As I was waiting for the start of Van Buren Records’ September show in Brooklyn, music was pouring out from the door that separates the bar from the stage at Williamsburg’s Baby’s All Right concert hall. I peeked my head through the door, fearing I had misunderstood the concert’s start time. In the dimly lit room were the Van Buren Record boys. Some stood on stage, gripping a mic or just bobbing their head to the music. Others sat on speakers, swaying to the music.
But the crowd was empty — I had stumbled into the group’s sound check. Along with a few other bystanders, I stood by the entrance and watched as the members bounced off each other, genuinely enjoying the prep work as they spit quick verses from their most recent project, BLACK WALL STREET, made adjustments to their volumes, and chatted casually with one another.
Once the sound levels had been properly adjusted, the members tackled a few 2000s pop songs for the hell of it before disappearing backstage, ready to leave an impression for their first-ever NYC performance.
Good music is made with intentionality. It requires a calculated approach: a well-placed beat, A/B tested singles, and sharp focus on streaming. But classic music is made through moments — fleeting flares of brilliance. Van Buren Records, a group of thirteen rappers, producers, engineers, designers, and creative consultants brought together by a shared place of origin and brotherhood, aspire to make classic music.
The Brockton, Massachusetts group’s format could be likened to that of a Wu-Tang Clan, which similarly disrupted rap’s landscape 28 years ago. But instead of chasing previously established routes to success, VB’s ethos lies in each of its members’ unique personality. “We didn’t follow the blueprint of a Wu-Tang or a Dreamville, it was genuine: you had certain people with their own stories, their own backgrounds,” Luke Bar$, one of the group’s rappers, said over a Zoom interview. “We introduced ourselves as solo artists. Then once we got all that out we said, ‘let’s just all come together, let’s put our brains together.’”
Conceived in 2014, Van Buren Records — the name inspired by the gang in Seinfeld — has made their proper debut with this year’s Bad for Press. The 13-track release showcases the collective’s brilliant and natural chemistry. The group formed organically while they attended Brockton High School, as the members gravitated toward each other on shared interests of music, fashion, and culture. There was no blueprint, no grandiose plan; instead, the Van Buren members’ ties hinged on their brotherhood.
Before they united for Bad for Press, the group’s members unveiled a string of solo projects. Luke Bar$ dropped GoodEvil in 2020, Jiles’ debut came with 2019’s Fuck Jiles, and Saint Lyor added IF MY SINS COULD TALK to his discography last year. Through each of the solo offerings the artists revealed their own musical inclinations. But when they came together earlier this year, the vision became fully realized.
Bad for Press isn’t easily constrained. The album’s 13 tracks are rabid, chaotic, and sometimes messy. The members spar with each other; the competition is high and there’s no time for slacking. The frenetic energy holds up through the entire project, driven by relentless percussion and earth-shattering basslines, seasoned with a diverse range of voices — from Luke’s clenched-teeth delivery to Jiles’ deep lilting cadence.
“When you’re locking in with these guys, it’s a sight to see,” Van Buren producer Ricky Felix said. “Someone like [rapper] Meech [BOLD] is super hands-on as far as what he wants to develop. Luke will come through with an idea, like, ‘Rick do something with this.’ Those different types of styles, when you blend it all into one, that’s how you get a Bad for Press.”
Massachusetts isn’t known for hip-hop, though the state has had its share of breakout acts in the past: Czarface’s Esoteric, Benzino, Gang Starr’s Guru, and producer Statik Selektah. In more recent years, the state has been making an explosive new charge, helmed by artists such as Joyner Lucas, Coustin Stizz, BIA, and the scene’s latest breakout act, Van Buren Records.
Brockton, which lies about 25 miles south of Boston, is also referred to as “The City of Champions” for its roster of homegrown boxing legends like Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler. Left just outside of Boston’s booming economy, Brockton’s median income is notably lower than its Northern counterpart. A sole high school is shared among over 4,000 students. The lack of resources created a lack of institutional support, and also engrained a strong sense of comradery.
“It’s very simple. Boston’s a city, and then Brockton’s a town, so you’re going to have a very close-knit community,” Van Buren creative consultant Ethan (E) said. “One thing about Brockton I realized — we had to learn how to share,” Luke added. “We never owned everything on our own, everything we had we had to share with multiple people. That’s why I felt it was easy to do this VB thing.”
Now, the city is in the midst of a cultural resurgence. A 2019 U.S. Census Bureau revealed that, for the first time in the town’s history, Brockton had become a majority Black city, also making it the only city of its kind in New England. “I’ve started to fall in love with what Brockton’s becoming right now,” Meech said during a Zoom interview. “There’s more black ownership, more opportunities, and a thriving music scene.”
But with new attention comes new threats. A resounding “Yes” was doled out when asked if there are fears of how Brockton will change given the influx of new money and relocating Bostonians fleeing from increasing rent prices. Some members have already seen people from Boston neighborhoods — Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain — migrate to Brockton as rental prices in the city continue to increase.
Finding a balance between encouraging a city’s growth while maintaining its ethos and heritage is a challenge. Staying in control over a changing city can manifest in various ways — to Meech it looks like ownership.
“I just know for me, I’m not letting my parents’ house go, I’ll tell you that” he said. “I’m not letting that property go. There [are] people that I hope stay that are from Brockton and raise their kids in Brockton, and that generation could carry it on. It could be nasty if you don’t control it.”
But it also manifests in Van Buren’s movement. Watching the VB boys on a Brooklyn stage hundreds of miles away from Brocktown, the pride they have for their hometown is instantly identifiable. So is their camaraderie: as the group performed at Baby’s, its members moved with the coordination of a sports team running plays. Luke, Meech, or Saint Lyor rotated onstage, delivering their verses before shrinking back to make way for the next MC. It’s like watching a complex machine with hundreds of moving pieces, all well-oiled and working to benefit the whole without sacrificing each component’s individuality.
“I think what we’re doing is a step. We’re across the world saying, ‘We’re from fucking Brockton. Put your hands up 508,’” Meech said. “It’s something that can be done, and I think we can lead it.”
Since releasing Bad for Press, Van Buren has dropped BLACK WALL STREET, a five-song EP that maintains — and propels — the momentum of its predecessor. Whereas Bad for Press was a make-or-break project for VB, the AzizTheShake-produced BLACK WALL STREET (named in reference to Brockton’s Black renaissance) is a celebration. The disruptive energy of Bad for Press destroyed typical notions of New England rap, and now BLACK WALL STREET reimagines what MA hip-hop can sound like. Despite being recorded in Los Angeles, BLACK WALL STREET is flush with East Coast energy, the EP showcasing the group’s ability to polish and refine their sound without losing the raw soul that makes Bad for Press what it is. Standouts like “FOXY BROWN” and “JUMPSTREET” are a testament to that, the VB crew showing they’re more than capable of crafting easily digestible anthems that don’t sacrifice their rowdy Brockton flair.
The members enter this next chapter with a multi-state tour under their belt and the most attention they’ve had yet. Still, they stand on a precipice with their next steps uneven. A focus on solo projects is imminent, but what the collective will do next is yet to be known. Luke and the rest of Van Buren’s members know this and embrace the uncertainty.
“Anytime I’m around those guys, I just take that moment in,” he said. “That moment won’t always be here — let me just enjoy it, whatever it is, let me just enjoy it right now.”
David Brake is a music journalist based in New York City. He writes about Hip Hop, R&B, and more for publications including HipHopDX, Document Journal, Office Magazine, L’Officiel, Okayplayer, and POW. You can keep up with his work on Twitter and Instagram @davidaaronbrake.
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