“Hip hop in general has always been about rebellion and the artists we like embody that,” begins Quentin Branch, one half of Chicago rap duo Angry Blackmen. We are speaking online about the playlist I’ve just been sent of tracks Branch and his bandmate Brian Warren consider their formative influences. Rebellion. It sums up Angry Blackmen perfectly, from their earliest forays into a uniquely noisy rap niche that includes Death Grips, JPEGMAFIA and Clipping., to the incendiary HEADSHOTS!, a crossover of sorts released last year by the very label that helped launch those acts – Deathbomb Arc.
The album was conceived in early 2020, just as the Coronavirus pandemic started to grip the planet and cities worldwide were protesting the death of George Floyd. Branch uses the same word to describe his experience of the past year and the driving force behind HEADSHOTS!: rebellion. “There was so much going on,” he says. “It felt as though the world was coming to an end before our very eyes [and] we felt like we had to say something. We wanted to make art that was timeless yet contemporary: art that spoke to the current zeitgeist but would adapt and live on. HEADSHOTS! is just that.”
As loud and provocative as Angry Blackmen can be on record, in reality the pair are considered in their choices and respectful of the pioneers that paved their way. Branch admits to being a “nerd” steeped in politics who’s as likely to drop Harry Potter references as he is rail against the establishment – things he says “reflect him as a person.” “That’s the world I’m from,” he continues. “[whereas] Brian’s from the opposite end of the spectrum – he grew up on more traditional hip hop artists [like] Lil Wayne, [and] I like Ice Cube, Death Grips and Danny Brown. Money Store and Amerikkka’s Most Wanted were huge influences on writing HEADSHOTS!”
Quentin refers to Brian as “a student of the game.” The differences in background and taste, he says, are necessary to the chemistry they share. “Yin and Yang, black and white, equivalent exchange, whatever you want to call it… Brian likes to have a good time, and that’s reflected in his writing – he’s a bit more flashy when it comes to the craft. [He’s] been rapping since he was really young [and] has a basement full of vinyl from across the spectrum, so we both bring something new to the table. The best way to describe Angry Blackmen is an amalgamation of both of our identities.”
If one track stands out in the playlist Angry Blackmen put together for Underscore, it’s Roxy Music’s sumptuous 1982 crooner “More Than This.” Branch says his interest in the UK art rockers is relatively nascent, having been piqued during lockdown. “I’ve been on a huge Bill Murray binge,” he tells me. “I watched Lost in Translation for the first time in my life and I instantly fell in love with everything about it. I’ve been obsessed with the film. “More Than This” is featured in it [and] it’s been a huge part of my life ever since. In life we kinda float around looking for a purpose – no matter what, everyone is trying to find something more than what we are given. There’s something hauntingly nostalgic about it.”
When I mention a line from the HEADSHOTS! track “PROPAGANDA!” about making Angry Blackmen “accessible to white folks,” Quentin reflects on the battles Black culture still fights as a whole. “Historically [it] has always had to ride a fine line between acceptance and being embraced by its roots. Especially when it comes to hip hop,” he opines. “I feel like the genre can never be presented in its truest form. As an artist or someone who puts out media, it comes in a package – it can’t be 100% your vision without going through a kind of conformity, whether it be racial, capitalistic, or political, to some extent you will have to “sell out.”” I ask whether he feels like the kind of hip hop he makes – the noise influences, the tricksy rhyme schemes, the goofy references – provides an easier gateway into rap for those perhaps less likely to go looking. “My problem with those people is that they don’t do the homework. Some people will listen to hip hop [on a] surface level and never dig deeper into the history. Some rap is easier for white people to get into. I don’t blame them; humans are comfortable with things they can relate to. I understand why some people will get into rap through Death Grips before they listen to Lil Baby. Hopefully in the future Angry Blackmen is that bridge for someone…”
HEADSHOTS! is available to order now through Deathbomb Arc. We hope you enjoy the playlist.