ABOVE: ABBAS HAMAD, AKA BAS
In the video for “Vacation,” Bas, the 27-year-old Queens rapper best known for his affiliation with childhood friend and labelmate J. Cole, is standing in a subway car departing First Avenue and 14th Street. Underneath the L’s clinical, fluorescent lighting, his eyelids grow heavy. Bas is daydreaming. The vision: crashing waves, two sunbathing models wearing little more than lingerie and sunglasses, bottomless champagne bottles, dollar bills raining from the heavens, a boat ride across the Hudson. The camera, lingering on Bas, provides the illusion of an emcee walking on water.
“The song was me trying to express that through all our travels there’s still a sense of home,” Bas says of “Vacation,” which we’re pleased to premiere below. “No matter where I’m at, I love New York. The whole point of vacation is to get away from your city, so that was a way for me to say, I don’t go on vacation in that sense. I speak on being present in the moment. ‘Vacation’ is a reminder to stay woke, to stay in the present. I’m not on vacation. I’m very much here.”
Born Abbas Hamad, the Paris-born, Sudan-raised, New York-residing musician operates in one of two modes: dreamer and observer. An artist in perpetual motion, Bas tells his story from various locales; “My Nigga Just Made Bail” finds him staring out onto the Los Angeles skyline; “Lit” a quiet moment onstage before a screaming audience; “Charles De Gaulle To JFK” a postcard from the place of his birth. Each song, a love letter to the gold-spun hip-hop of yore: Bas inhibits the space explored by R&B artists such as Miguel and Wale, employing a rich musical palette of grooving guitars and looped saxophones.
Bas spoke with Interview from home in Queens, having recently finished a nationwide tour with J. Cole.
JOHN TAYLOR: Do you daydream a lot?
BAS: I do. Ever since I was a kid. I used to daydream about going parasailing, crazy things like that. Now when I daydream it’s a little different, it’s a little more realistic.
TAYLOR: In “Vacation,” you’re daydreaming on the subway. Is the train a good place for that?
BAS: It’s pretty stress-free, you just go in there and space out. I remember I used to work at The Container Store on 23rd and Sixth Ave, and I would have to take the F Train from 23rd and Sixth all the way to 179th in Queens, which was the last stop on the F. So a ride on the train home for me, from Queens to 14th street, is going to take like an hour. There’s a lot of background noise when you’re flying through the tunnel, and it almost puts you in a sort of meditation, the white noise. You really get in your thoughts. Feeling the constant movement, it’s like, I don’t know, something about it massages my brain.
TAYLOR: You’re on the train and there’s a stranger sitting across. Do you say something?
BAS: Yeah, I try to talk to anyone I sit next to. I’ve met some really interesting people; people doing really great things that inspire me. There’s so many angles in this world, you know? Hip-hop, media in general… we get so caught up with our personal expression in this business, which is separate from the whole recording, studio aspect. Social media. The whole high school cafeteria aspect. We get so caught up in this world, and then you get on a flight, and you sit next to an executive from Colgate.
BAS: Colgate. I actually had this happen recently, I got on a flight and sat by an executive who worked for a branch marketing to Hispanic people. She’s telling me all these ways Colgate markets, and I just found it all so interesting, because as an artist you’re trying to market yourself and reach people, and then you think about toothpaste and they’ve got millions of dollars behind reaching one specific ethnic group.
TAYLOR: What did you say when she asked what you do for a living?
BAS: I told her I’m a performing artist. A lot of times, that’s how it happens: you sit next to someone and you might never say anything to them, but I’ve learned to just start talking to people. You could stop to bum a cigarette off someone and talk world politics for three hours.
TAYLOR: I always imagined that to be the way you first met J. Cole.
BAS: Man, I knew Cole when he first came to Queens, before I started rapping even. Cole was one of the people who really encouraged me to start rapping, because I didn’t believe it was a very viable option. You know, I come from a Sudanese family, so those things weren’t really within our realms of thought or possibility. Cole, he just kind of changed all of that. When I met Cole, my brother actually got him this job at a newspaper—
TAYLOR: Your brother was the one that got Cole the newspaper job?! Cole talked about working there the last time he spoke with Interview.
BAS: Yeah, there’s actually eight of us that worked there. It was bad, there were homies that would come in at 9am and punch in all the guys that came in at 1pm, then the 1pm guys would punch out all the 9am guys that left hours ago. We were terrible like that, trying to swindle that newspaper. Poor newspaper.
TAYLOR: You were following your dreams though.
BAS: Right. Especially me, I was in a crazy place. I had to drop out of school, started doing a lot of street shit just to make ends meet. Then I had a really big wake up call, probably six months before I started rapping, where some things really went wrong—a friend got shot, a car got shot up. I think it was the very peak of my being young and dumb. After that, I had to think about how my actions affected not just me, but my family and friends. Right after that, my older brother had given me his laptop, and he was like, “Start opening gigs for me, it’s a better way for you to make a couple hundred bucks than what you’re doing.”
TAYLOR: That’s a good older brother.
BAS: Yeah. I’m lucky, man, because I have friends who were in my situation who didn’t have a support system. I had my family. I had my older brother, my parents, Cole, the whole Dreamville team. I had people there to help me find a new direction in life. That’s the plight of the black male in America; often they don’t have that guidance, that father figure, or people in higher standing to help them out.
