photo: Eric Joseph
By combining elements of comedy and hip-hop in his routine, local emcee Que Billah. is an artist whose stock is steady on the rise. The West Side native first began rhyming when he was in grade school, and over time his talents evolved to where he was able to strike a fine balance between his influences and experiences. In 2005 Billah's hard work paid off as he was recognized by Source for its Unsigned Hype column, which has featured luminaries like Mobb Deep, Notorious B.I.G. and Common, among others.
The accolade was a hard act to follow, especially when considering he was the first Chicago emcee to be profiled in Unsigned Hype since Common, but it was a challenge Billah has responded to by selling more than 20,000 mixtapes and opening for a multitude of emcees, including KRS One, Rakim, Twista, Ludacris, David Banner and Chingy, to name a few. In recent months he's maintained the momentum by releasing singles with The Cool Kids and KRS One, which is a testament to his versatility as an artist as well as his ability to bridge creative gaps.
Where were you born and how did you first get interested in rhyming?
I was born on the West Side of Chicago, L-Town to be exact. I was basically raised on hip-hop. I have a brother that's eight years older than me, so everything he listened to, I listened to. So I was always enamored by rap music. I first got interested in rhyming at the age of 10. I wrote my first rhyme in fifth grade for a science project about animals.
Can you take me back to your first performance?
Oddly enough, my first performance was before I wrote my first rhyme. In the fourth grade our school had its first talent show. Myself and three of my guys, one of whom just passed away two weeks ago -- which is why this story is so fresh in my memory -- were chosen to represent our class in the school talent show. We performed a cover of Bobby Brown's "Don't Be Cruel" and I performed the rap portion while they performed the singing part. And that was when I fell in love with the stage. It wasn't until my high school talent show that I was able to hit the stage with my "on" material.
In 2005 you were recognized by the Source's Unsigned Hype. Looking back on it how did that recognition help you get to where you're at now?
Well, I think that the Unsigned Hype article helped me out a lot. Any time you get recognized nationally for your work, it sets you apart from the pack. I think it gave me a springboard to jump from to get people to take notice. Also, the writer of the article came to town for a congratulations party/show, which sparked the beginning of my paid show career. From then I was known as the guy with no deal and no radio play that could pack venues. So locally it helped a lot, but nationally not so much. There was a time when that article got you signed ... once upon a time, but due to the turmoil that the Source was going through at the time, the article didn't mean much nationally.
Was there an added sense of pressure afterward?
Yes and no. It was really a relief because I had been saying I would be in the Source's Unsigned Hype for years, but I had no idea how it would happen. So it was a relief that it came to pass. The pressure came in the form of getting more press. Without a publicist it was a very hard task.
You've had the opportunity to share the stage with some legends. What's the experience been like for you, and has anyone taken the time to pass on any real words of wisdom as opposed to the cliche "keep grindin'" line?
I was able to spend a few hours with KRS and Rakim on separate occasions. Both of which are super cool dudes in two different ways: Rakim more like the uncle telling you how it was when he was coming up, filling you in on the real stories behind this thing we call hip-hop, like how Nas was in the lab with him while he recorded "Paid In Full" or how his favorite rapper is Sadat X. KRS is more of the icon that feels the need to give back to the culture that he has reaped so much from by doing songs with the youthful emcees that looked up to him all these years. I could go on for hours, I got millions of stories about me opening up for people from Luda to David Banner to Devin the Dude ...
You cite a who's who of comedians as inspirations, Dick Gregory for example. People have a tendency to exclude him when talking about influential comedians, how important is it for you to maintain a sense of humor throughout your work?
People exclude Dick Gregory because he is much more than a comedian and his knowledge makes him a dangerous man. Seeing him speak actually gave me the notion that I could actually make people laugh, then drop a little knowledge in between the punch lines. But humor is the key to getting your point across; even preachers use comedy in their routines. Ask any woman what the most attractive quality in a man is. If you keep people laughing, you keep winning. But hey, if you want to be super thug and you're too hard to smile, then you might need to get some things sorted out in your life, because that ain't healthy.
Recently you worked with both KRS One and The Cool Kids — on separate projects. What was it like working with two such different dynamics and do you see the styles bridging together at some point down the line?
Only thing different 'bout The Cool Kids and KRS is how they dress, that's it, not even age because they both make timeless hip-hop. KRS said the best year was '88 and The Cool Kids brought '88 back. I'm honored to be a part of both their legacies, whether they like it or not. I sit right in the middle of those generations. I came after KRS and before the The Cool Kids so I am bridging those styles together.
Tell me about some projects that you have lined up for this year?
Well, currently I'm working on something very groundbreaking. I'm working on a video mixtape called "You Can't Do That On Television," 12 videos that blend scratch and fade like an audio tape. To my knowledge it's the first of its kind. After that I'm dropping an EP Called "1000 Words," which will be accompanied by six more still -picture videos, much like The Fresh Air Syndrome. From this point on I'm all about the visual and bringing songs to life.
So when you're not busy working how do you like to unwind? Favorite venues or places to relax?
When does that happen? I'm always working. When I'm not working I like to brainstorm about new ideas and how I'm going to bring them to life. Even when I'm in the club it's business and there is very little "me time." Honestly, where I feel the most relaxed at is on stage. I wish I could perform every day of the year, that is when I'm at peace and one with the universe. But to answer your question, I'm feeling The Shrine this year, that's the place for me this year. I also like to cook and I get down too.