On Tues., November 1, WMFO radio show “Yam Session” (aka DJs Cody Eaton and Noah Adler) got the chance to interview Saba about his newest album entitled Bucket List Project. The full interview transcript appears here.
Noah: We noticed that you did the majority of the production on the Bucket List Project as well as producing for Noname and on your past project Comfort Zone. Who’s influenced your production? Are there any producers in particular whose style you try to emulate or that you’ve learned things from?
Saba: I would say father, he has a very specific sound, very soul and R&B driven, he was my first influence. I think Pharrell, early Neptunes, all of that stuff inspired my chord progressions. Then I would say the post-production from an album like Late Registration, where you hear full strings come in and you feel that full band, real musician kind of sound in the music (like the early Kanye stuff) really is what I think inspired me as a kid. It’s the kind of stuff I always wanted to do, so now I’m puttin’ my own spin on things, but I would say those three are my earliest inspirations.
Cody: You’re definitely occupying an awesome time in the resurgence of Chicago rap, amidst a lot of amazing talents, a lot of collaborators that you’ve worked with in the past… What’s it been like rising alongside people like Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Noname, Mick Jenkins, and what do you think you’ve taken out of those interactions with so many other talented artists?
Saba: It’s kind of a surreal experience, we’ve all known each other for years, since we were 16, 17. Not like best friends, but all aware of each other’s talent and collaborating and listening to each other. So it’s crazy to see the growth and development of all of my peers in Chicago, it’s one of those things where it’s really just a blessing. I remember when I was little just knowing that I wanted to pursue music, but just not knowing how to go about it ‘cause we didn’t have any real big people besides Twista, but then after him came Kanye and Lupe… But now it seems like every other day there’s a new artist from Chicago! It’s profound, crazy, and just being part of it is a dope experience.
Noah: Yeah, what I like about the Chicago scene right now is how innovative it is. Although I love the state rap is in right now, I feel like it’s becoming slightly repetitive except for the Chicago scene, I feel like everyone there’s kind of doing their own thing. There are definitely connections but they each have their own sound, which I think is amazing. You mentioned that you learned a lot from your dad on the production side; I saw that he put in some work on your song “GPS”. I was wondering what he did on that song, and are there any other collaborations with your dad that we can look forward to?
Saba: Yeah he’s on that one, he’s on the outro to “Comfort Zone” and I mean we’ve made a bunch of songs now, but those are the only two that are out so far. He, me and my brother actually did a full project that we haven’t put out yet but yeah, it’s like when I’m workin’ with my dad I’m workin’ with my dad, but it’s really awesome cause he really knows his stuff. It’s like he expects the most out of me so when I’m working with my dad I always end up working harder than I would than had I been working on my own. It’s one of those inspiring kind of moments, it’s kinda crazy to be in the studio with your dad but it just works for some reason.
Cody: That’s awesome. To build off that sense of family collaboration, you have your Pivot Gang crew, which consists of your brother Joseph Chilliams and a couple other friends and family members. Do you have any plans to make a collaborative album, a form that has been popular with other collectives such as A$AP Mob and G.O.O.D. Music? Or is it more of a supportive network for individual efforts?
Saba: For us it’s just early. A lot of people don’t realize that Pivot’s been around for a minute, we’ve all been going super hard in the Chicago scene, but it’s just now that we’re getting any recognition for the years of work that we’ve been putting in. There are Pivot Gang projects already, one mixtape we released in 2013 called Jimmy. But it’s basically like starting over a bunch of times ‘cause everything is so new, gaining fans and gaining momentum and stuff like that. So it’s just one of those things where a lot flies under the radar because there’s so many of us in this Chicago scene. But yeah, there’ll definitely be more Pivot Gang projects in the near future, I think we’ll probably drop one next year.
Cody: Awesome, we’re looking forward to it and it looks like I’ve got some more listening to do myself!
Noah: Noticing again how much production you do on your own projects and others, I wanted to know if it feels different rapping on beats that have been made by other producers versus ones that you had a hand in making. And when making a beat, do you put yourself in the equation to think of how you could flow over a certain drum pattern, or if the production and rapping are more separate.
