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Beatnik chops it up with The Yardfather, Saigon. And he’s got a big surprise.
words Rob Boffard / images from ‘It’s cold’
We were expecting a lot from our chat with Saigon. But the one thing we weren’t expecting to hear is that he has a new album dropping in less than a year’s time.Saigon: It's cold
This is, after all, the rapper who had been promising fans his debut album, The Greatest Story Never Told, for nigh-on seven years. Indeed, the album only saw the light of day this year because Sai finally broke with his label Atlantic Records and released it elsewhere. Put simply, calling Saigon albums delayed is like saying that Lady Gaga is a bit of an exhibitionist.
So when the New York rapper tells us in his distinctive growl that he’s “shooting for January or February”, we have to admit we’re a bit sceptical. Actually, that’s not true. We think he’s telling outright porky pies.
“Getting this [current] album out took me a long time so now that it’s out there I can keep putting out new material,” he says. “[Producer] Just Blaze isn’t gonna do the whole thing this time, but he’ll do the majority of it, like the main records. I got some new producers I’m working with whose sound I really like.”
To be fair, most of the impediments to Saigon (born Brian Carenard) releasing his music have been shaken off. His stormy relationship with Atlantic, of which more in a moment, has come to an end. His partnership with Just Blaze is stronger than ever. And his new home, Suburban Noize, seem happy to let him do his thing. Just as well, because when TGSNT finally found release on the label, it bucked every trend imaginable. You’d think an album that had sat on a hard drive for years, that went through so many legal hurdles that Just eventually began leaking the tracks himself, would sound dated and dull. It wasn’t. Saigon’s debut is sodding brilliant.
It really is. Not only is it superbly produced, thanks to Just having a hand in almost every track, but it’s a tribute to the very concept of an album—the sequencing of the tracks allows them to be mixed into one another, like a full DJ set. And at the centre of it all, Saigon reminds you why he was so anticipated in the first place. He is one of few naturally gifted rappers on planet Earth; while his lyrics may sometimes seem a little simple, he has the freshest flow in the business. It’s on-point, razor-sharp, sick, whatever adjective you choose. This was worth the wait in every way.
“We had that album done in ’07!” Sai laughs. “It was getting a release date and putting it on the calendar that took so long. We added one song—Bring Me Down—and a bonus song, and one song we couldn’t get sample clearance for so it came off. But other than that it didn’t change.Saigon: Bring Me Down
“A lot of people counted me out,” he muses. “He can’t do it, he left Atlantic Records, he had his chance. I knew my reasons for leaving, but I didn’t have time to go explain to everyone why I wanted to leave. People get a misconception. I was like, no matter what people think, I’m a persevere and it’s gonna work.”
Throughout the entire conversation, the spectre of the Atlantic Records deal hangs heavy. Sai signed with them in 2004. He was fresh off a prison sentence (he’d spent time in the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York for assault) and had been making huge levels of noise across New York with that insanely tight flow. He and Just were already comfortable working together—although he says that back then it was just a “business relationship”—and he seemed poised to do some serious damage.
Now stop us if you’ve heard this before. Underground rapper makes noise, signs to major label, is forced to make music for the radio, fights with label, ends up on the shelf and locked into a contract he can do nothing with. That’s the story of Saigon at Atlantic. We hate to hit you with cliché, but frankly it’s that simple.
Sai spent six years with the label, fighting them every step of the way to let him make the music he wanted to make. Talking about it now, there’s still a lot of anger in his voice. “All [Atlantic] care about is the radio,” he says. “Hip-hop wasn’t born on the radio. Pop music is on the radio all day, and hip-hop don’t come from that. Hip-hop is more rebellious music. But they’re a record company, so they were you like, you need to go in there and make songs for the radio. I’m like, that ain’t what I do! Y’all ain’t gotta spend a ton of money on radio for me.
“Put me in the streets, spend less money and let me hit my target audience…We went in there with songs we wanted to go with, they didn’t want to go with it, and we were like, come on, this is what we want to do. It got to the point where it was a stalemate between me and Just Blaze and Atlantic Records.”
One particular incident stands out. “Once exec told me he would not put out my music if I used the word faggot. I wasn’t referring to a gay man or anything; where we grew up, faggot is a term for a weakling, a weak-ass punk. It’s not used for a gay man, I didn’t even use it in those terms. But even using the word in general, he was like, I won’t put it out. But I’m like, I say nigga on the album five hundred times and you don’t mind that? Then he goes, oh, you guys say that word all the time. You guys can use that one. I’m like, wow.”
While he may have a slightly strange conception of the homophobic term in questions, it’s still an illuminating episode. For the record, representatives for Atlantic had not responded to repeated requests for comment at the time of publication. Saigon declined to name the executive in question.
Locked into a bad deal, Saigon went off the rails in a very public way. In 2006, he was stabbed with a wine bottle outside a Manhattan diner, allegedly in a botched robbery. A year later, he would not only be arrested on weapons charges for carrying a knife in his car, but got into a very public fist-fight with Prodigy of Mobb Deep. Later that year, he would use his Myspace page to announce his retirement from rapping. Guess how that turned out.
But then in 2008, Atlantic abruptly released Saigon, with full ownership of his album. It would take three years for it to find a home and see release (“I’m a hustler. I know how to rub two nickels together,” laughs Saigon when asked how he’s supported himself all this time—lots of gigging, apparently).
Throughout it, Saigon’s long-term partner Just Blaze stuck by him. Their sessions at Just’s Baseline Studios in Manhattan are legendary, and one thing that’s abundantly clear is that there would be no Saigon—or at the very least, no TGSNT—without the producer. “Our relationship changed because we grew closer as friends,” says Sai. “It started off as business, but the closer we got, it became more about friendship rather than business. It’s hard to do business with your friend. I kind of approach it like he’s my brother. It’s not like, I got some money, give me a beat, it’s like, yo, when you get time, go check your MPC, see if you got a beat from like eight years ago that nobody bought. Let me get that. I like that old Just Blaze sound. Go look through the files, there might be one you forgot about!”
Unusually for rappers this troubled, it would seem that Saigon’s story has a happy ending. His album sold 11,000 copies in its first week, and he’s sold 40,000 to date. It’s a healthy number in the current climate, and it’s married to great reviews and general acclaim for his live show. Atlantic, meanwhile, has suffered—after Saigon left, they went through a very public spat with Lupe Fiasco over similar problems with commercial singles. Lupe’s new album Lasers sold well, but he made it very clear that he had serious problems with how the label was handling its roster.
Don’t place any bets on album number two just yet.Saigon feat. Jay-Z & Swizz Beatz: Come On Baby