Published Feb 15, 2011Six years in the making, the bar is beyond high for The Greatest Story Never Told. Technically, it's Saigon's first full-length studio album. That sounds ridiculous, given Saigiddy's decade-plus of mixtape and street album experience and his status as a crossover multimedia star courtesy of a stint on Entourage, but it's true. Amazingly, Greatest Story manages to live up to the hype. The Yardfather has dropped an album that's conscious without being preachy, intelligent without sounding like a third-year sociology paper and message-driven, but still full of hard-hitting beats. The overarching message of Greatest Story is simple: Saigon wants people to live better. He wants people to respect themselves and not let the rich and powerful take advantage of them. Whether he's calling out crooked religious leaders on "Preacher," railing against police abuses on "The Invitation" or encouraging listeners to stay righteous in the face of poverty on "Believe It," Saigon comes across as a street veteran who's had enough and is ready for a change. Production-wise, the beats are overseen by Just Blaze, with guest spots from Kanye West and Buckwild. There's not a bad track on the album, but the hard beats and soul samples on "The Invitation" and the guitar-driven "Bring Me Down Pt. 2" are standouts. On Greatest Story, Saigon has done the near-impossible, putting out an album that was worth waiting six years for.
Parts of this album were recorded six years ago. What took so long to get it released?
The label: Atlantic Records. Point blank. They didn't like the direction I was going in. They felt like it was better for them as a company, financially, to just sit on it.
How did you wind up getting the masters back?
Perseverance. Just being patient. That's what took so long. And I guess them realizing that I was irrelevant, or at least they thought I was. They thought that nobody cared about the project. I guess they see differently now. I knew people still cared. And I still owe them. They didn't give me the masters; I had to work it out with them, contractually.
You're still in the process of trying to buy yourself out of the contract?
Yeah, exactly. They don't play. They're paper gangsters. That's how the game goes. You're always in the red; you're always owing. That's how they try to control you. But, you know, much love to Atlantic Records. They gave me an opportunity. I used to be bitter about it, but they gave me an opportunity to make this album. I'm not mad.
After all that, what advice would you give young artists in dealing with labels?
I would advise that they try to build up their brand enough to where they have some negotiating power, because if you go looking for them and they do a deal with you, it's going to be all in their favour. But when they come to you ― they search you out, you've got a buzz and you've got your thing going ― you have a little bit of negotiating power. Second: read your contract. Make your lawyer understand what all that means, all the terms. The contract is 80 pages, but all you're going to look at is "How much am I getting paid?" That's the only page you care aboutz; the advance section. But that's exactly what it is: an advance. It's a loan. Before you see a dime, they're going to recoup every single solitary penny they spent on you. I don't care if they buy you lunch. They've got the receipt. You bought that lunch. You bought your burger and [the label rep's] burger.
This is a really smart, conscious political album. Do you think this is going to be above some people's heads?
I know I am, and the funny thing is, imagine if it would have come out five years ago? We're going in the wrong direction. I just have to try and shift the hip-hop generation. It's not that it's above people's heads, it's that the music is getting too watered down. It's like, we make hip-hop for children. The concepts are for adults, but the music is for children. You get to the hook and the bridge and a three-year-old can sing it. They be like, "Yo, you got a hit record when a three-year-old can sing it." No, you got a jingle.
Was that part of the problem with Atlantic? Not enough jingles?
Yeah, yeah! One exec told me, "Saigon, I know you're an artist who cares about your art and that's cool, but we need our three singles. You can bust your artistic nut on the rest of the album, but we need three singles." I just read a Lupe Fiasco interview and he must've talked to the same exec, because he said the same exact thing. That must be her speech.
How can you and other artists push things away from making music for ten-year-olds?
We just need to make the music political and have substance, but still make it sound good. A lot of artists go over my head, and I consider myself a thinker, a moderately smart person. Some of those conscious rappers out there, it's too much to understand. I try to make it say something, but make it so you can still easily access it, not use a bazillion big words and have to go looking in the dictionary.
How do you balance that: make it say something, but be accessible?
I'm not sure I've done it yet. I know I've tried. I just come to the people as the people. I'm not a rap star. I'm one of y'all. A lot of rappers don't and it works for them. For whatever reason, the fans buy into them saying, "Hey, I live this luxury life. I spent $30,000 at the club last night. I have four Mercedes, but I need your support. Go buy my album." No, man, you don't need my 15 dollars. I say, "This is the situation we are in, together. We dealing with a lot of stuff. It's good to have fun and all of that, but we gotta work harder than we play," and hip-hop is all about play, play, play. We need songs about working, about hard work. We don't emphasize learning; we don't emphasize education. We just emphasize partying, like life is one big party. A lot of hip-hop that's popular is in the clubs, but more people don't go to nightclubs than do. There are more people at home at a decent hour, rather than in the club drinking overpriced alcohol.
The song that really jumped out at me was "Preacher."
Yeah, a lot of people like that song. Over these past few years, my mother passed away, I had a daughter that I can't even see because her mother took her and ran off with her, I started getting depressed, so something told me to go to church ― go to church to clear your mind. I went to church and the dude asked for money, like, five times. And he was looking at everybody who was putting money in that little collection plate and if you didn't put any money in he was looking at you mad strange. It got to the point where he was like, "Make some noise if you've got 40 dollars! Who's got 40 dollars for the Lord? How about 50?" I just felt the need to write about it.
What do think it is that makes that happen in something that's supposed to be holy, to the point where rappers need to talk about it?
Well, people used to [talk about issues] all the time. Hip-hop used to be a reflection of our times and our community. This is the first time where I can remember where hip-hop is the exact opposite of what's going on. All these dudes are ballin' and we're in a recession. Everybody's like, "We're ballin' out of control," but when I go back to the hood, people are poorer than ever. I feel like it's easy to abandon your responsibilities. These rappers don't feel responsible for the people they're marketing to. They're giving these kids adult content and kids don't need to hear the shit these rappers are talking about.
What do you think the result is of these young kids listening to music who are getting songs about spending money, rather than songs about history and politics?
It's detrimental, man; it's detrimental to their growth and development. These young boys think they can grow up to be the next Lil' Wayne or Jay-Z. That's not reality. And these young women, particularly in the black community, are watching these videos where the girl is on the pole and everybody's throwing money at her, so they think, "Why I gotta go to school? I'm black and curvaceous; I can go to the strip club and guys throw money." Unfortunately, rappers have replaced black leaders. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, guys who took a stand for us to live in a better situation, they knew there were probably going to lose their lives, but they had courage. These guys aren't courageous. Rappers are cowards, man. They're like, "Oh, I'm a get blackballed; I'm not gonna sell no records." So what? What if Martin Luther King had felt that way? We'd still have segregation.
What should they be talking about?
Everything: gangs, gang violence, the Rockefeller Laws, how easy it is to access firearms. We talk about the guns like they're a good thing in our neighbourhoods; we kill each other with them guns. You don't promote self-destruction. Talk about our living conditions ― look at the school system. Our schools are failing us in the inner cities. We've got all these powerful black people and nobody is emphasizing the importance of education. That's sad. (Fort Knocks/Suburban Noize)