“Chicago right now is one of the most revolutionary places like probably in the world,” says 20-year-old Chicago MC Saba. “And this is one of the best parts of the Chicago rap scene: We’ve all known each other for like three, four, maybe even five years now. Some of us aren’t even close for real, but we all know and love and respect each other, especially because we’ve watched each other grow up.... It’s a nice thing because for the first time, we want each other to win.”
Saba, born Tahj Malik Chandler, is another rapper to come out of Chicago’s woodwork. While he isn’t new to the game—he already has five mixtapes under his belt—he found major success last summer, with his breakthrough 2014 mixtape, ComfortZone. He then set out on his first national tour with Kirk Knight and fellow Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins in early February and recently headed down to SXSW.
Music is deep-rooted in Saba's family: His father is a neo-soul and R&B musician and producer; his uncle is a hip-hop producer; his grandfather and grandmother were in a funk band; his great-grandmother was a music teacher, and his great-grandfather was also in a band. Saba’s brother Joseph Chilliams is a rapper and fellow member in the Pivot Gang, a crew that boasts at least seven members, but definitely more, according to Saba.
Pivot is the brainchild of Chilliams and rapper Frsh Waters, an idea that was always there but flourished after Chilliams watched an episode of the TV show Friends—specifically the scene where Ross enlists Chandler and Rachel’s help with moving a brand new couch up the tiny stairs of Ross’ apartment building, as he keeps yelling, "Pivot! Pivot! Pivot!" Shortly after seeing the episode, Chilliams spit the bar “This the friends movement, moving couches, call it the Pivot Gang.” The crew played a show later and instead of slapping all their names on the bill, they decided to unite under the new moniker. The group released their first mixtape, Jimmy, in 2013, a tribute to Frsh Waters, whom Saba cites as the person who placed the group on the map. (Unfortunately, Frsh is currently locked up.)
Yet, the name Pivot took on a deeper meaning, bringing the ethos of Chilliams’ lyrics full circle. “Even in the Friends episode, they were moving, like literally. So it was like Pivot, we moving. And that’s what we would say. But it just really became like one step at a time, some positive type shit. Because I think that all of us that are in Pivot are on some hella new, hippie, positive, peace, love type shit. It was just that bigger movement we decided to create,” says Saba.
Saba has also embraced the mentality of the Pivot Gang: His life—whether consciously or unconsciously—has been about movement. He grew up on the west side of Chicago, in Austin, a particularly rough neighborhood that many people don’t leave. Though he knew how easy it was to get trapped there, he never really gave moving a second thought. “I had no idea I even wanted to like see the world. I had no desire to leave Chicago until I left Chicago and was like damn.... It’s just like certain shit feels impossible when you’re 10 and 11. Certain shit, you don’t picture, you don’t believe you can do it. And it’s like with my dad, we were forced to believe we can do anything and that’s the mindset that we all took on.”
Saba’s father moved to New York to pursue music when Saba was little. When Saba and his dad met up, Saba would have to say, “‘I am a winner, a leader, a strong black man.’ [My brother and I] would have to say that to [our dad] every time, and we would have to say it like we believed it. If we said it with like a little whimper in our voice or something, he’d say, ‘You what? You what?’”
Though the Chicago MC technically grew up without his father—they only saw each other once or twice a year—his dad still provided Saba with the support he needed, to make sure Saba knew that he could do anything and that he had no limits. His father placed a strict moratorium on the word “can’t”; if Saba said he couldn’t do something, he would get in trouble.
More than that, Saba’s father fostered his kids’ love for music, exposing them to music studios, music production, and concerts from a young age. Because of this, the rapper has always taken music seriously and places great credence in his father’s words and actions. Saba truly believes his father has led him to where he is now.
Saba was eventually given the chance to leave his familiar surroundings. His first introduction to the outside world was when he began attending private school in Westchester, Illinois. The school showed him other ways of life, allowing him to meet people from different backgrounds, and most importantly, provide him with different surroundings.
Chicago right now is one of the most revolutionary places like probably in the world —Saba
It was a reawakening of sorts. School became his No. 1 priority, and not because he liked it or because his family forced it on him, but because he was good at it. Saba began high school when he was 12, graduated when he was 16, and attended Chicago’s Columbia College when he was 17, often calling himself an “ultra nerd.” (He didn’t finish his time at Columbia, dropping out after three semesters.) Though he was producing and rapping from around the age of 8, high school was when he began releasing full-length projects. He dropped his first solo tape, Born Emperors, in 2011, then his second, The Ozymandias EP, also in 2011, before graduating high school. His third tape, The Manhattan Project, came during the summer of 2011.
During that entire time, he was conceptualizing ComfortZone, a tape steeped in his father’s influence, and a 15-year delayed reaction to his father’s neo-soul sound, embracing the chord progressions, musicality, and ideas of his father’s aesthetic. “The only difference is that [my father] was singing [his] songs—it was a different feel but a similar feel, because his was like love songs and shit, whereas mine is more like hip-hop, but it’s from the same place.”
But in high school, Saba was a completely different person. He was shy, internal, uncomfortable around people he didn’t know and even people he did know. Ultimately, he used ComfortZone as a tool to pull himself out of that. “I [told] myself I’m gonna do this project and it’s gonna be about me and it’s gonna help me. It was like me trying to get out of that element and be a better person in a sense, for myself.” You wouldn’t think that in his head, this nervous, quiet kid was busy composing a 14-track, neo-soul-inspired rap album.
What single-handedly became the driving force for Saba’s evolution was Chicago’s poetry community, where he participated in open mic events hosted by organizations like YOUMedia and Young Chicago Authors. This is also where he met fellow Chicago rappers Mick Jenkins, Chance the Rapper, NoName Gypsy, Vic Mensa, and Alex Wiley, among others, all of whom also participated in the open mics where they watched each other thrive.
Saba would read his raps at the open mics while staring at the floor, scared and jittery. But he forced himself to keep going, to keep performing, until he began to believe in himself. The repetition was key. Finally, he was able to view himself outside of his fear and discomfort, eventually finding his voice, which gave him that extra push to make the kind of music he was meant to make.
That’s where the theme of comfort comes into play. Before releasing ComfortZone, Saba dropped the prelude tape, GetCOMFORTable, in 2012 to garner some buzz. In a sense, ComfortZone became another way for the rapper to leave Chicago, a testament to Saba’s personal transformation and divergence from where he grew up, but also an ode to his neighborhood and his roots—the west side pops up countless times in the project, from start to finish. Saba is able to jointly address his current and past experiences, using the framework of his neighborhood, his city’s social issues, and cultural and racial conventions to discredit the stereotypes that tend to surround him and other kids from his area. At the end of “Comfort Food,” he rhymes, “My life literally on wax from Wacker to back out west though/Only nigga from the block that dream of different success/You think that he accept himself just ’cause he may accept a speech?/I'm out my comfort zone, I found myself, now accept me for me.”
Though Saba has done a 180, he has still kept his introspection, the positivity, and the peace from his surroundings—his father, the Pivot Gang, Chicago’s poetry community—as a continuing thread in his own music. ComfortZone turned out exactly how he wanted and how he pictured it, a coming-of-age story where Saba is able to simultaneously explore his new world but also evoke old experiences.
“I feel like the low-key cat in Chicago still. I feel like the little bro rapper to a lot of the other rappers in Chicago. But I think this year is gonna be like a nice way to get out of that, a nice way for me to come off the bench. I think I’m Sixth Man of the Year.”
Tara Mahadevan is a writer living in New York. Follow her @mhdvn.