Artist Profile :: Ray Sykes a.k.a. Sykez
Ray and I met at Ironworks, here in the Valley Arts District back in 2011. It was the late summer, and at Ironworks he was an artist-in-residence. We bonded instantly over writing, art, and the world. Almost a year later, we were pretty close except for one thing: I still had not heard or seen him perform his music.
In 2012, ORNG Ink took the lead in resurrecting a ValleyArts annual event called, VAMP (Valley Arts Music & Poetry Festival) complete with an art show, fashion show, food from our community earth oven, and a full day of live music performances. One of those acts included Ray and his friend Cliff as a duo from their hip hop collective Soundbox Banditz.
In the midst of planning the event, he pulled me aside for a more serious conversation. We talked about how we enjoyed our genuine friendship. But, he said to me, that we could never really be friends if I don’t listen and get to know his music. I could never know the real him if I hadn’t even seen him perform.
I must admit that I was reluctant because I had heard of so many people being rappers at that point. Coming from the Bronx, there was always someone selling their mixtape and claiming they rap. But he gave me an ultimatum: if you don’t watch me perform at VAMP, we are no longer friends. I knew he was serious because he never asks me for anything. I promised him that I would be there.
Myself and local fashion designer, Robyn Modest, led a group of youth to design and style a fashion show for the festival. After, I went to my apartment down the street on Forest Street to digest, and twenty minutes in, I was like “Oh shit!” I remembered that SYKEZ and Johnny Delight (Ray and Cliff) were performing and I couldn’t miss it.
I literally ran down Tompkins Street back to Ironworks and heard Cliff’s voice introducing the two of them. I was lucky he was giving one of his legendary long introductions. Long story short, I was blown away by their performance. I was genuinely impressed with Ray’s on stage persona, SYKEZ. He was such a good performer, and truly came alive on stage. You could tell that this was something he was born to do.
I was also impressed with his lyrics and skill he had delivering them. Certain lines I would look around like, is everyone else hearing this?
It is known that Ray and I have been fortunate enough to still have a close connection. Over the years I have watched him grow as a lyricist, musician and performer and it has truly been a privilege.
Read our in-depth interview below.
P.R.: Where are you from? Talk about your childhood; give us an idea of little ray.
Ray Sykes: I’m from NJ. I was raised on the north side. I moved a million times, so I was shy and never really made attachments, but as a kid I loved drawing, video games and anime.
How would you describe yourself (rapper, writer, or musician)?
I’d describe myself as a writer but more of a mouth for the voiceless and oppressed.
How New Jersey are you?
I’m the most NJ guy there is. I love Redman, Springsteen, Bon Jovi. I curse like a sailor, and I am the ultimate underdog. I bleed Jerz.
What attracts you about the valley arts district?
Nothing to be honest. I lived here in Orange my whole life, and I want to leave and expand my horizons.
What have been some of your past creative endeavors?
You name it, I’ve done it. I sang for 8 years, played instruments growing up, wrote poetry drew painted etc…
What is a typical Sykez outfit?
Hoodie, some Nikes, a cap, backpack. Something I can move in, or something I can play basketball in.
How is Sykez different than ray?
Ray is my uniform I use to fit into society and my mask that I use to hide the fact that I have never found a group that I feel comfortable [in]. Sykez is the real me, the voice of the people that doesn’t give a shit about fitting in; the me that breaks barriers and spreads love and is passionate about fighting the evils of society.
How has ORNG ink been instrumental in your musical career?
It provided a place where I could bounce ideas off of other creatives but also a place where I could lock myself away and be by myself and teach myself how to create. I spent a lot of hours locked in the booth solo, self-educating myself.
Talk about your journey with hip-hop.
My journey with Hip-Hop began with listening to soul music next to my grandfather… I always enjoyed how that music sounded and then I fell in love with hip hop once I learned it sampled those kind of songs… like Little Brother and then the lyrics once I heard Illmatic and Wu- Tang and Pharcyde… it always seemed so wack to me before I grew to appreciate the real hip hop culture and studied and absorbed it. I thought hip-hop was just the bullshit girls listened to in my classes, but it was so much more.
