I have said on occasion that I can’t abide hip-hop, but this is not exactly true. So here is some clarification. At the age of 12, I was captivated by Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight,” so much so that I bought the 12-inch, flipped it over and learned the long, uncensored version. Every word of it. It became such a part of me that I still remember large chunks to this day. And I still cherish it as both a nostalgic connection to my past and a recognition of rap’s growing cultural significance into the future.
I never got into the cheesier stuff that followed — Doug E. Fresh, Kid ‘n’ Play, Will Smith — or even the overtly vulgar (albeit trendsetting) rhymes of 2 Live Crew. I did, however, love the sing-y raps of Arrested Development, the hardcore approach of Onyx, and the goofy but awesome combination of Public Enemy and Anthrax. And, in this writer’s not-very-humble opinion, the finest hip-hop artists to ever grace the scene were Urban Dance Squad (UDS) and the untouchable Digable Planets. Oh, and you’re an idiot if you don’t listen to the Beastie Boys.
An argument can be made that (excepting Onyx) none of those acts is pure hip-hop. They all combine some other element, be it metal, jazz or rock, into their music. And that may be why I’m not hating on Chicago’s Qwel. In fact, I was gleefully reminded of my many summers listening to UDS when I first clicked “play” on the tracks Qwel sent me, the tune “Long Walkers” specifically.
Me: I hear some Urban Dance Squad in your raps. Are they an influence?
Qwel: I have no idea who Urban Dance Squad is, but I’m definitely checking it out after this interview.
OK, so maybe not. But I am still digging it. The video for “Long Walkers” is pretty cool, as it follows a put-upon city dweller who happens to have the legs of some sort of goat-like beast. His day is crap, as he is shunned by all who cross his path. Coolest things about the video are the goat legs themselves.
Me: Who designed the tall goat legs for that video?
Qwel: The homey who was the stilt walker, the actor, Gerard. He’s a super dope musician in a metal band. He’s also a mechanical engineer.
Me: Will you be wearing them live when you perform in Jacksonville?
Qwel: Man, I would, but they’re hella heavy. Like, 75 pounds each.
Rapper Qwel began freestyle battling in the late ’90s in what he calls the “very grueling Chicago battle circuits.” “I quickly made a name for myself,” he says. “Then I got really bored of taking out my insecurities on other insecure, immature human beings, and I started focusing on writing songs and communicating with people. I’ve been doing it ever since. Fifteen, 16 albums later, three world tours, over 20 national tours, and I’m here. Still trying to get it right for the first time.”
Qwel now works with producer Maker, putting together Qwel’s albums and running promotion. Qwel says the division of labor is pretty equal, and many of their projects share the name: Qwel & Maker. When all is said and done — pre- and post-production, mixing, mastering, writing, samples, artwork and tour booking — it’s a full-on DIY operation.
“But I usually end up feeling like I don’t do as much work as he does,” says Qwel. “It’s an honor working with that dude. When he’s super rich and famous, I’m gonna borrow money from him all the time.”
For what it’s worth, my favorite Qwel track (of the several I have listened to) is “Broken Wing.” A wobbly B-3 organ backs his very UDS-sounding rap, amped up by a haunting chorus. It’s just raw enough to sound real, just produced enough to fill your headphones. As for the goat legs … I gotta get me a pair.