Saba’s music captures life’s complete spectrum: Joy, sadness, love, heartbreak, victory, loss, poverty, wealth and everything in between.
Raised on Chicago’s West Side in the Austin neighborhood, Saba – born Tahj Chandler– refined his craft as a writer and performer at local writing workshops and open mics. That organic rise, and lyrics that explore the dynamic between the brightest and the darkest moments in his life, have attracted a fanbase that connects to his music on a practically spiritual level and made him one of the hip-hop genre’s most thoughtful standouts.
Saba 2018 album Care For Me was the first to earn him nationwide critical acclaim but was influenced by tragedy: the stabbing a year prior of his cousin and collaborator, John Walt. With Walt, Saba helped form the music collective Pivot Gang. After his cousin’s death, Saba and other members of the group launched the annual music concert John Walt Day and used proceeds from the show to fund a John Walt Foundation that aims to help young artists and families in Chicago.
Saba’s follow-up, 2022’s Few Good Things, was preceded by yet another loss, this time the shooting of his touring DJ and producer SqueakPIVOT. Saba wrote an open letter that accompanied the release in which he said his album, and Black culture in general, was much more than just trauma. “Our culture is not clickbait,” he stated in bold letters.
Black life is complex, he wrote, and never one sided. Few Good Things is a celebration of nostalgia and growth, as well as being grateful for all of what life has to offer in its highs and lows.
WBEZ caught up with Saba, who has moved to Los Angeles, ahead of his return to Chicago for a May 5 show at the Aragon Ballroom. He talked about how it feels to return to his hometown, on why he thinks hip-hop should be taught in college, and what the future has in store for Pivot Gang. Some questions and responses were edited and condensed for clarity.
WBEZ’s Alejandro Hernandez: You learned to make music through local Chicago programs like YOUmedia and Young Chicago Authors. Your latest album, Few Good Things is nostalgic about your time here. Why did you decide to move to Los Angeles and how does it feel to be back here on tour?
Saba: The decision to start spending more time in Los Angeles was more based in career, you know? Just being where I felt like I needed to be to make a couple of things happen as far as the album. I still spend a lot of time in Chicago. All my family, all my people are still in Chicago. So you know, there’s some months when I’m in Chicago more than in L.A.
But this is the first tour that I’ve ever played that’s going to Chicago. Usually we do like a separate event, like John Walt Day. So it just feels really special that this is the first one.
2012 is the album’s penultimate song and the one that I feel best embodies the core theme of what Few Good Things is about, with you reminiscing about the simplicity of life before adulthood and success. Can you take us through the writing process of that song and the people and places that inspired the lyrics?
I can say that that was the easiest song to write. Sometimes to me, telling a story like that is second nature. I guess I could just put the pen to the pad and because I remember things so vividly. It’s like, I just start writing, and this is just what comes out.
2012 is one of my favorites too, but, you know, for me, it is perspective. You know, 2012 was one of those years where it’s like, we’re finally starting to move toward what we’re doing now. 2012 was kind of when we did a lot of that groundwork and footwork to be here. So it’s just a year that I hold near and dear to my heart. Without going too in depth, I had a lot of friends that aren’t here anymore that we spent countless hours with in those formative years. I was like 17,18 years old in those years, and that’s where a lot of s*** is changing in my life. So it was just one of those songs that, the second I started on it, I knew it would be special. Then performing it on tour, you see it affect so many people. It’s like such a nostalgic time for us.
Along with the album, you made a short film that shows a multi-decade span of Chicago neighborhoods, redlining, and what happened to Black homeowners. Your grandfather narrates. Why did you want to make a film about this specific story and what do you hope people take away?
I just wanted to be transparent and tell this story that I felt like there’s so many other people’s sacrifices that led to us being here. It’s not like I made those decisions. The people who came before me – my grandparents, their parents – they made decisions that led to me being in front of you today. When I was working on a Few Good Things album, a lot of the conversations – a lot of my inner dialogues – were starting to become generational dialogues, where I’m thinking about my grandparents or my father or my mom and things like that.
I’m from a pretty close-knit family, and I realized that I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t really have a story, and I think so much of identity comes from history. You know, you find out where your people are from and what that experience is like, and then you feel a stronger connection to yourself because that’s your genetic makeup. So for me, that’s what Few Good Things kind of experienced. When I was writing on a lot of those songs, I was talking to my granddad and I was getting some of those stories that I had never heard. So when we were putting the short film together, it just made sense to like, try to create like the embodiment of those stories to tell that story.
You’ve said in the past that you don’t want your personal losses of Squeak and John Walt to be on the forefront of your stories in the media. Why was it important for you to start a community-based organization to honor Walt’s legacy?
