If you take a bird’s-eye view of the cacophonous boy band Brockhampton as they move through the world, what you see will look something like a colony of bees. The 13 artfully disheveled twentysomethings don’t march single file; though they take cues from NSYNC, they move more like the Stooges. But from the right vantage, you can spot the invisible strings connecting them. One goes right, one left, and someone else comes slingshotting forward.
Though, really, it’s never that neat. More likely, there’s some fluttering, some circling, an impromptu push-up contest. Merlyn goes first, then Dom, then Jabari. One, two, ten…on to the next activity. “If You Pray Right,” the mournful single off the group’s new album, GINGER, is blaring, and Romil shimmies along. A few others join. The rest of the group, who've swung by GQ for an extended interview and shoot, is ribbing each other, taking Instagram Live videos, laughing, checking out the view; these guys never stop moving. In both their lives and their art, they’ve grown and matured since they were preteens bonding over their shared love for Kanye West, but at heart, they remain a class of middle schoolers on a field trip.
It’ll always be this way—maybe not the three-espresso-shot-and-a-toke-of-something energy, but the single-organism bond. They’ve been through too much together—in the past few years alone, going from living off convenience-store junk food and sleeping three to a hallway in a shambly South Central Los Angeles house to charting and selling out arenas. They’ve had their own Viceland show, released an absurd amount of music, created a complementary acid-toned visual world, gotten paid. And, of course, there was that ugly, group-identity-shaking incident. Boy bands don’t—can’t—last forever, but it’s hard to imagine that this unit’s time together is finite.
Still, when asked what the future portends, Kevin Abstract, the group’s founder and de facto Iggy, readily acknowledges that the group is approaching the end of the line. “This is going to be over in a few albums,” he says, speaking slowly, chewing it all over. “But that's okay. It's still a family.” This is the story of that family, told by that family, before they disband and at a point when they seem to be at the height of their powers.
Brockhampton Goes Undercover on Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter
Birth: AliveSinceForever (2009)
You’ve probably heard the story by now. It’s one of those rare, uncomplicatedly good tales (short, too) about the Internet’s potential. It goes like this: Brockhampton was created with a simple "Artists Wanted" post in a Kanye West fan forum: Who wants to help create a band? As with most creation myths, there’s a kernel of truth to the story, but it’s not entirely right. The post in question came years before Brockhampton. Sometime in 2009, a 13-year-old Kevin Abstract, a virtual addict of said Kanye West fan forum (KanyeLive), asked his fellow young fans and aspiring artists if anyone wanted to join a collective. It was called—well, we’ll let him tell it...
Kevin Abstract: My friend Jalen Jones was a graphic designer and producer and engineer from Las Vegas. And he sent me this graphic that said “AliveSinceForever” on it, and I said it'd be a cool collective. So we made a little group together on [the forum] KanyeLive. Everyone [from Brockhampton] was in there except Ciarán [McDonald] and Ashlan [Grey]. I checked KanyeLive the way I check Twitter now. Every day, all day, I'd be in school checking it. It's how I found new music. It's how I learned how to talk, in a way.
Jabari Manwa: I joined KanyeLive because I was really obsessed with Kanye at the time, which was around 2009. There was nobody like that in Grenada, so I wanted to meet likeminded people that I could just talk about Kanye with.
Kevin: There was a Kid Cudi section. Rob [Ontenient] and Romil [Hemnani] met in the Lupe Fiasco section. And I never went to the Drake section. That's why I didn't know HK [Sileshi].
Romil Hemnani: HK was a legend in the "covers" thread. There was a specific thread where people would make their own covers for songs already out. A song would drop and everybody would be like, "I'm waiting on HK's cover."
HK Sileshi: I was in math class freshman year of college, and I made a meme where I put Obama's face over 2 Chainz's album cover, and it said, "#TwoTerms." And so I put it up on my Tumblr, where I had all this other fan art. I closed my laptop at the end of class, walked my dog, and then I put my laptop on my desk, and it's hot. I'm like, "What the hell is going on?" And I'm getting all these notifications. It blew up instantly. That’s how I was introduced into AliveSinceForever. Romil was commenting on stuff I made for another rapper: "Man, I love the texture that you use on this one. Can you send me that paper texture?"
