The Boys in the Band

Brockhampton is not your typical 13-member genre-defying rap collective–slash–multimedia empire.

From left: Jabari Manwa, Matt Champion, Merlyn Wood, Jon Nunes, Joba, Bearface, Dom McLennon, Romil Hemnani, Robert Ontenient, Henock “HK” Sileshi, and Kevin Abstract. Not pictured: Ashlan Grey and Kiko Merley. Photo: Jason Nocito
From left: Jabari Manwa, Matt Champion, Merlyn Wood, Jon Nunes, Joba, Bearface, Dom McLennon, Romil Hemnani, Robert Ontenient, Henock “HK” Sileshi, and Kevin Abstract. Not pictured: Ashlan Grey and Kiko Merley. Photo: Jason Nocito

The roar of the crowd when Brockhampton takes the stage is the kind of hair-raising, not entirely human sound you’d sooner expect to hear coming from the mouth of a dragon on Game of Thrones than from a room full of excited young hip-hop fans. Three thousand people have descended on Manhattan’s Terminal 5 on this brisk October night to see the 13-member self-described boy band perform songs from this fall’s Iridescence, the group’s fourth full-length album and first Billboard No. 1. Teens jostle in unison throughout the night, like a body of water, bucking against the gates separating the crowd and stage with the intensity of a high tide lashing at the legs of a pier. Security at rap shows is usually a game of cooling tempers and discouraging smoking; tonight’s operation is more like a search-and-rescue mission. Over an hour and a half, the venue’s staff lift a dozen fans out of tight squeezes near the stage. You have to go back to footage of ’80s pop arena shows to see anything like it.

The show begins with the Iridescence highlight “Weight,” which opens on doleful strings as Brockhampton leader Ian Simpson, a.k.a. Kevin Abstract, 22, recounts how a relationship with a girl failed because he is gay. The song explodes into a drum-and-bass beat and continues to morph into new styles as different group members arrive to air what’s been troubling them. Like “Weight,” Brockhampton is a collection of voices that pop because of their differences (the group includes black, white, gay, straight, African, South Asian, Irish, and Latin members). There’s a little something for everyone in a Brockhampton song.

The band’s ascent may seem sudden. The first three Brockhampton albums — the Saturation trilogy — were all released between June and late December of last year. But the success of Iridescence and this fall’s “I’ll Be There” tour is the result of years of work. “Sometimes I forget how long I’ve been doing this,” Abstract says, relaxing in a huddle with his bandmates on the eerily silent Terminal 5 stage on an off night before the last of three sold-out shows at the venue. “And it’s good to remind myself that I had to go through a lot.” I first met Abstract at an October 2014 concert co-presented by the music blog Pigeons & Planes. The then-18-year-old Texas native had just released his debut album, MTV1987, a batch of bombastic rap, R&B, and pop hybrids, that summer, and he’d brought his producer, Romil Hemnani, and the Connecticut rapper Dominic Michael Simpson, a.k.a. Dom McLennon, along for the night. The show was memorably quirky — Abstract handed out Pop-Tarts and covered Justin Timberlake during his set — but he was already seriously plotting his band’s career path. “He insisted on being billed as ‘Kevin Abstract of Brockhampton,’ ” Pigeons & Planes founder Jacob Moore recalls. “Even back then, when he was buzzing as a solo artist, Brockhampton was his priority.”

The group was born in a thread on an online message board, the rap-and–fashion forum KanyeToThe, where Abstract asked in a 2012 post, “Anyone wanna make a band?” The collective he assembled christened itself AliveSinceForever and soon came to boast members from all over the country. It was a fascinating test run: You can hear McLennon, Abstract, and Abstract’s high-school friend Ameer Vann finding their footing as lyricists on the group’s self-titled 2013 EP. You can see Ghanaian rapper Merlyn Wood’s wild style coming together in YouTube footage from the era. They rebranded themselves Brockhampton in 2014 — the name refers to the street in Corpus Christi where Abstract lived at the time — uniting around the Texas core of Abstract, Wood, Vann, and friends Matt Champion and Russell “Joba” Boring, along with McLennon and Hemnani from Connecticut, Belfast singer-producer Ciaran Ruaridh McDonald (a.k.a. Bearface), and the beat-making duo Q3, composed of Jabari Manwa, who hails from Grenada, and Kiko Merley from northern Florida. They’re all between 22 and 26 years old.

