These slightly unlikely juxtapositions were a testament to how quickly the internet can reconfigure young people’s tastes, and an artist’s life. Even just a few years ago, unfiltered hip-hop had a tough time fully cracking the mainstream. But virality has changed all that, giving Rae Sremmurd and Migos No. 1 Billboard singles, and allowing rising stars like SahBabii almost instantaneous access to wide audiences, including N.Y.U. students who, when he first gazed upon them, he worried — quite wrongly — that “they ain’t really listen to rap.”
SahBabii was born Saaheem Valdery in Chicago, and lived in the Wentworth Gardens projects until moving to Atlanta at 13. His older brother, T3, made music, and he grew up idolizing rappers like Young Thug and Cash Out, who were local heroes: “I used to see them at Kroger,” he said.
Inspired by a generation of young Atlanta rappers, many of them teenagers — Rich Kidz, Polo Boyz, Money Savage — SahBabii began to rap. “That’s what made me want to get into it more, ’cause I seen kids my age doing this,” he said, “versus when I was in Chicago, younger, it wasn’t really no fun. It was gangbanging and whatever going on.” He released two mixtapes as a young teenager, “Pimpin Ain’t Eazy” and “Glocks & Thots,” that received little notice, and damaged his confidence.
“I was stressed out,” he said. “I had a bald spot, I was smoking a lot, cigarettes and weed. I was real depressed.”
Most of the songs for “S.A.N.D.A.S.” were recorded after a hiatus, using the production program Cubase in his brother’s bedroom with a broken microphone. The beats, slow and dreamlike, were pulled from YouTube, and T3 engineered the songs, giving them a silken sheen.
The mixtape is strikingly gentle, full of warm sing-rapping over ambient and piano-driven production. (He recently put a call out on Twitter for new beats: “Melodic Sounds NO TRAP BEATS!”) It’s soothing, and almost ethereal, perhaps the final step in the conjoining of the melodic developments ushered into the genre by Drake and the psychedelic vocal approach of Young Thug, who SahBabii most closely recalls, but smoothed out and less eccentric, with a strong emphasis on hook. Typically, he records those first — “that’s your steak and potatoes,” he said — then mumbles a melody for the verses, and finally fills them in with words.
Thus far, SahBabii’s career has been family business. For this trip to New York, he traveled with a big contingent, including much of his family: his father, Delval, who is his manager; his mother, Kimberly; his brother, T3; and more.
In a group conversation, they recalled juggling jobs to make ends meet. T3 said that when they couldn’t afford to press up CDs, they printed out business cards with a type of bar code to download the mixtape on the back. Delval Valdery talked about his days as a gang leader in Chicago, going straight, and eventually leaving his job at Marta, Atlanta’s public rail transportation, to help supervise his son’s burgeoning career, forming a production company, Casting Bait Music Group (that already owns the trademark to “pull up wit ah stick”). In short order, when SahBabii’s music began to truly take off, everyone else quit their jobs to help make the vision a reality.
As for the hypergraphic imagery in the “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick” video, SahBabii’s parents were sanguine.
“I knew people was gonna have something to say,” Kimberly Valdery said, then pointed to the company’s name. “But you wanna bait ’em in, so we knew that was gonna bait ’em in.”