Underground Heat: Saba
Saba from the Pivot Gang is our pick for this week, because he’s been steadily building his name in the last few years as one of the best (yet underrated) artists to come out of Chicago. Most commonly known for his work with Chance the Rapper in tracks like “Angels,” which he performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He’s also worked with artists like Tink, Noname Gypsy, and gone on tour with Kirk Knight and Mick Jenkins… not bad for a guy barely out of his teen years!
The talented lyricist and producer hails from the west side of Chicago, born into a particularly musical family, notably his father, whom he’s collaborated with, but it wasn’t until well into his high school years that he seemed to take a life in music seriously. On the other hand, he took school by storm, focusing on his studies and eventually finishing at the age of 16.
For him though, music came into his life when he decided to do something about his shyness, and to break out of the mold, eventually crafting together ComfortZone in 2014. It landed instantly on every underground rap listener’s radar, and was further proof of the rising Chicago scene. with jazz-influenced productions and impressive lyrics, Saba was finally ready to take over the world and move beyond any deficiencies in personality.
While he stayed relatively quiet in 2015 (in terms of output), we saw Saba release “GPS” with Ebro Darden on Beats Radio, and we knew this was one of those special years for him and the Pivot gang, so we just had to talk to him about it!
First things first, today was the debut of your track “GPS” on Beats Radio! I have to ask, how are you feeling?
I feel great! I feel awesome, I’m really excited to start releasing music again. A lot of stuff has happened since ComfortZone in 2014, and “GPS” is the first thing I’ve put out that is my own since then, and it’s a dope feeling; it seems like people are finally getting it… like, “he’s actually not bad!”
I was reading the article that was released shortly after the release as well (via Fader), and that your dad was pretty strict towards you and your brother, sort of throwing you into a studio and expecting a project done by the end of the week? Was your dad pretty strict on you this time as well?
It’s funny because my dad is not a strict person at all... unless it’s dealing with music. But actually this time, I was the one that was strict on him, I [kept saying] “Send the files Dad! Send the files Dad,” and he finally sent the files last week and we got the track done.
Actually, the original “GPS” was a demo I had done for ComfortZone, and it had never seen the light of day; actually, the original ComfortZone, I had it on a hard drive, and I dropped it and it broke, it shattered, it was gone. I knew that the record was good though, and we reworked it into a new song… But yeah… [back to the original question], I was the one strict on my dad, because I just had to get the damn files and he’ll take years to send that.
So I’ve been reading a lot about you over the last week, and a major running theme you’ve had in everything is this idea of comfort, and moving beyond that, pushing yourself (notably in your shyness). Now that you’ve seemed to conquer a lot of the thing you were dealing with now, how has life been for you?
I would say for me, ComfortZone was definitely a life turning process, and once it happened, it just became a part of who I am. I definitely found myself through that. Now… I hate to be boring, but I just sit around and make music every day, sit in the studio, and every now and then I play some video games. I guess I still don’t really go outside that much, but I feel like in the past I didn’t let myself do something mentally because I felt like I would die, but now that I’ve sort of moved past being shy, I worked at it for about a year, and now I’m like “okay, back to my house to make music, that’s what I should be doing.”
To go along with that, do you have any life lessons you’ve learned over the past couple of years that you wish you could let your past self know?
My younger self I always refer to as Baby Saba [laughs]... pretty much everything before ComfortZone is Baby Saba. I’d tell him to get comfortable; all of the videos that are before [roughly] 2014 are … well, there are gems online with Baby Saba on them somewhere…
We’re going to have to find those now!
[laughs] But, well, he’s not the bravest person, but he understands that about himself and I think younger me is really smart, and if I had to go back and do it over again, I’d do everything the exact same way, because it took all of those steps to become the me that I am today. I wouldn’t want to risk that butterfly effect. I don’t know if I actually would go back in time and tell myself to talk more because it could take me on a totally different path and then I talk too much or something crazy like that.
I also wanted to ask about the importance of youth oriented art groups as well. You’ve called yourself a nerd, you’ve skipped grades in school, and you found your artistic style within these art programs… I’ve got a little bit of a soapbox with MTV, and I’ve seen firsthand how important they are, but also see them being slashed from getting the funding it needs or students not get the attention they quite deserve. Based off your experiences, what would you like the world to know about what these programs have done for you and what your education has done for you?
I think for me, almost singlehandedly, there was a place called YouMedia and another one called Young Chicago Authors that both molded me and gave me the confidence… because I think that’s what Baby Saba lacked- the confidence and the bravery to speak out for himself… and Baby Saba did have bars, he was raw! Back then I wouldn’t let myself speak in front of people, and there was always a feeling of holding back. These places are really the place where I got comfortable with myself.
We had a mentor named Reverend Mike, he passed away, he was the one who really believed in us, he spoke to us as young adults and not as children, and honed that skill because there was a lot of raw talent, and helped everyone gain confidence. I would say ComfortZone was a process, but I think being able to go to these was the key ingredient in making my mixtape the way it was, and also helped open me up to the rest of the world and get out of my own head. It was also the place where I first made my rap relationships. A lot of the people in Chicago that are “rising stars” right now, I met them through these places. They are what changed my life. I still try to go to Young Chicago Authors every once in a blue moon… I feel like with open mics, they’re there, and people just don’t know about them. Even Chance [the rapper] now has one called Open Mic, and a lot of high schoolers just need a place to go, so why not go to a place where they can help themselves in the process?
Finally, what were your highlights of 2015, and what can we expect from you in 2016 (that you can reveal)?
For 2015, one would be “Reach” with Martin $ky, that was like the one record that almost got me through the entire year because I didn’t really put out too much of my own last year. Features were lit for me in 2015 though… the Late Show with Stephen Colbert with Chance was a huge milestone in my youthful career... “Angels,” definitely was one of those records... it did a lot for the city I think.
Performing in front of Andre 3000 was a highlight as well...I also had the craziest SXSW experience, but not good crazy, it was terrible-crazy, but I played about 8 or 9 shows and that was amazing, but I got kicked out of the crib, someone tried to scam us. It was amazing, but amazing for all of the terrible, wrong reasons. We was damn near homeless out there for like two days. I had to hit up all of my friends and visit them to take showers.
Oh! Mick Jenkins had Noname Gypsy and myself on him and Kirk Knight’s tour, probably one of the most amazing rap experiences to date. [Ultimately] the highlight of 2015 was seeing what Comfort Zone, from 2014, managed to do and carried into 2015. It worked miracles for me this past year. It was a reset button a little bit. I spent two, three years putting effort into this mixtape, so now seeing what happened, and then going back to square one again.
2016 for me though, you get to see a lot of the effects 2015 had on me. Last year I only had one track out, with Tink, so you’ll see a lot of what has been happening throughout 2015. I want to start out on a good note, I feel like I’ve already tied all that I’ve done in 2015. I’m not sure what 2016 has to offer quite yet, but I feel like this is one of those years we definitely waited for. We put a lot of serious time and effort in the studio, and I think this is going to be the time when we have a lot of records see the time of day. I was never one of those artists who put out a lot of music, I always felt like a low key kinda guy, drop a track every now and then sort of type, but in 2016 I think you might see me by the end of the year a little bit more, might remember my face by the end of the year. That would be cool. I might put on my man pants this year. In 2015, I put on my big boy pants, and 2016 I’ve got my man pants on.
Words: Kristi Shinfuku