It has been a fruitful 18 months for the Brockton super-collective Van Buren Records. Their two 2021 records, Bad For Press and Black Wall Street, firmly solidified them as the most exciting posse out of Massachusetts, and pushed their multi-faceted sound beyond the confines of the Bay State.
The 13-member label epitomizes the breadth of talent we’re seeing in this current iteration of the Massachusetts music scene, where one creative idea does not, and never will, fit all. In other words, the state is experiencing another artistic renaissance, and Van Buren Records is firmly at the forefront.
Broadly-speaking, their posse consists of rappers, producers, designers, engineers and creative directors, but more specifically, they represent the streets, the geeks, the fashion gurus, art obsessives, the basketball lovers, hell…those who just want bars.
To that end, Van Buren would like people to know that they are not a traditional rap group, but rather a collective of individuals who came together under their common love of music. While they may have garnered expanded recognition under the Seinfeld street gang moniker, their stylistic tendencies are varied and far from monolithic. They’ve shared their own ideals, musical styles, family dynamics, environments, and coming-of-age stories through a myriad of solo projects over the past two-plus years from rappers SAINT LYOR, Meech BOLD, FELIX!, Luke Bar$, Jiles, Invada; producer/MC Andrew Regis; engineer R. Louie, and super-producer Ricky Felix.
They’ve also established their unabashed individuality through their own G.O.O.D. Music-style savviness with “VB Tuesdays,” a recurring series where each member takes turns releasing a single each week to showcase their distinct sounds, thus providing a reminder that they are just as talented individually as they are together.
Their newfound recognition, along with a recent performance at Boston Calling, and a multi-city tour with Griselda, has culminated with their new album DSM, named after Dover Street Market.
Whereas Bad For Press and Black Wall Street provided an aerial view of their acerbic tone, DSM places a magnifying glass on the specialties of each rapper and producer. Their galvanizing energy is still present, especially on the album’s first leg with songs like “FOUL” and “How To Kill A Narcissist,” but as DSM pushes forward, we start to notice the rousing idiosyncrasies illustrating their divergent personalities.
The beats are quirkier, sometimes even abstractly minimal (“Moving Like I’m Pac”), while many of the MCs discover newfound flows and cadences across a variety of collaborative tracks. There are moments of reflection, both on their recent success and their lives prior, as well as a clever Biggie interpolation, New York shit-talking, warranted polemics against suit-wearing hacks, spiritual odysseys, and everything else in between.
All in all, DSM is a sprawling, frenzied, and riveting portrait of a label pushing the stylistic melting pot of Brockton forward. It’s their next chapter in the coup d’é·tat, only now with a considerable army and navy backing them. The message couldn’t be clearer, and the music couldn’t be more exciting.
Boston Hassle had the absolute pleasure of speaking with the label about their newfound recognition, their approach to pushing their message nationally, how their individuality dictated the DSM recording process, and much more.
Parts of the interview were edited for clarity.
Boston Hassle: First off, congrats on the album guys. How have the live listening sessions been, and how does it feel to have the project out?
Luke Bar$: It’s good to see the live aspect of it. That’s the fun part of music. Like, there’s so much you could do on the internet. It was good that we dropped the project and we just went straight outside, because a lot of people told me they heard the album for the first time after the listening party that we threw. So, that was cool to see that, where it was like, we’re taking it further than the internet and really bringing it to someone. I feel like we took a different approach.
BH: Obviously, last year was a huge breakthrough for you guys with the release of Bad For Press and Black Wall Street. Now that you all have a bit of a wider audience, what was the approach and vision for DSM?
Ricky Felix: The main objective this time around was to really showcase the individual aspects of the artists. We came together as a group, but before that, everyone was their own individual artist. So this time around, we really wanted to showcase the diversity and the different styles of the different rappers that’s in the group and the producers here. This one was really just expanding the style and see how far we can go sonically to see the reaction of the people, so they can see how diverse we are and how many different styles we cater too.
This album really takes that to a new level with us, whereas Bad For Press, we all kind of sat down with each other and really tried to execute.
This time around, though, everyone brought their own records and because of that, you got to see SAINT LYOR’s style and how he raps, and Meech and how he goes, and Luke, etc. Seeing that for a whole album is special because you get to see so many different sounds, and experience all those at the same time.
BH: I read that you guys have expressed how much different the art scene was in Brockton even a half a decade ago compared to now. How would you describe the scene in Brockton over the past year or two, and what differences are you seeing?
