Operation Hennessy digs a new channel for Chicago hip-hop | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Operation Hennessy digs a new channel for Chicago hip-hop 

Keen-eyed rapper Qari hooks up with producer Green Sllime and opens the floodgates on his reservoir of irreverent old-school beats.

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Qari (in plaid pants) and Green Sllime outside Sllime’s apartment in Logan Square - DAVON CLARK
  • Qari (in plaid pants) and Green Sllime outside Sllime’s apartment in Logan Square
  • Davon Clark

On February 12, 2019, Qari Delaney spent a candlelit evening smoking a joint alone in his roommate's jacuzzi tub with a lavender bath bomb. To further set the mood, the 23-year-old Chicago rapper listened to his own music: Operation Hennessy, his first full-length collaboration with local producer, rapper, and DJ Green Sllime, which would come out the next day. "It was honestly deeply meditative—I felt like I was in the ocean or some shit," Qari says. "I was transported. It was beautiful."

Qari broke into the Chicago hip-hop scene in 2012, joining Supreme Regime, whose small but dedicated following included Lyrical Lemonade founder and in-demand videographer Cole Bennett. Since then, he's become one of its most consistent players. Supreme Regime split in 2013, but within a year Qari had cofounded underground supergroup Hurt Everybody, who got popular enough to sell out Reggie's Rock Club a few weeks before their own demise in 2016.

Qari has been a solo artist ever since, and it looks like he's building toward the big break that Hurt Everybody didn't last long enough to see. In March 2018, Bennett made a video for Qari's darkly twinkling 2017 single "Pants From Japan," and it racked up more than half a million YouTube views in two weeks. The following month, Qari dropped the solo album No Time to Explain, whose tense but mellow "Baghdadi" appeared on a list by New York Times music reporter Joe Coscarelli of the dozen songs he'd listened to the most in 2018.

Despite his successes, Qari has always felt anxious about releasing music—until Operation Hennessy. For the first time, he says, he wasn't worried about the quality of what he'd made, only about whether it would find its audience. The loose energy and raw production of Operation Hennessy have more in common with gritty 90s boom-bap than with contemporary trends such as trap or Soundcloud rap. "There are so many times where it was like, 'Who in their right mind wants to hear this?'" Qari says.

"I'd be like, 'Me, me! I wanna hear this! This is the shit I wanna hear,'" Sllime replies. Best known for his ongoing gig as touring DJ for Mick Jenkins (one of Chicago's best recent rap exports), he's been producing and rapping for more than a decade. He's got an affinity for old hardware, and he made most of Operation Hennessy on a discontinued Roland SP-404 sampler. Since late 2016, he's also worked as part of local promotion and video company 119 Productions to host 18 episodes of Sllime's Broke Ass Low Budget Show, a YouTube-based talk show whose jarring cuts, fragmented segments, and loose style reflect his musical aesthetic. He's obviously a fan of Wu-Tang Clan—during our interview at Sllime's Logan Square apartment, Qari showed me the producer's Wu-branded nunchucks.


Words Past the Margin
Featuring Kevin Coval in conversation with Qari, Green Sllime, and Mulatto Beats. Tue 4/23, 7 PM, the Hoxton Chicago, 200 N. Green, free (RSVP required), 21+

All Smiles Seven-Year Anniversary and Finale
Featuring Tomorrow Kings, Psalm One, Green Sllime, Encyclopedia Brown, Moodie Black, SCC, and DJ Elliven. Fri 4/26, 9 PM, Tonic Room, 2447 N. Halsted, $10, 21+


By his own count, Sllime has recorded hundreds if not thousands of songs, but unlike Qari he hasn't released much—a loose single, a contribution to a local compilation, a beat on someone else's mixtape. Operation Hennessy could change that, and at the very least it seems certain to kick off a longer partnership with Qari.

"This project meant eliminating anxieties," Qari says. "Pulling myself out of whatever fuckin' terrible pit of despair I put myself in as an artist—always doubting myself and always tellin' myself I'm no good at what I do."

"The doubt is gone," Sllime says. "That's what it did for me too. It killed the doubt."

