By Zoneil Maharaj
Aug 21, 2006 - 12:00 AM
Stupid jokes always begin with guys in a bar. This isn’t a stupid joke, but it deals with three guys in a bar, this one being the dimly lit Elbo Room in San Francisco’s famed Mission district. There’s nothing out of the ordinary going on, just a group of typical dudes in your typical bar setting. But what these guys do definitely isn’t typical. Their music – the presentation, delivery, sound, message, flow – is anything but.
They’re the Typical Cats – comprised of emcees Qwel, Qwazaar, Denizen Kane, DJ Natural, and Kid Knish (whose role and identity remains a mystery) – a Chicago hip hop crew with its core members now based on the west coast. If you don’t know who these cats are, well, you’re about to find out.
After dropping two classic underground albums on Galapos4 Records – the self titled debut in 2001 and “Civil Service” in 2004, along with solo and side projects, the Typical Cats built a solid following. And after putting the Windy City on the radar again (Kanye who? Twista what?), they moved west to conquer new ground and, in Denizen’s case, raise a family. Though residing in different cities, it’s still a family affair.
Jeff Kuglich, who founded Galapagos4 in 1999, considers the Cats brothers, rather than artists on his label, and even moved to Cali with them. Influence, a fellow Chi-Town emcee turned Cali transplant, speaks of the crew with the reverence and admiration of a younger brother: “It’s really cool how they connect from being in different places and still make this amazing music. Not a lot of cats put in the work that they do. I’ve definitely learned a lot from them. Just seeing how they go about their music has definitely been an inspiration.”
We got a chance to sit down with some of the Cats before they rocked a show in SF. Qwel’s the complex lyricist whose rhymes are sometimes buried in biblical metaphors but isn’t on some holier than thou shit. In fact, the cat is genuinely friendly and down to earth: “If you like my music, you could prolly smoke a blunt with me after a show cause we prolly think similarly.” For a guy with a lot to say on the mic and a dominant stage presence, Qwazaar just sits quietly and laughs. Don’t know what’s so funny but dude is huge, over six feet tall, so if he wants to laugh at me, ‘I’m a let him (and I wont tell him he sucks at pool, knocking balls off the table like he’s playing ping pong ). And I get the impression throughout the interview that Denizen is trying to fuck with me with complicated poetic rhetoric for answers. Or maybe I’m just dumb and his level of intelligence is beyond me? You figure it out…
D: The name comes from a real story. Some dude was like “what’s up with your folks, I thought they were typical cats?” The name fit, it fit for different reasons for each individual. In my personal opinion, people are bugged the fuck out in general. I don’t know what’s “typical”. It’s not meant to be an ironic name in the same sense because I feel like we are typical. People are real people once they let their pretenses down. That’s all it is to me.
What’s each individual’s history?
Qwazaar: My history pre-Typical, present-Typical, future-Typical, ha. Before this, I was rhyming. I’ve been rhyming since 1989, just writing, collecting material, and growing over the years, that’s about it.
Qwel: My history started with Typical Cats. Everything before Typical Cats, I wasn’t taking very seriously, just doing the circuits, rhyming around Chicago, battling, ciphering, getting it out any way you can. We’re Typical Cats. Being able to work with these cats when I was a young dude really made an impression on me, really directed me to continue doing this. My history really started with Typical Cats, at least for rapping. I wrote graf as a kid. That’s basically it, just melding with these guys.
Denizen Kane: History? What’s history? I’m just like any other dude. I became conscious of my place in the scheme of things, I woke up, I’m in an unconscionable state of tension with the universe caught between abject compromise and nihilistic will to conquer. I teeter between moments of transcendent brilliance and abject failure on a daily basis. Who knows how this shit will turn out, man. I’m just having this drink.
You each have your own distinct style and solo endeavors. How does working solo differ from working together as a group?
Qwel: I think we have really different styles but for some reason our styles seem to sit next to each other well to make a good song. On our most bugged out track we could still do our own particular styles. You compromise somewhat but not really so much. It’s natural for us to sit down and make it dope…We sit down with a beat. We don’t formulate, we do it step by step, one line at a time.
How’s a TC album different from a solo album?
Qwel: I like being able to do my own solo CDs for my own sanity, but the Typical Cats music is much better than listening to my solo CDs for me. It’s a lot more comforting to be a smaller part of a bigger thing than to be the elephant at the circus.
D: Busting in the context of a crew and busting solo, the difference is the kinda circumstances you arrange around yourself trying to evoke something from your spirit. In a crew situation, you’re trying to see how soulfully you can express yourself in the context of relating to other cats over a track. A solo effort is kinda like a form of asceticism where you strip away a whole gang of different circumstances hoping to reduce what can happen but hopefully draw something out of yourself by confronting a certain mental situation directly without the aide of other motherfuckers.
(To Denizen) You were quoted in an article as saying Tree City Legends II (his latest release) was the last album of yours with the Typical Cats sound. Why the change?
D: It’s necessary. Anything that doesn’t grow dies. Anything that doesn’t change dies. Things have to grow and change to maintain the essence. A seed has to become a tree to maintain the essence of what it is. If we tried to replicate what we have been doing, that’d mean we’re wack already. None of us are satisfied with that. Dudes are real artists. We’re not publicity machines. We’re people who identify deeply with our own process in the universe. It’s not no fake shit, you know? I think it just had to evolve. I don’t know what the next shit is gonna sound like for me. It’s some other shit, it’s not something that anybody would expect.
