Input on how SupaHotBeats convinced him to share his harrowing Columbine experience
Input (aka Gustavo D'Arthenay)
Gustavo D'Arthenay is better known these days as Input, an emerging rapper who's been grinding hard for the better part of the past decade. With a half-dozen releases already under his belt and two more -- including a collaboration with Broken titled Never Heard of Ya and Bomb's Over Everything, a seven-track album produced by SupaHotBeats (aka Will Power, an Atlanta producer who's worked on tracks for the likes of Yelawolf, Wiz Khalifa, Eminem and Slaughterhouse) -- due in the next few months, Input is starting to make a name for himself.
Dial back the clock to the spring of 1999, though, and the rapper was simply Gus D'Arthenay, a wide-eyed fourteen-year-old student at Columbine High School, still adjusting to being in such a big place after the small private school he'd attended previously. On an April morning that nobody around here is likely to forget anytime soon, two of his classmates conducted one of the worst school shootings in history, violently turning D'Arthenay and his classmates' lives upside down. D'Arthenay remembers waiting for the madness to end, and when it finally did, the impetus of his young life came sharply into focus.
"When you're lying on a floor and you're listening to all this shit going on, it was like...there were moments in time where I literally didn't think I was going to get out," he recalls. "And once you kind of get yourself so far to that point -- that you're accepting of death, where you're basically waiting to die -- once you come out of that and survive, I think that just made me want to live and want to succeed and want to be something."
D'Arthenay recounts the events of that day in vivid detail on "Sparks Fly," a song produced by SupaHotBeats, with a haunting hook sung by Atlanta R&B singer Nikkiya. Out of all the songs the prolific MC has written, "Sparks Fly" marks the first time he's ever written about his experience. While there have been subtle nods in past lyrics, D'Arthenay has consciously avoided making any overt references.
"I never wanted any association between my music and that part of my life," he explains. "I just didn't want the two to correlate, because I thought if that was the reason I got any kind of publicity, I didn't want that to be the only thing. I wanted my music to speak for itself."
SupaHotBeats later convinced him that his story deserved to be told, and so during one of their sessions, D'Arthenay opened up. The results are chilling, as expected, but there's also an element of empowerment, particularly in the closing lines: "I made this life from a tile floor in a science class, and I'm proud of the person I am today, and you can't fire back." Those lines in particular embody both D'Arthenay's outlook and the reason he finally allowed the tragedy to bleed into his art.
"There's such a negative light over the whole thing that nobody ever talks about the positives that come out of it, because nobody thinks that positive things can come out of tragedy, I guess," he observed. "I wanted to be able to show that it's not all trauma and a ruined life because you experienced something like this."
We recently spoke at length with D'Arthenay about working with SupaHotBeats and why he finally decided to write about Columbine more than a decade later. He shared his experience and talked about how he finally came to grips with some things he'd been repressing that he wasn't even aware that he'd been repressing.
Before dealing with the experience in song, D'Arthenay had already started to revisit the ordeal over the course of the past year for a documentary on Columbine being produced by one of his fellow classmates. Tentatively titled We Are, the documentary is being produced by Laura Farber and will feature D'Arthenay's story along with several other former students.
D'Arthenay also talked to us about growing up in Littleton and attending Catholic school as the first-generation son of Venezuelan parents, both of whom came to this country with nothing and later went on to earn advanced degrees. Input's love of hip-hop came early, he told us, noting how he was such a rap fiend in middle school that he used to hustle color printouts of porn he pulled off the web to finance his then-burgeoning hip-hop addiction. Keep reading for the full interview.
Westword: So bring us up to speed. What have you been up to?
Input: It's been a pretty crazy six months. Just been kind of wrapping up the two projects. Since the last time we talked, which I think was a while ago, I was just getting started on that SupaHotBeats project, and then Broken and I were doing our followup to Left for Dead. Both albums wrapped up about the same time. Late July, early August is when I finished recording both.
