by Jake Utti
Seattle’s Sax G makes music capable of floating you into a pleasant ether while also somehow rooting your feet into actual, tangible experience. It’s like a bird singing on a statue in your 3am dream. The sound is eerie, haunting, and beautiful.
Sax has a new album out, “Tomorrow’s New Villain,” which you can stream here. The record is an amalgam of movie scenes, hip-hop breaks, French aesthetics, philosophy, sadness, and care for family. In some numinous way, it also feels like you’ve been listening to this record your whole adult life. To get a sense of where it came from and what’s up next for Sax, the Emerald spoke with the musician while he was in Austin, Texas for a SXSW performance.
SSE: The title of the record is “Tomorrow’s New Villain.” What about villainy intrigues you?
Sax G: My favorite character has always been the Joker. I sympathize with the villain. To be honest with you, growing up there weren’t any heroes for me to connect with. My mom made me read books like the Berenstain Bears and the Ninja Turtles because the heroes didn’t have a color, they were just creatures. I never really connected with heroes anyway. Most of the villains or anti-heroes like the Toxic Crusaders intrigued me more anyway. As I got older, I began to sympathize with the villains, especially the Joker, I found myself cheering for them. I felt like their story was more relatable and more real.
SSE: Why do you think you gravitate toward the more noir sensibilities in music?
Sax G: When I first started making music, I only had certain plug-ins and things that I was comfortable with. That’s why most of my original music was so G-Funk heavy. I know these chords and I’m comfortable with these baselines. But now that I’ve gone to the Art Institute and I’ve spent time with Vitamin D, he taught me how to properly chop up records. I’ve spent some studio time with 9th Wonder and those guys, watching their process. It’s been almost eight years since I’ve been making beats and now I can layer these samples, which makes it more fun with what I like to do anyway. All it is now is finding this texture when I’m chopping up samples I’m comfortable with. And I’ve found it in a lot of the older music. I feel like the 60s soul shit has been chopped already!
SSE: There’s a distinct early 90s bent to many of the emcees you work with. What do you look for in a rapper when collaborating?
Sax G: I get the feeling sometimes that people think I’m more poetic than I really am. I’m not as artsy as a lot of people think I am. You know, I’m younger than [Seattle rapper and close friend] Nacho [Picasso], but when he and I are together, people have a more playful energy with him. Whereas, they look at me and are like, “Mind if I smoke?” I’m younger, but they treat me much older.
Nacho is one of my favorite rappers; I like mean rappers. Sean Price on any given day could be in my Top-5. I like that stuff because there’s a certain honesty to the aggression.
SSE: What makes you decide to jump on a track and rhyme?
Sax G: I wrote my first rhyme in 2008. It was both fortunate and unfortunate. At the time, it was better than everybody else. At the time, kind of how everyone is trying to sound like Migos, everybody then was trying to sound like Lil Wayne. Or like Young Buck. They were sounding like they were trying to make it. Whereas, I was sounding different.
But it was unfortunate because my first rhyme got the attention of Vitamin D and 9th Wonder. They were like, “Let’s go!” but I didn’t have any confidence in myself. I never liked the idea of three verses and two hooks. I think that is so annoying. So it stopped me a long time ago. I was like, “Oh man, I’m just gonna make beats. I’ll do this stuff later.” But now that the temperature is set for me to come outside, I’ve been a lot more active in lyrics. What makes me write is the right beat. I never really liked to rap to my own beats. But now, I’m more comfortable that I hear other rappers on my beats. When you hear somebody else do it to your stuff, it makes you think you can do it.
SSE: There are a lot of movie quote samples on the record. What’s interesting to you about bridging these mediums?
Sax G: I feel like hip-hop has a lack of power source. The source of it is what’s missing to me. If the source of something is meaningful, then the power that comes out will automatically materialize into something worthwhile. So I think a lot of times what’s happening, and not just in hip-hop, but what’s happening everyday is like, ‘Fuck the power source, we just got to materialize the shell that looks shiny, that looks a certain way.’
