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Fur Real: Meet The Chicago West Side's Favorite Rapper, Saba

“I feel like Cam’ron," says Tahj Chandler, better known as the rapper Saba, who is currently standing in a luxurious, butterscotch mink and matching headband. You sense that today will be a memorable one for the rising 20-year-old artist, simply because it is not every day that anyone gets to feel remotely like Cam’ron (he of the legendary raps and equally legendary wardrobe). Only so many circumstances require this kind of getup (which, for the record, is a rental).

He’s here to shoot the visual for fellow rapper Martin Sky’s song “Reach,” a track built on synthy drumrolls and extra braggadocio from both MCs. A few weeks from now, the video will go on to put the duo at No. 2 on the Billboard Twitter Emerging Artist charts. But as a hyper-intelligent lyricist who values “moving in silence,” and a kid who grew up deathly shy and once worked as a janitor to support himself, the glitz certainly makes for some contrast. He turns around and grabs the lapels of his jacket, chuckling at himself, shrugging it comfortably onto his shoulders. At a lanky 6-foot-2, he towers over Sky, whose own dreadlocks drape onto the shoulders of another mink, this one darker and floor-length. Both rappers wear all-black beneath their furs, and slightly-too-large, borrowed Timberland boots. They each pull on multiple gold-link chains from a small briefcase on a side table and pick out chunky rings from an oversized Ziploc bag.

“This video near the ultimate flex,” Saba says as a film crew assembles a green screen behind him. “Y’all gotta Photoshop a Phantom behind us or something.” Someone compares their matching looks to Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. Everyone else, seated in two large circular booths around a circular table, chuckles in approval. Nobody’s under the illusion of taking the stunt too seriously. That includes Saba’s manager Jon, Martin’s manager Rashad, video director Brian, a stylist, two crew members, Martin’s other manager who never introduces himself properly, and two guys named Jake and Blake, who brought the jewelry and are easily confused.

The white backdrop will serve as an all-black background in the finished product, eliminating all traces of Saba and Martin’s presence here in the proverbial bando, which is really just a beat-up kitchen space inside the Logan Square studios of production company Elevator. Amenities include a kitchenette and counter along one wall. Chips of cracked plaster speckle a dirty blue carpet with holes in the walls to match. Several ceiling tiles are conspicuously missing.

Working here in an unmarked building on a freezing Saturday serves as a reminder that hip-hop isn’t always glamorous, at least not for independent up-and-comers. And especially not for Saba, who still lives with his grandparents in the house they reared him in in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, far out in the West Side. Last summer he released the promising, well-received online mixtape ComfortZone, full of poignant urban commentary, wayward West Side tales, self-reflection and Saba’s thick, soulful production (he makes most of his own beats). In just a couple of weeks, he’ll be going on tour for the first time, in support of South Side rhymer Mick Jenkins. In the meantime, his day-to-day includes this set.

Image: Jakob "Yak" Linden

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