So the first one, Broken and I have our Never Heard of Ya album, which is our followup to Left for Dead. We're releasing on the thirteenth of this month, so just under two weeks now. Saturday is our album-release party for that one, so just been getting all of that put in order. We've got Sims from Doomtree and Astronautalis both on the bill for that one. They'll be performing with us. Both of them are featured on the album, too. Our whole live show is going to be featuring all the artists and musicians that performed and played on the album. So getting all of that put together has been the main focus of everything.
January 1 is when SupaHotBeats and I are dropping our project together. So when all this passes with Broken, I'm going to literally have to switch hats and start going into the next album with him. We're going to do a three-city release for the project, between here, Atlanta, and then, depending upon a couple of things, either L.A. or Chicago. So I've just been crazy-busy and overworked on getting these two albums up to par with each other. The nice thing is they're two completely different feels and sounds. I think it will definitely hit two completely different fan bases.
What's the name of the SupaHotBeats project?
That one's called Bombs Over Everything. That one ended up being seven tracks total. Never Heard of Ya is ten tracks total, and the SupaHotBeats one is seven. It's pretty crazy how that one came together and what it's worked into. It's been cool, man, a whole new experience working with a producer of his caliber that's just on a whole other level of the industry and kind of where he is networking. I did A3C Festival in Atlanta. I went out two weeks ago, and Saturday, the last night of the festival, SupaHotBeats and DJ Booth put together a showcase, and they brought me out for that showcase. The lineup was nuts. It was Tech N9ne, Yelawolf, Rittz, Emilo Rojas, Chris Webby -- just out of control heavy-hitters. They threw me on just two slots before Yelawolf and Tech N9ne. It was crazy, man.
What was it like to work with SupaHotBeats? What did you learn?
We did seven tracks in five sessions. So I was in Atlanta a total of six days over two separate trips, and we worked 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. every day. It was all from scratch. We went into the studio and just locked ourselves in there. He would just basically start with a metronome. He'd build drums, do melodies and everything he does is sample free, re-created, or if he digs a sample, he'll just take a piece of it and bring in musicians and build it out, kind of like Dr. Dre style. So nothing's ever actually sampled. It's all either recreated or sample-free.
Just the whole motivation on that side was cool. We'd start a song, and he'd just kind of being vibing out to it, getting the feel for the beat, and he'd look at me and be like, 'What do you think? Do you like this beat?' I'd be like, 'Yeah, man. I already got a verse and a chorus for it.' And he'd be completely taken off guard by the way that I was able to write to everything. So it was just a really cool chemistry, kind of his whole approach to recording.
When I would be in the recording booth and stuff, he'd be sitting there and just his pointers -- kind of how he envisions things -- he had such good insight, in terms of making me push myself and find new ways to accentuate certain things, which I don't have here at home. Broken and I work great together, but he does his thing and I do my thing, and then we just kind of meet in the middle and that's it. But with SupaHotBeats, it was more of one hundred percent together on every single thing, from the sound to whatever else was going on. So it was definitely like an insane, insane experience.
And then just his whole insight and his ability to really look at certain things in a way that really opened up my view point on certain things. Like I told you how I was at Columbine and that whole experience. Over a fourteen year period of my life since the shooting and everything, I was always one of those people that just never wanted any association between my music career and that part of my life. I just didn't want the two to correlate, because I thought if something happened, if that was the reason I got any kind of publicity, I didn't want that to be the only thing. I wanted my music to speak for itself.
SupaHotBeats was the first person to really open my eyes to be like, 'You've got to tell your story, and make this come to life.' Our project has the first song I've ever written about my experience, and it came out to be one of the most powerful songs I've ever written -- probably the most powerful song I've ever written. It was something so ridiculous, I can't wait to unleash that song itself to the public, because I think it's going to be something that really strikes a lot of nerves. And you know, it's probably going to be both positive and negative, just because of the content and everything. But I think it's something that definitely needs to be heard.
What's it called?
The song itself is called "Sprits Fly." It features one of SupaHotBeats's artist in Atlanta, this really, really dope R&B -- she does hip-hop, kind of, but it's mainly R&B -- her name is Nikkiya. She sang the hook on this song. And the same thing: We made this song in like 45 minutes. We sat down, made the beat, wrote the chorus, wrote the verses, everything. It was insane the way it just kind of clicked together.
