Brockhampton is not yet a household name, but it’s on its way.
The LA-based group — dubbed "the internet's first boy band" — has over a million monthly listeners on Spotify, a young fan base that preordered all 5,000 copies of their $50 boxed set (of physical CDs!) in a matter of hours, and a sophomore album that debuted at #57 on the Billboard 200, just two months after their first failed to scrape the bottom of the chart. Their upcoming Love Your Parents tour hopscotches all over the US and Canada, including three sold-out nights at New York City’s 1,000-capacity Irving Plaza, and they’ve been picked up as the latest major project of Christian and Kelly Clancy, the husband-wife management duo who coordinated the rise of Odd Future.
They embody a set of contradictions that would have seemed impossible only five years ago: they’re dodging major labels; they plan to be pop stars. They don’t have two dimes to rub together; they’ve released 11 viral music videos in a year. Recently, in response to some frequent questions, founder Kevin Abstract tweeted, "No we still haven't signed and everything comes from us and we make all of the art in our house with each other and kiss sometimes." They take turns rapping over beats they make in their bedrooms; they call themselves a boy band.
It’s a huge understatement to say that this distinction is important to them. It's the distinction, and it's what gives an already interesting musical project a feeling of irresistible urgency.
"One Direction died so Brockhampton could live."
So far this year, Brockhampton has self-released two albums of genre-swirling hip-hop. They put out their debut album Saturation in June, Saturation II in August, and the trilogy-ending Saturation III is out this Friday. (That’s a far wilder pace than even the most crushing of boy band production schedules.) The songs are both party and political, some sticky-sweet and adolescent to the point where you actually might believe they’ve been recovered from a lost One Direction album — and with their every breath they’ve insisted on that title, “boy band.” Fair enough. They’re selling out major concert halls; they’re asking fans to stop trying to follow their moms on Instagram. One of the most popular posts in the group’s Tumblr tag is "One Direction died so Brockhampton could live."
The 14-person group pieced together by Abstract includes rappers Ameer Vann, Merlyn Wood, Matt Champion, and Dom McLennon, as well as producers Russell Boring (who goes by Joba), Romil Hemnani, Ciarán McDonald (who goes by bearface.), Kiko Merley, and Jabari Manwa, webmaster and app designer Robert Ontenient, photographer Ashlan Grey, creative director Henock Sileshi (who goes by HK), and their 22-year-old manager Jon Nunes. They live together in a house in North Hollywood that they have dubbed — completely sincerely — the Factory.
Watching them kind of feels like waiting for the end of a magic trick, or, I guess, to find out what it might be possible to will into being with sheer effort, insistence, and really good tweets. Is it possible to just decide that you’re the new One Direction and make it so?
Twenty-one-year-old rapper and singer Kevin Abstract (born Ian Simpson) met Vann, Champion, Wood, and Joba in high school in Texas, and the rest of the members in a Kanye West fan forum. In 2011, he posted "Anybody wanna make a band?" and in 2014, the high school buddies originally called AliveSinceForever annexed a bunch of new contributors and rebranded as Brockhampton (the name of the street that Abstract grew up on). The group swelled to over 40 members at one point, before it was winnowed down — via "cuts” — to what it is now. They moved to Los Angeles together and gave themselves the nickname "Southside One Direction." While they worked on the first Brockhampton mixtape All-American Trash, Abstract released two buzzy self-released solo albums — MTV1987 in 2014 and American Boyfriend in 2016 — and used the traction to catapult an unwieldy group of friends and collaborators to the cusp of pop stardom.
When I travel to Los Angeles in late November, Brockhampton is on the last day of filming their first self-funded, feature-length movie, written by The Fader contributor Alex Russell. They’re making it to celebrate the end of the Saturation trilogy, and the narrative will somehow tie together the music videos they’ve released so far, but that is all the information I can get that isn’t an obvious lie. (e.g., “You know Forrest Gump? It’s that.”)
