The studio is typical with its faint weed stench, open pizza box, and video game controllers thrown randomly about. In one corner, there’s a revolving heater, which is very clutch for a day like today, (it’s 47 degrees and rainy). Saba is standing directly next to it, having a good ass time with his slinky. The tall, slender, 20-yr-old Chicago kid is talking to his team of managers, producers, and instrumentalists about yoyo tricks, cocaine and white girls, how to be safe around “hood niggas,” and traveling arrangements for his next tour location. He’ll be performing tonight (Sept. 18) at the Brooklyn Bowl.
After about 20 minutes, Saba puts the slinky down to get back to playing his Japanese video game that’s been paused on the big screen. He later explains to me that it’s Naruto, one of his favorites, laughing a little, while describing himself as a nerd. He doesn’t drink or smoke, and had a 3.9 GPA in school. But he understands nerdiness in a different sense. “Most people are nerds,” he explains. “They just be trying to be cool and shit. People see me perform and shit, and they never really assume that I was a nerd. It’s hella funny, but you’re only really a nerd if it’s something you’re embarrassed about. I think that shit is hella cool.”
Read below to learn more about what the upcoming artist who was featured on Chance the Rapper’s, “Everybody’s Something,” had to say about the Chicago music scene, stepping out of his comfort zone, the process of putting together his mostly self-produced, sonically diverse and equally conscious sophomore project Comfort Zone, and more. Download the project at sabapivot.com and check out when Saba will be in a city near you. – Shannon Powell
VIBE: First and foremost, what is the meaning behind your name?
Saba: My name came from some lame middle school shit (laughs). My government name is Tahj Malik. So I used to call myself Sabatahj, like sabotage. When I got to high school, everybody just started calling me Saba. And, now everyone basically thinks it’s my real name. Me too, most times.
When did you first realize that music was your calling? Was it something you always wanted to do?
I found out I wanted to do music when I was maybe nine. I was doing music already, because I was in piano class, but I didn’t really like it. But when I was nine, I was like, “hey, I wanna be a rapper.” I had heard this raw ass song, “Notorious Thugs,” by Bone Thugs and Biggie. I was like, ‘this is tight, and I can do that on a piano?!’ I was about it.
Did you grow up in a musical family? Were your parents playing a lot of music when you were a child?
My dad is a singer. It wasn’t just him playing music, but he was always in the studio, and always doing shows and making music and shit like that, so it was hella musical in that sense.
So you would be there with him in the studio?
Yeah, just hella little. I just liked how the buttons looked. That shit be looking raw.
What kind of music did he sing?
Neo-soul, R&B, some type of fusion of that.
Who were some of your favorite artists growing up?
My dad, because I think that’s one of the biggest reasons I wanted to be an artist, just from being around it all the time. Bone Thugs, because that was the reason I actually started making music. Pharrell and, like, all of the N.E.R.D. shit, cause I was a nerd (laughs). I super fucked with Lupe when I was like 13, because he was like the rawest nigga in the world to me. He was from out west, and he was a nerd. I was like, ‘damn, me too.’ I think Cam’ron is probably one of my favorite rappers cause he be rhyming shit that’s not supposed to rhyme, which is so tight, and Big L.
Who are some of your favorites now and artists you would want to collaborate with?
I wanna make music with a bunch of people and even do production for some. I’m always open to working with anybody, damn near, as long as I see something. If I think it’s hot, I think it’s hot, and I feel like I can contribute something, and do some hot shit. Most of the people that I want to collaborate with are the ones I just named, the shit that kinda inspired me to do music in the first place. I wanna collab with a bunch of people who aren’t rappers. Collaborations are always a hard question, though, because most of the time if a rapper or a singer is here, it just happens.
You were talking about being a nerd growing up. Has that changed at all, now that you’re a rapper? Are you still a nerd?
This hella funny. Yes. Before you were here, I was playing this (points to TV screen). It’s Naruto. People just see me rapping and shit, but if we ever do hang out, they’re like “damn, you’re a real nerd” (laughs).
What do you think makes you a nerd? That you play video games like this and had good grades when you were in school? (In 401k, Saba raps, “I was never street enough to grow up and be a thug/Because I went to school everyday/I went to school everyday/Learned shit don’t matter/niggas shoot everyday/I had a 3.9 that shit didn’t matter”)
I don’t know. I feel like everybody kind of has some shit like that, that makes them a nerd. I feel like what makes me not so much of a nerd is that I voice my opinions on shit now. Most nerds are quiet. I used to be hella quiet, I was hella shy. I wouldn’t talk to anybody. It’s interesting just to see the reaction from people. This is definitely the most amount of people I’ve ever known in my life.
So, you would say music is what helped you to come out of your shell.
Definitely. In a sense, that’s kind of what the whole project is really about. It’s about me just being stuck. Trying to get out of that shit.
Changing gears, who is Pivot Gang? How many members are there? What makes it different (or the same) as other Chicago collectives and rap collectives in general?