Who are your biggest musical inspirations?
My biggest musical inspirations are Curtis Mayfield, Yoko Kanno, James Brown, Biggie Smalls, and Eddie Kendricks.
How would you describe your music compared to what's out now?
I’m too raw, they can’t compete with me… for the most part people are selfish and only are concerned with self. I like to think what I do is listen to people and put their message out at the same time as mine. I want to start conversations and paint images of places and things that may usually get passed over.
How does your music represent the complexities of music?
In my music, sometimes I say basic things and ask questions that you may want to run away from. Someone told me before that I make songs that talk about strange things. Like when making a song about a strip club, I chose to talk from the stripper's mind.
How is your music/sound making an imprint on the world?
Well, I bring East Coast flavor, the essence of Jersey, and just a dope personality into society through my sound, my music.
How do you want to use music to uplift and connect with youth?
I want to use it to inspire them to reach further as far as grasping dreams, and I want to continue to build a legacy.
Top 3 songs on your playlist?
Talk about playing in Austin, Texas this month during SXSW. How did that show come about?
I saw a guy wearing a Run-D.M.C shirt and he had a Macbook on him… so I thought he might be a producer and we chatted into letting me attend a private event. Corocoro was an independent arts store celebrating 2 years of being open with a backyard show. I was able to DJ a set of production by my production team as well give them some new material I have been working on. The vibe was amazing and the people were friendly and into it. I made some connections and learned southern hospitality is real. I look forward to working with them in the future, and shout out to the gumbo.
Future travel plans?
I want to visit Seattle, Denver, and Portland… I’m interested in the West Coast because I never touched down there.
Talk about your new project and what it means to you. What can we expect from the highly anticipated project?
You can expect bars, a lot of me. Barely any features. Sonic brilliance fire, fire more flames and some shit that you can vibe to. The beats are crazy… this will be a classic most definitely.
Where do you see your music career going?
Multi-billionaire status! I am going to the moon. Iconic.
Where do Sykez and Ray hope to be in 10 years?
I want to be comfortable and happy more than anything else. I just want a steady mind frame.
How much of your life is dedicated to music?
An unhealthy level. It’s kind of disturbing if I think about it too hard.
What other bands were you a part of? What did you learn from being in Soundbox Banditz?
Those are my brothers. I learned how to be a bandit… with those it was crazy. To this day we have our own universe we built that people still rock with.
What is Era Artist Collective? What is your role and why are you a part of it?
That’s a collective of my brothers and sisters who lost our comfort zone. We are an artist collective that encompasses all forms of art, independent and locally. We are dedicated to pushing culture and influencing it whenever the chance arrives.
Where do you see Era going in the future?
I see us all as young entrepreneurs with our separate businesses and successful careers.
What is the most important aspect of being an artist? Why?
Being free and not caring about what other's are thinking and reacting on instinct and always trying to keep the love of art first.
What is your favorite era of music and why?
The late 80’s, 90’s, the crack era made it so raw back then.
What else do you want to add to this interview?
Thanks for the interview. I’m going to be dropping my project "92" soon, and I’ll be performing my best work all over to promote it… Invite me to your city... I’ll bring snacks.
Reach out and listen for the following:
About the Writer
Patricia Rogers, #ValleyGirlNJ, lives in New Jersey's Valley Arts District. The native New Yorker works as a writer, blogger and community activist. Starting Masconsumption Media in 2012, she has been passionate about capturing the stories of the vibrant up and coming Valley Arts District neighborhood through her blog, zine, events and more. She blogs for Jersey Indie, Luna Stage, and Hat City Kitchen and offers many creative media services. Visit her blog www.masconsumption.com and keep up with your favorite Valley Girl on social media at @valleygirl_nj (Twitter / Instagram).