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What’s behind the rise of Brockhampton?

'The Internet's first boy band' is set to perform in Toronto on February 8

What’s behind the rise of Brockhampton?

“Me llamo Roberto — y me gusta bailar.”

With these seven words — meaning “My name is Robert, and I like to dance” — that open their music video for “Boogie,” Brockhampton, a self-described boy band, herald the coming of their latest album, Saturation III.

With this latest addition to their discography, Brockhampton maintains their fresh brand of youthful and bold hip hop while moving forward in terms of intricacy and musicality. But the quality of their music is only part of their allure.

Rappers and other artists release hit songs and records all the time. What makes Brockhampton special is that the group is redefining what it means to build an artistic brand. Now, following the release of Saturation III, they have become a unique, independent, and creative powerhouse.

Formed in San Marcos, Texas in 2015, the founding members of Brockhampton first met online on a Kanye West fan forum, where they began sharing tracks and collaborating with one another. In 2016, they decided to move out to Los Angeles together.

All 14 main members of Brockhampton live together in one house in south central Los Angeles. They include the regular performers you see in Brockhampton music videos, as well as producers, a photographer, a graphic designer, and a webmaster.

In this small house, Brockhampton has become a self-sufficient machine, churning out three albums in one year, filming enrapturing music videos, and crafting their absurdist aesthetic. They’ve self-funded most of their creative output and founded their own label, Question Everything.

Living together like a boy band has allowed the group to dive headfirst into their artistic pursuits and create a cohesive product, one that has surpassed similar projects like the hip hop collective Odd Future.

The devil is in the details. Brockhampton’s video thumbnails use an all-caps font in bold, bright colours, against a black and white background photo. Every music video begins with Robert Ontinient, the group’s web developer, delivering the latest edition of the ‘me llamo Roberto’ statements, an odd Hispanic prologue to the subsequent events of the video.

What usually ensues is a whirlwind of incredible storytelling, lyricism, and infectious beats, as well as surrealist sequences and the band’s typical absurdist comedy.

Brockhampton lyrics have a wide scope, addressing issues of homophobia, racism, and domestic abuse, coupled with recurring themes of inadequacy, anarchist nihilism, and brotherhood.

On Saturation II’s “JUNKY,” Kevin Abstract, the band’s leader and arguably most recognizable member, raps about coming out to his mom and the dangers he faces living as an openly gay Black man.

In the “JUNKY” video, sitting in the backseat of a car with his face painted gold, Abstract is flanked by knife-wielding, baby mask-wearing men in a film sequence that evokes the stylistic influences of Salvador Dali and Quentin Tarantino. In the same video, Merlyn Wood takes a bath in Froot Loops.

On “RENTAL,” Dom McLennon raps about his fear of “being everybody else.” On “GUMMY,” the group samples Veronica Petrucci’s “Star Against the Night,” a soft orchestral interlude, and then they abrasively interrupt it with an image of Ameer Vann with a llama on a leash.

It’s these sorts of idiosyncrasies that have endeared Brockhampton to their fans and given them such massive success thus far. Even as an independent collective, they’re on the bill for the Governors Ball, a massive festival in New York. They’re slated to play at Coachella, and they’re selling out shows across North America.

Brockhampton has managed to churn out content that is tuned to mainstream issues, albeit in an increasingly countercultural way. They operate as their own creative and stylistic directors. They don’t use ghost writers. They don’t have the backing of massive publicity firms and labels, and they have virtually none of the usual sex appeal of a manufactured boy band.

Despite all of this, they have over a million monthly listeners on Spotify. They are masters of style, and they use the personalities, stories, and beats that surround them to tap into collective consciousness with ease.

Perhaps their relatability is why the band is enjoying increasing celebrity. Brockhampton are frank and real to the core.

Brockhampton will perform at Rebel on February 8.

How rap, R&B, and lo-fi artists are crossing the east-west divide

Exposure to Japanese, South Korean, and Chinese artists is enriching North American music

How rap, R&B, and lo-fi artists are crossing the east-west divide

For many western listeners, exposure to East Asia’s complex modern music culture has come through Korean pop, and Korean pop alone. It’s no wonder why — the genre’s catchy tunes, clothing, and intricate choreography come together to form the complete entertainment package.

However, this is an association that will soon start to change. Last year saw a rise in rap groups and R&B artists across many Asian countries’ music scenes.

Such growth can only be excellent news for music fans, regardless of nationality. Eastern reinterpretations of traditionally western genres, such as R&B and rap, with their roots in African-American culture, are vital to music, emphasizing the best aspects of both traditions.