Saba: I would say for me, it’s way easier to write to other people’s productions and that’s just something that’s always been easy for me to do. Just knowing the ins and outs of every pocket of the production is sometimes overwhelming because me, the way that I write, I like to find new pockets and new melodies and stuff like that. So it might take me not knowing the production that well to really find and inspire me. A lot of the time when I know my own work I know the productions and the patterns so the amount of stuff that I can do over, sometimes, ends up being a way longer process. So I gotta write the song, then not like the song, then go back and re-do it and get the ideas… So I don’t know. I feel like working with this producer Phoelix on Bucket List, me and him did most of the tracks on the project ‘cause he’ll do a lot of the track and then I’ll do the second half of the track. So I’m doing production, the rhythmic stuff on my project: I’m building the bottom, with the drums and the fill and the stuff at the bottom, y’know? Rhythmic section stuff. Then he’ll have the keys and stuff like that on a lot of it. So that’s just how it panned out. It’s a lot easier for me to write and focus when I have the drums down, and how I kinda hear them… Like I hear the other stuff double-time and now I’m here where it’s still very chill and soulful but that’s just how I produce most of the time, it takes a certain sound for me to really write. To feel comfortable I just need to feel like one of my songs. So a lot of times when people send me beats I like to go in and edit and get that out of the way, so they’ll know that when they hear the beat that it is gonna be touched up in some way generally. But yeah, I think the answer to your question was in there somewhere!
Cody: Absolutely, you gave us more than we could ever ask for. So you have the video on your website explaining the origin of the Bucket List Project, kind of being anti-fear driven, and talking about how we’ve discussed bucket lists in society as kind of a long-off goal that we never really get to. You mentioned two items on your own list, the first being to paint while watching Bob Ross, and the second was balling up with Tracy McGrady. Just curious, any plans to make those happen? Anything you think we might hear about in the near future?
Saba: Well the Bob Ross one is really just gonna be when I have the free time to do it. Y’know they put all the Bob Ross episodes on Netflix now. And it’s like the perfect thing, watching Bob Ross I feel like you’ll have the most exciting, most peaceful dreams ever. Actually while I was working on Bucket List in L.A. I was going to sleep every other night watching Bob Ross. But the Tracy McGrady one, I don’t know, that can be a tomorrow thing, that can be a ten years from now thing. Who knows, that one might take a little longer, but I don’t know, it’s just one of those things. Everyone wants to meet their childhood heroes. A lot of people say you’re not supposed to, but that’s a personal goal that I have for myself.
Cody: I certainly hope it happens. I’d love to see that matchup.
Noah: Maybe some of the art you produce while watching Bob Ross will end up as some merch, maybe?
Saba: You know, I’m trying to…and this is another thing on my bucket list that I talked about in the video: I’m trying to, one day…not soon, but somewhere down the line, I am trying to have an art gallery. Even if it’s just a one-off thing, where I have one art gallery, but I think that would be the perfect place for me to hang my pictures I painted while watching Bob Ross. That’ll be like, the Bob Ross reveal party.
Cody: That sounds amazing. I remembered reading an interview about Lupe, on his last album, Tetsuo & Youth, and he said he was also a big fan of painting, and he actually painted that album cover. Do you think there’s a growing desire for musical artists to dive into other avenues? Like of course there are a lot of high profile examples, like Kanye making Yeezys, getting into fashion. But it’s not every day you hear rappers talk about their love for painting and whatnot. Do you think that’s something your peers share?
Saba: I don’t think it’s a new thing, I think, like for me, I wanted to be a painter before I got into music. Like when I was young, that was always my dream, to be a painter, and to maybe even make a cartoon or something like that. But that was where my mind was before I discovered my love for music. So, that’s not a love that ever goes away. It’s always there, even though I haven’t painted or drawn anything in years now. But it’s always a thing that I think about. And I know if I wasn’t doing this I would be doing painting, or whatever. But I think a lot of creative minds work like that. You’re an artist, and everybody has different avenues of how they perceive art and how they express themselves. But I think it’s one of those things where had I been not able to rap, not able to produce, I would still be in the arts. I would probably just be in a different art, a different way to express myself. I think a lot of other artists work like that: where they still have their love and appreciation for it, and they still are drawn to it, but it’s just not their avenue. So, yeah, I think that Kanyes and Lupes, I think there’s a bunch of them. I think Pharrell is. They’re just these great minds that would’ve been great minds no matter where they ended up.
