“I’m trying to be big like Michael Jackson,” SahBabii told me the first time we met, in February of 2017. At the time Sah was just two weeks shy of his 20th birthday, and had been dropping music since age 15. His quirkily infectious breakout song, “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick,” recorded on his brother T3’s broken microphone in the family’s bedroom studio, hit with the force of one of those “dracos with a drum” seen all over the music video, shot in the streets of Atlanta’s 9th Ward.
The single’s deafening buzz—spiced up by Sah’s bewitching birdcalls—inspired remixes by T-Pain, Fetty Wap, Wiz Khalifa, and Young Thug. Thugger even flew Sah out to London and introduced him to Drake, although the 6 God’s rumored verse never did materialize. Nonetheless all this excitement set off a bidding war among multiple labels. Warner Bros Records emerged victorious, signing the tall, skinny kid with dreadlocks and braces for a reported $2 million deal. The label wasted no time re-releasing his S.A.N.D.A.S. EP with additional tracks, and giving the revamped project a major push.
On that day back in 2017, SahBabii had come to the Mass Appeal offices to shoot an Open Space interview, during which he explained that he’d chosen Warner Bros from the 16 labels trying to sign him because “Warner just felt like the right place for me.” He also mentioned that he loved Warner Bros cartoons. “I didn't have to sit behind no other big artist,” Sah added. “They told me I could be Michael Jordan over there.”
The rollout went according to plan, with features on all the right blogs, a profile in The New York Times, and a spin on Episode 3 of Blonded Radio, all of which helped to position SahBabii, born Saaheem Valdery, as the next big thing out of Atlanta’s booming music scene. But at some point after the S.A.N.D.A.S. press run, SahBabii’s relationship with the label came to an end. His follow-up project, the acclaimed 12-track set Squidtastic, was released on August 30, 2018 via Casting Bait Music Group, the independent company founded by Sah’s father Delval Valdery aka Sup (pronounced “Soup”), who’s championed his sons’ music careers ever since moving his family from Chicago, where he used to run the streets of Wentworth Gardens.
“We’re trying to utilize Sah and T3 as bait to catch the big fish, which is the labels,” says Sup, who took a leap of faith and quit his job working for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority to devote himself to the family business. “When you look at the logo, you got a little kid, which is the silhouette of my son Bam, who’s one of Sah’s hype guys. He’s casting a fishing line with a gold record at the end. That’s pretty much where we’re at. Sah’ll be platinum soon.”
For a young artist with a viral hit, parting ways with a major label so soon after being signed might seem a disastrous turn of events. But in Sah’s case, it’s proven to be the right decision. Rather than force-feeding his music into mainstream channels, Sah’s been able to avoid overexposure and build a highly engaged fanbase while creating understated, intoxicating music without the pressure to top his last smash.
Ironically enough, “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick” was never one of Sah’s favorite songs. (“I just thought it was a little basic,” he once told The Fader. “I felt like I could've went harder on that.”) The track has racked up a cool 45 million streams on SoundCloud to date and the WorldStar video another 54 million. To be honest, Sah doesn’t look particularly comfortable brandishing a firearm on camera. He may be “kind of nice at Fortnite,” but he also enjoys binge-watching Animal Planet and Naruto, obsessions that he’s been free to explore in more recent records and music videos.
“The whole independent thing is great ’cause you just got your own ideas,” SahBabii told me during a recent phone conversation. “You just make up your own ideas and you move how you wanna move.” Although he’s careful not to bash Warner Bros, Sah is definitely the type of artist who prefers doing things his own way.
"Before Warner got involved, you got to understand the boy went viral and we had 14 million under our belt. You talkin’ about a kid on a true independent label that’s still in conversations with the heavy hitters."–Sup, SahBabii's Father and label founder
“Sah has fans who talk about how he can’t make a bad song,” says Sup. “Before Warner got involved, you got to understand the boy went viral and we had 14 million under our belt. You talkin’ about a kid on a true independent label that’s still in conversations with the heavy hitters. I think people don’t really pay attention to what Sah has done. When he dropped Squidtastic, that came in Top 10 on Apple Music charts, amongst Cardi and J Cole. And then it was Top 13 on all genres. That’s crazy for an independent push!”
“It ain’t nothing really wrong with a label,” SahBabii says. “It’s a good opportunity for some big money. You should think it through and just make sure you got a lawyer to read your contract. You can negotiate what you want, because ain’t nobody forcing you to sign it.”
The way Sah tells it, getting out of the deal was “pretty easy.” They simply agreed to go their separate ways.
So was it a bad experience?
“Uh, not really,” he replies. “But people just want to do they own thing. You know what I’m sayin? People just got their own ideas. I mean, it was a good situation, at that time in my life.”
Was it a question of creative differences, like a disagreement over producers or featured artists?
“Yeah, they wanted to have some input on that,” he says. “I thought they wanted too much control on the second option. Like what studio and all that.”