I’m just delving into other sides of myself and just trying to let it flow free. It’s difficult to interview cats who are real artists because if I could sum up what my life’s musical mission was in a paragraph, I would. I woulda been said that shit, but I can’t. It’s something that happens through this long arduous process of self expression. I think that’s why we believe in it so much and why we bleed so much for it. There’s no other way to do it, there’s no other way around the process
Qwel: Plus, Typical Cats don’t wanna do albums in a Typical Cats sound. Once you do it, it’s gone, it’s gotta move on. You can’t stand still. The rolling stone don’t grow moss or whatever. It’s already changing naturally, you might as well go with it.
The production on the first album was more classically and jazz influenced than Civil Service…
Qwel: It was different times too. Think about how the world was different. Back then, in the underground in Chicago, there was more of a spark, and there was some good sparks and bad sparks, but it was sparking up. The energy was starting. Civil Service is a little later down the road, and it’s more like a controlled, focused energy instead of random excitement. Civil Service is more laid-back and focused instead of just the swingy shit or what not.
Are you guys working on another Typical Cats album?
D: We’re never working on a Typical Cats album and we’re always working on a Typical Cats album…I don’t know how cats could expect artists to advance if we were really measured each step against the other step; you wouldn’t do that if you were walking. You would look awkward. We’re doing what feels natural, that’s the only way to do it.
(To Denizen) What was it like being on HBO’s Def Poetry? You’ve been on three times.
D: Def Poetry was fresh. They give you a free pair of shoes and you get to meet Mos Def. I was happy.
They really give people shoes?
D: I got a free pair of shoes. They don’t give everybody a free pair of shoes. People take more pride in what they wear now, so I’ve noticed. I’ve been on there a couple times. The more I go on, the more I notice people show up with the outfits they’re gonna wear. But I always show up looking bummy so they send me to the wardrobe. Russell buys my shoes. Thank you Russell…That shit was weird, that shit was funny. I have no complaints. I learned how people act when they’re in a room with famous people. I met Rakim. That’s that.
Do people still talk about the Atmosphere beef?
D: There’s no beef, those dudes are sweethearts.
Qwel: There’s no beef. If there was anything, it’s been settled. It’s just some artist shit being on some motherfuckers saying things they don’t really mean. If it was a thing, everyone would know, you wouldn’t have to ask me. It’d be easy to tell.
Why the move to the Bay?
D: Well, I have a talent for getting girls pregnant and my girl’s having my baby so I came out to handle that.
How’s life in the Bay different from Chicago?
D: Weed is better here. People kick it more here just across all types of boundaries. Things are fucked up all over but Chicago is the most segregated city in the north of the United States. Coming from that into an environment like this, shit is mad different. We were freaks just for being seen together sometimes.
Do you guys get a lot of questions about your ethnic diversity?
Qwel: Not openly. We get dumb ass questions from herbs like “So, you being white and Dennis being Korean, and Qwazaar being black…” Sometimes you get a dumb ass dude. A lot of people think that’s what the Typical Cats shit is too. I remember the night we were sitting around thinking of a crew name because we started working on the shit before we picked a name. It was just music, straight music, writing and rapping. It’s funny, I think it was maybe Dan who was like, that’s funny, “Typical Cats – a white dude, a black dude, and Asian dude, an Italian DJ/Producer, a Jewish New Yorker backup” and I was like wow, I’ve never noticed that, swear to God. But we all came from the same circumstances in that we’ve all grown up as the man out. It kinda put us together. We all feel united in that at least deep down somewhere it’s like, “Fuck this world that says I’m not typical.” What is typical, you know? We don’t catch no bullshit for being diverse because honestly, cats hear the CD first and then be like, “Whoa damn, I never knew you guys were different races. That flips it up now, heh heh heh.” Listen with your ears not with your eyes homey. Anybody who gets stuck at that shit is a dick anyway, or crippled.
And also, for the Bay, it’s different than Chicago in that there’s roses growing everywhere and people hanging laundry. And even Richmond (where Qwel currently resides) is supposed to be “hoody” or whatever, but compared to Chicago it feels more like a neighborhood – motherfuckers have roosters in their yard. You never see nothing like that in Chicago. All the sun, you can play ball everyday. It’s a little less cabin fevery, you can get out of the house.
All I know about Chicago is what I’ve read in (William Upski Wimsatt’s) Bomb the Suburbs.
Qwel: That’s just a really small demographic of Chicago being portrayed. But it’s seriously like the grid city. It’s a computer chip blocked out. There’s no curvy ass California roads. There’s two roads that curve in Chicago and they meet up – Lincoln and Milwaukee. Everything else is on a grid. See what happened when Chicago got burnt down (“The Great Chicago Fire” of 1871), they rebuilt it up into the panoptic tower. Damn, I just said panoptic tower. I’ll just say panoptic tower one more time…(He loses me on the architectural shit)…The Panopticon, the Foucault shit. You know, the fucking eye in the middle, the way schools are set up? They say to control surroundings, you set up the guard tower from the middle.
Why’d you move out here?
Qwel: To be out here with this fool (points to Denizen). He keeps getting people pregnant, the fuck we supposed to do? Nah, just now all the Typical Cats live in Cali. It’s a lot smarter business. I can do shows up and down. Just be able to do shows, less gas money, no airplane costs. Plus, we blew Chicago the fuck up. You didn’t know nothin’ bout Chicago underground until us, except for maybe All Natural and the Molemen, that was about it. Now Chicago is all over the place. So we did what we were supposed to do, now we’re out here. And Cali, the Bay, is about to change really hard. We’re gonna work on it a little bit...
Visit http://www.galapagos4.com (yes, a real website, not a fucking myspace page) for more info. Be on the lookout for the new Outerlimitz (Qwazaar and He.llsent), as well as Qwel and Meatyogre’s Freezerburner.