Exclusive: After the release of his debut album "Last Winter," Dreamville's Bas shares how he transitioned from dodging bullets to world tours and earning co-signs from Salaam Remi & No ID.
You’ll often hear stories of how rappers grew up listening to the legends before them, writing the lyrics down, and studying flows so that they could grow up to surpass them. That wasn’t the case for Paris born and Queens raised emcee, Bas. The first rapper signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint led a life short of material for a D.A.R.E. keynote speaker. But an impromptu session with a close friend at 6:00 am the morning after his 23rd birthday sparked a new found discipline that has led him to international recognition.
Bas is part of a new school of artists who are pushing the boundaries of what New York Hip Hop is supposed to sound like by mixing his eclectic music tastes (Daft Punk, Omar, Jamiroquai) with a Cinderella story that everyone can find a piece of him/herself in. It was clear from his earlier projects (Quarter Water Raised Me Vol. 1 & 2) that his knack to create music with radio appeal while standing out from everything else on the radio were in tune with J. Cole’s vision.
Days before his Last Winter tour, HipHopDX spoke with the busy emcee about the long and involved path of honing his craft, what New York Hip Hop could improve upon and his favorite tour stories.
Bas Recalls His Transition From Street Dealings To Rap
HipHopDX: For all of the serious Bas fans out there, the story of how you started to Rap is well known. But do you happen to remember the first verses you had spit that morning?
Bas: Man… It was over Kanye’s “Breathe In Breathe Out.” I remember, I ain’t gon’ front. Six months prior to that, I had gotten into some street shit in Queens. My homie got shot, and my car kinda got shot up. I was kinda going through some things. I remember it was my birthday. I don’t remember the whole thing, but I remember my first line was, “Made it to 23, see me hoe / Faggots try to clip me, couldn’t hit me though.” And that’s all I remember from that verse, but I was probably in a darker place.
It was cool because that was like a big transitional period in my life. I went like six months where I just stopped doing all the dumb shit, and it was a serious wake up call to me. There was too many people in my life that were really fightin’ for me. Even my brother Mo gave me his laptop. He’s a pretty big deejay out here, dj mOma, and he taught me how to deejay—opening gigs for me. So that was my first segue into music as a profession. There was also my homie, who’s actually my manager now, and he was a student at NYU at the time. He was managing the basketball team. So he would throw these parties and get me to deejay them, so I started deejaying a bunch of NYU parties as well as some Queens parties in Jamaica. I was doing that for like six months, and actually that same night where we started rapping, I had deejayed my own birthday party. I just made a conscious decision; I just don’t want to let the people that really cared about me down. I had to reinvent myself.
I was deejaying for a minute, then by chance we did that one record over Kanye’s “Breathe In Breathe Out.” And next thing you know, I caught a bug. I think that summer, I may have done like 15, 16 joints. Actually, I did the first Quarter Water Raised Me that whole summer, and I never put it out. It was a whole mixtape that I never put out because it was just rough and amateur. By the next summer when it was time, I had gotten better. But yeah, I really caught a bug. It was just nonstop, and every morning I wanted to write. I’m just really blessed that it didn’t pass me. It was really close to passing me. Sometimes that’s just how life works out, man. If something bad happens to you, it’s for a good reason. I could be damn near in jail. It took for the right thing to happen. Really it took the wrong thing to happen but at the right time in my life. [I saw] a bigger potential in myself. Now we’re here.
Bas Details Writing While Sober And Fasting For Ramadan
DX: I saw in other interviews that you went completely sober and fasted for a period and wrote a lot of raps during that time. What was that like?
Bas: Yeah, it was pretty crazy too because at that crib, The Carter, there was hella drugs going on all the time. Kids were in college, and there’s young, New York City homies. There’s always some wild shit going on. We had a pretty crazy summer, and we experimented with a whole wave of drugs. And then, probably a couple weeks after all this madness, Ramadan started and I’m Muslim. I had never done a full month. My best might have been like 22 days—and then for whatever reasons, like I said—it was really discipline. You might just fall off. I had such a crazy summer. I needed to chill out. I had such a crazy year at that point. I’m like, “Let me really try to do this right. Do the whole month and purify myself.” It was awesome. I didn’t smoke, and I didn’t drink for the whole month. I fasted every day. Maybe like a week into it—when you’re high every day for three or four years straight—and then you fast, it was an amazing mental clarity.
DX: I’m noticing a trend that you don’t release the music you create immediately after like most artists. You kind of sit on the music. Is there a vault of records you wrote while sober or fasting that the world isn’t ready for?