Jabari: You could also post your own music to the creative showcase part of the site. I put up some beat, and Kevin hit me in the direct messages asking for it. Initially, I didn't want to do it. I was like, "Who the fuck is Kevin Abstract?" After doing some research, I was like, "Damn, this young nigga hard as hell."
Romil: Being 12 or 13 myself, I couldn't even fathom the ideas this guy was coming up with.
Jabari: I also saw a performance of Kevin doing a rendition of "That Thing," the Lauryn Hill song, and that's when I knew he was 100 percent going to be a star. It was very clear, just with how fucking confident he was at a young age performing, the types of songs that he was writing, how much he was trying to experiment with music at such a young age. The ambitiousness.
Dom McLennon: All of this was being done by himself. I don't know many people who had like three or four mixtapes out before they were 17 years old. Regardless of whether they were objectively good, there was commitment to being an artist.
Jabari: Kevin reminded me of a young Kanye, or a young Cudi. Just the thought process of "Why not?"
Romil: Beyond just having mixtapes, it was all the other stuff that goes into being an artist in this time period. Like a social-media presence and uniform aesthetics and visuals. Having a grasp of all those things at such a young age was really eye-opening to me. It's like, “Oh, he's doing things the same way that these massive artists are doing it, in terms of having a very clear, concise vision.”
Jon Nunes: Before we met Kevin, Romil, Dom, and this other guy who used to be in the group, Rodney [Tenor], we all lived in Connecticut, and my house would be like the hub for recording. Making music was kind of an idea. And then it was like, "Yo, who the fuck is this kid?" Like, “He's younger than all of us...and he's creating a movement.” We definitely felt that, and it was magical in a sense. It just seemed like a bigger idea than what it really was. But we got it there.
Dom: I joined the group in late 2012, so they already had a couple years together. And me coming in from the outside looking in, I was kind of on my own island in Connecticut. I wanted to do all these ambitious things as an artist, but no one around me wanted to do them. I wanted to make a website for every song that I did, I wanted to create a world. And Kevin was the only person I saw doing that. He was pushing other people in the Facebook group chat, yelling, "We need to get a website done!" or "We need to get a video done for this!" Anyone else wouldn't have taken it seriously. But that everyone was so committed to it was incredibly inspiring.
Kevin: Basically, since everyone lived all over, the goal was to spread the music at your school or in your town. We'd all get a fan base off of that. We’d push each other's solo work. It kind of worked. Kinda.
Romil: There's a video of an old ASF show from 2013 or 2014, right after Jon joined the group, and he's like one of the only audience members.
Kevin: We played a few shows as ASF. We played a show in Corpus Christi, a show in Houston, Connecticut, a SXSW show. It was very small—like, just our friends in the front row... And that's the only row.
Joba: The show at Valhalla was the first show I performed with ASF, and I remember I drove there from Houston. I was just rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing, and I pulled up and I was like, "Wow, it's a huge group.” And I was super nervous. But we ended up just, like, performing to each other. And I was like, "This is rad."
Rebirth: The Formation of Brockhampton (Late 2014)
Small crowd or not, playing SXSW wasn’t nothing for an Internet-born collective of teenagers. The members—about 40 of them in all—were making steady progress, doing what good collectives do: advancing as individuals by supporting one another. But there were limits—Kevin Abstract could see that. To get bigger, the group would have to get smaller.
Dom: The main difference between Brockhampton and ASF, outside of the sheer number of people in the group, was there was not really much autonomy, or control, or leadership in ASF. It was just a bunch of solo artists doing something.
Kevin: I was talking to Merlyn on the phone, and he said something really poetic about how if you're building a house and you don't have the right pieces, make a new house. I was like, "Fuck, I should just start over."
Dom: When Joba moved to San Marcos [Texas], Kevin, Jon, and a couple others moved to San Marcos, too, and Kevin decided that he wanted to start a band. Kevin told us that we were going to do Brockhampton, and basically whoever wanted to be in that group could move to Texas, and whoever didn't want to be in that group could do ASF still.
