INTERVIEW: Saba discusses performing with Chance the Rapper on Colbert and growing up in Chicago in a musical family.
"They was talking 'woo woo this woo wap da bam'/
City so damn great, I feel like Alexand'"
With this couplet, Saba made his national television debut, as he hopped out on stage to rap the hook for Chance the Rapper's "Angels" on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last October. This wasn't the first time Chance had introduced Saba to a broader audience. Before Saba rapped a verse on "Everybody's Something" from Chance's 2013 mixtape Acid Rap, few people had ever heard music, even in his native Chicago.
But Saba is not riding on Chance the Rapper's coattails by any stretch of the imagination. He proved himself as a capable rapper and visionary producer on his 2014 mixtape ComfortZone. Still just 21-years-old, Saba is now putting the finishing touches on his anticipated follow-up project (due out later this year) and getting ready to go on tour in Europe with Jazz Cartier next month (tickets available here). The sky's the limit.
HNHH had the opportunity to hop on the phone with young Saba last month. Saba's slow, articulate, thoughtful style of speaking echoed certain characteristics of his music and suggested a wisdom far beyond his years.
Read our exclusive interview with Saba below.
I understand you have a very musical family dating back several generations. What sort of music did your great-grandparents play?
I don’t know much about them, but I do know that my grandfather’s mom did teach music at a point. I would have to definitely sit [my grandparents] down and have a full conversation to find out what exactly.
Your dad and uncle are musicians as well.
My uncle is a producer, he goes by the name of Tommy Skillfinger. He does a bunch of hip hop stuff. My first interaction with hip hop was through my uncle, he was an MPC kind of guy with the samples. Just the really vintage, authentic Chicago hip hop sound,The sped-up sample kind of Chicago sound. So just seeing that being younger was one of the more inspiring things. I used to always want an MPC because of him. And it’s funny, I just got one yesterday.
My dad, however, was basically the complete opposite. Very clean, soulful, just a very smooth style of music. I always consider it to be a classic R&B, or like a neo-soul kind of cross. And my dad has done a bunch of writing for other people. He produced for some people back in the day, like ‘90s Chicago kinda stuff. Most of what I know is very limited as far as what they allowed me to hear. But it was definitely some shit in the Chicago scene. Before there really was a Chicago scene, so like hella low-key shit.
What values did your parents and uncle instill in you musically? Or in general.
I think the most important thing that I got from being around my family, through my father basically, [was] the law of attraction. Just the idea that what you think is what you become and what the world around you becomes. So my dad always wanted me to think very positive. Something that I used to get in trouble for was saying the world “can’t.” Like “Dad, I can’t do this.” There was basically no negative thinking around the house and that was something that he kind of instilled in me musically and just life. Eliminating certain words like that from my vocab had a very impactful meaning down the line.
How did you get your start producing? Were you using an MPC?
Nah, I had always wanted an MPC. But I could never afford one. I had a MPD, which is the cheaper one. Instead of being $1000, it was probably like $150. That’s what my uncle had gave me. A lot of the equipment that I had used, even to this day, was equipment that I got from my family.
Production-wise, I was making beats since I was like 8, but they were terrible because we had no device to loop the music. Like on an MPC, you can make a beat and the sequence can keep playing on a Motif keyboard or something like that. But we had nothing like that. I had this piano with some sounds in it hooked up to this tape recorder. And if we wanted to make a song 3 minutes, we basically would have to play that same beat for 3 minutes. Like keep pressing the same keys. It wasn’t until my brother went to high school, one of his homies gave him Fruity Loops.
Which producers have influenced you the most? You once mentioned that you harbor aspirations to be the next Quincy Jones. Why do do you want to be like Quincy Jones rather than the next Dilla or Madlib or Kanye West?
What I meant when I said that was basically my association with great music. For the generation right above us, it’s one of those names where it’s like, “Damn, Quincy Jones.” But our generation has forgotten about his role in music.
So for me, Kanye West would I guess be the go-to rapper-slash-producer, but I don’t really want to be seen as that. I want to be just as trusted production-wise and taken as serious equally for my production. And I think the way to go is like Quincy Jones. Like, this man is behind Michael. I want to be behind great shit like that. I don’t know, I think with like a Dilla or something like that, it’s just seen in a different way. I feel like Kanye West is probably the closest, just because people take Kanye West just as serious as a producer and as an artist. But there are many artists that are like that. Timbaland, Pharrell, Kanye might be. But even with all of them, it’s like they’re better at one or the other. Like there’s no true person who is equally as good at both. So I don’t know, I think my goals as a producer as just as big if not bigger than my goals as an actual artist.
You go to a lot of poetry open mics, and I know a lot of other Chicago rappers reference that whole scene. Is that a scene? Would you call it that?
Yeah, I would call it that.
When did you start going to these open mics?
