The city of Brockton, once a booming industrial town, has long been overshadowed by Boston, its bigger, richer neighbor to the north. But things are changing. Brockton is affordable, growing and more diverse than ever. Adding to the excitement, the city is home to the most promising rap collective out of Massachusetts in years, Van Buren Records.
A strange mix of "Pray For Haiti" by Mach-Hommy and “Twerkulator” by City Girls blares out of a couple cars as they pull up to a drab gray building on a Friday evening. Rappers Saint Lyor and Jiles step out, as does designer Shelby. Then come Lord Felix and Meech Bold and Luke Bar$, and the producers Andrew Regis and Ricky Felix. These are eight of the 13 members of Van Buren Records. VB, for short.
Fact 1 about VB: Their brains are practically strung together. As they usher me through a web of hallways, they’re already bantering at light speed about a million different things — whether Stephen Curry can nab a playoff berth for the Warriors, how corny Big Sean actually is, the “Belly”-inspired photo shoot they just finished for this piece and the next shoot they have coming up with Bodega. The doors at the end of the hallway swing out to a high, wide art space with paint chipping off the ceiling. One side is filled with neon green screen printing boards, clothing supplies and a dismembered dummy; another contains a massive art studio table and all the materials for photo development; and the side closest to us is a cozy den with a sectional and flat-screen TV.
For VB, this space in Plainville is a home away from home, a 24/7 escape from Brockton’s urban-industrial spill along the Salisbury Plain River. Pretty much everything is in-house. Merch, beats, videos, album art. The raps, of course.
Fact 2: VB rappers always try to outrap each other. If the Wu-Tang Clan are Shaolin swordsmen, the Van Buren Boys dual-wield pistols like they’re in a John Woo movie, firing off flows like volleys of bullets. Take “Gangbanger (Remix)” off their electric debut album “Bad For Press.” Everyone on this posse raps 16-bar verses except for Luke Bar$ — who cleans up with a longer verse since he wrote the original song — and, for some reason, the lowkey Meech, who swoops in with an insane 32.
“What happened was, it was a domino effect,” explains Meech. In other words, payback. On an older song, “Rutland,” Meech and Lord Felix recorded shorter verses, thinking that was the plan, but then Saint Lyor and Luke Bar$ checked in for massive ones. “When I saw that, that's when me and Luke talked about it.”
“Luke ain’t never did an eight-bar in his life,” Jiles says.
Lord Felix: “He be getting on the song last so he can do whatever he want.”
The stories of “Bad for Press,” released in April, center on these trade-offs and compromises, partly because this is a large group working within the confines of songcraft, and partly because the members were often split off by COVID during the recording process. They’d started an iteration of the album pre-pandemic, but once it hit, their main studio was shut down and their timeline shifted. A friend’s RV became a makeshift studio. “There was no heat,” Ricky Felix recalls, kind of proudly. “There would be days when it rained and some would get into the f---ing RV.” In here, Saint Lyor recorded his verse for the single “Mo in the Benz.” That song tipped off an album rollout that was ultimately a false start.
The gears started turning again in November 2020, when they recorded “VVS” back in their normal studio in Brockton. “After that song, that's when the conversation of ‘let's make an album’ [started],” says Ricky Felix. Five months later, between countless sessions in Brockton and New York City, the album was complete, the culmination of over a half-decade of practice, patience, strategizing and building in a city in which rappers rarely find success.
Van Buren Records was conceived organically in 2014 — the name comes from the gang in “Seinfeld” — but wasn’t taken seriously by its members until 2016. “If you said you were rapping in 2014 [in Brockton] the whole classroom was laughing at you,” Luke Bar$ says.
With exception to the city’s underrated battle rap community, there wasn’t much in the way of a local rap scene back then. If you wanted to grow as a serious artist in Brockton, you took the commuter rail to Boston to network at the shows there. Or, like most kids in the city, you sucked it up and found a passion more suited to Brockton’s athletics culture, like basketball.
