Anarchist hip hop duo QELD have been knocking about since 2007 but released their debut album, Kush Zombies, earlier this year. We caught up to chat music, politics, political incorrectness and sharing bills with punk bands
Words: Lorna Stephenson
Reading Das Kapital, sat in the DeLorean,
Cable Street battle rap, fascists be deporting ‘em,
Kush Zombie antifa rapping crematorium.
It’s not often you hear raps about Marx, or Russian peasant uprisings in the early 20th century, or literary figures like Carol Ann Duffy and Chaucer. Or the undead. In their 10-years-in-the-making debut album Kush Zombies, Bristolian anarchist hip hop duo QELD manage to battle rap pretty much any topic head-on with a sharp, acerbic wit; all set against low-key Golden-era beats and eclectic samples from the voices of 2011 London rioters to classic soul.
It’s an impressive accomplishment for two people determined not to take themselves too seriously. The Cable caught up with the pair, MC Bob Savage and MC/producer Jenre, in sunny Queen Square to talk about the intersections between politics, music and the city which nurtured their sound. But first we addressed their flagrant disregard for political correctness – delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, but often very close to the line (“more stoned than an adulterous Iranian”, anyone?).
Bottom line: It’s not serious. “We got a line on Nobody Knows which is ‘Females – come and sleep with the QELD’ , and then, ‘at least please speak to the QELD’. That’s meant to be the joke. We’re two pathetic little arseholes,” explains Bob Savage, adding, “…I forget that people don’t actually know me and Jon.”
“It’s not like there’s an opportunity to sell out anyway,”
Savage and Jenre first started making music together as teenagers for a laugh, “just being as offensive as possible”, but soon realised they were onto something good. Things took off a few years ago when they splintered from mainstream hip hop gigs to the anarchist music scene, getting played on Bristol radio show From Bristol with Love. Despite the scene being dominated by punk in the UK, militant hip hop is more popular on the continent.
QELD – whose name stands for ‘Quelle est la date?’ (what’s the date?) – found they were getting invited to play across Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, and France, and to collaborate with artists including US/Scot/Italian pair Drowning Dog and DJ Malatesta (DDM). Political hip hop is a small but vibrant international scene, which Savage says “gives you a much more interesting experience than trying to make it in UK hip hop would”. Although they have no pretentions that they gave anything up by staying niche. “It’s not like there’s an opportunity to sell out anyway,” says Jenre. Bob agrees: “Where would we go? What would we become? Goldie Lookin’ Chain?!”
For being so little known in Bristol itself, they certainly get around. And that’s despite the fact that Savage and Jenre’s dry wit and black humour (“it’s no Death Cab for Cutie, just QELD running death camps for bougies”) might go over the head of much of the non-English speaking audience.
They stress the music has always been paramount. “The music’s got to be good, first and foremost,” says Jenre, whose style is firmly fixed in the 90s. “It’s a craft… If you can loop a two- or three-second piece of music and make someone enjoy it for four minutes, that’s impressive.”
Frequently appearing on line-ups with punk bands doesn’t bother them. Both punk and hip hop are, after all, channels of rebellion – which of the two you are exposed to largely depends on your background. They’ve also got the same DIY ethos. “It’s about taking what you’ve got,” says Jenre about the production. “Whatever’s available – records that were around your parents house. It started at street parties stealing electricity and shit, that’s pretty punk DIY if you ask me. There’s a massive crossover.”
The album is titled after a song which didn’t make it into the final line-up, although the zombies did, with samples from B-movies littered throughout the tracks. Why zombies?
“To keep the title relevant, I came up with the idea of zombies being the undead proletariat,” or ‘the poor working class’ explains Bob, as though it were a completely normal topic of conversation. “Whenever you see a zombie film, they’re in overalls, uniforms, the unwashed masses. Then you’ve got the middle-class protagonists rushing into their big houses or something… The zombie apocalypse is a revolution from a rich person’s point of view.”
Kush Zombies’ release has been a long time coming, and eventually emerged in March this year as a compilation of the best tunes of the last five years. Offshoot projects, collaborations and a solo album for Savage are also in the works. Check out Kush Zombies on qeld.bandcamp.com