Qari and Sllime under the Blue Line - DAVON CLARK
  • Qari and Sllime under the Blue Line
  • Davon Clark

Operation Hennessy shows the scene's versatility. People get caught up in just one specific type of rap or maybe two specific types of rap coming out of Chicago, and I think it just helped a lot for Qari and Sllime to show that they were more than what they'd already shown Chicago. Qari's a dope-ass lyricist. Sllime's a dope-ass lyricist too, but he's even colder on the beats. Them putting out that project, it was like, "Yeah, we can do it." —producer-rapper SolarFive

Sllime, 29, got his first gig at 14, spinning records at a dance at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (he graduated in 2008). He'd convinced people he could DJ, but he had to borrow turntables from a cousin six years his senior. He didn't own any vinyl either, so he bought records from the Virgin Megastore on the Magnificent Mile. "In my mind I was killin' that shit, but I know I couldn't have been killin' that shit, 'cause I played 'Drop It Like It's Hot' like five times—it was hot back then," he says.

Within a few years, Sllime began earning money DJing dances at other schools and at bat and bar mitzvahs. Much of the local hip-hop scene was still off-limits to him due to his age. "We couldn't go up to the bars for real," he says. "We had to make other spaces to perform, like open mikes." On MySpace he connected with poet Nate Marshall, who'd begun hosting an open mike in Bronzeville and wanted a DJ for the series.

"When he first started DJing for us, he was very adamant that he was not a DJ—he was like, 'Nah nah nah, I'm not a DJ. I just got this DJing equipment,'" Marshall says. "He also had a million different names. He was always going through stage names—either the first one that I knew or the one that I knew him by best was 'Enfa Red.' And a lot of times we'd introduce him at shows as 'DJ I'm Really an MC.'" Sllime worked Marshall's open mike for a couple years and spun at others hosted by high schools, including Jones College Prep.

"He really is a man out of time, in terms of hip-hop and our current day, and I think this is one of the reasons why me and him connect so much," Marshall says. "In a moment where a lot of people were super into streetwear, into being the most up on fashion, very image conscious, his insertion in that was, 'I don't give a fuck—I have been wearing this hoodie for I don't know how many days. I lost count.'" Sllime cared more about his work than about marketing it or himself, and that was one of the things that drew Marshall to him.

"One funny time—he called me, it must've been one or two in the morning," Marshall says. "He was like, 'I been doing acid. I talked to Jesus and he said that we gotta make rap songs together.'" They recorded a few tracks, and Marshall thinks one of them ended up online. Sllime had also been recording raps as part of a loose hip-hop collective called Wiggidies Crew; it launched in 2004 and also included a budding videographer named Jackson Duncan.

"Every day after school—after we were done freestyling in the hallways—we'd go to our homie Benny Nice's crib and sort of ruin his parents' day and take over his basement," Duncan says. "Sllime was an early MPC addict, and we would sample pretty much anything. We had really shitty keyboards and worn-out basses. It was a lot of organic sounds, but we made some really cool music out of it."

As the members of Wiggidies Crew began moving away for college in 2007 and 2008, they launched 119 Productions to catalog their solo recordings. "We would make these mixtapes with us individually on them and drop big compilations off this 119 website—119 became a hub for all our music and art projects," Duncan says.

School wasn't a big priority for Sllime. "I would show up to class without my backpack—I just didn't think about it," he says. "I would wake up and come to school with no backpack, and I'd be sittin' in class, like, 'Fuck! I forgot it again!' And then, 'How did you do this again?' I'm like, 'I don't know!' But somehow Imma ace the test. It's freaky." As graduation approached, he'd been hanging out with gang members and wasn't seriously considering college. "I was in tune with a bunch of muthafuckas—I was about to go one way with my life," he says. But some unsolicited advice convinced him to give higher education a shot. "The gangsters said, 'Howard is the shit—you should go to Howard. Don't be a dumbass,'" he says.

Sllime enrolled in Howard University in fall 2008. "Then junior year I got busted shippin' some weed," he says. He got three years of probation and left Howard in 2011. He returned to Chicago and gave school another shot, this time at DePaul. But Sllime bailed within a year to pursue music—in 2012 he teamed up with rapper-producer SolarFive of beat-making collective OnGaud, and they opened a studio called the 406 in the Music Garage near Fulton Market. Among the early clients at their studio was the emerging crew Supreme Regime. It was the first time Sllime met Qari.