Kevin: It wasn't that anyone could join. I called certain people from ASF who I felt shared similar sensibilities. At the time, I just wanted to be a part of something that would last longer than all of us, that was bigger than individual members. I wanted people who would be willing to focus on a group and not solo material. And also just people who would be willing to take a risk and move to Texas and not know if it's going to work out and be willing to be really consistent with it. I would call people and say, "Would you be down to join this group as this?" It was very specific and clear.
Jabari: I appreciate Dom, because I didn't get that initial call, and he was the one that was like, "Yo, you gotta add Jabari." There was a misconception that I did drugs.
Kevin: Jabari's Facebook posts just got mad different. It looked like he was partying nonstop.
Jabari: I wasn't doing any of that.
Kevin: When we first made the group, I wasn't like, "Oh, we need to make a boy band." I wanted a media company, basically. But we were at Whataburger one day, and I was like, "We should just call ourselves a boy band. That'd be funny and ironic." And the name Brockhampton always stuck out to me when I lived on the street [called Brockhampton], because I thought it looked really cool. But I picked it because my earliest memories of recording and everything were there. I wanted to start a record label in my garage. I had all these ideas in that house. I was calling Def Jam as a kid in that house. Going from ASF to Brockhampton felt like such a big thing because we had a few fans. But I'm glad we switched.
The Unglamorous Glory Days: Moving to South Central (April, 2016)
After a year spent honing their craft and forming in-person bonds, Brockhampton set out for Los Angeles. “That’s where the industry was,” Abstract says. It wasn’t glamorous, and, still teens, they weren’t always the best neighbors. But the South Central heat brought out something special.
Dom: When we all moved out to Los Angeles, that was right after All-American Trash, which was April of 2016. That January, I moved out of Texas to Los Angeles just to get a head start. So I moved in with some of my friends. And our real estate agent was like, "If you guys need anything, let me know." And honestly, just being a troll, I was just like, "You got a seven-bedroom house?" She was like, "Down the street." I called Kevin, he came by, we saw it, and he was like, "Yeah, let's do it!"
Joba: The first day I moved to South Central, me and Jabari pulled up to the house and there's a helicopter over it. We went to return my U-Haul, and we took like four or five turns, hit a roadblock, and just saw—I don't know how many dead bodies it was.
Jabari: There was a family with towels on top of their heads, which I would assume meant they had gotten shot or something like that. It was the first time I had seen dead bodies in that way.
Dom: About four people lived in the living room [of our new house]. I lived in a hallway next to the washer and dryer. I was in between Romil and Joba in the house. So a lot of the time I would be writing to the snare pattern of a song that someone was making a beat to, because I literally couldn't walk in. So I'd sit outside of the room and hear it like it was a club and you're hearing [music] outside the club.
Kevin: I was really desperate in a lot of ways. I really wanted to be famous. And I really wanted my friends to have money. Because I was the only one in the house with money. It was weird. I was eating shrimp plates, you know? Because I signed a pub deal off of my solo album. And if you were in that house, you'd see: It was sad.
Romil: We would have marathon sessions, like from the moment somebody woke up, they would start making music until the moment everyone passed out. One time it was like 3:30 or 4:00 A.M., and everybody's done. And I'm like, "Okay, I can sleep now." I'm in bed for five minutes, and then Kevin texts me, "Yo, can you record?" And I'm like, "Okay, fuck, let's fire it back up." That night we made like three or four songs. And one of them is actually the song that's on the second half of the "STAR" video. It was like, "Okay, if the guy next to me is pushing this hard, I have to go just as hard—if not harder."
Matt Champion: We were all in close quarters, and there was not a lot of conflict. Which is really strange. There was a lot of camaraderie, a lot of brotherhood happening. I think it bled into the music, where we all had similar tastes, we all had similar feelings about life. To have ten people be on the same page as you is a really weird feeling. I think that's how some of the music came out so well, and it was helpful in making vulnerable music.
Romil: We were making Saturation in May, so it's like 90 degrees all the time. We had no AC in the house. Me and Jabari and Kiko [Merley], our computers were literally overheating, and we'd have to stop recording just because the shit wouldn't work. There's this sense of urgency to the music because it's like, "We have to get this done now, because my computer is going to overheat and I'm not going to be able to record anyone.” Jabari would have to make beats literally sitting outside in the alley. That's how you get songs like "STAR" and "BUMP."
