Is Rapper David Sabastian Influencing the Mainstream — or Is It All in His Head?
David Sebastian wants to be huge.
Photo by Amanda Lopez
It's after 8 p.m. on a Tuesday in March, and David Sabastian is running late for an orgy. He doesn't have a car — he doesn't even have a driver's license — but he's expecting to be picked up by a friend and whisked off to a house full of girls who like to paint one another while tripping on 'shrooms and LSD.
He can't leave yet, though. He has to finish his verse for "I'm Surfin'."
In a control room at No Excuses Studios in Santa Monica, a Persian rug is spread across the hardwood floor. Sabastian is standing in the recording booth, peering at the rhymes jotted into his iPhone; a lamp on a wooden stool emits a soft yellow glow. The studio is owned by Interscope Records, and it sits at the end of a winding alley off a main boulevard — a rarefied place where the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Selena Gomez have recorded. Sabastian settles in comfortably, ordering the engineer to turn down the reverb on the vocal monitors.
"I don't like my voice right now," he says through Auto-Tune effects.
Sabastian is working on a guest verse for a single made by his cohort, Tony Macklin. A preternaturally talented 21-year-old and recent Interscope signee, Macklin goes by the name FOREVER ANTi PoP. But his track is as pop as can be — chiming synths, scissor-snipping hi-hats and brag raps ready for summer. Sabastian, for his part, is out for blood. On the mic he calls out artists who didn't want to work with him, labels that didn't sign him. He takes credit for trends he started and promises that his lawyer will be calling all of his biters. He even says that he's "outworking Kendrick."
After a while, Dwight "Kingpen" Watson, a producer in Sabastian's camp, steps in, shakes his head and tells him to give it another shot.
"You thought about everything except the fact that the song is fun," Watson tells Sabastian. "Keep in mind, it's a sing-along song. The whole thing is a sing-along."
David Sabastian wants to be huge. A rapper, fashion designer and artist, he already carries himself like a celebrity — personable yet mysterious, bitter toward his enemies and supportive of his friends. With Napoleonic fervor, he's spent the past four years rising from obscurity up to the front door of the major-label system, working under the auspices of an ambitious and contradictory hip-hop collective called the ANTI Society.
Getting this far has required a constant flow of ideas, countless art pieces, all-night recording sessions and music video shoots done on the cheap — all of it adding up to a grueling and sometimes bitter hustle that any aspiring star in the city could relate to. Sabastian's gotten opportunities, he's missed opportunities, and he's convinced that several mainstream artists have ripped him off.
Spending time in his orbit, it sometimes feels as if reality and fantasy have blurred. As he tells it, he's already made his mark on the world without us realizing it — Sabastian claims his flamboyant fashion and counter-culture sensibilities have been adapted and hijacked by major-label artists who never bothered to give him credit. It's unclear if he's truly influencing the mainstream or if he's playing up the alleged appropriation in an attempt to join the elevated ranks of his supposed copycats. But in L.A. more than anywhere, there's a fine line separating the influencers from the opportunists — and those who excel at being either can very well find the success they're chasing.
Hollywood is full of strivers. In music circles, you might spend a decade hustling in the background. Many never end up getting a shot, and that's just how it goes.
"That's the sad part of it, kind of," says John Seabrook, author of a recent book on pop music, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. "There's only a few people who make it, of course."
In this sea of aspiration, Sabastian has been working as hard as he can to break out. He lives with his mom in a townhouse apartment complex in Torrance, light-years away from Hollywood's glitz and glamour. But he breezes past event cordons with confidence, and his phone is always ringing with opportunities for art commissions, modeling gigs, parties, events, video shoots and recording sessions with the ANTI Society crew.
"I don't know if you know your purpose, but you probably have a divine purpose that is bigger than you could even imagine," he says. "And it's probably just gonna smack you in the head one day. Me, I know what my purpose is. I knew what it was since I was a kid, and I feel like me not living in that purpose — what am I doing? You know?"
