Being a part of underground juggernauts Blue Scholars wasn’t enough for producer/DJ Sabzi. Instead of slowing down, he just picked up the pace even more as he linked up with Ra Scion to form Common Market. This talented cat out of Seattle and co-founder of Massline Records has created his own little forte of production; blending a variety of sounds to create a moist, tasty dish more times than not. As his popularity within the underground scene rises, people are starting to take notice of his intriguing style and keeping an ear to the streets for a Sabzi production. KevinNottingham.com got a chance to chat with Sabzi regarding various topics such as his connection with Ra and Geologic, his label, beat battles, sampling, and of course, his latest project, Tobacco Road.
SD: Sup man? Hopefully most people reading this are familiar enough with you, but go ahead and introduce yourself.
Sabzi: My name is Saba, some people know me as Sabzi or Alexei.
SD: How you been? Busy? How long are you in the lab these days?
Sabzi: Been real good. During the weeks that I’m lucky enough to be in town and producing, I’ll spend anywhere from 8-12 hours on music a day.
SD: Hopefully everything remains well, but let’s get right down to it. You’ve worked with 2 great emcees: Geologic with Blue Scholars and Ra Scion with Common Market. What is it about them that allows you to have such a great chemistry? How do their styles, taste in beats, and work ethic differ?
Sabzi: Well, their tastes in beats tend to be pretty different, and as we continue to work together their styles seem to be diverging more. I couldn’t be happier. It gives me an opportunity to be more diverse in what i put out between those two groups.
SD: Pretend that none of them are reading this and never will read this. Unless you don’t care, either way. Who do you prefer to work with? Who suits your needs more?
Sabzi: I don’t think I could really compare. It is like asking somebody, “do you like pizza or Tuesday?”
SD: A song like “Gol’Dust” is a great blend of very trendy synths with an old school bounce and kick to it. “Trouble Is” is another track where it had a similar new-age MTV style hip hop with that gritty soul. While listening to Tobacco Road, I found myself saying this for a lot of beats and it’s a great thing; the mix of the old and the new. Is that what you were aiming for?
Sabzi: What’s funny is that I kinda think Tobacco Road starts at “Slow Cure.” Those first two cuts on the record (“Gol’Dust and Trouble Is”) are more like the bridge between the Black Patch War EP and the Tobacco Road LP. I’m definitely glad we did them, but I almost don’t count those first joints as part of the album.
SD: How much input do you have on the lyrical output from the artists you work with? The producer’s role has been sadly limited to the beat maker these days, but, do your experiences differ in terms of what you do? How so?
Sabzi: I wouldn’t say the producer’s role has been limited to the beatmaker these days. Though, I would say that there are many beatmakers who call themselves producers without really knowing what it takes to be a producer. I’m definitely learning more and more what it takes to be a producer with each project.
Each project I’ve done with another MC has been more of a collaboration than just selling them a beat to rap on. We conceptualize the track together, then we each do what we do individually (beats + rhymes), then put it together and discuss. It’s certainly a collaborative effort.
SD: So, to you, what’s a “producer” it the most simplest form? What are they responsible for?
Sabzi: The producer is responsible for creating the overall sound and vision for a project.
SD: Do you sample a lot in your work? I’ve read around that you were a pretty big Punk music head back in the day, amongst Persian and South Asian music. Surely, those must’ve influenced how you make music today? How so?
Sabzi: I’ve been a music lover for as long as I can remember. I know I’ve been heavily influenced by many from DJ Premier to Fat Mike to AR Rahman to Aphex Twin. I’ve learned a lot about chord progressions, song structure, and sound texture from studying all those guys and many more. The influence is there if you’re willing to look for it.
SD: That leads to the question that I’ve lately been asking everyone. Do you agree with what we do on our site? If you don’t know, we collect and compile sample sets from particular albums and let the people here the original samples in their entirety. The reason why I ask is because it is usually 50/50 response; some people say we give away the “secret” and others think it exposes people to the original creation. Your opinion?
Sabzi: I think you guys should keep doing what you’re doing. If somebody gets butthurt about it, that’s their problem [laughs]. Should’ve dug deeper!
Just make sure you’re crediting the right sample. I’ve read incorrect sample identifications before and people just play themselves when they think they’ve pulled a beatmaker’s card and have it wrong.