Input (aka Gustavo D'Arthenay)
Tell me the story behind the song. First of all, just give me some context. How old were you when you were at Columbine?
I was fourteen years old, so I was a freshman. The song itself...at Columbine, when it happened, when the whole shooting happened, I was in the science hall. So I was caddy corner to the library on the second floor of the building. So, we, essentially, were...I mean, I guess the best word to say is 'hostage.'
We were in the school for about four and a half hours, four and a half to five hours, and we listened and heard everything -- every gunshot, everything. So we were just sitting there waiting for something...to get out of the school. So the song is literally a story of kind of what my life was like before Columbine -- just, really, it's three verses, but it turned out to be a five minute song with some pretty in-depth verses.
But the story basically goes: I grew up in a Catholic school environment. So I went to private school from the time I was five years old until eighth grade. I was supposed to go to a private school for high school, but I didn't get in. So I ended up going to Columbine, public school. So I went from this fifty person class in eighth grade to a 450-person freshman class. It's kind just like a story of the change of kind of the culture shock between what it was like growing up in a very, very small, not-diverse community into this huge new world, and then my first introduction to this huge new world is the biggest tragedy in the history of our country.
That's kind of what the story follows, and it just goes from where I started that day to where I am now kind of. So it just kind of encapsulates what that day held, what happened to me that day and then kind of what grew from that day and where I am now, as an artist, due to the certain scenarios and everything that played out that day.
So how did the shooting affect you personally?
It was kind of different. One of the advantageous things for me being a new kid in that school was that I really didn't have, in that first seven months, because it happened the second semester of my freshman year, so in that first year, I made friends, but I wasn't at the point where I had really established any strong connections with anybody, where I had, like, what you could call a best friend or that kind of thing. That was a major factor for me not being personally affected in terms of knowing anybody, because I didn't know anybody that was a victim in the shooting.
I had class with one of the shooters, but still nothing was ever personal. It was all just like -- I wouldn't even say it was an acquaintance. It was just somebody I saw on a daily basis in classes, but nothing beyond that. So it didn't really affect me much in high school or after the fact, but it was one of those things when I did that documentary on the shooting and kind of revisited the entire thing, I realized over the last fourteen years of my life -- because it was literally fourteen years ago, and now I'm 29, so it was just like the halfway point of where I am now -- that I've been holding on to this adolescence that was taken from me at that time.
As soon as the shooting happened and we got out of that school, there was nothing. We weren't able to live a normal childhood or high school life. Everything turned into a media frenzy, and you couldn't get away from anything. So I realized, finally, that I had been holding on to this wanting to be a kid again. And so the documentary we shot and then the writing of the song was like this huge therapy and release off my shoulders, actually understanding that I'd been carrying this dead weight that I wasn't even allowing myself to be conscious of. It was pretty crazy to finally come to grips with that, and the realization of letting it go was one of the most humbling and free-spirited things I've ever been able to experience.
How did it affect you otherwise? Were you traumatized afterward?
No, no, not at all, man. I mean, it was crazy. I remember, like a year after it happened, every April 20, we would leave Littleton, whoever my group of friends were at the time. We would leave, because the swarm of media and the coverage that came around Littleton was so unbearable that you had to get out of town. I remember the year after the shooting, we went up to my friend's dad's farm in Ft. Lupton. We went up there, you know, typical high school getting drunk and whatnot, and four hours into all of us drinking -- it was me and eight or nine of my close friends -- every single one of my friends admit in this open forum circle that they had been going to therapy for the last twelve months since the shooting.
I was just blown away by it, because it didn't affect me at that point, where I was like...you know, I didn't have nightmares and I didn't have any kind of like... You know, every now and then a car backfiring or a loud bang will catch me off guard, like it does anybody else, but it doesn't ever, like nothing ever shoots me back to that moment where I'm, like, terrified, you know, or like [having] crazy flashbacks. It never got to that point with me.
Why do you suppose that is?