Sabastian's real name is David Miklatski. He says he's 25, but according to his mom, he's 27. He's short, about 5-foot-3, but his leonine features and endless wardrobe of outfits and costumes ensure that he's often the center of attention. The first time I sat down to interview Sabastian back in January, he looked as if he'd just stepped off the set of Mad Max: Fury Road — a postapocalyptic fashion warrior in snowboard goggles, a paintball jersey and black, Japanese platform boots. A single die dangled from his left ear. On his neck, there was a tattoo of his mother's face.
Sabastian got his moniker from Ryan Phillippe's character in the 1999 teen drama Cruel Intentions (which itself is based on the 1782 novel Les Liaisons dangereuses). It stars Phillippe as Sebastian Valmont, a rich kid who stokes a romance with his stepsister and manipulates girls into having sex with him. The Sebastian of Cruel Intentions can get whatever he wants; even as he commits heinous acts that might land somebody else on the sex offender registry, he ends up redeemed. Sabastian admired the character's suave demeanor, and today he regards the name as a byword for luxury and freedom.
"I read in a book that the easiest way to become the people you want to become is to just become them," he says. "Pick someone and then just mirror them. So that's kinda what I did."
Tony Macklin, left, Dwight "Kingpen" Watson, Jonathan St. Gian and David Sabastian
Photo by Amanda Lopez
Sabastian's dad (who recently died) was a Polish Jew and a painter. He owned galleries in the city and introduced Sabastian to art as a young age. But he was never around, and Sabastian was raised by his mom, Dodie Blount. While he was growing up in Mid-Wilshire, she pushed him to get into good schools and filled his schedule with activities, all while working 9-to-5 in secretarial jobs to put food on the table. She was highly protective of her only son. She kept him away from other kids in the neighborhood, wouldn't even let him sleep over at her sisters' houses. Sabastian spent much of his childhood in his bedroom, with nothing to keep him company but toys, posters, comic books and art supplies.
"He was a latchkey kid," Blount recalls. "He'd come home from school and lock the door and wait for me to come home from work. I made sure that he had everything. He didn't have to go out for nothing."
Restless, misunderstood and prone to mischief, Sabastian spent his teen years bouncing from school to school, sometimes lasting only a couple months before getting kicked out. It didn't help, his mom says, that he was one of the few black kids at the more privileged institutions in Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades, bused in from outside with nobody in his corner. Back home he was lonely, but his imagination flourished. He'd spend all day drawing and he became obsessed with fashion, scouring thrift shops and designer outlets to devise lavish outfits.
"The way I kinda got into being into clothes was being too broke to buy clothes," he says. It's a sunny afternoon and he's perusing the racks at the soon-to-be-shuttered Fred Segal store in Santa Monica. He picks out an $890 vintage leather jacket, discounted at 50 percent off, and tries it on. "What I would do is I'd buy this jacket, right? And I would go buy, like, $30, $40 worth of, like, punk rock patches. And then I would take out the inside of this and go buy fabric and redo the insides and shit."
In his junior year, Sabastian says, he dropped out of high school to pursue fashion full-time. Putting together a DIY portfolio of pen- and Sharpie-drawn designs, he hustled his way to a Las Vegas fashion convention and then went door-to-door selling his wares to designers on Melrose and Fairfax. He'd sneak into parties and awards shows, blowing people away with his crazy outfits — looking like Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean one day, popping wheelies on a BMX bike in a mink coat the next.
Sometime in the late '00s, Sabastian was walking down the street with a group of rabbis — investors for a short-lived apparel venture he was working on — when he was approached by a tall, muscular fellow who introduced himself as Jonathan St. Gian (pronounced "Saint John" and stylized as St.gian). He told Sabastian he'd been seeing him around town. He'd even spotted him at an exclusive "white party" put on by Sean "Diddy" Combs, where Sabastian had flouted the dress code with the gold trim on his outfit.
