When you listen to music from BLACKSTARKIDS, it’s almost impossible to not instantly feel like you’re transported into your own coming-of-age movie with a group of your closest friends. They tag you along for the ride to who knows where with some kind of promise of release and escapism at least for a bit. Hearing Ty, Gabe, and Deiondre talk to and joke with each other, you immediately realize that the love and excitement that exists in their music to make that feeling possible, exists outside of it as well.
The up-and-coming trio from Kansas City, Missouri is every much a hip-hop group as they are an indie pop-rock band with the added elements of any other sounds, feelings, or inspiration they see fit. They’re like a wave–unpredictable even to themselves.
Which makes it fitting that their sophomore album, released March of this year, was called SURF because they’re clearly up for the challenge.
Starting the interview, I ask the trio to introduce themselves along with the coolest thing about BLACKSTARKIDS. Deiondre is the first to go, laughing almost immediately at the request before exclaiming, “The coolest thing I think about BLACKSTARKIDS is we’re all Black!” To which, they all erupt in laughter.
“I think the coolest thing about BLACKSTARKIDS is we don’t limit ourselves, but we don’t try too hard either,” Ty goes next after the laughter calms down. “It’s real chill, everything is laid back but at the same time, we push ourselves to always do new things and things that feel fresh.”
Gabe introduces herself last (as her stage name TheBabeGabe) adding the final piece to the BLACKSTARKIDS puzzle. “My favorite thing about BLACKSTARKIDS is that we’re from Kansas City, like, I just feel like what Kansas City needs is us.” She jokes quietly, “Yeah. I’m cocky.”
The group laugh later on when discussing the influence of (or more accurately the lack thereof) Missouri in their music. They correct the question with collective agreement that Kansas City and Raytown (the suburb they hail from) is more influential. “I’d say if you wanna know what Raytown sounds like, listen to Let’s Play Sports,” Ty references the debut BLACKSTARKIDS album that released last year. Gabe and Deiondre agree.
“Listen to that and then if you wanna know what Kansas City sounds like, listen to SURF. Then, Whatever, Man! is like we’re ready for the world,” he continues with Gabe chiming in that their upcoming album Whatever, Man! is universal.
“But, yeah, definitely Kansas City has inspired where we’re [coming] from, but there’s a lot of Missouri I know nothing about and like I have no connection to. Like, you could take me to like some places in Missouri and I would be like, ‘I have no connection, I don’t feel at home, I don’t know what this is…” Ty admits with Gabe and Deiondre sharing the same sentiment as he continues. In my initial ask about if Missouri plays a role in their music at all, I reference Smino as an example of a newer artist that people outside the state associate as quintessential Missouri, but Ty notes how geographically speaking their experiences are different. (He also gives a shoutout to SZA.) “As far as like the St. Louis artists, it’s cool seeing stuff like that but I don’t feel that closely connected to it because if I meet somebody from St. Louis, I’m not like, ‘Oh, we grew up the same way’ because we grew up in completely different cities. So, I dunno. But definitely Kansas City I would say, for sure.”
The three went to the same high school together befriending each other over Instagram about four years ago. All individual artists in their own right as well, the trio has collaborated on personal projects together as well. “I say we all like sorta the same things, but we kinda bring different things to the table,” Ty explains. “I feel like D brings a lot of the more rock sound that you would hear in our stuff and then I probably bring a lot more of the rap sound, and then Gabe is like a big factor in a lot of more dance-y electronic stuff.”
Having those different influences and interests results later on in the interview with the band collectively agreeing that even now, they still don’t know how BLACKSTARKIDS will sound when they’re making music. “It can go however, but I think when we first were starting to make the music, we were probably gonna do something in our heads that was like way more serious than what we do now,” Ty says with a laugh. “That’s why it’s like BLACKStarKids,” he continues. “It was gonna be like Blood Orange kinda sounding stuff because we’re really big fans of Blood Orange and like Janelle Monáe and Solange.” However, it turns out, that the music they thought they were going to make wasn’t the right fit for them. “I think we realized early on it’s best to just make music that feels like our personality and on top of it, there’s not really a need to speak about Black issues in our music by force–like forcing it. Just because we feel like everything we do is like an expression of Blackness because, you know, we are who we are. And we don’t have to be performative.”
