"I spent a lot of time at the liquor store," remembers Detroit native Gavin "Quelle Chris" Tennille of the several months he lived in the Bay Area circa 2009. Landing in Oakland after a series of pit stops elsewhere, his story will ring familiar to any musician in scrap-or-die mode: juggling odd jobs, holing up in the studio and trying to stake out a lasting career. Now based in New York, Quelle Chris returns to Oakland to headline the free, homegrown mini-festival Oakhella on April 28.
Oakland was where Quelle Chris put out his first retail album, or his "first barcode release." He established crucial friendships with Roc Marciano, the critically-acclaimed thug poet and fellow nomad who occasionally decamps in the Bay; and producer Chris Keys, with whom he spent countless nights developing tracks. He nurtured a quirkily compelling style, fusing the dusty vinyl hiss of lo-fi samples with the laconic, punchy smack-talk of vintage Detroit hip-hop and the loopy, kitschy self-consciousness of De La Soul’s Prince Paul era.
Last year, Quelle Chris landed on several publications' best-albums lists (including Pitchfork's) with Everything's Fine, a collaboration with his wife, the well-respected indie rapper, producer and humorist Jean Grae. In March, he dropped Guns, his latest album for Mello Music Group. Its cover art—an illustration of gun barrels sticking out of Quelle Chris's eyes and mouth, with bullets in the background—has led to misinterpretations that it's a meditation on violence.
"It's about the weaponizing of different aspects of life, and how they can be weaponized for protection, for good, or they can be weaponized for hurt," he says. More concretely, the songs on Guns reflect his panoramic approach to depicting his life, whether he's feeling ornery and flamboyant on "Wild Minks," politically aware on "Obamacare" and "It’s the Law," or irrepressibly goofy on "Box of Wheaties." His "guns" are akin to the "darts" of Wu-Tang Clan: glimpses into his creative mind.