Bas Talks 'Peeling Back Layers' on Sophomore Set 'Too High to Riot,' Protesting in Ferguson With J. Cole & Dreamville

Jenny Regan

Bas photographed on March 3, 2016.

As the Internet pumps out drug-induced trap tracks, Bas uses his high -- and lows -- for perspective. Look to his recently released sophomore studio effort Too High To Riot and cuts like "Methylone" and "Dopamine" are far from club bangers but rather a canvas for some of his most personal anecdotes to hit wax. Whether rapping about losing his aunt on "Live For" or the experience from a Black Live Matters stance on "Black Owned Business," he admits to partaking in recreational activities for inspiration.

"I’d rather use the inspiration that I get on [drugs] and give you that perspective that it gave me in those moments," Bas told Billboard during a recent visit. "I got younger cousins that look up to me so I think about those things but you also have to weigh your art against honesty, truth and reality. It’s definitely a fine line I try to straddle where it’s not just belligerent drug talk ‘cause that’s dangerous and irresponsible but at the end of the day, I do some drugs. [Laughs]

After launching his rap career in 2010, the Sudanese wordsmith, born Abbas Hamad, rolled out two mixtapes: 2011's Quarter Water Raised Me, Vol.1 and the 2013 follow-up Quarter Water Raised Me, Vol. 2. His eloquence on the mic is also a real-life trait. The youngest of five children, Bas says he was constantly forced to greet strangers and relatives as a child upon entering a room as a result of having a diplomat father and a mother with a musical family in Sudan. When he was eight years old, his family packed their bags and shuttled to Jamaica, Queens, where he met his brother's friend and eventual label boss, J. Cole

Bas' feature on Cole's "New York Times," also starring 50 Cent, led to a spot on the 2013 Dreamville compilation Revenge of the Dreamers, released in celebration of Cole's Dreamville and Interscope Records' deal and Bas' eventual signing. Six years later, his hustle and flows have put him in a comfortable headspace. 

"I don’t feel like I’m owed anything or I’m somewhere I’m not supposed to be," said Bas. "Obviously Cole has given me an incredible platform. It’s just so crucial for any artist trying to make it." He notes that every life lesson he's packed the past two years has seeped into the music. "At the end of the day, it’s just all inspiration -- the more you can get, obviously the easier my job is." 

In London and Los Angeles, Bas (also known as Fiend Bassy) laid down his sophomore effort Too High to Riot, recruiting English group the Hics for the tracks "Matches" and "Ricochet" as well as in-house reps Cozz and Cole for "Dopamine" and "Night Job," respectively. Below, the leader of the Fiends details his come-up and breaks down Too High To Riot while also recalling his first time protesting alongside Cole and the Dreamville crew in Ferguson.

J. Cole Talks Dreamville Label Deal & Interscope's Joie Manda: Exclusive

Billboard: For Too High To Riot, were there certain projects or artists you were listening to for inspiration?

Bas: I’m a big fan of The Hics and they’re featured twice on the album. My friend, [Soundwavve], who actually produced “Housewives," was living with me in L.A. when we were working on the album. We went on a ride to buy some groceries and he was playing their music. I’m like, ‘Man, what is this? Who are these kids?’ It had such a dope vibe. He’s like, 'I found them playing Grand Theft Auto on GTA radio so I ended up really sinking into their EP Tangle. I hit ‘em up on Twitter and we ended up linking up twice in London, doing a couple of songs. They were definitely a lot of inspiration.

Beyond The Hics, Cozz and Cole, was it a conscious effort to keep this album a little skim on features?

Yes, because I feel like everything I’ve done up to this point -- although it’s been good and I’m very content with my catalog -- I think this provides some separation for me and really establishes the kind of artist I want to be. I think doing that is important. We have a lot of connections with guys in the game. Obviously Cole could’ve pulled a couple favors if he really wanted to but I just wanted this album to be about me, my story, my perspective, just my thoughts on the world. I didn’t really want to chase any big name artists.

You mention your mom and pops on the song “Penthouse." What has been their reaction to your career?

They’re so excited. My mom especially likes to brag and boast. Her brother was and still is a very famous musician in our native Sudan in East Africa so music has been a part of her family a long time. My father has a PhD in French literature. He’s a career diplomat so he always envisioned college and some kind of job for me but maybe early January 2014, [Dreamville] did the What Dreams May Come tour at the Garden theater and that was the first show he’s ever come to. After that, [my dad] told me and my manager, Derick, who’s been a friend of mine since high school, ‘I’m glad you didn’t listen to me and just went after it.' That was a really cool moment ‘cause you know your parents just want the best for you. You can’t blame the parent that [doesn't] look at rap as the viable way to sustain your life but it was cool to see him turn that corner, and see the fans and their reaction to me like, ‘Oh, you’re on to something.’

