It’s a cold and rainy Sunday evening in Silver Spring, Maryland, but the line outside of the Fillmore stretches around the block, and then down another two. Despite the bitter wind, hundreds of people – mainly teenagers – stand dutifully, huddled together over cigarettes and one-hitters. My friend and I, both firmly in our thirties, look conspicuously out of place. Even in miserable conditions the excitement is palpable: a trio of gangly white boys in blue face paint and orange jumpsuits walk past us towards the back of the line, their outfits emulating the iconic cover art for SATURATION III. If this all sounds strange to you, you’re probably not hip to the cult of Brockhampton, the self-proclaimed “Internet’s first boy band.”
Their origin story goes something like this: back in 2010, founder and de-facto band leader Kevin Abstract, then just a teenager, posted on a Kanye West fan forum, putting out an open call to start a band. An early prototype of Brockhampton would emerge from this initial wave of responses, as AliveSinceForever – a rap collective heavy on bars and dense beats, but light on the hooks and stylized stage presence that would come to characterize later iterations of the collective. Despite the short-lived nature of ASF, it served to paint the initial sketches of Brockhampton as a concept. More than just a band, Brockhampton (often styled in all caps) includes producers, photographers, videographers and art directors; all in all they hover around fifteen members in the group. In keeping with the DIY nature of the concept, they are completely independent, self-funded, and self-released.
Operating out of San Marcos, Texas for the first few years, the collective relocated to Los Angeles in early 2017 and moved into a house together. Since moving to California, the group has put out three records in the span of twelve months: SATURATION, SATURATION II, and the aforementioned SATURATION III. Despite lukewarm critical reviews for the first two records by usual Internet tastemakers such as Pitchfork, Brockhampton were quickly embraced by the key audience in the digital Wild West: teenagers.
I climbed up to the top level of the Fillmore and looked down unto the teeming mass of bodies below. It was a few minutes past the scheduled start time of 8:40 p.m., and the kids were getting restless – jockeying for position and boxing others out of their space the way novice concertgoers do. It’s hard to blame them; they were among the lucky two thousand who were able to secure tickets for the sold out show, and furthermore, it was a school night. Chants of “BROCK-HAMP-TON!” filled the air, drowning out the DJ’s (potentially trolling) selection of early 90s pop-rock anthems. The stage décor was minimal and retro-futuristic in a way reminiscent of The Jetsons – two high bucket chairs flanked a sleek white leather couch, with a disembodied traffic light placed at the front left corner. Suddenly, the overhead lights dim and the audience swarms towards the stage. Kevin Abstract walks out solo as the warm guitar strums of “TEAM” flood the air.
After casually changing into his orange jumpsuit on stage, the buzzing, distorted bass line of “BOOGIE” hits, and eight more band members manifest, bopping around from left to right and back to front, their dance moves coordinated, if loosely. This contained chaos goes on for close to four minutes, before Abstract takes the mic to address the audience. After a few shout-outs and welcome statements, he leads everyone on another minute-long chant, this time expressing an opinion the whole band can agree on: “FUCK PITCHFORK!” With that, the show is officially underway.
It’s clear to even casual listeners that Brockhampton don’t deal in subtleties. Where previous generations could project deeper meaning and soft politics onto boy bands of the past, Brockhampton eliminate the negative space necessary for that kind of dreamcasting. Identifying with members of 90s boy bands was partially an exercise in filling in the blanks – coloring within the lines of cookie-cutter archetypes for whichever band member you most identified with, for whatever reason, with listeners tasked with bringing the nuance themselves. This is simply not the case with this band – these guys take back control of the narrative and subvert the paradigm. Their lyrics openly deal with the extremely personal: there’s no shying away from overt sexuality, drug use, anxiety, financial struggles, alienation. (Funnily enough, band member Russell Boring aka ‘Joba’ directly addresses wanting “to be JT” on “Sweet”, one of their early hits.)
Thanks to their skill in putting these strong emotions into words – and to pair them with beats packing plenty of low-end and eminently singable hooks – Brockhampton’s message has resonated with disaffected suburban youths across the country. Whether by design or coincidence, Brockhampton have become the voice for the latest generation of cool kids – fashionable, outwardly progressive in their gender and race politics, digitally savvy and hyper-connected, yet still seemingly lonely as fuck.
Impressively, the group – and the crowd – kept their foot on the gas throughout the entire 75 minutes. The choreography was a grinning, bizarre facsimile of the modern dance shuffles of boy bands past, and vocalists and hype men stepped into and out of the spotlight seamlessly. The only moment of respite came towards the end of the set, where producer Robert Ontinent came on stage and shredded a long, soulful guitar solo that bled into the final song. Although Abstract remains the figurehead of the group, it’s clear that the real scene-stealer is co-founder Merlyn Wood. The Ghana born and Texas-raised rapper sounds like a cross between Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Danny Brown, and his verses slash and cut with true kinetic energy. You could feel a swell in the crowd and his band mates every time he hit the stage, and as my friend at the show remarked, it shouldn’t be long before we see him collaborating with some of the biggest names in music and fashion.
Brockhampton approaches rap like a postmodern art collective – all of their works released thus far are in constant conversation with each other and with the broader world, tongues firmly in cheek. Barriers are blurred, parameters are shifted, and expectations are upended. There’s an inherent distrust of the systems and structures of power, despite the fact that they’ve catapulted the group into stratospheric fame – and moderate riches – within the span of a year. Even with the confessional nature of their songs, the group remains guarded and insular; they’ve got all the resources required for their own success in-house, thank you very much. This hint of paranoia permeates all of the lyrics, and is one of the many ways that Kanye’s influence makes itself apparent on their work. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Odd Future, the original LA-based hip-hop and art collective that blazed (pun intended) plenty of trails and lanes that Brockhampton are now occupying. It remains to be seen whether these upstarts will have as many breakout stars with the same lasting power as Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, The Internet, and Earl Sweatshirt, but for the time being, Brockhampton is a stronger unit than OF ever was.