Brockhampton are the rap world ingenues joining forces to challenge stereotypes around male insecurities and identity – just don’t tell them that boys don’t cry
I’m sitting in a crowded living room in South Central, LA with a group that fluctuates in size by the second. From the outside, the house looks modest, but within a minute of walking in I feel like I’ve met more than a dozen different people. “How many people live here?” I ask. “Too many,” laughs a sandy-haired guy called JOBA. He’s just one of the multitude of members of the wisest group of young minds in the rap game right now: Brockhampton. The present gang debates over what music to play (eventually landing on Vanessa Carlton), and a heated video-game session blends with the many conversations in the room. Somewhere amid the chaos, Taco Bell delivery is ordered. Fifteen minutes later, Matt Champion and Merlyn Wood return from the airport; Wood is back from Austin, where he currently attends college. The interview begins and it’s clear these guys are playful yet pensive, switching lanes between (lovingly) roasting each other and delving, unafraid, into topics like toxic masculinity and alienation.
About half the crew are Texans – Kevin Abstract (20), Champion (21), JOBA (23), Ameer Vann (19) and Wood (20). Others hail from Connecticut – Romil Hemnani (21), Dom McLennon (24) – and even Ireland (Bearface, 22). Each member brings a spectrum of influences ranging from Frank Ocean to Louis Armstrong and Lil Wayne, as well as an individual ‘vibe’ they’ve all studied in one another, learned to pair, and built each other up with. The group aim to shatter stereotypes, both in Brockhampton’s projects (their debut mixtape, All-American Trash, was released in March) and through their own output, like Kevin Abstract’s 2014 debut MTV1987, which spoke to the pressures of fitting in online and in real life (and helped land him on tour with The Neighbourhood earlier this year). Abstract is currently working on his follow-up album – he plans to release it before the new school year begins – while the others have plans to release their own works soon as well.
A self-proclaimed ‘boyband’ of ridiculously talented rappers, vocalists, producers and even a pianist, Brockhampton complicates the connotations of the term ‘rap crew’. These guys are no One Direction, but their willingness to lodge themselves between traditional ideas of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ puts them in a sonic sweet spot. And they do so unabashedly, conquering issues of identity and insecurity with hard beats, neo-soul affectations, vocal harmonies and, for a few, blue hair – further proof of the group’s willingness to explore and invite fans to watch them stumble and succeed, while learning a bit about ourselves, too.
Walk me through the process of recording All-American Trash. Do you ever clash when you’re making music?
Romil Hemnani: When we’re making music we are very in sync. We have very similar ears and taste and we’ll hear the song going (in) the same direction. That’s why I’m very particular about who I work with, because if I can’t believe in it and I don’t see the world the same way as you, it’s not gonna work for me.
Merlyn Wood: To me, Brockhampton is a group of individuals. We just respect each other’s own vibe. Like, when Rodney has a song that’s an acoustic of him, I’m not gonna get on that, because that’s not me. There are so many of us that we can always build off of what the next person is doing. So if I make a song that’s really pop, and it’s kind of going into R&B, that’s when I’ll call (Rodney) up. But it’s not like when I make a song that’s a banger, I’ll call (Rodney). We just know who complements what.
Ameer Vann: Everybody’s doing their own thing, but we always come together... and then you have a conversation. Instead of seeing it from one person’s eyes, it’s two people’s eyes, or four people’s eyes, and it really just sharpens everyone and makes everyone better.
Merlyn Wood: But we’re very big on critiquing each other. I feel like we learn a whole lot from each other.
Ameer Vann: That’s what you need when you’re in the last stages of finishing a song. I think that’s why we joke around so much and we’re so mean to each other, because we’re always so brutally honest. If someone’s learned to be honest with you and tell you what your flaws are, and they still fuck with you despite your flaws, that’s a way-closer friendship than you can have with anybody else because they understand you on a deeper level, and that’s how it is here.
“To me, Brockhampton is a group of individuals. We just respect each other’s own vibe” – Merlyn Wood, Brockhampton
Do you guys ever get your feelings hurt when you’re asking for criticism?