Noah: Going off the whole creative process, how you’re saying rappers will always want to create in whatever way, I was curious about what your creative process is when you’re actually making a song. Do you hear a beat and then write to the beat? Or do you have the lyrics first? How do you actually go about making what we end up hearing on your albums and mixtapes?
Saba: Generally, the average track of mine is produced in my basement, with Phoelix. I’ll do half of the beat and then he’ll do the other half and we’ll use a program called Ableton Link, where we can have our computers in sync so we’re producing at the same time. So he doesn’t have to wait to add a baseline or wait to add a key or anything like that, but it’ll just be a continuous loop, so it keeps going. So we’ll get a skeleton of an idea down, and we’ll try to build that up, and then I’ll just pace around. ‘Cause my job is usually the drums, the drums I can usually do quick, the melody, choral stuff. So when I’ve got the drums down, I’ll generally try to find one of two things: if it’s super melodic, I’ll try to find a melody to get a chorus or something going. If it’s more something where I’m trying to really, really rap, I’ll try to find a cadence that I haven’t done yet. And I think that’s one thing that’s really important to me, you know there are all types of rhythms… that’s the thing that got me into music: rhythms. Like Bones Thugs-n-Harmony had a whole bunch of crazy rhythms that I had never heard before and that’s how I became a rapper. Like I heard some Bones Thugs-n-Harmony and I was like, “I want to be a rapper,” ‘cause they get to do all of these cool things with their voice. And that’s a lot of what you’ll hear on Bucket List with me trying to experiment with my voice and experiment with different rhythms and different melodies. But after that, after I have a cadence and a new rhythm which might not have words yet, it might just be “ba-da-ba-da-ba-da” or something like that. I’ll try to then fill in the words and tell the story of whatever the music is making me feel. But yeah, that’s generally how I start: usually starting from a specific rhythm or specific melody and then trying to piece words in that melody.
Cody: Sounds like our listeners will gain a whole new appreciation for production after this conversation, you’re doing us a great service! We have a question from the crowd, if you have a little bit more time…
Cody: This comes from Avi Block, he asks: how do you feel about NoName saying that Telephone might be her last album?
Saba: [Laughter]. I’ve known NoName since I was 16, and I’ve been trying to help her create Telephone since then. And NoName’s been saying stuff like that since then, so… I don’t know, it’s one of those things where it’s like, NoName is one of the, in my opinion, greatest to ever to do it. Because she’s so unique in her sound, you can’t ever say another artist, you can’t compare…it’s just true art. You can’t really compare it to anything. So if she was to never make another album or anything after Telephone, it’s like, so be it. Telephone still stood out as one of the only things to sound like that, in my opinion. It’s one of those things where NoName is gonna do what NoName wants to do. And that’s always been her thing, which is one of the reasons why Telephone took so long: ‘cause NoName is on NoName’s time. If she’s ready to make another project, you’ll get another project, but it’s gonna be on NoName’s time.
Cody: Absolutely, well I’m looking forward to, hopefully, another project.
Saba: I mean if not, just know I’ll be doing the same thing that you all are doing. If she’s saying she’s not going to make another one, I’ll be right in her ear telling her to make another one.
Cody: We’re indebted to you, thank you, Saba.
Noah: Another question from the crowd! My good friend, Ben Teller, noted how both your album, with its bucket list concept, and NoName’s album, discuss death a lot. Well maybe not discuss, but Bucket List alludes to it. I was wondering if there was a specific reason why both of your projects dealt with death, or how that came about, if maybe one of you was inspired by the other.