Most of the residents are still asleep when I walk into a nondescript house on a quiet street in North Hollywood, identical to thousands of others except for large splotches of blue spray paint on the brick walkway. It's noon? Because of the movie, the house, which usually sleeps 15, has had 25 people in it for the previous two weeks. A single log is still smoking in the fireplace, and an old lemon is impaled on the grate. The orange jumpsuits the performing members of Brockhampton wore to Tyler, the Creator's Camp Flog Gnaw music festival in October are tangled up on the floor with takeout containers, boxes of fabric softener, tubes of tennis balls, and a rock glass full of pennies.
One of the film’s extras is sitting on the futon, listening to me wonder aloud about a pile of hubcaps in the corner. "It could be a lot messier," he says sleepily. "If you think about it. With 25 people... accountability drops logarithmically." It takes me about a minute and a half to write down the word "logarithmically," which is fine, because that's how long it takes him to say it.
Almost everyone is still in bed, getting out of bed, or crawling back from Starbucks, so I walk around and catalog the variety of boy smells: shitty incense, Old Spice, rotten milk, gym bag, campfire. The greatest hits. I also step on at least four pairs of Supreme underwear before the mail comes, an event that turns into a major event because today's mail includes some "sick" new knives and a prototype of the just-announced Saturation boxed set, their first physical release.
They materialize — chaotically, like a puppy soccer team
They materialize — chaotically, like a puppy soccer team — to unwrap the box as a single fumbling unit. They are careful, as much as is possible, considering they are pretty much a puppy soccer team. The boxed set represents the grand finale of a year's work: physical copies of the Saturation trilogy, a behind-the-scenes documentary, a disc of unreleased demos, and a poster.
It was designed by Sileshi, Brockhampton's 23-year-old creative director. He studied graphic design briefly in college in North Florida, met the other members of Brockhampton online, and volunteered in their private Facebook group to make the artwork for their early singles. He edited their first music video. He quit school. Then he "studied" Virgil Abloh, Kanye West's creative director, realized that was essentially the job he was doing, and picked up the title. This is how it goes here: you do something a few times and you’re good at it, you get a pillow and a job.
Everyone takes a turn touching the boxed set and then touching Sileshi's shoulder, telling him he has done an amazing job. "This doesn't even look like an album," someone in the center of the huddle says. "I would expect an iPad to come out of this box." The huddle agrees, then splinters off to perform some classic start-of-the-day tasks, like painting your face blue or moving a bucket of blue paint out of the sink so that you can use the sink.
Why is it so important to call Brockhampton a boy band? This is the one question every member answers eagerly, regardless of whether they are in the middle of eating or smoking or riding away from me on a bicycle. "Nobody would call us a boy band unless we called ourselves a boy band," 25-year-old rapper Dom McLennon insists, standing on the tiny front porch. "No one would say it for us. We have to make that space. Who knows, maybe 15, 20 years down the line, you see boy bands doing open mics, getting their chops. That'd be the coolest shit in the world to me."
They have a growing, slippery fandom that’s a lot harder to define than those of boy bands past. In Viceland’s eight-part miniseries about the US tour they did in support of Abstract’s second album, he notes that the fanbase is diverse but mostly kids of color, aged 13 to 19, and often queer. Their Tumblr fanbase seems to fall mostly into that demographic, though many of the biggest fan blogs are run by young women in Australia or the UK. Their Reddit fanbase is harder to pinpoint, but the fixation on merch and branding makes the discussion read like young boys hanging out in a streetwear forum. Sileshi tells me that the subreddit is full of kids who are using the space to do exactly what Brockhampton did: "A lot of the posts are just like 'Oh, anybody can make music? Let's make music together.'" He spends a fair amount of time on Tumblr, too, and sits up when I mention that there are blogs simultaneously dedicated to One Direction and Brockhampton, or 5 Seconds of Summer and Brockhampton, or The 1975 and Brockhampton.
"I appreciate that they would split it. It's crazy that they would even care about us as much as they care about One Direction," Sileshi says. Then he half-mutters, "One Direction is popular as fuck."
