Music » Music Feature

Saba brings the west side to life in rap

On the new mixtape Bucket List Project, the Pivot Gang MC reminds Chicago that one of its most violent neighborhoods is also a home.


Saba in front of Saint Catherine of Siena Saint Lucy School, where he went to junior high—and where first started bringing in CDs of his beats to share with other students - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Saba in front of Saint Catherine of Siena Saint Lucy School, where he went to junior high—and where first started bringing in CDs of his beats to share with other students

On September 12 the Tribune reported that more than 3,000 people have been shot in Chicago so far this year—and that about a third of those shootings have been in three of the city's 25 police districts, all of them on the west side. News out of those neighborhoods all seems to be about violence and misery: last week alone you could read about fatal shootings, fires, the burned body of a high school freshman, and a Roosevelt University report calling the west side the "epicenter" of the heroin crisis in Illinois.

Chicago rapper-producer Saba, aka Tahj Chandler, grew up on the west side—specifically in Austin, near its border with Oak Park. His imminent third mixtape, Bucket List Project, puts listeners in his shoes, with a vivid sense of place that humanizes a community most outsiders experience only as a lurid parade of grim statistics.

Saba opens the Bucket List Project track "Westside Bound 3" with the line "I'm from the part of the city that they don't be talking about." The 22-year-old says he was inspired to include it after meeting with journalism students at Young Chicago Authors. "They were just talking about how inspired they were to hear an artist that's from where they're from," Saba explains. "I wanted to inspire the west side. The west side is really behind in terms of having any recognition for music, and even just recognition for anything, really—the west side is treated like a slum."

Ironically, to make these songs that evoke his west-side upbringing, Saba left town. In June he rented an AirBnB in Los Angeles with producer-singer Phoelix and rapper Noname, and for a month the three of them worked on two of the best rap full-lengths to come out of Chicago all year—Noname's July mixtape Telefone, where Saba coproduced half the tracks and rapped on one, and Bucket List Project.

Every day they'd wake up and go to work in the living room. Because they didn't have a TV to distract them, when they took breaks they entertained one another. "If we weren't making music, we were just talking about everything—all of our life experience," Saba says. He noticed he was putting more of himself into his music than ever before.

"Bucket List is so different from the other stuff, even though it was a thing that was always in my music," Saba says. "Now I understand the importance of being myself, and telling what happened to me and around me." On "American Hypothesis," he raps about his childhood: his father moved out "before I learned how to tie my sneakers," members of his extended family died of drug overdoses, and he saw his mother's boyfriend stick a shotgun in her face. But there's also real affection in the song, and it flows both ways. Saba's dad makes an appearance, sharing his own bucket list in a recorded phone call—he names the places he'd like to visit with his son, including Mecca, Israel, and Morocco. Though their father lived apart from Saba and his brother, they regularly talked on the phone: "We couldn't hang up without saying 'I'm a winner and a leader and a strong black man,'" he says. "My dad, he built our mentals to be so strong that we were prepared for something like a music career." Saba graduated from high school at 16, at which point he'd already been rapping and making beats half his life.

Saba’s basement studio at his grandparents’ home in Austin, which doubles as an unofficial headquarters for his Pivot Gang crew - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Saba’s basement studio at his grandparents’ home in Austin, which doubles as an unofficial headquarters for his Pivot Gang crew

Phoelix served as executive producer on Bucket List Project, but Saba worked on the instrumentals too. His production style—weightless, incandescent, heavy on the R&B—links the varied sounds on the mixtape, such as the ascending synths and irregular bass pulse of "Symmetry" and the wobbly hum of the title track. Saba is a commanding presence as a rapper, with a brassy voice and a confident range that covers scholarly wordplay and good-natured aggression; he might hurry through a verse so quickly that his bars blur together, differentiated only by similar-­sounding syllables that cap each phrase, or let his words drop and fetch up like a Slinky walking down stairs.

