Brockhampton
Brockhampton
Illustration by Tim Marrs

How Hip-Hop Boy Band Brockhampton Scored a $15 Million Deal -- and Weathered a #MeToo Scandal

by Amos Barshad
July 19, 2018, 10:57am EDT

The modest one-family home in Beverly Hills, Calif., is overflowing with what can only be called stuff. Camera cases, sneaker boxes, manuals covered in the discarded guts of Backwoods cigars. Bottles of barbecue sauce, mac-and-cheese packets, Energy Sparkling White Grape V8. Confetti cannons, Halloween skulls, IV bags on rolling stands (apparently props of some sort). There’s a whiteboard that reads, in ghostly half-erased letters, “make the best thing you can every day.” Mellotrons, drum pads and one very ’80s Mac desktop, plopped in the middle of the room, constitute a makeshift recording studio. And finally, scattered among all this stuff, there are the 14 members of the über-egalitarian, cult-favorite hip-hop collective Brockhampton.

On this Monday afternoon in late May, Kevin Abstract, 22, the de facto frontman, quietly sits in the de facto power position: in the corner of an L-shaped couch, gripping an Xbox controller. He’s surrounded by Matt Champion, Merlyn Wood, Dom McLennon and Ameer Vann, the group’s rappers; and Joba and Bearface, its vocalists. These are the core members who perform at Brockhampton’s oddball but electric live shows, covered in Blue Man Group makeup or wearing bulletproof vests bearing labels like “Fiend” and “Nothing.” Then there’s the other personnel: producers Romil Hemnani, Jabari Manwa and Kiko Merley; photographers/creative directors Ashlan Grey and Henock “HK” Sileshi; manager Jon Nunes; and webmaster/music video personality Robert Ontenient.

Whether they’re onstage or behind the scenes, they’re all full members of Brockhampton, credited as writers or producers on most of the band’s tracks. Polite, inseparable men in their early to mid-20s, they’re a racially diverse crew that vibrates on the same strange frequency. Conversations rattle around the room: Is John Mayer “old” or is he “classic”? What is James and the Giant Peach about? (“Why can’t it just be about a cool peach?”) “Pull up Kanye’s tweet! About the hammer! I think Steve Jobs said something similar!” The exchanges are immediate, considerate, warm, insightful. I have never seen a bigger group of friends all in one room, interacting for this long, without anyone being mean to anyone else.

The anhedonian libertines of the SoundCloud wave want to take you out for one of the craziest nights of your life, but Brockhampton wants to love you forever. They call themselves a boy band, and they bristle when people don’t take that claim seriously. They don’t do synchronized dancing or owe their careers to a music competition show, but they do love One Direction, and encourage similar cults of personality around each member. Their sound is tricky to pin down: at times, there’s the carnival bounce of Eminem’s early hits or the round-robin melodies of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony; at others, the ease with anthemic riffs that comes when, like Abstract, you grew up unreservedly fucking with the Goo Goo Dolls and Vanessa Carlton.

Abstract has been out to fans more or less from the beginning and mines his experiences growing up gay in a Texas family that didn't understand him. On “JUNKY,” he spits a cheeky kind of mission statement: “‘Why you always rap about being gay?’/Cause not enough n---as rap and be gay.” In some of Brockhampton’s more ambitious videos, he plays Helmet Boy, a masked character in a fraught romance with a boy named Summer.

That candor is the bedrock of Brockhampton’s relationship with its impassioned fans, who eagerly snap up both the band’s normcore merch (bearing phrases like “Team Effort” and “Gay,” it’s perpetually sold out) and music (the group put out three albums, the Saturation trilogy, in 2017 alone). The act has earned 434.2 million on-demand streams in the United States, according to Nielsen Music, and while June 2017’s Saturation only appeared on Billboard’s Heatseekers and Independent Albums charts, by January 2018 Saturation III debuted at No. 5 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. Scroll through Reddit’s Brockhampton thread, and you’ll find everything from gushing meme-based odes to unified Zapruder-esque theories breaking down video plotlines.

“I feel like I know them from a past life,” Jaden Smith, a fan and friend who helped the group announce its RCA deal, writes in an email. “The vision that they have is what really sets them apart. I see them winning a lot of awards, making movies and creating all different types of multimedia platforms and companies.”

As the band has blown up, its members have chosen to stay clustered together. But their lives have certainly changed. When the group first came to Los Angeles from San Marcos, Texas, in mid-2016, “They had no money,” their manager Kelly Clancy tells me. “Their diets consisted entirely of corner store stuff. We’d have morning meetings and dudes would be eating ice cream for breakfast.” In late March, Brockhampton scored a $15 million deal with RCA -- which, of course, the members split equally. All of which makes the events beginning in May -- the ouster of Vann following allegations of emotional and sexual abuse, and the band’s struggle to reimagine its future -- all the more complicated and heartbreaking.
 



On May 11, over a week before I arrived in Los Angeles, a young female music fan tweeted an allegation that Vann “degrades women, makes forceful advances and does not ease up when asked, is emotionally abusive, uses girl, v manipulative, has sex with underage/legal fans.” The next day, the singer-songwriter Rhett Rowan tweeted, “I dated him and can confirm that Ameer ... is emotional manipulative and mentally abusive.”

