Photograph by: JAM1PHOTO.com

There’s a surge of popular hip-hop coming out of Chicago right now, but despite being a Chicago hip-hop group, Typical Cats are about the furthest thing from rising artists like Chief Keef, King L, and Young Chop. The group of three MCs and two producers has been making noise in the underground circuit for years, placing an emphasis on the fundamentals of hip-hop rather than a calculated image or style, and they’ve carved out a very unique lane for themselves as part of Chicago’s scene.

We talked with rappers Qwel, Qwazaar, and Denizen Kane and producers DJ Natural and Kid Knish to get their thoughts on the current state of Chicago hip-hop, their new album Typical Cats 3, and the changing landscape of music in 2012.

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A lot of the up-and-coming Chicago rappers right now are representing something very different from what you guys have stood for. What do you think of the drill scene and the overall state of Chicago hip-hop?

Qwazaar: I’m not really sure that things are really all that different. Drill scene just seems like young cats and street cats spitting hood raps. [Chicago] has always had that, but now it has a new name attached and movement behind it. We’ve always had different segments and scenes repping totally different things, contradicting things and then the spotlight will tend to shift from one scene to the next every few years or so.

Qwel: I actually like the sound of it. I like the deep bang in it, but it’s like a grapefruit to me. The presentation and appearance of it is gorgeous, but the meat of it is vomit-flavored shiny puke.

As guys that have been around for a while, how do you think the younger artists look at artists like you?

Denizen Kane: I don’t know… Ha. If they’re of the same lineage – with love, I hope. I remember coming up loving hip-hop as a culture, so the generational differences didn’t mean as much. KRS-One was new school once. Remember that.

DJ Natural: Like D said, I would hope with interest and love. I am sure that we are unknown to a whole segment of younger artists… or they heard the name but never really peeped the music. I have noticed that a good number of younger artists and just fans from this generation do seem to appreciate us a lot. My guess is they see in us earnest dudes, trying to make real music, being themselves, and working together cohesively on some purity of the art stuff.

What do you think of the media coverage of artists like Chief Keef, Young Chop, and Lil Durk? You think these guys are representing a real aspect of life in Chicago that needs to be shared, or do you think this is a glorification of something that doesn’t deserve to be put in the spotlight?

DK: It’s all real, sure. I don’t know if glorification comes into it. Maybe more the pitiful state of supply-side economics, you dig? But give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Qwel: Oh, it’s real. It needs to be put in a solemn light, not on a shiny limelight pedestal. The crazy thing about it is that the cats glorifying it in most part have never experienced real gang banging. I grew up in the Wild Hundreds, man. I can tell how those Fakeshore Drive-type cats cover it that they are on some freckle-faced glorify it from a safe distance shit. My little brother got shot in his stomach with a .38. I wonder if those pussy ass journalist dudes know that when a 12-year-old gets shot in the stomach, that the blood comes out black. Don’t get me started on that shit.

The whole internet world has put a reality disconnect and lack of responsibility on an all-time high. It’s just Al Pacino in Scarface to them suburban blog mongers. It’s no different than the fat kid standing in between two shorties about to scrap with that “whoever’s hardest hit my hand first” instigation shit, because the reality of what these youngins are rapping about is true and ugly. I don’t fault them for being young and trying to eat. It’s the human condition. But for these cats out here gravitating to the sensationalism of it, I spit on those fucks. To their faces, I spit on those fucks. I got kids. I piss in their graves for putting an acceptable pretty bow on top of it.

I’ve always been torn about it. In one way, it’s like “art imitates life” and these kids are just a product of their environment. I hate the idea of censoring that. It also starts to get weird when Keef becomes more than a local star—now you’ve got the Internet really pushing him to the next level, suburban kids latching onto it, and major label execs pumping money into it. With all this reach, what kind of influence or effect do you think it will have on music, culture, and the kids listening?