I don't know, man. I mean, like I said, I think one of the advantageous things was that I didn't develop those relationships to really be personally attached to anything in that school, because I was still, in a sense, identifying who I was. So I was more focused on me. So I think that I just... I don't know why it was so easy for me to brush off. You know I think I just had so much more identity crisises going on at the time, that outside of everything else...like, the shooting happened, and I was like it was what it was, but the only thing it really pushed me to do was live my life more.
I realized at that moment: When you're lying on a floor and you're listening to all this shit going on, it was like...there were moments in time where I literally didn't think I was going to get out. And once you kind of get yourself so far to that point -- that you're accepting of death, where you're basically waiting to die -- once you come out of that and survive, I think that just made me want to live and want to succeed and want to be something. I think that's what drove me past the traumatized state of mind.
It's crazy. People ask me that all the time. There's certain people, a lot of kids and people I talk to now always ask me if I have a problem [talking about it]. They're like, 'Oh, you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to.' I'm like, 'Naw, I tell you my story. You got an hour? Let's talk.' It's one of those things where it never affected me to tell the story over and over. It was actually kind of -- I think it was almost beneficial for me, especially now where I am with music and everything. I don't think that I had not retold the story so many times that my memory would be so fresh as to what my day consisted of. So I think almost by keeping it alive, in a sense, was kind of like a destiny for me to get to where I am now.
It's been cool, man. My teacher that actually introduced me to writing in a creative writing class at Columbine my senior year, this last semester, he actually had me come in and I spoke to a few of his classes about my experience that day and what my writing is now and kind of [describing] my processes for writing and stuff.
So it was cool to kind of come full circle and stand in front of a classroom full of these fifteen year old kids where I was at the time of the shooting. I was seeing myself in these kids' eyes but being able to kind of show them that it wasn't all...There's such a negative light over the whole thing that nobody ever talks about the positives that come out of it, because nobody thinks that positive things can come out of tragedy, I guess. I wanted to be able to show that it's not all trauma and a ruined life because you experienced something like this.
Which of the shooters were you in a class with?
Dylan. I was in a gym class with him. It was pretty bizarre. Thinking about it now, I realize how bad the kid really had it. We were in a gym class together, and it was like the kid just got tormented on a daily basis. So to see these things happen to somebody and then to realize these were the buttons being pushed and the breaking point of somebody so young. And not to say that anything that happened to him was justifiable for him to come in and shoot people, but you can definitely see where he was worn thin from the pure abuse he got.
It was a day-in, day-out type thing. And he was just a different kid, you know? He'd come to gym class wearing his...he'd have his gym uniform on that we all had to wear, but he'd wear like military combat boots. So he was just this target that everybody in the class just loved to pick on. It was pretty insane to see it all kind of unfold and then realize this is the kid that came out of all this torment and bullying.
So he stood out to you even before any of this happened?
Yeah, yeah, just because he was the target, man. Like we had -- there was this game called 'biff.' It was like a dodgeball game, but it was like an every-man-for-himself game. They would line the whole class up along the walls of the gymnasium, and the teacher would just drop like twenty dodgeballs in the center of the gymnasium, and then they'd blow the whistle and everyone would just run up, grab a ball, and then it's like you just throw it at whoever. And [it was a] once you hit somebody, you're out type of thing. The goal was to try to hit somebody and get the ball to come back to you, so you were on the attack rather than the defense.
And it never failed. At some point in the game, multiple kids would all just get in a circle around this kid and all just attack him, just all hit him. One person would hit him low in the nuts and he'd fall down, and then they'd all just start hitting him in the face while he was laying down. It was crazy to do this to a seventeen year old kid. It's nuts. And it didn't click [to me] until years after, that I was like, 'Man, this is what this kid had to go through on a daily basis, just because he was different.'
How did he react to that? Did he get angry or lash out?
No. It was just like lifeless, man. He just took it, and then he would just get up and walk away. Never said a word. Never anything. He would just lay there until they were done, and then he would just get up, and it was on to the next game or class was over, and then he'd be back the next day. It was crazy, man.
It was weird, because we'd sit in this hallway before class started. You'd go get dressed in the locker room, and then we'd all kind of like sit out in the hallway lined up along both sides of the hallway before class would begin, and he was always one of the last ones to walk in to get ready.