Saba also raps with a tunefulness that owes something to 90s west-side rap stars Twista, Do or Die, and Crucial Conflict, all of whom he studied with almost religious devotion as a teenager (alongside his first rap love, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony). "All of them rap fast, but none of them rap the same," he says. And when a high school friend passed him a copy of Food & Liquor, the 2006 debut by west-side rapper Lupe Fiasco, it hit him like an anvil. "I love Common, I love Kanye West, but Lupe Fiasco—it was finally, like, a person talking about being on Madison, places that I'm familiar with," Saba says.

West-side hip-hop may not have birthed any national stars since Lupe, but it's continued to thrive. In recent years it's produced flashy MC ZMoney, sinister street rapper Lud Foe (who has the Chicago audience's top three most "distinctively popular" songs on Spotify), and of course the entire bop scene, which includes critically acclaimed duo Sicko Mobb, Billboard hit maker Dlow, and Stunt Taylor of "Fe Fe on the Block" fame. Saba honors his west-side roots on Bucket List Project in some of the customary ways—references to streets in his Austin neighborhood, a shout-out to ZMoney, a guest verse from Twista on "GPS"—but he distinguishes himself with a detailed sense of place that none of his peers can match.

The media's west-side narratives are haunted by the shadow of violent death, but Bucket List Project reminds us that thousands of people on those blocks are just trying to live their lives. That's not to say the mixtape turns a blind eye to the blight: the chorus for "Church/Liquor Store," which Saba wrote while riding the Division bus home from YCA, begins "Funeral home, church, church, liquor store, corner store."

"If you go down Division, it's spot-on, you pass all of that," Saba says. But the title Bucket List Project is more than a morbid joke. Saba's dad isn't the only person who turns up to talk about the things he wants to do while he's still here—the mixtape is full of fans and colleagues sharing their lists. Chance the Rapper says he wants to learn to play drums; Stunt Taylor wants $10 million in the bank.

Bucket List Project opened my eyes to a part of town I'd barely visited, and I wanted to get a better understanding of the place from the rapper responsible. Saba showed me and Reader director of photography Danielle A. Scruggs around Austin, and then we sat down to talk in the basement recording studio he's set up at his grandparents' house. The studio doubles as the informal headquarters for Saba's rap collective, Pivot Gang. "Wildstyle from Crucial Conflict was down here not too long ago," Saba says. "'This really reminds me of when Crucial Conflict first started'—he was saying stuff like that."

Below I've collected edited excerpts from our conversations about each place.

Saba on the court next to the Westside Health Authority: "Everybody was just trying to work to get to go to the NBA. That was it—we either gonna rap, or we going to the NBA. So pick one." - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Saba on the court next to the Westside Health Authority: "Everybody was just trying to work to get to go to the NBA. That was it—we either gonna rap, or we going to the NBA. So pick one."

Basketball court next to Westside Health Authority

That basketball court is really just the closest one to my house—if we playin' ball, we don't wanna have to travel too far.

I didn't even really know it was there. We had to do some volunteer stuff—me and my brother—one year at the Westside Health Authority, which is next door to that court. After that we started going up there every now and again. We've always had a rim in our backyard, but if we tryin' to play for real, that's where we'll go, or to another court in that same area.

It's a cool local spot. It's not too many places over here to even do something as simple as play ball. A lot of the courts that'll be within a two-mile radius of here will be the courts that they take the rims off—it never seems like they even want us to play ball. All we did when we were younger was make music and play basketball. Now it's not much different—we just make a lot more music and play NBA 2K instead of real basketball. But that's always been our second nature—music, then basketball.

For us, it would basically be the breather. Two thousand twelve was probably the year that we made the most music ever. We were trying to make 300 songs in one summer. I don't know why, but that was our end goal: "We gon' get to 300." We never got to 300—I think we made it to 190-something. We was down here working every day, and so to not dry our brains out, we would go in the backyard and just play a game of 32. We would play two or three and then come back in, dry off, get some water, and back to music.

