Chicago is changing, but the change has been slow. The violence has diminished since 2012 — the year that the city earned the lamentable distinction of “U.S. Murder Capital.” But there are still weeks (like last week) where you need two hands to count the homicides. For more auspicious signs of change, there’s the music. Drill, the rap subgenre that documented, mourned, and promoted the yellow tape and chalk outlines from the frontlines, has waned in popularity. Chicago’s current crop of rappers has emerged with more nuanced, humanitarian perspectives. The big names are familiar: Chance, Vic, Mick. Saba might be the next to join them on that list.
Saba’s ComfortZone was one of the best rap projects of 2014 — one obscured by the shadow cast by Mick Jenkins; The Water[s] and Lil Herb’s Fazoland. As Saba’s sophomore effort, the mixtape is markedly assured and cohesive. It bears the marks of someone who has found his voice. The lush instrumentation imbues the tape with a warmth fitting of its brightest moments and beautifully at odds with its most painful. Delivered in singular and melodic cadences that occasionally borrow from Bone Thugs and Crucial Conflict, Saba’s seemingly free associative wordplay feels carefully crafted. He can condense a lifetime into one line (“It’s funny we play in chalk, and then lay in chalk” – “Burnout”) or write an entire song poignantly illustrating the thin line between seemingly disparate responses to being disenfranchised (“401K”).
The following interview took place during the last quarter of 2014. It was one in a series of interviews I conducted for a piece on young Chicago rappers that resulted in a feature for RBMA (read here). Predictably, it was one of the most engaging interviews. We discussed everything from his upbringing and his stance on drill to ComfortZone and his thoughts on the future of Chicago rap. For the sake of timeliness, Saba is currently on tour with Mick Jenkins, Kirk Knight, and NoName Gypsy and will be at Los Globos here in L.A. this Wednesday. – Max Bell
You’re from Austin [a suburb of Chicago, not Texas], right?
Saba: I am. Born and raised. I’ve actually never moved in my entire life.
During your childhood, did you hang out solely on the Westside or did you travel all over the city?
Saba: I would say it’s kind of been an all over thing. Chicago is pretty big to just be in one place. But I don’t know. I would say that up until a certain age I was probably only over here. But probably around 15 is when I kind of found out about all of this other Chicago.
What was Austin like?
Saba: It’s an interesting place. It’s as far west as you can go in Chicago and still be considered in Chicago. Austin is a border. Across from Austin, one side of the street is Oak Park, which is a suburb. Then on the other side of Austin is the first block of Chicago.
Growing up there you get to see both sides. I’ve always felt like because I’m from where I’m from I got a good glimpse of a different kind of life. It’s the first block of Chicago. It’s not the most hood, but it’s pretty hood. Across the street, literally across the street, it’s the complete opposite. You get to see both sides and you get to know both cultures. I think growing up here was a blessing. You get to see the suburbs and the city life.
Did you have friends in the burbs and the city?
Saba: Actually, I went to school in the suburbs. So most of my experiences were around people from the suburbs up until I started going to the city more. I went to private school. So I would go to private school, which was in the suburbs, and then come home and that was it. I had friends from both sides. I had rich white kids that were my friends and then there would be guys that live over here, who were way more hood or whatever. It was real interesting getting both sides.
What does Pivot stand for?
Saba: Pivot actually originated from an episode of the sitcom Friends. My brother is hella weird and he was watching Friends one day. There’s an episode where they’re a moving a couch and they’re yelling, “Pivot.” So that’s where it actually came from.
But we kind of adopted it as a bunch of different meanings. One of the bigger ones is like one step at a time, Pivot. And then we just yell out “Pivot” at all of the shows. It was the first movement we created that people got hip to. We had a bunch of different groups or whatever, but none of them really did anything. So Pivot was like the first time we got noticed.
What was your earliest experience with music?
Saba: I played piano. I learned how to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano because we had some toy piano at the crib. It was a real piano, but it was small. I went to my great grandmothers house… I’m probably like 6 or 7 and she has this old piano and I played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on that and she’s like, “You actually know how to play it.” So she ended up getting me lessons. I think that was the first real experience as far as I go with music. But my dad has been a musician. I was always around music. But that was the first one that I had.
