By Cameron Lee
July 6, 2019
When you’re around the Grammy-nominated vocal group The Hamiltones, you immediately sense a chemistry and charisma much like three close-knit brothers. But that wasn’t always the case in the beginning: “We’re gonna keep it real, we were not like brothers, we were actually just guys doing our jobs…this process has kept us together so much, so now? We’re legit brothers,” Tony Lelo said. Lelo, the most solitary of the group, further explained: “I was the most standoffish person they probably ever knew. Everybody would be on one side of the airport, and I would be on the other side…to the point where 2E and Vito would be like ‘You gotta stop doing that.’”
In the beginning, J. Vito, BJ the Chicago Kid and Jack “JK” King were originally backing up Anthony Hamilton. After the departure of BJ the Chicago Kid, whose career started to blossom, having collaborated with some big name artists like Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye, 2E from Greensboro joined the crew. Eventually, JK left to backup Justin Timberlake on the road and Tony Lelo from Morrisville, North Carolina was added.
The guys were privy to each other running in similar circles at events and open mics alongside music titans like Fantasia, K-Ci & JoJo, Leela James, and, of course, Anthony Hamilton. Originally introduced to Hamilton by music director Kenny Leonard, it was the persistence of photographer and videographer Lavan Anderson that got the group to record some impromptu soul covers of pop hits like “Hotline Bling.” The group remains grateful for their opportunities: “Lavan was really the brains behind puttin’ the camera on us. And, of course, Anthony for allowing us to do what we do,” said 2E.
It didn’t take long for the world to discover The Hamiltones, as the now-infamous Birdman “Put Some Respeck” incident at the Breakfast Club created a viral moment in 2016 that will forever be embedded in the minds of music appreciators and hip-hop enthusiasts.
In today’s music landscape, The Hamiltones are a bit of a rarity. In a synth-driven, auto-tuned inundated world of contemporary music, they bring it back to a simpler time, utilizing primarily one skill: their voices. Amassing a pretty large following in just a few years, it’s not only their vocal talents that keep propelling the group higher. Their personalities are infectious. Having travelled much of the world with Hamilton, they regularly post entertaining snippets of their adventures along with some hilarious improvised skits. For J. Vito, Africa made the biggest impression: “I remember my first time over there, Anthony was singing ‘Her Heart,’ and I just saw people singing the words crying…it was the Michael Jackson experience. They love Anthony over there.”
For 2E, it’s the people that make the time worthwhile: “It’s been a great experience to be able to travel with people I can call my bros…to be able to travel with our colleagues and musician friends that we’ve come up with…that’s a great feeling. We didn’t outsource and go to Atlanta and get a band or go to LA to get a band…we stuck with the people that we came up with from the floor up.”
Now, as a thriving R&B/Soul group releasing their debut project Watch The Ton3s, earning press and access similar to a major label act, the group is reluctantly relieved their first project has been released. “It was good to be able to see people really respond in the way they did to the record, but I wouldn’t say we are relieved, we got way more work to do,” said Lelo.
2E feels a little different: “It was a wait off my shoulders personally, because I always wanted to put music out there. It was somewhat of a relief that we could put something out and people would get with us.”
As one of the few flourishing independent acts in R&B and soul music in this generation, the process can be a bit arduous. “This whole album was a large part of our team. One guy in particular, Dame, he is a heavy influence with the distribution portion of the Hamiltones…it goes to show the importance of a good team and having people around, you can trust in,” said Lelo when speaking of the song selection process for the EP.
Even their manager Brandon Davis, a former rapper from Greensboro, contributed to the album by writing the song ”MCBYL.” The remix on the six-song EP features North Carolina’s Phonte of Little Brother fame and R&B singer Rico Barrino, the brother of Fantasia.
There’s a deep appreciation for home in their songs and general aura. “North Carolina is turning into the new Atlanta…there’s mad talented and soulful people here, and now talent is being shown. We bringin’ a whole new vibe. North Carolina is on the come-up,” said J. Vito.
Despite their broad travels and once-in-a-lifetime experiences– including an invite to the Grammys in 2018 for the song “What I’m Feeling” with Anthony Hamilton– they seem to be as genuinely humbled as they are motivated for more. Their most recent press run included interviews with Charlamagne tha God and DJ Envy on The Breakfast Club, and a visit to Sway In The Morning along with a host of features and appearances on large media platforms. But, as 2E noted, the people are important and drive the group. Lelo continued: “For us, it’s about helping somebody else, and that’s through song…if somebody is like man, ‘I don’t wanna be here no more’ then maybe they can go and listen to ‘Gotta Be Lovin Me’ and take that to themselves.”
The Hamiltones are a soulful representation of the Carolinas that continue the history of R&B music following the trail of Anthony Hamilton and K-Ci & JoJo. The music industry landscape may have changed drastically since their days, but you can find traits in J. Vito, 2E, and Lelo that remind you of a simpler time in the Carolinas, when genuine laughs and tenderness were just as fulfilling as “likes” are now on social media. There’s a sense of family that, in the beginning may have not felt like a brotherhood, but ultimately lead to The Hamiltones becoming North Carolina’s favorite musical sons.