Bas’ Extraordinary Story Makes Him a Unique Rap Star
Rise And Shine
It took some time but Bas has found his true calling in hip-hop, and the Dreamville artist is in it for the long haul.
Words: John Kennedy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
At dawn on a December day in 2017, Bas is somewhere in the desert of Meroë, Sudan, just east of the Nile River, mentally preparing for his first camel ride. He has a small group of friends and family in tow, all en route to behold the Nubian Pyramids—a collection of nearly 200 ancient edifices and ruins, many of which once served as tombs for the kings and queens of the Meroitic Empire. The hallowed site will eventually grace the front and back artwork of Milky Way, Bas’ third studio album under the Dreamville Records brand. But first: the camel, which is under the supervision of local herders, laying on its stomach. The portly MC straddles the animal, sitting between its two humps. Then it stands up: both hind legs first, then front limbs one at a time, alternately tilting like a low-rider on hydraulics. It’s only a 10-minute jaunt to the pyramids and while he arrives safely, there were nerves.
“I been seeing videos of big homies getting thrown off camels,” Bas recalls months later, on an unremarkably hot August day in Manhattan. “I was worried... What if he’s like, ‘Nigga, you heavy! Fuck off!’” The 31-year-old Queens-bred rapper is seated in the middle row of a chauffeured black Chevrolet Suburban truck, much more comfortable than riding camelback. He sports round shades, black cement Jordan 3 sneakers, slim gray denim shorts and a T-shirt that reads Fiends across the chest—merch for his crew of the same name. Today’s agenda consists of an on-air takeover at hometown radio station Hot 97 and shopping in preparation for the busy weeks to follow the midnight release of Milky Way. His publicist sits in the back row along with Dreamville’s operations manager Matty, a stocky guy wearing a camo shirt, who Bas met in college. Riding shotgun is another friend, Kevin Ogletree—or K.O.—a tall, athletically built man with locks, who, after hours of riding around, will casually mention that he formerly played wide receiver in the NFL for six seasons.
Bas is reflecting on the nearly month-long Saharan voyage, a trek that was more motivational than he’d anticipated. Prior to that trip, the last time he’d visited his parents’ native country of Sudan was in 2008—before he’d toured the world with J. Cole, recorded songs with A$AP Ferg or even considered making music. “Kids were coming up to me like, ‘You make us proud to be Sudanese,’” Bas remembers. “It gave me a whole different perspective. As artists, we want every look, we want bigger venues, more adoration. But as we’ve seen in a lot of people, that shit can be toxic. So you need to ground yourself [and] pull your fulfillment from moments like those... Going to Sudan, that’s kinda like the cure.”
Those humbling experiences also eased some concerns during Milky Way’s recording. Bas’ strongest and most sonically ambitious album to date pulls sounds from across the African Diaspora: regions like South Africa (“Sanufa”), Brazil (“Boca Raton”) and Angola (“Spaceships + Rockets”). While Bas’ flow and clever rhymes find every pocket, the sound is a departure from the moody and pensive vibe of his 2016 album, Too High to Riot, and perhaps an even greater contrast to the lo-fi sound of hip-hop’s underclassmen in 2018.
“Going on two years from releasing work, there’s bound to be some insecurities that creep into your head,” Bas says. “There’s bound to be those doubts, seeing the landscape and the industry change. It’s hard to keep reminding yourself to remain unique at what makes you you... Nobody has my road. Nobody has my path. That’s my sauce. Instead of running from that, it became about exploiting it.”
Bas once recorded a song called “Nigga on the Dos Equis, the Most Interesting Man in the World.” And as farcical as the title is, his backstory could give the fictional beer spokesman a run for his clout. The man born Abbas Hamad lived in Paris and Doha, Qatar, before his family moved across the pond to Jamaica, Queens, when he was 8 years old. Dad worked at the United Nations as a diplomat—Bas remembers playing Manhunt with other ambassadors’ kids in the General Assembly. He’s the youngest of five, including Mohamed, better known as DJ Moma, co-founder of the globe-spanning party Everyday People, and Ibrahim, who now happens to be president of Dreamville Records.
For as long as Bas can remember, he was surrounded by music of all genres. It’s in his blood. His uncle, Bashir Abbas, is Sudan’s premiere player of the oud, a short, pear-shaped plucked string instrument. Aunts would play African drums during visits. His siblings exposed him to Gang Starr and Jamiroquai, West African music and U.K. garage, Tupac Shakur and A Tribe Called Quest. His home was a multicultural hub that nurtured an eclectic music sensibility for Bas, whose early music collection included Red Hot Chili Peppers and Daft Punk.
As a teenager, Bas was a smart, chubby-faced kid with glasses who’d fix computers around the crib. Despite underachieving at St. Francis Preparatory High School, he excelled in chemistry, landing a full scholarship to study pharmacy at Hampton University. The newfound freedom and uncertainty about his chosen coursework led to a year full of absences and flunking, causing him to drop out after just one year. Bas returned to Queens in 2006 with no plan for the future. He began selling weed, but after becoming the target of a botched robbery—in which Bas was shot at while fleeing on foot—he realized he needed to find a new hustle. By 2009, Moma was a successful DJ who offered to take him under his wing. He gave his younger brother an old black MacBook Pro with a fully stocked music library so that he could practice with DJ programs and eventually spin to open Moma’s party sets. After a couple of months of playing records as an opening act, Bas and his friends—an enterprising bunch—began to throw their own parties.