A founding member of Brockhampton, Vann was the face of the group -- his portrait is on the cover of all three Saturation albums. On May 12, he responded to the allegations on Twitter, allowing that his behavior in the past had been “selfish, childish and unkind” and admitting that “throughout the past 3 years I’ve been working hard to reflect on myself and seek out help,” but also insisting he had “never criminally harmed anyone or disrespected their boundaries. I have never had relations with a minor or violated anybody’s consent.” At the time, the group’s representatives told Billboard that Brockhampton stood by Vann and would not issue any response beyond his tweets. (Vann has since deleted his Twitter account, and Billboard has been unable to reach him for comment.)

When I finally meet the band, in my first visit to the messy Beverly Hills house they share, Vann literally doesn't say a word. But during a session in the home studio, he does seem to reference the situation. “Couple hoes gonna murder me/Shoot my name on my Twitter feed,” he repeats a few times into the microphone. “I don’t need you cause I hate myself.” Hearing this from the other room, Abstract skeptically asks Vann to repeat the lines.

On my next visit, a few days later, we sit in folding chairs on a concrete slab outside the house, and Vann is downright chatty. Like the other guys, he’s self-deprecating and prone to oversharing -- talking excitedly about the time he saw wrestler “Stone Cold” Steven Austin in a Quiznos, or making a crack about how he looks 40 (though he’s actually 21) -- but he’s also got palpable star power. His blunt charisma shines through.

As before, Abstract sits quietly in a power position, at the center of the loose circle. He’s dribbling a basketball and wearing a shirt that bears the names Jim Belushi and Tupac Shakur (it’s plugging Gang Related, the 1997 movie starring the pair). As the family lore goes, it was Abstract who posted “Anybody wanna make a band?” on the fan forum KanyeToThe.com in 2010. The guys who heeded his call came from close (his high school friends Vann, Wood and Joba) and far (Bearface, from Belfast; Hemnani, from South Windsor, Conn.). Eventually, Brockhampton, named for the street Abstract grew up on in Corpus Christi, was born.

“Did anyone ever tell you a group this big would never work?” I ask.

“People didn't even care enough to tell us that,” says Vann. “We were all in this hot-ass house, recording everything, just every single day. Everyone had their day jobs. We had to work really, really fucking hard.”

“Do you take time out to work on this very particular dynamic?” I ask, half-expecting to get laughed at for trying to lead us down the group therapy path.

Abstract speaks for the first time that day. “We don’t do that enough,” he says, to mumbles of approval.

“Recently it has become apparent we need to,” adds Joba. “Don’t get me wrong: We’ve obviously had open and honest discussions with each other. I would say we’re insanely, alarmingly in sync with one other.”

“We all emotional,” shouts McLennon. “Very emotional!”

According to Vann, it’s Abstract who sets the tone for the group, which in turns lends the music its power: “He always has some ingenious idea, some way to get kids to care about this.” Vann continues with a comment that later seems ironic, but is nevertheless spot-on for the band. “The challenge is being open and honest,” he says. “And it is difficult to say those things to a seemingly infinite audience of people. But it’s our job.”

RCA Records chairman/CEO Peter Edge describes the appeal in only slightly more boardroom-friendly terms: “They captivate fans with honest and relatable themes that challenge societal boundaries. What they’re doing resonates.”

Brockhampton’s music is, in some ways, classic emo, with the same need to perform internal monologues, to gush forth in an almost unexamined way. Abstract has said that “every artist since forever -- from da Vinci to Drake -- has wanted to split their heads open on the sidewalk and spill their emotions into the world, for everyone to love, ache and hurt as they did.” It’s a young person’s game, being that vulnerable.

Later that day, the band is supposed to depart for a tour that’ll bounce the members from 3,000-capacity venues to massive festivals, from Albuquerque, N.M., to London. We make plans to catch up a couple of weeks later, when they’re slated to be in New York playing at the Governors Ball festival. As I walk out, I pass by the laundry room and notice a red and black motorcycle helmet propped on top of a tiny keyboard. It’s the one Abstract wears as Helmet Boy, a tucked-away little bit of Brockhampton’s self-constructed world.
 



A few hours after I leave, Abstract goes on Instagram Live. “I don’t agree with anything Ameer has admitted to,” he declares. “I shouldn't have been quiet for so long.” It’s his first response to the allegations against Vann. He also says the band is postponing release of its album PUPPY, originally slated for June. Three days later, Brockhampton plays the Boston Calling festival without Vann. As fan videos quickly posted to YouTube show, the band remains still and silent during Vann’s parts in the songs, and at one point, McLennon wraps Joba in a prolonged hug. The next day, the band releases a statement: “Ameer is no longer in BROCKHAMPTON. We want to sincerely apologize to the victims affected by Ameer’s actions. We were lied to, and we’re sorry for not speaking up sooner.” They call off the remainder of their tour.