TAYLOR: I’m glad you’re all right. Have you been following Ferguson in the news? It’s heartbreaking. You could be doing absolutely nothing and still get hurt.
BAS: Man. We were actually at the studio last night, just all of us, talking about it for hours. It’s insane at this point. I saw a cop macing a little girl, shooting her in the face with spray. There’s no accountability, no coverage. I really fear where we’re headed, as far as our law enforcement. Recently I went to a festival, did my set, I’m out there, and I look up maybe 60 or 80 feet. Hovering above my head is a drone with a camera on it. What happens when that drone is weaponized? If there’s no accountability now… I mean, you don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the proof is in the pudding.
TAYLOR: Let’s just all move to Toronto.
BAS: [laughs] I just got back from Canada, and the whole time I was there I was like, “Man, they really figured it out.”
TAYLOR: Speaking of moving, where is home for you?
BAS: You know I was born in Paris?
TAYLOR: That’s right. Paris, then Queens.
BAS: Whenever I would go back to Paris and see kids playing, how they act, how they dress, what they did… I always wondered, what if my family had stayed in Paris? How different of a person would I be? I think about that. The beauty of growing up in Paris and having my father work for the United Nations, it changed my perspective on the world very early on. So even when I came to Queens and saw how my friends were, my friends who hadn’t seen much of the world, it was very different. It was shoot and kill for your block. Just one street, in one neighborhood, in one borough, in one city, in one country. Growing up in Paris helped me avoid a lot of problems and pitfalls. But, I mean, Queens is really my home. I got there at such an age that it feels like home.
TAYLOR: Take me back to that first day of school in Queens. How did you feel, arriving in a strange, new place?
BAS: I remember being really embarrassed, because in French the word for bathroom is basically “Toilet.” I remember my teacher calling on me, and I was like, “Can I use the toilet?” All the kids busted out laughing. It was cool, though. I met a kid named Charlie, he was my first American friend—we bonded over WWF, which, you know, knows no boundaries. One thing I noticed about the other families who were Sudanese in Queens was, they were very strict. My parents, they were a bit more moderate. They weren’t going to handcuff us to the old country, which helped us assimilate.
TAYLOR: When you decided to pursue rapping as a career, how did your parents take the news?
BAS: There was a lot of resistance, and rightfully so. I mean, they come from somewhere where you go to school, become a doctor or a lawyer. But I think the benefit of them being in the Western world for so long was understanding that these things can happen. It’s funny, last January I was closing out for Cole at Madison Square Garden. That’s the only show my dad has come to. I remember right after the show, he was in tears, and told me, “I’m glad you never listened to me when I told you stop rapping.” My mom was always cooler about it, because her brother is in the music business. She’s really happy for me. My dad, he doesn’t go out a bunch, so he had no idea how big it was. He’s in his 60s, watches chess on TV, listens to NPR.
TAYLOR: What does your mom do?
BAS: My mom is a housewife. She graduated with a journalism degree, but you know, it’s five of us. Me and four siblings. She dedicated her life to us, being there in the morning, being there when we got home from school. She sacrificed her career for us. Now we do as much as we can for her.
TAYLOR: With the music taking off, do you see yourself returning to Paris? I heard you were interested in pursuing fashion.
BAS: Absolutely. My main incentive for going back to Paris is brushing up on my French. I’m not great, but I feel if I spent a couple months out there, I’d really clean it up. As far as the fashion thing, we have a line we started on the road that’s mostly streetwear. I’m really interested in the streetwear I grew up around, you know, in the city, hopping the trains and going down to Soho. All those styles.
TAYLOR: Did you ever have a moment when you were younger, walking around in Soho, dreaming of the day you could walk in to a store and buy anything you wanted?
BAS: There’s a Prada store on Broadway. I remember when those sneakers they had started getting really popular, and they were 500 bucks. I remember walking in, feeling that insecurity like, “Man. I don’t belong here. I’m broke.” But as much as I’ve always liked fashion, I never let it define me. Being firmly rooted in family, culture, and tradition really helped me navigate those feelings.
TAYLOR: It’s easy to take family for granted sometimes.
BAS: Definitely. Ever since I was a kid, every two years, we used to go back to Sudan for the summer. All my friends were playing basketball and hanging out, doing the things I wanted to do, but I’m glad my parents dragged us to the 115-degree fucking Sudan heat. It really grounded me. Going somewhere and not having running water and electricity, it makes all the things you thought you needed; the sneakers people would die for, meaningless. I’m thankful my parents gave me that lens.
TAYLOR: I couldn’t agree more. This is kind of random, but earlier I was on the iTunes page for Last Winter, and noticed one of the reviews was written by someone claiming to be J. Cole. Was that really him?
BAS: You know what, I saw that! Knowing Cole, that is something he would do. He’s the kind of homie that when it comes to showing support, he would go ahead and write a whole customer review. [both laugh]
TAYLOR: That’s hilarious, man.
BAS: I gotta ask, but I’ll confirm with you. Is this your number?
TAYLOR: Yeah, yeah it is.
BAS: I’m gonna see him tonight. I’ll text you a little bit later.
LAST WINTER IS OUT NOW ON ITUNES AND MOST MAJOR RECORD STORES. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.