On 'Bucket List Project,' Saba Gets Out of His Comfort Zone

We checked in with the Chicago MC about his new mixtape, 'The Bucket List Project,' collaborating with Twista, and his hometown's evolving rap scene.

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Nov 8 2016, 2:49pm

Saba's Chicago is a town where, in his words, "everybody knows everybody." The Pivot crew rapper, who hails from the West Side's Austin neighborhood, first began making a name for himself in 2011 rocking crowds at after school programs, and he has since teamed up with everyone from Chance the Rapper to Noname and Twista on his new mixtape, The Bucket List Project.

His first two projects, 2014's GetComfortable and ComfortZone, set the progressive MC apart from Chicago's crowded rap scene with a talent for wordplay matched by his ear for smooth production, influenced as much by his musical upbringing as his time spent immersed in the city's poetry scene. Despite his rising star, Saba's material continues to draw on the everyday—be that his hooptie Stoney, bought after his first slate of shows, or the wild friend at the center of "The Billy Williams Story."

The rapper recently came through to the VICE offices in LA to talk to Noisey Radio on Beats 1 about his new mixtape, collaborating with his longtime inspiration Twista, and, of course, his hometown. Check out the episode here and read for on an extended version of our interview below. 

Noisey: Talk about the concept behind The Bucket List Project.
Saba: The Bucket List Project, for me it was just trying to do grand things that were all in that mindset that were like we can achieve it, you know? A lot of us, we raised to not believe a lot of stuff—and that's kind of where I was with it. It's funny because the actual idea for it came from me having a hooptie and just driving this bucket, and it turned into the last couple of years.

What about growing up in Chicago? And all the influences that surround you, I'm sure musically and personally?
I think growing up in Chicago is always just like the real the central location of where you can be influenced by. Anywhere. You know like, we aren't just getting one stream of music, of entertainment, or anything like that. It's like we're getting New York, LA, we're getting you know everywhere pretty much. I think that the sound that comes out is very conclusive of that. You don't just get one style of Chicago, and I think that's what—for me, you know when I was younger—I used to look up to like Twista, Lupe, Kanye—those are like the big ones for me. All of them—you can't really—I was never able to pin point this sound is influenced by this, and this sound is influenced by this—you know it's kind of just like this kind of grey area where the style sort of came from. For me, just having that influence—I think Chicago is a nice melting pot. You see everything in Chicago. And I think in turn, it'll just come out to be a really original thing. And now you see it with Noname and Chance and Mick Jenkins. It's like all of these people are from the same place sounding completely different. Chief Keef—all of these people are from the same place. I think for me, it's like taking everything in and just putting my spin on it. I think everybody, whether or not you make art in Chicago, it's kind of how you live your life out there.

I know you run with Chance a little bit, I saw you on Colbert with him. I'm curious, what's your circle out there? Who are the other artists you like working with in Chicago?
My crew in Chicago is called Pivot. So that's mostly the guys that I see on an everyday basis. I used to fake live with Noname. I think Chicago is interesting because it's one of those places where everybody knows everybody. I know a lot of times people try to separate the two sides of Chicago, like there's an alternative, but everybody knows everybody in Chicago. It's at a point now where everybody rocks with everybody. And it's like all love everywhere. I'm one of those artists who even early on I've been blessed and put in positions to work with everybody. Everybody just seems to have some type of attraction towards me. I've been blessed and put in that position to be put in the middle of it all where everybody's favorite artist from Chicago has some type of—whether it's a feature or some type of production—something—I'm connected to all of it. I feel like I'm in the dead center of it.

Talk about Pivot a little bit.
Pivot is kind of like a crew…me, my brother and probably like six, seven of us. It's all family with Pivot. We started in about 2011, I think officially. The goal with Pivot was you know, we all from the West Side of Chicago and just having to make that positivity ourselves and have to see it ourselves, even if we have to make it up sometimes just living in that, was the real goal for Pivot. To see like…where it's gone. One of my homies in Pivot named Fresh—he locked up now. This is our like, our life long homie. He's been locked up since 2013. But this man had a goal first to make 300 songs in one summer. So I think that's became our work ethic. We just do it. We didn't end up making 300, we got to, I think, 192? We're always working on something, whether it be a project, album, production. Just everything.