Recall the first time you told your parents you were going to do rap music for the rest of your life.

Definitely they were worried and probably a little disappointed that I didn’t want to go to school anymore and be what they might have envisioned for me but I’ve always had supportive parents so it wasn’t nothing like they shunned me or I became some kind of black sheep. They really allowed me the luxury of finding myself and finding a passion and what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be. They just had faith.

5 Questions With Cozz, J. Cole's New Dreamville Artist

Describe the frame of mind you were in when you recorded the emotional track "Live For." 

That track meant a lot to me. It was one of the harder records to write just because it’s from a more vulnerable space and it’s not a style I was used to writing in. When I wrote that, I was very proud because I feel like it signaled an evolution in my songwriting, almost like a metric of improvement for me because that was one of the goals with this album, to peel back. Me and Cole always talk about peeling back layers every album. All our favorite [artists] gave you another layer of who they were, this mindset of how they feel in this very moment of their lives and so I wanted to do that.

Last Winter was moreso a very celebratory album in a sense. I was just getting my feet wet, getting on the road, making some money [while] doing music, which was new to me. This album is much more reflective. It’s moreso about things lost and things gained, things I’ve become aware of in the past two years so it was very important for me to get those personal moments across but also phrase them and present them in a way that you could relate. If you lost a family member or a relationship, you can pick apart ["Live For"] and find something that’s in there for you. 

Where do you find the most inspiration?

My friends joke about it all the time ‘cause we could be in a room like this, having a discussion and then something can hit me and I can be in my phone notes for two hours. I write songs in the club -- straight up. If I hear something, I’ll start writing it and go into the studio and flesh it out. Whenever inspiration hits, I try to just grasp it ‘cause I always feel like it might not come back.

You talk about the ladies on “Matches." How has your relationship with women changed since gaining exposure?

“Matches” is probably my favorite song off the whole album. It does a lot as far as providing my perspective in a very honest way. The first verse deals with this girl I used to date. Any dream to me is kind of like a mistress. At the end of the day, there’s always something else tugging at your heart, something else that kind of takes over all your priorities, your time, so that was a relationship that fell through due to that. I was with her when Last Winter came out. I’m not anymore. It’s just time -- you can’t replace time. One thing you gotta have for women is time.

The second verse just deals a lot with the way I am just starting to perceive myself in this world, our Dreamville team in general and the power of our voice. This could be naive but I really believe we could enact social change just through our platform due to the kids that take in our message. A lot of that touched on some of the things that I’ve seen as an African American in the past two years. 

J. Cole Releases Heartrending Michael Brown Tribute 'Be Free'

What sparked “Black Owned Business"?

I wrote that pretty much the day we got back from Ferguson. Cole had called all of us like ‘I want to go to Ferguson. Whoever wants to come, I’ll pay for your flight, I’ll pay for your hotel. Let’s go down there for a couple of days and be with the people and see what’s going on. No cameras, no nothing.' Like 12, 15 of us spent a couple of days just marching and talking to the people that have been living under those conditions. They’re like, ‘Bro this is nothing new. This is how it is out here.’ Just going home to our hotels every night and seeing media portrayals of what was going on, like some of those things happened but they were like the smallest aspects of the day. There was just one lady who was handing out roses to everybody. This white family pulled up, just a couple with their kids, and they opened up their trunk and just started handing everybody that was marching water. Me and my friends were joking that it felt like a music festival without music. You know that certain vibe and everyone’s just got really good energy? We had never been a part of anything like that.

Would you consider yourself an activist?

Nah, I don’t like consider myself an activist. I’m aware of these things but I don’t wake up and live every day applying myself to that. I feel like a hypocrite or a straight up liar if I call myself that but it is something that weighs heavily on my mind and on my friends’ conscious as well. It’s just about staying awake and in touch, which is kind of the whole concept of Too High To Riot. You’re really high off this fantasy rap life between traveling everywhere, meeting a bunch of really cool people, making all these dope relationships, and it feels surreal. You get caught up in it and then you have really sobering moments where [you visit] Ferguson, you see your people really oppressed and put down, and you get a phone call about someone back home that passed away -- it just kind of snaps you out. It really makes you realize the levels of which you’ve been compromising yourself in hopes of obtaining whatever it is we’re chasing. I felt like it really was the mission statement of what I was trying to say with the album. I’ve grown much more self aware. I’ve had a second now to stop and be like, 'What has this really cost me from a personal level? What have I learned? How have I grown and matured?' All of those things made their way into the music.

Billboard Hot 100 Fest 2016