SD: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews your love for beat battles. I’ve witnessed second hand how important beat battles are for a producer. The value seemed to be more than just winning. Would you agree? What is the most important thing you get out of beat battles?
Sabzi: Man, I just really like beats. I like playing beats and listening to beats. It’s more about the experience than it is the winning. I like hearing a real slapper and then seeing the crowd go bonkers.
SD: We recently interviewed Jake, who alongside Vitamin D, run the Red Bull Beat Academy contest. Do you see yourself running something similar in the future? Do you think it is important to give up and coming producers a shot and are you one of the guys that will help those who are deserving of it?
Sabzi: I’d love to do something like that in the future. I’m always lookin’ to collaborate with folks who have real talent and something new to offer. We’ll see how that all plays out though…
SD: Moving to your craft, how do you judge how good your product is? Personal opinion? Critics? Fans?
Sabzi: That’s a good question. I’d say it’s a mix of all three. Not so much the critics who write blogs/columns and pride themselves on being critics though; I’ve never found those people to be very sharp with the way they see the world. I’m more interested in music that I think is dope, and then hearing the opinion of other artists and general people who just love music.
SD: Ouch. Do you care what critics say? Hell, even the fans; both positive and negative? How much of your evolution and development as a producer do you contribute to those around you, as opposed to yourself. Feel free to be selfish and egotistic as hell here too!
Sabzi: I welcome all negative and positive feedback. Usually, the sincere negative feedback (which is typically constructively negative) points out things that I may not have noticed about my own work and so that’s just as dope as positive feedback and praise.
SD: Shifting gears a little bit, talk about Massline Records. How’d it start up? What plans do you have for the label; such as new acts you want to sign?
Sabzi: It kind of started up as a result of all the founding artists being in a certain place and certain time and needing a label/shell/imprint of some kind to support what we were doing. The label will continue to exist, as will our catalog, but I know that each of us have other projects in the works that we’ve been focusing on outside the scope of the label.
SD: What does it take to be a Massline Records artist? I ask this because a label like Rawkus had a very distinct group of artists with very similar features. A community/clique like OkayPlayer has particular qualities to them that are obviously comparable as well. Does Massline have some unwritten rules in regards to the artist they bring on?
Sabzi: The MassLine brand has always been something that has stood behind politically-progressive music/art. Something that challenges the way people think.
SD: Do you have any plans for an instrumental album or even a solo album with all of your favourite guests ripping over your beats?
Sabzi: Emphatically yes.
SD: We’d love for you to emphasize, but we will respect privacy! What’s Sabzi listening to these days? It’s been a rather good year for 2008 wouldn’t you say? What were you listening too frequently enough to get a mention?
Sabzi: Records that came out this year: Santogold – Santogold, Burial – Untrue, Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It, Jake One – White Van Music (Instrumental Version), Q-Tip – The Renaissance, TV On The Radio – Dear Science, Passion Pit – Chunk Of Change EP, Lykke Li – Youth Novels, Lil Wayne – The Carter III, MGMT – Oracular Spectacular, Black Kids – Partie Traumatic (sorry).
SD: Wow, that really is a mixed bag. Before you leave, we have got to talk exclusively about Tobacco Road. Such a tremendous project, but still, remains slept on plenty. How do you feel about that? Frustrated?
Sabzi: Frustrated? No. That album will shine the way it needs to, when it needs to.
SD: What track on there are you most proud of? Not necessarily your best beat or Ra’s best rhymes, but what track just comes together so perfectly? What is it about that one particular track if there is one?
Sabzi: “Tobacco Road,” “Swell,” “Slow Cure,” “40 Thieves,” “Spits.”
SD: Is there a particular song on the album that seems to be getting the most attention? The “crazy requests and daps for it all the time” song?
Sabzi: I remember people asking for “Swell,” “Tobacco Road,” “Winter Takes All,” “Nothin At All.” It’s hard to really pick. One of the interesting things about this record is that different people have different favorites.
SD: Any last words? Anything you want us to keep our heads up for?
Sabzi: I’m putting together a blog/site that will feature exclusive instrumentals, film projects, and other collaborative efforts I’ve been working on that can’t be put out on an album. Look for it!
SD: I appreciate the interview and wish you tons of success in 2009. You have a sound that needs to be heard by a wider audience and hopefully this interview gives some insight into your genius and craft.
Sabzi: Thanks. That’s not really a question, but thanks! [laughs].