Kevin Abstract: It’s OK to get your feelings hurt.
Merlyn Wood: But you gotta recognise that these people are looking out for you.
JOBA: You have to know what you’re defending.
Ameer Vann: Are you defending your pride or are you defending your work?
JOBA: When someone calls out a weak link in the work that’s being spoken about, they enable you to reflect on something that you didn’t see. And usually from negative comments I realise I’m defending an insecurity, which ultimately is extremely beneficial.
Ameer Vann: Also, making music without direction or making anything without direction is dangerous. It’s dangerous for your creativity because you don’t grow. You don’t go anywhere if you make music without saying, ‘Here’s what I want to do,’ and more importantly, ‘Here’s how I want to make people feel.’ And if you can’t figure out those few things then you probably aren’t making the best of your creativity.
What are some of the things you want people to feel when they listen to your music?
Ameer Vann: Accepted. It’s OK to be insecure, it’s OK to have vulnerabilities and to learn from your mistakes, and just keep growing... no matter what. Any door that you can’t open, whatever it may be, you’ve just gotta go through it.
Kevin Abstract: I want to give black kids a new superhero.
Merlyn Wood: I want to make people confused, like, ‘Damn, I’ve not heard anybody like this in a rap song – like, ever before.’
Ameer Vann: Yeah, everybody in this room has something like that – a person they want to reach out to, or a certain type of person that they speak to the best.
Romil Hemnani: I think empathy is very important in our music, because a lot of us grew up not really identifying with the people around us, but more with these people we looked up to, like Frank Ocean and Kid Cudi. And it just seems right to pass that on.
JOBA: It’s weird, I’ve been asking myself (that) a lot – how I want a song to make someone feel. And I realised I kind of made music for selfish reasons, and it’s my only way of existing purely. I’m able to just, like, vomit... and then as soon as that’s done I step away and feel afraid and insecure again.
Afraid of people hearing it? Afraid of what you’ve revealed about yourself?
JOBA: Both of those, and failure, and how it will be received. Because really it’s all I have. I know I’m doing it for me, but I know I want to help people at the end of the day. And I have a story I want to be told in a very specific way.
“I want to give black kids a new superhero” – Kevin Abstract, Brockhampton
Romil Hemnani: A lot of the common themes in our music are ideas of acceptance and being yourself. Independent thinking. A lot of very basic ideas that people will preach to you but they never really follow through on. ‘Cos the moment you start to be yourself, people will start judging you. That’s something which has been big for us, and for me personally. Like, (Kevin) said he wanted to give black kids a new superhero, someone to identify with and look up to and feel like, ‘If they can be themselves and struggle through all this stuff and still remain true to themselves, then I can do it too.’
Kevin Abstract: Also just to change what it means to be a man, and be manly and masculine. That’s why I said before it’s OK to get your feelings hurt, it’s OK to admit that, and it’s OK to cry because men can do that too. There aren’t a lot of famous men in the forefront who are speaking towards that.
Unless you’re Drake.
Merlyn Wood: But Drake gets so much shit for how emotional he is! He gets more shit than any rapper.
Romil Hemnani: The way I see it is that Drake will make this emotional music about women, which is one space where society thinks it’s OK for men to be emotional. But one space where society doesn’t think it’s OK for men to be emotional is (in our) insecurities. It’s seen as a sign of weakness as a man to be insecure, to want to cry or look for acceptance from another man.
Merlyn Wood: He doesn’t just talk about girls, though. He talks about his passions, he talks about his mom, he talks about his dad. I think you’re kind of narrowing Drake down. I get what you’re saying, like, there’s a lot more room for improvement... (Room bursts into laughter)
Romil Hemnani: Why would you make that pun? We just want to challenge society’s stereotypes.
Have you ever felt pressured to be like, ‘I should rap about bitches and money’?
Romil Hemnani: A mistake that I made personally is that I would look up to my idols and want to be just like them – rather than be like, ‘Well, my idols were just being themselves...’
