Interview compiled and edited by Michael Krieger for The Higher Plane
THP: First, let’s begin with the obligatory introduction. Fill in our readers at The Higher Plane on the background of Savant.
Savant: First and foremost, thanks for lending an ear to the debut and selecting me to be a part of The Big Ten interview series. Some background info about me: I was born in El Paso, Texas the son of a chaplain/ minister, the third oldest in a family of 10 children, and the second born in a set of fraternal twins. My family moved to Chicago when I was 4, shortly after my father’s active duty military stint ended. Being the son of a minister, my musical foundation consists mostly of gospel, and contemporary Christian.
At age 9, I picked up the piano and a year later picked up the trumpet. Over the course of the next 8 years, I received a classically based music education at Chicago’s Merit School of Music wherein I learned advanced music theory and basic composition, among other things. Upon graduating from high school, I spent 4 years in the military on active duty as a musician and an athlete, and I’m currently in the final year of a national guard commitment. I completed my undergrad studies at Chicago’s DePaul University in 2008 and I am currently a first year law student at the James Rogers College of Law in Tucson, AZ. I am one half of RAREBREED and one fourth of the RAREBREED Extended Family music collective (REF). I’m also an affiliate of the Nerdy Rotten Scoundrels international hip hop collective, the UK based Evil Twin collective and the Chicago based ’80s Babies collective.
THP: When did music begin to play a prominent role in your life, and at what point did you decide it was time for you to create your own lane?
Savant: Music has always played a prominent role in my life. My first memories of life in general are of my dad singing to me and hearing him play the piano two or three times a week for about an hour at a time in the evening before I went to bed. Eight of my siblings are musicians, and in about a year or two I anticipate that my last sibling will pick up an instrument of his own. Suffice it to say that music has been a 10th sibling. As far as recollecting the moment that I chose to create my own lane, it was my sophomore year at Chicago’s Young Magnet High School, after having heard Mos Def’s Black On Both Sides for the first time.
THP: Tell us a little bit about RAREBREED and what that is?
Savant: RAREBREED essentially plays the same musical role that Black Star plays to Mos Def and Talib Kweli. It’s a hip hop alliance as opposed an actual tandem and is comprise of my younger brother Joey Downtown and me. Unlike such entities as M.O.P., and The Clipse, Joey and I are individual emcees who have come together, but are focused on our solo projects first and our collaborative projects second. Another great example that comes to mind is the Murs & Slug comprised entity, Felt. While RAREBREED does plan on releasing a collaborative project in the future, in the meantime Joey will be appearing on a bevy of my solo projects supplying guest verses and vice versa.
THP: I recently watched an interview with Pharrell Williams where he said his inspiration comes from necessity. Where does Savant’s inspiration come from?
Savant: Honestly, inspiration comes from any and everywhere. While I was living in the Chi, more often than not inspiration would come from my surroundings because I ALWAYS had something going on. The Chi life was non stop. Because that isn’t the case in Tucson, generally inspiration comes from within or from conversation. My writing since moving to Arizona has become much more introspective and narrative based, whereas in Chicago it was based more on commentary and ciphering. There have been plenty of instances, however, where I just picked up a pen and randomly started writing, or pulled out my BlackBerry and started typing bars onto my memo pad just because. That goes back to something that I was taught when I was younger: there’s something to be said about always practicing and always seeking to perfect a craft even when there’s no particular reason or specific source of inspiration spurring you on.
THP: While, we are on the topic of inspiration describe your creative process as an artist for us a little bit.
Savant: If it’s a solo cut, and I’m writing to an instrumental, I’ll commit to whatever topic the instrumental dictates and allow it to mold the structure, cadence and flow of the bars. I literally “do what the beat say to do” (© Bad Meets Evil). Although I ultimately want my lyrics to stand out above the soundscape, I also want my voice and whatever flow I’m using to blend so that they both sound like additional elements of the backdrop. If it’s a collaboration, I’ll try to find a conceptual/ topical common ground with the other vocalist prior to writing as opposed to dictating to them what to write about. If I’m free form writing, more often that not I’ll simply “let the pen bleed” and after finishing, make revisions and tighten up the rhyme scheme.
THP: Chicago is a very storied hip-hop city from Crucial Conflict to Twista to Do or Die to more modern day artists like Kanye and Kidz in the Hall, what type of influence did growing up in Chicago have on you? Who are some Chicago artists you would cite as influences?
Savant: To be honest with you, I wasn’t a fan of Chicago hip hop, initially. It was impossible for me to relate to Twista (and the Speedknot Mobstaz), Do or Die, Crucial Conflict and the like and additionally, I felt like their respective sounds were too dark. I’ve always had an East Coast bias when it comes to hip hop because everything that I’ve learned about the culture was done so retroactively from hearing Black On Both Sides. Even after discovering Common about a year later, I really wasn’t high on the city’s hip hop scene because he was the only emcee on the scene that I actually enjoyed listening to and some might even argue that he really didn’t have a “vintage Chi-City sound.” I guess what I’m saying is that coming up, the city’s hip hop scene had virtually no influence on me. However, ever since becoming serious about emceeing, I’ve fallen in love with Chicago’s independent/underground scene and have been influenced by several stalwarts, most notably Dee “Shogun” Jackson of the ’80s Babies and Molemen affiliates, Longshot and Vakill.
THP: Who are some of your other modern day influences? And talk briefly about the difference you see after spending some time in Arizona in terms of the music scene there compared to Chicago.