[With BLACKSTARKIDS], it’s real chill, everything is laid back but at the same time, we push ourselves to always do new things and things that feel fresh. – Ty
Working together for this length of time and dedicating so much of their time together as close friends and artists, it shows in the way they trust each other and influence/understand one another. “I learned just how talented my friends are,” Gabe reflects on her experience in the band so far.
“Gabe and Ty are really good writers and get better each time we make a new song,” Deiondre compliments to which Ty thanks him.
“I think what I learned personally is you learn a lot about each other’s personalities and stuff when you go from hanging out however much to nearly spending all your time together. So I feel like we know a lot more about each other because I’m used to being with them all the time,” Ty says. “And definitely as far as what I’ve learned about them as musicians, I mean, kinda the same thing; writing a lot with Gabe has showed me how much personality and stuff she can bring and how diverse she is as a vocalist. And like with Deiondre, I mean, just watching Deiondre like really improve as a producer and just getting to the point where he can execute any sound we have in mind, like, nearly perfectly I would say.”
With two albums already under their belt as BLACKSTARKIDS, the community they’ve cultivated already feels personal. You can hear it in their music as well with the nods they give to their listeners something that Gabe says came pretty naturally. “Yeah, I feel like we’re pretty close with our listeners. Especially around Let’s Play Sports time,” Deiondre adds which Gabe and Ty cosign.
“We knew who were listening,” Ty explains.
“Yeah, and those people were also listening to other people’s solo stuff and like Drop Dead XX especially at the time. It felt personal,” Deiondre references Ty’s music project with Paris Williams, Monogram, D-Lo Jones, Manuel Foreign, Zane Olson, and Medici.
“Even though we’re kinda past the point of directly knowing the people who are listening to our music just because we couldn’t know every single person listening now, I feel like we have a good idea of the people who really relate to our music. We have a good idea of who they are,” Ty adds.
Their latest release, SURF (Basement Demos)*, is an EP of six tracks that didn’t make their sophomore record and an intro where Ty directly addresses the listeners. “They’re not on the album, but they’re here. You’re listening to them. So it doesn’t make a difference,” he says referring to the songs on the EP before even giving the opportunity to question their decision for why they didn’t make the album. “We been putting out music for a while so you kinda get a grip after a while of how it goes and what the responses are so it’s like we think about that stuff in advance and acknowledge it,” he comments when I ask. “And a lot of the times, it’s just funny and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, so.”
Another way their music feels like it develops a connection to the listeners is in the way they begin and end their albums. When it comes to making their records, Ty shares that even before making the songs, they have the song order from the getgo. Meaning that when they kick off Let’s Play Sports announcing their dreams of being popstars (‘MTV’) then end it with ‘Surf Well, Raise Hell’ which is perfectly named for the way it gears up their next project and the adrenaline rush of taking a risk, they already knew what the rest of the album would entail as well. Same for the way SURF begins with the sugary, fast-paced, and dialed to eleven, adrenaline-filled track ‘Sounds Like Fun’ and then ends with ‘Instant Bummer Endless Summer’, a slower tune that plays around with piano and melodic vocals while offering a similar comedown as reflecting on your summer break on its last day before the station changes and we’re back to jumping around.
One of their tracks, “Music to Surf To” is a softer, more guitar-focused song including production that resembles birds chirping and harmonies. The song focuses on trying not to be too hard on yourself and at the same time looking for some kind of freedom from expectations and restraints and looking for that in music. Ty recalls that the song was made on his 19th birthday last year.
“We just knew like what spot on the album we wanted it to be and how we wanted it to sound just in terms of like its release,” Deiondre explains. In terms of the album’s creation, it was made in the middle of production.
I feel like SURF really brought us together because of everything that was going on. It like got the band [to be] the band. – Gabe
That ability to have fun in the process and make music that excites them shows in the creativity of their projects. “I learned that like, it’s just pretty natural. I think like when we first started with Let’s Play Sports, I thought it was gonna be a lot harder but we really did just like bounce off each other and it was really nice,” Gabe says about their collaboration.
