In ‘Whatever, Man,’ BLACKSTARKIDS Take You Back To The 2000s

BLACKSTARKIDS is an alt-pop group from Kansas City, Missouri that’s on the rise at Sonic the Hedgehog-like speeds. Since 2019, the music trio—Ty, The Babe Gabe and Deiondre—has released three (3!!) albums, each inspired by a different decade of music and musical influences. Their latest album, and debut under Dirty Hit of The 1975, Beabadoobee and Rina Sawayama fame, Whatever, Man, puts you in the shoes of the main character in a ‘00s coming-of-age flick. 

Think, sounds and basslines ripped straight out of Bring It On, Juno and Zoey 101; references to summer camps and Frankie Muniz; and self-reflective lyrics about when depression is misread as apathy, and dreams of having a best friend and living as carefree and rich as 2000s idols like Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani. All masterfully woven together by iCarly-inspired mock radio interludes and unabashedly cool delivery. Listening to Whatever, Man, you can feel yourself easily sliding into a pair of black and white old skool Vans, slipping on a vintage PlayStation 2 logo printed tee and checkered slacks, skateboarding your way through your ‘00s childhood.

“We grew up in that era,” said 19-year-old Gabe, Aka The Babe Gabe. “Like, that’s our childhood. We always say that the 2000s was such a good era because it was coming off the ’90s and had all this futuristic stuff going on. That’s when the internet was really special.”

“We wanted to make an album that our childhood self would be like, yo, these people are cool,” she said. And, honestly, from a listen through of each track, and getting to know the trio over Zoom, they aren’t anything if not super cool.

In an era where everything is digital, the origin story of BLACKSTARKIDS is quite special. As Ty told Syrup, the three of them come from a small town near Kansas City called Raytown. “There’s two high schools in Raytown, there’s Raytown High and Raytown South,” he explained. Ty first went to Raytown High where he met Deiondre, the cool main music producer of the group who can play literally every instrument, in 2016. Back then, Ty, inspired by the likes of Odd Future’s Tyler, The Creator, Frank Ocean, and others, was making rap music with his friends and wanted to create a music collective of his own. Deiondre, meanwhile, was making indie Mac DeMarco inspired bedroom pop. 

“I was just a fan of his because he was a cool dude. So, we had just ended up DMing each other on Instagram and just agreed to be friends because we had a similar state of mind.”

“Yeah, we just saw each other’s Instagrams,” laughs Deiondre.

Then, Ty moved to Raytown South, where he met Gabe. The two of them bonded over vibing with each other’s outfits at school one day then realised they had similar taste in music.

“When we met I was wearing that PlayStation shirt with the Sony logo down the sleeves,” recalled Gabe. “I used to wear that all the time because I’m a big PlayStation nerd—PS2 best game console ever.”

“I think I may have had on some checkered vans, like the slip-ons, blue slacks, a tie-dye hoodie, and then a denim jacket,” Ty added, laughing. “If y’all knew me in high school, I had the blue denim jacket on that was—it was a fit. And then I had to always wear my hat to the back like every day in school.”

Then, Ty did what we all secretly want to do with our disjointed friendships cliques, he merged them. The three of them got together for a cheeky band sesh and clicked instantly. “We tried it out for one session, and we’ve never stopped,” he said.

By the time they were working on their third album, Ty knew they had enough sounds to justify their collective ambition to a recording label. So, he reached out to folks, both locally and internationally, to no response. He created personalised care packages with physical mixtapes of their tracks and sent them everywhere. Then, he saw an indie artist around their age that they all looked up to, Bea Kristi, Aka Beabadoobee, sign on to a record label—Dirty Hit Records. 

So, he slid into their DMs and sent them a message, fully expecting another knockback. In a heartwarming turn of events taken out of their coming-of-age narrative, they replied, reached out to Ty and soon after, they joined the label. BLACKSTARKIDS went from a trio of friends making music in their small town home in Kansas City to 1.4 million Spotify listeners in 2020.