“We make pop music. What is pop music right now? It's hip-hop.”
Twenty-one-year-old rapper Ameer Vann is on his second joint of the day when he agrees to be interviewed in his Crown Victoria, with the windows rolled up, with two dozen red-and-white long-stem roses rotting on the back seat.
"I don't look like Justin Timberlake, and I don't look like Harry Styles," he says, "But I would love to be them. We do the numbers, you know what I mean? We sell out shows. We make pop music. What is pop music right now? It's hip-hop." This speech, strung together from arguments he's obviously had to present many times before, lifts off, even as he takes breaks to let traffic from the nearby Burbank Airport cross overhead.
Not that I've ever been in the presence of a pop star before, but it's immediately obvious that this kid's going to be very good at being a pop star. He is either a fiend for attention or a compulsive flirt, neither in a way that particularly offends me. You could glean as much from the fact that he spends every music video Jekyll and Hyde-ing it — a magnetic six-foot physical comedian one moment and then a broody loner the next — and the way he raps in the single “BOYS”: “I feel just like Zayn, I feel just like Harry.”
"We make pop music, so why is it so weird for us to be a boy band?" he asks. “I think people will start asking that question. Why is it okay for this group of people to be called a boy band and it draws no attention at all? But not this group of people, who are seemingly the same except for one thing, or a few things.” He turns and rolls his hands. "And those things are..." Then he laughs. “New Edition is a fucking boy band and Boyz II Men is a man band. Those are never mentioned. They're like 'R&B soul groups,' not a boy band. But at the time, that was the popular music."
He's right. But also, the term "boy band" has not really ever meant "a musical group made up of dudes," nor has it been much of a compliment. It's usually reserved as a somewhat derisive term for a group of polished and market-tested performers who don't play "real" instruments and are known more for choreography and matching outfits. To want it is a little odd. But to repurpose it for a group of rappers makes some snarky, pedantic sense, in that a frequent rockist, often racially motivated critique of hip-hop is its general lack of live instrumentation. There's one pain point NSYNC and Brockhampton strangely share. More to his argument, boy bands are generally accepted as shining examples of unimpeachable good looks, charm, and harmless desire, all things that Americans have dementedly limited notions of. In August, a statement by Abstract went viral on Twitter and then again on Tumblr, insisting that Brockhampton is a boy band despite all the things its members are that boy bands traditionally haven't been: "We're not white and some of us rap and like dick and dye our hair."
Twenty-three-year-old rapper Matt Champion — the Tumblr fandom's favorite GIF muse, possibly due to the elasticity of his face and his near-constant bedhead — puts it even more plainly. Leaning as far away from my iPhone microphone as possible, in a tuxedo, grinning with only half of his mouth: "It's just what we are. That's the reason. That's it."
Brockhampton is the product of a should-have-seemed-more-likely combination of influences, a mashup of Odd Future and One Direction that looks surprising until you think about it for 20 seconds. They’ve succeeded at taking the best parts of two “unmanageable group of young dudes” phenomena, smashing them together, and leaving the extra stuff on the floor.
They’ve been co-signed by Odd Future co-founder Tyler, the Creator, and it's easy to rattle off a list of what they've borrowed from the infamous rap collective: they wear skater shoes; they read Hypebeast; they spent the whole summer releasing one anarchic, DIY music video after another; they express themselves on Twitter with well-received, playful aggression; they have a low-budget TV series affiliated with a hip brand. However, they'd thank you to remember that they are not Odd Future 2.0. Not because they don't respect their obvious predecessor — they all love, love Frank Ocean and the notion that a rapper can and should know how to skateboard — but because they’re so thoroughly serious about the boy band label that it’s just not the lineage they prefer to situate themselves in.
The video for "HEAT" has the same affable, boisterous spirit as a One Direction clip. The video for "SWEET" is straight out of the modern boy band playbook, spotlighting each of the rappers in warm close-ups that have already been GIF-ed dozens of times over by the teens of Tumblr. Its meandering, unbroken shot and Abstract's letterman jacket also read as winks at The Social Experiment's "Sunday Candy" video, which was filmed in one take to adhere to a shoestring budget, and, more importantly, it directly preceded Chance the Rapper's ascension to the world's first never-signed pop star.