“Yeah, I think for me, it’s either gonna happen or it’s not,” Ty notes with Gabe agreeing. “Like, you can’t really try to force it. When the beats being made, it’s gonna come to you off the rip, at least to one of us. It has to come to at least one of us–either me or Gabe–and if it doesn’t then it’s just probably not the one.”
Deiondre cosigns adding, “Yeah. I feel like over time, throughout the creative process, like we all find like our strong suits and like what each of us are good at and what specific spots. Then, like overtime, we’re able to help each other in those spots as well and have some input on that. So, like they’ll be times where I can’t figure out specific hooks or a part in the hook and then Ty can help me with that. Even in a melody way, he’ll have ideas for that and then we’ll work and we’ll just figure it out on that and same for Gabe,” Deiondre continues. “You know, she can have ideas for like singing melodies and also just like the way a verse can just flow with the words and stuff and then Ty and Gabe can just help each other on that part as well.”
“100% yeah,” Ty confirms.
In their Coup de Main interview, they describe the time of their life when making SURF as, “a very stressful time in all our lives and we viewed it as an escape from all our stresses, and hoped it would lead to a relief from a lot of life’s problems.” I ask the three about looking back on where they were when making Let’s Play Sports and SURF to where they are now mentally and creatively. There’s an immediate sigh of relief and surprise between them as they reflect.
“It’s soooo different,” Ty says as Gabe exclaims, “YES! Oh my God, I think about that all the time.”
Ty and Deiondre share similar sentiments.
“[With] Let’s Play Sports our lives were probably more boring than they are now,” Ty says to Deiondre and Gabe’s laughter. “But also probably more simple.”
“Yeah, like more on track. It’s like all we had occupying our lives at that time…was like half we’re in school and half we just graduated,” Deiondre says. Ty shares that at the time of making Let’s Play Sports, he was still in high school while Deiondre and Gabe had just graduated.
“I feel like when we were making SURF, that’s when we were like working our butts off,” Gabe states. “I feel like that was amazing,” she laughs.
“Yeah, it was kinda like a turmoil time because basically, when we were doing Let’s Play Sports, I honestly kinda figured that I would do Drop Dead XX and that would blow up and Deiondre would do Great Wave and that would blow up and then we would kinda just do this for fun,” Ty admits with laughter. “That’s honestly not how things went, a lot of things went wrong then by the time we were doing SURF, I think we kinda knew BLACKSTARKIDS was like the main thing, but I mean there was just a lot in our lives. It was a bad time in our lives when we were making that so in making this new album, we’re in a much better place than we were when we were making SURF.”
Gabe adds, “I feel like SURF really brought us together because of everything that was going on. It like got the band [to be] the band.”
So then where are they now with their upcoming album Whatever, Man!? Gabe assures that the next album is amazing while Deiondre adds that it’s a really fun album.
“Yeah, I think it’s a really fun album,” Ty agrees. “I think the production is definitely our most like nostalgic production yet. Consistently all around the songwriting is the most mature songwriting that I think we’ve had but at the same time, it’s more fun so I think it just has a good balance. It’s not too different from our first two albums but at the same time, it is. I’ll just say it like that,” he explains before adding, “I think it’s a really good album, but you know, we’ll just see. I think people will like it if they like us. I think people won’t be disappointed. I’ll just say that.”
Until then, the band has content in the works to come out including a “Sounds Like Fun” music video and potentially a “Wigs/Reasons to Exist” video to close out the SURF era before moving on to shooting Whatever, Man! videos slated to release this year as well.
So much of the band’s music reflects on the ways in which living life at your most anxious or depressed somehow manages to also be intertwined with the times in which you live your life feeling happy, positive, or simply pushing on in spite. Such as their song “Whatever!” where the chorus sings, “Life goes on and on and on and on and on // It was me and you and love and now you’re gone // But it’s cool like whatever // You can do whatever // I’ll be whatever // Get myself together cause // Life goes on and on and on and on.” And again in their existential track, “Reasons to Exist” where along with the verses touching on feeling okay and finding purpose when life feels repetitive, the chorus includes the lyric, “You gotta try your best to make it through the day // And do it all over.”