Qari finds Sllime’s Wu-Tang nunchucks. - DAVON CLARK
  • Qari finds Sllime’s Wu-Tang nunchucks.
  • Davon Clark

We're in such a weird fucking age, where people drop beautiful pieces of music and create amazing art and people forget about that shit a week later—it's like it didn't happen. I hope that doesn't happen with them. I think they have pretty sizable fan bases to support Operation Hennessy, to enshrine it, and make it be as special as it's gonna be to them. I think it's a standout project of the year. I hope when people look back on this year, this era, this is something that is mentioned. —rapper-singer Rich Jones

"I used to meditate," Qari says. "There'd be times where I'd be somewhere with nothing, and feel like I had nothing, and feel like I was alone, and feel like no one cared about me. So I'd just close my eyes and breathe a little bit. And that became a habit and a practice." During a deep meditation his junior year at Friedrich Von Steuben high school, he realized he wanted to give music a serious shot.

Qari grew up surrounded by music—his stepfather was a rap producer. "My earliest memories are, like, my stepfather making these dope-ass beats that were different," he says. "They were manual and original. He wasn't doing a lot of sampling."

Qari's first experience making music was in seventh grade: he learned rhythm guitar, inspired by playing Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. But when he was 15, during his freshman year at Von Steuben, he discovered other people his age making rap songs. "I heard Kids These Days and Vic," he says. "I was like, 'Damn, kids make music? Young people make music?'" He met a senior, Will Is Chillin', who invited Qari to his house in Logan Square to record a solo session.

"He'll tell people I helped him figure out how to rap," Will says. "But he knew how to rap way before—he came in rapping." Even back then Will could hear what was distinctive about Qari. "His flow definitely went all over the place," he says. "His whole vibe is real chill, for someone so young."

Green Sllime and Qari first met in 2012 at a studio Sllime had cofounded in the Music Garage. - DAVON CLARK
  • Green Sllime and Qari first met in 2012 at a studio Sllime had cofounded in the Music Garage.
  • Davon Clark

Will had a rudimentary setup. "He had fuckin' FruityLoops, and he would make beats on FruityLoops and rap on them in FruityLoops," Qari says. He doesn't remember his own early attempts fondly either. "The raps sound like a 15-year-old wrote 'em, but at the time, kids were like, 'Oh man, I hear that song you dropped, kinda cool! You decent!'" Though he won over lots of classmates with those recordings, his microcelebrity didn't exactly create a community. "When I started rapping, people started calling me Carl," he says. "One of my homies started calling me Carl, and then everybody started calling me Carl—I never told anyone to call me Carl." The name stuck for years.

Qari joined Supreme Regime his sophomore year. His tenure barely overlapped with that of Smoko Ono, who's since become one of Save Money's most important beat makers—both of them contributed to Supreme's debut, 2012's Sloane Peterson.

Devin Smith, better known as producer Mulatto Beats, was also part of the group at the time. "It was kind of hectic, 'cause it was four rappers and two producers," he says. "We were getting some good opportunities—we did a little stint, a college tour, with Kids These Days and Chance the Rapper. We did Madison and all these shows, but Qari used to get in trouble so much he would get grounded, so he couldn't even come."

Supreme Regime fizzled out in summer 2013. By then Qari had finished his junior year and quit high school, and his disappointed parents asked him to move out. "I slept in a garage one night. One night I slept in the park. One night I slept in my friend's backyard," he says. "I was a teenager, though, so it's like, 'Hey, can I sleep at your crib?' 'Sure!' Maybe you'll get a few days vacation at a friend's house and nobody knows you're homeless. It wasn't, like, a proper homeless—I was a kid, so I felt free." That same year, though, at age 17, he learned he was going to be a father, so he began to mend his relationships with his family. He moved in with one of his grandmothers, and in 2014 he got his GED.

On New Year's Day 2014, Qari and Devin launched Hurt Everybody with rapper-singer Frederick McCulloch-Burton, aka Supa Bwe. The group soon consumed Qari's life. "We had a studio to ourselves, and we spent all of our waking life in there," he says. "I remember I would walk out of the studio, it's nighttime. I would go back in, I would come back out, it's nighttime, and I had been in there for hours and hours and hours and hours." Supa made sure they were productive. "I had Freddy to be like a fuckin' drill sergeant," Qari says. "He taught me how to put my head down."

In fall 2013, Devin had started interning for SolarFive at the 406, and Hurt Everybody worked out of another studio in the Music Garage. When the group took off, its members would swing by the 406 during breaks in their marathon sessions. Sllime and Qari had already met, but now they began to develop an appreciation for each other's work. "I like what he does," Qari says. "We're not bad at what we do."

