If you have had your finger on the pulse over the last six months you may have heard the name Brockhampton come up a lot. The group has in the space of a year gone from being relatively unknown to being a massively hyped and discussed act – but as they are still yet to break through into the mainstream I imagine there are a lot of people who still don’t know much about them. This is a guide to who they are, where they came from and why they matter.
Who are they?
Brockhampton (stylised as BROCKHAMPTON; it’s 2017 so everything has to be capitalised) are a hip-hop collective formed in Texas but based in the sunny streets of Los Angeles, CA. They were formed in 2012 by teenage friends Ian Simpson (otherwise known as Kevin Abstract) and Ameer Vaan. They then recruited many of the other members through online Kanye West fan forum KanyeToThe like some sort of musical Avengers. The self-proclaimed boyband has already released two albums this year, ‘Saturation’ and ‘Saturation II’, to critical acclaim. They aren’t done yet however as ‘Saturation III’ will supposedly be dropping in December, which makes now the perfect time to get acquainted with the band.
Who are the members?
The group’s frontman and probably the biggest name attached. Kevin Abstract is bisexual and frequently includes LGBTQ themes in his lyrics. He is both a rapper and a singer, sometimes digitally manipulating his voice to sound more feminine (challenging concepts of masculinity is kind of a big part of his M.O.) He has already released two albums as a solo act, 2014’s ‘MTV1987’ and 2016’s ‘American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story’.
A founding member of the group, Ameer Vaan comes with a rough history clouded by drug use and distribution. Drugs have in turn become one of his major lyrical themes, along with racial inequality (see his lyrically stunning verse on ‘FIGHT’). He is the coldest and the calmest member of the group. His deep voice and deliberate phrasing are very reminiscent of Tyler, The Creator, who he has cited as one of his biggest influences.
One of the best MCs in the group (in my opinion), Dom McLennon hails not from Texas but from Connecticut. This is not the only thing that sets him apart from the others as his slippery flow, playful rhyming, and positive outlook are also defining traits.
Born in Ghana, William “Merlyn” Wood moved to Austin, Texas as a child. In 2015 he was recruited into Brockhampton through the website KanyeToThe. He is easily the most aggressive rapper in the group and probably the most distinctive on first listen; he exudes confidence, his verses often border on manic and he shifts the tone of his voice constantly. Basically, this guy is unstoppable – one of his tweets reads “Stop asking me to convince you to follow your dreams, my life is a compelling argument”.
Pretty much sums it up.
Since joining the group’s roster in 2015 Matt Champion’s main contribution has been brag rap stuffed with clever wordplay. However, he has also spoken out against rape culture and the toxicity of concepts of masculinity, most notably in his verse on ‘JUNKY’.
Russell Boring, or JOBA, mostly sings but also contributes some very creative
sung-raps; see his breathy intro on ‘TOKYO’. He is also skilled as a sound engineer,
mixing and mastering much of the band’s material. He has in the past stated the
influence of Justin Timberlake on his music, a link between him and the group’s identity as a boyband.
Ciarán “bearface.” McDonald is a singer from Ireland. Both of the band’s albums so far close with a track that is pretty much just him. He specialises in dreamy balladeering and mellow psychedelic jams.
The collective also includes producers Romil Hemnani and Q3 (a duo consisting of Jabari Manwa and Isaiah Merriweather, otherwise known as Kiko Merley), photographer Ashlan Grey, webmaster Robert Ontenient and creative director Henock Sileshi. Oh, and their manager. His name is Jon Nunes. Phew, quite a cast of characters right?
Who are their influences?
Brockhampton takes their musical DNA from a multitude of different places but there are a few obvious reference points. Their group format owes a debt to Odd Future, whom many of the individual members have expressed an admiration for. Odd Future also set the precedent for their contemporary take on the west coast sound, along with their exploration of themes of identity and personal struggle. Brockhampton, however, are noticeably more optimistic in both sound and lyricism, focusing on self-empowerment and positivity over music that is often warm and extroverted, whereas Odd Future took a bleaker approach that communicated more of a feeling of self-loathing, and did so over music that was frequently nocturnal and cold. The Wu-Tang Clan set a template for posse groups that every hip-hop collective since Brockhampton and Odd Future both included, has borrowed from, and are another big touchstone.
