You can't understand Dreamville's Bas without understanding the role that Queens, New York has played in the development of rap music.
The Bronx often enjoys the distinction of hip-hop's birthplace. The apartment complex at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where DJ Kool Herc—a Jamaican immigrant—would spin records at parties is considered to be the origin for an entire genre of music. The Bronx has, and continues to play an integral part in hip-hop's history. But Queens has arguably been just as instrumental to crafting the culture. It would be a mistake to relegate it to a mere footnote in the history of American rap music.
From Rum DMC in Hollis, to Nicki Minaj in Jamaica, to Nas in Queensbridge, Queens has produced genre-defining hip-hop. This is hardly accidental. While other places in the country—Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta—have contributed greatly to rap's changing tones, there are few places with as many eccentric artists—like Nicki Minaj, Action Bronson, and Heems, of Trinidadian, Albanian, and Punjabi-Indian descent, respectively—pushing the sonic and lyric boundaries of rap music.
Queens, a borough that is over 25% Asian, over 25% Latino, and over 20% black, is one of the most culturally vibrant places on the planet. Diversity wasn't invented in Queens, but it is no accident that such an eclectic borough routinely produces such an eclectic mix of musical talent. Bas is aware of how Queens has impacted his music and credits it as being the most impactful of his many homes.
"Queens is the most diverse county in the world, statistically speaking. I can go to the corner store down the block from me and speak Arabic to the Yemeni dude," he said. "It's such a small area as far as land mass, so you can't help but intermingle and cross with all these cultures, which is going to give you more perspective, more stories, more inspiration."
Some of these stories Bas brings with him to his lyrics. Born in Paris to Sudanese parents, Bas' backstory does not mirror those of many other American rappers. In hip-hop, identity politics often play a large role in determining authenticity, and perhaps for good reason. Hip-hop, like jazz before it, is an American music form created by people whose cultures are often appropriated. Iggy Azalea, for example, is loathed not because she is white, but because she attempted to artificially close the metaphorical distance between herself and rap's cultural beginnings, rather than engaging from the more honest perspective of a white Australian woman.
Though both were born outside of the United States, the differences between Bas and someone like Iggy Azalea, for obvious reasons, are nearly endless. But, perhaps more importantly, he stressed that hip-hop's most important potential messages are not as region-locked as many would believe, and that rap music can very well be a universal language—a Rosetta Stone with a drum kit.
"My parents are from Sudan in East Africa, and we grew up pretty much all over the world," he said. "I was born in Paris, spent like the first eight years of my life moving back and forth between there and the Middle East, in Qatar. Then I moved to Queens when I was eight, I'm learning that with my music, I can draw from all these parallels and can understand people and build a connection with people. At the basis of making music is relatability."
The beauty of Queens is in its people—those who are able to come from different parts of the world and still draw parallels and still build connections. It is cosmically fitting that hip-hop, born from Black and Brown people taking bits and pieces of their parents' funk and soul records to create a new sound and language, is sustained by comparable tapestries of culture and talent. Queens is as much hip-hop, as hip-hop is Queens.
One of those people is J. Cole. Bas credits Cole for having a tremendous impact on his music career, and as someone who helped him grow as a songwriter and performer. Their friendship and creative relationship began in Hillcrest, when the two met at St. John's University.
"St. John's is like my backyard, the house I grew up in," he explained. "Same neighborhood, same basketball courts everyone hangs out during the summer, same corner store, same house parties, all of that."
OF course, everything comes back to being able to relate and connect with people. Bas and Cole's relationship is built upon open communication about anything ranging from how to write songs to entertain large crowds, to what responsibility, if any, they have as Black artists to make music with overtly politicized messages.
"Do I think it's a responsibility for every Black rapper to speak on those issues? No. Do I think it's a responsibility of mine and us as a label? Yes," Bas said. "We're just more socially conscious in that regard, and in understanding the power of our voice, and what it means to people. 'Be Free,' Cole just did that in one take. That's just how he felt. It's not a marketing angle, it has to be from the heart, and how you really feel—and some people don't feel that way, it doesn't weigh on them as heavily."
Bas told me his second album Too High To Riot (March 4) is an attempt to forge a connection with listeners while he's still "gaining clarity," but he promised it will be a more personal album than his debut, Last Winter.
This contrast is perhaps most apparent in the videos Bas has released in anticipation of his new album. The raucous, unapologetic revelry in videos for "Lit" or "My Nigga Just Made Bail" is replaced by an equally sincere, but perhaps more introspective tone in "Methylone."
Shots of Bas and label mate J. Cole partying in limousines are replaced by tight, close-angle shots of Bas staring straight into the camera, talking as much to himself as he is to us—all from the setting of his own mind:
"Sonically it's moodier, it's more musical. And content-wise, it's just very, very honest. It has some very honest moments, and it's just more reflective. If "Last Winter" was everything I learned from going on tour, first building that fan energy being like, 'Oh, I'm kind of lit. They really fuck with me,' getting a record deal, starting to make money, starting to make a living off of music, 'Last Winter' is very celebratory in that regard. 'Too High To Riot' is more about things lost than things gained—or not necessarily lost, but ways that you become more aware, and ways the last two years have taught me about myself and the world around me. It's a bit more sobering in that regard."
"Oh, I'm kind of lit," is, in layman's terms, the realization that the connection Bas insists is so important is beginning to take shape. In the last couple of years, Bas' following has grown, and his verses on Dreamville collaborations have only further elevated his personal platform.
Dreamville is quickly dispelling the notion that J. Cole carries the entire label on his back. Fans are paying attention to Bas—they really do fuck with him—and have responded to music that is not simply personal, but also incredibly introspective and internal. He explained that regardless of a fan's opinion, he writes primarily for himself, but that honesty and openness are traits in music that everyone can appreciate.
"Me and Cole talk about it all the time, peeling layers back for the fans," he said. "It's all about peeling back layers."
[originally published for Slant News on 03/03/2016]