The band considers its managers, graphic designers, and video partners to be full-fledged members. Creative director Henock “HK” Sileshi and videographers Ashlan Grey and Kevin Doan are as responsible for Brockhampton’s look as any of the musicians are for the sound. The current live show focuses on the six rappers and singers, but Doan spends nights in the photographers’ pit filming audience footage that gets beamed back through a screen onstage, and at Terminal 5, Hemnani gleefully mans cannons that coat the venue in rainbow confetti. Their music videos — which are all directed by Abstract, with help from HK, Ashlan, and Doan — evoke the scrappy ingenuity of turn-of-the-millennium coming-of-age films. The clips for Saturation III’s “Boogie” and “Rental” make smart use of unassuming spaces like dressing rooms and convenience stores; Iridescence’s “J’Ouvert,” “New Orleans,” and “San Marcos” are creative deconstructions of the traditional hip-hop performance clip. Abstract’s ongoing “Helmet Boy” video series takes inspiration from movies like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

This commitment to an arresting visual aesthetic sets Brockhampton apart in an era when rap performances and music videos are often amateurish. The band’s appearance on MTV’s TRL, in which the guys stormed Times Square in matching jumpsuits and blue face paint while shouting their way through “Boogie,” was the rare moment when the show felt alive in its short-lived reboot. The week of the Terminal 5 show, the guys piled onto the Tonight Show stage to perform the raucous “District.” The barrage of jarring beats, floodlights, headbanging, and, later, serene strings and a choir left the studio audience both intrigued and confused.

Sitting in a room with the group, you begin to feel the spirit of friendship and collaboration that informs the records. “It’s all about who catches the vibe right there and right then,” Wood says of the band’s creative process, which took shape when everyone moved in together — first in San Marcos, Texas, and later in South-Central Los Angeles — turning their living space into a studio. “If you’re not in the room, you might’ve missed it.” McLennon describes a day in the Brockhampton house as a creative marathon: “Merlyn and [Kevin] will be in the middle of the room with the music blasting, with a whiteboard, just writing lyrics … You might catch Joba with an MP3 rendition of it that Hemnani bounced to him. He’s in his headphones writing outside. I’ll be in another room doing my own thing, and when I hear something that speaks to me, from there I know how to manipulate my flows and my rhythms and how I wanna write.”

Brockhampton eventually caught the attention of Viceland president of programming Nick Weidenfeld. “They were all just living and producing and creating at light speed,” he recalls. “It was that moment when you know someone’s gonna blow up, when everything is pure, and everyone loves each other, and there’s no ego involved.” Weidenfeld heard about Brockhampton from Kelly Clancy of 4 Strikes, the husband-and-wife management team that helped corral the manic energy of Odd Future at the top of this decade. Clancy told Weidenfeld that Brockhampton’s DIY resourcefulness reminded her of the early days of OFWGKTA. He came to appreciate the vision after meeting the guys and took a chance on giving them a television show. Viceland’s American Boyband captured Brockhampton at home and on the tour for Abstract’s American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story album. It documents the growing pains Abstract felt while staging his first nationwide trek as headliner while his band members attempted to juggle music and day jobs, proving that making it in the business of rap is harder than just securing the right cosigns.

Saturation was originally conceived as a single album, but the vision got grander during the recording process. “We didn’t set out to make a trilogy,” Hemnani remembers. “It was just something that happened. We were like, ‘Okay, there’s a pattern here. Let’s just keep it going. It makes too much sense not to.’ ” The band’s round-robin recording sessions make the origin story of any song a journey. When I ask whose idea it was to have a children’s choir sing on the crushing coda of Iridescence’s “San Marcos” (Abstract, for the record), Joba learned for the first time that the somber acoustic- and electric-guitar tune was initially a trap banger.

The road to Brockhampton’s fourth album had several unexpected twists. It was first announced last December under the title Team Effort. In March, though, the band released a cryptic statement essentially shelving the album — “Team Effort was scheduled to be released next week, but we spoke to God and She told us to save the album for another time” — and, ten days later, announced they’d signed a deal with RCA Records. In early May, album No.
4 was announced again, this time under the working title Puppy. But weeks before Puppy’s planned release in June, Ameer Vann, the cover model for all three Saturation albums and one of Brockhampton’s early members, was accused of sexual misconduct by several women. Vann admitted to cheating but, in a tweet at the time, he denied having “criminally harmed anyone or disrespected their boundaries.” The band asked him to leave and canceled Puppy. (Songs recorded for both Team Effort and Puppy remain “on a hard drive somewhere,” Hemnani says. “Those albums do exist,” Abstract adds. “They’re just not completed.”)

