Ten years ago, if you’d have asked Paris-born, Queens-raised, Sudan-descending lyricist Bas where he envisioned his rap career landing in 2019, he almost certainly wouldn’t have told you at the top spot for No. 1 album in the country.
Instead, he might have offered a humbler answer, much like his industry rise, and even his demeanor, which was most apparent as he walked inconspicuously into BET’s New York headquarters.
Despite emerging as one of the pioneering rap talents of Dreamville Records, founded by North Carolinian rap paramount J. Cole and his manager and label president Ibrahim “Ib” Hamad, Bas (short for Abbas) never clung to rap star ambition in his youth. He’s the youngest of four brothers (Ib is also his older brother and next of kin in age) who all pursued careers in music, but his hip-hop spurt didn’t kick in until his university years. A friend loosely convinced him to give rapping the old college try, and to their surprise (and his), he wasn’t half-bad.
If that weren’t confirmation enough, Bas went on to cue up some underground mixtape noise. That noise grew louder and louder, and eventually thrusted him not only into a more promising view of a potential rap career, but to the vanguard of his rap collective, The Fiends. Even then, it appeared everyone believed in his au fait musical capacity except Bas himself. Perhaps, it was Ib and Cole who put the fire under the head Fiend to rise to that potential. And Bas didn’t only live up to it, he exceeded it.
Two mixtapes later (and a feature seat beside Queens rap icon 50 Cent on Cole’s critically-acclaimed studio album Born Sinner), and Bas’ rap guile became undeniable to the rest of the music world, and more importantly, to himself. A new world of touring, recording, collaborating, Billboard chart success and global recognition was waiting for him on the other side of skepticism. Now steeping his artistry in “milk”—a Queens-deriving, adjectival term used to describe pretty much anything that’s satisfactory and which he’s tailored into a way of life and endearment for fellow Fiends—Bas is prepared to snap a Thanos finger across the industry with the rest of his Dreamville family, and he’s milking 2019 for all its worth.
First up on the yearly solo agenda is his Spilled Milk project, which he poured out for fans in an installment of four new tracks on Friday (August 9). The singles are consolidated in a subset for the project titled Spilled Milk I with feature spots occupied by a few faces of his Dreamville family (Ari Lennox, EarthGang, and J.I.D.) along with FALCONS, Kiddominant and B. Lewis, and producers KQUICK, DZL and MOMA&GUY on the soundboard.
Thus, BET.com sat down to talk lesser-known fun facts with the milkman for Dreamvillians and Fiends alike.
"Milk. Milk has so many meanings. It’s really anything that’s dope. It’s sort of like people would use sauce in some ways. Like, “How’s my fit?” or “how’s the party?” And you just say, “It was milk.” Or, 'How’s shawty?' … 'She was milk.' It’s very versatile. It’s too versatile to the point that we overuse it. But, it’s very Queens."
"Ouuu! I’m gonna go with—it changes all the time—but, I think 'Sacrifices.' I really like 'Sacrifices.'I love how Olu [Earthgang’s Johnny Venus] set it off. I love Smino’s verse. I love Saba’s verse. I love Cole’s verse."
"We’ve had fans find out where my parents live. They’ll try to come give us mixtapes there. You gotta keep your cool when those things happen. It’s awkward and a bit infuriating because it’s your parents’ house, but you still don’t want to be a d**k about it because they’re just being kids. They’re young, so you’re not gonna be mad at them. But, it definitely makes for an awkward moment. Like, 'Dude, what are you doing at my parents’ crib?'"
Have you been there when it happened?
"Yeah, me and Ib. You just gotta be like, 'Yo, I respect your drive and your hustle, but this ain’t the way to do it. I’m not even going to listen to this because you kind of violated my privacy.' Gotta let ‘em down easy, though."
"He’s got this special approach to structuring songs.
Sometimes, I’ll just do a record where I’m writing parts and I don’t necessarily know what’s gonna be the hook, what’s gonna be the bridge or what’s gonna be the verse until I listen to it. Then I’m like, “Alright, well this is clearly the strongest part so we’ll make this the hook.” He’s helped me see that landscape as far as song structure. I still send him songs when I’m a little stuck with something and he more often than not has an answer. As much as he’s known as a business person, he’s a really good A&R too."
What about from Cole?
"He’s a producer naturally, so I’ve definitely learned to see that side of music as far as being in the studio with him early on and seeing him bring in session musicians to fill certain frequencies or play things that’s missing in a song. So, when I get a beat from somebody now, I kind of apply those same methods. For a verse two or the bridge, we might need to bring in somebody to play some keys on this. Or, you know what? These drums ain’t slap-ified enough, let’s maybe switch out some sounds or put some subs under this. Things of that nature. I learned a lot of that watching Cole in the studio and just learning how to use other musicians to make a song cut across better."
"I’m sure they do.
The funny thing is that him and Cole always told me I have it the hardest because of that, actually. Because, first of all, I was the homie. Initially, it was like, “Is bro dope or are we just running with him because he’s the homie?” It was really when a lot more industry people that they trusted a lot started to take notice and started to take interest in me as an artist. Back then, there was no label. I got to a point as a developing artist where everything made sense. But, we also built it from the ground up.
