At the end of the trip, the six-person rap group emerged with the record.
They had a new skill to brag about: making any track in under 20 minutes. Success is confirmed by what member squeakPIVOT calls a “heat check.” Like the one the crew took when fellow Chi-town rapper Noname left the studio to take a call. “She stepped outside, and we were like ‘Alright. Let’s have a new song by the time she walks back in,’” Saba says. By the time she returned, the group had made the beat, recorded the verses, and tacked a name on the fully finished “Jason Statham, Pt. 2.” It’s now the album’s lead single.
“We didn’t even show it to her; we were just checking,” producer DaeDae adds, laughing.
It helps that the members have a lifelong musical repertoire to back that 20-minute heat check. Comprised of brothers Saba and Joseph Chilliams, a second pair of siblings Frsh Waters and squeakPIVOT, and lifelong friends MFnMelo, producer daedaePIVOT, and fallen member DinnerWithJohn, a.k.a. John Walt, Pivot Gang isn’t a group that assembled overnight.
The in-house games and skill tests are a testament to the young men’s almost adolescent energy and playful antics, combined with an insane work ethic and unmatched talent. After removing video games and any other distractions from the studio, putting together 20 songs in eight days didn’t seem like such an impossible task.
“You have to hit the hard reset after a while, ’cause it’s like we’re just chilling — we need to make things,” Joseph Chilliams says of the process. Dae Dae adds, “And we all have the same goal, so it’s gonna get done. There’s something to be said of pushing each other in a positive, creative way.”
What they ended up with is a bouncing and free-flowing record that sounds like all of your most talented friends recorded their best freestyles at a kickback. With bars that stretch from allusions to local Chicago eats, Winnie the Pooh, and Dragon Ball Z — and with a group name founded on a fan favorite Friends scene — Pivot Gang is having more fun than basically any other rap squad coming out of Chicago.
When one tells a ridiculous stories, the others loudly add to and revise the narrrative. But they can also leave plenty of space for each other, pausing when someone starts a new thought. That respect and trust is recreated musically, as they breeze in and out of one another’s flows, sharing an equal number of hooks, verses, and occasionally producing credits. “It’s all really organic,” Frsh says. You can see why other artists would want in on it.
“We got a good relationship with a lot of people,” Saba says. Chicago friends like Mick Jenkins, Femdot, Kari Faux and Smino appear on the album too.
Take Smino’s hook on “Bad Boys,” which is the result of a drunken studio session that “damn near turned into his album release party,” let Saba tell it. He came by the night his highly praised 2018 album Noir dropped, and what ensued was Smino’s version of Future’s verse on “King’s Dead,” a hilariously out-of-character Playboi Carti-esque baby voice mimicking gun noises via a falsetto, like “pew-pew-pew.”
“He hopped on, and we was like, ‘Oh shit. It’s a bop now,’” Frsh says.
Pivot Gang’s togetherness is rooted much deeper than studio stories and famous friends. Raised on the Westside, the members have seen and dealt with the consequences of Chicago’s sometimes unforgiving streets. In 2017, Frsh returned home from a four-and-a-half year prison sentence. Just a few months before his release, Pivot member John Walt — Saba and Joseph’s cousin — was fatally stabbed coming off of a CTA train. He was 24 years old.
“They were there the whole way for me,” Frsh says of his return.
For the others, music was a cathartic outlet and a sometimes stringent reminder of Walt: “It’s realizing it, accepting it, and then really just for me, it was wanting to make him proud — just because of the person he was, and his work ethic,” Squeak says. “So I used that as a healing process.”
“I think for me, the music was the only way I was gonna get through that,” MFnMelo says. “I’m not very talkative, so I got to express a lot of those feelings through music.”
Saba worked through things similarly. In 2018, he dropped Care For Me, a critically acclaimed and more serious serious record. If Care For Me was a coping mechanism, You Can’t Sit With Us is a crisp snapshot of the friends, energies, and sounds that surrounded Walt and loved him. They’ve since developed the John Walt Foundation, which supports young inner-city artists.
Overcoming loss and making room for fun didn’t resolve all the questions, though; the group still had to work to figure out how they’d all fit together. While they’re “always in the studio with each other in some way,” according to Saba, this is their first full studio album ever, and the latest project as a group since 2013’s JIMMY mixtape.
“In my head I’m like, ‘How the hell is this gonna mesh?” Joseph says. “But the second we got together it was like how it used to be when we were in the studio working on stuff. We all respect and love each other’s music, so it’s not like I was ever worried about it not being good, it’s just like if I come up with an idea, are they gonna want to follow?”
There was no reason for doubt. You Can’t Sit With Us is Pivot Gang’s triumphant return to the energy of the their blissful younger years — just as much as it’s their glowing arrival onto rap’s mainstage.