They’re the hottest new boyband on the planet. But they’re certainly not your average boyband. Chris Mandle meets the band who are “building a legacy, one of greatness and respect”
They pour on to the stage like Skittles spilling out of a bag.
On a Monday night in Camden, Brockhampton’s four lead vocalists – Kevin Abstract, Matt Champion, Merlyn Wood and Dom McLennon – plus vocalists/producers Russell ‘Joba’ Boring and Ciaran Ruaridh ‘Bearface’ McDonald dance like nobody’s watching, even though 1,410 people and their 2,820 eyeballs are glued to the group.
I’m there, too, watching from Koko’s rafter-high theatre stalls. The room is thick with a fog equal parts sweat, heat and weed.
The boyband are barely able to contain themselves as they fly through a set studded with anthems from their Saturation album trilogy; the sidewinding Gummy, the jackhammering Boogie. At one point, like a golf cart taking a tight corner, Wood comes close to careening completely off the stage. The young crowd scream as though they’re watching N*Sync.
Watching a room full of young people lose their collective minds over an all-male group is not new. But this is Brockhampton, and this definitely is new: they are an all-American boyband who rap (because why not? But also because in 2018 maybe rapping and pop aren’t mutually exclusive). The group do everything themselves: writing, producing, shooting and uploading videos, designing the merch (including the football shirts specially produced for their ShortList cover shoot), website design and hype-machine-cranking. Earlier this year, Brockhampton signed a deal with RCA worth £11.5m for six albums over three years.
“It’s like an Odd Future deal,” a source at the label told Billboard, referencing the group whose members included Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator. “But when Odd Future did that deal, it was close to $2m [£1.5m].”
Male sensitivity in pop has become big business: Drake dominated the charts all summer with Scorpion’s emotional prosodies to his newborn son. And last year Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator chipped away at his bratty, aggressive persona and showed us that underneath it all was a queer kid in crisis. Brockhampton embody a space somewhere in the middle; this is a pop group featuring young people of colour, queer men who sing about homophobia and blowjobs. Choruses and bridges reference racial inequality and body dysmorphia. Their music videos are bizarro stories in lurid, Crayola colours that resemble Wes Anderson films on mescaline. Brockhampton are credible, they make great music and they might just be the most emotionally intelligent boyband in the world.
Not that Kevin Abstract – the band’s 22-year-old founding member and the closest thing they have to a frontman – feels particularly radical when he raps about his sexuality; he’s been gay and making music since before anyone cared.
“I’d see negative comments and forget [being gay] was a big deal to some people, that some people hadn’t heard it before,” he says. “My goal is just to normalise it. Straight rappers talk about their sexual relationships without warning me. And they are more explicit and violent. I have to express myself and who I am.”
Less than 12 hours after they departed Koko, and less than six hours after they finally left Abbey Road studios (where the band were putting the finishing touches to their fourth album Iridescence), Brockhampton are tearing across a football pitch in West London, pulling the sort of ludicrous goal-scoring celebrations that would make Jesse Lingard proud.
There’s no opposition; there isn’t even a goalkeeper. But that’s no reason not to pull your jumper over your head and celebrate when you stick one in the back of the onion bag.
Following a morning of kinetic ping-ponging around the pitch, a pizza break that turns into a Frank Ocean listening party and some more photos, the band pile into their presidential motorcade and take me to their hotel.
Once there, we sit in a huge circle like we’re in group therapy, in a room inexplicably carpeted with astroturf. The seating options range from beanbag to deck chair to that’s it. In conversation, the six voices swell and soften in unison; words are rarely wasted and pockets of thoughtful silence are common. With the hermetically sealed windows and blazing heat, we soon feel drowsy.
But even in this heavy-lidded, post-pizza state, the boys talk with clarity and assurance. Abstract says he doesn’t want his sexuality to define him, even while people champion him as a queer icon.
“I don’t want to be a queer icon,” he says. “I want to be an icon. In order to make a change, I have to exist in a traditionally homophobic space such as hip-hop. If I were to just be this queer rapper, who only spoke to queer kids… I don’t think I could as effectively make a change for another young, black queer kid growing up in Texas.” Brockhampton’s music, he says, is for all types of people.
McLennon turns to him. “That’s one of the most inspiring things about you. One of the most enlightening and profound things I’ve learned from you is watching you make the effort to normalise your experience.”
Abstract nods. “I’m never going to search for anyone’s acceptance. I’m just going to be me, and people are eventually going to have to accept it.”
His queerness, like the band’s outsider-dom, feels as if it’s supposed to make them underdogs, but as I sit with them I wonder how true that is. Outsider-dom and otherness(™) have never been more lucrative in pop culture. Often it feels as though Brockhampton’s modus operandi has been to infiltrate pop culture from the outside and flip everything we thought we knew on its head; to make being radically different the most normal thing in the world.