What instruments did/does your father play?
Saba: He’s a singer. But he produces as well. Just being around him, he would always have a studio. When he lived in Chicago, there was always a studio there. It just looked cool to me. I never did anything in it though.
Did your grandparents play music in the house?
Saba: They did. But everything they played was older. I think the first real rap… My uncle played a little rap. My uncle and my brother recorded a bunch of raps. Probably like 8 or 9. I know the first rap song I really liked was “Notorious Thugs” by Notorious B.I.G. and Bone Thugs. That’s the song that inspired me to be a rapper. After I heard that, for that Christmas I got a four-track tape recorder and was making records ever since then.
Did you start producing when you were young as well?
Saba: Yeah. When I was like 9 I had an electric piano and we had a fake studio in the basement. We had a tape recorder, karaoke machine, and a piano to make beats on. That’s basically what we did every day.
What do you use now?
Saba: Now it’s all digital for the most part. I try to involve a lot of piano. I really like piano, electric piano. There’s actually a similar vibe when we’re making music, for the most part. We’re still in that basement. We record in some of the bigger studios every now and then, but the most organic shit that we make still comes from the basement. The vibe has never changed.
Is your grandparents’ basement soundproof?
Saba: Naw. It’s open. It’s a nice set-up, but there’s no booth or anything like that. That’s where I recorded most of ComfortZone. I probably recorded half down there and half at this studio called Private Stock.
Do you play a lot of the piano on the mixtape?
Saba: I probably did half of the production for ComfortZone. Then the other half is done by people that I was working with at the time. There’s an actual piano player on there. My piano skills–I dropped out of piano lessons when I was 11. But I did a decent amount of it.
How important were Chicago rappers when you were growing up?
Saba: I was the biggest fan of fast raps, so I got into Twista and Crucial Conflict early on. It wasn’t until high school that I got into hella lyrical people. Common, Lupe, and Kanye were definitely the shit. Lupe was my favorite rapper for a nice amount of time, when he was dropping The Cool and shit like that. I had to go out and buy The Cool. We had all of the Kanye albums. And my dad was a big Common fan, so I got into Common from being around my dad. I don’t know if you heard about the AAHH Fest but I went the other day and it was ridiculous. I got reintroduced to all of these people.
Do you think that AAHH Fest is good for the city? There hasn’t really been a hip-hop festival…
Saba: Of course. It’s a great thing. This is the first black festival that I’ve ever been to in my life. Most music festivals that I’ve been to, it’s predominately a white crowd. It was like black people. And especially with everything going on in Chicago, it’s cool to see the bigger artists come out and take a stand toward it. I fucked with the AAHH Fest.
Did you attend all-ages shows when you were younger, or were just recording in the basement?
Saba: That was it until I was 16. When I was 16 I started going to YOUmedia, and YOUmedia was this open mic that’s downtown. It’s where I met damn near everybody that is a part of the Chicago rap scene now. I met Chance there. I met all of the SaveMoney guys; I met Lucki there; I think I met Mick there. I met all of these people who were doing similar, or trying to do similar things in rap. It wasn’t just rapping in the basement and going to school. It became an actual showcase and a collaborative place to meet new people and show your skills off.
How important was YOUmedia to the local rap scene?
Saba: It’s crazy. It’s not just YOUmedia. There’s another place called Young Chicago Authors. It’s actually pretty crazy to think about. These are two central locations in the city that basically helped change the way the city functions. They have the hottest artists coming weekly. That’s one of the things that helped me with my writing, helped me with my connection to the fans, get some fans. It was like a training camp almost.
Did it ever get to a point where they had limit the number of people on stage or the number of people in the building?
Saba: It was like that damn near every time. There were always a few people on the list who didn’t get called. There have only been a few times where one of the places has been so packed that they had to not let people in due to fire hazards. But Young Chicago Authors, I know when I dropped Get Comfortable it was crazy packed in there and we had to stop letting people in.
Was it always packed? Were there nights when hardly anyone showed?
Saba: They happened. Generally if it’s raining out less people come. And you know Chicago with the weather. It’s a year round thing, so there are days where it’s hella cold outside and there aren’t a lot of people there. But generally during the summer it’s super cracking events. For the most part, it’d be hella packed in there.
