Interview with Bristol radical hip-hop duo, QELD, discussing their new album, the European militant rap scene and Westbury-on-Trym.
Bristolian hip-hop group, QELD, have been making music together since 2007 and threatening to drop their much-awaited album, Kush Zombies, for years. Finally finished and ready for release, we caught up with them to see what they've been up to and the future has in store for Bristol's radical rappers.
1.Tell us a bit about your lives growing up and how you got into politics and making music.
[Jenre] Well, like a lot of people our age, my first real engagement in ‘politics’ so to speak came about during 9/11 and the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My parents are both life-long labour supporters and the Tories were very much the enemy in my house, so when a Labour government went to war I think that opened my horizons to more radical politics and ideas. I got a lot of my anarcho education from Libcom, to be honest.
When I first started making hip-hop music, though it was purely because I loved it and just wanted to express myself, really. I was young so naturally a lot of it was pretty terrible but you’ve got to start somewhere!
[Bob Savage] My Granfer was a card carrying communist until 1956 – when the Soviets invaded Hungary – and my mum was a punk as a teenager in the 70s, so I kinda soaked up a lot of attitudes and ideas to the world without even realising. I can’t even remember a specific moment where I first became interested, but as Jenre says the Iraq war was the big ‘mobilisation’ for our generation. Noam Chomsky was one of the first people I read, and his endless examples of American and British hypocrisy and imperialism was ridiculously eye-opening. From there, I began to read Marx and all about the Zapatistas, so I automatically had a slight anarchist-leaning in my communism. My Granf had also given me Quotations From Chairman Mao though, so I’m sure that sank in somewhere!
The two of us went to pre, primary and secondary school together and eventually ended up really good friends, just from having the same sense of humour and outlook. Jenre was really passionate about hip-hop and had started writing his own rhymes and recording songs on his computer, and I just ended up recording loads of stuff with him even though I didn’t know what I was doing at all. It was just a bit of a piss-take really. I can’t even remember the moment we decided to start taking ourselves seriously, it was a genuine natural progression after we realised we actually did know what we were doing.
2.Why did you decide to start making political music? Do you see a militant rap scene (or political music in general) as having any relationship to building a wider working-class movement?
[Bob] Honestly, at first we didn't really try to make 'political music'. We just wanted to rap really, and we'd drop an occasional anarchist reference here and there, but I think we were worried it'd be too 'cheesy' or whatever to be an out-and-out anarchist rap group. Eventually we just realised... this is what we know about, this is what we care about, and all our songs just naturally took a 'political' slant. And I think we've managed to avoid that cheese factor, thankfully, mostly cos we take the piss out of ourselves in our songs a lot I'm sure.
[Jenre] The politics weren’t really connected for me in the beginning in so far as I don’t think I would have called myself an anarchist at the time I started making music. I just wanted to write lyrics to express how I felt, so as I delved deeper into these political ideas I think that just naturally starts to come out. Now, though it’s changed. I want to make good, quality music. That even if you didn’t agree with the content you would still think is well put together etc, but personally if I’m not saying anything and I’m not basically pushing anarchist propaganda then I’m not interested anymore!
[Bob] The anarchist rap scene doesn't really exist in the UK as it does in other countries across Europe. It's definitely something that needs to grow more, so I'm always tryna encourage anarchos and commies to pick up a mic and start writing bars! Also just because I wanna hear more anarchist rap. And yeah, it definitely can have a positive effect on working-class movements – in Milan, Berlin and Geneva we got to see these fantastic community-centres operated by anarchists and Marxists, helping people with issues from housing to fighting racism. All we need is passion and effort and we can build the same things here.
[Jenre] I think any cultural output by anarchists is good to be honest with you. I think what’s great about punk is that a lot of people become interested in anarchism and radical politics through it, which is invaluable because it’s way more appealing for a lot of people to hear that in music you can dance and sing along to than to be given a list of twenty books “you should really read”.
What I find disappointing is that we don't have the same thing with hip-hop in the UK and I think that’s definitely something we need to improve.
3. From the album’s name - Kush Zombies – to all the samples from zombie films, can you talk to us about the zombie theme running through the album? What was the thinking behind mixing them up with more explicitly political samples like people chatting from the 2011 UK riots?
[Bob] Well, 'Kush Zombies' was originally the name of a song we did, probably like six years ago now. It wasn't really that deep, it was just about being such a wasteman you began to get paranoid and think the outside world is full of zombies, then you realise “nah I'm the zombie”. And I always liked the title of it as a potential album title, so just kept it anyway when we scrapped the song. Every time I'd watch a zombie movie I'd record any samples I thought might work, and then I realised just how 'proletarian' zombies actually are. And it just completely changed the concept for me. Have a look at modern zombie movies: zombies are often uniformed workers, generally from cities, ceasing to work and uprising instead. The protagonists of zombie movies are generally middle to upper-class white people, fleeing from the unwashed, undead masses to mansions they can hide away in. The proliferation of zombie movies in the last decade is just a reflection of the rich's fear of working-class revolution! Cos yeah, we're gonna cease working, and we're gonna feast on bourgeois flesh.
[Jenre] I do think there is something very interesting about pop culture’s current fascination with zombies and themes of apocalypse. I think with climate change, war in Syria, the refugee crisis, just to mention a few things, there is a real sense of the fragility in the structure of society generally. I think people are quite drawn to the idea of an end to the world we know now and an opportunity almost for something new.
4.Can you tell us about your experiences within the wider UK hip hop scene?