“It can't be 'Kill people, burn shit, fuck school' forever."
They don’t believe they need a Simon Cowell or a draconian major label five-year strategy to be a boy band. And while Vann says he adored Odd Future as a kid — loved what they had to say about individuality and upending norms — he acknowledges that he didn't notice the violent misogyny or prevalence of homophobic slurs in their songs until years later, when the members of Odd Future started to realize and apologize for that themselves. "I didn't understand feminism. I didn't understand like, what was being programmed into me," he says, slowly. "It took years for me to grow and become more of an adult and more of a man... It can't be 'Kill people, burn shit, fuck school' forever."
Abstract’s solo work fixated on racism and homophobia in the Texas suburb he grew up in, and now that he’s directing all of Brockhampton’s music videos and laying out the road map for the group’s future, every member seems to agree that these can and should be central concerns for their collaborative output as well. "Whose society is this? Who delayed my first kiss?" asks Merlyn Wood on "CASH." "Why you always rap about bein' gay? 'Cause not enough niggas rap and be gay," Abstract shouts to open "JUNKY," while Wood twirls behind him in a yellow sundress.
There's an obvious hunger for this kind of work, and an ever-widening community of Tumblr fans write in appreciation every day, notes like: "Frank Ocean made straight men sing 'my guy pretty like a girl' loud and proud. Kevin Abstract made them shout 'I just gave my nigga head.'" That’s their defining quality: a level of frankness that is neither truly aggressive nor entirely palatable. Too blunt for what we usually call a boy band, too sweet for anything else.
For the most involved shot of the day, several of the boys are pretending to steal a television — which they took from their living room wall before we left the house — from a guest cottage someone has rented on Airbnb. They’ve painted each other’s faces blue, with paint that is not precisely face paint, but that someone declares "washable." Everyone is asked to chill out, and stay off of the freshly seeded lawn, and take a photo with the Airbnb host because his nephew happens to have heard of Brockhampton. I am asked to stand behind a shed so I am not in the frame.
Hanging out behind a shed, I think about how the boy band branding works for Brockhampton, not just because of their diversity — and their fans' desire for representation — but because they belong to a generation of cultural omnivores. They don’t see One Direction as uncool. Abstract wants to direct a music video for Harry Styles, an unbroken tracking shot of the pop star walking down a suburban street with a boom box on his shoulder. Though they have a Tupac poster in their living room, they make no effort to convince me of their knowledge of rap history. They’ve certainly made no effort to adhere to norms of any one genre, which is sort of a norm in itself for people their age. And this isn't to say Brockhampton's roster of Texas skater boys and Connecticut Kanye stans don't have taste. What I mean is that they don't like everything, but they give themselves permission to like anything.
They’ve certainly made no effort to adhere to norms of any one genre, which is sort of a norm in itself for people their age
The DVDs on the coffee table are The Big Lebowski and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. They spend downtime eating Welch's fruit snacks and talking about Pixar. Someone's always asking for the music to be turned up — an obscure grime rapper, Ayo & Teo's viral hit "Rolex," Courtney Barnett, Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas score. You have to see the beauty in letting people like whatever the hell they want, if you're going to be eager about the term "boy band."
They don't even especially care about their (respectable) Pitchfork scores, except for where the accompanying write-ups dip into judgment on individual members' character. (In the first, there’s a particularly cruel line about the cherry-picked Matt Champion lyric, “y’all bitches make my dick soft.”) When I accidentally wade into it during what was a pretty chill backyard conversation, Joba sits up straight and addresses me as if he's hoping he can, by proxy, address the Pitchfork reviewer directly: "You don't know Matt. You don't know Ian. You sure as fuck don't know who we are or how we work. You can have your opinion and I respect your opinion — it doesn't mean I agree with it — but if you're going to attack people I love, then we have a problem."
