Saba on Breaking Out Of His Comfort Zone and Rapping About Mental Health on ‘Care For Me’
On and off wax, Saba’s storytelling is so vivid that you can see the scenes of his life play out in your mind as he recalls them. On his latest album, Care For Me, the Chicago rapper treats the booth like the confessional, spilling out the details of coping with depression and anxiety as well as the death of his older cousin, John Walt. For this reason, Saba (né Tahj Malik Chandler) is a man of many words, who not only turns his losses into purpose but treats his craft as a healing process.
A day after Care For Me‘s release, the TIDAL Rising Artist of the Week continued to keep it 100 during a life talk about navigating social media, meeting Chance the Rapper and receiving golden advice from his father. You can also catch the PIVOT gang rep on a stage near you by copping tickets to his Care For Me tour here.
What song made you fall in love with hip-hop?
I would say that I fell in love with hip-hop when I was playing NBA Live maybe in 2002, 2003 and “Notorious Thugs” [by The Notorious B.I.G. and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony] came on ‘cause my brother was playing it. It was the first time I felt like I really liked a hip-hop song. I had been exposed to hip-hop my entire life but it felt like it was something for me. That was the summer that I started trying to rap and make my own music. That was my first introduction to a different sound. That’s why I really liked it because it was just so different than what everybody else was doing — the melodies, the faster-paced raps, everything about it. It’s kinda funny because it’s what I ended up doing myself but just in a different way.
Looking at your catalog, each project captures a certain snapshot of your life. Can you recall some of the experiences that you were going through that made them different from each other?
One thing that’s cool about projects is that it is a snapshot of that artist’s life at the time. I remember making ComfortZone my main priority. I was super shy at the time, and I wanted to use the music to crack open that shell and be more social. On ComfortZone, a lot of it is me actually trying to get out of that comfort zone. It definitely worked successfully for what it was supposed to do just like from the start of working on ComfortZone to when it actually came out. I was way more social, I was even locally known a little bit so it was really cool that the music kind of helped to break down that wall. A lot of it had to do with just performing every day or every other day and doing these open mics where being socially awkward is all cool until you get on-stage. That’s when you actually have to figure it out – making eye contact, learning how to perform.
ComfortZone was the first time I ever put out something and I felt like faced rejection. Everything I had done up until that point, I had a much smaller circle. I was like, ‘This is amazing, this is the best music I ever heard,’ and those are the types of compliments I was used to. I feel like this is the first time I ever had to face someone not liking something of mine and it definitely took a toll on me, emotionally. My spirits were down a lot and deaths around me. Like I had lost my uncle right after ComfortZone, who I was really close to. On Bucket List, I think it was me realizing how fragile the idea of life, is and it kinda created a fearlessness inside of me — me trying to push myself further and me trying to push others further, knowing everybody has their certain fears. Just wanting to go all out basically.
What’s interesting about all of my albums is they’re really to help me. It’s a very selfish concept, like this is what I’m going through in my life and this is the music I think I need to hear right now, which is especially true on Care For Me. Care For Me is the first time I delve into talking about depression and anxiety, and then all of these factors as to why I am the way I am. A lot of it had to do with losing my best friend and older cousin, [John] Walt, which is throughout the album. I think why Care For Me is so important is because it talks about mental health in a lot of ways that are simple but I just haven’t heard it done in hip-hop music that way. It’s crazy to think that it’s only been out for a day because it feels like it’s been out for so much longer. It’s just crazy to think about where I was when I was making it. Honestly, most of the songs were from months and months ago so it’s just like where my head was at at the time. I honestly do think in making that, it was kind of like a healing process, making those stories so I feel much better now, talking about it.
Mental health isn’t really a trending topic in hip-hop. Why was it important for you to be so open about it on this project?
It’s a part of me. I think it’s always important, and I try to be as honest as I can about some things that are uncomfortable. Even as a listener, sometimes you might be listening to something that makes you uncomfortable on certain subjects. I feel like they’re things that need to be addressed and there’s already enough people doing other shit to where I don’t feel like I need to add to the noise of that. Like, they’re already good at what they do. I feel like I need to make music that’s me finding myself, musically honing into a certain sound and certain topics that I feel a much larger crowd needs to hear this message rather than some other shit. It’s crazy how me telling the most specific stories about my life and the most descriptive experiences I’ve had is the most relatable music I’ve put out to date. That’s just because everybody is going through the same shit in different ways so it’s like you tell a story and people are putting themselves into your shoes. It’s crazy to see how many similarities people have, and I think it’s one thing Care For Me really does well.
What’s your relationship with social media?