Jiles: It’s climbing, man. Every day, we bump into high schoolers and people in their early 20s saying that we’re inspiring them. They wanna start taking music more seriously. I think prior to us, everybody wanted to do it, but nobody wanted to be the person to start it. So now seeing us lead the ship, it just puts a lot of hope in all these upcoming artists in our city to just take their art more serious and iron out everything for them, so when they’re ready to drop their own music, they’ll be up to par.
Meech BOLD: Yeah. It’s crazy too, cause in the same breath, it’s bleeding over into other skills too, like sports or fashion. And then there’s other collectives forming from the youth specifically in the city. So seeing that, and then obviously we already have our peers that we were growing up with in the same timeframe that our artists are. Everyone’s seeing it. So it’s just now you see more people taking initiative. People are dropping stuff from trucker hats, to clothing, to photo shoots with different people in the scene…just creating ideas. So it’s more fluid than I’ve seen it in years, honestly. It’s been a while.
BH: One thing I really enjoy about you guys is how savvy you are when it comes to marketing and getting the word out. One tool you guys have used over the past couple years is “VB Tuesdays.” I was wondering if you could contextualize the importance of this series, and how it has contributed to your image as a label?
Jiles: We can’t stress this enough when we talk to people, we’re more of a record label than an actual group. We’re more of a collective. We’re all individual artists who just came together. The VB Tuesdays is just to remind the consumer and fans that individually were just as talented, if not better, than as a unit. There’s five, six rappers and then you got producers, and producers who rap. So, it all ties in from all the rappers to maybe Ricky dropping a beat just to showcase our versatility, and all aspects of our music. So that’s just to remind everybody that, you know, we’re also individual artists at the end of the day.
Bar$: It’s an easy way for us to just branch out and show individuality and also show unity.
BH: In the same breath, you guys are also traveling a lot to cities like NYC and Los Angeles, places that have more of an established infrastructure from a musical perspective. With that in mind, what has been your approach to spreading the message and music to places outside of Massachusetts?
Ricky Felix: I think the main thing is now that we’re more inside the scene now, it’s a lot easier, just because people already kind of recognize us, whether it’s through mutual friends, or listening to our music, or just being fans in general. And on top of that, we’re very large, like 12, 13 deep. So regardless, people are gonna just watch and look and be like, ‘yo, who are those people so ganged up like that?’
This time around, it’s really just about talking and branching out, trying to find new people to work with, you know, being collaborative more than anything. So, yeah, just being outside and really just being around people has really been helping us, as well as being natural; not forcing anything, not being weird, not trying to spark up some fake conversation. just being ourselves, ’cause that’s how we was raised up.
BH: I noticed on DSM, there are a multitude of references to 1990s hip hop, whether it be through lyrical references or song titles. Is that an era that heavily inspires you guys?
Bar$: Shit, I think we’re just students of music. I think we pull from a lot of different eras, from like 2000s, to even the era that we’re in right now. I think we’re just really conscious of what’s going on, and we just appreciate hip hop, and we generally enjoy talking about it. Like, a lot of studio sessions are filled with conversations of hip hop. We’re just a student of it, and we’re always observing it. And when it’s time to put in the music, it’s second nature. I’m just telling you what I’m a fan of.
BOLD: And, each individual is different. So that’s why me, Luke, or like a Ricky might talk from a base of a little bit of nineties and then a little bit of trap today, and then you’ll hear it even in like a “Nobody Safe” or like pockets with LYOR, where it could be a little bit more, I guess if you ask someone, it would be a little bit more of a modern hip hop type of thing. That’s why DSM to me is amazing, ’cause it’s infusing so many different eras at once. A lot of inspiration. If you want some slow dance, there’s that. You want some nineties boom bap gritty shit, we have that. If you want something that’s upbeat, we got that.
BH: I was wondering if you guys could tell me a bit about what the title DSM means. What’s the inspiration?
Ricky Felix: Yeah, Dover Street Market was pretty much highlighting a trip to LA last year during the summer. We had gotten invited to Brent Faiyaz’s listening event for his single, “Wasting Time,” with Drake. So, that day was specifically meant for getting the fashion going. We had to get fly for the show.
That was really an experience where we all felt like we made it at that point. Like, ‘yo, we are really here.’ We really set our foot into the game. That was an important moment, so highlighting that for the album was the key part of how this got created.
And also, Dover Street is also a street where our studio is. That’s where the magic happens, you feel me? That’s where our best work comes from.
BH: Anyone paying attention to the Massachusetts music scene understands how much talent there is. What are your thoughts on the scene in its current iteration, and do you think there could be improvements from an infrastructure or support standpoint?
Ricky Felix: Yeah, I think just showing more support, showing more love, and being open to sharing music and, you know, spreading the music to more fans.
