Saba’s music holds two seemingly opposite ideas—tragedy and triumph—in close proximity. There are moments when Saba has to step back and appreciate that he is a part of making history, a key player in a great era for Chicago hip-hop dominated by a new wave of MCs and producers. But he is also part of a generation decimated by urban violence and a sense that the Civil Rights struggles of the ‘60s were not the dawning of a new, more enlightened America, but a prelude to the struggles and bloodshed to come.
It’s why the title of his extraordinary 2016 mixtape, “Bucket List Project,” has a fatalistic tint. Bucket lists are usually put together by older folks who want to check a few boxes on their wish list before time runs out. But Saba, aka Tahj Malik Chandler, is only 22. Yet, as a longtime resident of a troubled neighborhood on the West Side, he knew that death could come at any time to anybody. His uncle died in his sleep soon after Saba released his breakthrough mixtape, “ComfortZone,” in 2014, and his cousin and fellow rapper John Walt was stabbed to death a few months ago (Walt was a founding member with Saba and Saba’s brother Joseph Chilliams of the West Side hip-hop crew Pivot Gang.)
“Chicago is a weird place,” Saba says. “For me, I do a good job of trying to stay sane through it all. But every now and then, Chicago has a way of reminding me that time is running out. The most recent example of that is the loss of my cousin John Walt, who was killed right before we went on tour. He was supposed to tour with us. I’m still adapting to that. I was cleaning up my basement right before you called, and going through all this stuff from our past. Chicago has the worst way of reminding you of things — things are going perfect, so great, and life will just remind you that it can change in an instant.”
Saba has wasted little time in developing his acumen as one of the city’s more gifted rappers and producers. Pivot Gang put out a 2013 mixtape when Saba was still a teenager. He became a fixture on the open-mic scene, and began collaborating with a who’s who of Chicago artists, including Chance the Rapper, Vic Spencer, Tink, Mick Jenkins, Joey Purp and Noname. “ComfortZone,” with its neo-soul production, brought him wider attention at 19.
Last year, he and a small core of friends including Noname shared a bed-and-breakfast apartment in Los Angeles and turned it into a recording studio that provided the core of two acclaimed mixtapes, “Bucket List Project” and Noname’s 2016 debut, “Telefone.”
“I’ve been working with Saba for years,” Noname says. “If anyone is my go-to, it was him. I met him at Youmedia (at the Chicago Public Library) when he was 16 and I was 18. He was the person who took me in, came to my home studio and said, ‘Let’s make music.’ He was a major player in my career and on ‘Telefone.’”
Saba says the significance of this moment in Chicago music, where a diverse generation of friends-turned-artists emerged into national prominence, is not lost on him.
“For myself at least, it’s just such a great thing to be a part of,” he says. “I am in rooms where I feel like this is really history and I’m part of it somehow. To witness the last five years, from the library on Washington to open mics, we’ve been around each other for a while. I’ve known most of them since I was 16 or 17 and though we’re not all best friends, there is still love, and you can feel it. Everyone’s happy for each other. I can’t say I felt any crazy jealousy or envy — that is dead, a very dated concept. I think that comes from hip-hop and life in general, where the thought is that if two people are doing the same thing there is only room for one to be successful.
“But in this city there are examples of so many avenues of success available. It’s dope to be part of a group of young people who are voices of silenced areas, like-minded thinkers, able to travel, make money, and get songs and ideas out.”
On “Telefone” and “Bucket List Project,” the songs and ideas speak to a scene that cuts across lines of genre, race and generation. Saba’s production is wide-ranging and adventurous, blending the jazzy atmospherics and soul that are the core of Chicago’s “dusties” tradition, and adding elements of rock, gospel and experimental music.
“As much as it is hip-hop that I do, I’m very much into the musicality of it and doing what feels natural,” he says. “To me, it’s not just the words but trying to create a sound or a feel, a part where I’m not rapping at all, and still have that be important.”
The boundary-free approach gave his Lollapalooza set last summer a heady, almost dizzying momentum that affirmed his promise and ambition while at the same time suggesting he was a maverick whose music eluded easy definition.
“That can be good and bad,” he says. “I’m still trying to figure that out. As good and beautiful as it is to be boundary free, you also want it to make sense together. You don’t want to confuse the listener. I do think about the instrumentation — how to introduce it, how to make smooth transitions so that the music makes sense one track to next. But I don’t want to make an album where every song sounds the same. … I enjoy it when rap is fun and it’s a party at a concert, but I also try to think as a listener, where you’re focused on the music and that means you have to explore and progress.”
As a kid, Saba excelled at music and academics, and avoided the streets that frequently boiled over in his neighborhood. His music remains rooted in where and how he grew up.
“I want to do so much for so many parts of Chicago and places like this in general — there are so many good kids and people, but it has such a bad rap,” he says. “A lot of the good kids don’t know where to go or where to turn, and end up getting consumed by the area. For me to come from that, and witness that, and still have hope and optimism, I think that is a difference maker between me and some of my neighbors who got consumed by it. I’d like to one day spread that in as many ways as I can — financially one day, but now at least through the music, to instill that optimism, which can be important in how their lives turn out.”
The range and ambition of his music, he hopes, will help provide common ground for listeners from all parts of the city he loves and sometimes hates. “A lot of people assume that if you’re from a certain area you’re not as smart or you’re different from them, but I hang out with a lot of different types of people and you can hear that in that music,” he says. “I went to school in the suburbs (St. Joseph’s in Westchester), went to (Columbia) college, adapted to different groups. I learned that there is way more similarity in the way people in these groups think than is commonly thought. If I can do that through the music, that is a job well done.”
// Notes from the Road
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