About a week later, Pitchfork publishes a story with more detailed allegations from two women against Vann. The article says that a woman who dated him “initially viewed Vann’s behavior as a form of BDSM, but ended their sexual relationship when she realized that ‘my body could not handle what Ameer was putting me through.’” “If I told him I didn't like something, it only made him want to do it more,” she’s quoted as saying. “I had no idea what was to be expected, and once it started I had no way to end it.” (The story notes that Vann hasn't been charged with any crimes.)

Soon after, with their New York tour date canceled, I connect with Abstract over the phone while he takes some time off in Hawaii with the rest of the band. “I went on a hike” today, he tells me. “I’ve been eating a lot of shrimp. It’s my first time here. I don’t want to go back to Los Angeles. I kind of want to live here.” He says he hasn't purchased a return ticket yet. “Life is short.”

For the next 40 minutes or so, we have a pained conversation about Vann. After nearly every question I ask, he pauses for so long I think I’ve lost the connection. I can almost feel him physically recoiling, and his voice is hushed whenever he responds.

How did you first become aware of the allegations -- via Twitter?
Yes. A hundred percent. I became aware of the allegations at the same time as the public did.

What do you remember?
It was in the morning, and I was at the house. I woke up and that was one of the first things I saw. It’s kind of a blur. I was probably confused? Yeah. I was pretty confused.

Had you ever seen Ameer act in the way described in the allegations?
No. No. He was a private person for sure. At least around me. And towards me.

In the first band meeting after the news broke, explains Abstract, Vann denied the allegations and Brockhampton believed him. “We’re a family, and family’s built on trust, right? And because of that we stood by Ameer as he responded,” says Abstract. Then, at a certain point after that first meeting, the band felt like he “broke that trust -- he did break that trust.” A lie was uncovered.

What was the lie?
There was a few...it was just a few different things. It just made me...really skeptical...I guess I’m not comfortable going into details of what he was lying about. I do know that I was lied to.

I want to hear more. But I don’t think Abstract sees his responsibility as being with a reporter so much as with the fans. If they feel he has been honest and direct, then he has done his job. “We got off social media so we could finish working on the album,” explains Abstract, “and during that same month that’s when the allegations came up. We were really slow to respond to them. I just felt terrible that the fans couldn't reach us for answers.” But in fact, the fans haven’t been in revolt -- the same fawning love has been spilling forth on Reddit, YouTube and Twitter.

Still, it’s clear that Abstract is suffering through this moment. The only point on the call when he seems happy to answer a question is when I ask how he met Ameer. “I was 14,” he says. “It was on my bus. We weren't really that close at first. He played sports, he was that kind of guy. I was more to myself, listening to music. Then the next year I invited him over to my friend’s studio at his house, and we recorded together. We kind of became good friends ever since then.”
 



I hoped to speak to the members again -- about Vann, but also about moving forward, about how they were feeling as they put the final touches on PUPPY. But the band’s reps decline to grant any more interviews that would include questions about Vann.

Meanwhile, the band ends its hiatus to make its late-night TV debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. I attend the June 20 taping. Before the musical performance, Fallon interviews the rascally Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson, while Davidson’s fiance, Ariana Grande, stands in the wings, lovingly watching him joke about how being engaged to her is “fucking lit.”

The mood turns somber when Brockhampton takes the stage. Abstract, McLennon, Champion, Wood and Bearface sit on a green carpet before a video projection of the band alone on a beach. Joba sits behind a piano, and three guests (Ryan Beatty, Jazmine Sullivan and serpentwithfeet) sing backup off to the side. Everyone in the band wears flannel shirts and hangdog expressions. They debut a new song, “Tonya,” full of cryptic references to pain, betrayal and regret. “I’ve been in my feelings on an island in the dirt,” raps Abstract, “I feel like brothers lie just so my feelings don’t get hurt.” Fallon officially announces the group’s new album, now called the best years of our lives. And the next day, the band says it will resume touring.

Brockhampton has owned this traumatic episode, but the members have also subsumed it into their collective brand -- transformed it into another challenge to overcome. On July 4, the band started posting images on Instagram of its members turned away from the camera, wearing T-shirts printed with sayings like “There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic to human behavior” and “The hardest thing to do is to be true to yourself especially when everybody is watching.” On July 7, they released their poppiest single yet, “1999 Wildfire,” a catchy groove with a singsong OutKast-esque hook.

With the buzz that goes along with being the next big thing in a hip-hop-dominated pop landscape, the rest of 2018 seems to be Brockhampton’s for the taking. “1999 Wildfire” has quickly collected 1.7 million streams on Spotify. In August, they will play some of their biggest shows yet at Lollapalooza and Reading. And while RCA won’t volunteer that it expects the band to earn back its millions, Edge allows that the group is “sure to draw attention with a broader audience.”

The Fallon performance, which now has nearly 1 million YouTube views, was well-orchestrated and ambitious, full of headshakes and long stares, the guys supportively patting each others’ shoulders and knees. That afternoon, they worked hard to show that things have been hard; they emoted with every last ounce of sincerity. But there was a technical malfunction. So then they did the song, exactly the same way, one more time.

Illustration by Tim Marrs

This article originally appeared in the July 21 issue of Billboard.