How many people are in it? I. D. K. It’s a bunch of us. There’s probably like 6 or 7 of us that rap, but there’s still a bunch of people who don’t rap that are hella repping Pivot and shit. Pivot came about like 2011. As far as what makes us different, I feel like you can hear it, and most of the differences are just us as people. Like, as a rapper, there’s a certain amount of “let me be a showcase-y, braggadocious”…like, I don’t know, just “let me rap better than everybody.” With us, that’s not really a goal of ours. I feel like all our music is a reflection of us as people.
What would you say makes you as an individual, different than other Chicago rappers?
I don’t have the answer for that. I feel like people who feel like Comfort Zone touched them in any way, shape, or form have the answer to that. When I was working on Comfort Zone, I always had this idea that it could help people in some way, and the answer to that question lies in the people that it actually helped. I could tell you, like, “oh yeah, my shit got strings in it,”(laughs) but I don’t know, it’s music from a different standpoint, I guess. It’s from a nerdy ass West side kid, which has already been done with Lupe, but I don’t feel like I sound anything like him. It’s hella musical. I try to be musical about everything, and that just comes from working with the people that I work with. Shit like that is what I’m trying to do, but I’m trying to be super rappy with the shits as well. I’m trying to fuse those two together.
You kind of touched on this previously, but can you explain the concept behind Comfort Zone?
I had dropped a bunch of mixtapes, and when I was 16, I was like, ‘I’m gonna name my next mixtape Comfort Zone, and I want it to sound like this, this and this.’ But I really didn’t have access to make it sound how I wanted it to sound when I was 16, and that’s why it took so long to make. It really just came from the fact that I’m hella quiet. I’m hella shy. I don’t talk to anybody. I started to realize that was working against me. Like, I want to be this big ass rapper, and I can’t talk to anybody. How is that gonna work? I would be doing these open mics and couldn’t look up at the crowd, because I’m that shy. So, it was just hella awkward. But basically realizing that being so into yourself was working against yourself, and not helping you is what inspired the tape. Even being stuck on the West side, I really didn’t go no where until after I was 16. Prior to that, it was just school and home. It was basically about getting out of your familiar surroundings.
I understand you were in school for awhile, can you tell me about that experience and how you decided to do music full time?
School was cool. I went to Columbia (college), downtown. I never really had this conscious decision, like “I’m gonna drop out.” It kinda just happened. I was going to school that semester, the same semester I dropped Get Comfortable, my first tape. I also owed Columbia hella money, so I couldn’t go back. That’s why I’m not in school. It wasn’t “let me drop out and do music.” It just happened that way. Since then, I haven’t really looked back at it. It’s like, clearly this is what’s most important right now, because that’s what the universe just told you through this
How long did it take you to put Comfort Zone together?
On my computer, there’s like hella different versions of Comfort Zone. I have one from 2011 where I’m in my basement and I’m trying to make these jazzy songs and shit, and the shit’s not working. It’s kinda weak, but it’s like 15 songs. I’m like, “yeah, this gon be it,” but it never came out. There’s a second version of Comfort Zone that’s Get Comfortable. I’m like, “nah, this not ready yet.” I wanted it to sound a certain way. I didn’t know people like this (the room is filled with pretty well-known Chicago musicians and engineers) that I could just call up like, “hey, can you come play the piano” or some shit. I would say it took about 2 solid years. It went through so many stages. At one point last year I had the tape done, and I broke my hard drive, and I lost everything. It was some different songs. Some of them were pretty tight, but any time some shit like that happens, as devastated as I am when it happens, I try to think of why it happened. Clearly that happened, because that’s not the tape I was supposed to drop, cause I was supposed to drop this tape.
If you had to pick a favorite song on the project, which one would it be and why?
I think I would say “Time Zone,” and “Whip” are my favorite songs, and that’s because mostly everything else is old as hell. It’s like, when you make music, and you listening to that shit for a year, it’s like “okay, I get it.” I damn near don’t listen to that shit anymore. Like, I think we did “Burnout” in 2012, and it sucks because it’s like, “damn, I gotta hold this until I’m done,” or “I gotta hold this until all of this other shit happens.” It’s like, with the city, everybody’s doing some shit, and you know you got this masterpiece of a project, and you can’t drop it yet. In 2012, I didn’t really have the fanbase to drop Comfort Zone and it do anything. So it’s cool to see what it’s doing, but all of those songs are like hella old to me, but “Time Zone” and “Whip” were both this year. Those was the new shits.
What would you say are your overall goals for the project and your goals in general as an artist?
My goals of the project are, I don’t know. It’s like I really just found out that I can make the kind of music that I wanna make. The project is what I’ve always wanted to make. So, to get that out, was one of the goals, to finally drop a project that I’m 100 percent confident in. But even deeper than that, I would say that a lot of the songs on the tape helped me in writing them and voicing them and shit. So hopefully, a lot of that tape will help other people how it helped me and shit. Like, when I started recording Comfort Zone, I was hella quiet. By the time I was done with Comfort Zone, I was like a completely different person, that shit definitely changed me for the better. I would say the goal is to help others step out of their comfort zone. Going forward is just to keep spreading Comfort Zone, as much as it takes to keep that message growing.