Jabari: We had to grow up really fast. We had to figure out how to make it work in a whole different environment while being broke and still trying to pursue our dreams. It was tough, but I'm very thankful for that experience.
Romil: We also had to recognize that we were guests in these other people's neighborhood, and be really mindful of that.
HK: We were just outright everywhere on the block, and we acted like we owned it. The people that really ran the block, they weren't appreciative of the fact that we were there. We never really checked in or anything like that. So it's funny, because when we shot "LAMB," we were scared to shoot another video in the street. That's why we shot it in our driveway with the gate closed. Right after that, I was like, "All right, things are at a standstill now. We gotta get out of here."
Joba: The night we moved to North Hollywood, I rode my bike down the street and just felt safe and on top of the world.
Romil: I felt like we fucking made it. Because for the first time in about four years we could all just, like, [stretches out] and not run into each other. It was amazing. That was right after Saturation. We worked on Saturation 2 and 3 in that house.
The Heat: The Saturation Series (June, 2017–December, 2017)
Three albums in the span of six months. On each, the energy practically manic—not the stuff of your average boy band. The title—Saturation—encapsulates the aesthetic: bright, clashing tones, an alien universe. They had released a prior album, All-American Trash, but the Saturation series marked Brockhampton’s arrival in earnest.
Romil: We didn’t have an album when we announced Saturation. We were in the living room and Kevin kept asking people, "What's the first word that comes to your head?" And people just kept throwing words out. And somebody said, "Saturated." And then Kevin said, "Saturation." And then HK threw his hat and said, "That's the name!" Right after we decided on the name, Kevin got up and sat next to HK and was like, "Let's make a visual for this right now." And together they sat down and they molded what Saturation would look like. So they made like the first initial image in ten minutes, and we were like, "Let's post it on Instagram." We posted it: "Mixtape next month." We had no music, and then that night we all started making the album. Jabari started making a beat. I went into my room and we started recording stuff. We did the whole project in three weeks.
HK: I remember we had a listening session of the first Saturation in me and Kiko's room. I'm like, "That's great, man. Wow, we have a great album. I don't know what we're going to do next." And Kevin's like, "Man, we're gonna keep going. We're gonna do a 2, we're gonna do a 3." And I was like, "We're going to keep going?"
Kevin: One thing that inspired the Saturation series was Frank's Blonded series. He was releasing so much shit. And I thought that was a sign of the times, with people just putting out so much material and every song being high quality.
Romil: We would make a bunch of songs during the week, and then we would pick one and be like, "Here's a video for it." And Kevin, HK, Ashlan, all the visual guys would get together and plot out the video. We'd shoot it over the weekend, HK and Kevin would edit it over the weekend, and then it'd be out. And then repeat the process the next week. It just became second nature. Everyone knew what each day was set up for.
Kevin: My issue with what was happening with Brockhampton prior to Saturation was: we'd make something that was really cool and we'd be off it right after we did it. So with Saturation, as soon as we caught something, I wanted to just keep milking it until it was dead.
Dom: While we're making Saturation, Saturation 2, and Saturation 3, life is literally changing. We did our first sold-out headline show. And then every show was like that for a very long time, which was crazy.
Romil: Saturation came out, and people loved it and we got a fan base. And it was like, "Oh, fuck, there's like real expectations. We can't fuck the next one up." Sometimes it got to a point where I was almost apprehensive or anxious to work on something because I wasn't sure of myself for some reason. But that's also the beauty of having all these guys: everyone uplifts each other.
Satisfaction: How a $15 Million RCA Deal Changed Things (April, 2018)
The starving artist days accelerated Brockhampton’s progress, both musically and communally, and helped them create a mythology. But suffice to say it was a relief when, in the spring of 2018, labels came calling.
Kevin: A lot of people`were interested, and RCA just seemed like the label that cared the most. They showed up to every show, they seemed to really care about the music, and us, like as a brotherhood. It just felt right.
Joba: I was obviously excited, because that's the dream in a weird way—coming from Texas and moving to this city where something like that could happen. Being in a situation where that's in front of you and you're looking at it and you seal the deal, it's a moment where you realize, "Okay, maybe this is me taking a step into professionalism." And that's an odd adjustment. It came with a lot of nerves, excitement.
