For the four-man collective known as Qualo, nothing is black and white. While some acts are easily identifiable as belonging to a certain category or genre within the landscape of popular culture, Qualo is as gray as they come. For the better part of the decade, they have tirelessly spread their unique brand of street poetics through CDs, shows and an indescribably strong presence in the flourishing Chicago hip-hop scene, garnering the attention of Universal Records, who signed the group in 2005. Armed with genre-defying material that is equally intelligent, rebellious and relevant, the group has bigger plans than just hip-hop for the upcoming year.
"This is cross-cultural what we're doing," says Shala Esquire, the group's unofficial spokesman. "People are ready to tear down that old regime of music not telling the truth and only snapping and dancing and doing all of that shit. People are a little bit smarter now and want a little more substance, and we're leading the charge." With lyrics that can only be described as a frantic mix of street-influenced and socially conscious sermons, the group has been going against the grain since the release of its indie debut in 2000, Movementality (The Orchard). Appealing to fans from backpackers to housewives, Qualo has managed to unite seemingly unconnected people together under the umbrella of thought-provoking music. "Our shows look like the fucking Rainbow Coalition," says Preast, the group's self-described live wire. Scoring an underground hit in 2004 with its own rendition of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" and renaming it "Q Nation Army," the group demonstrated its ability to step outside of the traditional hip-hop confines and adapt to anything that the music industry could throw at them.
With its as-yet untitled Universal debut set for a mid-'07 release, the crew is not content with waiting for their moment in the spotlight. "This is bigger than rap; this is only the first platform," Chicago Shawn says. With plans for a clothing line, a community organization—with the goal of reinvesting in many of Chicago's forgotten neighborhoods-and a "movie-mentary" that is set to go into production at the top of the year, Qualo is forcing the hand of the industry to take notice of their movement. "We're bringing the birth of something new," King Ken Winz says. "We're putting music together in a way that people haven't heard in a long time." But possibly the best way to describe its mission is through what the group does best: rhyming. When asked what people can expect from the new Qualo album, Preast kindly freestyles his response: "Tell them that this is it/ Tell them all to kiss their kids/ Tell them that we've been to hell; we liked it when we visited/ We sold our souls for this flow; we're nice and we don't give a shit."—Anthony Roberts