There was no platform. I mean, there was—Cole was always a platform—but Dreamville wasn’t the platform that it is now where you can see artists coming through and being able to sustain their own careers outside of Cole and Dreamville.It’s become a place where you can come and get on. Doing business with family, you can never worry about what people outside of that think because that’s kind of an agreement you go into with yourself and your boys that nothing is going to come between that.
I think a lot of times people will project their insecurities onto you, or how they would feel in your position.I’ve learned no one is in my position. I take ownership in this. I was part of building this, I was part of bringing other artists in, and I’m here to see this thing flourish."
"I’d still want to do something that led me to travel, so maybe something in languages. My father was a career diplomat, so maybe something in diplomacy. I like dealing with people, and I speak three languages—English, Arabic and French. I’d love to study Arabic and French more to get really good at it and on a level that I could be professional with it. Something where I could still be global and use languages and work with people in a social capacity. It isn’t much different than being an artist really."
"It’s called kisra with mullah. If you’ve ever had Ethiopian food, it’s kind of like how injera is served. It’s like a wide, flat bread, but ours is much thinner than that. You lie a few down and then they put a stew on top of it. The stew is the mullah, and the kisra is the bread.
Ethiopia and Sudan are neighbors, so a lot of the food is similar."
"Queens without a doubt! Specifically, Hillside Avenue and 179th Street. I’ll pinpoint it for you. We just call it Hillside Deli."
"Me and my brother (Ib) got kicked out of an Arabic-Islamic school. My parents tried to put us in there, but we’d go in and just wrestle with everybody—started body-slamming kids, so they kicked us out of school. It didn’t last long. I think we were trying to not be there anyway. It wasn’t how I wanted to spend my weekends, so I was like, “You know what? I’m just gonna go in here and beat people up.”
"Aaliyah. My girlfriend is my celebrity crush now—aha! You won’t catch me slipping today!"
"The boulangerie. French bakeries. They bake the breads there every day. The sweets. I get sandwiches. And they’re on every corner. It’s like their version of bodegas. I’m very much a bodega person—worldwide!"
"Ouuuu. I don’t think it’d be anything constructive. Nothing I want to say to him is very nice. I don’t know, it’s like, can you even appeal to his good nature? I don’t think he has a good nature to really try to appeal to. You want to deal with ignorant people in a way that shatters their ignorance, but he’s one dude whom I’ve lost all hope for. I would probably just tell him he’s a piece of sh** and keep it pushing."
"Comfortable. Pretentious. What’s the third one? Gotta straddle a fine line. I guess phony is generic, but pretentious kind of covers that. It is comfortable though, especially from growing up in New York. I live in L.A. now. That’s probably more of a business decision than anything. But I can’t deny the comfort levels that have come with it."
Yeah, because I was gonna ask you how something can be pretentious but also comfortable.
"You kind of have to live in your bubble. If you take California for what it is, it’s probably one of the most comfortable places on earth as far as the climate. I came from me and my homies staying in a three bedroom in the East Village. It was like seven of us in there. For less than what one homie was paying there, I got a whole house with a studio in it. A yard. It’s comfortable from that regard. It’s pretentious because everyone’s trying to get on. I’m happy that I at least moved after I had some moderate level of success. My move there wasn’t really about, 'Aye man, let’s work, let’s do this, let’s do that.' You get in where you fit in and work with people in a more organic way, which is how I’ve always been.
The third thing I would say about Hollywood…I’m not a fan of the nightlife. Maybe it’s the 2 a.m. thing. I’d say it’s the nightlife in Hollywood specifically because there are other parts where you can get into some different things. Don’t get me wrong—there’s some cool parties in Hollywood. I just think the clubs are set up weird. Like, every club is like a fishbowl. I feel like in New York, every club is set up for the bankers, I guess, who don’t want people to know who they are? There’s dark a** spots everywhere, there are big dance floors, but in L.A., it’s all sections. Everyone’s staring at each other from their sections. People don’t really dance much. It’s weird. It’s more of an outing to be seen than it is a function to go crazy, lose your mind and have a good time, which is how I prefer to party."
"South Africa. It was just so dope. The music, the dancing and the people are the most rhythmic people I’ve ever been around. It’s very expressive—how they move and dance. Their music. The food is great. The landscape is beautiful. We went to national parks and pretty much saw all the big five safari animals. I was probably like this close [demonstrates a few feet’s distance] to a rhino. We went to Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. All three of them are so different and have their own landscape and culture. It was just dope. It’s a really cool place.
The fans there are insane. The show I did in Johannesburg on the Milky Way tour was easily my favorite of the tour."
What are some of the major differences between international Dreamville fans and U.S. Dreamville fans?
"Anytime you tour overseas, you’re just going to see a different level of energy probably because they have less access, so they’re less jaded. You know, in New York, somebody could just be rapping every word at a show and just be stern as hell. Mumbling every word under their breath. Sometimes—I don’t want to say people are “too cool”—but they’re just too used to it. Whereas, out there, if you’re in town and popping up, it’s like, this person is never here so they’re super excited. You get that energy of the shows."