On May 27, 2010, Bas, the recording artist, was born. It was his 23rd birthday and he’d just finished DJing a party. He continued the drunken celebration at a friend’s West Village apartment. Someone cued up the beat for Kanye West’s “Breathe in Breathe Out” on GarageBand and an impromptu group cypher commenced. The next day they listened back to the recorded material and to everyone’s surprise, Bas’ rhymes notably shined against his comrades’ slipshod bars.
The aspiring rap star soon caught the writing bug and spent that summer recording and sharpening his newfound craft. He branded his team the Fiends and on his 24th birthday—exactly one year after that fateful freestyle session—the budding lyricist self-released his 2011 debut mixtape, Quarter Water Raised Me, comprised of both original songs and raps over industry beats. “I was blown away by the work ethic from very early on,” says DJ Moma, who contributed production on two tracks from Milky Way. “Intelligence, sense of humor and music—the three are always highly connected. Somebody who makes good music is usually smart and funny. Bas is in that realm.” While Quarter Water Raised Me was still rough around the edges, it was an important first step for Bas, the rapper. “It’s cool that my fans love it so much... To me it’s almost cringe-worthy,” he says in retrospect. “But me and my team learned so much about the creative process, the mixing process, marketing, shooting videos, having videos ready to support and keep momentum going. All of those things we had no clue about.”
Bas’ brother Ibrahim was simultaneously learning the music industry ropes, albeit with much higher stakes. He was already managing J. Cole, a close friend that he met while attending St. John’s University. Cole was preparing his major label debut via Roc Nation. Both saw the raw talent and drive that Ibrahim’s younger brother possessed. “Some people, you hear their music and they have talent but it doesn’t feel like it connects,” says Ibrahim. “When he walks into a room, people gravitate towards him. People want to have a conversation with him. That was almost as important as how good the music is. If you’re an interesting person, that’s half of the battle.” By 2013, Cole was fully onboard: He added Bas to “New York Times,” a bonus track from his Born Sinner album that also features 50 Cent and took him on as an opening act for his What Dreams May Come Tour, which also included Wale.
Once J. Cole landed a deal with Interscope Records to launch Dreamville in 2014, Bas was the inaugural signing. He dropped his debut album, Last Winter, then spent the next two years touring and recording his 2016 sophomore LP, Too High to Riot. He’d sharpened his wordplay, addressing topics like Black Lives Matter and the death of his aunt, but the album lost some of the playful energy of its predecessor. Milky Way reverses course.
“I wanted to showcase my personality more as opposed to just my thoughts,” he says of his latest work. “Have more fun with it, have some more balance in the sonics and the drums... There’s parts of the album where you hear the side of me that battles with the ego and moments of weakness, of frustration. But you see me overcome those things. You see me find my balance. And that’s real life lessons that I’ve learned.”
The air conditioning is blasting at an abusive level inside of fast-food hamburger spot Five Guys in Midtown Manhattan. Bas and his crew are sitting down eating burgers and sharing large piles of French fries housed in oily brown paper bags. K.O. offers a plastic condiment cup full of malt vinegar, attempting to pass it off as a shot of Hennessy. “We’re getting lit now?” Bas says with a laugh. “I’m with it.”
Bas’ heart lies here in New York—he says “big Queens” to describe moments that especially evoke his native borough—but he relocated to Los Angeles three years ago. He’s only there about four months per year, though, spending a bulk of the past five years touring. He plans to hit the road to promote Milky Way in the coming months. Touring is profitable but it’s also a way for Bas to connect with his tight-knit fan base. He’s nurtured that connection since his first mixtape. It’s perceptible both online and IRL, whether he’s posing for a photo with a fan outside of Five Guys, personally inviting a man on the street to hang out at his pop-up shop in two days or periodically thumbing his phone to respond to messages on social media. “It’s not like I’m just fucking swagging on you, trying to be some mythical figure that you can’t reach and can’t relate to,” he says. “I can’t do the Hollywood shit.”
“That’s success to me: having people [say] your words mean so much to them, your music uplifts their mood, it changes their day,” Bas continues. “It don’t matter who sleep on me, to my fans I’m the greatest. To my niggas, I’ve held them down for as long as they’ve known me and they’re going to hold me down for life. And to my family, I’m their baby boy.”
Check out more from XXL’s Fall 2018 issue including Meek Mill's letter to his younger self, Show & Prove interviews with Gunna and City Girls, Lil Durk opening up about his Signed to the Streets 3 album , boxer Errol Spence Jr.'s connection to Dallas hip-hop, the A-list features on Swizz Beatz's forthcoming Poison album, a report on hip-hop's relationship with mental health, a look at the comparison between the late rappers XXXTentacion and Tupac Shakur, Mozzy's wild journey to rap success and more.
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