Saba, Joseph Chilliams, MFn Melo, Squeak, Frsh Waters. The members of Chicago’s Pivot Gang may not be household names yet, but that is quickly going to change. Here’s everything you need to know about the ascending do-it-yourself collective out of Chicago’s Westside.
Who is Pivot Gang?
Pivot Gang is a quickly rising group of talented, young, DIY artists out of Chicago. Including all their frequent collaborators, Pivot Gang has a loose membership of 10-12 artists – but the group’s core membership boils down to five: Saba, Joseph Chilliams, Frsh Waters, MFnMelo, and Squeak. Nearly all the members of Pivot Gang trace their artistic roots to Chicago’s new-found blossoming poetry scene and came up performing at the open mic nights throughout the city that gave Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and Noname their starts.
Thanks to talented groups like The Social Experiment, Chicago is known across the world for a genre-fusing approach to hip hop. Chi-town draws heavily from the jazz and blues communities, but Pivot Gang offers a fresh sound from the westside.
Across the board, these young artists showcase jaw-dropping lyricism with many of the talented MC’s in the group acting as their own producers. Pivot’s unflinching resolve to come up as a unit and grow alongside each other is something rarely seen in hip hop today outside of a few truly dynamic collectives like EarthGang, Brockhampton, and Flatbush Zombies. Fiercely independent and self-guided, it’s clear that this rising group of artists are really in it for the art and aren’t just chasing paper.
After years honing their craft around the local music scene in Chicago, Pivot’s artists are now beginning to spread their sound around the world. Saba’s CARE FOR ME is undoubtedly one of the top albums of 2018 and we are expecting debut albums later this year from his peers Frsh Waters, MFn Melo, and also possibly Joseph Chilliams. Now is a great time to get in on the action before these guys blow up.
The Origins of Pivot Gang
Chicago has a rich musical history and can count some legendary hip hop artists among those who call it home, including Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Twista, Chance the Rapper, and Chief Keef. Out of that list, all but Twista rep Chicago’s infamous Southside. Southside artists have been taking Chicago’s unique brand of hip hop global for decades now, but there’s a lot more to Chi-town’s hip hop scene than what you hear on the radio.
Pivot Gang hails from Chicago – but as opposed to a majority of hip hop artists from Chi-town, Pivot Gang calls the Westside their home. Pivot Gang was formed back in 2012 by founding members Joseph Chilliams and Frsh Waters, who were determined to take the Westside worldwide. Before forming Pivot, both Frsh Waters and Joseph Chilliams had their own crews. As they grew closer and others began to fall off, Frsh and Joseph ended up merging the crews together before releasing their debut mixtape Jimmy in 2013.
Why the name “Pivot Gang”?
PIVOT’s name comes from an episode of Friends, “The One with the Cop”. In the episode, Ross, Chandler, and Rachel attempt to carry a couch up some stairs to Ross’s new apartment and (at Chandler’s screamed insistence) refuse to give up just because it looks impossible.
Who is in Pivot Gang?
Pivot Gang has a bunch of close collaborators, but the core of the group consists of Saba, Joseph Chilliams, MfN Melo, Squeak Pivot, and Frsh Waters. Associated artists and collaborators include Jean Deaux, Daedae, Dam Dam, Noname, and Smino.
Pivot Gang Members:
Pivot Gang’s most well-known commodity, Saba is one of the most gifted lyricist/producer combinations in all of independent hip hop. Tahj Malik Chandler’s stagename “Saba” is from a play on words with his first name (Saba-Tahj). Saba grew up in Austin, a neighborhood in Chicago’s West Side. Since 2007, Austin has racked up more homicides than any other district in Chicago.
Saba hails from a musical family. His great-grandmother was a music teacher. His grandfather and grandmother were in a funk band. His father was a relatively successful r&b artist. Even his brother, Joseph Chilliams, is a producer/rapper in Pivot Gang.
The Makings of Saba Pivot
Saba’s first introduction to music making were under his father’s tutelage. Saba’s father was a local r&b artist in Chicago named Chandlar, and would take Saba along to the studio for recording sessions very early on in his childhood. Then after his father suddenly left at the age of 5, Saba began learning the piano and exploring music in greater depth.