M&M Quick Food, Division and Austin

The corner store was the same idea—making music down here, you go in the back, you play ball. Before you come back down here, you go to the corner store, you get yourself a Gatorade or something.

This area, or kind of the whole west side—we got Uncle Remus, we got MacArthur's. It's kind of a food desert, realistically. We can get chicken with mild sauce on it on any given corner, but if we want to eat anything else, we gotta get in the car and go somewhere. The convenience store, it's open 24 hours, and it's right around the corner. If you need anything, that's the closest place to go. A lot of times you might not want chicken with mild sauce after you eat it every day for a week—you might just want a snack.

All they got is candy and shit in there—as unfortunate as it is, that's the situation. You can go get M&Ms, hella sugary-ass sodas, and juices. It's been the local spot our whole life. It's always been there, so we always go. It's not necessarily good, but it's what it is—what can we do about it? Our eating habits are terrible. It's super annoying—like, Domino's is around the corner, but because it's in Oak Park, it doesn't deliver here.

The importance of food is never stressed on us until we're older and we realize, "Man, we really eat shit. Doritos and fried chicken every day—that shit's gonna catch up to us." It's a thing that now I'm aware of, but it's like trying to break the habit of eating basically candy and fried food our whole life. Being raised by my grandparents, like, my grandma does cook every now and again, so those are my real meals—anything that's not that will be some snacks and some fried food. I'm just trying to figure it out. I'm not ready to get my complete health on yet, but I'm trying to get healthier. I'm not ready to be a vegan, but maybe to just not eat that bag of Skittles right now.

The Division bus was one of two Saba used to ride to a job as a janitor in Homan Square. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • The Division bus was one of two Saba used to ride to a job as a janitor in Homan Square.

Bus stop at Division and Austin

When we were working on my second mixtape, Comfort Zone, we were working at this studio super far up north. The problem with most buses around here is they stop at like 10, 10:30. The train, it's damn near a mile away—we could take the train and walk a mile, but even that train stops earlier than all the other trains.

For us the 70 was probably the bus that we take the most. You gotta get east—everything that happens is east of here. This is like the last block of Chicago; you cross the street, you're in Oak Park. If we want to do anything, if we got any show or any studio session or want to eat any food that's not around here—we gotta get on the 70 and go super east.

I used to be a janitor once upon a time, in Homan Square. We used to have to take the 70 to the 82. I remember my first day of work—it was a super long day. I'd been doing music my whole life; I never had had a real job. My brother, Joseph [Chilliams], worked in the same area—we took the bus together, and when it was time for me to go home, I used to get off before him.

I was waiting at the bus stop, and some dude was walking—then this car pulls up, and four guys jump out and beat the shit out of this man right behind me. Then they jump in the car and drive away, and he just gets up and starts running. And I'm like, "Holy shit!" At that point, every day, on the 70 going to work, I'm super cautious.

The one thing that I do like about the bus is it feels like Hey Arnold! or something. If you're on the bus early in the morning, you'll be on the bus with a lot of old people going to work, you'll be on the bus with a lot of teenagers, a lot of mothers—it's such a diverse bus. It shows you such an accurate description of Chicago, of the west side of Chicago even. It's like every color of person is on the bus. It's one of those things where you gotta take the good with the bad, being on the 70 specifically. The 70 and the 91—those are the two buses that I took the most. The 91 was the Austin bus, and that's how we got to the train.

After Saba graduated high school at 16, the Austin Green Line stop became his doorway to Columbia College—and to the Harold Washington Library’s YouMedia center, an incubator for hip-hop artists. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • After Saba graduated high school at 16, the Austin Green Line stop became his doorway to Columbia College—and to the Harold Washington Library’s YouMedia center, an incubator for hip-hop artists.