Bas: You’re right. I’m dying to get to the point where I could be more current, but until then you really have to build your fanbase. You have to build it the right way, or else you’re just wasting music at that point. Even some of those songs from that one summer where I was fasting, I really wanna revisit even if it’s just for the content. I want to see where my head was at. I know now, lyrically, song structure wise, flows and things of that nature, I can pull them off way better. Maybe I can even do some rewrites. Some of the places that they came from, you can’t fabricate that. You can’t force that inspiration. It’s cool now because I never had this many resources to make music. It’s never been this easy to go in the studio. I never had this much knowledge. I never had so much people around me that are such experienced musicians that can impart all this knowledge on me.
Honestly, I want to go sober for a month. Stop smoking and really get that good mental clarity. From an artistic standpoint, it inspires different content out of you. I just left L.A., and I started working again. I did a whole bunch of joints—like seven references in three days when we were in the studio. It was just rough stuff, and I’m just starting to work and put together the next project. I’ve had more time but not really the resources. I’m excited to try all different types of methods and try to make the best fucking album I can make and come back with something more evolved than Last Winter.
Bas Explains How New York Rap Can Make Its Return To The Top
DX: Since you were born in Paris and grew up in Queens, you were exposed to huge spectrum of sounds that most Hip Hop artists never get to experience in their formative years. How would you describe your sound?
Bas: That’s exactly how I’d classify it. It’s really just progressive, world sounds. I don’t think New York Hip Hop is gonna come back by something that’s been done already. Everyone that wants to bring New York back is like, “New York has to sound like the old New York and classic boom bap and gritty street records,” or whatever the case may be. That’s cool, and it’s always going to work in New York. It’s always going to work regionally. But when you want the world to accept New York at the forefront of something really innovative in the game, you have to give them something new. You have to give the whole world something new that they can vibe to, where they can be like, “A’ite. Where’s this cat from? Oh shit. He’s from New York.” That’s how it’s gonna happen or, “What’s he talking about? He’s talking about Queens. He’s talking about the city. He’s talking about where he’s from.” I don’t think New York comes back by staying in a box. It’s one of the cultural capitals of the world. It’s about as worldly of a city as you can get. I walk around the streets of Manhattan, or even in Queens, and you might hear 20 different conversations in 20 different languages walking down the street. How does that not fit? Why can’t New York have a global sound? I think when you listen to the album, it’s definitely New York inspired. Obviously, me personally, I have other influences to draw from. But as far as content, it’s all New York. Even the music, it’s progressive, yeah, but if you go into a lot of these clubs and a lot of these parties, it’s really progressive shit. It’s all over the city.
How No I.D. & Salaam Remi Cosigned Bas’ Early Work
DX: Of course, meeting J. Cole greatly altered the trajectory of your recording career. What was the first meeting with J. Cole like?
Bas: Well, he was going to school with my brother Ib at St. John’s. At the time all of them were homies, but now they’re straight up business partners. When Cole was at St. John’s, I was living in Queens, and he would come over for house parties. You know, your brother’s friends become your friends and vice versa. It’s always been like that. We used to just go to house parties, play basketball--local pick up games at the park and shit. One day Ib was like, “Yo man, Jermaine raps.” I’m like, “Jermaine? Light skinned Jermaine?” He’s like, “Yeah.” He played like a couple of his records. This was years before I even started rapping, and it was around the time that Cole was getting ready to put out The Come Up. When they got that pressed up, we would go around Queens to all our homies and shit, and give out copies of it.
We all believed that Cole was really, really fucking good…really special. We would do all that and support the movement however we could. That was eye opening to me. Throughout that whole time, I was still doing street shit and whatever put money in my pocket. I wasn’t thinking about music or none of that. It was just, “Oh, my brothers are doing something dope. Let me be supportive in whatever way I can.” I remember the first track that I played called Cole, and he was like, “Man, you have something unique.” It was still really rough and amateur. [He told me], “I can’t wait to see where you’re gonna be in a year or two years or three years,” which is now.
At first, it was like offering guidance. They were always on the road, and he was putting his album together. It was from a distance, and then when his first album dropped, he was going on the Europe leg of the tour. It was the first time they brought me out on tour, and they hit me up like, “Just come out and work.” It was almost like a developmental thing. You got Cole, and you got Ron Gilmore who’s a keyboard virtuoso. There’s all these people that have been making music for so much longer than I have—people that have put in the 10,000 hours. I thought there was a huge gap between Volume 1 and Volume 2, because I was on the road learning about songwriting, production, post production, marketing your project, what a roll out is, shooting a video—you know, all the pieces to the puzzle. It made it a lot clearer because I could soak in a lot of knowledge. It was funny because we’re all homies, but it’s like, “Are we partial to Bas because he’s the homie?” I wasn’t signed to them or nothing. They was just looking out for me.
