It’s early in the evening and dusk is yet to arrive. The lingering humidity in the air signals the end of summer. Crickets chirp and trees surround the home. Josh Brown, otherwise known as the hip-hop act, Brown v. Board, waves a stick of sage through the air in an effort to ward off mosquitoes. In the meantime, his twin brother Kel Brown blows cigarette smoke on the bugs. “I swear to God they like it now. They’ve evolved past it,” Kel says, shaking his head at the pests that are bothering our legs. We’re sitting on the front porch of the twin brothers’ East Austin Home, though at this time of year with the insects and vibrant green foliage, we may as well be in a jungle.
Josh, who goes by J.B. for short, and Kel, are twin brothers and both artists in separate spaces. J.B. is a hip-hop artist. He reigns down various forms, whether it’s rapping, producing, or creating instrumentals. Kel is an abstract painter who creates “astro-black abstraction," he's coined his work. The twins have gained notoriety in Austin not only for their work, but because of how they collaborate in tandem. They’re a duo. Kel paints to J.B.’s beats, and JB’s beats influence Kel’s paintings. Sometimes they even perform together.
Originally from Houston, the brothers have made Austin their permanent residence after living here off and on for the last seven years, back and forth between Austin and Houston. Kel says about three or four times. This time they’re in Austin for good. “Everything is good and positive,” Kel says. The city of Austin was chosen for the same reason most young artists move here: the arts, music, and culture scenes. Kel visited when he was younger and fell in love with the vibe of the city.
Outside of working together, the majority of their lives are shared. They live in the same bedroom and work in the same house. The living room of their home is filled with paintings, musical equipment, and various brushes, paint, and tools are mixed together in a sort of brotherly, work cocktail. Friends and collaborators come in and out of the house at various times. A few days ago, J.B. had a guest that was taking portrait pictures of the two. The house doubles as office and bunker — it's the area where everything happens for two brothers that have been inseparable since birth.
If the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, practice and play together in a physical space, the Brown twins do so through the arts. They go back and forth playing a creative version of what they call “tennis.” JB makes a beat. Kel makes a painting. JB uses all of Kel’s work for his album art, and all of Kel’s paintings are based off of music that JB or his friends have made. And the game continues.
Roughly 90 percent of the time the brothers are at home, they’re in the same room working together. Friends call the house a “one stop shop,” since so much is happening inside and outside. But the house is simple. The brothers don’t own anything they don’t need. In the bedroom they share you’ll find two twin beds that lay on the floor with no box springs. There’s no excess in the house.
“People buy all this shit just to buy. They’ll buy a studio and say they need a billboard size canvas,” Kel says while taking a drag of his cigarette. “We do shit real humble. Real simple." They cut their costs and save energy. "It’s easy, man." They don't want to complicate things by over thinking, which is ironic, because I’ll later learn that one of J.B.’s greatest assets is his ability to think.
The notion of humility isn’t contrived either. The brothers rarely do interviews, and admittedly, they don’t like them much. The spotlight isn’t something they chase after. They create their work for the pleasure and purpose in it, rather than the pursuit of attention. "All I'm ever trying to do is do something I haven't seen before with each painting I do," Kel starts. "That's the only goal. Everything else is just extra. Selling it, people looking at it, I don't really care about that." He pursues doing something new for his fulfillment and accomplishment. "Whenever you start thinking about all that other stuff, that’s when the art starts dying on you."
J.B. is a unique artist. He's as much lyricist as he is philosopher. He frequently pauses in conversation to gather his thoughts. He’ll often stare off as if he’s searching for information from the cosmos. His speech is riddled with thoughts, analogies, and quotes he’s gathered from various texts he studies. But he’s just as quick to tell you if he doesn’t have an answer to something, or he'll pass on commenting if he has nothing to say. J.B. is welcoming and helpful, but there’s a fierceness to him. He means business. His brother Kel is more willing to talk.
The brothers don’t find themselves to be unique in any sort of way. Thoughts that echo the reflections of texts they consume, and sentiments they say were gathered from experiences with psychedelic and recreational drugs. “If we’re different, we’re the same,” JB says. “Difference is just an idea for people who want to boost their ego, because you know, ‘I’m different than you,' for this or that list of laundry reasons. That shit’s not real.”
J.B. is from the world of hip-hop, a genre known for its superficial fluff, the exaggeration of all things individual, with constant self-promotion and hype. Yet J.B. is the brother who speaks the most against ego and brings it up in conversation. Within the humility he says that everything has an ego. “That’s the only way you can stay alive on this earth, so he doesn't conclude that he doesn’t have an ego. “Limited ego,” Kel chimes, but “It’s been put in its place for now. It will always come back," J.B. finishes. .
The brothers view the relationship between ego and man as a game of chess. They say you either play the game or flip the board over. According to them, they chose the later. They walked away from the game, in part due to the experiences they’ve had with psychedelic drugs, what they coin “tools.”
“We have a mutual relationship with these plants,” JB starts. “It’s not about trying to be a guy who’s into psychedelics. They teach us what we need to know for the moment and they go away. We do our work, they might come back," he says.
Because JB’s actual drug of choice? It’s Meditation. He does it daily. And in his eyes, without it he would slip back into old patterns of drinking, smoking, chasing girls, or any other vice that isn't getting his work done. Anything but facing his demons. The hardest thing to J.B. is discipline, but he’s been able to discipline his life after being deep in addiction and unhappy with his previous life trajectory. This is why he chose to leave college and named his hip-hop persona, Brown v. board, a play on going against the established rules, like the court case did in 1954 when the belief system of separating schools into black and white student bodies was ruled unconstitutional. He views college as the established way. He chose the hip-hop path and he hasn't looked back.
A man on a motorcycle revs his engine nearby while we sit on the front porch. “This motherfucker," J.B. says jokingly. "Everyone’s got their own world. He’s just doing him,” J.B. laughs.
The brothers tell me they want to keep growing. To continuing pursuing things that make them uncomfortable in an attempt to surrender to what they call the ego in any given moment. Regardless of their methods, they take the uncomfortable road, because they see it as the road of true expansion. “If you’re comfortable, you’re fucking up,” JB starts. “Right now, this is the most uncomfortable shit I’ve done in a long time,” he says about sitting for an interview. “This is exactly what I have to do. You’re helping me on my path, I’m helping you on your path. That’s what it is," he tells me.
The funny thing about the Brown Brothers is that they are complex in art and philosophy, but simple in lifestyle and needs. They aren’t chasing future success or fame. They want to make a living off of their art, and when posed with the question about potential future success, they joke that all they really need is "40 acres and a mule," a phrase that comes from an unpopular reparation made for former enslaved African American farmers following the Civil War. Kel wants the acres, but he'll trade the mule for a tiny house with "no damn mule." But he wants to earn it. Nothing given to him. J.B. wants the acres, mule or tiny house tax free. The home simply needs an outhouse. "I ain’t trying to smell my own shit," Kel jokes. The tiny house would only be big enough for themselves and anything else that fits. Some art supplies and music equipment. Simple. Minimal.
The brothers pause after speaking for so long. Interviews aren't there forte, and they've said a lot. We sit and listen to nature. Maybe I did just venture into a metaphorical Amazon or cosmos with these Brown brothers. “Sounds like a jungle out here,” I tell them. The brothers laugh. It’s just East Austin, and the neighborhood continues to buzz. The Brown Brothers will continue buzzing with it.