Eleven of the 13 members of Brockhampton. Photo: Jason Nocito

Was there a moment when things got bad this year when you wondered if you wouldn’t get past it?
Joba: One-hundred thousand percent, absolutely. I don’t think — I mean, speaking for myself, the highs were really high, for obvious reasons, right? And the lows are extremely low for obvious reasons. I think you can’t just move past certain things. But you can do your best to be positive.

Kevin Abstract: Having each other helps a lot, though.

Romil Hemnani: We went on a group family trip to Hawaii, and that helped us a lot.

Was that just to bond, or were you also there to work?
Merlyn Wood: We had a deadline. We were in Hawaii for work.

Joba: Nah, I didn’t go there for work.

Abstract: It was too early for us to give up. The other part was “let’s get together and try to figure life out as a group and as a brotherhood.” Making music was like therapy. We made a song that matched how we all felt in the moment. We went to work but like, if we didn’t make a song, whatever. You know? That wasn’t the main goal.

What was the song?
Ashlan Grey: “Tonya.”

Joba: Sometimes to find your footing, you have to lose it. Not even lose it, just step away. Just take a fucking step away from what you know, what’s familiar, and figure out who you are, what you feel, what you believe, why you do the things you do, who you love, why you love them, and what it means. Just, like, the basic questions that are seemingly impossible to answer, inevitably, as you move through life. To me, and I feel like, for us, it was one of the moments where we stripped whatever it was back and just looked at each other, the core of who we are as human beings, man.

How’d you end up recording at Abbey Road?
Abstract: We were on tour [in London] and we wanted to have the album out, so we were like, “Let’s just finish it at Abbey Road.”

It feels like some of the local style bled into Iridescence. There’s a lot of grime textures and U.K. electronic sounds in there. Was that deliberate?
Hemnani: I think we always take in our environment, but it’s not like an active, conscious thing where we’re like, “Oh, we’re in London, so let’s make music that sounds like grime.”

Abstract: Me, personally, I was on this weird trail looking at artists’ fourth albums. With my favorite artists, at least, there was always this drastic switch-up, and I felt like I wanted to apply that to what we were doing. It was just this weird spiritual thing I had one day on the bus, and it just made sense to do something really, really different for this album. You can see at the shows. These songs translated much differently than the Saturation songs, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But us going in with the intention of making something drastically different, like, it worked. I’m stoked on that end. I stand by it.

Joba: I feel like it was very manic and just free-flowing.

Abstract: There are no choruses, and people know us for choruses and, like, immediacy. Urgency. I like that, and I think in terms of legacy, it will be very important ten years down the line, even if right now everyone doesn’t love it.

Hemnani: Yeah one thing we all share is we are all legacy people. We all really care about the long-term. We’re not really into like, “Oh fuck, this is what’s hot right now, so we have to do this.” It’s like, “This is what we like.” “How is this gonna be perceived over time?” “How is this gonna make us feel five, ten years from now?” Like, am I gonna look back at this, and be like, “Yeah, I regret that because I was just trying to make a record that was hot at the time”?

If the Saturation albums proved it was possible to cram over half a dozen wildly different perspectives into a single track, Iridescence finds the group getting weird and arty together. Song arrangements take shocking turns. Vocals are manipulated to the point where it’s hard to tell who sings what. “District” is like a trap tune seen through a fun-house mirror, with vocals pitch-shifted up and down. “Tonya” compares the band’s struggle to the Tonya Harding scandal, with Bearface “losing sleep, thinking ’bout missed calls” and Abstract dreaming about trading fame for “a quiet Texas place and a barbecue plate,” and its somber verses are decorated with boom-bap beats, Beach Boys-style harmonies, and elegant strings.

Brockhampton’s rise feels like a shift in hip-hop culture not unlike the one that happened a decade ago, when tough-guy rappers like 50 Cent took a back seat to stylish, sentimental anime fans like Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, or, more recently, when drug rap’s focus moved from the guys selling illegal substances to the people using the stuff.

Back at Terminal 5, a girl in the front row spends the whole night waving a huge rainbow flag at Abstract, who has rapped about coming out in songs like “Junky”: “ ‘Why you always rap about being gay?’ / ’Cause not enough niggas rappin’ be gay / Where I come from, niggas get called ‘faggot’ and killed / So I’ma get head from a nigga right here.”

“When we’re in L.A.,” Abstract tells me later, “kids will come up to us and talk to us like they know us. Like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ Calling us by our real names. I think it’s because they see a person with flaws that they identify with. We’re just like them.”

Brockhampton’s Iridescence is streaming now.

*A version of this article appears in the November 26, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Brockhampton Isn’t Your Typical 13-Member Rap Collective