The city of Brockton, once a booming industrial city, has long been eclipsed by Boston, its larger and wealthier neighbor to the north. But things are changing. Brockton is affordable, growing and more diverse than ever. To add to the excitement, the city is home to Massachusetts’ most promising rap collective in years, Van Buren Records.
A strange mix of Mach-Hommy’s “Pray For Haiti” and City Girls’ “Twerkulator” spurts out of a few cars as they pull up to a drab gray building on a Friday night. Rappers Saint Lyor and Jiles are coming out, as is designer Shelby. Next are Lord Felix and Meech Bold and Luke Bar $, and producers Andrew Regis and Ricky Felix. These are eight of the 12 members of Van Buren Records. VB, for short.
Fact 1 on VB: Their brains are practically linked to each other. As they lead me through a network of hallways, they’re already lightning-fast joking about a million different things – if Stephen Curry can land a playoff berth for the Warriors, how big Sean really is. cheesy, the inspired photo from “Belly” shoot they just finished for this piece and the next shoot they have to come up with Bodega. Doors at the end of the hallway open to a tall, wide art space with paint peeling from the ceiling. One side is filled with neon green screen printing plates, clothing, and a dismembered mannequin; another contains a massive art studio table and all the equipment needed to develop the photo; and the side closest to us is a cozy den with a sectional and flat screen TV.
For VB, this space in Plainville is a home away from home, a 24/7 escape from the urban-industrial Brockton spill along the Salisbury Plain River. Almost everything is in-house. Merch, beats, videos, album covers. Raps, of course.
Fact 2: VB rappers always try to outdo each other. If the Wu-Tang Clan are Shaolin swordsmen, the Van Buren Boys’ dual-use pistols like in a John Woo movie, firing streams like volleys of bullets. Remove “Gangbanger (Remix)” from their electric debut album “Bad For Press”. Everyone in this group raps 16 bar verses except for Luke Bar $ – who has been cleaning up with a longer verse since writing the original song – and, for some reason, the low-key Meech, who rushes with a mad 32.
“What happened was a domino effect,” Meech explains. In other words, recovery. On an older song, “Rutland”, Meech and Lord Felix recorded shorter verses, thinking that was the plan, but Saint Lyor and Luke Bar $ then recorded massive verses. “When I saw that, that’s when me and Luke talked about it.”
“Luke has never done eight bars in his life,” Jiles says.
Lord Felix: “He’ll take care of the song last so he can do whatever he wants. “
The stories for “Bad for Press,” released in April, focus on these compromises and compromises, partly because this is a great group working within the confines of song, and partly because the members were often separated by COVID during the registration process. They had started an iteration of the album before the pandemic, but once it hit their main studio was closed and their timeline changed. A friend’s motorhome has turned into a makeshift studio. “There was no heat,” recalls Ricky Felix, a little proudly. “There would be days when it rained and some would get in the fucking RV.” Here, Saint Lyor recorded his verse for the single “Mo in the Benz”. This song heralded the launch of an album that ultimately was a false start.
The gears started spinning again in November 2020, when they recorded “VVS” at their normal studio in Brockton. “After this song, that’s when the conversation” Let’s make an album ” [started], says Ricky Félix. Five months later, between countless sessions in Brockton and New York City, the album was finished, the culmination of over half a decade of practice, patience, strategizing, and building into a city where rappers are rarely successful.
Van Buren Records was organically conceived in 2014 – the name comes from the gang of “Seinfeld” – but was not taken seriously by its members until 2016. “If you said you rapped in 2014 [in Brockton] the whole class was laughing at you, ”says Luke Bar $.
With the exception of the city’s underrated combat rap community, there wasn’t much of a local rap scene at the time. If you wanted to grow up as a serious artist in Brockton, you took the commuter train to Boston to take part in the shows there. Or, like most kids in town, you’ve cracked and found a passion more suited to Brockton’s sports culture, like basketball.
