If you have a dream in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas, you have to make it come true yourself, but if you have a couple of friends who have the same dream as you that is half the battle. Blackstarkids are Ty, Deoindre and The Babe Gabe, and they're the most refreshingly bright and affirming alternative band to emerge from Middle America in an age. The instigator of the trio is Ty, who at the age of 19 is just slightly younger than 20-year-old Deoindre and The Babe Gabe (also 20). Ty is the visionary. When he was nine-years-old, he discovered Nirvana and he couldn't understand why nobody else wanted to join a band with him. “It was 2010 and I was mad young. I was trying to get my friends to do it but nobody would take it seriously.” A year later Odd Future came out, and Ty's entire world turned upside down. There was one plan: music. He had to make it and he wanted to have a gang, just like his namesake Tyler, The Creator. At the age of 10, he started. “I was making music all through middle school and when I got to high school I got more serious,” he says. “When Kanye put out the 'Stronger' video I remember thinking I was looking into my future. I still feel that way.”
In Deoindre's bedroom, the three of them gather to discuss their forthcoming third album 'whatever, man', which is their first to be released on a major label (Dirty Hit – home to The 1975, Wolf Alice and Beabadoobee). The trio have only been a band for just under two years but have already completed three bodies of work and have done everything themselves. Before Deoindre had his own apartment, they made music in his parents' house. Deoindre is the lead producer. Ty and The Babe Gabe write and sing. Ty is the glue that brought the three of them together, after transferring high schools midway through his education, befriending Gabe and making music with her separately from the guitar-based jams he was making with Deoindre. Ty began hitting up Deoindre because he was the resident “cool kid” at school, posting interesting photography on Instagram and casually making music that sounded like Mac DeMarco crossed with Clairo. One day, Ty got Deoindre to play guitar for him and he was blown away. “I lost my mind,” he laughs.
When Ty transferred schools, he saw The Babe Gabe in the hallway one day and she caught his eye. They shared common music taste and became instant friends. At first he wanted to integrate her into his rap group Drop Dead – a big collective he had begun before he was building an alternative band – because she made DJ mixes. “I always had an idea for an alternative group since I was a kid and one day it clicked in my head that it needed to be with these two. So I called Deoindre and said, 'What if we started this group called Blackstarkids?'” As with everything Ty, he already had the name for the big idea before it was even a thing. Within the first session they knew the chemistry they had as a trio was the best collaboration any of them had ever done. They bonded over Toro Y Moi, N*E*R*D*, Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, A Tribe Called Quest. It shows.
Their third LP 'whatever, man' begins with the anthemic 'Acting Normal', which sounds like MGMT crossed with Blink-182 'What's My Age Again' after the edible kicks in. The song follows on from the themes on their debut album 'Let's Play Sports'. A year ago the trio were “acting normal” post-high school, pretending to be considering their career options or future education, when deep down they knew they only wanted to make music. They're done with the facade now. What follows on 'whatever, man' is an album's worth of genre-crossing stoner pop paeans to youth. They firmly prove why Blackstarkids' call to music is not a choice but a command. The songs are evidence that this threesome live, eat and breathe art. Where 'Let's Play Sports' played with '80s pastiche (influences even included Wham!) and second LP 'SURF' was leaning on '90s grunge, 'whatever, man'
embraces Blackstarkids' own nostalgia for their upbringing in the 2000s. It's a wash of videogame-like synths, slacker drum patterns and lackadaisical raps that sound like romantic lullabies but nevertheless hit hard. “As a kid I used to watch shows like Zoey 101 and iCarly as an escape. I wanted my life to be like that,” says Ty. Hence the interludes on the album. “I still base my life off that. It's like Blackstarkids is a webshow.”
Lead single 'Britney Bitch' sees The Babe Gabe sing about her aspirations growing up wanting to be a popstar like Gwen Stefani or Fergie. It's a charming earworm that puts them on an imaginary pedestal as much as their band name intends, and it is guaranteed to put a smile on even the worst day. Dreams of living in “a lavish house cos we're filthy rich” for young upcoming punks don't die just because we're experiencing a global pandemic. In many ways, we need those wide-eyed fantasies more than ever. On the TV-referencing 'Frankie Muniz', the chugging drumbeat meets trade-off verses between The Babe Gabe and Ty, as they rap about teenage heartbreak, and the hopelessness of not being able to get an ex off your mind.
If the music Blackstarkids plays out like walking through a winding maze of surprise and discovery that's because for these three it was. While they've created their records over the past year they've become closer friends and learned so much about themselves and each other. “These friends are now my family,” says Ty. “I would tell them about everything and nothing.” Through their mutual confidence and knowledge they’ve freed each other up to make music without any limitations or pretentiousness. Each of them pull from different musical backgrounds. The Babe Gabe grew up around a dad who was a guitarist and in a rap group. She'd play around with his mic and speaker before she went to sleep every night. Deoindre is half Black half Japanese and soaked up both his mother's hip-hop collection and his father's side's love of Prince and Michael Jackson. Ty grew up idolizing the biggest hip-hop moguls. “No idea seems too outlandish or out the box so I think higher than I did before,” he says. Ty's process for creating the albums is like that of an executive producer. It's no surprise that his biggest influences span Tyler The Creator through Kanye, Jay Z and Pharell. He grew up an obsessional mastermind. “I wanted to debate with adults about Beanie Sigal versus Jadakiss when I was 8-years-old.”
Ty comes up with the album title and all the song titles before the three even work on the songs themselves. “Then we attack it song by song,” he says. “It all starts with me overanalyzing stuff.” The record took two months to make and was spurned by the energy they had coming off 'SURF', and a desire to turn around the emotional landscape of an album they realized was pretty depressing after the fact. Despite those tones, the release itself confirmed to them that they were onto something special. The record was self-realized. They spoke with a local journalist about their pride in the project and their goals to play shows all over Kansas City for college kids. They experienced that for two weeks or so before the pandemic hit and forced them into lockdown. Writing 'whatever, man' has kept them on their toes this year. “Our lives weren't in a great place when we were making 'SURF',” admits Ty. “We had improved our lives after it and I wanted this album to reflect that and have a bigger and brighter sound.” Hence earnest odes to lust like 'Tangerine Love'. The songwriting is tighter and catchier, and because they were leaning into the comfort of their own nostalgia it became a much more fun exercise.
The title 'whatever, man' is as inspired by the shrugged-off attitude of Nirvana and Oasis as it is by a defiance to make something out of these nothing times. Ty doesn't stop. In the first week of lockdown, he emailed 'SURF' to around 50 local labels, but none of them bit. As a fan of Beadadoobee, he Googled her label, and came across Dirty Hit. “I found out she was the same age as us and I got inspired.” He almost didn't send the email because Dirty Hit were the biggest label he approached. “The next day, they messaged me to get on the phone. We talked for an hour. They said they'd be in touch. I thought I'd never talk to them again. Two hours later Jamie [Oborne, owner] DMs us and says, 'I wanna sign you.'”
It sounds like a fairytale when in reality it's a meeting of DIY minds between Dirty Hit and Blackstarkids. With Odd Future remaining a huge influence on the band, Ty speaks up building a whole world around Blackstarkids' music. “We want each album to have its own aesthetic and feeling from the transitions and the art and the way that we interact with people. We want it to be something people remember,” he says, spoken like the antiheroes of a new generation.