I mean it just felt like the proper step, it felt like the right thing to do to try to use our platform to raise awareness and be a pillar and to really just help in whatever way we could. Obviously, you know, we’re still figuring things out as artists ourselves, but in the process, it makes sense to learn as you go. So for us, we started throwing those John Walt Day concerts and we recognized it like “Oh, we can make a small difference” and just continued doing that. And then during the pandemic, we started doing these grocery giveaways out west in Chicago. For us, it was like just being able to recognize even a small difference in the community is like the start of something, and hopefully the bigger we get, the bigger the foundation can get, and the more change we can make. But for me it’s like, just doing something is always better than doing nothing.
How do you typically prepare before a performance while on tour?
Like for so many artists, we’ve been in the studio and making albums. But I feel like a lot of our actual dream part – like the part that you dream about when you’re a kid making music – is the performance. You notice things when in front of people, connecting with people in that capacity. We haven’t been able to do that for years now [due to the coronavirus pandemic halting touring]. So for me, preparing for this tour was like, I was just excited to be heading back toward what I imagined my career and what I imagined my life.
We start early as far as the rehearsals and we just rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. I got a band out with me. Some guys that I feel like are really close to the records so they’re able to play it like the back of their hand. And I don’t know – from there, a lot of the preparation for the actual show, so much of it is how you feel that day. So I think we all try to be aware of that. I’m talking to you pretty calmly right now to make sure I’m not exerting too much because I got a show in a few hours. We just try to stay on point in that way, drinking tea throughout the day. Trying to stretch, do my yoga backstage and everything like that is like the calm before the storm. We try to just give everything to the show.
In your open letter that you released this year, one of the things you said you wanted people to do with it is to teach it in college courses. What would those courses look like, if you had your way?
You know, to be honest, I think a lot of hip-hop should be taught in college. I mean, it’s the most popular genre of music. There’s so many courses on other people’s art and other people’s language and other people’s teachings, and I think I consider hip-hop to be as important as anything else. I learned way more from hip-hop and I learned from my like, U.S. history class growing up. You know, I learned actual history from hip-hop, you know I’m saying? Like you can actually teach their actual stories, you can learn people, you can learn neighborhoods, you can learn so much from hip-hop, and to me, as much as the open letter seems personal and a Few Good Things related, to me [the letter] was intended to be more of hip-hop in general.
I’m reading the autobiography of Gucci Mane [Atlanta rapper and founder of 1017 Records] right now, and I love that that’s a bestseller that I could just cop at the airport. It should be like hip-hop legends and hip-hop people who are pushing culture forward and have provided for so many, inspired so many things. We should all be taught, and like we are leaders of the community. And to me that’s no different than all of the politicians and BS that we learn about in schools sometimes where we’ll never need some of that information. So I think it’s necessary information and important to keep the awareness. To me, it’s just like the stories matter.
One of the featured artists on your album is G Herbo [a Chicago drill rapper], which caught some fans outside of Chicago by surprise because of the different styles of music you make. He makes drill, which has grown in popularity from this hyperlocal subgenre to become this global phenomenon in mainstream hip-hop. But it’s also been criminalized by government officials since the beginning because of its violent lyrics and ties to gangs. Was there any significance for you to connect with a pioneer like Herb in terms of helping shed that stigma attached to drill?
I’m from Chicago. If you go back to 2014 to some of my first interviews, I always credited and showed love to the drill scene. Because to me, it wasn’t that different than what we were doing [Saba’s style of hip-hop has been labeled “socially conscious,” though some dispute that label]. And what I always described it as was the perspective was different. Some of my contemporary artists will be describing a similar scene, but just from more of like a “I’m witnessing this, this is what’s happening in my neighborhood, this is what happened on this.” As opposed to drill which is like “this is what we’re doing.” It’s like the action. That’s really the main difference in perspective, though. It’s like, I can look at this and be like, “This is what I saw.” They can say, “This is what I did.” And I think, to me, that never felt that different to me. It’s describing the same city, it’s describing the same Chicago and the same heartbreak and the same, you know, the same story. It’s just a different perspective.
So to me, Herb has always been – you know at the end of the day rap is rap, and that man can rap. I’ve always been a fan and when I got the opportunity to make it happen, I jumped at it immediately.
It seems like everyone involved with Pivot Gang is currently rolling out new music. It’s also been a couple years since the group album You Can’t Sit With Us. What’s next for Pivot Gang?
We got a lot of stuff planned for this year. We work in like a compound now, like it’s nonstop. I just put out my album not too long ago. You know, all of the individual members of Pivot– Frsh Waters, MfnMelo, Joseph Chilliams – are supposed to be releasing albums or projects, EPs, things like that. And then we want to do another Pivot project. There’s a lot in the calendar right now.
Alejandro Hernandez is a freelance writer based in Chicago. The audio interview with Reset’s Sasha-Ann Simons was produced by Ethan Schwabe.