Brooklyn rapper Starker has established himself as one of the most consistent and well-regarded names in the New York underground rap scene. Recently, Starker’s fashion prowess and music releases — including a full length project with longtime collaborator YL and producer Zoomo — have caught the eye of industry influencers. The rapper is one of the foremost collectors of vintage Polo Ralph Lauren in the world. In 2021, Teddy Santis’s Aimé Leon Dore enlisted Starker for their 2021 New Balance x Aimé Leon Dore ad campaign. Last year, the Brooklyn MC painted the cover art for Westside Gunn’s July 2022 album “Peace ‘Fly’ God” with his friend and collaborator, Masschussetts rapper al.divino. Starker’s raspy delivery, DIY aesthetic, and distinct NYC fashion sense has garnered him an ever-growing cadre of diehard fans, both in his hometown and abroad.
Despite his New York roots, Starker has found a creative haven and committed listenership in Japan. In 2017, Starker played his first solo show in Morioka, Japan, despite making music for close to a decade prior. “It probably changed my life forever,” Starker said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson. “Like Japan is one of those places that when you get there it feels like a bonus round in life.”
Starker would never have performed in Morioka had it not been for the mother of his child, who bought him a plane ticket to Japan for Valentine’s Day. The rapper had been talking to Japanese promoters and fans of his music through Instagram, but never planned to meet up with those contacts in person. “She just bought me a ticket,” the rapper said. “If it wasn't for that I wasn't going to go, I wasn't going to take that step. It didn’t make sense to jump on a fucking 18 hour flight and go to Japan. I wasn’t even getting booked in New York. My first ever solo show was in Japan.”
After returning home to NYC, Starker felt empowered and was hungry to make more music. According to the rapper, one of the projects that his Japanese fans loved the most was “Lo.Ceasar,” his 2015 debut collaboration with YL. The Japan trip reinvigorated Starker’s confidence to increase his output of solo projects and collabs with RRR, the label collective formed by Starker, YL, and producers Zoomo and Noface. Last November, RRR dropped “RRR: The Album,” an infectiously energetic posse project that highlights trio Starker, YL, and Zoomo.
“I went to Japan and got treated like an artist for the first time in my life,” Starker said. “Like I'd never gotten that in New York. If it wasn't for Japan, people in New York woulda probably kept treating me like, I'm supposed to be a fucking doorman and shit.”
“I came back and I had that confidence on me like, ‘Ain’t nothing you New York n****s could do to make me feel like I’m not a rapper because I just came back from Japan and those motherfuckers knew who I was,” the rapper added.
Starker first learned about hip-hop as a kid in Brooklyn. The rapper shared that his own upbringing closely mirrored the aesthetic of the 1994 movie “Fresh,” which takes place in Brooklyn. Starker had an aunt who was a huge Ruff Ryders fan and a father that was buying him sneakers from the time he could first walk. “That's where I come from,” Starker said. “I come from the hood. I come from Brooklyn, New York. I'm from Williamsburg, from Cooper Projects. That's where they shot the movie ‘New Jersey Drive.’ They shot that shit on my block. That wasn’t filmed in Jersey.”
Fashion is an essential aspect of Starker’s artistry. Many of his lyrics are fashion-inspired, often including shoutouts to the specific brands that define his style including Iceberg, Avirex, and vintage Polo Ralph Lauren. In fact, Starker is one of the most significant private Polo archivists in the world. Last year, the rapper was chosen as the American representative for Highsnobiety and Polo Ralph Lauren’s “Superfan” series, which profiled three international collectors of the brand. Starker has items in his collection that even Polo corporate does not have.
“I realize that high fashion uses people like me to translate their product to the masses,” Starker said. “Certain products cannot be translated without a certain medium and I’m that medium. They recognize that I could be used to their advantage like, ‘If we put clothes on this person and he wears them, the public is going to recognize it as something that they want to wear.’”
The Brooklyn rapper said that he tries to communicate his sartorial sensibility with his music. Starker views fashion as a way of speaking without words. “The only thing flyer than wearing it is saying it,” the rapper said. “Even if you can’t afford it, if you know about it, that's still pretty fly.”
Within the hip-hop underground, Starker is coveted for his curatorial ability and expert eye for style. In 2020, he worked with al.divino to draw the cover art for his album “Secrets.” The artwork features Starker’s signature cartoon pup, which he modeled after the vintage Betty Boop character Bimbo. In July 2022, Starker’s cartoon became the centerpiece in the album artwork for Westside Gunn’s full length project “Peace ‘Fly’ God.’” Massachusetts rapper al.divino painted the background of the image and worked with Starker to get the finished product to Gunn.
“It has such a cultural value to it,” Starker said. “This isn’t just some Mickey Mouse. You see the Muslim symbol of the fez. Everything’s very calculated. I feel like [Westside Gunn] knew what he was doing there by asking if he could use the character and it only benefited me and turned into a bigger thing for me.”
—Staff writer Ryan S. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.