Interview: Bas discusses his Muslim roots, discovering rap at age 23, and his new album "Too High to Riot."
Ever since J. Cole signed him to Dreamville Records at the beginning of 2014, Bas has been living on the road. He toured North America, he toured Europe, and he toured North America again. This summer he's going on tour to promote his sophomore album Too High to Riot.
In a way, this is arrangement is nothing new for Bas. He's been on the move his entire life. The youngest of five siblings in a Sudanese family, he was born in France and lived on three continents before he turned ten. He spent the bulk of his childhood in Queens; there he met a student at St. John's named Jermaine Cole before either of them had ever released a hip hop project.
HNHH caught up with the thick-bearded 28-year-old at SXSW in Austin, at the bar in the cavernous lobby of the Omni Hotel. Over the course of an hour and two beers, Bas spoke at length about growing up in a first-generation Muslim family, discovering rap as a form of self-expression at age 23, and the meaning of his new album.
You don’t see a lot of Sudanese guys in hip hop. Why did your parents move to the US from France?
I was 8. My father’s a career diplomat. And at the time, my oldest brother was about to start college. So he took a job that transferred him to the UN in New York. I think he just saw the opportunities as far as financially and school and things of that nature that were better for us here.
Was your dad a French diplomat?
Nah, first he started for Sudan. But he got his Ph.D in French literature in the south of France after he graduated, so he lived in France for like 30 years, I was just born on the tail end of it. He and my mom went from Sudan to France for college and then moved there for postgraduate. The University of Bordeaux, I think, is where he got his Masters and Ph.D.
Is that inspiring have a successful and cool dad like that?
For sure. When you become an adult and you have selfish thoughts, you really get to appreciate the selfless people in your life. And you’re like, “Wow, you’ve made sacrifices that I don’t know if I’m mature enough to make at this level of my life.”
What was your household like when you were growing up? How did you get into music?
First, my mom’s brother is like the one of the most famous musicians in Sudanese history. He’s like Barry Gordy meets Quincy Jones in Sudan. It’s crazy. When we go home, he’s like the guy. His name is Bashir Abbas. He plays the oud, which is like a string instrument with a huge gut. It’s like an Arabic sitar. It’s very big in that part of the world, but he’s world-renowned, they fly him to world festivals and stuff.
My oldest brother, DJ Moma, he’s probably my biggest musical influence. I used to carry his crates to gigs, like pre-Serrato days. I was like 16, he was 25, 26. He gave me his learner’s permit, you know, his second ID, because we really resemble each other. New York City, 16, running around, carrying his crates, and just partying and shit. But when he got a new record, he would be like, “Yo, you gotta come hear this.” Or when we were in France, he would collect. He damn near taught himself English listening to Mobb Deep.
What was the first rap you ever wrote?
I didn’t write my first rap til I was 23. We were just drunk as hell at my homie’s crib. It was actually my 23rd birthday. My manager Derrick, who’s my boy from high school, was going to NYU and he was managing the basketball team. So I used to DJ all their parties. And then one night, my friend DJ was like, “Yo, let’s rap!” And he pulled open his Macbook on like Garage Band. I think we rapped over Kanye West’s “Breathe In, Breathe Out.”
Did you know you could rap at that point?
No. Honestly, he had to convince me. I grew up in Queens, so I’ve known like 30 dudes my whole life that tried to make it at rap. And it never seemed like a viable option to get anywhere in life. So he tells me “Let’s rap,” I’m like, “Bro, I’m not fucking rapping. I ain’t no fucking rapper. It’s a waste of time.” And then we fucked around that night.
What I realized is, I didn’t grow up with any creative outlets. I didn’t play an instrument, I didn’t draw or nothing. So I think I caught a serious bug the first time, like “Yo, this is a super dope form of expression.” And then I woke up the next day, I think we did a freestyle over Waka Flocka’s “O Let’s Do It.” I honestly can’t think of many days since that I haven’t written something. I just started waking up everyday and writing.
I saw an interesting quote in which you said, “I struggled my whole life to find something I wanted to dedicate myself to until music.” What were you into as a kid?
I just lacked discipline. I was always smart, but I was chronically underachieving in school. Just never felt pressed or motivated. When I tried, I would kill it, but like the half the time I just didn’t try.
Did you go to college?
I went to college on a pharmacy scholarship. For like one year and then I dropped out. At Hampton University [VA], they gave me a full ride.
Hampton is a good school.
Hampton is dope. And some of the guys I met down there are part of my management, part of the Fiends [creative collective]. Those are still my guys. But I think probably a little bit [the reason I left] was growing up in France and growing up in the Middle East and growing up in New York.