Romil: It felt like the right time to take that step based on where we were in our careers at that moment. We just wanted to partner with somebody who had the resources to get us where we wanted to get, but also understood us as a brotherhood and a band and a company.
Joba: We all went out to dinner to sign. But it didn't necessarily feel like a celebration.
Romil: It was just a regular day for us. We worked on music that day, made a couple songs. And then we signed our contract and came back and worked on more music. People think you sign a record deal and that's like the end game, that's the Super Bowl. But we didn't really view it as that. We viewed it as the next step to take to keep going where we wanted to go.
Dom: The tight part about it is [RCA] paid us and got the fuck out the way. They really have not interfered with the creative.
Kevin: The deal made everyone more comfortable, which does affect the way you make music. The urgency we had earlier is now down a little bit. The urgency has to come when people are fully hungry. And that comes at random times once you have money and shit.
Joba: There's more room for thought.
Dom: We've got the time to dig a little bit deeper.
Kevin: I like RCA a lot. And I don't regret [signing with them]. What I do regret is the amount of music we put out, and that we became okay with that approach. If we could go back in time and change some of the terms, I would do that. But those terms are based on what we were doing already.
Heavy Turbulence: The Dismissal of Ameer Vann, and a Near Death Experience (Summer 2018)
The members of Brockhampton were used to adversity. Their whole rise was an exercise in perseverance—going far without money, without parental support, as a different kind of boy band. But in May of 2018, they faced their first real crisis: Ameer Vann, one of the group’s original and most talented members—the one whose face was on the three Saturation covers—was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. At first, he denied the charges. The group ultimately concluded that he was lying to them, and opted to kick him out of the group. The incident shook them to their core, leading them to wonder: What now?
HK: After everything was said and done and the tour was done, and we all came back to ourselves and fully realized the gravity of the situation, that was the first time we didn't have control of the wheel. And so we all just needed to be there for each other and also give people time for themselves. So as a group we just went to Hawaii.
Dom: Low key, on the way to Hawaii we almost died in a plane crash. We were in the air and we dip down all of a sudden, lifted off the seats. Another plane coming in the opposite direction almost hit us.
HK: The pilot was like, "Yeah, sorry about that. We were gonna go on a head-on collision. I just had to do my thing real quick." Everybody had experienced free fall, people are looking at each other for confirmation that that was real life.
Dom: People were praying on the plane. Not us. Random people were praying on the plane.
Kevin Abstract: I went to Hawaii before them. And when I was there, I was completely off making music. I was off. I didn't trust it. The trust issue was—it was insane. I kind of felt isolated and alone. And at some point I was kind of like, "I don't want this to fuck our money up." So I was thinking about how we canceled the tour. And I was like, "We should just fucking keep going." Looking back, I don't think that was the smart thing to do. Because we were playing shows and writing songs when we should have been focused on healing and reflecting. I shouldn't have been worried too much about money because that shit comes and goes.
HK: If anything, the whole ordeal made us strengthen the bond. It made us talk more, be more transparent with each other, and let people know that we're here for each other amidst anything. Like, it strengthened us to not give up, even though it felt like shit was at the end.
Kevin: It made me grow up really fast. It made me be fake in a way because you have to get on stage and act like everything is okay when we're all supposed to be healing. So it was really rough.
Dom: It brought me so much closer to everybody. Especially after so much tension. It's like stages of grief—anger, denial, all that stuff happens. But being able to talk in real time with my friends showed me who my real friends were. I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else.
Joba: For some reason, there was a piano at our AirBnB in Hawaii. I was like, "Sweet, this is what I need right now."
Kevin: We made "TONYA" in Hawaii, but that was also because we knew we had to do a fucking new song for Jimmy Fallon. Fallon was already booked. We didn't want to cancel, but it's like, "We can't do a hype song. That would be fake.” We had to make something in line with what we were feeling.
Dom: When we were in Hawaii, there was this moment in time where the piano instrumental for "TONYA" was playing on loop, and we just talked for like the entire night, for hours.
Kevin: And then we [perform it on Fallon], and the first reaction is like, "I don't really know what this group is doing now." Which kind of makes things even more confusing when you have an album due in a few months.
HK: Iridescence, [our next album,] is a direct reflection of the confusion of the time period.