SahBabii still records all of his music in the same bedroom studio he’s used since day one with his brother engineering and sometimes co-producing or dropping a guest verse. “This was his dream at first,” says Sah. “I just wanted to hear myself on the mic.” There’s a special creative chemistry between him and T3, and they keep their squid circle small. Having developed their own sound and slanguage—a whimsical blend of anime, fellatio, and undersea life forms—they’re reluctant to mess with the magical alchemy. After all, who else is dropping bars like “Squigged up with no tentacles / We hit the block and go barnacles”? While the brothers have invested in a new mic, they didn’t get rid of the old one, just in case they need it for a certain record. If it ain’t broke—or even if is—they’re not trying to fix it.
“As far as concept-wise that bedroom is the comfort zone,” Sup confirms. “But the final product does come out from a professional studio. We have an amazing mastering team working with us too.” It’s been almost 12 years since Sup and T3 started doing this music stuff. Having put everything on the line to make his family’s dreams come true, Sup is justifiably proud of all that Casting Bait Music Group has accomplished.
“These boys is writing they own music, engineering they own music—it’s true creativity,” Sup says. “It’s just sad that they don’t get the acknowledgment and recognition that they deserve. Sah is one of the most underrated artists in the game. A lot of people don’t know Sah is a gold status artist without any major features. This kid don’t have nobody that’s holding his hand, a superstar that’s guest appearing at his concerts. But everybody in the industry know how important SahBabii is.”
"I know the fans like the sound I created. I’m in my own world, so I ain’t trying to really impress nobody else. I’m doing what I like doing and the fans they be rocking with it."–SahBabii
According to Sup, the big label deal didn’t really add much to the SahBabii wave. “Warner was using him, not the other way around,” he says. “They would use him to attract other artists, like ‘Do you know SahBabii’s here now?’” But that’s water under the bridge. A European tour is in the works, as well as a trip to Japan where he will shoot the highly anticipated video for his “Anime World,” before SahBabii drops his highly anticipated album Wolverine.
“I know the fans like the sound I created,” Sah affirms. “I’m in my own world, so I ain’t trying to really impress nobody else. I’m doing what I like doing and the fans they be rocking with it.” His 2018 Spotify Wrapped summary tallied a respectable 39 million streams, with 5 million fans in 65 countries.
That may help to explain the outcry when Sah announced late last year that he would soon be retiring from music. At 5:38 am on November 17, after the second night of his Anime Tour, Sahbabii tweeted a bombshell: “Wolverine Will Be My Last Project Squids Appreciate The Love Through This Journey.”
The 380 replies to that post are a study in social media angst—meme after meme ranging from calling bullshit to shedding tears. Five days later Sah canceled the Anime tour altogether. Since then he’s been back in the bedroom studio, working on Wolverine. But he insists the retirement talk is not just the stress of life on the road.
“I’m working on Wolverine right now,” he said via telephone, with the sound of intense video game action in the background. “That’s the main thing I’ve been working on is organizing that music. That might be my last project.”
Sah chose the title because Wolverine is one of his favorite Marvel heroes. “I just like the claws,” he says. “I was always a fan of X-Men, but he became one of my favorite characters. I got into this game called Marvel Ultimate Alliance. He just go crazy, really. He just go hard. Like the rage that Wolverine be having—just going crazy—that’s why I wanted to name my project Wolverine. I’m just going crazy on this project.”
Meanwhile his fans have been going crazy as they confront the possibility that they may not get much more music after Wolverine. On February 24 he celebrated his 22nd birthday by dropping a three-song project called 3P. The cover art shows Sah sitting on the roof with a full moon in the background surrounded by butterflies and sparkling magic dust. The first track, “Squidiculous,” featuring a T3 verse, is a gentle gem with delicate vocals saying things like:
I tatted my face, yeah, I said fuck a job (Fuck it, yeah)
Play with the squad, make a n***a see God (Believe that)
Triple six shit, hey, bitch, we some gods (No one else)
Much has been made of the upside down cross tattooed on Sah’s face—symbolizing a radically skeptical belief system he calls “unknownism”—and his use of the digits 666 to represent the six protons, six electrons, and six neutrons found in the carbon atom, which is the basis of all life on earth. He’s been asked time and again whether these are Satanic images, and traded tough talk with Offset over the imagery in the past. Now he’s done talking about it. “I explained that a thousand times,” he says now. “They wanna think I’m a devil-worshipper that’s on them.”
Sah says he may drop a few more loosies between now and Wolverine, but after that all bets are off.
"It’s a lot of politics behind the scenes. You have people that’s real envious, that really don’t wanna see you succeed because they can’t say they’re the reason for your success. a lot of people don’t know. The city knows. A lot of insiders know. The industry knows.”–SUP
To be honest, it’s kind of crazy to hear a 22-year-old talking about retirement.
“Well…” Sah replies, his voice trailing off for a moment. “I just wanna do more stuff, like making anime video games. I dropped like three solid projects. So the fans can always enjoy that.”
Despite all the hard work and sacrifice that’s gone into building Sah’s career, Sup understands how his son feels. There was a time earlier in SahBabii’s career when his music wasn’t doing so well, and he became depressed. The pressure led to suicidal thoughts. Asked about that time, Sup launches into a passionate soliloquy.