The bloating of R&B has become a plague in recent years, with flat, stunted projects like Drake’s Views and XXXTentacion’s 17 trying to manufacture the emotional resonance that great R&B artists establish with their listeners.

However, fresh perspective from Asia has arrived to help reverse that trend. Artists like the half-Japanese Joji, with his debut EP In Tongues, have provided a welcome antidote, eschewing vague, commercial lyrics in favour of lines with tangible impact.

It’s Joji’s focus on tactile songwriting that has become arguably his greatest strength. “Will He,” a bitter love letter from an ex-boyfriend, asks a former lover, “Will your tongue still remember the taste of my lips,” and, “Will your shadow remember the swing of my hips?”

The songs aren’t very long, and repetition is frequent, but — reminiscent of some tracks from Frank Ocean’s Blonde — they prey on your senses, using your sense of taste, smell, sight, and touch to pull you into stunning places.

Joji builds a visceral connection with his listeners that has mostly been lost with artists in the modern day. Hopefully more artists will build on projects like these, which focus on the elements of R&B that make it stand as its own art form, and hopefully they cross over to western audiences.

Joji’s instrumentals reveal evidence of a notable trend. Rarely featuring more than a piano, a guitar, some trap-style hi-hats, and a simple bassline, they mirror his songwriting in their simplicity and surreal melancholic vibe.

Compared to the synth-heavy R&B that has gained popularity in recent years — think of The Weeknd’s Starboy or 6LACK’s Free 6LACK — Joji’s tracks are startlingly unique. Here, though, Joji is only building upon another genre of music in which East Asian influence has been key — lo-fi hip hop.

Historically, lo-fi rap was characterized only by its low-fidelity recording quality, hence the name. Modern lo-fi has taken on some additional hallmarks — tracks are superbly relaxing, and their dreaminess is nearly unparalleled in other musical genres.

Saib, a popular Moroccan artist, samples Japanese vocalists on tracks like “in your arms.” and draws inspiration from Asian locales in songs like “Shinjuku Metro Line,” named after Tokyo’s busiest train station.

Matatabi, an up-and-coming Japanese producer, makes great use of a sample on his song “Walking in the Moonlight,” while Brazilian artist Digital Waves brings back the infectious funk of ’80s pop artists such as Tatsuro Yamashita on tracks like “Talkin.’”

Iconic western songs in the field of hip hop, like “Who Shot Ya” by The Notorious B.I.G, have always been defined by an ability to enrapture the listener with simple beats that set a unique mood. Lo-fi artists, breathing life back into forgotten eastern songs, are one such example.

Perhaps the most surprising musical development of 2017 was the continued growth of quality rap from musicians like South Korean rapper Keith Ape and Chinese hip hop group Higher Brothers. Dressed almost exclusively in brands like the Bathing Ape, their aesthetics bear a striking resemblance to American groups like Migos. They draw on trap beats that any Atlanta- or Florida-based rapper would be happy to work with, and they even carry western vocal techniques across linguistic barriers. In the absence of English, anglophone listeners pick up on the importance of vocal delivery by listening to these artists. In English tracks, listeners might be swept along by a particular line or verse, not understanding the finer vocal details that separate it from mediocrity.

By contrast, Keith Ape, stepping on the track “Achoo” with Ski Mask the Slump God, delivers a performance in Korean that makes you want to bob your head from start to finish. Even without any knowledge of his songwriting ability, it’s easy to pinpoint his strength in pacing — as with his 2015 hit single “It G Ma.” Ape constantly manipulates the tempo of his rhymes, slowing down and speeding up with precise timing.

The Higher Brothers also help underscore elements of rap that western consumers enjoy, even if they might not be able to articulate why. Really, it’s because the Higher Brothers have adopted the triplet flow used by American rappers for their use in Mandarin. Dividing each beat into three notes, they’ve ensured that songs like “Flo Rida” and “Young Master” will stay stuck in your head for days.

When the listener can’t get caught up in the lyrics, they’re forced to pay conscious attention to the artist’s sound. Listening to songs like these can force music connoisseurs to think critically about the reasons why they like the music that they do.

Western artists haven’t been oblivious to this development either. Florida natives like Ski Mask the Slump God and XXXTentacion collaborated heavily with Asian artists throughout 2017, while rappers such as Famous Dex and 21 Savage made brief cameos on the scene.

This crossing of the east-west divide is absolutely necessary. The refreshing perspectives regarding songwriting, instrumental focus, and lyrical delivery provided by elements of different East Asian music scenes will add immeasurably to the richness and complexity of the global music industry as a whole.

