Hip-hop collectives can often feel precious. Best friends coming together to execute a vision, what could be more pure? Coming out of Burlington, Vermont, and composed of eight members, 99 Neighbors captures the wholesomeness of kicking back with your homies while making dope music. The group produces textured (“Redrum”), breezy (“Fly”), and unexpectedly choral work (“Champions - Reprise”). Their fluidity makes them special, with each member taking on songwriting, producing, rapping, and singing roles as needed. They’re the latest hydra of the up-and-coming hip-hop game.
The breadth of their lineup, (Sam Paulino, HANKNATIVE, Aidan Ostby, Swank, Somba, Juju, JFear, and Shane Kaseta) mirrors the depth and sprawl of their music. As BROCKHAMPTON and Odd Future who came before them, 99 Neighbors play to their strengths (“19”) and make light work of their weaknesses by leaning on each other to produce the most enthused music possible. Their 2019 work, debut full-length album, Television, is riddled with enchanting highs ( “Champion,” “Facts”), and some endearing missteps (“Lock N Key,” “Work”). Chemistry carries the bars. It helps, too, that for all the slack flows, as on “Bangarang,” we can hear each member of 99 Neighbors having the best of times.
99 Neighbors do what all good hip-hop bands should do: They blur lines and make us ask questions. Is this hip-hop? Is this a boyband? Is this a bedroom-pop experiment gone wrong? Does any of that matter, so long as the music rides? I’d wager: No.
The work of 99 Neighbors reminds me of the freedom and fleeting nature of youth. Their homespun work has a tender quality, and the sense of wonderment found in their genre-hopping is, as I’ve mentioned, precious. 99 Neighbors is likely the most prominent rap act coming out of Vermont. They’re storming the internet and impressing Chance The Rapper’s manager. For as unpredictable as the industry can be, it seems 99 Neighbors are on the right path.
In the spirit of DIY, we’ve called on four of 99 Neighbors’ core members to talk about the group and the lessons they’ve learned from it. Enjoy!
My name is Sam Paulino; I am a rapper, singer, songwriter, and producer in 99 Neighbors. I helped form the original idea for the group alongside Shane Kaseta, Somba, and HANKNATIVE. When we first created 99, it was just a group of kids inviting a lot of other kids over to Hank and I’s apartment in Burlington, Vermont. It was an open-door policy as long as you were there to create and work on your craft, no matter what that was: painting, screen printing clothes, graphic design, music, etc..
What I’ve learned most from this group is the amount of untapped potential you can reach if you care about the work you create. Sometimes, I sit back for a second and realize how blessed I am to do this every day. I used to work at a shitty restaurant bussing tables and got fired because I missed a shift to work on our last album. That was one of the greatest things to happen to me. I’m blessed I have the privilege to work around the ones I love every day. There is no judgment or hierarchy. One of the biggest lessons 99 has taught me is to trust and believe in yourself and to stay humble and grounded.
My name is Somba; I make a lot of beats, shoot music videos and stuff. I founded 99, ended up dropping out of school to keep up with the music, and that’s when it got legit for me. Being part of 99 Neighbors helped me by allowing me to work with so many artists and define my craft. Chill out, trust yourself, keep an eye on your homies.
I’m HANKNATIVE. I’m a vocalist, songwriter, and one of four leading performers for the group. We have a lot of moving parts, so pinning a direct title on anyone is a difficult thing to do. I helped start the group. Sam, Somba, our photographer Shane, and I created what would become 99 Neighbors while sitting in the apartment some of us owned. We got sick of wasting our time not using our talents to create and wanted to reach larger audiences outside of our hometown. One quick conversation later, and we were a group. Super impromptu, in the moment.
Expansion afterward was only normal, and now we’ve created and refined a solid team of people who share the same ideals as us. There’s a lot of give-and-take when you work with so many people. Communication is essential, always, but especially with so many creatives in the room who want to make great music. Learning to communicate effectively is something I’ve come to understand as a personal area of improvement. You also start to recognize your strengths and weaknesses because you’re constantly comparing yourself to the other members.
I’m lucky to wake up every day with close friends and a dedicated team. 99 taught me that if you believe in a dream, chase it. We spent years in the background, working to take over our local town and music scene because it was what we wanted. We had dreams of performing on stages, and we chased it. If we’d have given up at any point in this journey, I’d be back home in Vermont, delivering pizzas or working a restaurant job for the rest of my life, or worse. Hard work can make dreams come true.
My name is Swank, and I am a rapper, singer, and songwriter for 99 Neighbors. I grew up in Burlington as the rest of the members, but I went to a Catholic school while they went to a public school a town over. We met through freestyling at parties or playing basketball in high school, which led to us realizing we all got a talent for this music shit. I was living outta state then realized I needed to be with them and make music so I moved back, tracked everything we have post-Television and it’s a wrap from there. This group has helped me with patience for sure [laughs]. [It] has led me to realize that apart from my mom and pop, we got a good ass family around us that I feel lucky to be a part of.
Making music with my homies is dope as hell. I enjoy how we all got such a different vibe of music and come from multiple different musical backgrounds, so we all bring a cool flair to each track. We have fun! I’ve enjoyed it all through the stress and everything [laughs]. A lesson I learned working with 99 Neighbors was if you got a family around you that loves you and wants to help you succeed in the same field as you, keep that shit and go with it.