Quelle Chris, a Leading Voice of Bandcamp's Rap Underground, Headlines Oakhella

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Rapper Quelle Chris returns to Oakland to headline the homegrown mini-fest Oakhella on April 28. (Jeremy Deputat)

"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.


"There's so much more going on that has nothing to do with guns, literal guns," he explains. "We expect a linear work in music, which I think is not natural. In my opinion, jumping from 'I'm feeling great,' to 'I'm feeling terrible,' to 'I'm not really feeling anything' in a three-song run is just as natural as every song being about healthcare or some shit."

Quelle Chris has evolved into a uniquely significant voice in hip-hop's streaming era, an age where it's often easier to classify rappers by the online platforms where they perform best than by subgenres or regional accents. (Quelle Chris is undoubtedly associated with Bandcamp.) And while he has long since left Oakland—alas, like a lot of promising Bay Area acts, he moved on to Los Angeles before settling in New York—he often returns. "I did a lot of Guns in Oakland," he says, noting his continuing work with Chris Keys. "It’s one of my favorite places to be at and write."

When Quelle Chris first arrived in the Bay Area a decade ago, he and a former partner were looking for a change of pace from Chicago, where she helped organize an underground venue in Bronzeville called Myour House, and he assembled projects like the rap collective Crown Nation and the minimal electro-pop alias Awesome in Outerspace. "That got a little out of hand," he laughs about Myour House. "We did one big final hurrah where the cops came with dogs … so it was just time to leave Chicago."

They first moved to San Francisco’s Mission District, where they were "doing the roommate shit." A few months later, they relocated across the Bay Bridge to an apartment on the east side of Lake Merritt. "I like Oakland better. I like the weather, I like the people. It’s just a different feel. You’ve got all that Panther [spirit] still lingering.… Oakland reminds me of Detroit, but with a couple palm trees here and there." As a self-described "walker and a pacer," he walked around the town, and camped in the Oakland hills. He chilled at long-standing dive bar the Ruby Room, and surveyed the city's DIY warehouse scene, where Main Attrakionz and Lil B held sway.

Back at "the lab," Quelle Chris made plenty of music—he produced tracks on Detroit rap hero Danny Brown's XXX and released the grungy digital rap tapes Blue Mondays and 2Dirt4TV. But he still music considered a "side hustle." In order to survive and pay rent, he did any job that was available. "All that pride shit gotta go to the side when you gotta handle life," he says.

When he finished his 2011 project Shotgun and Sleek Rifle, Quelle Chris imagined it would finally be the breakthrough he had worked for. "I thought, 'This is about to be it! The game gonna change! I’m about to shut everything down!'" he recalls while barely containing his laughter. Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out that way, although it helped foment his reputation as a uniquely fascinating hip-hop artist.

"A lot of times the people that don’t get it, the people that didn’t get it three years ago, always end up coming around and getting it later," he says. "I'm okay with the slow snipe."

The same could be said for his time living in the Bay—not exactly a turning point, but a memorable period that set the stage for bigger and better things.

Oaklhella takes place on April 28 at 8th and Peralta Streets. Details here.