“A year ago, the streams were like zero,” Ty jokes. “We didn’t really have much out and we weren’t really that serious. A year ago, we were working on making Surf a thing. So, to see what the numbers are now, it really puts things into perspective.”

“This is our first year and it just makes us so grateful, crazy, and happy. ‘Cause, I mean, at the end of the day, we’re not some crazy big band, we’re just kids making stuff.”

Sonically, BLACKSTARKIDS is The PowerPuff Girls fusion of Outkast, Smashing Pumpkins and Toro y Moi, and other cultural cornerstones of the indie-pop and 00’s pop scene. When asked about their favourite films and TV shows, all of their answers came from that era: Deiondre says Holes is his favourite movie, Bring It On convinced Gabe to be a cheerleader in high school, and as far as Ty sees it, “Malcolm in the Middle is one of the GOAT shows.” And, thematically, despite releasing two albums in what history will remember as a year plagued with racism and a pandemic, their music is devoid of politics. Whatever, Man is a dreamy landscape, not tied to anything political or the horrible things happening in the world. It’s just about kids having fun and quite literally vibing. 

On “Britney Bitch,” the trio confess their teen desire to be as carefree and privileged as the artists they looked up to in their youth. The catchy hook, “live life like Britney, bitch!/in a lavish house ‘cause we’re filthy rich” reminds us all of the trio’s homegrown suburban roots, while creating an image of the three kicking back, dancing on the street or in their room turned band studio, kicking the air and relishing in their ambition and aspirations. Elsewhere, on their glitch-hop anthem “Friendship,” a series of voiceovers from fellow Dirty Hit artists ‘calling in’ to the faux radio show that connects the eight tracks on Whatever, Man intros the song, before Gabe yearns to have friends she can “go to the mall and do nothing at all,” and share a pair of endearingly tacky friendship bracelets.

“I feel like we always go for this coming of age sort of thing,” Ty says. “Growing up, you would just always watch films of kids just going through kid stuff, like normal stuff, you know, like, none of that extra stuff. Especially the idea of Black kids just having something normal that’s not related to trauma. Black kids are just normal kids but everything you see about Black people and media, it’s always tied to a message.”

“Like some hard life,” adds Diondre.

“Yeah, exactly. Black kids especially should still get those same outlets for fun, because Black kids should still be able to have fun too, you know, so I think that’s really important.”

“I think there’s also a lot of pressure that gets put on Black artists, they always want you to speak on that situation,” adds Gabe. “Y’all know what’s going on. Like, this is my way of just getting away from that. I’m in my own world when I’m making music.”

“We try to recreate the main character feeling [these movies] give off,” says Diondre. “Like, it places you in the front seat and lets you say, ‘yeah, this is my life. I could relate to this on every level.’” 

“Yeah, like this song would sound good if this person didn’t get the date, and then be like, ‘this song sounds good, this sounds like they just woke up and are getting ready for school,’” adds Gabe. 

Speaking to the future—and despite dropping a deluxe edition of Whatever, Man in late October—BLACKSTARKIDS say they’re already working on their fourth album. “On Let’s Play Sports, we’re kids, like that’s what we were like at 10 years old. If you could get what we were like at maybe 13 years old, then it would be Surf. Then, at 16-17 years old, that would be Whatever, Man. This new album is as if you’re hanging out with us right now.”

No news yet on when we can expect this fourth album, but if their ambitious and enthusiastically hardworking past tells us anything, it could be very soon. “This album is gonna feature points of escapism here and there, but it’s going to be more forward-thinking and less thinking backwards and trying to live in the past.” Compared to their self-reflective coming-of-age past, the future of BLACKSTARKIDS is, well, looking to the future. And, that future seems bright as fuck.

You can check out the latest album by BLACKSTARKIDS, Whatever, Man, below.

Julian Rizzo-Smith is a writer and producer. He also claims to be a vine historian, avid connoisseur of low-fi beats, indie hip hop and Kermit memes. In a perfect world, he’d be married to Tyler the Creator, own an Arcanine and a Lapras, and don his own Sailor Scouts uniform. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster, which is also, coincidentally, how one might describe him.