St. Gian is 48 with enormous biceps, steely eyes and a taste for fashion-fitness outfits. In conversation, he's a consummate name-dropper and commands an encyclopedic recall of music industry history. He recalls that he wanted to know more about this curious character.
"I think I can read most people's stories quickly, because I've been all over the world. I've traveled everywhere," he says. He's a fan of author Malcolm Gladwell's treatises on cool-hunting and success, and he has an eye for people who stand out.
"Sometimes you could be talking to a fake. ... You could be a kid who's emulating an authentic kid. So you go, 'Take me to your leader,'" St. Gian says. But Sabastian? "He is definitely the leader."
On a Monday afternoon in May, Sabastian sizes up a blank wall in his friend's fashion showroom. He's on the fourth floor of a building in downtown's Flower District, and big windows open out to the city. The room has blank white walls — an ideal space for stylists, creative directors and social media "influencers" to stage photo shoots and scope out menswear fashions, and for Sabastian to fuck with their heads.
Sabastian's tools are simple, just some black acrylic paints and oil-paint pens. He hasn't made any sketches ahead of time, but in a matter of hours — including some follow-up the next afternoon — he covers the wall with an apocalyptic mural like something out of the Book of Revelation. A black Jesus, an anthropomorphic condom, a person in a KKK hood, a police officer, a Black Panther, a rabbi, an Arab militant and a demon with the words "THUG LIFE!" written on his back are all dancing in a circle in front of a flaming pyre of fashion logos and Yeezy sneakers. Little people are bowing down in front of a Space Odyssey–style monolith bearing the "Wi-Fi" logo. A Simpsons-y caricature of Donald Trump is raising his fists, his head bearing devil horns.
It's an overwhelming piece of work — volatile, at times outright offensive, but also a fine reflection of Sabastian's ethos. He's so in tune with pop culture that he's gained access to an exclusive fashion showroom, and once he gets inside, he cranks up the intensity 1,000 percent and flips everyone the bird.
"He lives it," says his friend Luis Cano, who runs the downtown showroom/creative agency, when asked about the meaning of the ANTI Society to which Sabastian belongs. "He just saw the reality of life and doesn't fuck with it."
The challenge for Sabastian, though, is to get people to actually notice his particular revolution. Not everyone will feel mobilized by a picture of a KKK guy with "Black Lives Matter" emblazoned across his chest. Bringing Sabastian to a wider audience is where St. Gian comes in.
St. Gian's official title is CEO for ANTI Society, which he runs as a management company and record label. ANTI recently acquired a lease for a studio and office space in Van Nuys, and it represents three local hip-hop artists: Sabastian, FOREVER ANTi PoP and a three-member girl group named B.O.Y. (Better Off Young). St. Gian's perhaps most promising client, FOREVER ANTi PoP, is a virtual unknown but one who was recently signed to Interscope on the strength of a handful of demos. He's grown from a topline writer (working behind the scenes coming up with melodies for songs) into a rapper, singer and producer — with a strong command of pop forms and a taste for intuitive ingenuity.
Tony Macklin, left, who goes by FOREVER ANTi PoP; and ANTI Society CEO Jonathan St. Gian
Photo by Amanda Lopez
Ray Daniels, an A&R executive at Interscope, has been working with ANTi PoP and the rest of the ANTI crew, and he's stoked about their work.
"He is very focused on the small things, as well as the big picture," Daniels says of St. Gian in an email. "He knows where he's going. They are really building an empire with what they're doing."
St. Gian considers himself the man behind the talent, investing time and money to develop Sabastian and the other artists on the ANTI roster, hoping to pull off what Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith has done with Kendrick Lamar, or what Christian and Kelly Clancy are doing with Odd Future.
A former model from the projects of North Philadelphia, St. Gian spent the '90s walking runways for designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Dolce & Gabbana. He got his start in the music business in the mail room for the parent company of New Kids on the Block, and in the late '90s he assembled a multicultural boy band of his own, Youth Asylum, while working at Quincy Jones' Qwest Records. The band did not last long — its best-known song was a flimsy acoustic/hip-hop hybrid ballad called "Jasmin," and its run came to an unceremonious close when Qwest was shuttered in 2000.
