BLACKSTARKIDS discuss building a legacy in AltPress issue #402 cover story
If you name something, visualize it, really want it, you can will it into existence, set it off on the path to greatness. Such is the case with BLACKSTARKIDS — a trio whose name only scrapes the surface of their ambition. In the last two years alone, they’ve released three records, embarked on North American tours with Glass Animals and beabadoobee and marked themselves out as one of the most exciting new acts on the scene. In 2022, their star is only set to swell, making good on their multifaceted, multimedium appeal.
For rapper Ty especially, the road to greatness certainly didn’t begin with formal education. “High school was, like, boring,” he tells us, Zooming in from the edge of tonight’s hotel bed while his bandmates nod emphatically next to him in agreement. “I went to some rough schools, but I don’t have any dramatic stories because, honestly, most times I would go there without a backpack or anything and just go to sleep at my desk. It was super uninspiring. If anything, it showed me that I didn’t want to have a job where I just go and do something I don’t want to do every day. I think that’s what made us click — we all had a plan to be doing what we’re doing, even before we met each other. And so that was it: ‘You want to do this? Wouldn’t it be easier if we do it together?’”
That deliberate desire to put fun first has certainly served them well. Growing up in Kansas City, Ty and producer Deiondre gravitated together first at the age of 16, benefactors of what the group have previously described as a welcoming local music scene, with a sizable roster of both Midwestern emo acts and sprawling hip-hop collectives. With Deiondre initially performing as part of the Great .Wav (more pop than rap) and Ty in DROP DEAD XX (more rap than pop), BLACKSTARKIDS were solidified when the pair started attending the same high school as Gabe, a singer/rapper who was also a part of DROP DEAD XX.
[Photo by Ryan Allan][/caption]“I was making music with some friends I grew up with, but honestly, they weren’t really dedicated,” Ty explains. “Deiondre felt like the first person I’d met in real life from Kansas City who was taking shit as seriously as I was, and then when Gabe came into the mix, it was the same way, just capturing the goal that we were going for when we were making music alone. For the most part, we’re pretty deliberate in where we’re going.”
Together, they set about becoming meticulous genre explorers, blending Day-Glo Odd Future hip-hop and the 1975-style indie synth-swooning with a laid-back lyrical flow that ties together their wide array of sonic and pop-cultural influences. If 2019’s debut Let’s Play Sports set the eclectic bar, then 2020’s SURF and Whatever, Man matched it, displaying their intuitive ability to riff off one another with playful sincerity and effortless cool.
“We just want to capture the energy of being young and a kid,” Gabe says of their nostalgia-heavy, intertextual sound. “I think that’s why people think we’re so fun — because we just love to look back on shit that we grew up on. [Malcolm In The Middle actor] Frankie Muniz, Kanye West… We’ve name-checked some crazy people.”
“Frankie Muniz did fuck with his song, though,” Deiondre says, smiling. “He tweeted it out, which was cool, but then everyone was in his tweet like, ‘Are you that self-absorbed?! Like of course you like the song. It has your name on it!’”
It’s all fun because it’s familiar; it’s like giving your younger self that specific validation that you may not have had
“Someone did send me a song they’d mentioned us in one time, too,” Ty chips in. “I can’t remember exactly what he said; it was like, ‘We can listen to BLACKSTARKIDS’ or something like that. I feel bad that I don’t remember his name, but it’s out there. It’s all fun because it’s familiar; it’s like giving your younger self that specific validation that you may not have had, putting something into the world that you wish would have existed when you were a kid. I feel like just saying what you feel and what comes naturally is how you get the best stuff. Trying not to think too much about it, but just writing what’s on your mind.”
Given how busy BLACKSTARKIDS have been, it’s a wonder that they can keep a thought straight. On the day that Alternative Press connects with them, they’re camped in Toronto and are about to head out for their third-to-last date supporting new friend beabadoobee, a pairing that makes total sense given both groups’ affection for retro aesthetics and their shared record label, the illustrious Dirty Hit. “There were a couple of labels that we talked to, but with Dirty Hit, it was just transparent from the start,” Ty says. “Literally an hour after they first reached out, Jamie [Oborne, the label owner] DMed our group account and was just like, ‘Wow, I want to sign you guys.’ He was very straightforward, and I liked that: It seemed like they really care about what they release, and there’s a lot of room for creativity.”
“Being out on tour is really new for us still, but it’s been super fun,” Deiondre says, grinning. “We’ve picked up on a lot of stronger ways to sing and look after our vocals. We’re definitely now starting to get a little worn out, but we’re a lot more confident. We don’t really write on the road; the way that we work, we all like being in the same room listening to music loud, grabbing whatever instruments and tools we need to hand. But by visiting so many cities, it helps us make up our mind about where we want to start working on our next music. We really like New York a lot; we’ve seen L.A. a bunch now, but there are a few ideas out there.”
[Ty of BLACKSTARKIDS // Photo by Ryan Allan][/caption]
[Gabe of BLACKSTARKIDS // Photo by Ryan Allan][/caption]
[Deiondre of BLACKSTARKIDS // Photo by Ryan Allan][/caption]It’s no surprise to hear that this is a band that already have their next steps mapped out. Despite the pandemic, they’ve been impressively prolific, constantly releasing new projects and engaging with their fans. Working in much the same way as a fashion house or multimedia conglomerate, Ty’s preferred creative approach is to sketch out an entire concept before the proper songwriting begins, creating an inspiring blueprint to work to.