And then Cole went to play Born Sinner like five months before he put it out. He just wanted to play some of the records he had for Salaam Remi. At the end of that session he’s like, “Yo, by the way, I got this kid in Queens that I fuck with.” He played him some songs, and then Salaam was like, “Yeah, this kid is dope.” After that, he did the same thing with No I.D. No I.D. was like, “What’s up? Let’s do a deal.” Once an objective person that Cole really looked up to was really fucking with my shit, it put a new battery in everyone’s back like, “Alright. We’re not just tripping.” It was people that we looked up to that really changed the game. It was Salaam and No I.D.—like literally the greats to ever do it. That was a turning point. At the label, we started making more power moves. Cole did a “Dollar & A Dream” Tour, and he brought me out on that. That was my first show, not even a year to this day—last summer. I came out just to do “Lit.” And then come fall, we go out on the “What Dreams May Come” Tour, and he asked me to open up the whole tour, worldwide…70 cities. That was a whole set. I would come out during his set, and we would do “Lit.” That tour ended end of January, and that’s when we did the Interscope deal. Everything happened for a reason and at the right time. It’s dope to be able to do shit with family and friends. Sometimes people try to almost make it as a negative because they weren’t around. They don’t know how it went down. [They think], “Oh, since it’s the homies you got put on.” Like, “Nah, fam.” Cole has much better friends than me who rap…rapping a long time.
DX: If anything, being close friends with J. Cole and working with your brothers made it even tougher for you, since they could be brutally honest with you.
Bas: Exactly. It was really dope that Salaam and No I.D. were the first objective ears that we got and they were so about it. Those guys are inspirations to all of us. It’s really a beautiful thing with all of Dreamville because it’s literally all family. It’s all family based—everything from president to creative director to my manager. My manager went to high school with me. Everyone has grown into their roles.
Why Bas Included Personal Touches From His Life On “Last Winter”
DX: On the song, “Fiji Water In My Iron”, you say the line, “My bitch got ass like NASA / That line prolly only makes sense to me.” Are there other lines in that project that are inside jokes or things the listener may not get?
Bas: There’s a song called “Donk of the Day,” where I reference my homie Mike Shaw in the hook who’s like one of the managers in Dreamville. He grew up with Cole, and he’s been on the road with Cole from the jump. He’s been like a big bro to me on the road, always looking out for me and things of that nature. We play a game on the road called donk of the day, where he’ll be like, “Donk of the day!” We might drive by the line at the venue and shit and look at girls like, “That’s the donk of the day!” Or we’ll be in the club in a certain city and just vote on it, and it ended up being a whole song. I’m just shouting him out on the hook. But yeah, I take a lot of inspiration from just shit that happens. You can really draw out of human interactions; it almost puts the listener there. I really like doing that, so there’s a lot of clips of talking.
DX: I definitely picked that up throughout the project.
Bas: Yeah, that’s all from video footage on the road of us. I just ripped the audio, and I put it on a song. It’s almost the setting that lets you know where you are. Like on the “Dos Equis,” that’s Ray, our production manager, in Birmingham in the UK, which was our last European tour stop. Everyone had the night off together, so everyone was giving these speeches and everyone was really drunk. Everyone on the tour was getting up on the table and one by one, giving a speech about the tour. So I took that footage, and I put the audio from some of it and I chopped it up. I like putting people where I am almost like a first person.
DX: Obviously the project is very personal for you, as you just explained that you put little bits of your life in the music for your fans. But what was the most important or meaningful song on the album for you?
Bas: That’s kinda tough. I would say maybe “Your World,” featuring Mack Wilds. If it’s just something to listen to—it’d probably be like “Vacation” or “Charles De Gaulle to JFK,” because I just really like to vibe out. I really like “Your World” featuring Mack because both of those verses are very personal. At the same time, it wasn’t even by design. Listening to it now, XM radio just started playing in it on their own because it has big radio potential. If I can go to radio with my first real introduction to the world with a song that can convey all these things about me, I would love for people to know. It made such a special moment just because the things I’m saying give people a good idea of who I am, my dispositions generally, and some of the things I’m going through in life. At the same time, it’s a feel good summer track.
DX: Wait, but on the second verse you reveal that the girl you were with didn’t actually want you to blow up like you did. What’s up with that?
Bas: [Laughs] To be fair, she does man. I can’t even do her like that. But sometimes I feel that way. I tried to put myself in her shoes, and the more I take off, the less available I am. It’s a natural progression in that sense. So when you start to date, it’s like, “Do you really want this for me? Or do you want something different? Does it benefit us in a better way?” But yeah, she thinks I dissed her. I’ve been trying to tell her it’s not a diss.
Photo Credit: William Azcona, courtesy of Interscope Records.