Why is Toronto’s hip-hop scene stagnating?

A push to move away from melodic and slightly more aggressive melodic singing

Why is Toronto’s hip-hop scene stagnating?

With Drake and The Weeknd dominating the charts, Tory Lanez carving out significant space for himself in the industry, and B-listers like Jazz Cartier, Roy Woods, and Killy rising on YouTube and SoundCloud, it’s easy to get carried away with pride for the music coming out of Toronto. But if our city is ever to be side by side with the likes of New York, Atlanta, LA, and Chicago as a cultural centre of hip hop, it’s going to need to diversify.

At least in the beginning of a city’s musical evolution, it’s crucial to have a sound. For New York, this was boom bap in the ’70s, buoyed by artists like KRS-One, who coined the term, and driven further into the ’90s by prolific figures like Nas. For Los Angeles, it was G-funk in the ’90s, guided by Dr. Dre’s greasy bass lines and funk-inspired synths, combined with Snoop Dogg’s effortless and relaxed delivery. Toronto is in an evolutionary period itself, but it’s starting to get boring.

Drake’s sing-rap style, along with Noah “40” Shebib’s atmospheric production on songs like “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and “One Dance,” redirected hip-hop to ballad romances, dancehall, and more introspective themes. This was a needed change. With the rise of The Weeknd following in Drake’s footsteps of emotional introspection, Toronto has added drug-addled sex and depression to the list of topics that artists are exploring in hip-hop and R&B.

The hardships of romance, the human ego, and the widespread abuse of drugs and alcohol that artists seem to be aware of but rarely make efforts to change are almost the entirety of Toronto artists’ subject matter. This is hardly unique in hip-hop. Toronto, however, delivers these themes in a melancholy drone, usually framed around suspicion of peers and an ever-creeping sadness.

If we were to characterize Toronto’s production, it would be by a diehard love of minor keys, ambient synths, and heavy reverb on vocals. The emphasis is on the words; the instrumentals take a backseat. Shebib personally likes to muffle drums for segments at the beginning of verses, a great indicator in any track that Drake is about to talk about his ‘tings.’

Piano is common in Toronto production, but it’s often so far in the background or so layered with effects that it hardly resembles the original instrument. We borrow our sharp trappy snares and rattling hi-hats from Atlanta; sometimes R&B artists will trade these for dancehall-style beats.

This is a style unique to us, one with a lot of artistic merit and definitely worth pursuing. But like all great bearers of music culture, Toronto must evolve to maintain its relevance.

Roy Woods is essentially a lyrically deficient version of The Weeknd, and the even lesser-known anders a rehash of Woods. Tory Lanez has a particularly interesting soft-to-aggressive vocal range that he uses to great effect on “Fallback” and “B.L.O.W.,” but listen to the instrumentals on either of these and you’ll hear the same drowned piano and trap influence.

Cartier and Killy deserve some credit for their willingness to experiment, but they fall in a similar trap. Cartier’s producer, Lantz, has developed an orchestral trap beat style that almost won Cartier a XXL spot, and an unreleased Killy song, tentatively titled “No Sad Days in LA,” has soaring, razor sharp guitar riffs and furiously satisfying bars. The two boast a similar energy to Lanez and a tasteful use of autotune, but they nonetheless fail to escape the gravitational pull of our attachment to minor keys and similar drum beats.

This isn’t to say these artists are identical or not worth listening to. Nor is this a call for New York boom bap revival — which Joey Bada$$ did, and is done. The problem is that every new Toronto artist who releases music along the same lines of sing-rap and emotional crooning limits our chances of raising the next Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak, or Kanye West. There is more musical space to explore, and the market exists for it, yet Toronto artists seem afraid to do so.

Rare is it to hear jazzy dissonant chords in Toronto instrumentals, and yet Mac Miller’s “Dang!” was well received for it. Any vocal styles other than melodic singing — and slightly more aggressive melodic singing — are for the most part shunned by Toronto artists. Yet Chance the Rapper is one of the biggest stars of our generation. Goldlink also employs one of the more interesting vocal techniques in the industry today, and his single “Crew” was recently certified platinum. Anderson .Paak borrows from soul, disco, and jazz, and was nominated for two Grammys. Run the Jewels produced a whole album with only cat noises and vocals. What exactly is our excuse?

The demand for new and revolutionary material never ceases. Toronto consumers are not lovers of just Toronto hip-hop, but hip-hop in all its flavours. There’s no reason we should limit our palate to one or two.