Wait what was the question? I’m high. I don’t know if you know that, but I am. You couldn’t tell? Yeah…I was on the train wildin’ out—inside my head listening to music. I was like, ‘Man…these people know. I know they know.’ I got a roach in my pocket…
The interview has been going on for nearly 45 minutes, sprinkled with laughs and moments of deep introspection in between bites of food and the waitress coming to check on us.
“Sincerely Syreeta is crazzzyyy yo,” he laughed as I instagrammed a picture of my food a few moments earlier while he spoke into the recorder placed between us on the table.
This is the first time we’ve ever met. He took the train from Delaware to Center City to meet for our interview. It’s funny because as small as Delaware is–where the degree of separation is more like two people instead of six–we’ve never encountered or heard of one another. I didn’t learn of him until he e-mailed me on January 10th.
Just wanted to say first that your blog is awesome–and I am not a regular blog reader. My name is Aris Sparks and I am an up and coming artist from Wilmington, DE. I read your interview with Yusuf Yuie…I couldn’t stop reading.
Over the next week and a half, I checked out his body of work and decided to move forward with the interview. On January 18th, we met up in Center City and headed to Columbus Ave. for a bite to eat. He was very laid back but I didn’t know that that was because he was higher than kite.
“So the question was: Did you ever end up getting into the streets?” I ask still recovering from our bout of laughter.
He stumbles over his words.
“N-No, No–not until after high school, not until after–and it wasn’t anything big,” he says. His voice changes; he goes from being mellowed completely out to sounding like he’s being interviewed by Oprah.
“We might smoke weed sometimes, we might get drunk–little stuff we would do at like 16, 17, 18 years-old–but we wasn’t doing anything…yet,” he says.
The “anything big” and “yet” are what keeps the journalist in me prodding for more. Something is there.
“Fast forward to maybe a couple years ago, back when I was–my daughter was born when I was 19, a year after [high school] graduation,” he starts to explain.
Wait, where did this girl come from? We’ve went through his entire life history up until this point and there’s been no mention of a real love interest–and yet I’ve heard of his three-year-old daughter multiple times.
“Huh? I can’t, I don’t even really want to comment on her. Other shit…all I’m going to say is, if you watch the ‘Falling Apart‘ video, you will kind of understand and have a little more insight about what’s going on with me and her,” he says plainly.
If there’s one thing Keith Hale, better known as Aris Sparks, has come to realize, is that things certainly fall apart whether it be ones own doing or life circumstances. It happens. The moment that defines the value in things ‘falling apart’ is the direction in which one first steps when they intend to put it all back together…
“I grew up on the Northside in Wilmington…”
“Thirtieth Street, right next door to Ryland Funeral Home and right around the corner from Rashes…where everybody gets their Premium Yaki,” he says laughing.
Wilmington is the heart of northern Delaware.
It’s defined by specific neighborhoods: North Side, East Side, West Side [which includes “The Hill”/”Up Top” and “Down Bottom”], Riverside and South Bridge. And though things have changed mainly in areas such as Riverside and South Bridge, the truth is, if you were an outsider and decided to ride through these various parts of the city, chances are, you wouldn’t realize that you were riding through “the hood”.
Trust me, at one point I was fresh from Pittsburgh and decided to check out the city. Their “ghetto”/”hood” made me feel like Pittsburgh had some really grimey ass places–which it does and you definitely shouldn’t ride through them as an “outsider”.
But as I spent more time growing up in Delaware as a tween and on through my older teens, the reality hit very quickly: despite how picturesque or inviting those streets look, they will eat you alive–especially young, black men such as Aris.
“Growing up my mom tried to do everything she could to keep me from being out in the streets like that. I was involved with everything from karate to boy scouts to umm…she would ship me off—she would make sure I was out of the city with the little money that she had. Whatever sponsorship’s and scholarships that we could get, that’s what I would do,” he explains, “I would be out…but she’d still be home, working, making sure everything was good.”
Aris’ parent’s split up when he was three-years-old, making his mother a single parent of three children.
As he relays the story, he fumbles over his words–trying to find the best way to deliver his assessment of his father as a…Dad.
“I guess he tried to do his best to be around, but he wasn’t necessarily always there. He didn’t move far away—he was actually close—but it still seemed like he was a ways away because I wouldn’t see him as much. As I got older I started to see him less and less,” he says with a slight shrug of the shoulders, “It might have been a struggle between my mom and my dad getting along and everything…because I see that now dealing with my own daughter.”
At the time that his father left, they lived in Newark, a suburb located 15 miles outside of Wilmington. There, he lived in Brookmont Farms (a development that at one point became synonymous with crime) until he was about seven-years-old. Aris, being the youngest and only boy, had a very close eye kept on him despite the fact that his mother worked long hours at the General Motors plant. He often spent time with his grandmother who lived on 23rd Street in Wilmington.
