Back in the spring the west-side rap group Qualo received a proposition they were sure was a prank: the intern who handles their digital marketing got a message through his MySpace page offering them a record deal with major-label monolith Universal. “We thought it was a joke,” says Chicago Shawn, whose real name is Shawndell Lewis. “But it turned out to be real.” The message was from Universal A and R exec Jolene Cherry. “So we called her up, and they flew us out to LA,” Shawn says, “and it was popping from there.” Qualo signed a deal with the company in mid-July.

A month later Shawn, Shala Esquire (Olusola Akintunde), Preast G (Trevell Ruffer), and Optimyst (Kenneth Bayliss) are holed up at Lake Street’s DAM! studios. As they bound in and out of the control room, it’s hard to keep track of which of their myriad projects they’re working on at the moment. Aside from a batch of new material slated for their Universal debut, they’re putting the finishing touches on Preast’s solo effort, Fear God, Tell the Truth and Make Money, which will be released independently on September 11; a compilation called Immortal Movement Nation; and samplers for Nike and the performing rights organization ASCAP. The group is also working on tracks for the members of its Movement crew, which includes Morocco Stone (formerly known as the Colombian Prince) and Crystal Claire.

Notwithstanding the ease of their first deal, getting to this point has been a lifelong process for the members of Qualo. “Our parents are old friends, they hung out from before we were born,” says Optimyst, “so we was intertwined before we even knew each other.” In the early 90s Shala, Shawn, Preast, and Optimyst all attended Lane Tech High School, a fertile breeding ground for talent that included classmates like Ace from Public Announcement and Maze from Twista’s crew. “We were always writing, doing street-corner battles, talent shows,” says Preast. “Just really learning how to record and make music.”

“We were just little kids, but we were right there with the whole Drama Ward: Crucial Conflict, Do or Die,” says Shawn, who was also featured on a track from Twista’s 1997 debut, Adrenaline Rush. “We was on the classic underground mix tapes coming out of the west side, like Chi-Town Outlaws, all that.”

Qualo released their debut comp, Movementality, in 2000, and furthered their reputation by opening for everyone from KRS-One to Cash Money to DMX. “Every gig in Chicago you can play we played,” says Optimyst. “Every college, House of Blues, Metro, Elbo Room, all of that.” In 2003 they hit it big, selling more than 10,000 copies of their comp Chi Bangin’: The Movement Catalog, which featured group and solo tracks from Qualo as well as from other west-side rappers like Psychodrama and Royale.

The group’s LP Believe followed in August 2004. It got them airplay on all three major Chicago urban stations as well as plaudits in The Source, Playboy, and this paper, among others. The record had the sort of enlightened lyrics that appeal to north-side indie rap fans but sufficient street credibility to attract south- and west-side audiences. “See, we traveled in all those circles. We used to hang out up north with the hip-hop heads with the backpacks and all that,” Optimyst says. “But we was also running there with the more street-thug element. All those things are intertwined; that’s what you hear in our music.”

“We can do a song with Psychodrama, a song with Twista, a song with Bump J, a song with Common,” adds Shawn. “It don’t matter, we fit right in.”

With each member writing, rhyming, and producing, Qualo’s sound draws on a variety of styles and influences, from dirty south beats to Cali G-funk hooks to east coast noir. Part of the group’s appeal is based on its members’ divergent personas. Shawn says, laughing, “Preast used to like to go to jail a lot, sell drugs, and shoot people. So he kinda raps about that. Shala likes to make sure we got conscious, challenging songs, things that are gonna challenge people’s mentality. Optimyst, he loves real hip-hop with emotion and feeling and music that’s gonna permeate your soul. Me, I like hot records, hot tracks, and I want to sell records.”

It’s that mix of gangsta menace, engaged lyricism, old-school principles, and commercial savvy that makes the group compelling. “It’s a mesh, but we’re not pandering to nobody,” says Preast. “We know the music game is marketing driven. Right now, it’s like a factory–they’re out there building rappers, just putting them together. But we’re not like that. I hate to use a generic term, but what we do, it’s not just real, it’s real-life.

“Our goal is to bring back the danger to the shit,” he adds. “Eighty-year-old ladies shouldn’t be singing 50 Cent songs. I want to affect the kids, and make music that pisses their parents off again–like, ‘You ain’t supposed to be listening to this.'”

Although the group was originally hoping for a late-2005 release for the Universal album, it looks like Qualo’s major-label debut won’t be out until early next year. The added time should let the group pick and choose from the dozens of tracks they have. “We’ve got a backlog of material, and we’re working on some new joints,” notes Optimyst. “We can turn a couple masters in and see which one the label wants to work with.”

Qualo–along with south sider and Kanye West protege Bump J–have been heavily tipped as the next Chicago act to break nationally and expectations are running high. “I want to do for 2006 what Doggystyle did for rap in ’93, or what The Score did for rap in 1996,” says Shawn. “I don’t want to dis no artists out there, but there hasn’t been a new movement in hip-hop since Dre brought Eminem out in like 2000 or whatever. I want our record to matter so much that it changes how everybody else records.”

“We want to affect culture the way classic albums have always affected culture,” Shala adds. “We’re bringing in some music with integrity, music with a message, but music that has some grit, some teeth, music that makes people scared, makes people feel something. We’re trying to start a whole new movement. We want to bring all that back to hip-hop. I know we can do it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.