What comes to mind when you hear the term boy band? Synchronized choreography? Matching outfits, perhaps? Brockhampton, the ragtag Los Angeles-based group that is best known for their eclectic, DIY sound, viral music videos, and being extremely tapped into internet culture, might seem diametrically opposed to the common perception of the term “boy band,” but they’re still a boy band nonetheless. After meeting on KTT—a Kanye West fan forum—the band has grown to include 14 members. The group includes: Merlyn, a rapper; Dom, who also raps; Romil and Jabari, producers; bearface, a singer; Ameer and Matt Champion, who both write music and wrap; and Kevin Abstract, one of the more outspoken rappers in the band who also doubles as a film director.
On the day we spoke, they were all crouched around a large foyer in their shared L.A. home staring at me on Skype. Some members of Brockhampton are multiracial or queer, and all of them are committed to openly talking about the difficult subjects of homophobia, racism or assault. Their third album, Saturation III, out December 15, aims to redefine the boy band. Taking inspiration from digital entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, or musical visionaries like Kanye West and Timbaland, the band’s genre-bending sound and aesthetic could only exist now. “There’s no real reason why we [used the internet] other than those are the tools we had at the moment. If that’s what’s right in front of you, you’re going to just use it,” said Kevin Abstract. Kevin’s given name is Ian Simpson, but he announced to me that he preferred to be known as “Kevin Mountain” for the day—this fluidity of identity being key to understanding Brockhampton’s motives, and their willingness to address difficult or unsavory topics in their art.
The origin story of Brockhampton is a bit sticky. It’s been reported that they met online, but the boys insist that some of the information out there is not entirely true, or is at least overwrought creation mythmaking. “We always gotta say we met on a Kanye West fan forum, and I’m kind of tired of saying that,” Kevin said playfully. “I think what I’m gonna start doing is just lying… so if you want, just say we met at an orphanage.”
Brockhampton arrived with a fully-formed aesthetic intact in their auteurish videos and visual art, and the band is currently working on a feature-length film, shot by their “house” photographer Ashlan Grey. (The photos you see here are also shot by Grey for W.) Their particular worldview extends, of course, to their look—recently, the bandmates all put on blue facepaint and orange jumpsuits for a performance at Camp Flog Gnaw, Tyler The Creator’s L.A. music festival. “When you’re bored, you get creative,” said Kevin. “If we call ourselves a boy band let’s treat it like a boy band.”
The public’s perception of Brockhampton has been defined by their ties to the internet, but the boys themselves find this claim questionable at best. “I don’t know who said it, but someone said that we were the ‘internet’s first boy band’ and we never said that,” said Kevin. “We’re a boy band because we say we’re a boy band,” added the rapper Merlyn. If you’ve listened to their songs, or watched any of their videos, or witnessed their live performances, Brockhampton is all about seizing the narrative—and they’re pretty good at it.
“We’re just a boy band,” announced Ameer, hammering this point. “People tack other s–t onto it like ‘self-proclaimed’ and ‘internet’ and that’s bulls–t. You’re robbing me. Let me be Zayn, what the f—. Why can’t I be Justin? Cause I got nappy hair and a big nose?”
Of course, when the term “boy band” is brought up in any conversation, the comparisons between Brockhampton and other pop-leaning boy bands of the late 90’s and early 2000’s are inevitable. “When I was younger I always used to watch and be like ‘stop comparing me to this person.’ We don’t sound like Odd Future, or PrettyMuch, or really any of our contemporary musicians that are out there,” said Merlyn. On their debut album, Saturation, which the band released in June, the track “BOYS” references Zayn Malik and Harry Styles of One Direction, drawing a clear comparison between two of the British boy band’s most successful and popular members and the levels of fame some members of Brockhampton wish to achieve. Dom, another rapper in the band, told me that, in a way, he almost welcomes the comparisons. “I know people are going to try to find pinpoints, or points of reference, to compare us to.” he said. “I’m waiting for the day that people say ‘that group or that person is the next Brockhampton,’ because that means that we finally got to that level.”
Where Brockhampton most strongly diverges from the likes of PrettyMuch or One Direction is not, as you might expect, in their sound or their look. It’s in the subject matter of their songs: On previous albums, the boys of Brockhampton openly rap about sexuality, depression, and drug addiction. “I think we talk more sensibly,” Merlyn said. “We talk about issues that kids our age actually deal with; we don’t put on a front.”
A song from their second album, Saturation II, titled “QUEER”, tackles the subject of being non-normative—whether that “norm” is in regards to sexuality, fame, or mental illness. “Here’s the thing, we don’t write music for a universal statement, we just share our experiences. And that’s all it is. It’s always raw and very authentic,” Kevin said. “It’s not like we’re trying to make someone happy with the things we say. It really just depends on in the moment when we record the song. On “JUNKY”, also from Saturation II, Kevin gets straight to the point in discussing his sexuality, rapping on the song’s first verse, “Is it homophobic to only hook up with straight n—-s?/You know like closet n—-s, masc-type/Why don’t you take that mask off?/That’s the thought I had last night.” He follows it up with another razor-sharp challenge: “‘Why you always rap about bein’ gay?’’Cause not enough n—-s rap and be gay/Where I come from, n—-s get called f—-t and killed.”
If we are to take Brockhampton at face value and consider them against other boy bands, we should also say that the traditional boy band model is an easy—convenient, even—target for transgression. Every member of Brockhampton positions themselves as a soloist of sorts, dealing with whatever personal traumas plague them on a daily basis in their music. Ahead of the release of Saturation III, Kevin took to social media to get ahead of any criticism of his contributions, tweeting, “I say I’m gay on every song and talk about how my mom won’t accept me.” This could come off as calculated, but doesn’t. And in the era of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, vulnerability that doesn’t feel like carefully staged spin is kind of a revelation. “Look at it this way—a lot of people who aren’t even artists are curating their lives in real time. With Twitter, Instagram, stuff like that,” said Dom. “You’re only seeing the parts that they want to show you… Our art is just candid, and our music, and our thoughts. The real time, as we’re making the music. What you hear me talking about on a song is what I felt at the time I recorded the song.”
Kevin may be the most outspoken of the bunch—and has released solo projects that more directly address homophobia and racism, the most recent being the 2016 album American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story —but when asked if anyone is regarded as the lead singer or rapper, Brockhampton all agreed that there isn’t one. “It doesn’t matter. It’s just about who has something to say in this moment on this song. There’s not supposed to be like a ‘star player’ on every song. It’s just, like, do your work and shine when you shine,” said Kevin.
“It’s all about trust,” echoed Dom. “When I look at why I make music, I never made music to put people down. I made music because I had something in here, in my brain, that was giving me trouble and I found a way to express it. Writing verses gives me a chance to say my piece without anybody interrupting me, so I don’t really care where it goes after it’s done, but I trust the people that I’m creating with that they’ll have the taste and the vision to put it together in a way where whatever I had to say in that moment in time will make sense.”