In those early years, it was just Jiles, Lord Felix, Shelby, engineer Rlouie, and designer Mo. Some met in high school, others in college. Fashion was the main course with a rap side. “We were just young children,” Jiles says. “We were just stealing, trying to pack shorts, whatever you do in your early twenties.”
Things didn’t work out until they started spending time at a creative center located in an old brick building in Brockton called SoundLab.
“We all did shows there, we recorded there, we bonded and had fun,” says Ricky Felix, “and I think that’s where a lot of us started talking. and really get to know each other. “
SoundLab hosted one of VB’s first big shows in 2016, which was also an opportunity for the city to bring in a handful of rappers from Boston. “It was the first time Boston and Brockton shook hands,” says Luke Bar $. “Donald Grunge has stopped, Pistola, FabzAbove …”
This recent cultural exchange was not limited to rap music. Over the past decade, thousands of blacks, many of them Cape Verdeans and Haitians, have moved from Boston to Brockton in search of more affordable housing. In fact, according to 2019 U.S. Census data, Brockton is now predominantly black – the first such town in New England.
Living in Brockton you don’t need this data, you can just look around and see for yourself. But it is important. In the minds of outsiders, Brockton is dangerous, white, and unglamorous compared to Boston, an image coined from the collapse of the city’s shoe industry in the 1970s. It is true that Brockton is poorer than other parts of Massachusetts, but its constant growth and melting pot of cultures suggests a scene with enormous artistic potential that is simply lacking in resources.
“We have to show the side [of Brockton] it’s more creative, more exciting, ”says Ricky Felix. “Because Brockton is very impoverished. People know, they just don’t say anything, which is good – we’ll show them soon. “
Van Buren’s sound, which can be anywhere, aims to serve that purpose – there is something for everyone. If you love your hip-hop with a dose of R&B and electronics, try Lord Felix’s 2019 album “In Bloom, Forever”. If you prefer your straight-up raps, you might like Jiles, or Luke Bar $, who found a pocket of tinny soul-rap on his 2020 album “GoodEvil”. On “Bad For Press”, the collective revolves around the latter style, a sort of formalistic, no-frills approach that fell into disuse in the middle of the decade, but is now experiencing a revival with labels like Dreamville and Griselda Records. . .
This approach relies on an attachment to the fundamentals, and a long tradition of rap groups turned to bars. That, combined with Brockton’s status as an outsider, makes every “Bad For Press” rapper feel like they’ve got a chip on their backs. I sincerely fear that Luke Bar $’s vocal cords have broken a bit on “BRAINDEAD”. He still looks like he’s on helium. “It really hurts to stretch my voice like that,” Luke said. “I have to drink a lot of tea.
Hers is the perfect nod to the more conversational deliveries of Meech Bold and Lord Felix, and the urgency of Saint Lyor and Jiles. This variety of voices and interests lends itself to a band record that has a strong identity – militant, a little edgy – but manages to cut across a wide range of rap styles.
At its spiritual center is the churning “Looking For Trouble,” a wonderful group song in which every rapper seems to be taking a break and taking their place in the rap world right now. Some see the future of business. Luke Bar $ needs his masters; Meech Bold vows never to let an A&R reduce his verse to 12 bars. Others, like Lord Felix, look to the past: “It sounds like illusions, we have found food stamps, my brother. / I don’t know how we do that, Felix, you grew up or you were tall. “
The end product is an album which, like the new Brockton, is exciting, but also complicated. Aspiration and anxiety mingle. Van Buren is charting new ground for a city that must also adapt to development trends. It’s rap’s best-kept secret, but like most good things, they won’t be for long. Locals are starting to take Van Buren seriously. Children at Brockton High bump Van Buren. A billboard with the artwork “Bad For Press” overlooks the city. Luke Bar $ says that sometimes when he walks past passers-by see his face and make the connection. They might not be asking for autographs or pulling out their phones yet, but they stop and smile.