So we'd all be sitting there, and it was almost like cinematic, man. Like, he would come down the hallway and it was just like slow motion, like he's just walking and all these kids lined up on both sides of him, and he's the only person walking down the hallway with camo pants, combat boots, a hackers T-shirt, his trench coat, a beret and sunglasses on. You just saw this one person walking down, and it was just an every day thing. And so once I finally put all the pieces together, that memory of him walking became really embedded into my memory of those events.
Did you ever have any personal interaction with him?
No. Never. I never did. And that was, like, the sad thing. Being a new kid in the school, I found myself partaking and joining in on the other side of it. Not...I wasn't the one that was circling around him and throwing shit at him, but I was one of those kids that laughed and kind of joined in on that kind of side of it. So, seeing myself as that, is just, like, fucked up. But you know, at fourteen years old, what are you really going to do? You're not going to go in there and try to stop it, and now you're going to get your ass kicked, too, type of thing was, like, the mentality. I was more like in the distance, in the cut with everything that went on. But, yeah, I never once had any personal exchange with the kid.
So this marks -- this song, "Spirit's Fly," marks the first time that you've actually dealt with this in song, or dealt with this lyrically?
Yeah. I mean, there's been like very, very minimal points that I've touched on something, in terms of saying something like, 'At fifteen years old, I was forced to be grown up' -- things like that. But it was never anything where, like...nobody would really understand what that meant. It was just kind of like my own personal way of exuding that. Without me telling somebody that this one line is in reference to this, it was never to the point where I was actually like, 'This is my story of what happened at Columbine. Here you go.'
Here's five minutes of your time to understand what a firsthand look at crazy ass day at Columbine was like. The storyline I tried to pull with the song was that there is success and it's not living in darkness and everything just because of the tragedy, which a lot of people tend to do. There's still people that refuse to talk about it, as opposed to me, where I'm like, 'Let's sit down. Let's chop it up.' Because this is a story that people need to hear.
So, when did you get into hip-hop?
I was one of those typical kids in high school always freestying at parties and whatnot and that kind of thing. I went to shows all the time. I was going to shows since I was fifteen years old. But when we were in college, like nineteen or twenty years old, we threw a show at the Aggie, and we brought out One Be Lo from Binary Star. We brought him out for the show, and we're just like, whatever, having a good time, and at the end of his set, he asked if anybody in the audience wanted to get on stage and freestyle with him. I was the only person in the crowd that did it, and it turned out that he and I were onstage for like fifteen minutes, just going back and forth freestyling.
When I got offstage, I got like such positive feedback from everybody in the audience, and that's when I kind of realized that maybe I can do something with this. So that was the performance side of everything. And shortly thereafter, about a year after that, about 21 years old is when I started actually writing and started recording and everything like that. So it's been about since 2004, so eight years now since I've been adamant about hip-hop and my artist craft and everything.
What made you gravitate towards hip-hop?
I think it was just more the expression of it. You know? I grew up...it's really bizarre, growing up in small community like I did, with the Catholic school and everything, you know, we weren't really exposed to many things that were considered taboo, you know, like hip-hop. It was a very cookie-cutter type of mentality. But I don't know, man, I just think that the art form itself and kind of just what it meant in everything, I remember seventh grade, 1997, is when Camp Lo came out with Uptown Saturday Night, and that was the album that kind of put hip-hop on the map for me fully. I was like, 'Man, this shit is so cool.'
I remember my parents wouldn't buy me CDs, hip-hop CDs, because of the parental advisory warnings. So I had to find ways to do it. So I had friends at school that had older brothers and things like that or families that didn't care, that would buy them CDs. So I had to find ways to hustle kids or get money, so I could buy CDs from people, or people would buy them for me. And, uh, I used to like -- this is the worst thing ever, especially being at a Catholic school -- but in like seventh grade, I was the first kid with a color printer at my school. And so I would print out tons and tons of pictures of Playboy magazines, and I would put them in a binder, and at lunch, I would sell these pictures in the bathroom for a dollar. That's how I raised money to buy CDs.