“She was just like, ‘you gotta go with your grandmother.’ I’d be with my grandmother three or four days at a time,” he says matter-of-factly.
One thing momma Robin didn’t play about was church. No matter how many long hours she worked, working second and third shift back to back, she always made sure they had enough time to go to church.
“[We were] ALWAYS in church: Sunday school, bible study, vacation bible school, women’s day, men’s day—after the service we go to get food and then it was back in service or choir rehearsal for me, and then we had to go to her choir rehearsal,” he runs off the list, jokingly out of breath, “It was all kind of stuff! That’s really where the music background came from because no matter what, I had to sing.”
He sang so damn much he became known as, “Robin’s son that sings”.
“They knew my name was Keith but I was always ‘Robin’s son that sings.’ People would be like, ‘You know him, you know Robin’s son that sings?’ It was stuff like that, all the time,” he says chuckling.
But Aris will always be Aris, no matter what. He’s going to do what makes him happy. I mean hell he was a boy scout until the age of 16 when he finally decided that the shit “was corny”. SIXTEEN…a sixteen year-old boy scout living in the hood; picture that.
What made Aris really happy back then was writing and rhyming.
“I use to sit in the back of the church and write rhymes while the preacher would preach. I would write rhymes about his sermon or whatever I was going through at that particular time,” he says with a hint of passion in his voice, “Back when like, Meek Mill and everybody was just coming up, or like the Philly rap—where you was getting grimey in ya raps—I would try to write shit like that…in the back of the church. It’s the biggest contradiction ever,” he says breaking out in laughter.
This bold mofo…I can’t be surprised though.
This is the same guy who would go up to the board and correct a teachers mistake without even raising his hand to first point it out; who came up with two clothing lines during middle and high school, and traveled to various cities–including Atlanta–to ‘get it poppin’; who was a proud boy scout for the majority of his life; who was completely comfortable with being a part of the choir in high school when it wasn’t “in”; who started feeling himself at 16 when he began making money thanks to his first job and was subsequently told to “get out” by momma Robin–to which he then said, “gladly” and left to live with his sister; who came up with the very first rap song that he would perform at the Canal Room in New York…while on his way there; and this is the same guy who as a senior at Brandywine High School, put a “kick me” sign on an “Egyptian teacher’s back”, got the man kicked a few times, and was threatened with expulsion and the possibility of not being able to walk in graduation. When they explained that what he did was offensive to the teacher’s culture, Aris argument was that he was, “African-American and Egypt is in Africa” so…”what are you telling me?”
He did go on to walk, on time…and he did so high and drunk. Shouts out to the class of 2008…you all were clearly a “turned up” bunch, haha!
THIS is why I simply cannot be surprised.
But as much as his self-proclaimed “asshole” tendencies peak out here and there, he knows better. In high school, he was in the “higher classes”–no not the classes that mainly had kids who stayed high; the classes for the academically gifted. When he got kicked out of his home at 16, a little over a year later, he was on the phone calling his mother in tears.
“I called her up crying like, mom I’m sorry, it’s New Years and I don’t want to argue no more, I apologize: it’s my fault,” he relays, “knowing it wasn’t my fault but whatever who cares; I’ll be the bigger person.”
There goes that tendency. He laughs.
“No but it was my fault. I was young and feeling myself. I just started smelling myself like, ‘WHAT?! I can get money now? I got this money in my pocket. No, it’s no telling me nothing!”
Throughout all of this, he’s still doing this semi-distant dance with his music and the streets. He’d written nearly 12 notebooks full of songs and concepts by the time graduation came around. He had yet to actually be able to record any of them. The drug dealers around his way looked out for him, but would never let him get too close to the streets. It went from his mother trying to keep him out of the streets, to the streets trying to keep him out of them.
“No matter what I tried to do, everybody around the city knew my family—the drug dealers always fucked with me to the point of: they goin’ make sure I’m good; they goin’ give me some money or make sure I had a new pair of sneaks or something like that. They were more so doing it because of who I was–my family and everything—they weren’t trying to get me involved,” he says.
Anytime that he would even make mention of joining them on the block, they dismissed the thought.
“They weren’t paying me any mind. They’d say: ‘Man you ain’t doing none of that go back in the house…go write some rhymes or something and get out my face. Don’t you gotta go to service?’ The OG’s always made sure that I was taking care of but they didn’t want me to know anything that was actually going on.”
It was after graduation that “shit got real”. His daughter was born and the two young parents were struggling to make things work.