If one person is going hot, and dropping records, and becoming more successful, eventually it’s gonna trickle down to everyone else, and once we all support each other and have that foundation to step for every other artist, then that’s when we’ll all start to see a change in the music scene out there.
As far as artists, everyone’s just doing their own thing, making their own sounds, so, just understanding that and being open to all these different sounds and experiences that these artists bring is also very important for what we have going on over here.
But I like Massachusetts because it’s still an untapped market. There’s so much potential, there’s so many things going on here that people aren’t privy to. It’s just gonna be exciting once that door opens and everyone gets to fully express their thoughts and opinions on the music and the art. I’m excited for it.
BOLD: Even though there’s an untapped market, there have been many renaissances. You could go back to the boom bap era where artists like Gang Starr and Statik Selektah are able to have their own movement. And then it came with the Stizzes to the Michael Christmases. And then right now it’s kind of this space where there’s artists like VB and BIA, and Millyz still grinding. There’s a big current phase going on right now.
There’s increments of support slowly coming, like we just saw BIA the other day. Once we break our door down, it’s gonna allow everyone from the scene to come through, too.
Ricky Felix: That was important to recognize too when we were out in LA for the listening event. A whole team pulled up and showed love for a moment. So, it’s things like that that we see and, you know, that gives us the drive and motivation just a little bit more. To just be like, ‘yo, we, we have support.’
It may just be one artist or one team for now, but we still got their support. BIA is a big artist right now. The fact that she still can see us and still show love and talk to us, take pictures, like that’s very important to highlight. And, that’s the thing that pushes everyone to the next level.
Jiles: Also, what comes with that, is making sure the upcoming acts are ready. I feel like there’d be times when we’ll drop music and no one’s there to follow up. So, I think that’s one thing I kind of want to put emphasis on with a lot of these local acts. They just need to be ready to just let the music go. You know, just let out the chamber and just be ready. Holding all that music doesn’t really do anything for you.
BH: On that same token, you guys are obviously continuing to learn about the business as you go, but do you envision Van Buren becoming a place where other artists could go to you guys for support?
Bar$: Hell yeah, I think we offer that now. I think we’re very supportive of the upcoming artists, or just people that want help-like, a lot more than we kind of had when we coming on. I think we all take that initiative. Like, of course we can’t be the end all be all for someone’s career. But we can still give a lending hand. So, I think we all do that. Yeah man, but it comes with time.
Felix: Yeah, we have been very supportive.
Bar$: We did have Latrell James. He was someone that was really giving us the love that we’re now returning to other artists. He was really the first person to do that for us.
BH: I know you guys continue to make solo stuff and group stuff simultaneously. How has that balance been over the past couple of years?
LYOR: It’s been a balancing act, you feel me? You have to be able to put one foot in the solo stuff and another in the group projects and go back and forth. But, I know a lot of people in our group, they have to sacrifice sometimes just to focus and lock in on creating this new project that we just dropped. So, it’s about sacrificing and just being able to balance both creative mindsets.
Jiles: It really is difficult, especially if your individual project is not even remotely close to the sound of the group project. So, now you really have to take a break and turn that switch off from what you’ve been working on individually to go to something totally new for the time being. And hopefully, when you go back to your individual stuff, you still have somewhat of a groove.
It was challenging for us to really go back and forth from individual to group stuff throughout the past six months we’ve been working on this tape.
BH: With that in mind, it can be difficult, especially as independent artists, to find time to take a breather and relax in the music industry because it can move so fast. How have you guys been able to balance taking care of your own health while simultaneously navigating the music industry?
BOLD: I know personally for me, it’s something that I feel especially with what we do and how we make our art. It’s very truthful to ourselves.
I just truly believe that will win in the end. You know, great music will win in the end, so we just try to stay true and keep our integrity in the art before anything. Whether we drop four months in between or two weeks in between. Whatever the people are saying, it can’t really dictate great art, you know what I mean? Especially when, at end of the day, the honesty, the truth is there, it’s very heavy. So to me, it’s just been patience, and not acting like there’s too much pressure. It’s just life, man.
We gotta live, we gotta be healthy in various ways, too; the mental, the physical. There’s times you could just be completely lost and you’re missing events, you’re missing birthdays, you’re missing checking up on your parents, you know? It’s like you get lost in it. So, I think just knowing that, for VB and for myself, my art will reach where I feel it will spiritually.
You can just be obsessive. So it’s a tough balancing act, but ain’t nothing that a little prayer, water, and calmness can help with.
BH: What’s the coming months look like for you guys?
BOLD: We just have to continue to push this project. We’re using various ways to get it into the streets. Videos, a bunch of stuff. Ain’t gonna stop, man.