Better question is where did you get the Playboys?
I would just print the pictures off from the internet. I was just, like, I don't even know if it was Google search back then; I don't know what it was in '97, but whatever it was on AOL search, I would just go on and... '97 was like the Pamela Anderson, Jenny Mcarthy days. So everyone was so interested in it at that age, that I was just like, 'Fuck it, man. I'm going to try to hustle this.' So I would literally just print out a hundred pictures in color, and just slap them in a binder, and go to school, and be like, 'One dollar a picture.' That was my way of making money.
And you never got caught doing that?
Nope. Never got popped for it. I thought I was once. I got called into the principle's office, I remember, and I had my backpack on with the binder in there. And it was, like, we were at Mullen High School, where I was supposed to go. Notre Dame is where I went to elementary school, and that filters in to Mullen High School. You graduate, and that's where you kind of go into. So we had a track and field type day and I was at the Mullen bathroom, and I was slanging 'em at the bathroom there during this event, and there was like more people out there...ridiculous shit.
But I remember I had my backpack, and I was the only kid at field day with a fucking backpack on, so I already was kind of standing out, because it's like track and field day, and I here I am walking around with this backpack on. But I remember getting called out and brought in. I don't even remember what the discussion was about, but I just remember in my head being so terrified, like, 'Shit! I got caught.' But it ended up being something completely left field and it had nothing to do. I wasn't even in trouble. They were asking me a favor to help out with something, or something along those lines. But that was my one brush with possible expulsion from a Catholic school.
So how did you end up at Notre Dame? Were your parents religious?
My parents. They're from Venezuela. They were both born and raised there. They got married young, about 22 years old, and when they got married, they moved to the States. They grew up -- you know, Venezuela, South America, is like traditional Roman Catholic. So they grew up very religious. But you know, Catholic school, there wasn't much more they could do to us to drive us in the religious sect because we were already there for ten years. I mean, it was like we had to go to church three times a week type of thing.
What did your parents do? How did they end up in America?
Man, it's crazy. They just decided. My uncle, my mom's brother, before my parents got married, he moved and went to Oklahoma, of all places. So he moved to Oklahoma, and he communicated back to my parents that America was awesome and this and that. So my parents got married, and they decided they wanted to start a new life together.
So they moved to Oklahoma to stay with him, and they were there for, I think, about a year or two. I have one older brother, who's four years older than me, and he was born in Oklahoma. And my dad just one day went on this ski trip with some friends that he was in school with at the time out here in Colorado, and as soon as he got back from the ski trip, he walked in the house, told my mom to pack her shit, and they moved to Colorado.
What were your parents doing when they moved here to America?
Nothing. My mom... I grew up in, pretty much, a women's department store. My mom worked at this women's store called Fashion Gal down off of Wadsworth and Belleview. I was born in Arvada, and we moved to Littleton so I could be closer to Notre Dame. It was like six miles from the school at that point. So my parents, their whole thing was the culture of South America, they don't really believe in babysitters and nannies and that sort of thing, so instead of my mom getting somebody to watch me, she would take me to work with her.
So my mom worked there, and my dad worked three jobs. He was a chef, and he was actually the maintenance man at Notre Dame, the school that I went to. So he was the guy that fixed all the sprinklers and fixed the plumbing or whatever. Anything that needed fixing, he was the guy. He did that for a while, and they were both kind of back and forth in and out of school, and my mom finally ended up getting her pharmaceutical degree, so she's now a pharmacist, and my dad's an electrical engineer.
It's pretty cool. They literally came from nothing, and kind of brought us up in this even though we didn't have much growing up, we had everything we ever needed type of mentality. It was cool, because they always overcame any obstacle they could to make sure me and my brother were taken care of, and I think that's where I grasp my pursuit of success with music is especially from like watching my dad, because, you know, he has taken every kind of risk imaginable because he believes in the brighter side of anything on the other side of it. So he comes home and says, 'Pack your shit. We're moving.' He did it for a reason, and it worked out. So I think I kind of adopted that same mentality with my approach to music and my life in general.
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