“There’s only a few of us [from the West Side]. I’m just making sure that even though there’s only a few of us, that people know that this is also a place, like we don’t just die, we don’t just gang bang and do dirty shit. There’s also life and culture and habitat.” – Saba with Pigeons & Planes
The word “prodigy” gets thrown around a lot these days but if the label applies to anyone, it’s Saba. Not only was Saba producing his own songs by the age of 9, but he also skipped several grades in school and began high school at age 12. By the time he was sixteen, Saba had graduated high school with a 3.9 GPA and was regularly performing with the Young Chicago Authors and YouMedia Center in the Wicker Park District of Chicago.
Pre-teen Saba dropped a few mixtapes while still in high school but his maturing sound didn’t begin to gain real traction until 2013, when he was featured on “Everybody’s Something” from Chance the Rapper’s now-famous mixtape Acid Rap. Saba followed the bump with his breakout mixtape ComfortZone in 2014, which established him as a known quantity in Chicago’s underground.
Saba’s lyrical talent is undeniable: his technical proficiency, wordplay, and audacious flows are remarkable for such a young artist. But Saba’s artistry doesn’t stop there. He’s also a polished producer with an ear for lush, lo-fi, dynamic beats. Saba self-produced his two critically-acclaimed, major projects (2017’s Bucket List Project and 2018’s CARE FOR ME) and also produced the majority of fellow Chicagoan Noname’s award winning album Telefone.
“What would Britney Spears do? I wake up and ask myself that question every day.” – Joseph Chilliams
Joseph Chilliams is the older brother of Tahj “Saba” Chandler and a founding member of Pivot Gang. Chilliams’ carefree personality, comic genius, and comfort in his own skin make him an essential part of PIVOT’s dynamic. Growing up, Chilliams biggest musical influences were MF DOOM and Eminem – although today his humorous approach is more akin to Lil B or Ludacris.
About Joseph Chilliams
Similar to his brother and the rest of Pivot Gang, Joseph Chilliams wears the Westside on his sleeves and also self-produces the majority of his music. In the midst of recording his debut mixtape in late 2016, Joseph Chilliams got mugged while on his way home from the studio. Not only did he lose one of his cheek bones in the mugging, but he actually woke up in the hospital to find out that Donald Trump had won the presidency while he was under. Even today, Chilliams refers to that mugging as a wakeup call for his creativity, crediting it with helping him get over his writing block while crafting his mixtape Henry Church.
“Independence is just being as in control of your music and your art as possible. So for as long as we can, we would like to have as much control over what we’re doing. Now, there may come a time where it makes sense to sign with a label, assuming that the deal is cool and it’s not anything janky … We’ve seen hella people get a buzz, sign a deal and go nowhere.” – Joseph Chilliams with NPR
Joseph Chilliams’ music is intriguing. It’s both hard AND hilarious, strange AND familiar. In world where music is becoming more difficult to label than ever, Chilliams’ music would probably be best described as Atmospheric Trap. He doesn’t play around when it comes to his bass-lines and he’s got a real talent when it comes to crafting memorable hooks. By the way, Chilliams debut mixtape Henry Church was one of the most slept on debuts of all 2017.
Oh yeah, and any article that discusses Joseph Chilliams is incomplete without mentioning his strange, partially one-sided, but very heated beef with Bow Wow, of all people.
— Swimming ???? (@Augus_Super) April 13, 2018
“I’m mellow, but I’m a mothafucka at times too.”
Pivot Gang’s resident beast, MFnMelo brings an edge and rough energy to Pivot’s music with a vocal style reminiscent of Action Bronson. Melo perfectly balances the sonic components created by Saba’s optimism and Joseph Chilliams’ self-aware humor. As of yet, MFnMelo has the smallest discography out of Pivot Gang’s crew but makes up for it with a big stage presence.
About MFn Melo
MFnMelo grew up on the Westside of Chicago before moving to Maywood when he was 12. MFnMelo gradually got into rap, beginning with Nelly and then moving on to Juvenile and Lil Wayne. But then everything changed when Joseph Chilliams put him on to Eminem during his junior year of high school. Melo originally met Chilliams and Saba through MySpace when he took the two brothers up on an invitation to record with them one day in their basement.