DJ Natural: I also feel sort of conflicted about it. On a certain level, this stuff makes for good spectacle – there’s a reason they get so many views online for their videos and press coverage in general. On another level, I’m fundamentally against violence and exploitation. It might be compelling as entertainment, but violence in real life feels totally different than it looks on screen. As far as the exploitation of the dynamics found in poor inner-city neighborhoods by people outside of these areas, you get an automatic middle finger from me.

DK: Every five or ten years, American pop culture chooses a person of color to be simultaneously fascinated and repelled by. James Baldwin said that they hate us and love us at once. But don’t blame the fly in the buttermilk.

Do you think the glorification of rap that is openly violent perpetuates the violence in Chicago? Or is this all drug/gang shit that would be happening anyways?

Qwel: The gangbanging in Chicago was here before we found the recording booth and will be here long after this chapter is closed. It’s an economic problem. The crib has no sense of family, no money, and no law. Well, banging provides all of those things. Gangbanging in Chicago is deep-rooted in ancient ideals, from the fives memorizing Quran scripture and discipline, prayers toward Mecca, to the six praying to David and the dome. These are deep-rooted ideals that affect a man when he is all alone. It becomes the fabric of his being. That’s why he will die for it.

It’s these fly-by-night freckle-faced blog bastards that think this shit is the Mayberry sandlot that they grew up in that sees it as a notable trend to post. I hope they never have to smell a salty burnt gunshot wound. It smells like burnt lamb and firecrackers. Or see a child in such shock from it that he starts talking about shovelling snow in the summer or laughing. They keep making the gangbanging problem a hip-hop problem when in reality, the unfortunate truth is that hip-hop has the best chance of steering these youngsters to a new life outside of gangbanging.

DK: The most direct predictor of the streets getting buck wild is police rounding up and jailing OGs. Like it or not, there’s underground economies at work here. You think you’re going to leave it all to middle management and it’s okay? But we can always choose–by not buying.

With the Internet, it seems like underground hip-hop doesn’t exist in the same way it did in the past. Does it feel different? Does it change anything about the way you guys operate or create?

DK: Form and function follow each other. But cats always find ways to survive. I’m probably the least involved with how it exists right now. I’m grateful to my brothers for maintaining out there.

Qwel: The underground has changed a lot because of the Internet indeed, man. It has changed candles into firecrackers. Just the iPod in itself has changed the mindset of music. Back in the day when cats were making tapes, fast-forwarding was a buzzkill. If you didn’t have a full dope album, that shit didn’t get purchased. Fast-forwarding ate up your batteries, man. Then the CD came around and people were more tolerant of records that just boasted a good couple of joints and singles, ’cause you could instantly ignore the garbage ass tracks. But man, with the iPod, cats tolerate anything. The lack of attention span makes it cool to have a musical repertoire of just a grip of catchy singles. But on the upside, we can have this discussion right now because of the internet. My music is being played in South Africa because of the Internet. I can chop it up with a fan in rehab in Montana instantly and encourage him to keep it keeping on because of the internet.

It will all come around soon, man. For now it is still a relatively new toy. We are testing its limits and seeing what it can do for now. But I believe that all the over-saturation that the internet has brought about will ultimately be for the inevitable good of the artform. Young men have the innate desire to rebel. When the norm is instantaneous, interchangeable, and disposable trends, men will start to rebel from it by holding fast to the few real things that are as close to permanent and lasting as possible. It may take some time, but everything that is good does.

When I first heard you guys, I had no idea who you were, what you looked like, what you were all about. That first Typical Cats album, for me, was just about the music. With so much information out there, image has become a lot more important for new artists. Does that shit matter to you guys? Do you think about aesthetics and the overall image beyond the music you’re making?

DK: I know exactly what you mean. That was my favorite era–when all you’d have of the music you loved was the songs. An album cover and liner notes, maybe. That was the best. And all the scraps and clues were evidence of legend.

DJ Natural: Not too much. For us music is number one, two, and three. But I do gotta say that working with Jam One, who has been doing video and photo work with us, has been super fresh. One look at “The Crown” video, and you can see that the visuals only enhance the song. I like that kind of thing image wise, where the visual and musical components are working to create dope art. I think where we go into the “fuck naw” mode is when somebody might suggest trying to craft some specific image for us in a way that is not really about amplifying to the music. We’re musicians, so music first.