Saba: That’s interesting. That’s kind of funny, because that was a conversation that me and NoName had after both of our albums were done. We were talking about how happy they sounded, and how really dark it was, just kind of dealing with that morbid realization. Both of them kind of had that feel to it, but I really couldn’t even tell you. I don’t know, it might just have something to do with Chicago right now. That and the sense of violence, and sense of not knowing if your friends are gonna be there the next day, has a lot to do with what ends up coming out on the other side of the pen. Like, a lot of the songs we didn’t do together. Like some we did in the same studio, or same house or whatever, but some we did on completely different sides of the states. And they ended up having a similar underlying message. But I would just chalk that one up to Chicago and that feeling like death is all around us here. But I think the one thing to get out of both of them is that it’s never…I don’t know, I never wanted it to seem like a dark, like an emo rap album, emo rap death-death-death. I wanted it to have a lighter end, which was why I wanted to make it the Bucket List Project, because my project was specifically inspired by the death of my uncle. So it has a lot to do with death for that reason. But to find out the NoName part, you have to talk more to her. But that’s all I can really say about that, I did notice that as well.
Cody: Maybe we’ll swing an interview with her sometime. This’ll get us some traction.
Saba: Yeah man, I’d be interested to hear that.
Cody: Bouncing back once again to the artistic side of things, I’m curious about the album artwork. It definitely doesn’t seem anywhere too close to Chicago; where is the shoot and what was the inspiration?
Saba: I was in Berlin, Germany when I’d first seen any artwork that was remotely similar. And that’s kind of where it sparked my interest, like for the Bucket List cover, I wanted everything down to the white border. I wanted the white border, I wanted a grand, just great photo. No tags, nothing like that. It was just like this art museum kind of vibe, photography, I guess. Where really the photo can stand out and people can take their own interpretation on the photo. For me, I wanted it to be somewhere grand, where it can look like me scratching something off my bucket list. Even like, the color of that, it barely looks like Earth, even. It almost looks like I’m on Mars or something. But it was in the Valley Of Fire, that’s where we are on the cover, which is in Nevada. Me and the photographer named Tom, and the photographer Bryan, we all went over there for two or three days, and we just kept going back. It’s a bunch of photos from the Valley Of Fire, and people are gonna put their own interpretations on it. For me it was a really spur of the moment, like “I guess we’re just gonna do it,” kinda thing. Like if I could’ve done it when I was in Berlin, in Germany, that would’ve been even better. But it was months, months afterwards so just trying to get a similar feel, a more worldly kind of feel to it. As much as this is about the city of Chicago, I never wanted it to be limited to the city of Chicago. I wanted the music to feel as worldly as the cover may look to people.
Cody: I think you absolutely achieved that. My thought was ‘oh, I guess that was on his bucket list’. But it’s an absolutely beautiful cover, definitely not something we’re used to with all the graphics that adorn some rapper’s projects.
Saba: I appreciate that, man.
Noah: It seems like you collaborate with a lot of people either from Chicago or in Pivot Gang, stuff like that. I was wondering if there are any artists, rappers, whoever, that you would like to collaborate with in the future.
Saba: Y’know, the thing about me and my work, like the way I work, is I really enjoy making music with people that I know, with people that I have a relationship with. And y’know, people that I just generally care about, and people that I think are talented, that I can say are fans of me and that I am fans of. And just right now where I am, I’m in Chicago. All of my closest friends are in Chicago, too, just passing their way. But there are a lot of people that I am fans of, but it would take the building of that relationship, y’know, before I’m really ready to say “hey, let’s hit the studio.” There were a few songs that didn’t make the cut, like one had Kirk Knight on it, which I think I’m still gonna drop, but just not yet. But we opened for him on tour, me and NoName went on tour with him and Nyck Caution. So that’s another person that I do have that relationship with, where I say “one of my brothers” or whatever. But that’s what’s important to me, the relationship side. And the music will come more natural, like I never want features to feel out of place. Sometimes you can listen to a rap song, and you’re so caught up in the feature that you forget whose song it even is. Like the feature is so obviously–like this feature killed the actual artist. For me, I want it to sound cohesive and be the same song as me, like I don’t want the feature to come in talking about something completely different, I want everybody on the same page. So I think there will be more features in the future as I, y’know, now that Bucket List is done, and I’m getting out of Chicago a little bit more, travelling a little more, I’m sure I’m gonna build some new relationships with a bunch of new people from different places. But for me, working on this one, I wanted to keep it home so I could have it hit home and then spread out.