[Bob] We're not really involved in the UK hip-hop scene. There are a few people who sort of crossover, and the occasional show we do which has varied acts, but once we became involved with the anarchist music scene we've just been given so many great opportunities that it's where we focus our energies. You know, we stay in squats across Europe, we go to radical bookshops and community centres, we meet a lot of militants with crazy histories and stories – it's just a lot more rewarding for us personally than attempting to break into the UK hip-hop scene would be. UK hip-hop has always seemed like too much grief for nothing in return.
[Jenre] Yeah we aren’t really involved in the UK hip-hop scene. Which is fine, to be honest, as I love playing shows with people that really understand the lyrics and the politics of QELD not just the beats and the battle bars. I suppose the fact that we didn’t get involved early on probably meant that we did focus even more on the politics. A radical UK hip-hop scene is what we really want to be involved in.
[Bob] As for Bristol hip-hop though, Buggsy. Buggsy is the sickest rapper from Bristol and has been representing the city for a few years now!
QELD with DJ Malatesta (far-left).
5.You’ve got a track with Drowning Dog and DJ Malatesta who are heavily involved in a lot of the networks of the European militant rap scene. How did that collaboration come about?
[Jenre] Well we had played a show with DDM many years ago so we’ve been aware of each other for a while. We met again at a gig in Hackney and they invited us over to Milan to play a show at their social centre. They’ve basically done so much for us in terms of getting our name out in Europe, literally physically getting us out there for shows and also helping a lot with getting the album out. They’ve put out a lot of releases with EK Records over the years so their input was really invaluable. I’m not sure how it would have turned out without them!
[Bob] We don't just have networks, we have genuine comrades across borders now. We're both constantly touched at the love and solidarity militants from different countries have shown us!
6. Do you think there’ll be any more collaboration with artists from that scene?
[Bob] Definitely. We need to focus on building a stronger international scene, and we in the UK have to start building networks and collectives of our own that are big enough to sustain themselves and involve international acts a lot more regularly. As for future projects, well. We've been discussing a potential QELD-DDM EP after our recent trip to Berlin, but it's all-talk so far! We'll have to see…
[Jenre] Yeah definitely. We want to spread radical hip-hop further and further and I think collaborating with each other and playing shows together is the way to do that. We need to build a scene in the UK but it’s essential, like everything, that we build links internationally.
7. What do you think the scope is for something like the political rap scenes you’ve seen in Europe developing in the UK? What do you think are some of the main things holding back such a scene developing? Or, to look at it a different way, how much do you think the 2000s hip hop scene already embodied a lot of the same principles?
[Bob] I honestly think a lot of UK rappers' 'political' lyrics are overblown. Take someone like Braintax, who had all those anti-capitalist lyrics then ran off to Australia with his label's artists' money to start some tourism venture. Or like, the last Task Force release, where Farma G is a grown-ass man in his 40s talking about “no homo” on a track. I think we need to recognise that people can write anti-poverty lyrics but still be reactionary as fuck, and that 'political music' needs to mean more than just music with political lyrics. We need to be political in how we operate, too. This is what Drowning Dog means on our track 'This is the Moment' when she says “if smiles and handshakes are all that we got/then your word means something yo believe it or not” - in the anarchist music scene we have no managers, no contracts, we mostly use venues that someone's occupying, so all we have is each other and our own solidarity for each other. Smiles and handshakes.
[Jenre] I think there has always been a lot of social commentary in hip-hop, often from voices that are largely silenced elsewhere, so there is always a political element to that for me (although a lot of commercial hip-hop is sanitised as fuck these days). Talking about your life and your lived experiences is politics, it all is, but I’m not sure how much that relates to an explicitly anarchist or radical hip-hop scene.
[Bob] Yeah, most rap is certainly political, but nothing ‘radical’ in a ‘leftist’ sense. Lyrics about the Illuminati are what you’re mostly going to find! Talking of Task Force though, Chester P has been doing a lot of work with homelessness recently, which given the current state of things in the UK is incredibly important. There’s so much stuff hip-hop artists do within their communities that we don’t get to hear about. Whether that’s radical or not is your own call. But as far as QELD go, we act as propagandists trying to normalise revolutionary rhetoric. And to show-off our pen-game and beats, cos we grew up listening to rappers being competitive, and we care about the craft as well as the message.
8.What are QELD’s plans for the future?
[Bob] I'm just starting work on a solo album actually. We're also probably going to be putting out a mixtape from the cutting floor, the 'Kush ZomB-Sides' or something. Also to just try and keep our momentum going; we're playing in Amsterdam next month and should be heading out to Berlin and possibly Geneva shortly after. We just want to keep building our name up, getting more shows, and writing new songs. Promoters, you can always get in touch about shows!
[Jenre] More shows, more new music, some stuff with DDM hopefully. Yeah we just want to keep going and hopefully hear some more anarchist hip-hop in the UK.
9. Just to finish off, tell us a couple of your favourite lyrics from the album.
[Bob] Jenre's best lyrics, without a doubt, is his entire verse on 'Nationalism'. It still blows me away every time I hear it, and it always gets the single biggest cheer as soon as he stops spitting when we perform it live. Ten times better than anything else on the album! My favourite couple lines though, probably has to be his “Class war, keep the peace at bay/QELD, “we ain't the least afraid”/You got rights, but Theresa-may take em each away”. An anarchism reference, a Buenaventura Durruti quote (“not in the least afraid of ruins” - look it up if you don't know it!), and a clever little Theresa May punchline? Bam. You got it Jenre.
[Jenre] It always makes me laugh when we’re playing outside of Bristol, and especially abroad, and these really local lyrics about small parts of the city come up. Particularly Bob’s line “Bobby Savage getting Trym like Westbury-on”. Nobody knows what the fuck we’re talking about except us, and then when you do play in Bristol everyone really enjoys it which is nice.
To get hold of a copy of 'Kush Zombies' (either in CD or digital format) check out QELD's bandcamp page.