Austin Green Line stop

I started taking the train daily when I was 16, 'cause that's when I started going to Columbia—I was going to Columbia every day, and I was going to YouMedia every other day. The train is probably the most accurate description of Chicago, of the west side. It's like the same route that you'll go on the 70, but the train is faster. You can see the areas—hood, hood, hood, OK, OK, gentrification, gentrification, then the nice-as-hell downtown.

That first sense of real independence for me was on the train, because I'm on my own. I'm witnessing a lot more crazy shit happen on the Green Line, and I have to find my sense of security. I have to find it myself. It's like, I have no reason to really feel safe, because I'm witnessing people get robbed—people get beat up on the train, and I have to just walk with my head up and feel that nothing is gonna happen to me, for whatever reason.

I did a terrible job my freshman year of picking classes. I thought I was doing a good job: "I'ma take this 9 AM class, I'ma come home after that, then my next class gonna be at 6:30, but it's gonna be the same day." I thought that was genius when I was 16, and I realized what a shitty route that is. I gotta take an hour to get there. Then after the hour-long class, I come back home—I'm napping in between—I'm going back downtown and then taking the superlate train ride. It was the dumbest thing that I did, but it took that to learn that.

The Austin Green Line was the one spot to get to anywhere in the city. We had to get there first, and then we can get anywhere. When I was at school, I had a U-Pass, so I was going crazy, getting on every bus. That was the first sense of any music-scene stuff that we ever experienced—we had to get to the Green Line to get downtown to get to Harold Washington to meet all of these super-raw artists. For all my south-side friends, when I have them come here, that's the easiest route. And it's always the furthest west that they've been—every time it's like, "Man, you sure I'm going the right way?"

Like 2012, 2013, it was crackin' down here—every day, everybody was recording. I recorded Dally Auston's project, I recorded Lucki's project, I recorded Noname, Mick Jenkins—everybody in the city I was recordin' down here. It just reminded me of how it didn't matter that it was far, and that the music was that important—because people would just come here in the morning, stay the day, and leave at night.

Staff at Saba's junior high school hang newspaper clippings about his hip-hop career in the office. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Staff at Saba's junior high school hang newspaper clippings about his hip-hop career in the office.

Saint Catherine of Siena Saint Lucy School

That's where I went to junior high. That was the first real school I ever went to—because before that, when I was in third grade, there were probably three or four of us. It was one classroom all day—you eat lunch in here, you doin' social studies in here, you doin' math in here. You go to the bathroom out there, but everything else for the most part was in this one room. So when I went to Saint Catherine, it was like, "Oh man, we're changing classes."

Everybody lived around here. It was a cool experience—I was never the new kid, so being the transfer at Saint Catherine was the first time where that had happened. I wasn't rapping as much, but I was making beats, so I would bring my CDs and hand CDs around. I was super shy, super quiet. My teachers—imagine how surprised they are that I'm this rap sensation on the Internet. They've been super supportive—they got the Redeye hangin' up in the office and everything, and a few of the other articles. They been loosely keeping track of where their alum has gone. It's real cool having a support system, especially because as a student they didn't know me that well. I was a shy student, but I always did good in school for some reason. I didn't focus on school ever—it was a thing that came easy to me, so my teachers think I'm, like, the greatest student. I wasn't even doing my homework until the day it was due; I was going home, playing video games, making music, and then waking up early. That was always the kind of student I was—it's crazy that I actually did good at all in school.

A lot of those experiences that I'm describing on Bucket List happened during that time frame. You never really forget who you were because it's who you are—it's always a part of you. I still wear my glasses every day, I still have a lot of the same characteristics that I had then, I'm not a completely different person. I used to hate school, and part of it was just because I was so boxed into myself and scared to talk to everybody—especially when I transferred, 'cause everyone wanted to talk to me. A lot of people I went to middle school with, we're Facebook friends, but they always hit me up—it's cool, having the support of people that knew me when I was a different version of myself. v

Add a comment