Noah: I was watching the video you put out for Bucket List, where you explain the concept behind the album; you mentioned that Twista sent in his verse–have you met Twista, or how did that feature work?
Saba: Yeah, I met Twista, but when he did the verse I was outta town. So it was one of those things, I was meeting NoName and Phoelix, we were all in L.A., working on our projects, and it was nearing that time where it’s time to turn it in and time to put it out and everything like trying to get it mixed and mastered. So I just hit up Twista and he sent me that. But yeah Twista I met a few times, always a super chill dude, super respectful, and the dopest part about it is he’s a fan. Like I’m a huge fan of Twista, being from Chicago, being from the West Side of Chicago, like it was dope to have that respect from Twista. And then Twista knows my dad, like they go way back. So it just made sense, having that Twista feature on there. I tried to get real creative with it. I just didn’t want it to be like ‘Oh it’s Twista on another Chicago song”, like I wanted him to sound as comfortable as I did, over my own song. So I was real picky with which one I wanted him on, but I think we did the right one. And he sent it back super fast, like faster than people that I know. Like I got his verse faster than I got my brother’s verse. [Laughter].
Cody: That’s an awesome collaboration.
Saba: It really was a blessing to work with Twista. He was a childhood favorite, you know?
Cody: It’s 3:50, so we only have a little bit of time left, I’m sure you’re a busy guy yourself, after releasing this project… We just have one more question from the peanut gallery, this is from one of my best friends out in Newton, Massachusetts, Alex MacDonald. He wants to know, what are you listening to now? Who are you enjoying?
Saba: Who am I listening to? Alright, so, while I was working on my project, I really was in a bubble, as far as listening to new music. So now that the project is out, I have to go back and listen to all the great releases this year. So I gotta listen to Anderson Paak., I’ve been an Anderson Paak. fan for a very long time now, like everyday in my car or whatever. But now I haven’t really heard as much because I was working on my project at the time. Being an artist, you don’t wanna let too much in, too many different energies, like it might affect what your music sounds like. So I gotta listen to that [Malibu], I’ve been going back listening to Frank Ocean, I just heard Blonde for the first, new, real time two or three days ago. And obviously Frank was amazing but really just being able to take it in. I, of course, go outside, like I hear music. But really sitting down and listening to it, like I’ve been trying to go back, listen to Frank, Anderson, I’m listening to Coloring Book now, Telephone. Even though I was there working on it, it’s a different thing when it drops and everybody can hear the full, final mix. So I’m catching up, I’m playing catch up. I’m a few months behind, or a lot of months behind, really on everything that’s out right now. And then I’ve been listening to D.R.A.M., and then, let’s see… What else, what else am I listening to? I’m listening to Jose Guapo, which is way different, some trap stuff, but I’m listening to it all. That’s it so far, I’m still playing catch up, but just off the top that’s what I can think of, in my recents.
Cody: Saba, I just want to personally relay a message to you–my best friends are all huge music fans, they’re listening in, along with family. A specific message from a friend up at Dartmouth, Everest Crawford says ‘it means a lot for artists to reach out to fans, especially when music means the world to us, So thank you.’ Also a big thank you from my friend Winslow in Seattle. This has been a huge experience, and I know Noah and I are super grateful to have you on the show.
Saba: I appreciate it, I appreciate it so much, man. Are you guys gonna be at the show Friday?
Cody: We will be, my friend Alex will be there, too, and I could not be more excited.
Saba: Alright, man I look forward to meeting you guys.
Cody: Thanks so much for calling in, for making this happen. Thanks to your press person for reaching out and making this happen in the first place. We wish you the best of luck going forward, keep killin’ it.
Saba: I appreciate it, man. Thank you. Have a good one.
Listen to the Bucket List Project here: