It’s 7:37 on a cool Saturday night in September and The Stache in Grand Rapids, Michigan is quickly filling to capacity. A sold out performance from self-proclaimed rap boyband BROCKHAMPTON is about to begin and there is a special kind of energy in the air. Of the four-hundred people who will be in attendance tonight only a small handful will be over the age of twenty-one, and many can be heard commenting about how this show – this long sold out performance – would be their first concert.
My mother once told me you never feel old until you’re around someone half your age. Just months away from thirty with a drink I ordered from a bar that might as well have been collecting dust, my presence and that of my photographer (Ben Howell) immediately stood out. We walked to the soundboard and asked the only other person we could find without a thick black Sharpie ‘X’ on their hands if they had ever heard of BROCKHAMPTON before. “No,” he replied, “but my brother and his friends fucking love these guys. Do you see how young these kids are?”
Similar comments follow as a few additional members of the over twenty-one club shuffle to our corner in the back of the room. Most are parents who also claim to have no idea what they’re in for, but a pair of college freshman claim to have discovered BROCKHAMPTON through their video for the single “Star” on YouTube. “It’s crazy,” the tell me while trying to describe the audio and visual components of the music video at the same time, “people are painted blue and rapping all over this neighborhood.” I can’t help asking in a joking tone, “Like the Blue Man Group?” The Freshman do not laugh.
A piece of paper taped about the soundboard reveals BROCKHAMPTON will only have one opener, their DJ (Romil), who will perform for fifteen minutes before the headliner takes the stage. Their set will last one hour and will be immediately followed by a meet and greet that will also last a full hour. There are thirteen merch items available for sale, all shirts and hooded sweatshirts, being sold by two young men who are standing next to a wall made up of 60 boxes worth of BROCKHAMPTON branded clothing. Every young adult entering the room glances at the wall, but most choose to wait until after the set to purchase their gear.
BROCKHAMPTON was born on the internet. A product of the KanyeToThe forum, the Texas based group features more than half dozen members. All seven rappers live and create together, like a modern musical commune, while their fans watch from their laptops and mobile devices all over the world via their Viceland reality series. They have released one mixtape and two albums in the last eighteen months, and there is a good chance a third album could surface before the year is out. Blogs have covered them, but the group has yet to break out in the mainstream the way other successful hip-hop collectives have in recent years. Looking at the room tonight it’s easy to see the mainstream is missing out. These people, mostly teens, are already hip to the next big thing.
What no one in this room knew, including myself, were the events that happened immediately preceding the 7:30 doors. The Stache is a beloved venue with a stage located in the corner of somewhat rectangular space. There is no easy way for an artist choosing to perform with no barrier between the crowd and the stage to make it to said stage without entering through the crowd. The seven members of BROCKHAMPTON present did not want to attempt to navigate the sold out space in order to make their entrance so they chose instead to stand together – all seven members – behind a small black curtain placed in the very back corner of the stage. This happened before the group knew the start time would be delayed half an hour to accommodate extra time needed to get the crowd who had been gathering for hours outside into the venue. In total the group would spend an hour and half just feet from their fans without making their presence known.
Back in the present with a fresh drink and slightly more parents, the DJ appears at 8:30. Their set amounts to a collection of Kanye, Migos, Drake, Cardi B, and Frank Oceans favorites blended together with an occasional and fittingly Texan call of a, “Can I get YEE-HAW!” (He did.) The audience sang along, slowly giving themselves over to the booming bass pumping through the speakers. Then, just as Kanye’s “Pt. 2” came to a close the stage went dark. The beat for “Heat” dropped and the crowd came alive. One by one the members of BROCKHAMPTON walked on stage as their verses began, mirroring the way the song’s official video unfolds. When their verse came to an end the member rapping would drop their head low and bob along to the music while another member made their introduction. Each was received like a star in their own right, and when the track came to a close they finally stood as a group to greet the room. The crowd went wild.
With everyone now introduced, the real show could begin. The members of BROCKHAMPTON barely fit on The Stache stage, but watching them work crowd from the back of the room you wouldn’t know it. The young men, many of whom appear too young to even purchase cigarettes, filled the crowded space with a boundless sense of energy the crowd received and gave right back. Everyone was jumping up and down, spinning in circles, and waving their hands in the air. Every line was rapped by seemingly all 408 people now in the room, and not a soul missed appeared to miss a single syllable. “Anyone hear fuck with Saturation II,” someone asked a few songs in, referencing the group’s most recent release? Screams and shouts of things like “You fucking know it” followed in response.
If only the young people in the room were moving along to the music it may have still been possible for me to write-off what was unfolding as a fluke of viral popularity, but that was clearly not the case. As the group transitioned from the hard-hitting material that opened their show into more sonically diverse productions the adults huddled in the back could be seen trying their best to keep their hips in place. Most of these efforts were futile, with virtually everyone inevitably giving in to the music’s demands that they move along to the rhythm and beat, but a few grey-haired folks did remain stoic. Their faces told me their worst fears about this concert they seemingly knew nothing about prior to arriving were coming true. This was only made more apparent when they began attempting to locate their child(ren) in the crowd, but the room was so alive there was no chance of them pulling anyone out without going in themselves. So, instead, they moved further back and began scrolling through their phones, missing out on the magic happening just feet away.
If the members of BROCKHAMPTON saw those parents they never felt the need to say so. For nearly an hour the members focused solely on the young faces immediately in front of them, and in return that audience paid attention to them. In a room filled with people who grew up with a cell phone in the hand there were very few glowing screens illuminating the dimly lit space. Every now and then someone would raise their device to capture a Snapchat or Instagram update, but as soon as they were done those phones were gone and the dancing resumed. There was no doubt in anyone’s minds that what was occurring on stage was something special and singular. They recognized they were in a moment that would probably never happen again, be it due to their personal evolution or the group’s rising position in the music echelon, and instead of worrying about capturing it so the world could partake they chose instead to be completely present. That unspoken decision made all the difference, and by the time the members of BROCKHAMPTON shuffled off stage to begin their meet and greet their fans, now exhausted from an hour of audio-inspired cardio, were beaming smiles so bright there was no need for house lights.
New to the world of BROCKHAMPTON? Discover “Gummy” now: