I recall awhile back walking down the streets of Chicago searching for a reason to stop walking. The harvest was upon me as I walked amongst fallen leaves and dying trees. The surreal atmosphere and tumbling winds hindering my movements had me seeking a place of escape. Just then, I felt the urge to stop walking. I looked to my left and realized I was standing outside a pawnshop.
I walked inside to a murky front room filled with dusty vinyl, antique toys and abandoned music instruments. They could have been the tools of Chicago legends; missing artifacts hidden from museums ready to be found by a young musician seeking the same life they once lived. I had walked into a time capsule for forgotten love and memories.
I approached the clerk at the desk and introduced myself. Between puffs from a cigarette he told his name was Qwel and he was a member of the group Typical Cats. I was familiar with his work, but never put a face to it.
I noticed a rubber duckie sitting next to him and when I looked at his notebook the title of the poem he was writing said “The Rubber Duckie Experiment.” Curious, I asked what was with the duckie.
He said, ” Well the title, the words “rubber duckie” and how it’s pertinent is that I started bugging after Sept. 11 with the significance and I think it was just a fucked up thing. Everything like food, the weather, and stress just felt phony to me, like a rubber duckie. So, I really wanted to do something so pertinent to see how it would manifest itself. The experiment came from the blues and how I feel emotionally and I often wonder how words manifest, but I couldn’t really detail it.
Then, I was in a shirt shop in El Paso, it was some Gadzooks shit, and I saw this shirt that was army green, with a World War II silkscreen with a side view of a trench, at the bottom in big propaganda letters it said “DUCK”, and it had a rubber duckie in the middle of the battlefield.
Even in the very beginning of the movie Waking Life, the dude is talking about the journey thru life and there’s a duckie on the dashboard like yakking and shit. It’s an imitation of him or a distraction to him.
It’s a way for me to express and it’s also an attack on how serious motherfuckers take their shit; like my name is “Archangel Abyss Death”, you know what I’m saying..man rubber duckie ..shut up!”
I was drawn back at all this man had to say from such a simple question. Everything I once was confused by made perfect sense to me after he spoke. I asked if he thought emcees these days take themselves to serious.
He responded with, “No, mother fuckers don’t take it serious enough. You can say what ever you want in the tone you want as long as it’s the truth. That’s it. I could do a song on how I feel about murder, if I feel like a murderer and I could do it from that perspective. If I feel like the victim I could do it from that perspective. Basically you can say whatever you want, but it’s got to be true.
Example would be the piano has a shift in tone, like range, you can go from low C to ending C. (imitates a piano) and lyricism, the tone is painted by the emotion of our words and the truth of your song is the beauty in it. (Imitates a Beethoven piece) It’s like encapsulating breathtaking and motherfuckers don’t do that no more.
I asked if he had a new album out. He explained Maker, a producer from Chicago, would be handling all the production. I asked Qwel what to expect from the album.
“Its time to harvest, we came up with the concept on the harvest moon, I’ve been having fucked up dreams. We’re going to harvest, because if you let a grape sit on a vine too long, it will swell with so much juice that it will burst itself and be a useless grape. You have to save it and so we’re going to incorporate some of these fat and happy grapes. Also, tell me if I’m wrong, but there are some people here still communicating, but there’s a lot of bullshit that has to go,” he said.
I definitely agreed with him.
He continued with, “Plus, Maker is the like a fucking Mastodon that plays the harp. He provides the kick in it, just like the song Chicago Barbeque, you know what it feels like, no matter what I’m talking about and all I did was be the muscles to the skeleton of that beat.”
Some how, I knew exactly what he was talking about. I asked him to tell me more about the Rubber Duckie. I had to know more. He said, “I could talk about however I want to in the voice I want to, but if my honesty bleeds truth, souls will hear it. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say “yo I like the Duckie” and I’ll be like “yo the Pinocchio Syndrome is about money”. You know what I mean, “seven blasphemous heads” and “the gentlemen’s drug.” But, they still like the shit.”