When Sabastian first met St. Gian, he wasn't making music. He was doing design and creative direction work for St. Gian's artist J. Blue, a former member of Youth Asylum, who was trying to launch a solo career as a rapper. Sabastian would mention he could rap, too, and St. Gian would balk. But one day in 2011, St. Gian finally took the aspiring MC to a studio to record a single.
Sabastian's debut, "Pussy Marijuana," isn't exactly a masterpiece. Anchored by a sample from the band Brazilian Girls, it mostly just finds him cobbling together rhymes about, well, pussy and marijuana. But after the single's release, he and St. Gian made an eye-popping music video at the Standard Hotel downtown, full of shots of Sabastian gallivanting with beautiful women and culminating in him taking a backward plunge, arms outstretched, into a pool while dressed in a white tuxedo. In that moment, the cult of Sabastian and the ANTI movement was born.
Over the ensuing months, Sabastian and his girlfriend gathered a posse of videographers, artists and outcasts, moving into a downtown Victorian-style house that they promptly trashed and covered in graffiti. Sabastian kept hitting the studio, and meanwhile they'd put on crazy parties and shows. Connor Treacy, a promoter who worked with them in late 2012 and early '13, recalls using a clever Facebook event-invite hack to bring out huge crowds.
"I would have those event pages and I would make a thing on it, like, 'Hey, if you wanna get in for free, give me your Facebook password and I'll invite all your friends,'" Treacy recalls. "I would invite, like, 100,000 people on Facebook."
About a year after "Pussy Marijuana," Sabastian came into full bloom with his song "Plankin' on My Dick." He teamed with The Rej3ctz and Mann on the track, and he leans confidently into the fist-pumping, DJ Mustard–style beat. The video casts Sabastian as a fur coat–clad cult figure leading an army of skater kids through the streets; in between shots the screen flickers with images of girls, skateboarders, a fistfight at a pool party, black and white kids partying and agitprop slogans straight out of the Shepard Fairey sketchbook: "OBEY DAVID SABASTIAN."
Despite his command of an L.A. subculture, mainstream success has remained elusive. His late-2012 mixtape, Napoleon Complex, went ignored by most critics, and St. Gian says that around that time, a potential record deal for Sabastian fell through. Taking a cue from Malcolm Gladwell — who counsels in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a skill — Sabastian spent some of the ensuing years learning piano, improving his rap skills and slimming down at the gym.
St. Gian says he's now in talks to sign Sabastian to another record deal, including a possible one with hit-making producer Alex da Kid's label KIDinaKORNER. Sabastian also recently recorded a new mixtape called I Am ANTI; its most impressive track is "I Fucking Hate You," a bitter but intimate ode to an ex-girlfriend. As FOREVER ANTi PoP lays down warm organs and a '90s-style break-beat, Sabastian issues a tirade of recriminations and reminisces about ANTI days past: "We created our own language/I inspired you to start painting/All day we would fucking get creative/We stole your momma's car then took it to Las Vegas."
These could be promising times for Sabastian. But as he's grown as an artist, he says he's also attracted enemies.
Every trendsetter needs an arch-nemesis, and for the past four years Sabastian's has been Travis Scott.
The Texas rapper of "Antidote" fame has skyrocketed to the mainstream in recent years, but he's also faced accusations of committing hip-hop's worst sin: biting off other people's styles. Last year, writer Billy Haisley went so far as to argue in an essay for Deadspin that Scott is "worse than Iggy Azalea," because he's been propped up by the hip-hop establishment and embraced by audiences who consider themselves "committed fans of hip-hop," even as he lifts the ideas of other, more original artists in the creation of his radio-friendly (and, by some accounts, less interesting) sound.
Sabastian and St. Gian insist that they, too, have found Scott's teeth marks on Sabastian's work.