"We were in Bristol in the U.K. on this tour, and these girls brought me—I still keep this at the crib—a Sudanese flag, but it’s half the current Sudanese flag, and the other half is the original flag from when the country gained independence. They sowed them together. That flag was a big symbol of the revolution because people wanted to switch back to [the former flag]. They stitched it together, brought it and draped it on me. The Sudanese community and Africans in general have been really supportive of me when I pop up in cities, so it was cool to have that moment with them."
"What? I’d tell him, 'you pick!' [Laughs.] I’d bar up any 50 record. I got plenty. I’m from Queens! 50 damn near raised us—my generation. Anything off Get Rich or Die Tryin’ or The Massacre, for sure. Couple of records off of Power of the Dollar. Just tell him to holla at me. That would be the best scenario for someone that robbed me."
Bob Marley, for sure. Pretty much a no-brainer.
Well what about your child crush, Aaliyah?
"Yeah, she’s over me. [Laughs.]
But, just a part of what Bob Marley stood for as a human being and what he meant socially and politically to his country. I was at a festival in Quebec, and Snoop [Dogg] closed it out. At the very end of his set, his band just goes into playing a Bob Marley medley. It hit me like, “Damn. He’s like the greatest festival act of all time.” I’m sitting there listening to these songs, and I’m like, it would have been spiritual to witness him. It was spiritual to see Snoop’s band cover his records. Just the grooves that the songs give you. I’d do anything to see him live."
Same with Fela Kuti.
"Yeah! I actually saw Femi [Kuti] when I was in Nigeria. I went to the shrine, and he does open rehearsals before he goes on tour. So, we went to the shrine in Lagos, and I watched Femi and his band play."
"I think loss of life is the only time that happens. I’m not one to stress over things. I’m not an anxious person. I’m pretty even-keeled. Now, it’s seeing my elders—aunts and uncles, because there’s so many of them and they’ve always been a part of our lives—get older and pass is probably the hardest part."
"Cardi [B], she’s from the town and she’s hard. Nicki Minaj, of course— big Queens. Megan Thee Stallion is super hard, too. You said rappers, right?"
You can name some R&B female artists if any come to mind.
"Kehlani. Mereba. Mereba’s the homie, we just never did a song together. Me and Ari [Lennox] did records already. We have a few more coming out. Beyoncé, Rihanna, of course. Beyoncé should’ve put me on [Lion King: The Gift]."
But you didn't have any afrobeats songs!
I do, I do! They’re coming. I was just a little too late. I don’t think East Africa is even on that album, so we’re a little salty. Some Nigerian homies, some Ghanian homies, and some South African homies. Burna Boy going crazy right now—I love Burna Boy.
"Nah. That’s never how I’ve made my waves.
I understand why some people feel it’s necessary because we’re just in a day and age where you’re consistently encouraged to vie for attention by any means. Sometimes it’s cool as a fan of the culture to sit back and watch it. It’s fun for the sport aspect or the competitive aspect. Nowadays, it’s going away from that, though. It’s like someone staring at their phone and cursing someone out, and then someone else staring at their phone and cursing someone out on Instagram Live. It’s kind of corny."
The culture of rap beefs is very much different ever since social media became the monster that it is today.
"Yeah, back then, we got all of our info on records. All the shots, all the tea was in the records. Now, everything’s on IG Live or Twitter. By the time that the song comes out, you don’t really have much to say. There’s no sport to it anymore."
"It’s youth-driven, it’s female-driven and it’s driven by the arts. All of those things have historically been repressed in the regime. I think that’s something everyone could relate to. It’s kids wanting to take a role in the future of their country. It’s women fighting for their rights. The elimination of song, and music and the arts, which is pretty much illegal under the regime, is what ended up toppling them and not guns or violence. I think it’s almost poetic in a sense."
There’s been conversation around the blue icons that represent the Sudanese Revolution on social media. Some people call it “performative” if you’re not giving money or physically helping. What are the best ways to aid the people of Sudan right now if you aren’t able to donate monetarily?
"Firstly, I very strongly disagree with people who think that. I think that’s a very apathetic nature of social media to just sit there and be like, “Ahh, you’re not doing anything [by changing your profile picture].”
But you are when you change it.
"Yeah, you’re doing a lot. This campaign was really driven by social media. The heat that the outside world put on the military commanders in Sudan that were murdering people is what made them have to fall back. It’s what made them try to cut off the internet. They don’t want that heat and they don’t want that attention. We gotta keep that attention there. Oftentimes, I feel like they’re kind of waiting for the world to forget and move on in a sense. That’s why it’s more important than ever to stay vigilant."
It’s funny you say that because after I changed my profile picture to blue, a girl I knew from a while ago DM’d me asking me about it. I was able to inform her, and she’s just like, “Wow.” She had no idea, like many others.
"Exactly. Most people don’t even know where Sudan is or the rich history of Sudan, and the Nubian kingdoms. It’s important to just be aware. Being aware is a lot."
(Photo: Evans Alexandre)