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Philly's Next Rap Star is From Haverford College?

Gabriel "Starky" Stark is garnering all the typical praise bestowed on a rising collegiate rapper, having recently been featured in the hip-hop magazine XXL and on MTV2's Sucker Free. He's blowing up all over the blogosphere, garnering praise from NYC's The Deli Magazine and even Vision Invisible, an Argentine music blog. So far, Starky has already produced two mixtapes and four full-length albums. And just last week, on January 7, he released his latest album, Starky F Kennedy.

The only thing not typical about Stark is that he is plotting his hip-hop plans from the Main Line, as a senior at Haverford College, the small liberal arts college not exactly known as a breeding ground for emcees.

Starky takes us around his recording studio in the campus radio station and speaks with Flying Kite about his work, inspirations and post-college aspirations.

Flying Kite (FK): Tell us about how you got into rapping and producing music.
Gabriel Stark (GS): I had always loved music, and apparently I've been like listening to music since I was little. I can't sing, so I didn't really know how I could contribute to music, being as I don't do anything. Then, around eighth grade, Kanye West's Through the Wire came out, and I was like, "Oh shit, this guy is taking something I had never heard of and making something new and it sounds cool." So I got into production, long story short.

I got here (to Haverford College) freshman year, and I started pushing myself to write songs. During sophomore year, I decided to do a project where I wrote and produced an album with an a capella group here. It was a culmination of everything I had done in high school and what I started doing here. In the process, I started rapping, because there was room on the beat that I wanted someone to rap over, but no one was gonna rap over it the way I envisioned the sound.

Luckily I had a made a lot of connections with bloggers during my time in high school. Creative Control, which was the a cappella project, was done in the beginning of April. By the end of April, I had another project ready to go that was all me. I had a bunch of beats, so all I had to do was rap over that shit. So I took it to a lot of the people that I worked with in high school. I was like, "Yo, can you work with me? Can you manage me?".  Everybody was like, "You're a great producer and you have great rhymes, but your voice is just too nasal. It's just not gonna work." I was with my friend that day and he was like, "Yo, this is what everybody talks about, this is where you make the decision. Are you gonna give up right now or keep pushing and see where we can take this?"

FK: Tell us about the projects you're working on now.
GS: Starky F Kennedy came out oh Jan. 7. That's my next album. It's about Kennedy's life. Historically, you hear a lot of great people in history say, "Yeah, I knew the end was coming." Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are prime examples. In this country, every time you do something new and positive and progressive, historically, people have gotten taken out before they were able to finish what they started. Outside of MLK and Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy was another one who was very progressive and had a lot of power. He was trying to change this country, and was killed before he had a chance to finish what he started. So the premise of this album is, "Well, what if Kennedy knew? What if he knew the end was coming but didn't say anything about it? Where would his mind be? What would I be thinking if I knew that this was it?"

I kind of compare myself to Kennedy because I feel like what we're doing for music is something new and different. People don't understand how I'm doing what I've done. What we're doing is so progressive, and I think after hearing my next album, my competition's gonna be very mad. They think ignoring me is gonna make me go away, and that just makes me hungrier. I have another album coming out in April. Its' called Finding Starky Fischer. It's about me trying to find my own greatness and figuring out where I belong.

FK: When you say "we," who are you talking about?
GS: Everybody always asks that question. When I was starting and no one wanted to manage me and no one saw the vision, I basically created my own team, which happens to be all Tri-Co students [The Tri-College Consortium consists of Swarthmore College, Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College]. My manager, Lauren [Gill], was a freshman when I was a sophomore. She has a great ear for music, and she was there when I was working on Creative Control. I said, "I want her to manage me, because she has a great ear and that's not something you can put a price on."

My booking agent is a girl who used to hire me from Bryn Mawr [College], Sam [Salazar]. She used to hire me to DJ when she was there. She graduated last year, and I remember at some point, she said she wanted to work for a booking agency. I told her, "Come work for me, we'll grow together. Nobody wants to hire you. Nobody wants to work with me. Let's work together. I'm gonna make you money." I'm bigger on loyalty and trust than on experience.

I like my team because I feel like I've known all of them outside of music, and I think this is very much a team effort. That's why I always say "we," because everything is a team effort.

FK: How would you describe your music?
GS: I call myself an artist. Being a rapper has a negative connotation historically. I make rap music, but it's also very pop, very commercial to a certain degree. I'm starting to move away from that. What people don't realize is that that was all a ploy to build up our fan base. I like to call it our Trojan Horse because we gave them what we wanted to get in the door and now that we're in the door, we're gonna do it the way we wanted to do it. So now I'm actually gonna put out shit that has a message and stop making shallow music.

The thing I've been most proud of so far is Glow in the Stark. It was a project I did over this electronic DJ named Pretty Lights. I rapped over five of his beats, and that was something that was very different because a lot of people have done like one or two tracks over electronic shit, and I was like, "I put out more stuff than anybody else, so I'm gonna make this a project."

FK: With titles like Starky F Kennedy and Finding Starky Fischer, would you say that you're moving toward more political or intellectual music?
GS: Throughout high school, I loved history. So I want people to understand where I'm coming from. I want to show that I'm versatile. As a producer at heart, I rely a lot on beats, and if anything, I feel like people have to give me respect for the beats I pick. I don't think that anybody has chosen better beats than I have in the four or five projects that I've put out. My motto has always been, "I might not be the best rapper. I might not be the best lyricist, but nobody's ever gonna beat me in creativity or work ethic." You're not gonna outwork me, and you're not gonna be more creative than I am. That's why we've been able to get this far. Yes, you can copy something I've already done, but you don't know what I'm gonna do next. 

FK: Have you done any live performances yet?
GS: I had a show in Philly two weeks ago, at a place called The Fire in Northern Liberties. I headlined it, which was great. I loved it. I want to perform more. Now we're really pushing for shows and working on getting a tour together. We're trying to put together a tour for spring break in the Midwest, around Chicago, Milwaukee, Michigan.

FK: What are your plans after your graduate?
GS: My plan for graduation is to continue to record. So far everything I planned has worked out the way I wanted to. I knew that this was gonna happen, but I didn't think it'd happen that fast. I feel like people give up on their dreams and their goals too fast. The momentum that we've got going right now – I can't just stop. I've gotta keep going. We are just too far in right now to just quit. Just like everybody is applying for grad school and jobs, I'm applying too. With every song I release and every song I put out, I'm applying to be a professional artist by way of gaining more fans.

FK: How has being at Haverford affected your work?
I love Philly. I consider it my second home. Coming to Haverford, it was great to be near Philly while not actually living there. When you try to start something in college, it's an amazing time because you have a bunch of hardworking people who are all working hard on whatever that may be. This is a place where everybody is pushing each other forward.

FK: Anything else to add?
GS: What got me into music was a quote: "What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?" I don't believe in failure. In my mind, if it doesn't come out the way you wanted to, as long as you learned something from it, then you can't fail because that's still a life lesson. So why not go for it? My biggest fear is complacency. Once I get complacent, it's gonna be over for me. It's a gift and a curse. I'm never satisfied with what I've done. There's always something new to do, and you gotta work hard. There's no stability in the job market right now, just like there's no stability in music, but I'd rather have my life be banking on myself than all of a sudden, I get a pink slip tomorrow and I'm fired. I feel like I'm in control of this, to some degree.

IVANA NG is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Originally from New York City, she enjoys writing about education, technology and the arts. Send feedback here.
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