I know that you can’t do that in film, it’s just not gonna work, especially the types of films I like. Like The Count of Monte Cristo. Those things took a lot of time. He didn’t even get the girl in the end! That little twist is so well thought out, unexpected, and beautiful. I think if that type of energy or thought was put behind music, especially in hip-hop, we might bring forth a pretty cool culture that comes up after us.
I’ve already seen what happens with the shiny shell culture. I hate that more than anything. I was in L.A. right after Tupac was doing all that. I love Tupac. I’ve seen the ramifications of the shiny shit. If you saw your cousin get shot and he has got a warrant and so you can’t take him to the hospital, that’s going to change your mindset when it comes to the songs about everyone shooting each other up.
I don’t like that kind of energy. When I hear from the guys I like, there’s almost a playful tinge to it. When I hear Wu-Tang say “snap somebody’s neck,” I don’t think of snapping somebody’s neck. I think of it in, like, a comic book way. But when I hear a lot of younger dudes—I get it, you’ll take my bitch and you’ll shoot me. I get it. Unfortunately, I don’t know if you’ll really do it or not.
SSE: What does your relationship with Hush Hush Records mean for your music?
Sax G: I love Hush Hush Records. Alex Ruder had always shown an appreciation for my music. When I first meet someone and I have a conversation with them, I like to see what they’re into and what they like. Certain names will just perk my ears up. And I’m not a music snob. If I go down south and a young boy comes up to me and he likes Pastor Troy, I’m gonna be like I can build with this kid.
With Hush Hush, with Alex, if you can tell me some great Portishead songs, a Smashing Pumpkins album, and goddamn Black Street, we’re probably going to be best friends. And that was Alex. He said, “I love your music. Can we talk? Maybe we can put something out for you.”
I said, “Let’s do it.” He’s really helped me. I’m not really good at this getting my name out and stuff and he’s been supportive in that way. I try to throw it back to him whenever I can.
SSE: Your mother is the album cover. What made you want to display her on your work so prominently?
Sax G: That’s a picture of my mom when we lived in Strasbourg, France. My father was boxing at the Goodwill Games in Germany. Strasbourg is on the border of Germany and France. My mom had a dance studio at the time we were out there. I was there from about eight months to about 4-5 years old. On the very last song, that’s my father talking, saying, “West Coast hold my baby down!” I love my dad. My mom married a decorated soldier. But at the time, she didn’t know she had married an official street dude. The real type. So that picture of my mom is—I can only imagine what she was going through at that time.
My mother was the complete opposite of my pops. He went to the military probably to run away from some street shit going on. When you see shootouts in the street, going to war ain’t going to scare you. That’s my pops. My mom, though, graduated from high school before she was 16. She graduated from law school at 20. She was going hard. My parents split up during that time and my mom flew back with a young child by herself. I can only imagine the sadness that she had.
When I was coming up with my mom she was mean. And not mean just to be mean. She demanded respect. Her credit score is A-1. I’ve never seen my mother do anything for herself. She’s never taken a vacation. And so that picture reminds me of how you can try to do all the right things, do everything the right way and it can still really bring forth some ugly shit.
On top of that, she’s looking down. I had to be somewhere nearby when the photo was taken. So, I imagine her holding my hand and making sure I’m not in the photo.
SSE: There are a lot of great guests on the record, but I want to highlight one in particular. What drew you to working with SassyBlack?
Sax G: Oh that’s my home girl. Cat, she’s always ready to work. She came through. I can tell she’s an alpha with it. She came in and did her thing. She free-styled that verse and killed it.
SSE: While “Villain” is out now digitally, what’s the plan for the release show?
Sax G: We’re going to do it with Hush Hush. The night will be a physical release and will include some B-Sides, maybe a couple extra tracks, and maybe some flips from the homies. There will be a live show, too. Right now, I don’t know the details for sure and I’m hesitant to say names of people. But it’s going down in October—definitely before November. My birthday is in October so I’m gonna use all that energy.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Photos courtesy of Carlos Cruz