"I was always like, 'He can rap,'" Sllime says. "I always thought he was tight, before I knew him."

Sllime prefers hardware that’s several generations shy of cutting-edge. - DAVON CLARK
  • Sllime prefers hardware that’s several generations shy of cutting-edge.
  • Davon Clark

I love Operation Hennessy. . . . There's a lot of old-school sensibility in how Sllime makes stuff—I can hear, "Oh yeah, he chopped this on an MPC." One of his heroes is Wu-Tang—I can hear that approach, that meeting of analog and digital in how the production is crafted, how things are moving from song to song. And Qari can rap that ass off. —poet Nate Marshall

Qari and Sllime have spent so much time working in studios that the weeks and months have blurred together. "Pretty much 2014 to 2018 are all one year," Qari says.

"We lived the same day, over and over, for four years straight," Sllime says. "Maybe the same three days, because sometimes we would go to parties and shit."

Mick Jenkins frequented the 406 to record with the OnGaud collective, who contributed to six songs on his 2014 breakthrough, The Water[s]. Mick got close to Sllime in that space. "I came in the studio one day, and he was rockin' the turntables," Mick says. "I'm like, 'Wait, you DJ for real?' He's like, 'Yeah, I DJed first.' I was like, 'Why haven't I been fucking around with this guy?' Instantly, he was my DJ." As Mick's star rose, Sllime spent more and more time on the road.

  • The Green Sllime/Hurt Everybody collaboration “Ghosts”

In June 2015, 119 Productions and Chicago creative agency FDC released the compilation mixtape Chicago Sight 'n Sound: Part 2, which includes the song "Ghosts," a collaboration between Hurt Everybody and Sllime. After Hurt Everybody broke up in early 2016, Devin and Qari continued to collaborate, and they'd frequently work in close proximity to Sllime. "Me and Sllime are always around each other making beats, so Qari's always in the background freestyling," Devin says. "Once they started doing their thing, it was kind of like, 'Oh yeah, this is perfect for Qari, 'cause Qari got roots in the boom-bap stuff."

Sllime would set aside certain instrumentals for specific rappers he knew, but he almost always tested out new material on Qari first. "Also, when it's something I can't fit to nobody, Imma send it to him 'cause he gonna figure something out," Sllime says.

By fall 2017, Sllime and Qari had decided to make a record together. That September, Sllime sent Qari a somnambulant beat and then tweeted a two-minute laptop-shot video of him rapping over it—the first public reveal of what eventually became the title track to Operation Hennessy. Its name references The Life Aquatic, specifically Steve Zissou's plan to "borrow" equipment from an undersea lab belonging to his rival, Alistair Hennessey. By that point Qari and Sllime knew they were onto something big—they'd already completed three other songs that would end up on Operation Hennessy. Qari had performed a version of "Pony" on the fourth episode of Broke Ass Low Budget Show, which came out in February 2017. The final recording includes the project's only guest rapper, Mick Jenkins.

  • Qari and Mulatto Beats appear on Sllime’s Low Budget Broke Ass Show in February 2017.

"It was supposed to be my song," Mick says. "Sllime is a hoarder, low-key—that was one of the ones in the vault, and they were just like, 'Yo, can we use this?' I'm like, 'Bro, yeah, whatever.'" Mick sees Operation Hennessy as a turning point for Sllime in particular. "It's the beginning of an era," Mick says. "To me it seems like that first window into . . . finally, he's gotten to a place where he's ready to release music. I'm just excited for people to understand the type of artist that he actually is."

Sllime turned that corner in large part because he clicks so well with Qari. In March 2019, during a stopover in Sweden on Mick's European tour, Sllime put together half a dozen beats in his hotel room, using samples captured from the radio with a Teenage Engineering OP-1 mini synthesizer. He played them for other rappers, but when no one bit, he started to worry that he'd made something too odd. So he included some of them in a batch of eight songs he e-mailed Qari at the beginning of April. The next day, Qari sent back vocals he'd just recorded for one of Sllime's favorite beats. "I woke up at 6:30 or 7 and wrote that song in bed still," Qari says. "I just wrote it, and I wrote it honestly."

"Some of the raps be like stream-of-consciousness—you feel like you open up a door and just peekin' into thoughts rambling and racin' and shit," Sllime says. "It's a perfect fit for my beat."  v

DAVON CLARK

  • Davon Clark

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