Death Starsky: Rap, soul and robots

Basiqs emcees Sin and Gage return with a new alt hip hop project.

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The Basiqs aren’t dead, but they have evolved into Death Starsky. The current project of longtime collaborators Sin and Gage reflects their growth as artists and establishes a new sound rooted in alt hip-hop but rocketing into genre-bending realms of synthesized electro-dance music, arty indie rock and experimental soul. “If you’re an artist in any art form, I think you have the responsibility to continue to evolve and push what you’re doing,” Gage explained when I chatted with the twosome last week. “And if we all do the same thing, it’s boring, and boring is easy.”

The motivation behind offering their eponymous debut with an original 40-page artbook was two-fold: to evoke the age-old feelings of anticipation that come before opening a brand new CD along with the warm pleasure that follows when paging through the liner notes; and to introduce an added level of artistic and narrative depth. “I wanted to create a package where the Death Starsky experience has several layers to it,” Gage explained. “You can listen to the song, read the lyrics, and then look at the artwork this artist did that was inspired by the song you’re listening to, and appreciate it in a different way. It kind of brings more meaning to the whole thing.”

Eight artists from the U.S. and beyond (Canada, Turkey, the U.K., Indonesia) contributed artwork. In the illustration for "Atari," a space-suited man races away from shards of falling light and color and plumes of curling smoke, his jetpack firing him to safety, his outstretched arm reaching toward it to get him there ever faster. But perhaps it isn’t depicting his escape from disaster, but the disaster’s aftermath, the man plummeting to earth in the wake of a spaceship explosion, his pack not spitting fire but actually on fire, his arm raised instinctively against his imminent impact …

No matter how you imagine it, that illustration by Indonesian artist Prasajadi Lastiko is riveting with its sci-fi overtones and overall ominous mood — and it only came after a few communication breakdowns and an idea that was literally lost in translation. “He didn’t really speak English that well,” Gage said, “and he didn’t have a constant Internet connection, so I’d email him and I’d have to wait a month to hear back, and then it was the wrong thing, and it’d start all over again. It was tough, but it paid off.”

The song itself is packed with 8-bit video game whirrs, beeps, blips and cheeps that dart and zip amid old school breakbeats, softly drifting vocals delivering a melancholy hook (“Everybody knows, it’s going away”) and rapped verses loosely pondering those fleeting things we appreciate in hindsight, but take for granted when they’re around, like Atari

The rest of the album’s tracks and artwork vary from cheeky club-brawling opener “Punch,” with its snotty hostile hook (“I will punch you in the FACE!”) and stills from a video shoot that found both Sin and Gage getting popped in the kisser; to more menacing odes like “Warriors,” its hooded and masked graffiti artist rendered by Gage himself and fitting with the song’s dark-vibing call to arms. Sin’s singsong chants diverge from his more soulful timbre and smooth-gliding rhyme flow, while Gage takes the rapping lead in his deliberate, deeper tone, the backdrop of down-tempo synth-fueled seethe building to a frenzied climax. “Some of the lyrics are inspired from when I was in the army, and we used to sing cadence,” Sin offered. “One of the lines in ‘Warriors’ is, ‘See the soldier on the hill, he is not afraid to kill.’ That’s an army cadence, I actually borrowed that, but it just fit. Just the mentality — we are not afraid and we never were — there’s something about that mentality I was attached to.”

Gage became a producer because he couldn’t find anyone who made music that he liked to rap over. His boredom and disenchantment with the production routine — dig, sample, chop, snare drum beat, loop, repeat — found him abandoning hip-hop in favor of indie rock and electronica. He returned to the Tampa Bay area revitalized after a few years living in LA (an environment he claimed “flipped my switch musically”), and dove back into the game with renewed vigor and ideas for a new project. “I didn’t want to sample, I wanted to actually make music, and didn’t want it to sound like rap music at all.” The name — a mash-up of Death Star and Starsky & Hutch — also describes the sound Gage is attempting to achieve: the warm, soulful ’70s atmosphere of Starsky and Hutch infused with the chilly synthesized techno-tronics of robots, laser beams and other sonics you might hear in Star Wars.

Gage and Sin rarely sit down and collaborate because of wildly diverging processes. “I actually don’t write a lot of my lyrics on paper,” Sin admitted. His verses usually start as freestyles or thoughts “that stay with me and I’ll keep adding to from memory. It usually comes out best when I do that, because it’s natural, there’s not really a structure, but there’s direction.”

“For me, it’s more freeform thought-poetry-writing,” Gage commented. Because he’s a visual-oriented person, “most of the lines I write, I actually see as pictures in my head before I put them down on paper.” His muse is stirred by travel and new locales, but also everyday surroundings and the people who end up in them. “I’ll see somebody riding a bike with headphones on … and I kind of try to get in their head, imagine what they’re listening to, what’s that mood.”

The duo has been honing their live delivery as Death Starsky and promoting their eponymous LP with occasional local gigs, like the one this Friday as part of Basement Sessions IV. “We’re cutting our teeth. This is brand new music, brand new band, so we’re starting from zero.”

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