“I feel like I’ve always had that approach, so when we started doing the group, it made sense to know exactly what the song is going to be before you make it,” he says. “The next project that comes out — whenever it comes out — I’ve had the tracklist for, like, months. Then we just have to make it! Nothing is 100% final — you come up with new ideas or certain things work out differently to how you expected, but the overarching theme is always there.”
Though the group aren’t ready to spill the full details quite yet, it’s clear that they thrive in each other’s pockets. Touring may have taken it out of them (“For the first couple of days home after a tour, you’re like, ‘Man, I just need to close my eyes and not look at any of you!’” Ty jokes), but the love is in fine abundance, an unspoken symbiosis that feels befitting of any great superhero squad.
Although BLACKSTARKIDS create all of the music as a trio, they cite their wider family — drummer Jack Dolan, synth player/video director and editor Jerry P and artistic directors Daniel Ruiz and Jake Kelly — as a core part of their world, helping them to bring their realities to life. Recruited as friends before collaborators, a good personal fit remains key. “The first time we ever really met our drummer Jack, the first thing we did was sit down and watch I Pity The Fool,” Deiondre says. “No practice or anything. We just wanted to sit down and vibe with him.”
Ultimately, we want kids to feel free to talk about stuff without feeling like they’re touching on something they shouldn’t
The pursuit of the perfect vibe is instrumental to some of the group’s favorite tracks from their 2021 album, Puppies Forever. “For how effortless it felt when we made it, ‘JIMMY NEUTRON’ is a favorite,” Gabe remembers. “When I was writing that verse, it all came naturally. When you write a song and the words spill out so easily? I dunno, it just feels like you made some fire-ass shit! I like it when we’re braggy on songs.”
“Mine would be ‘PISS DRUNK KIDS,’” Deiondre says. “That song was made after four weeks of us not seeing each other; a friend of ours caught COVID, so we were trying to be safe and not see each other, but none of us were really doing shit at all. We were all super bored. We tried coming back for the first time and making a song, and it just wouldn’t happen. So we took a writer’s retreat and were just drinking every day. We had gallons of wine sitting in our kitchen.”
“Our Sangria phase,” Gabe says, laughing.
[Photo by Ryan Allan][/caption]“It was a fun time with each other,” Deiondre says. “We hadn’t really lived with each other yet at that point, so it was our first time being in that setting. It’s hard to fake being in a good mood around each other; we see right through that bullshit. If trying to make a song feels weird, it’s a bit like, ‘Ah, there’s clearly one person in this room that doesn’t want to.’ So we try to hang out with each other as much as possible and not take ourselves too seriously. We wanted to get into this thing to have it feel as least like a job as possible. That was the ultimate goal. We always want music to feel like our go-to for having fun because the one thing that connects us all when we want to hang out is music.”
Amid their upbeat ethos, BLACKSTARKIDS do have a serious side. While tracks such as “GIANNI VERSACE” and “MUSIC TO SURF TO” capture the carefree pop-rock nature of being young and infinite, “ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS*” and “CLUELESS AMERICA” from Puppies Forever offer a witty, sobering look at police brutality and U.S. politics, while “TOO DEPRESSED 4 SEX” and “BUGS” create spaces for examinations of mental health, heartbreak and youthful angst. What’s true entertainment without a solid dose of reality? When it comes to connecting with their peers, BLACKSTARKIDS are more than capable of doing both.
We want to be something that’s talked about forever — something people can just always go back to because they know it’s a classic
“All three of us were at those protests last summer,” Deiondre says. “We all experienced it at the same time and felt driven to have a song about it. It felt too in our face to ignore, to not say anything about it, and then also being Black ourselves. Ultimately, we want kids to feel free to talk about stuff without feeling like they’re touching on something they shouldn’t. All that stuff that was going on at the time should be shown to everybody, not hidden away.”
“I like people to know that we are artists, but we’re also people, too,” Gabe nods. “I don’t want people to be surprised whenever we do speak on political topics. We’re normal people; all the stuff that happens in the world affects us, and obviously during that time, for Black people in general, it was hard. People tend to forget that.”
[Photo by Ryan Allan][/caption]With new music already planned out in their collective brain, there’s no better time than now to build on all of their multifaceted goals. Ask them what they’re most excited to work on, and Gabe reels off a breezy list: a fashion line, new music, maybe a sequel to the magazine they put out with Puppies Forever. “I feel like when we have the new music, we can really get into the whole world and build on everything; the clothes and the videos especially, everything on the visual stuff,” Ty enthuses. “Any type of visual media; a show, a movie, a cartoon… Whatever we get the opportunity to do, it’d be cool to try it. We’re trying to go crazier but still keep everything feeling like us. We might be a little more collaborative with some stuff, but we still want it to feel like BLACKSTARKIDS. Just bigger and bigger.”
“We want to be something that’s talked about forever,” Gabe says. “Like, something people can just always go back to because they know it’s a classic that you can’t go wrong with. That’s what true success really is.”
“Yeah. Just like legacy, influence,” Ty says.
“And how we did it, too,” Deiondre concludes. “We started off the group doing it all three of us, then working with our closest friends, and continuing to grow it like that, forever. That’s the one thing I hope people look at in the future; what we did, but also how we did it.”
This interview first appeared in issue #402 (22 for ’22), available here.