In those early years, it was just Jiles, Lord Felix, Shelby, the group’s engineer RLouie and designer Mo. Some met in high school, others in college. Fashion was the main course with a side of rapping. “We was just young kids,” Jiles says. “We was just getting fly, trying to bag shorties, all that stuff you do in your early 20s.”
Things didn’t click until they began spending time at a creative hub housed in an old brick building in Brockton called SoundLab.
“We all did shows there, we recorded there, we linked up and had fun,” Ricky Felix says, “and I think that's where a lot of us started to talk and really get to know each other.”
SoundLab hosted one of VB’s first major shows in 2016, which doubled as an opportunity for the city to bring in a handful of rappers from Boston. “That was the first time Boston and Brockton shook hands with one another,” Luke Bar$ says. “Donald Grunge pulled up, Pistola, FabzAbove...”
This recent cultural exchange hasn’t been limited to rap music. Over the last decade, thousands of Black people, many of them Cape Verdean and Haitian, moved from Boston to Brockton, seeking more affordable housing. In fact, according to 2019 U.S. census data, Brockton is now majority Black — the first city in New England of its kind.
Living in Brockton, you don’t need that data, you can just look around and see for yourself. But it matters. In the minds of outsiders, Brockton is dangerous and white and unglamorous compared to Boston, an image contrived from the collapse of the city’s shoe industry in the ‘70s. It is true that Brockton is poorer compared to other areas in Massachusetts, but its steady growth and melting pot of cultures suggest a scene with massive artistic potential that is simply starved of resources.
“We have to show the side [of Brockton] that is more creative, more exciting,” Ricky Felix says. “‘Cause Brockton is very impoverished. People know, they just don't say nothing, which is fine — we'll show them soon.”
Van Buren’s sound, which can be all over the place, aims to serve that purpose — there’s something for everyone. If you like your hip-hop with a dose of R&B and electronic, try Lord Felix’s 2019 album “In Bloom, Forever.” If you prefer your raps direct, you might like Jiles, or Luke Bar$, who found a pocket of spindly soul-rap on his 2020 album “GoodEvil.” On “Bad For Press,” the collective orbits the latter style, a kind of formalist, no-frills approach that fell out of fashion when they were coming up mid-decade, but is now seeing a revival with labels like Dreamville and Griselda Records.
This approach stakes itself on a commitment to fundamentals, and to a long tradition of bars-focused rap groups. That, combined with Brockton’s underdog status, makes every rapper on “Bad For Press” sound like he has a chip on his shoulder. I’m genuinely concerned Luke Bar$’ vocal cords might have broken a little on “BRAINDEAD.” It always sounds like he’s on helium. “It really be hurting, stretching my voice like that,” Luke says. “I have to drink tea a lot.”
His is the perfect foil to the more conversational deliveries of Meech Bold and Lord Felix, and to the urgency of Saint Lyor and Jiles. This variety of voices and interests lends itself to a group record that has a strong identity — militant, a little pissed off — but manages to traverse a sizable range of rap styles.
At its spiritual center is the churning “Looking For Trouble,” a magnificent group song wherein each rapper seems to pause and take in their position in the rap world right now. Some consider corporate futures. Luke Bar$ needs his masters; Meech Bold vows to never let an A&R cut his verse to 12 bars. Others, like Lord Felix, look toward the past: “This feel like illusions, we came up on food stamps, bro./ Don’t know how we do this, Felix you done grew or sum’n.”
The final product is an album that, like the new Brockton, is thrilling, but also complicated. Aspiration and anxiety mingle. Van Buren is charting new terrain for a city which must also adapt to the tides of development. They’re the rap game’s best kept secret, but like most good things, they won’t be secret for long. Locals are starting to take Van Buren seriously. Kids at Brockton High bump Van Buren. A billboard with the “Bad For Press” artwork towers over the city. Luke Bar$ says that sometimes, when he’s walking past it, passersby see his face and make the connection. They might not yet ask for autographs or pull their phones out, but they stop and smile.
This segment aired on July 1, 2021.