I felt his transformation as an artist really shocked people. He came with raw hip hop on the Typical Cats album and opened his solo career with If it Ain’t Been in a Pawnshop then it Can’t Play the Blues. He managed to hide a completely different artistic side to his work and catch everyone off guard. I asked how he decided the directions to take with his music.
At first he seemed unsure of even his own actions, but said, “Every song I write has to be better than the last one or else I won’t do it or else I’m done. I’ll be done one day when I have nothing else to say and I’ll be wack.
“By the time you catch us we’ll be wack so laugh”
I swear to God, I write my raps one word at a time one beat at a time and if we (Typical Cats) never do shit again, so what? Those motherfuckers are raw. To be able to be on shit with me and me be on shit with them, we’re the raw mother fuckers out of Chicago in a long fucking time and the raw shit out of earth in a long time.”
I asked him how he met up with Denizen and Qwazaar. Qwel said, “At HBK, Pugs (Puglsee Atomz) brought me up there first and it was just a testosterone battle to see who had the illest shit, which was me. Qwa was just raw, he was someone I felt digged this shit as much as I did and I felt like I didn’t even have to check him. I barely met Denizen, he came up to me and spit a poem and I was like “this motherfucker’s on some shit.” Before we did Typical Cats, I spit him the pawnshop (If it ain’t been in a pawnshop then it can’t play the blues). When I first wrote the main track it was just a poem I wrote on a napkin at work. I spit that for him and he spit me a poem he put on the Typical Cats shit and he spit it so vivid.”
He started kicking rhymes to me–giving me a better taste of his work. One thing I notice about him is when I heard and I read the rhymes he never wasted words. He never said something to just keep his flow; going every word fits perfectly.
He said, “Still sometimes I think people are dissing me like their shit is so horrible they got to be cynically dissing what I do, because I intentionally try to do skill. Motherfuckers say shit like “flabbergasted turtle armpit” and you’re just saying words that link with no rhyme and reason.
Man, there were two records elected for Grammy’s, not mine, not yours, not this dude in the red shirt (points to a customer looking at Qwel’s cd for sale) the shit was Nelly and Eminem. It wasn’t nobody else; it wasn’t Aesop or anybody trying to fucking say shit with meaning.
“It’s getting hot in here so take off all your clothes”
For real, write it down and read it, what if you read that? And somebody said “this is what I believe as a universal emotion.” It’s all image rapping. I think motherfuckers used to walk around with boom boxes on theirs shoulders now they walk around with TVs on their shoulder.
In one of my songs (Ugly Window) I put 588-2300; I just said that phone number in one of my songs really low. People emailed me asking why I said the Empire Carpet commercial number. I said well how do you know it’s the number?”
I responded by saying it is how companies plant their product in your head; they come up with catchy slogans.
He agreed and added, “The dude who did the Coca-cola commercials was a doctor in psychology initially. He painted the shape of the bottle and ads to the shape of a women’s curve. Vincent Van Gogh Coke AD. It’s still referred to as the most beautiful shape on a woman to a male human being; the Coke bottle figure.”
Familiar with the song he was referring to I asked if he could explain the song so without question, people will understand “Vincent Van Gogh Coke AD.”
He said, “The premise of the song is an artist trades his life for his art. The first verse describes a painting, a man’s canvas. “I seen this sleek Graf piece.” The first four lines are about a pilot that drops the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.
“How can the artist catch the perfect and exact beauty of their little faces from 10,000 stacked feet?”
So it’s like children playing in the schoolyard and that is like the background of this painting and the nuclear blast will burn your shadow on the wall. But any-who it goes into describing a shotgun blast of an artist laying his head on the canvas. Sacrificing himself for the cause of artistic expression.”
Blown away from what he just told me, I felt this whole discussion we had to be entirely dreamlike. I could not believe any of this truthfully happened. I walked over to the nearest light switch and attempted to flick it on and off, but nothing happened. Then, I became conscious I was dreaming. Determined to know more, but quickly floating out of my REM, I shouted as I drifted out the door, “what’s the meaning behind all this?”
He calmly said, “The realest emcees have to be able to arm wrestle.”
And then I woke up.