Kanye West is one of their biggest influences; many of the members were recruited on a Kanye fan forum after all. His bold, poppy sound, extensive use of autotune and fearless incorporation of ideas from different genres into the framework of hip-hop can all be heard in Brockhampton’s music. Chance The Rapper also laid some important groundwork for the group. He has worked hard to prove the viability of independence acts from the institutions of the music industry, recently becoming the first unsigned artist to win a Grammy. In doing so he has helped to pave the way for acts like Brockhampton; an entirely self-contained group who pride themselves on their artistic freedom.
Why should I care?
Because Brockhampton is one of the most exciting and subversive acts in hip-hop right now! Their intent is to challenge norms within both hip-hop and the music industry at large. Their self-created record label is called ‘Question Everything’ and that is exactly what they aim to do; question ideas of sexuality in hip-hop, question what it means to be in a boyband, question the current set-up of the music business.
Their songs, particularly Kevin Abstract’s verses, explore LGBTQ themes that are still rarely talked about in hip-hop, such as on ‘STAR’, where he talks about giving another man head, or ‘JUNKY’, where he talks about coming out and struggling to be accepted. In doing this they are continuing a wider movement towards the acceptance of different sexualities in hip-hop that started with Frank Ocean’s coming out letter in 2012 (which you can read here. If you haven’t you should not just because it is an important part of hip-hop history but also because it is beautiful). Hip-hop has for a long time had a bit of a problem with homophobia and openly gay rappers are few and far between, so acts like Brockhampton are important in busting doors down and pushing for a change in attitudes.
Brockhampton is on paper a rap group, but Kevin Abstract insists that they are thought of as a “boy band”. He does so with the goal of challenging and changing the term to be more inclusive of different races and sexualities. This just another part of the band’s assault on norms; their vision of the music industry is one where different types of people have an equal voice and assumptions are less abundant.
Brockhampton are also significant in their aspiration to be not just a band but a self contained creative institution. By the end of this year, they will have put out three studio albums, a slew of music videos, their very own TV show (Viceland’s American Boyband) and a highly successful tour. Much of their music is self-released, giving them full creative control over their output. Furthermore, the “band” includes in-house producers, a creative director, a photographer and a web designer, allowing them to be completely in charge of their image as well as their music. This is all part of their statement on the state of the music industry at large; as I mentioned earlier they are building on the groundwork established by Chance The Rapper’s independent Grammy win by demonstrating the archaicness of the old system of record labels and deals. These institutions are outdated and we are due rethinking how the music industry operates; Brockhampton highlights this both this and the fact that artists can excel by themselves, free from the constraints of controlling record execs.
And then, of course, there’s the music itself – which is a breath of fresh air. With the over saturation of trap sounds in the charts right now it is incredibly refreshing to hear music that is so unconcerned with trend chasing. Brockhampton’s music is playful, creative and distinctly them. There is plenty of pop in its blood but also a willingness to experiment with hip hop’s parameters; the band dabble in an eclectic range of genres (including industrial hip-hop on ‘HEAT’, grime on ‘JELLO’ and neo-psychedelia on ‘SUNNY’ to name just a few) with little to no regard for what is expected of them. On top of this, the MCs in the group are impressive and memorable on their own terms and it isn’t hard to imagine them having successful solo careers in the future (similarly to what ended up happening with Odd Future).
Brockhampton’s rise this year has been exciting to watch. The creative growth between their two projects has been exponential – ‘Saturation’ showed a lot of potential, but ‘Saturation II’, released only a few short months later, is easily one of the years best releases. They have gone from a non-entity to the internet’s most hyped new hip-hop act in the space of fewer than twelve months – who knows where they will go next?
I expect big things, and so should you.