Qualo: Backpack Gangstas

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The annual Chicago Rocks showcase, organized by the respected Molemen crew, has been a highlight of the city's hip-hop calendar for years and Qualo made sure its appearance during the 2005 edition would be memorable. Waving a flag and flooding the stage with rappers, the group turned its set into a haphazard scene straight out of a political convention. It was an apt move for Qualo, a quartet who are definitely rap's dark-horse candidate.

"We're from Chicago and we bring the truth," says group member Shala Esquire. "We're more rooted in reality. There's a dark, bluesy sentiment to our music. It's never corny."

Qualo started taking shape when the group's four members–Preast, Chicago Shawn, Shala Esquire, and King Ken Winz–met and began performing at Chicago's Lane Technical High School. Progressing organically from campus freestyle sessions in the school cafeteria, the group solidified and started cutting records (they all share production duties). A wide range of influences, from Led Zeppelin and A Tribe Called Quest to local rappers like Psychodrama and Crucial Conflict, informed the group's polyglot approach to putting together beats and rhymes. With lyrics spanning sarcastic political satires and street-heavy screeds, Qualo has a diverse style sometimes compared to that of OutKast, particularly the duality of that duo's approach.

"If you notice, Big Boi and Andre could never get along if there wasn't a little Big Boi in Andre and Andre in Big Boi," said Shala Esquire. "We don't have one thing, either. People aren't just backpack or gangsta."

The group started gaining wider attention with their self-released 2004 album Believe–­which earned a stellar review from that other Chicago institution, Playboy–and continued to make noise on the mixtape circuit with CDs like Only in America, which contained the dead-on genre parody "Crack." Signed to Universal, Qualo expects to drop a full-length later this year. In the meantime, they're working on solo albums (like Chicago Shawn's forthcoming reggae disc), collaborating with artists like Low B of Hollertronix, and strengthening "The Movement"–a loose term they apply to friends, fans, and fellow artists from Chicago

"We want to be known as a group that makes music and just happens to rap," Esquire explains. "People put us in boxes. When they can't package and corner you, they don't know what to do with you. I think the era we just left in rap, there was a lot of pandering. We're the new sentiment of what rap started from: rebellious and breaking the norm."