It’s a love-hate relationship because it’s so important and so necessary for me just getting out and making people hear what I’m working on. Especially as an independent artist, I kind of have to be on social media and I wish it wasn’t like that. If I disappear from social media, I might not make as much money. [Laughs] People don’t take into consideration that social media is only a highlight reel. It’s definitely one of those things where you can be stuck on social media and have a thousand followers and be like but I should have 5 or 10. At the end of the day, you realize it doesn’t matter. It’s like currency. You’re able to see how quote-unquote important something that you do or say is. If you post something and nobody retweets it, you might feel down about yourself, like man, I want to be important. Social media is unhealthy … but it’s a necessary evil at this point.
Where does the name Saba comes from?
Embarrassing story, no. 1. I’ve told this story a bunch of times but it feels less embarrassing now but we all about honesty and transparency on this album so let’s do it. My government name is Tahj Malik so when I first started making music when I was 9, I was on some super hip-hop shit and thought it was tight to go by Sabatahj. Like this is so tight, this is so cool, this is genius. It doesn’t work in 2018 for obvious reasons but when I got to high school, everybody started calling me Saba or Sab for short. It kind of just stuck as a nickname, and it got to a point where people didn’t even know my name wasn’t Saba ‘cause it’s also a real name that people have. It just stuck and morphed from Tahj into Saba. And then Sabatahj just kinda died.
Talk to me about how your crew Pivot Gang came together and why the name PIVOT?
What’s so important about Pivot is the sense of family. Everybody in Pivot has been around each other for so long, we really grew up together partially because Pivot was started by my older brother [John Walt], so we literally grew up together. It was just me, my older brother, Joseph Chilliams, John Walt, [MFn]Melo, who I met when I was 13; I met FRSH [Waters] when I was 13; Squeak, who is one of the Pivot producers and DJs and is Fresh’s younger brother so everybody’s just related. When Walt died, it’s like you really see how much of a family we were. It’s not like losing a bandmate, it’s like we lost a person in our family. It really brought everybody closer.
We were all in my grandmother’s basement, making a bunch of music and my brother’s just a weird dude. He bought a season of Friends from some record store in Chicago and he was at home, watching it. There’s an episode of Friends where they’re yelling “pivot” and moving a couch up the stars. And on the bar [Walt] was writing the next day, he said, “This the friends movement, moving couches, call up the pivot gang.” And since then, we’ve just been calling ourselves the Pivot gang.
You have a really close relationship with Chance the Rapper and have worked together a bunch of times. How did you two meet?
I met Chance at this library that we used to go to [in Chicago]. They did open mics there. What’s interesting is we didn’t know each other but we had a bunch of mutual friends. One of my mutual friends was [the artist] Noname, and she used to record all of her music with me in my grandma’s basement. When I started finally releasing all of my old music — a lot of people didn’t even know I was a rapper because I was engineering and producing for a lot of artists — I was working with one of the same producers as Chance on this mixtape [I released] called GETCOMFORTable. Chance is one of those kids where when we were growing up, everybody knew him because he was a people person. I probably met him at that point at least three times but it wasn’t where Chance would know me. What was interesting [was] he was posting one of my songs, like, ‘Man, this is so fire,’ as a fan. I seen him at the library the next time, I’m like, ‘What’s good. Thanks for posting the song.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh shit, you’re Saba?’ [Laughs] It was kinda funny, it was real organic. He was just a fan of my shit. Obviously, I was a fan of his shit, and we just developed a relationship from there.
You come from a musical family. What was a key lesson that your father has taught you?
I think me and my dad learn from each other and that’s the kind of relationship we have where it’s not like anybody can be all the way right about things but the most important thing I learned from my dad was just I would say the law of attraction. He taught me that what you think, you become. My dad is a super spiritual dude and had a lot of unorthodox ways of teaching me things that are more important than just by the book. It’s interesting because I didn’t grow up with my dad in the house. My dad moved to New York when I was a kid, and I was still in Chicago so we only seen each other a time or two every year when I was a kid but we still talked a lot.
I think just him teaching me how you see yourself is what you are. Stuff like that is really more important than the music. It transpires into music — what you think about yourself. You gotta see yourself as what you wanna be. When I was 18, I used to consider myself, not that I don’t anymore but this is like when I started, I was just thinking of myself as the greatest rapper to ever rap, the greatest musician, the greatest producer, the most rich and most successful person. I started developing these beliefs about myself even though I was 18, in college, in debt and had nothing going on really but how I saw myself is how I wanted the world to see me. That really had a huge effect in the long run and still does till now.
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