Time out. You grew up in the Middle East too?
I spent three years in Qatar. I was born in Paris, stayed there two years, then like two to five we were in Qatar.
Were you too young for that to make an impression?
No, actually those are like the earliest memories of my life. I don’t remember the first two years in Paris. But you don’t forget the change in scenery when you move to the desert. You’re in like an oasis. So I remember that very vividly. I remember those days. Actually the cover of the album was when I was four living out there.
And then growing up in Queens, which is such a diverse place. So I think struggled with that a little bit when I got down to Virginia. And it was cool because I got put on and I was made aware of a lot of ways of like Southern America, and meeting people down there, just awesome people. But it was a certain pace of life and pace of culture that I was like, “Man, I gotta get back to New York.” I like going to the corner store and seeing the guy from Yemen and then going to Jackson Heights and being in the Hispanic community. You know how New York is. You can get a taste of everything. I didn’t realize when I left New York that that was gonna be something I would really miss.
A couple songs on ‘Too High to Riot’ address race relations. Was the Black Lives Matter movement and everything surrounding it on your mind when you were making the album?
The past two years, especially being on the road, touring Europe, you really get to look back at where we are from a certain perspective and a certain clarity of what’s going on. And even with the one track “Black Owned Business,” I wrote that literally the day we got back from Ferguson. Cole had hit all of us up, around the time the Mike Brown shooting happened.
What did you do in Ferguson?
We marched for a couple days and just like visited where he got shot and talked to the people there. One thing everyone was telling us was like “This ain’t new, this how these cops always been treating us down here.”
We were marching and everyone was just peacefully walking around. People were giving each other water, handing each other roses, and the cops were just standing there with their hands on their hips like,“Yeah, wait til tonight.” I was like, “What’s wrong with y’all? You guys are fucking assholes.”
Are you still a practicing Muslim?
I’m more moderate. My parents or all my elders pray five times a day. But I’m very conscious of the fact that my values and traditions come from their spirituality. I don’t practice the way they do. But it’s definitely like a leading guide in my life. Just the values and traditions, not the ones that you’re led to believe are the values and traditions in our media.
I don’t know how much you’re perceived as a Muslim, but is that something you feel like you’ve had to address in your music?
Nah, because I don’t claim to be like the best representation of Islam. Like I drink, I smoke, I fuck, you know what I mean? I’m a New Yorker.
You’re an American.
Exactly. This is where I grew up. But I do have a lot of influences from my parents and my elders that I believe are very integral to who I am and my character as a human being. And I know that it comes from their faith.
Is there a cultural element? Because Islam and Christianity have basically identical value systems.
The same, all the same. That’s the most mind-bending part of it.Like they all tell you the same thing. Love and respect your neighbors. Don’t be an asshole (laughs). That’s it.
I don’t think there’s fault in the religions. I think there’s fault in the men that come to be leaders in these religions. People in power can manipulate anything.
I feel like a lot of the Middle Eastern countries are behind the curve. They’re going through the same religious growing pains Europe went through a few hundred years ago.
Right. Except they have all this new money, so it’s interesting. It’s backwards. Like when I go to the Emirates, it’s hysterical to me. Dudes straight up have like pet leopards and they have vending machines where you can buy gold bricksin the hotel in Abu Dhabi. It’s called the Emirates Palace. I think it's like a seven-star hotel.
They go above five?
Yeah, there are a few seven-star hotels out there.
So you knew J Cole when he was at St. John’s. Did you know that he could rap at that time? Did you ever think he could do what he did?
It was like ‘05, right when I dropped out of school. At first he was so low key about it. Like I know him as Jermaine. He used to hang out, play basketball, and be at the house parties. My brother went to St. Johns. He like started this shit with Cole, the whole Dreamville movement. I remember the first day he was like, “Yo, Jermaine raps.” I was like, “Word? Light-skinned Jermaine?” “Yeah, he raps.” I’m like, “Word. Is he good?” He’s like, “I got a song. I’ll play it. Let me get your ear on it.” And he played me a record and I’m like, “Damn! Jermaine fucking raps!” And you would never know because he didn’t carry himself as a rapper. Still to this day, he doesn’t carry himself as a rapper. We were circulating The Come Up hand-to-hand just in the neighborhood like, “Yo, my homie raps. He’s dope.”
The album is so reflective and autobiographical. You’ve basically been on the road since you released your debut album ‘Last Winter.’ Were you actively trying to do something different with the new album? Or was it more a function of how your life has changed?
