FIGHT PERFECTION MEET BROCKHAMPTON, AMERICA’S NEXT GREAT BOY BAND
After meeting online, a collection of musical misfits made the leap from a remote town in Texas to the precipice of stardom, and they're determined to subvert perceptions about race, class and creativity on their way to the top. In Brockhampton’s world, perfection is boring, and the only rules are their own.
San Marcos sits on the I-35 corridor, deep in central Texas—about halfway between San Antonio and Austin. The city has just under 60,000 residents, including the student bodies at Texas State University and San Marcos Baptist Academy, a prestigious prep school that dates back to 1907. The muggy summers are tempered by a smattering of rivers and ponds. This year, the city’s Arts Commission announced plans for an installation of nine-foot-tall mermaid statues mounted on limestone; for decades, a local amusement park has dressed women in mermaid costumes and given underwater performances. And until recently, San Marcos was home to the world’s weirdest boy band, a tight-knit group of rappers, singers, producers and other creatives named Brockhampton.
Today, the crew is a long way from San Marcos. This is the east side of Los Angeles, sunny and 75. We’re at a studio just north of Sunset Boulevard, tucked away in a rehearsal space.
Three of Brockhampton’s principals are running through a 20-minute set for the tenth time that day. Ian Simpson, better known as the rapper Kevin Abstract, is center stage, behind the mic stand, lit only in silhouette. Stage right—under a blue spotlight—is the singer Joba, working out harmonies under his red Houston Astros hat. On the opposite end is Romil, one of the group’s producers, who will serve as DJ for Kevin’s upcoming tour. He’s rifling through his Macbook to find which effects might fit best under the vocals. If you’ve seen One Direction or Five Seconds of Summer perform–or if you were old enough to drag your parents to see the Backstreet Boys or N’Sync–you know that the typical boy band model is careful choreography, pyrotechnics, maybe someone descending from the ceiling. But for now it’s just Kevin, venting his insecurities on an almost-empty stage.
The song ends, the lights come up. Kevin, whose muted t-shirt is at odds with his shock of bleached-blonde hair, asks how the British accent he toyed with on one song came across. “I don’t even really hear 'British,’” says Joba. “Just a character.” Kevin nods, concedes. “It’s not all the way there.” And just like that, the room is pitch-black and we’re back to the top of the set.
“Until recently, San Marcos was home to the world’s weirdest boy band, a tight-knit group of rappers, singers, producers and other creatives named Brockhampton.”
As things stand now, Brockhampton are on the precipice. Two years ago, Kevin became something of a minor sensation in rap circles with his breakout hit, “Drugs,” and his album MTV1987. For many artists, this early success would be immediately parlayed into a major-label deal, the bedroom studio swapped out for a team of stylists and songwriters. Instead, Kevin chose to stay the course, largely because of his loyalty to Brockhampton. Yet until recently, it’s been difficult to define this deep, thoroughly talented collection of up-and-comers.
The group has blurry borders, and has traditionally avoided pinning membership down to a specific number. (Singer Matt Champion refers to a point early in the group’s development where they “weeded out” members who weren’t serious enough.) But no fewer than ten members are now living Los Angeles, most having arrived in a recent move to a cramped house in South Central. Prior to that, the crew lived together in San Marcos, where Joba was attending school. Though many members are Texas natives, the group’s real genesis was online—first on KanyeToThe.com forums, and later in a private Facebook group. When the decision was made to live together down south, some members had never met in the flesh.
It was Kevin who first decided to call the group a “boy band”—loyal fans might remember that for their first performance, at SXSW in Austin, the crew came out in matching purple raincoats. “I didn’t want to be called a rap collective,” he says, “and I felt like it would be cool to redefine what boy band, and what pop music means: seeing a bunch of colored kids singing R&B, even if we still make rap music…it’s cool to break that.” Earlier this year, the group released All American Trash, a compilation featuring members in a variety of combinations. On nearly every song, you can hear the unhinged creativity that might make the gang a tough sell in a boardroom, but irresistible in so many other contexts.
“The group has blurry borders, and has traditionally avoided pinning membership downto a specific number.”
One day after rehearsal, I join Dom McLennon at Gus Jr.’s, a diner near the group’s house. At 23, Dom is the group’s elder; he’s also the type of person who adults probably called “wise beyond his years” by the time he could talk. Normally careful and considered, his eyes light up when he speaks about the creative dynamic in the house. “You can walk into any room and hear the best song you’ve ever heard in your life,” he says. “The energy just bounces off the room.”
Dom also preaches the gospel of hard work: “When you play basketball, you go to the gym every day and shoot around. Why wouldn’t you do that with music? You don’t have to show the world every shoot around, every practice.” On any given day, nearly a dozen guys (Matt’s girlfriend warns of the smell in the house) can be found moving from bedroom to messy bedroom, contributing beats, hooks, ideas, often without considering whether or not the public will ever hear the outcome. It’s a far cry from the coiffed reality of most major-label recording sessions, but it’s the engine of the group’s unique sound.
Though some Brockhampton members speak at length about the more corrosive sides of the internet, there’s no doubt that the online world provided a haven that some of them couldn’t find in real life. Given that all the rappers, singers and producers have sensibilities more than a little left of center, it makes sense that they had to burrow into digital crevices to find one another. Now that they’ve taken the next step and become a viable enterprise, they’ve resisted external pressure to conform to industry norms. What they’re quickly finding is that adhering to their early impulses toward the creative, unique, and downright weird, is paying dividends with fans.
Back at the studio, Matt puts the group’s quick rise in perspective: “We were looking at old tweets and stuff last night, and Kevin’s mentions have gone up so much. We used to think it was so many—he’d get 24 likes and we’d think that was crazy.” But now that he and his friends—he refers to the clique as “family”—are on the cusp of stardom, the world sometimes seems to move so fast that time dilates. Another of the group’s leaders, the rapper Ameer Vann, says, “We always forget how young we are. We’re always around people who are 25 and 26, in studios and stuff—we just forget we’re kids sometimes.” But he doesn’t worry too much, as things have tended to work out so far. When asked about the overwhelming logistics of assembling a hyper-talented collection of teenagers in a remote Texas town, and then making them one of the hottest commodities in music, Ameer merely shrugs. “It just fell into place. We’re calculated, but a lot of shit is left up to fate.”
Paul Thompson is a writer and critic living in Los Angeles. He contributes to Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Spin, Passion of the Weiss, and other outlets. He's on Twitter @paulxt.
Julian Berman is a photographer based in Los Angeles, California.