Check out MFnMelo’s debut mixtape MeloDramatics from 2017 below. Melo is expected to release his followup project sometime later in 2018.
Another man who hails from the Westside, Squeak is Pivot Gang’s handy-man, handling everything from audio engineering to DJing live shows to assisting with production. Squeak has been going by “Squeak” since his family bestowed him with the nickname during his days as a toddler. Squeak is the younger brother of Pivot co-founder Frsh Waters, which really drives home just how much of a family affair Pivot Gang truly is.
About Squeak Pivot
“I grew up listening to a lot of Crucial Conflict, Do or Die and Twista. You know, all that West Side shit. I low-key I realized I had a West Side sound when I was listening to old Twista tapes, I listened to the high-hats in his songs. I started to realize all of his hits had a certain rhythm to them, and it was just like something I studied and once I kind of perfected it, I realized “Ok, this is how people will know I’m from out West.” – Squeak with Elevator Mag
Squeak was brought into Pivot Gang by his brother Frsh Waters in an effort to give him a productive outlet while on house arrest. Squeak’s first contribution to the group was providing transportation to and from the studio for the rest of the squad.
“I just started taking them to the studio. I was literally taking them to the studio. I just felt like I needed to do something. I always knew I was gonna do something I just never knew what.” – Squeak with Elevator Mag
Then, in a search to be more productive for the crew, Squeak began recording the members of Pivot Gang while they were in-studio. Squeak continued to hone his audio engineering skills while the rest of Pivot grew in their craft, then branching out into production after getting his first laptop at SXSW in 2014.
When Pivot Gang is on-tour, Squeak DJ’s for Joseph Chilliams, MFnMelo and Frsh Waters. Fun fact: Squeak makes beats exclusively with his PC but always DJ’s with his mac. Check out some of his music below.
Jimmy aka “Frsh Waters” is the networker and rain-maker of Pivot Gang. In the very beginning, Frsh took Saba under his wing and persuaded him to put himself out there at Chicago’s open mics. Soon he had Saba playing shows with him and producing the majority of his music. Saba credits Frsh with giving him the self-belief he needed to take his music to the big-time.
Frsh took me under his wing and had me go to open mics with him and play some shows with him and I was producing hella shit for him
— SABA (@sabaPIVOT) July 17, 2017
Frsh introduced me to noname, chance, brother mike, and everybody else in Chicago damn near
— SABA (@sabaPIVOT) July 17, 2017
Frsh Waters Music
Frsh Waters is the only vocalist from PIVOT who does not have a solo project on his resume yet. In a major hit to Pivot’s rise, Frsh Waters was arrested in 2013 and spent the following 4 1/2 years in jail, only getting out in August 2017. We’re looking forward to seeing what Pivot’s absent co-founder is capable of now that Frsh is able to begin making up for lost time.
“One thing about Pivot is that they won’t let you feel left out. We all instilled that in each other. We know we ain’t going to leave each other behind about anything.” – Frsh Waters with Fake Shore Drive
Side Note: Although Pivot Gang member John Walt was tragically murdered in February 2017, his legacy lives on in Pivot Gang’s music today. Long Live John Walt.
Pivot Gang’s Music
Many of Pivot Gang’s artists are budding stars – as a result, each of the artists have fairly limited discographies as far as official releases go (ie without consideration for mixtapes). I can recommend a few specific projects including Bucket List and CARE FOR ME from Saba, as well as Henry Church from Joseph Chilliams.
For a more detailed look at Pivot Gang’s music across the group, check out this Spotify playlist curated by Saba himself:
The Future of Pivot Gang
With founding member Frsh Waters out of jail and the conclusion of Pivot’s first nationwide tour, the future is looking bright for these young artists out of Chicago’s west side. New projects are expected later this year from MFnMelo, Joseph Chilliams, and Frsh Waters. Perhaps most exciting about Pivot Gang’s future is their development as producers. You just can’t help but think that Pivot Gang is just one collaboration or co-sign away from hitting the big time.