Savant: In answering your first part of the question, I’m going to assume that you want me to list my just hip hop influences. In terms of emcees with a large amount international notoriety, my principal influences are Mos Def, Rakim, Big Pun, Nas, Royce da 5′ 9,” Pharoahe Monch, Joe Budden and Lupe Fiasco. Those that currently aren’t as internationally renown include the three that I mentioned in my previous response, the other three emcees that comprise REF (Youngs, James John of Divine Minds & Charity Clay), Finale, Rasheed Chappell, Lyrikill, Random and Luck One.
To answer the second part of your question, the biggest difference between the Chicago hip hop scene and Arizona’s scene is that Arizona’s remains largely undeveloped. There also appears to be a lack of identity, and my opinion is that the best emcees currently living in Arizona aren’t from Arizona. Many of the aspiring emcees that are actually born and raised in the state seem content with emulating the sound and “swag” of their California and/or Texas peers, as opposed to attempting to create their own sound or forge their own lane.
THP: Let’s talk about your project that dropped in 2009, The Delayed Entry EP. I first want to say congratulations because it is a brilliantly cohesive piece of work. The beat selection and lyricism are superb. What was the driving force behind this EP? Give us some background behind the mindset you had going into a project like this? Did you have any specific messages you were trying to get across?
Thanks again for checking that out. The driving force behind the EP was my search for sonic and lyrical balance, but because I knew that it was going to be my first release I didn’t really have one overlying mindset or message. I simply set out to record 15 great songs and decided that I’d choose the best seven for the EP. I tried to make sure that the final product touched on a myriad of topics and showcased several rhyme/ writing styles, as well. The hardest part of the assembling the final product though, was ensuring that it was musically cohesive because the 15 instrumentals that I originally used came from 12 different beatsmiths. The search for sonic cohesion is partly the reason that the project’s release was delayed so many times and thus titled The Delayed Entry EP. When it was all said and done the project still ended up having nine songs, but I’ve no qualms about that.
THP: Off Delayed Entry, what are some of your favorite tracks and why? Also, as an independent artist, how do you go about measuring the success of your efforts in today’s digitally driven world?
Savant: If I had to choose some favorites, I’d probably go with:
“The Lyricist ThreeMix” because it’s my official genesis. Yes, there were individual verses that I wrote and recorded before I writing this song, but “The Lyricist” was the first complete song that I ever wrote to original production (even though the lyrics were originally written to a different beat). It’s absolutely relentless and contains references to virtually every emcee that influenced me to start rhyming in the first place. Plus, it’s three remixes in one. The last time I heard someone do something even remotely close to that was Mos Def on his Brooklyn records.
“Concrete Techniques” was my first collabo with another emcee. Going into the record with Three60 the Universal Ruler, I felt like I was completely in over my head, but looking back now I feel like I hung with him pretty well and at some points throughout, the record is even more verbally relentless than “The Lyricist.”
“Marry a Memory” was the first time I that ever bore my soul on a record, the first time that I showed more than a hint of vulnerability and the first time that I actually made a conscious effort to give the listener a chance to get to know me as a person, and not just as an emcee/ aspiring artist.
In regards to the second question, I measure success based on the feedback I receive from complete strangers. Being selected for a feature in The Higher Plane’s “Big Ten” interview series speaks volumes. The EP’s three singles are receiving spin both here in the states and abroad from renown DJs and have seen an overwhelmingly positive response. It also received a favorable review from RapReviews.com and from one of the largest newspapers in Chicago, The Red Eye. To top all of that, it‚Äôs receiving spin on the iPods of several artists that have been pretty influential to me and it‚Äôs led to collaborations with some phenomenal artists that I otherwise might not have ever had the chance to work with.
THP: What can we look for coming up from Savant?
Savant: Be on the look out for a short length LP entitled The Resilient, currently on pace to be released this spring. It’ll be sonically laced by North Carolina beastmith Satchill Head and will feature guest spots from Joey Downtown, James John of Divine Minds and Youngs. After The Resilient, I’ll be working on another short length LP with Charity Clay. That project will be completely laced by Estonian beatsmith heartMind and has been tentatively titled, The Reason. In between those releases, I’ll be leaking some individual songs via my Twitter page and numerous hip hop blogs. Those songs will feature production from the likes of Keeynote, Tall Black Guy and Passion HiFi among others, and guest bars from Louis Logic, Wordsmith, Longshot, Phashara of the Beatmonstas, Qwazaar of the Typical Cats, Rasheed Chappell and Dominique Larue, among others. My complete project list can actually be viewed at my MySpace blog. Your European readers should definitely keep an eye open for Youngs, James John and I, as we’ll be coming over there this summer for a 6 week tour.
THP: Any last words? The floor is yours.
Savant: First and foremost, thanks again for this opportunity, Mike. I really appreciate this. Otherwise, be on the lookout for Joey Downtown’s debut, and Charity Clay’s collaborative EP with Chicago beatsmith Smokey Winston, as both will probably be released around the same time as The Resilient. Also, everyone please be sure to lend an ear to the following:
Overtime with The Higher Plane
THP: If you could pick four MCs for a super cypher, who would they be?
Savant: Rasheed Chappell (New Jersey), Lyrikill (New Orleans), Luck One (Portland, OR) and Finale (Detroit)
THP: Three favourite TV shows of all time?
Savant: The Cosby Show, Tom & Jerry, and ESPN First Take
THP: Suggest one book for the good people to read and why.
I’ll go with something current and recommend “How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC”. The title is self explanatory, the foreword is written by Kool G Rap, and the book itself contains first person insights from the likes of the Clipse, Cypress Hill & Public Enemy. The author, Paul Edwards, explores the dynamics of the hip hop genre from all possible angles and covers everything from content and flow to rhythm and delivery. I’d be lying if I said that I agreed with everything in the book (for example, Nelly also gets to add his two cents), but it’s a hell of a read.