It’s wild what a few years can do. Back in 2015, Saba was still celebrating the release of ComfortZone and Empire Taste had yet to release their first Tastys. Since then, Saba’s continued to garner popular and critical acclaim for his albums, Bucket List Project and Care for Me. To celebrate our new magazine, we take a look at the history that got us here. Straight from the vault, we present a previously unreleased interview with Saba from early 2015.
A year before Kanye West released his debut album The College Dropout in 2004, a nine-year-old Saba bought a 4-track tape recorder and started making beats. As Kanye brought renewed attention to prolific Chicago emcees—namely Common, Lupe and Twista—Saba would also begin to gain traction with the release of Get Comfortable, his first project.
The Windy City landscape has changed since then, laying the groundwork for a new breed of rappers to rise. Saba has evolved with the city, building off the foundation set by older rappers, and finding his own distinct sound.
2014’s ComfortZone served as a breakthrough for Saba. It captured his growth and appeal, and came at a perfect time. Mick Jenkins, Vic Mensa, and Chance the Rapper were all on the rise, a testament to the talent and versatility within the city. Saba—who has close connections with many of those rising stars—isn’t just merely riding the wave of Chicagoan hype though.
His fast raps and catchy choruses offer insight into a kid growing up in Chicago, but it’s also an intimate diary into the mind of a restless artist. Whether it’s the anxiousness of growing up or the violence on Chicago’s streets, Saba not only finds a way to highlight what matters, but also how it connects with a people on the outside. Saba’s strongest appeal lies in his ability to create a soundtrack that feels distinctly Chicago, but shares common threads with anyone that gives his music a listen. His message is universal, but his delivery is one in a million.
These new artists represent hope and truth in an environment that’s content to offer neither. It’s a willingness to acknowledge the struggles that exist, while celebrating the victories that arise. Saba delivers this promise through his music, personal odes that cast a new light on issues and offers insight into the commonalities that a lot of us share. And while his reach is vast, Saba is just as content to spend his days responding to tweets from his fans.
This isn’t too surprising to people that have known and worked with him. His humble character is more than just an act. Even as bigger publications started to notice Saba’s music, the rapper was far more concerned with representing his crew, Pivot Gang, and connecting with his fans. This is evident in his shows, where he’ll spend the time hanging out and chatting with fans after his performances. For Saba, this is his comfort zone. The glitz and glamour may be fun, but it’s the personal interactions that fuel Saba’s music. Whether it’s entertaining braggadocio raps or vulnerable confessions, there is a level of intimacy that permeates all of his songs. It’s a style born out of Saba’s personal philosophy and attitude, instead of something from behind the boards.
Empire Taste sits down with the Chicago native right before one of his shows to chat about the front porch perspective, Pinky and the Brain, and growing up in Chicago.
What was the process and inspiration behind ComfortZone?
You know in the classroom, the quiet kid in the back that doesn’t talk to anybody? That was me. And it was when I was 16, I realized how much it was working against me. Trying to get your music out and being a mute is pretty challenging. ComfortZone is pretty much me getting out of my comfort zone. Comfort zone was me being quiet, being stuck, and—on the west side of Chicago—not traveling around. It was me doing what I was used to, instead of new shit.
What message were you trying to get across with the project?
I never really had a set thing. I just want to make people feel something. I don’t control what you feel when you listen to it, but if you feel something, then I felt accomplished.
What has it been like since ComfortZone came out?
I kind of live in the hood, so most of the people out there, they like one kind of sound. They like one thing. I feel like the tape so far has been doing a nice job of tricking them into listening to it, so it’s a nice fake turn up and then it’s a nice, not [quite] storytelling, but it seems people are being touched by the music and I can’t be happier than that.
Definitely. With ComfortZone, the big thing for me is that you got past that stage. You got past being shy, you got past all that. What’s your advice: how would you get somebody else out of their comfort zone?