“I was the only one working–her mom wasn’t working–and money was just
depleting; I don’t have no bread. We couldn’t afford daycare. We couldn’t get Purchase of Care because I made too much money. Not that I actually made too much money because in the City of Wilmington, what money you do make, they tax the hell out of it–so it wasn’t really anything,” he explains.
Eventually, enough was enough. In July of 2010, Aris daughter and her mother moved back to D.C.
“I wasn’t trying to take my daughter from her mother: that’s who she’s going to learn from, especially as a girl. I can’t teach her how to be a girl,” he says.
He secured visitation rights and things became increasingly tighter. He now had to commute to D.C. via his then-car to see his daughter which meant that the money depleted even faster. Always up for a challenge, life delivered another crippling blow: his car was totaled.
“Money is just COMING OUT because now I have to borrow people’s car to go do everything I can just so I can see my daughter. That’s my heart. Money is going out so you gotta find a way to supplement it,” he says.
He’s finally getting around to answering that original question.
“If I would grab a quarter, I would [sell] the eighth just so that I could get some diapers or something [and not come empty handed]. I had money from work but work was not paying me enough money to actually take care of everything so the little bit of tree [weed] that I might get a hold of, I might go grab an eighth and flip that so that I could make sure that I could provide,” he says with a slight sense of frustration.
“That was a humbling experience. I don’t do that now–I know it but I’m not a street nigga AT ALL. I know the streets–that’s where I’m from so I know how to maneuver. You put a lion in his natural habitat with no food…he’s gonna eat. Especially when it comes to having to provide,” he says.
His daughter is still in D.C. and he’s still taking those trips.
“Watch the ‘Falling Apart’ video, it explains a little bit of what’s going on in me and [my fellow artist], K. Rivers, lives. Pay attention to that,” he says with a mouth full of food.
Oh yeah…this interview was because he is a music artist. Ha…my bad loves.
Inspired by the likes of Nas, Outkast and AZ, Aris gives us a glimpse into his getaway: music.
AS: When I first started rapping a long time ago, my name was Kasual, with a K. This was like the early 2000’s so say what you want! [laughs] When I first came out, it was “A. Sparks: They Sky Dive Kid“. I’m a back-pack rapper–even though I can’t just put myself in that category because I make all kinds of music. But, the A– didn’t mean anything, there was no Aristotle then. I was “A SPARK…” of change of difference. As I got older, I used to pay attention to Aristotle’s philosophies and different quotes, and just study. I was like, ‘I’m really like a lyrical philosopher’…I don’t know what I was going through. Then I just became Aristotle Sparks…long story short, I just end up shortening it to: Aris Sparks.
SS: It’s like an evolution.
AS: Yeah, but I’m still Keith though; I’m not putting on a show or anything. There’s no show. I’m telling you everything that’s going on in my life.
SS: In, “Me and You”–I saw the video and you talk about popping pills. So… [I cock my head to the side and raise my brows.]
AS: [raises brows with a shake of the head] I’m not a drug addict. I have tried them. It was a part of my life–that’s straight from my life. Promethazine, Codeine–in the song, that’s some real life shit.
SS: I ask that because I know a lot of rappers now-a-days…
AS: Pop a molly, I’m sweatin’. Whoo!
SS: Right, but I know at times it may also be something that they’re simply regurgitating as a response to pop culture. So I wanted to see if it was something that you were really into.
AS: I made that song in like 30 min. Mind you, I’m an Outkast fan…I really love Outkast and just everything that they stood for. But umm…listening to the beat and writing–everything was just coming to me and I was writing the song and didn’t care. I feel like when you put your life on the track–the things that are actually going on–it’s way more genuine. I’m not proud of the things that I’ve always done but at the same time, at the same time, it’s genuine…when you make genuine, nobody can tell you anything. I make music because that when I can get away. I’m just paying homage–I want to give back to the same music I heard growing up. Whenever you listen to their songs, they were just telling you about everything that was going in their lives. The facts. At least most of them were anyway.
SS: So since you came up in the church and Gospel played such a big part of your life…where’s your relationship at with God now?
AS: I would say my relationship with God back when I was a lot younger, was better than it is now. Right now, it’s better than it was when I was in high school and that’s because I went for formality–because I had to go. I didn’t want to be there so my relationship wasn’t that good. It’s really good right now because I may not listen to gospel but that’s not what it’s about. I still talk to God, I still pray–I know my word, I still read it…I feel like I have an understanding with God. ‘You know from the bottom of my heart, I love you.’
SS: So what are your thoughts on lyricism and “good music”?
AS: It is an art form–being able to structure your bars, but…It’s not always about lyricism, it’s about the whole package. If you got the lyricism, and the song don’t have a beat then it might not sound good. But if you can blend it all together and have a happy medium of both, then how can you be upset when everything sounds great?
SS: When did you realize that music was what you wanted to do?
