Saba’s setup exists mostly on one side of a large, open room. His MacBook sits flanked by a mixing board and standing speakers, atop an old mahogany desk. There’s a MIDI keyboard, a hanging microphone all the way in the corner, and a low-slung couch on the far wall. Two giant black garbage bags sit on the floor, containing most of his clothing (“gotta be ready to move at any moment,” he explains). A downtempo electronic beat he’s been building loops on plays in the background. He leaves for his tour in two days.
This basement is where Saba, his older brother Joseph Chilliams, and their friends formed their Pivot Gang rap collective several years ago. The space hasn't changed a whole lot since then. “When we started having friends over to the studio, we had this rule that on your first time here, you had to bring us a magazine,” Saba says, gesturing at the walls, coated by magazine pages and posters. Highlights include a pink Taylor Swift poster hanging next to the Wu-Tang Clan, and a mini-shrine of Angelina Jolie cutouts, which Saba blames on his brother.
Here in Austin, a neighborhood that in the past has been labeled the city's most dangerous, is where their maternal grandparents raised Saba, Chilliams, their cousin, and younger sister, with careful eyes and unwavering support. Their parents, who are divorced, were involved in their lives but not hands-on. His father, soul singer Chandlar (who appears on ComfortZone), has lived and worked in New York City for most of Saba’s life. His mother, he says, would stop by the house regularly, but has “always just been around.”
“I think growing up in this house in this neighborhood made it ok,” Saba says. “Solely because I was raised by my grandparents, there was certain things I never even considered doing. Most of us out here used to play ball together and stuff, but a lot of us have gone on to live completely different lives.”
A precocious learner, Saba skipped third grade and started to rap at age nine after hearing Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s track “Notorious Thugs,” featuring the late Biggie Smalls. Both he and Chilliams, who is four years his senior, attended high school at St. Joseph, a Catholic school in the west suburbs several bus rides away from the neighborhood, away from trouble, and a far cry from Austin in every way. Saba graduated at 16, and went from Tahj to “Sabotage,” which led to his current alias. And though it’s tough to imagine after you witness him slalom around a stage, arms and dreads akimbo, commanding with his energy and charisma, Saba spent the majority of his life a drastic introvert. The basement, with its studio equipment and video game consoles, provided refuge.
“I was actually concerned about him,” Chilliams remembers. “When we were younger, we were leaving school and a girl said ‘bye’ to him. He didn't say anything, at all. He looked her dead in the eye, like ‘I’m just gonna get in my car, I'm not gonna even speak to you.’ I was like, , I think my brother might need to see someone and figure out how to talk to people. He was ridiculously, completely shy.”
Rapping brought Saba out of that shell, a growth process that occurred alongside his best friends. The name Pivot Gang derives from an old Friends gag, where Ross yells “pivot” as Chandler and Rachel move a couch up the stairs. At the start of every show that mantra becomes a call and response with the crowd. The roster includes Saba, Chilliams, their cousin John Walt, and a friend from high school named Melo (he raps as MFnMelo; the “MFn” stands for what you think it does). There’s also FRSH Waters, real name Jimmy, whom Saba calls an older brother, and who is currently incarcerated. It’s a situation that nobody in Pivot likes to talk about except for in their music. When not on stage or at each other’s shows, Pivot Gang enjoys healthy, internal musical competition.
“We all hate each other, deep down in our hearts,” Chilliams puts it.