Kevin: We didn't try to make up for [Ameer's role going forward]. With songs like "TONYA," I would say our music got more melody-driven. I feel like it's gotten a little bit softer, because we've gotten softer—not because of the lack of him, but because we became more vulnerable.
Arrival: GINGER, Where Everything Had Been Leading (August, 2019)
Compared to past album covers, Brockhampton’s latest is strikingly gray. There are no bright tones; it’s not sexy or cool. The image is a photo of Joba embracing a friend who sometimes works with the band. It was taken at an airport in Norway. It’s simple, earnest, intimate—which is where the music went too. The album peaked at Number 2 on the Billboard 200, and it’s gotten mostly glowing reviews from critics. It’s the work of a group that’s a bit less frenetic, and a bit more weathered, mature, and open.
Kevin: In March, I was working on my solo album, Arizona Baby, and I got stuck. And in order to get out of that weird phase I was in I decided to work on group music. So I asked the guys if they were down to start working on the next album.
Joba: When we first started GINGER, I probably wasn't in the best place.
Kevin: I didn't have the best confidence at the time. I just needed my brothers, really, to lean on and have them in my corner so I could get through writing some sort of anything.
Joba: Closure is a tough thing to get sometimes. But you're left with what you have, and sometimes you just have to cauterize wounds. But I think it's just growing pains. Going through the motions of being signed and being considered a professional artist. The pressures that come with that. The pressures of being watched—people having expectations of you, you having expectations for yourself. All these little things, compacted and compounded within my mind.
Kevin: We had been apart for like five or six months. That's the longest we'd been apart since moving to LA.
Romil: It made me appreciate what we have within our group and our friendship after spending time apart. We started making the songs and I realized I love being friends with these guys and making music with them more than I actually love music itself. Music is my passion, but the joy and the love and the feeling I get when we're all together making music, I can't find anything else that gives me that.
Joba: [The time apart] was definitely necessary. Whenever you spend so much time with your family, you lean on them, you learn, you blend in, stand out; it's like a safety net. And when you step away from that, the world is bigger. Leaving, experiencing things, bringing that experience back, injecting that into the music while everyone else is injecting that into the music—the landscape broadens.
Kevin: Once we got back together, it seemed like everyone was happy and we were all enjoying life and independence. It wasn't like a sad thing in the room ever. We had a lot of fun making those songs. The sessions felt pretty bright.
Romil: This was our first time not living together making a record. Everything else, we've always been together, and you wake up and somebody's making music. The sessions never really end. And if you sleep you might miss out on the song. Whereas this time, we kind of had to adjust to regular real life.
Kevin: We all just wanted to make music connected to where we were in life.
Joba: I remember when I was writing my verse on "BIG BOY" I remember smoking an entire pack of cigarettes and pacing and sweating. There are certain times where I'll feel a fire in my chest when I'm making something. That was one of those moments. I learned a ton about myself. I pretty much milked it dry. There were certain moments where it felt like closure, like an unspoken closure.
Kevin: Making the first three songs on the album was really special. Especially because it was a connection thing. We were all in sync and we all knew what we wanted to make. And it happened in such a quick way.
Joba: When we made "LOVE YOU FOR LIFE," I felt really connected with everyone who was there. That was a really beautiful moment. That song felt like a breath of fresh air for me when we were making it.
Kevin: We were trying to make a real summer, feel-good pop album, but it ended up being very sad. But it still makes me feel good.
Dom: Regardless of whether the context of GINGER is happy or sad, I think it's the most confident that we've been and the most comfortable we've all been in our own skin as artists on a record. And that's why it's my favorite. I know that I can say in confidence that this is our best fucking album, and everyone in the room will agree with me.
Kevin: GINGER is my favorite album because we were able to heal for, like, six months and then make a record. I've kind of gotten off the idea of being the biggest thing in the world. But I do want to reach more people. And don't I want to be corny.
Merlyn Wood: Too late.
For Pride month, GQ called up playwright Jeremy O. Harris to sit down with the young leader of the rap collective for a raw, far-ranging conversation about creating while queer, forgiveness, the trickiness of mining personal trauma, and Friday night therapy sessions with Hollywood friends.
Originally Appeared on GQ