…What I would encourage is like, just having fun and also like caring about what you’re passionate about and not just half-assing it or just being half-interested just for the sake of your looks or how you come off to other people. – Deiondre
“I had no idea how I was gonna be,” Deiondre laughs in response to the question about how they imagined the age they are now when they were younger. “I was not thinking about it honestly.”
“No! Not really!” Gabe exclaims.
“I feel like when I was little, I like thought about just being little and then immediately skipping to be like, 30 or something, you know?” Deiondre explains with the three erupting in laughter. “Like I didn’t ever really think about like the hard part of being like a young adult.”
Through laughter, Gabe adds, “No…I don’t think anyone does though.”
“Oh man, I did,” Ty says. “I’m exactly who I thought I was gonna be at 19. Like I really am. The only thing is I thought I was gonna know how to drive, I’m not gon lie,” he says as an aside that fills the space with laughter again. “When I was eleven, it was like Mac Miller had that KIDS mixtape and like Odd Future had just come out and they were like 18/19 so I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s gonna be me! I’m gonna be in like high school and I’m gonna be like bringing the backpack full of money to school cause I’m gonna be like the most poppin’ rapper in my city and blahblahblahblah… That part didn’t happen, but other than that, everything that I thought would happen at 19 is pretty much exactly where I thought I was gonna be at 10 or 11,” he reflects.
With the goal to make music that offers listeners a place to have fun, embrace the energy they’re feeling, and go easier on themselves, it makes sense that when I ask what it takes to be a “BLACKSTARKID,” those qualities are the essence. Deiondre is the first one to respond by saying that to him, being a BLACKSTARKID is being himself with Gabe and Ty expressing similar sentiment.
“That’s what it’s about, is just being yourself. It’s not a specific thing that you do, you know? Because we don’t want people to feel like they have to be like us to be like a ‘BLACKSTARKID,'” Ty explains. “That’s what’s so whack about like a lot of the–I guess– ‘alternative Black stuff’ is just like the ‘Oh, if you’re not like this…’–like most Black people don’t act like us, don’t look like us, don’t talk like us, that’s fine, it doesn’t matter. And BLACKSTARKIDS isn’t even for just Black people but in terms of Black people, BLACKSTARKIDS is about being yourself–whoever you are– no matter like where you’re from, suburbs from poverty from nice life, like it doesn’t matter. It’s just about existing and being happy within your skin, no matter who you are.”
Gabe and Deiondre uplift his point. “And what I would say for anybody like listening to our music–like what I would encourage–is like, just having fun and also like caring about what you’re passionate about and not just half-assing it or just being half-interested just for the sake of your looks or how you come off to other people,” Deiondre wraps it up. “So yeah, just being passionate about what you like also.”
BLACKSTARKIDS Mini-Playlist for Readers [Listen Here*]:
Ty: I would put “Skinny Niggas Runnin’ Shit” by Soulja Boy times 10 on loop.
Gabe: Oh my gosh, I knew you were gonna say that. [I’d put] “Trouble Maker” by Weezer.
Ty: Yeah, that’s a good summer song.
Deiondre: “East” by Earl Sweatshirt!
Ty: Times 50!
Deiondre: Yeah on repeat!
Ty: “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” by Weezer
Gabe: “Started from the Bottom”…
Ty: There’s so many songs…Huron John album, just his whole album front to back, we’re going there. But, if I had to pick one I really like “Butter” and then Whatever, Man! in full, can’t pick a song. “Art Class” by beabadoobee. “Apple Cider” by beabadoobee. “People” by the 1975, “Me & You Together Song,” “If You’re Too Shy,” “Frail State of Mind”…
Gabe: (laughs) You could go on…
Ty: Yeah, every single that they put out from their new album I would put [on it.] And then Whatever, Man! again, I would just loop that again.
*Excludes songs not currently available on Spotify
Whatever, Man! is set to release later in 2020.
(photo cred: Jake Ryan, Insta: @808sandjakes)