Chance the Rapper has shed light on something that the denizens of the Windy City have known for years: that Chicago is in the midst of a cultural and artistic Renaissance. At the forefront of this movement, right up there with Chance, is Saba, a soft-spoken, enigmatic rapper who has quietly delivered one self-assured project after another for the past several years.
While Chance has certainly provided Saba with more than enough opportunities to shine (from a star-making verse on Acid Rap‘s “Everybody’s Something” to an infectious hook on “Angels” from last year’s Coloring Book), the past year has seen Saba grow well-beyond the long shadow cast by his mentor. This is largely due to his 2016 effort Bucket List Project, a full-length that managed to catch the attention of such outlets as Rolling Stone. The hype is no ploy; Bucket List Project is a stunning listen from an MC still relatively new to the game, at once demonstrating his empowerment and vulnerability.
2017 has found Saba dropping a steady stream of singles, from the excellent “There You Go” to his most recent release, “How You Live” featuring his fellow Chicagoan MFn Melo. While in Berlin for a tour stop, we caught up with Saba to discuss his remarkable rise, his lingering obsession with Jackie Chan and why it took so long for Chance the Rapper to actually remember who he is.
When did you first get into rapping?
I started rapping when I was eight, eight or nine-years-old. I’m in a hella musical family. Everybody did something. My dad was a singer, my uncle produced, my grandfather played guitar, so it was like generations and generations of music being passed through. I was already playing the piano a little bit, I was in classes. But the group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, when I found the song “Notorious Thugs” with them and Biggie, that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, I should just be a rapper. This is great. I can do this.’
At age eight?!
Yeah (laughs). I got a cassette recorder and that’s how I was able to record and produce and stuff like that from being that young.
When you were going to school, was this something other kids were also doing? Or were you in a league of your own?
Nah, it was too early for anybody else to be that hip yet. Especially being on cassette, nobody was really doing cassette. It was the only equipment that I had. Though it was CD-time era-wise, I was still trying to put out cassettes and get people to listen to my tapes and shit and passing cassettes around and showing people. By the time I got to high school there were a few more kids that were like trying to rap and produce and make music, but even then it was still not really something other people were doing.
Until you fell in with Chance the Rapper… how did that all come about?
I got invited to a place called YOUmedia, which is an open mic in Chicago at the public library, and that’s what made the biggest difference in my life. That was the first place where we were sharing our work; prior to that we would upload shit to the internet, passing it around school and stuff like that. But YOUmedia was the first time where we were able to perform for people who wanted to hear our music. There were a bunch of artists who were also there, so that was our first time being able to collaborate. You really get a sense of there being some type of music scene in Chicago, even though everyone was super young. This is where I met Chance and Noname and all of them.
But when was the first time ya’ll actually met?
I met Chance, I was probably 16, maybe 17, one of my friends introduced me to him. I met him probably three or four times before he even remembered me. Like, every time I would meet Chance he would say, “Yo, what’s up, I’m Chance. Yo, what’s up, I’m Chance.” I don’t take it personally. I didn’t know the guy so it was fine. Our first real interaction was him asking me to be on Acid Rap, which only happened after he heard some work I did with a producer who he was working with at the time, DJ Such N Such. He was like, ‘Oh shit! You’re Saba?’ And I was like, ‘Yes. For the one millionth time.’
Chance has always been one of those people who, regardless of where he is, is in tune with what’s going on in the city. I think he knew about all of the work we were doing locally and that’s really what ended up having him asking me to be on Acid Rap in the first place. Nobody really knew who I was when I was on it aside from people in the city, so I think that’s really all that was. But it’s definitely cool to have that under the belt, you know?
Chicago’s music scene is really flourishing thanks to artists like you, Chance, Jamila Woods, Noname etc. Can you give us a little insight on why it’s all going down?
Chicago has a lot, an infinite list of talent. The one thing about that, especially in hip-hop, is not all talented people are discovered. But in Chicago right now, thanks in part to those open mics where we all met each other, there is a competitive community – but more important than that there’s a collaborative community where you might discover Mick Jenkins, and then you click around and you discover Noname, and you click around and you discover Chance and Vic [Mensa] and Jamila. It’s like we’re all working together; everybody’s completely different making completely different sounds and different music and having different messages, but able to collaborate in a way that makes the most sense. Chicago’s never really had a time like this in its history, so it’s just cool to be a part of it, honestly.
You seem pretty soft-spoken, so I’m surprised to hear you were up doing these open mics at such a young age.
I mean, I was hella shy. I would record the music and then just put it on the internet and hope for the best. When I got to YOUmedia was I started trying to learn how to perform. My dad was in New York at the time and anytime we would visit him he knew all of these open mics that he would sneak us into, ’cause they were all 21 and up and we like 15, 16 years old. So he would sneak us into these open mics and sign us up, he would have us performing for these super hip-hop heads in New York, which is a tough crowd, especially early on.
And that’s when I learned to hone in on my performance. Before I would just be looking down or closing my eyes on stage. At first I hated performing just because I was so shy, like, putting the shy kid on stage in front of 100 people is their worst fear. But as I got better at it and more people began to learn of my music, I realized ‘Okay, this is a part of it. This is the thing that I’m gonna have to learn how to do. This is the thing I’m gonna have to get over.’
What do you think is one of the strangest things you’ve ever written a song about?
So Jackie Chan used to have a TV show. The Jackie Chan Adventures I think it was called. It was a cartoon, and I used to be really obsessed with it when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure it got cancelled because I didn’t see it again until I got the internet. So I found a season of it and I was like ‘This is what I’m gonna make my mixtape about.’ Terrible idea, and nobody even knows the show so (laughs). But yeah, at the time I thought it was a great idea and I wrote at least three songs about Jackie Chan Adventures.
What three words would you use to describe your flow?
Three words, pretty limiting. ‘Unorthodox’ is one. A lot of times I just try to find pockets that I feel aren’t as obvious, which might be unattractive to more subtle listeners who can’t find the rhythm sometimes. So I would say unorthodox. ‘Fast,’ I rap fast a lot. I think that’s the simple one but… like I said, I think Bone Thugs-n-Harmony is kinda the reason that I started making music. ‘Unorthodox,’ ‘fast’ and… ‘unpredictable.’
What’s next for Saba?
My next project will be the greatest rap album of all time. And I’ll leave it at that.
For more of our interviews, read our chat with YouTube star Joji on getting serious about his music carer.
- Imagery: Jay Caves for Heart of the City @hotcfilms