I wish I could. There’s certain times where I tense up, shy up and shit, but my advice is pretty much, “If you’re doing what you love, it’s easy.” It’s easy and once you realize how much keeping to yourself is working against you instead of for you, it’s gonna force yourself to speak up. Basically, fight for what you love even if you’re fighting yourself. That’s what a lot of ComfortZone is, like a fight with yourself and just trying to come out on top. My shows used to be me being hella shy, looking down, and I hated performing. I hated performing when I was 16. People were like, “Hey, the song you’re performing is really good, but you should do it like this: you should show your face, smile, put some more energy into it.” As more people started receiving the music well, it was a confidence boost. So it’s just a matter of getting what you love and seeing and hearing that praise.
So is that when it all started, at 16?
I knew this is what I was going to do when I was nine. When I was nine, I bought a 4-track tape recorder and I’d put hella cassettes in the basement, just making beats and trying to rap. I sucked, but I knew there’s something about it that I liked doing. Since then, it’s just about constantly getting better and reinventing the sound.
You see all these up and comers from Chicago. You see Chance blowing up, you have Mick Jenkins coming up, so what’s this Chicago dynamic like? What’s it feel like to be part of it?
It’s great because most of those guys, we’re really close with each other. A lot of these guys, I consider my friends. It’s collaborative. It’s very collaborative. So it’s like, a lot of rappers, just because we’re not in songs [together], people don’t assume us to have a connection, but a lot of us are really homies. We know each other for hella long cause most of us came from…you know that line from Acid Rap, “and I’m still Mr. YouMedia.” Pretty much Pivot took over YouMedia. Mick was in YouMedia, Lucki was in YouMedia, Alex Wiley, Kembe, we all go hella back, like 2-3 years, so it’s tight. It’s tight coming from there.
Speaking of Chicago, if you look at past MCs, some of the biggest, Lupe, Common, they spend a lot of time talking about the issue of violence in Chicago. That’s still a recurring theme, you have Taylor Bennett with his #SaveChicago, you have people asking is Chief Keef promoting violence with the drill scene. Where do you see yourself with that?
I feel like the difference with the kind of music I make and the drill shit…the only difference is perspective. Because a lot of Chief Keef songs and Saba songs are about the same exact thing, but the difference is that he’s like, “we’re on the block, we’re doing shit, shoot a nigga, smoke a blunt.” Where as me, in my music, he’ll be over there in the corner and I’ll be on my front porch or something and I’m just writing from my front porch perspective like, “these guys are outside and they’re doing this.” It’s like introspective rap instead of just the turn up party shit, but it’s all about Chicago and what’s going on. It’s just a matter of reporting it, like there’s first person and I’m looking at them do it. That’s why my shit is all deep, because I’m just looking at them and you can hear all the pain, we do this shit, like what’s up. But it’s all Chicago.
What’s the day-to-day process? You link up with so many people, do you meet up on a daily basis or does it just happen?
It’s different, my day-to-day, the only people I see daily is Pivot Gang. A lot of us are related, like Joseph is my brother, John Walt is my cousin, so we live down the street from each other. We see each other everyday basically.
Where do you see Pivot Gang going?
If I could have it how I want it, it would be some Pinky and the Brain shit, the same thing we try to do everyday, take over the world. If I could have it how I want it, we would just take over the world. I honestly support and respect every guy that’s in Pivot, all the music and shit isn’t just ‘cause we related. I feel just as strongly about their shit as I feel about my shit so I can’t really predict the future—but I can kinda predict the future a little bit. I just know we not on bullshit. We not on bullshit.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Five years from now, I will be 25. I don’t know. I see myself doing an interview with you.
Hell yeah. What legacy do you want to leave? What do you want people to remember?
I guess just what’s happening now, the shit that people are tweeting at me now. If we can just get that in masses, that’s the legacy right there. “I love you”, “Bro, you helped me get through the day”, that shit is why I’m doing this shit.
Any last messages for your fans?
One step at a time. Pivot!
This story is part of Empire Taste 001: The Friends & Family Issue.