Ameer Vann: Exactly, that’s how I want to be like my idols – (by being) myself. I didn’t feel like I was being completed by music until I started making music that was really personal to me, and until I treated a song like a diary.
Merlyn Wood: I never thought I changed my style or my sound or what I rapped about, but I always felt like, ‘I’m not a gangster, I’m not from Compton like Kendrick is, so people aren’t going to think this is hot...’ I would just go with it until I met these kids. And then it was like, ‘Obviously, you can make cool stuff without having to resort to those kinds of cliches.’
Romil Hemnani: The same way we identify with these people we look up to, we identify with each other, because when we met we were like, ‘OK, wow, there are people my age who come from a similar background to me, who see the world the same way I do, and that’s very reassuring and comforting. Just from, you know, growing up and being a teenager and struggling to find yourself, things like that.
“One space where society doesn’t think it’s OK for men to be emotional is (in our) insecurities. It’s seen as a sign of weakness as a man to be insecure, to want to cry or look for acceptance from another man” – Romil Hemnani, Brockhampton
Yeah, I’m no gangster, and that’s where I feel a disconnect with a lot of what’s on the radio. They’re bangers, but they’re not singing about my life. That’s what I feel like Brockhampton does.
Ameer Vann: People are really obsessed with reality nowadays. People love reality TV and they go on social media so they can see what other people are doing and how other people are living.
Merlyn Wood: That is not reality, though.
Ameer Vann: It’s like fast-food reality.
Kevin Abstract: Fabricated reality.
Ameer Vann: It’s something that’s been produced just to have for the now, to satisfy whatever you want for the now. But when you make music that’s based in reality, it’s forever. And I think that’s why the things we do are special, because it comes from a real place. Everything is so literal. JOBA’s a real person, if you listen to his music you’re gonna know way more about him listening to his album than you would if he could tell you everything that he’s been through, all his past relationships. You can listen to the album and be like, ‘Wow, I understand this person, I know where he’s coming from. Not only do I know his personality traits, I know what’s going on in his head, what’s going on in his heart.’
Do you feel like rap music is changing?
Merlyn Wood: Yeah, I look at us and I’m like, ‘Yo, rap is definitely changing.’
Ameer Vann: I feel like we’re the driving force behind that.
JOBA: I don’t think Lil Yachty could have been popular four years ago.
Merlyn Wood: Or ten years ago! Lil Yachty would have been laughed off every stage he was on if he went on stage ten years ago.
Kevin Abstract: OK, then we have to start talking about the people who have come before him to make Lil Yachty possible.
Romil Hemnani: Yeah, like Kanye West, Lil B, Odd Future...
Ameer Vann: Everybody that was weird.
“I didn’t feel like I was being completed by music until I started making music that was really personal to me, and until I treated a song like a diary” – Ameer Vann, Brockhampton
Romil Hemnani: (Kevin) made a really interesting point the other night. He said that Kanye West paved the way for a lot of black artists who are kind of leftfield.
Ameer Vann: Yeah, the hottest rapper before Kanye was 50 Cent.
Kevin Abstract: I mean, there were always those like, conscious rappers, but there was no one else that did more than him.
Ameer Vann: Absolutely, and then he came with a poloneck and Louis Vuitton backpack, talking about the perspective of a young black person of that time.
Kevin Abstract: It’s not even just what he was talking about. It was how he felt sonically and how that made people feel. But it was also filling a void.
Are you guys trying to fill a void?
Kevin Abstract: I think artists don’t care any more. A lot of shit sounds the same.
Ameer Vann: Everything sounds the same, you could play four different artists that people like now and they will probably sound the same.
Ameer Vann: I think that the reason why Brockhampton came together so easily is there are way more kids like us – way more kids than the kids in this room – that feel the exact same way. They may not necessarily be able to make music or get on their computer and find a way to express themselves, so we kind of do it for them... That’s the friend we found in Frank Ocean, that’s the friend we found in Kanye West, that’s the friend we found in Tyler, the Creator. We’re trying to be that friend to everybody.