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What music are you listening to these days?

Qwazaar: I’ve been bumping a hell of a lot of Tom Waits lately.

DK: Nat beats, Qwa and Qwel solos, the Wailers, and whoever’s singing in the shower.

DJ Natural: Art Tatum, Willie Colon, Burning Spear.

What’s a typical day like for Typical Cats?

Qwel: Coffee and rhyme books. A lot of airplanes and rhyme books, mic checks and rhyme books, us inside and the world outside. All with rhyme books.

DK: You’d have to walk with me to know.

Talk a little about the new album. What was the aim with this one? Do you set out with any idea of what you want the album to be, or is it all just a continuation of what you guys have been doing from the beginning?

Qwa: Fun fun fun. Personally, I didn’t think about the music as far as message or theme. It’s just a continuation of us speaking on what’s real in our lives and respecting the arts. Overall, I was more concerned about the creative process of the album and making sure that the energy in the writing and recording didn’t get lost in the mix. I’m happy with the live feel of the project.

DK: I give Nat and Kid Knish credit for reaching into the past to find platters we could connect with, and Qwa and Qwel for reaching into the future with their rhyme schemes and flows. Other than that, we act naturally.

Do you ever think about doing something totally left-field with Typical Cats?

DK: All the time. I think, in ways, we always do.

Qwel: I think we are out in left field, but I know what you mean. Yeah, we will, but we like the thump and knock of the sound for now.

Qwa: The thought has crossed my mind and with us all growing more and more in our styles and sound, anything could happen. I think it has to be something that is a natural progression for us though, not just leaping to do something wild.

What’s more enjoyable, working on solo projects or doing Typical Cats albums?

Qwel: For me doing Typical Cats music is complete pleasure. My solo works are more painstaking and heavy. Me and Maker get very into it when we get down. He expects a hundred percent from me, and I expect two hundred from him. Working on Typical Cats music is more of a reflexive type of writing. It’s a constant ducking and dodging and adapting with the crew just to not get shined. My solo stuff with Maker is more like exercising demons and trying not to be what I hate, like two different types of therapy I guess.

DK: TC, all day.

Qwa: I love working on my solo joints because I get to build in my own private world and comfort zone for as long as I like, but a lot of the fun in creating music is building and listening to something you had no idea you could ever create and I satisfy that itch with TC.

I’m gonna throw out some words, give me a quick knee-jerk reaction to each…

Reality TV
Qwel: Lowest common denominator.
DK: Lies.
DJ Natural: Garbage.
Qwa: Flavor Flav.
Knish: Corporate performance art.

Global Warming
DJ Natural: For real.
Qwel: Sophomoric.
Qwa: Population control.
DK: Truth.
Knish: Science.

Politics
Qwel: Rich get richer.
DK: Lies.
DJ Natural: Fucked up.
Knish: Distribution.
Qwa: Mormon?

Homosexuality
DJ Natural: Part of my family.
Qwel: Vertex of the cultural and historical bell curve.
DK: Can’t judge.
Qwa: Lil Wayne.
Knish: Nature.

Music blogs
Qwel: Cerberus.
DJ Natural: Like college radio used to be?
DK: I like Pigeons and Planes.
Qwa: Music television.
Knish: Democratic.

Marijuana
Qwel: Aspirin.
DJ Natural: Part of my family.
DK: Not anymore.
Qwa: …is not a drug.
Knish: Decriminalize.

Fashion
Qwel: Cycle.
DJ Natural: Blah.
DK: Can’t judge.
Qwa: Passion.
Knish: Beatnuts.

EDM
DJ Natural: Not my shit.
Qwel: Expensive.
DK: Can’t judge.
Qwa: Silence
Knish: Modern.

And lastly, pigeons or planes?

DJ Natural: I’m from NYC, gonna have to go with pigeons.
DK: Pigeons.
Qwa: Mothership.
Knish: Pigeons.