What was the vibe like when there were a lot people?
Saba: It’s always hella love in there. I think these are all the people that have foreseen all our success, or the people who have always known that we could go on to do great things.
Were there ever drill artists at either YCA or YOUmedia?
Saba: Yeah. It was very rare because it’s a poetry open mic. As rappers, we were kind of looking for somewhere to go and ended up there. Every now and again there is some trap shit there. I don’t think I’ve heard drill for real, but there is some trap that goes on there.
What do you think about drill? Do you listen to it?
Saba: I think it is… I fuck with it. I don’t think that what they rap about and somebody like me raps about is that different. I think the difference is the perspective. A lot of my songs are written like, let’s say I was on my front porch and looking at the corner and just talking about everybody that I see on the corner doing all of this shit, whereas their songs are more first person perspectives, like, “I’m on the corner doing this.” And then it’s basically what they’re doing. It’s all the same Chicago.
When I was talking to Lucki he essentially said, “Drill music is over.”
Saba: Yeah. I don’t think that’s the only focus now. Whereas a couple years ago that’s the only thing that people wanted to hear coming out of Chicago. Now there’s room for people like me or Lucki. I think there’s room for hella new shit.
There doesn’t seem to be a unifying style. Is that an accurate assessment?
Saba: I agree with that. Just not having a coast and being in the middle, a lot of us get influenced by a bunch of different things. East, West, South—this is kind of like the perfect little round up of all of the styles.
How important was your Acid Rap feature for your career?
Saba: All it was to me was a feature making some good music. It wasn’t like, “Hey, Chance is about to be hella famous, I’m on the tape. Everybody in the world is about to hear it. OMG.” He was like, “Yo bro, are you trying to do this verse?” I’m like, “Of course, send it to me.” Then when I heard it, it was hella tight. So I wrote a verse. I never had an expectation for it because I can’t control what happens, what people think of it. To me it was just making music. Even the reaction from it now is still the same way. Most people that have Acid Rap don’t even know I’m on it. I don’t know. It was never, “I felt like this…” A lot of the writers and bloggers make it out like, “Saba from Acid Rap had this career making feature.” And that’s not really the case. Most people who fuck with me, who fuck with my music, genuinely fuck with my music and don’t fuck with me because Chance fucks with me, which is what I think a lot of people make it out. It was just making music to me.
After Kanye and Lupe, do you think anyone else picked up the mantle for Chicago rap on a national scale?
Saba: I’m not really sure. I know when Kanye was having his run, it seemed like Chicago was a thing again. Kanye started producing Common’s music. Lupe followed. Twista was doing his thing with R. Kelly and the whole Roc-A-Fella shit. Outside of those names I don’t think that there’s anyone who I can name that was hella doing shit that was hella influential to me. Of course there’s the underground cats, but on a national scale I don’t know if anybody has gotten hella attention until now outside of that all star Chicago cast that we named.
When you were going to YOU Media and YCA, was there anyone that was heavily influential? Were you all influencing one another?
Saba: I don’t know. By the time I was 16 I kind of already knew what I rapped like, and most of the people around me also knew. Most of the people around me were also a year or two older. But they already knew what they sounded like. If you listen to 10 Day by Chance, he still sounds like Chance. NoName Gypsy, I’ve been recording her music since I was 16, and she’s always sounded like NoName Gypsy. Mick has been hot for the last four or five years. It’s the world that’s playing catch-up. We always knew. Vic has been hot, Lucki has been hot–we’ve all been hot. It’s just now that it’s getting attention.
What was it about YOUmedia and YCA that galvanized you and your peers?
Saba: As a rapper who has nothing — not a fan, not a mixtape, not anything — when you go to a place like that with a bunch of opportunity there you’re going to continue to go and try to take advantage of everything that’s in front of you. Mind you, most of us were doing no shows. So this was the closest thing to a show that we’ve probably ever done. When you’re done performing people give you feedback. Like, “That shit was hot.” Yo, “Try to engage the crowd a little more.” It was a bunch of people trying to actually help you. When that’s presented to you, you go back to that.