This is exactly how much affection they show each other 100 percent of the time.
This easy camaraderie goes a long way in explaining how they've managed to make three albums in under a year.
Later, producer Romil Hemnani shows off the studio in his bedroom, which consists of an Apollo audio interface, a microphone, two synths, some drums, and two guitars, with everything on wheels. He has to be able to set it up in under a minute, he explains, speaking with the clip and confidence of a cartoon character. "The moment you have an idea is so important. My mic cable is like 30 feet long so I can fly it over to you. There's magic energy in here all the time in this house."
He says most recording rooms are outdated; his prized possession is a MacBook Pro, and his favorite brand is Apple, because it represents the intersection of art and technology. "These are beautiful devices and they're very efficient. I want to make music that's very efficient, but it's still art." He spins around in a desk chair, picks up a toy version of a Tesla, acknowledges that he still feels like a kid who plays with toy cars. McLennon rushes in to point out all the production gear in his room next door, then runs out to catch a flight to Connecticut for Thanksgiving as Hemnani yells, "Bye, I love you!"
This affection is the perfect fodder for the type of eager Tumblr fandom and shipping culture that sprung up around One Direction — only better, because they lean into it instead of away, and they don’t even bother to acknowledge this as different. Abstract tweeted a photo of Hemnani in October with the caption "I wanna make out with him forever;" Merlyn Wood tweeted "My Tinder dry as hell, Ima start catfishing with Matt Champion pictures." In the one day I spend with them, I hear more compliments than I have heard in the last 10 years.
Hemnani has a poster of Brockhampton’s pink-haired production assistant Kevin Doan on his wall. "That's K-pop star Kevin Doan," he says. "He's a K-pop star." Sileshi calls Joba “beautiful;” McLennon says Ameer Vann should be a household name, on par with Tony the Tiger. It is probably not a challenge to work fast when you believe so aggressively in everyone around you. It is definitely not a challenge to have and keep fans when you don’t have to fake all the intra-band love they so badly want to see.
Nobody really even seems to understand what I'm asking when I suggest that it must be difficult to collaborate with so many people on so much art and stay friends, or live in what looks like a frat house with 14 boys who met online and stay not-assholes. "We're all good kids," Sileshi says. "I guess maybe we just happened to be like that? I don't know."
"I've never been in a frat house," Champion says, staring at me blankly.
A newer member, photographer Ashlan Grey quit his job at Walmart a year and a half ago to join Brockhampton on a whim. "I quit, but I told everybody I got fired," he says. "It was less embarrassing than telling people I quit." I laugh at this, and he laughs, too, but does not elaborate. He met Abstract online and started out by helping Brockhampton with their Instagram. He didn't shoot the movie, but he learned about C100 and ALEXA cameras from the professional freelancers the group hired. "That shit's expensive. I wouldn't want to fuck it up, and that's a whole new territory," he says. "But I've been learning a lot from them. Like, so fucking much. I didn't go to film school like they did."
“I’ve never been in a frat house.”
His idols are Casey Niestat and Spike Jonze, and he's wearing a Donnie Darko sweatshirt. "When I first watched it, I lived in a trailer park and I wasn't in college. I didn't have a job. I didn't know a lot of people, so I would just watch it every night," he says. "I love how people don't think it makes sense at all, but it does make sense in a weird way." Though he says most of the inspiration for his photography comes from "random shit" he finds online, it's easy to see how the watercolor suburban daydream of that movie has seeped into his candid portraiture. He says Brockhampton doesn't really make sense either. "I always make the joke that we're all ugly, but we play it off like a boy band. It works. It's weird how it works, but it fucking works, so we just run with it."
