A Heavy Metal Alloy, Fused With Youth
Unlocking the Truth, a trio of black middle-schoolers from Brooklyn who received extensive coverage from the news media recently after signing a lucrative record deal, is a boy band, but only in the most literal sense of the term.
It might be more accurate to call the group an anti-boy band. These boys aren’t products of a star-making machine like Disney’s, nor do they draw streams of squealing girls. Instead of pop confections, they make blunt rock music that recalls early-era Metallica, inspired by the sounds they’ve picked up from watching Japanese anime and WWE wrestling videos.
They are very clear about their musical intentions. “We do heavy metal,” the band’s 13-year-old guitarist, Malcolm Brickhouse, said one recent afternoon on a playground bench at P.S. 282 in Park Slope, sporting a new shock of red in his Afro, flanked by his band mates, the 12-year-old drummer Jarad Dawkins and the 13-year-old bassist Alec Atkins. “We don’t have kid audiences.”
Mr. Atkins added: “We want to bring it back to the way it was in the ’80s. We don’t want to switch up our style and do pop or rap.” Already, they have opened for hard-rock acts like Queens of the Stone Age and Scar the Martyr, as well as appeared at Coachella and on the Vans Warped Tour. And they share a booking agency with legacy bands like Guns N’ Roses and Motorhead, for whom they opened in April.
Jolene Cherry, chief executive and founder of the Cherry Party, a newly formed Sony joint venture that signed the group, declined to discuss the terms of the deal. But according to published reports, it includes a $60,000 advance for the first album, with the figure rising for each successive one, totaling $1.78 million for as many as six albums, provided sales reach a prescribed number of records. The boys have a book contract with Penguin. And there are plans to film a documentary a la “One Direction: This Is Us.”
Mr. Brickhouse and Mr. Dawkins, who met in church as toddlers, have been playing music in the Brickhouses’ Flatbush basement since elementary school, largely learning their instruments on their own. (Mr. Atkins, who lives in Crown Heights, joined the group a couple of years ago).
Two of the boys’ mothers, who were supervising their sons at P.S. 282’s playground, said their interest in metal was initially cause for concern. “I thought, if they would play anything, it would be R&B and pop,” said Tabatha Dawkins, who works in finance. “And when I heard their music, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to get him back to church.’ ”
Mimicking a heavy metal growl, Mr. Brickhouse’s mother, Annette Jackson, a secretary and the band’s co-manager, added, “I was like, ‘Just don’t play that kill-your-mama music.’ ” When her son asked his mother recently about getting a tattoo, she offered him a pack of Sharpie markers and suggested that he draw it on himself.
If they are affected by their newfound celebrity, they don’t show as much, and their boyish energy was not out of place on P.S. 282’s lively playground. They like to paw at one another, like a pack of restless kittens. At one point, Mr. Atkins asked if he could karate-chop the ice off Mr. Brickhouse’s orange snow cone. (How metal. Mr. Brickhouse said no.) At school, “I’m just a regular kid,” said Mr. Dawkins, the sage and straight-faced member of the group.
The boys like to quote Naruto, the Japanese manga series, and gleefully interrupt one another. “Powerful mystic frogs!” yelled Mr. Brickhouse, the band member with an evident mischievous streak, during a discussion of metal music. Mr. Atkins said proudly, “Malcolm doesn’t like to accept it, but we’re nerds.”
When they perform, however, the boys appear focused and serious. They began playing live two years ago at the Apollo Theater’s amateur night, and soon started busking around New York City. While they were performing in Washington Square Park one day in 2012, Steve Jordan, a multi-instrumentalist who has played with Eric Clapton and John Mayer, stopped to chat, and eventually helped the band record a demo. A video of the boys playing in Times Square went viral last year, catching the attention of online media outlets.
Last fall, Alan Sacks, a longtime producer of Disney films (and the ’70s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter”) was looking for a new project after the Jonas Brothers, with whom he had worked, disbanded. He read an article online about Unlocking the Truth and thought, “It would be great to make a television series or a movie about them--maybe fictionalized,” he said. But when he met the boys in Brooklyn, he saw a different type of potential and signed on as co-manager with Mr. Brickhouse’s parents.
In November, Ms. Cherry sent a scout to watch the band perform during halftime at a Brooklyn Nets game and offered it a deal shortly thereafter. She had worked with hard-rock acts like Korn and System of a Down, but never before with artists as young as Unlocking the Truth, she said.
“I was not looking to get into business with children,” she said. “But they were so charismatic, so wise.”
She acknowledged that marketing a metal band today is more difficult than it was in the ’90s, when the genre had more presence in the mainstream. “Obviously, metal sales are not what they were, and that genre is a reach,” she said. “But you never know what can happen.” Unlocking the Truth could be a good bet, despite being something of a novelty in a genre where young black men are a rarity.
“That’s the fear: You don’t want it to be perceived as a novelty,” said John Karkazis (better known as Johnny K), a producer working with the band on its debut EP. “The novelty is that they’re so young, and so good. But sooner or later, they’ll be 18 or 19 with a couple records under their belt, and they won’t be a novelty.”
The boys, however, are already thinking ahead. Mr. Dawkins said he’s learning the skills to become a sound engineer; he has even requested that his mother buy insurance for his hands. And, “I’m going to invest in stocks,” he said, sounding sly.
The others, meanwhile, said they’re both interested in learning how to produce for other bands. “Do you know how much money producers get?” Mr. Brickhouse asked, seemingly rhetorically. Mr. Atkins added that he’d like to become a talent scout. “I see a bunch of great artists on YouTube every day, and they don’t really get a chance like we did.”
Working with Mr. Karkazis, the boys recently recorded their debut single, at Mission Sound Recording Studio in Brooklyn. They have plans for a fall release of their EP, which will incorporate more vocals than their older, instrumental-based songs.
That might require a bit of patience; their voices are still dropping. At one moment during the conversation at P.S. 282, Mr. Atkins’s cracked a bit, and he turned excitedly to Mr. Dawkins: “My voice is changing!”