“It was hard, man. I’m not gonna lie. Because at the time when Sah made a real strong decision that he wanted to give the music a shot for the last go around, we was going through some financial struggles. He was working at Dick’s Sporting Goods and we needed every penny. T3 went out to Cali, things didn’t work out there. I was working for M.A.R.T.A. transit. My wife was working, even his little brothers had jobs. But this music was just in him, man.
“He told me he wanted to give it another shot. It wouldn’t be fair for me being a parent to stagnate my kid’s dreams. That happened to me before, without having that proper support. So I know how it feels. I told him, if you really have that in your heart, and you wanna give it another shot, and you feel like the job is holding you back because you can’t work how you need to, let’s go ahead and do it. When you have that kind of regret in your heart, man, you can’t live it down. This is a young man’s game, so you gotta give it the best shot you can while you’re young.
“I’ve always been the breadwinner of the family and it was coming to the crossroads. Do I let my son just get out here with anybody? Or am I gonna gamble my own fate and believe in what we really have? I walked away from the job, which was hard. Making it in the music game is just like winning the lottery. It’s not guaranteed, man. It’s just wishing upon a star. But I really believed we had something.”
After all they’ve been through, Sup and his family have seen both sides of the game. “People believe what they see,” he says. “People don’t look at what is real success. It’s a lot of politics behind the scenes. You have people that’s real envious, that really don’t wanna see you succeed because they can’t say they’re the reason for your success. So you have these types of things that come into play that a lot of people don’t know. The city knows. A lot of insiders know. The industry knows.”
“We want Sah music to be like old dusties. I know how music was influential in my life. It played as a theme song to certain parts that I can reminisce on in my life, and I can attach a song to it. And a lot of people that’s really into music can do the same. And I wanna continue that. But I just think it’s being washed out and it’s being dumbed down. People talk about ‘I did my whole album in two days.’ I just don’t understand that. Don’t respect it. That is just ridiculous. Everybody’s just chasing a bag.
“The route that we takin’… there’s an old saying, 'We did it the hard way. We earned it.' A lot of these kids, they takin’ the shortcut. And we taking the long route, and we going through obstacles, man. My boys, I know they passionate about music. But at the same time, they young. They see all this stuff that’s going on. And they probably feel like they’re under-appreciated. And they feel like it’s not coming fast enough.
“I know it’s character-building. I know it’s fanbase-building. But with me saying that, that’s just a dad talking. You can see the fruits of your labor, but it’s not gonna be instant. It’s just like an athlete taking steroids versus one that’s getting in the gym and really working out every day. His results gonna come slow, but his results gonna be everlasting. But most kids don’t care about that. It’s about now, because this is a fast-paced world. It’s the microwave world we living in. They don’t care about tomorrow, or a few years from now. They talking about right now. Kids have that type of pressure, and they get discouraged.
“But I believe the music is truly in their heart. I also believe when he feels like he’s through, he probably feels that way. But I’m hopefully gambling on passion. I’m gambling that people can appreciate him. I feel like he’s got a lot of true fans over there. My plea to the people man, is that if y’all really care about music, regardless who you support, make sure you support real artists that’s pushing this culture forward to last 30 more years. That’s our goal. That’s what we trying to do.”
Over the past couple of years the generational divide within hip hop has divided the culture into warring camps, pitting “bitter old heads” against the “mumble rappers.” So it was a pleasant surprise to see SahBabii tweeting a tribute to The Notorious B.I.G. on March 9 of this year.
The tweet didn’t get much traction among Sah’s followers, just 51 RTs and 8 comments, one of which was a request from the artist Lil Sauce to check out his latest single. But the song resonated strongly with a kid born two weeks before Christopher Wallace's untimely death at age 24.
“That’s my favorite song,” he said of the most uplifting track in Biggie’s catalog. “He was talking about his childhood, like how he didn’t fit in and stuff. How he used to sew the Tigers on his shirt. Fake designers. He was really struggling.”
Can you relate to that feeling?
“Yeah I could relate to that… Not fitting in. I had a couple of friends, but you know, you still got the people that don’t like you for no reason. I just be on my own ways.”
Sah’s other March 9 tweet was an invitation for fans to quote their favorite SahBabii line. The 552 replies are a testament to the under-appreciated creativity that so irks Sup. It’s not hard to imagine Biggie enjoying a title like “Marsupial Superstars.”
SahBabii knows his music isn’t for everyone—and he’s OK with that. “It’s for the people that know,” he says. “You know what I’m saying? I’m not a very huge artist. But the people that know, they like the music.”
When he talks about retiring at 22, it’s partly a matter of perfectionism—call it quality control. “When you go in the studio, you go hard," SahBabii explains. "It’s only so much ideas you could come up with. I try to go hard on all projects. It’s basically giving my mind a rest. I just gotta go see some more stuff so I could talk about more stuff. You gotta see stuff and be around stuff to inspire you. So I gotta get in some more levels in life.”