St. Gian says that in early 2012, the Texas rapper got access to a private SoundCloud link of Sabastian's music, which included the song "Middle Finger to the World." The person who sent it, according to St. Gian, was an A&R guy whom St. Gian declines to name. He says the music was passed to Scott because there allegedly were brief talks of Sabastian and Scott doing some sort of collaboration (which never happened). That year, Scott went on to work with Kanye West on the GOOD Music album Cruel Summer — and St. Gian says that when it came out, he was shocked to find similarities between the album and Sabastian's recordings, namely the lyrical similarities between Sabastian's "Middle Finger to the World" and the 2012 Kanye West song "To the World." Scott co-produced the song, which opens with R. Kelly singing a similar line to Sabastian's: "Let me see you put your middle fingers up/To the world!"
A publicist for Travis Scott tells L.A. Weekly that he's never heard of David Sabastian or ANTI Society and says the allegations are "preposterous."
Sabastian says there are other examples of his creativity being co-opted. He notes that a series of custom-painted Timberland boots he created for celebrities (which earned him a shoutout in a Complex feature) inspired a series of knockoffs and imitators. He also says that creative directors working for some of the biggest names in hip-hop have trawled his Instagram and Tumblr, thirsty for ideas.
And then there's Rihanna's 2016 album, Anti. When I first meet St. Gian in January, at a trendy bistro on the Sunset Strip, he lays out a far-fetched theory: Scott (who's credited as a producer on the album and was at one point rumored to be Rihanna's boyfriend) was behind the naming of that album — all part of an effort to neutralize Sabastian's ANTI movement before he gets famous and overthrows Scott on the charts.
Photo by Amanda Lopez
Appropriation has long been a part of American pop culture. As Seabrook writes in The Song Machine, incessant swapping and borrowing is even more central to mainstream musicmaking these days, thanks to sampling and digital technology, which has led to disputes over sampling rights and claims of plagiarism such as the recent case over Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines."
"A lot of times it's not Pharrell, it's not Kanye and it's not Rihanna's fault," St. Gian says. "They all have creative directors, and these creative directors are getting paid stupid amounts of money from these stars to be in the know and to give them the hip ideas that help in their creative thing. We're fighting this fight [against appropriation] for the whole underdog."
But you have to wonder: Is St. Gian fighting to protect the underdog from the mainstream — or to catapult his own underdogs to the mainstream under the guise of such a fight?
"I would say a creative's job is to inspire people, period," says Guillermo Andrade, co-owner and head designer at streetwear boutique FourTwoFour on Fairfax, where Sabastian staged his first wave of "Custimbs" painted boots. "What they choose to do with it is kinda up to them. You can't control that.
"But," Andrade adds, "you also can't take credit away from where credit's due."
On a sunny March afternoon, the ocean breeze is rolling through Santa Monica. Sabastian was set to do some recording today at a studio owned by songwriting team The Stereotypes, but they had to cancel the session last-minute. Now he's walking through the Third Street Promenade, resembling a quasi-paramilitary leader in black boots and cape-like jacket, a shiny badge pinned on his black beret, standing out as he makes his way down the faded green and maroon sidewalk.
A teenage jazz band is fumbling through instrumental elevator music. The Forever 21 and PacSun shops are devoid of the expensively stylized streetwear items you'd find over at Sabastian's haunts on Fairfax.
He stops and looks around. In this antiseptic environment, he clearly stands out. Yet as the shoppers go about their business, most of them don't seem to notice this mysterious figure. Briefly, he indulges in a fantasy of being recognized by everyone, creating a frantic mob scene as people crowd around in awe, the kind of thing you'd see with megastars like Michael Jackson or Taylor Swift.
He believes it'll happen. In a way, he has to, to keep himself motivated and always pushing forward.
"You know, honestly where I'm at right now, I'm just really ready to fucking blow up," he says. "I've done so much. I've worked so hard. I've been poor. I've been homeless. I've designed so much shit. Now it's, like, really time to just, like ... to do it."
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