Is producing something you've always wanted to see through?
I started as a producer. That's how I got involved in music in general. I was playing piano. When I was eight, that's when I started producing. So for me it's crazy now because I got all this recognition as a rapper, and people don't really know my behind the scenes feel for the game, really. I've always been involved in any of the projects. Like I dropped to mixtapes before this. And if you look at the credits, on both of them I produced at least half of it. That's kind of always been my take to music in general. Being real hands on. Especially on Bucket List I was working with this producer named Phoelix Chicago. Me and him did a lot of Noname's Telefone. Me and him, like that team is my favorite producer. It didn't make sense to give someone else the power to create that sound when I feel like we had it. It's a real hands on process where you gotta make the beats and conceptualize and do all of this stuff. But [that's] how I always made music, so there's no reason to change that now.

Let's talk about "GPS." 
What's crazy about "GPS" is it's one of the older songs. Sometimes as an artist you gotta be willing to put yourself on a line and see your vision through. And "GPS" I started in 2013. Another thing I want to point out, working with producers that aren't focused on "this is what's hot right now," you never have to worry about it sounding three years old. "GPS" doesn't sound like it was made three years ago, and that's the thing. You want to create something timeless, and that's something that I put on my back when I'm producing, and I know Cam [O'bi] does it when he's producing as well. So 2013 I'm working on "GPS" and I get my dad to do the hook with me. So it's me and him singing a hook. It was just one of those things where I rewrote it and I rewrote it a bunch of times. It was really supposed to be for ComfortZone, my last project, but when [that] was done I still wasn't satisfied where the writing on "GPS" was. So 2015 comes, and I'm still trying to rework the record. This is probably the fourth version of the same song. By 2015, I know Twista. And I'm just thinking to myself, "Man, this is like the perfect tempo for that collab to happen." And he was always like hella avid about working together and you know, anything-you-need-holla-at-me type shit. 

Twista is just one of those guys who's super involved. Even if it's from a distance, and you don't really know. He's aware of all of the young cats in Chicago doing their things. That's how it is with a lot of the OGs in Chicago. They'll be looking and they'll be listening and they'll know. I finally got to meet Twista. I opened up for him in Texas for a show, and we were just choppin' it up. It was crazy. He was telling me that certain cadences I did inspired him. And I was like, "Wow, you're the king of cadence." And one thing about me, as a rapper, is cadence is like everything for me. You know, thinking of different rhythms and different ways to attack the song that I haven't heard done. I spent hours trying to do that. It's one of those things where now you know when you put out music it's not a thing that people like instantly pay attention to like, "Oh, this a new rhythm." They're just like this is a good song or it sucks. But you know, having somebody who really studies or who really knows like part of it, it was just really a blessing to have that happen.  And then when I finally sent them the song, they sent it back like damn near right then. I think it was like three days? Which is like the fastest I ever got a feature back from anybody. Like faster than my friends that I'm with every day. It was just a dope process to be able to work with Twista in that way.

I'm curious about "Westside Bound 3."
I went to this place in Chicago called Young Chicago Authors. It's a writing workshop for kids who are interested in the field of journalism, and they're interviewing me. It's like a bunch of teenagers asking me random questions about you know, the industry and my last project and stuff. A lot of the kids were from the West Side of Chicago. When you're not from Chicago, you don't really realize how different the West Side and the South Side and like downtown and all of these areas are, but it's a completely different world, almost. The West Side is super overlooked and super forgotten about, super wasteland. People just talk down on it all the time. So this is the first time that I really felt embraced by the West Side of Chicago, where I'm from. I was just talking to these kids—they like, "Man—'Westside Bound 1,' 'Westside Bound 2,' we really look up to stuff like that, this really inspired us, we really feel like we finally have someone who is from here who is doing us justice, who's speaking out," you know what I'm saying? Where we're from. And I feel like that that moment kinda just inspired me. The next day I finally was able to finally write the record I wanted to write. I could have easily made some like chill, "Westside Bound shout out the West Side—" but I wanted to explain why I was doing it. I don't want it to come off like, "West Side, West Side, West Side! I'm on the West Side!" I'm not that guy. And everything is for a reason, and I think it was one of those things where I wanted to uplift and inspire the West Side in ways that are probably unimaginable to people who aren't from the West Side. That's how that one came to be and it features Joseph Chilliams, who's my older brother. We started rapping together long, long time ago. It's always cool working with your family. 