Nah, it’s both. Since Last Winter I gained a lot of confidence just from being on the road and gaining the fans that I’ve gained. So it makes honesty so much easier because I don’t give a fuck how you feel about what I’m saying. I give way less of a fuck. There’s not an inch of me anymore that feels that I have to be a rapper or I have to speak on rapper shit. Those are some of things when you’re coming up you’re like – ‘cause that’s what everyone’s doing. It’s easy to have a weak moment and get influenced.
Even though you have more confidence as an artist, there are some moments on the album when you second-guess yourself, as if you have imposter syndrome. Do you have ambivalence about like fame and success? That may be separate from the artistic aspect?
I think what I’ve noticed is time. Time is a motherfucker. More so than I realized going in. Like you can find yourself really compromising a lot of things about who you are and the people that matter the most to you simply because you’re dedicating your time to a dream and something that’s completely self-serving. You got to be conscious of that.
I imagine it'd be hard not to be a little selfish.
Right. It’s the stage of life we’re at where you try to really find out who you are and everything you want to be and realize those goals. That’s kind of like the concept. We’re living in this fairy tale rap world and then you might go and do four shows in a row of the most popping shit of your life and wake up to a phone call that you got a family member who might not make it through the week. Or you got a friend that’s about to go do a bid. Or your girl can’t deal with not seeing you anymore.
Whatever the case may be, you have those sobering moments that snap you out of it and you’re like, “Oh this is actually real life that I’ve been neglecting because I’ve been …” Do I wake up every day and live my life like telling kids to vote and try to actually make a difference? I’m really not.
You really can get caught up. So the album is kind of me talking to myself man, just interjecting some conscious into these moments and being like, “No, you can’t be too high to riot.” That’s the whole point. I feel like that’s something that resonates with our whole generation. Like we have kids that will hashtag “Black Lives Matter” and won’t get out, get off their couch, and go into the street and tell their elected officials that black lives matter, you know what I mean?
What exactly is Methylone?
That actually has a real interesting story. It was festival season and one of my homies had bought some Molly and decided to buy a drug testing kit just to test it out to find out what drugs we were putting in our body. We were just growing up like, “We can’t keep wildin’.” You can’t wild for ever. We had our experimental stage in our college years, doing all these drugs, and then we’re like, let’s pump the breaks a little bit.
He bought this testing kit and you put three drops on it and you read a chart and it tells you what you’re doing. And we found out that the Molly that we were buying for like 3 years was Methylone. It’s like genetic variation of MDMA.It’s like Molly with an upper. It’s fucked up because I’ve grown to appreciate Methylone more than Molly.
You prefer Methylone?
Now I do. Its fucked up (laughs). And don’t get me wrong, I only do that shit like a few times a year, like if all the homies come to a festival.
You probably don’t want to be doing it more than a few times a year.
Yeah, definitely. I’m grown now, I fully understand what’s going on, but the thing is the song isn’t even about the drug. It’s about when [my friend did the drug test], I’m like, “Man.” It kind of sparked this metaphor, like I wish we could apply that to people. I wish we could put a couple drops on people in my life that have changed up the last two years and be like, “I get it. You’re a little jealous.” I wish a few drops could tell you what someone is made of. So like if you listen to the song, its not even about doing the drugs, it’s about me applying the concept of a drug testing kit to human beings and wishing I could get that kind of transparency from people.
What’s the story behind the ‘Too High to Riot’ album cover?
That’s a picture from when I was four living in Qatar. I used to be a big “Rambo” and “Delta Force” fan. I used to love those movies. So I had that little toy assault rifle that I would run around with and pretend I was Rambo.
I thought that picture just tells a lot about my history and my heritage. Because it’s like a young Muslim guy holding up a gun and it’s like all the misconceptions you’ve been led to believe – you might think like, “Yo, what the fuck is he on?” But if you paid attention, I’m wearing a Disney shirt.
You're trying to challenge people.
Yeah exactly. I’m wearing a Disney shirt. I’m actually mimicking all the great Hollywood action movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s that I loved. I just thought it was funny. I thought it represented me as a person – clearly that’s me. It had different parts of my heritage all in one picture. And I thought, especially in these times, it’s important for people to see and hear from more moderate Muslims.
When you’re a kid, you’re like, “Rambo, hell yeah!” You know, back then you don’t even understand the power of media. You don’t understand what some of these messages are that people are sending. So when I had a chance to control my own form of media I guess, these are the stories I want to tell. This is what I want to convey to the world. I spent summers in Sudan, you know, with guys that pray five times a day and then we get high and drunk at night. They got college degrees and they can’t get a job. They want to find a love and find a home.