AS: [In 2010, after my first performance] I had a meeting with one of these reps that was from a music group affiliated with Def Jam and we’re talking and they’re like, “Yeah, we can help you get better. We can take you under our wing.” I’m not paying attention because I’m like, I’ma make sure I do it all on my own so I can actually see the epic come up and appreciate it from beginning to end–not actually being handed something. That was the first time I was really focused like: this is what I want to do. I’m really going to focus on rapping and being a lyricist.
SS: What’s your journey been like since then?
AS: The music has gotten better and better and better to the point where it is now. Even a year after 2010, it still wasn’t…you have to get comfortable being behind the microphone and being inside the studio. You have to get comfortable with people hearing your music and not liking it. Well…for a min there people were hearing it and they weren’t giving me their honest opinion. I knew that I didn’t like the music so I was like, I’m going to keep making songs so that I can get better. I linked up with a music group out of Texas [by way of] this guy Rob. He [heard Take It Back online via Twitter] and liked it. His boy Uno heard it–and that time we didn’t even know each other–and they both pushed me to keep getting better. They would put me on to different artists–the Kendrick Lamar’s, Dom Kennedy’s and we’re finding out about all of this is 2010/11. I’m listening to them and I’m like: this music is good…I want to be better than these guys.
SS: Right…so now you’ve got some serious motivation to keep growing.
AS: Yeah. We put out a mix tape in May of 2011; it did like 400-500 downloads the first day and continued to do well after that. Every year I just wanted to do one more. If I’m doing two this year, I’ma do three the next year. I just want to do one better than the year I did before. We put out another one last year. They’re just rapping cats, and they’re younger than me–well Rob does my graphic designs for me. It’s amazing the connections you can make through the internet.
SS: You’ve linked up with a new music group now though, right?
AS: Right now, my brothers over at Wolf Pacific–we still talk and everything. But yeah, I deal with a music group that started back at the end of 2011, Union Music Group. It’s myself, Kyle Rivers, Kyon Martin, Shef and L. Rashan–that’s our creative director and that’s the gel. Kyon and Shep were new additions in 2012–so like yeah, we’re Union Music Group and we’re all from Delaware. Through that me and K. Rivers came out with Red Cups & Fornication, 95 Lives [just some rapping ass shit over 90’s beats] and more. We’ve just been making music and learning.
SS: I’ve noticed that you’re very big on the importance of learning as it pertains to your craft. How has it manifested itself in your music?
AS: [Because now] I produce also. My production stays to myself because I want to perfect before I give it to someone. I’ve been trying to compose because back in the 70’s a single use to sit on billboards for a long time. The brief gratification that we get now–things aren’t cool after a day. So I’ve been trying to study the albums and artists, like Bootsie Collins, Prince–because if they were able to do that, who’s to say I couldn’t? I’ve just been learning and studying. And at the same time…I’m a rapper and I grew up listening to rap. So, it’s been really nice to [be able to] craft the songs the way I want them to [as a result of learning how]. Now I’m writing songs for other people; I can write anybody’s raps because it’s all about good music to me. If you have to sing it so that this good music is made: it doesn’t matter, I’ll write it because it doesn’t have to be from me. It’s about crafting great songs and that’s what UMG is about.
SS: How good music being the only thing that truly matters influence the way that you connect with your audience?
AS: Everybody doesn’t need to hear it. But, the people that do hear it…it’s because they needed to hear it…that’s how I feel. I don’t try to appeal to an audience; the audience that I have is whoever needs to hear it.
SS: What has your experience been like as Delaware artist trying to break into the Philly market?
AS: It’s hard to really get into the Philly music scene because here, y’all are like brothers–like y’all stay together for the most part: your crew is going to support YOU [only]. I like Chill Moody, I like Dosage…I like a couple different artists up here. But I haven’t connected with them–I haven’t been able to really connect with Philly artists like I have been able to in Delaware. So I’m looking to see how this is going to pan out because I have a fan base that’s all over the place–people really support me. So I’m just waiting…I’m building. I’ve been working with Cologe Denim, a Philadelphia-based brand–it’s not just about clothes, it’s about art. Their motto is: In Art We Trust–and I really stand by that. That’s beautiful. It’s [the connections] going to happen–we got a lot of different links to people up here; s/o to DJ Damage, s/o to DJ Bran and all of them. It’s going to happen soon…you’ll be seeing my name more.
SS: So since that first show, you’ve definitely gotten better? Because Philly will shut you down.
AS: [Laughs] Oh, definitely! Anybody that’s been to my show, or our shows–they know that they’re going to have a good time. And the main thing is: we’re going to give you good music. You can’t deny good music.
Follow Aris’ journey: @ArisSparks
– Sincerely Syreeta