“I still feel different to the majority of artists,” Wood says, when I ask if their success has soothed any feelings of being outliers. “I don’t think we’re outsiders in the music industry, but our experiences are outside of what most people experience. Our journey is different.” Pause. “And no one should be afraid to do something different.”
There’s a meditative, mediating quality to the group when they’re in conversation. Abstract is explaining how he broke the news to his mother and sister that he wasn’t going to college, when Wood turns to him and asks, softly, “How did it feel, having that conversation?”
Abstract is looking into the distance. “I knew I wanted to be a superstar. They didn’t understand I was on this path that I’d created by, like, tunnel vision or something. I try to commit to decisions. Maybe it’s for reasons to do with pride.” The group nod silently, because they understand. This is how young men are now; more emotionally intelligent, supportive, kind, considerate.
The rest of Brockhampton’s swollen ranks are not here today, but they are diligently working in the studio. The band is rounded out by producers (Romil Hemnani, Jabari Manwa and Kiko Merley), a graphic designer (Henock ‘HK’ Sileshi) a photographer (Ashlan Grey), web designer (Robert Ontenient), VFX engineer (Kevin Doan), stylist and clothing designer (Nick Lenzini) and manager (Jon Nunes). They live together in a huge house in San Marcos, Texas. This is the other quietly revolutionary thing about Brockhampton: unlike every boyband held together with the thinnest adhesives imaginable, they actually like each other.
It started with iron-clad friendships, but Brockhampton’s foundations have supported something even more ambitious: the boyband are building a brand. Their inspirations include the Beatles and Steve Jobs – they love Apple so much they placed an Apple II computer in their studio, where it stood like an inspirational totem. You can hear it in conversation: they want to build something big. Something that lasts. Only maybe don’t call it a legacy – yet.
“The idea of a legacy stresses me out,” Joba says. “We’re building a legacy, one of greatness and respect. But dwelling on it takes me out of now.” He pauses. “You just have to trust the process.”
It does seem a bit grandiose to speak in these terms at this early stage in the band’s career, but you only need look at their fanbase to see proof of their legacy. “I could say in full confidence I haven’t met a single fan who was a piece of sh*t,” McLennon says. “And that’s awesome.”
If their wholesome fanbase and creatively fulfilling ascent to the big league seems too idyllic and straightforward, earlier this year they were forced to confront an uncomfortable situation when founding member Ameer Vann was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. He was promptly kicked out of the band. “We were lied to, and we’re sorry for not speaking up sooner,” the band said in a statement. “We do not tolerate abuse of any kind. This is not a solution to their suffering, but we hope this is a step in the right direction.”
Today, the band are keen to distance themselves from Vann and his behaviour. “Our conversations with our fans come from us. We want them to know how to treat a woman well and how to be a better man,” says Dom. “We’re just normal kids, but we feel we should hold ourselves to good values. We don’t like to hurt people. If expressing ourselves individually helps people, that’s what we’ll do.”
“Everyone who is a fan seems really happy and excited,” adds Wood. “I can tell that our music has a positive effect on people. I think it brings clarity and joy.”
“That, and a sense of liberation,” adds Joba.
Earlier, between taking shots at an open five-a-side goal, Wood was raised aloft by the group and carried across the pitch. “Is this your king?” he bellowed to a cluster of onlookers. This is mere moments after he’d dutifully placed a lit joint on the highly combustible plastic grass. (It was no Chekhov’s blunt – an assistant dropped it into a Coke can.)
What we once thought a boyband should look like – quiffs with a steep crest you could surf down, abs (or at least the illusion of them), gyrating hips – has given way entirely, and there is no greater example of that shift than Brockhampton. I ask Wood what the future looks like, because this moment seems precious. He answers by describing the music industry as being like a sprawling amusement park, “but it’s really confusing, because nobody gives you a map. It’s not always easy to get on the rides. Some doors are closed or you’re not tall enough.
“Now, it feels like we’ve got the fast pass. We’re recording the album at Abbey Road studios…”
“I was trying not to f*cking cry,” McLennon interjects. Wood smiles.
“We’ve always been moving, but now we can see where we’re going.”
Iridescence is out now
Photography: Tom Cockram
Styling: Sam Carder, Hair: Abra Kennedy using Davines UK, Make-up: Emily-Jane Williams using Cowshed and Charlotte Tilbury, Fashion Assistant: Itunu Oke
Additional photographs: Getty Images
Clothing: Wood: Vintage surplus tree camo joggers £55 by URBAN RENEWAL; urbanoutfitters.com; Aop khaki team orange Air Max 98 by NIKE; offspring.co.uk Kevin Abrstract: Olive green original 874 work pant £45 by DICKIES; dickieslife.com Matt Champion: Dark brown original 874 work pant £45 by DICKIES; dickieslife.com Joba: DBG drawstring denim cargo trousers £55 by URBAN OUTFITTERS; urbanoutfitters.com McLennon: Ink fleece trousers £215 by STONE ISLAND; stoneisland.co.uk