The Madness Behind Angry Blackmen
They wanna see us pigeonholed/That ain’t what my vision hold
The seed for Angry Blackmen was first planted in 2016 when Brian pitched the idea of becoming a rap duo to Quentin. Back then, the two were solo artists, shouldering all the work of writing and performing on their own. Becoming a duo would make the grind a lot easier. And the name for that duo? Brian wanted them to be called Mad Blackmen.
“I was thinking along the lines of MADtv,” Brian explained. “Like I used to watch as a kid. I want to bring some type of feeling like that to music.”
It wasn’t until 2017 that the two rappers officially linked up and became who they are today, ditching the “mad” and switching to “angry.” Even though they ditched it, the story behind their original name is crucial to understanding what drives this Chicago-based rap duo.
MADtv, with its irreverant humor, pop culture spoofs, and cheeky political bits, sounds like it sits miles away from the much more loaded title “Angry Blackmen.” But don’t be fooled, this duo has as much humor as that 90s sketch show, and about twice as much wit.
Photos from @keatonbeach.1
To be fair, “Angry” is not a misnomer, but it can miss much of the madness behind Quentin and Brian’s music. Their name, like their music, plays with expectations and taps into the zeitgeist in uncommon ways. Their references range from Patrick Bateman and Courage the Cowardly Dog to Caligula and Oppenheimer.
Their music is edged not exactly by anger, but by a purposeful frivolity.
“I may decide to be angry,” Brian said, “but still be smiling in (the audience’s) face at the same time.”
Of course, the duo isn’t angry all the time. In fact, their talent lies in their ability to spin an emotion many ways like a crystal refracting light. Anger in their music might sound a lot more like a Dark Knight reference than an actual call to violence.
In the music video for their song “RIOT!” all the connotations the word carries are flipped on their head. The video begins with a title card “Somewhere in White America” then proceeds to show an American flag burning. However, the political implications are made playful by shots showing Quentin and Brian in a Walmart, contributing to a chaos that appears more like good fun than an actual uprising. In one shot, Quentin feigns coitus with a stuffed unicorn—an act that recalls MADtv humor more than political rebellion.
That the video was shot at a big box store is on brand for the two rappers who’ve both done time working for Amazon. When asked if there is something they would want to start a riot over, the answer “capitalism” came quickly for both.
“RIOT!” isn’t the only song in which anger and humor alternate easily. The two seamlessly rap about looting in a song that begins with a sample of Spongebob talking to his pet snail.
“Tryna win this white man/Game with my heart intact/Loot a local Target next/Hit 'em where the money at,'' Quentin raps in “PROPAGANDA!”
The same song includes a bridge: “Used to be a corny kid/Watchin' Rick and Morty, lit.”
This duality — this balance of humor and seriousness over incredible industrial beats from producer Gary G is at the heart of their unique style. And this style, as Quentin explained, isn’t necessarily tied to the history of Chicago rap.
“We just happen to be in the (Chicago) area,” Quentin explained. “But being from Chicago, that's like some 90s shit. Right now, it doesn’t matter where the fuck you’re from — we’re in this internet world.”
Quentin’s influences aren’t just famous Chicagoans like Chief Keef and Kanye. For his musical inheritance he looks to artists like Death Grips, Danny Brown, Tyler the Creator, and JPEGMAFIA as well as punk groups like Bad Brains and Blackflag. For their latest album, HEADSHOTS!, Quentin played Icecube’s 1990 album Amerikkka’s Most Wanted on repeat.
Brian on the other hand, doesn’t listen to music when he makes his own for fear he’ll lose himself in the influences.
“When I work on an album, I probably take 2% of something away from a song,” Brian said of his process. “Then I won't listen to music ever again until the project is finished so I know I sound like me at the end of the day and not who I'm listening to.”
The combination of Quentin’s studied practice and Brian’s more isolated approach results in music that’s always new without being completely disconnected from the larger musical world.
Their musical process shifted when they made HEADSHOTS! The whole album was written and produced during the pandemic, a process they described as “hectic, scary, and deceitful” on account of their need to make excuses just to see each other. Out of the turbulence of the early pandemic came an album that is undoubtedly of its time.
“That whole album is 2020 that’s for sure,” Quentin said. “If it’s not talking about COVID, it’s talking about everything else. Like race, to COVID, to politics, to some personal stuff—but it’s also very fun—we didn’t want to make it overly serious.”
True to their beginnings, the album is packed with anger, but also with a sort of madness—a wildness—that is as entertaining as it is powerful and, like the sketch show that inspired them, wide in its scope.
“I’m not tryna be boxed in with a bunch of things,” Brian said. “I would love to touch on every single topic. You know? Like, this is life. I’m tryna go through. And one day, you may get mad, then you’ll be happy, then you’ll be sad. And I wanna touch all of that in one song. I wanna touch every emotion in one day.”