Do you come from a musical family?
Absolutely. My dad was really how I got involved in music. My uncle and their dad, my grandfather, all of them were involved in music. What was crazy is all three of them were involved in completely different types of music. My dad was a neo-soul R&B kinda guy, he produced and he sang. My uncle was a super hip-hop kind of producer. You know, with the sped-up samples. Like early Chicago, Kanye sounding. And then my grandfather was like a funk musician.

So tell me about how you originally got into music.
My great grandmother had a piano at her house. And me and my family went over there once to just visit her. I knew "Mary Had A Little Lamb" because I learned it on this toy piano that I had. And I played "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and she gave us the piano. I think it was an upright piano. So I got into music lessons, like piano lessons and everything like that right after that moment. So I'm like seven. My dad and his father had a studio, and that was the first studio that I had ever been in, and I'd just make beats and and write songs I guess when I was like eight or nine. That's pretty much all we did. Everyone was playing video games, and I was there. My dad taught me how to sequence on the piano. That was really it from that point on. And then at eight, nine maybe, that's when I started trying to build a studio in my basement—trying to like to resemble the one in my granddad's basement. We got a four track recorder, started dubbing cassettes and everything, and that was pretty much it.

Tell me about one track that's really important to you.
The song "Stoney." "Pull up in my bucket / and I'm feelin' like fuck it. " It's a track that I started more recent than the rest of them. I did it probably June, in LA with Phoelix. It was the name of my first hooptie—Stoney. I'm pretty much just telling the stories of myself, my friends, my family. Like just different different experiences that I had in different hoopties. I had an old one, Honda Civic, and that was basically everything. I played a show and I bought that. That was the coolest thing I had done in 2015, I think. That was like an ode to Stoney. 'Cause Stoney got totaled. [Laughs]

Isn't it amazing how cars can motivate everyone?
Yeah—especially in Chicago because the CTA is not the wave.

​​​Let's talk about "The Billy Williams Story." 
I feel like this one is going to raise the most eyebrows because I'm saying some pretty un-Saba stuff. It's kind of like "who is this guy?" So Billy Williams—childhood friend—stole a lot of shit, and I made a song about it. And that's kind of the loose idea of the song, what it turned into. I was in Jewels one day. I was in Jewels one day with a bunch of Pivot. And we was just reflecting on this one time we had also been in Jewels with the legendary Billy Williams, and hella shit in Jewels came up missing. It was pretty impressive. There's a lot you can do with a baby stroller in Jewel-Osco. So that kind of inspired the song. I'm rapping as Billy Williams. So for me, it's this one friend, everybody got the one friend that's the wild one. For me, the wild friend wasn't a rapper. I'm having trouble putting it into words right now because I don't want to say too much. It's one of those songs. It'll be self explanatory once you realize that I am rapping as another person. You gotta ride with your friends, kinda no matter if they right or wrong. You gotta, you know?

So did he hear the song? Is it a warning song? What kind of song is it?
Nah, he he heard the song. I think—I wanna say he loved it. I played it for everybody in his neighborhood. You know, everybody. That's one of those songs that's been—it's never come out, but I performed it a bit. I've played it for about a year now. I've been getting good feedback on it so far. There's a lot of drug references in that song. Everybody who knows me knows that I'm sober. I don't do any drugs, I don't drink or anything like that. So a lot of people listen to the song and are like, "Wait—what am I listening to?" So, uh, yeah. Now that you know, it's not about me, it's about Billy Williams. 

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