builder and suddenly find yourself in the desert, you get to it. It actually is an interesting experiment for myself. I try to write fairly deeply, but at the same time maintain a swing and flow that I enjoy as pure phonetic music. That's my art. So when I can kill it just on flow alone, my igloo stands in the desert. It still feels incomplete, but it helps with the flow consideration in writing.

With last September's release of So Be It, you've wrapped your four-album "4 Seasons" project with producer/DJ Maker. What's next?

I'm not telling. It's a super-duper double-dog-dare secret. But it's a masterpiece already.

So it's finished? Could you tell me when it might drop? Who produced it?

Almost finished, secret producer, next fall.

I saw that Dennis Kim (Denizen Kane of Typical Cats) just released a free online mix tape, which has been a big trend with some of the more mainstream rappers. How do you feel about this phenomenon, and specifically how it applies to underground hip-hop?

I have considered it, but I'm super broke. I will give a grip of stuff out when I get a second to prepare something worthy. When I think about doing something to show fans how much I appreciate the support, I want it to be the best stuff I can possibly do, not just some fly-by-night throwaway tracks. I probably will some day. When it's right.

What does opening up for big name artists like Mos Def and Doom mean to you? What is your perspective on MCs like this who have crossed the mainstream barrier but also, arguably, maintained their integrity?

For me it feels cool, 'cause we [Galapagos4] are doing music right. We do it our way. First comes the integrity, second comes the music, and the business comes way down the list somewhere. . . . The fact that we can connect with big-name shows is inspiring to me. The good guys are winning.

So I take it you respect these guys. Any shows you've done with big-time rappers who you weren't excited to share the stage with? And on the subject of mainstream/underground, have you ever turned down any offers from major labels/people you disagreed with on an ideological level?

I'm excited to share a stage with Maker. I don't feel excited about rappers these days at all. We have turned down a couple deals from "majors" . . . those deals are traps. I'd rather borrow money from a bookie. I may be dumb, but I ain't stupid. Plus, Galapagos4 is my crew; we are all interested in what we're interested in. Honestly, the offers are so shady that we haven't stuck around long enough to hear about their ideologies. Only hookers need pimps.

Outside of the music, how is Doom using stunt doubles at his shows different from Ashley Simpson lip-synching? Does the whole Andy Kaufman shtick have some artistic merit in your mind?

Well I don't even know if it's true. Once I heard about it, I passed it off as rumor. So that's where it stayed. Then one day randomly I heard this guy who was a comic-book junkie talking about the Doom character in the Fantastic Four. Well I guess one of Doom's super powers is to create Doom-bots, which are decoy clones of himself . . . kinda cool. Who knows. He's gotta ask himself what the real difference is, not me.

Def Jux is on "hiatus." How is G4 doing given the economy and the state of the music business?

Surprisingly well, I think. Especially seeing how I put out 403 albums a month . . .

Can you name a few ways you have progressed as an artist since the first Typical Cats album? And what do you say to fans/critics who want to hear more concrete battle raps like "Cliche" and "Not Impressed"?

Those battle songs were good swordplay practice. Well, I got good with my sword and employed it to more useful and lasting battles. The thing about those types of songs is [that] they are timeless to a certain revolving generation, but once you've heard a good joke it's dead. How many times have you fell out laughing to a joke you've already heard? On a side note, "Cliche" was actually saying good-bye to punch lines to me. Every single line in that first verse is based around a really base/crass and vulgar topic. I was clowning it by killing it. Every line is a race joke or gay joke or fat joke . . . just very cliche. I'm over it.

In that StrictlyUG interview you mention that it took you years to write your first solo album, If It Ain't Been in a Pawnshop, Then It Can't Play the Blues (Galapagos4, 2001), but cranking out multiple albums in a year hasn't seemed to be a problem since. How has your approach changed since then?

I've learned how to condense my thoughts. I write all the time. I might have a thousand pages of raps in the last three years written, 'cause I sit down and write all the time. I've been fortunate enough to where my passion has provided me with time to be more passionate.