I went to the open mics for the first time like fresh out of high school. I graduated early, I was 16 still.
That’s where I met the likes of Noname Gypsy. I met Chance there, who obviously went on to be The Chance and not just A Chance. I met Vic there, Mick there, I met basically the entire Chicago rap scene. It was a cross between the two open mics. There was one on Tuesday called Young Chicago Authors. There was one on Wednesday called YOUMedia. We were basically going to both every week. And that was our way of networking in the city that didn’t really have a scene, I feel like. That kinda became the scene.
You’ve said that your “Timezone / Whip” video was influenced by Lupe Fiasco’s “Food and Liquor” album cover. What is your relationship like with that album?
That was I think was one of the more important albums for me growing up and finding myself. Prior to Lupe Fiasco, I was definitely into a different type of music. And Lupe was one of the reasons I even rap the way I do today.
I was maybe 13, I was a freshman high school, and one of my homies who was a senior gave me the album and then I listened to it at the library one day and right after that I was like "Man this dude is my favorite rapper." It was crazy. I didn't have internet or anything, so I heard Lupe's radio singles and liked them a lot, but I didn't know much about Lupe Fiasco. Getting the album, I'm like, “Oh damn, he's from Chicago, just like me.” And then even more crazy, he was from the West Side of Chicago. We didn't have any West Siders coming out that big. And even still to this day, we don't really. It's kinda like, Twista, Lupe Fiasco, Crucial Conflict, & Do or Die.
Most of the big Chicago acts were always from the South Side. I think I had just a different closeness with Lupe Fiasco's album just because he was like my hometown hero. He was a black kid with glasses, he even looked a lot what I looked like when I was 13. A lot of who I was at that time, a lot of that came from Food and Liquor.
I get a kind of timeless, not quite religious, but spiritual vibe from your music. There’s a lot of Chicago artists like BJ the Chicago Kid, Chance, Kanye, with a very clear gospel influence. Why do you think there's kind of this gospel influence in a lot of Chicago rap that other rap scenes don't have in the same way?
I wonder. I know, a lot of where we got our influence was from other Chicago artists, like Kanye West for example. As a kid listening to that, that's a lot of what I associate with good music. And I think Kanye West was very influential in that regard. I think for a lot of us, the younger crowd, I think we make a very inspired music. I think it's just what gospel chords sound like. They are very inspiring, even if it’s not as direct. I think someone like Chance is very direct with the gospel sound, but a lot of stuff that I do that is inspired by gospel music is a little more low-key, but still as important.
I didn’t come up in church, that’s not where I got inspired to do music or anything like that. But music-wise, you can’t recreate a lot of that without going directly to the source. And the best musicians to me are church musicians. I think that’s why I have that sound, I would say. But as far as the rest of Chicago, I don’t know, I chalk it up to Kanye, maybe chalk it up to the experience of going to church.
A lot of of the gospel chords are just very black. And I think that we make very diverse music, but obviously at the end of the day, it’s very black music. And we are kind of bringing that gospel back to hip hop. Because obviously, it’s been there, but it’s been lost.
It took a while for “ComfortZone” to come together, and it came out really polished. What do you think distinguished it from your previous projects?
ComfortZone was kind of the project I had been trying to make the whole time. It took those prior projects to kind of learn how to make the music that I want to make. I think with ComfortZone… the chord progressions, a lot of them were very full. The drum sounds that I used were very full. It sounds like a very produced album.
Production-wise, I was very locked in as far as who I wanted to work with, and who I wanted to be a part of the album. Like sometimes it was things that I had made but would reach out to other people to take it to the next level, like bring in outside musicians. And that was something that I wasn’t really able to do prior to comfort zone. It took those mixtapes to get me at least some type of [buzz in the] local scene to be able to connect with other people.
You performed “Angels” with Chance on Colbert. What was that whole experience like? Were you nervous?
I wasn’t nervous at all. For that performance specifically, we had rehearsed that so many times, there was no way to be nervous. it was just a cool thing that Chance did. Chance brought Chicago to that performance. Some stuff that people won’t even realize. I was already in New York that week because I had a show out there, and I just stuck around. We probably started rehearsing only three days before, but they were full days dedicated to the performance.
Your dad is on your new joint “GPS”. What is your musical relationship like with your dad? A lot of people know their dad, but the musical process is very intense.
We’ve been making music now for like a couple years. So it’s still a kind of new thing, but it’s always easy working with my dad, solely because I know what his music sounds like, I know what songs he would sound good on besides my own songs.
But yeah, it’s a very easy process. Making music with my dad is awesome, because he’s a very fast worker, and it’s really easy because a lot of the chord progressions and shit that got me into to music and are still in my music came from my dad. So it’s like he kinda fits on a lot of my beats. Because my beats sound the way they do because of him. So I never really worry about whether he’ll sound right on it it. The beat, even if he didn’t make it, he inspired me when I was young.