They plan to run pretty far with it, training Grey and the rest of their ever-widening creative roster as they go. Abstract's broader plan involves turning Brockhampton into a media company called Question Everything. They use Empire for distribution, a company founded in 2010 by former audio engineer Ghazi Shami and fairly well-known for its streaming era savvy and hands-off approach. It’s a half-step up from DIY sites like TuneCore or CD Baby. They argue that there’s nothing the formal industry can do for them that they haven’t already done for themselves, and better and faster.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to start a record label," Abstract says, riding slow loops around the house on his bike, wearing blue Dickies and a T-shirt with a vintage Apple logo on it. "I always wanted to make something that was bigger than me, that wasn't just one person." He’s planning on using Apple, Def Jam, and Paramount Pictures as stencils for a huge, multifaceted art house.
Abstract speaks in a near-whisper while I jog alongside his bike. He is obviously, painfully bored by every minute of the day that isn’t directly related to making something. "I just know I want to make as much stuff as possible while I can and while we have this house and while we have this opportunity and people are looking at us," he says, when I ask for a plan for the next two years. "Whatever's happening today probably won't be happening tomorrow." I can’t decide if the wistfulness in his voice stems from a reluctant knowledge that what he wants sounds impossible, or if it’s more like the sad, restless impatience of someone who has no doubt that his time is coming and is annoyed to find that it’s taking so long.
The last shot of the day is of Vann singing karaoke in a tuxedo, his arm in a sling. So we load up a caravan and drive 40 minutes to a bar in a plaza in Culver City. The plan is to shoot the scene quickly and then hang out and celebrate, but when we arrive, we're told it could be up to an hour before some amateur stand-up comedy acts are done. Abstract tells Vann he wants him to sing Billy the Kid's "Won't Be the Same," and insists over his protests, "Just feel it out. It's gonna be amazing, whatever you do." While they wait, they do what young men do — they loiter in the parking lot eating candy, kicking water bottles at each other, wandering in and out of the bar. The last stand-up act is a white guy in his 30s who does a bit about gentrification and says something I don't catch that makes Vann furious. When he gets onstage, he introduces the song by shouting, "This one goes out to all the gentrifiers."
“I always wanted to make something that was bigger than me, that wasn’t just one person.”
A group of men in polo shirts starts yelling at him, interrupting the shot so they have to start the song over. Then again, and then one more time. Vann gets angrier and more determined. His face gets a little crumbly. The room feels itchy to me; it’s not where I want to be and not where I want these boys to have to be. But somehow, he is still funny, joking between verses, "Why you got me up here singing this Dolly Parton song?" He doesn’t let up, and riffs instead. “This is a song by a beautiful white woman, and there are no lyrics about gentrification.” Abstract bounces from one corner of the stage to the other and back again without breaking eye contact with Vann, who happens to be his oldest friend. They get the best version of the shot they're going to get, and he tears out of the bar.
The party isn't over, but it feels over. It's been a 12-hour day. I'm pretty sure everyone's knuckles and knees are tingling from the same bizarro adrenaline rush. Later, I fall asleep in a cab thinking about a posse of dudes at least 10 years older than the kid they're screaming at. My drowsy fantasy is a little corny, but I don't think it's a reach: these men will spend dozens or hundreds of nights in the same bar next to a nail salon, and Brockhampton won't. That's pretty much it.
McLennon and Vann insist that they're not personally ready to be famous, even after their eloquent speeches about what it would mean for them to be pop stars. Sileshi says they are ready. Wood says, "We better be." Champion says, "I have no idea." Boy band-famous is a different kind of famous, and condensing years of plodding upward trajectory into six months of vertical ascent is a dizzying way to make that transition. But none of them are afraid of it, exactly: when I ask them to name their fears, they name things like sea creatures, greed, mothers, and death.
Actually, most of them say death, which is simultaneously endearing, doofy, and rude to argue with. "All these things in the world are conspiring against my existence already," McLennon says. “So what scares me the most is my vessel being gone before I say everything I need to say." He dwells on that for less than a moment, moving on to talk about why he’s so excited for people to hear Saturation III.
“These are all my best friends and my favorite artists,” he says, smiling as if he just found out they exist. “We're giving y'all the best days of our lives right now. That's the truth. We’re sharing the best times of our lives with y’all in real time.”