The members of Denver’s SaunaBois will be the first to tell you that they aren’t a group, but a movement.
One member, Lil Bhrissy, explains that it’s a brotherhood in which all the members can thoroughly be themselves — make their own unique sounds, dress however they see fit, and act however they want. The members collaborate on each other’s albums and support each other’s solo work.
At a studio called the Lab, off Santa Fe Drive, where all four members are recording with their manager, Josh Russo, they each sport different styles, all demonstrating an enthusiasm for individuality.
John Hauseman, 25, who goes by Lil Bhrissy, is in paint-splattered pants and a white tee, with a sparkling gold belt to match his gold grills, while rapper Brandan Salazer, 24, aka Inker, wears a white tee and jeans with a silver chain around his neck that matches his silver grills. Both men dance around the studio in time with the down-tempo beats that producer Andrew MacDonald quietly plays in the background.
Josh’s brother Jared Russo, 25, known as BerryTooHigh, and Roger Abeyta, 28, who goes by RogerThat, are more relaxed, wearing polos and shorts and passing a blunt around.
After a bit, MacDonald plays songs off Bhrissy’s new album, Lord of the Flies, which dropped on July 17. Bhrissy says that this is the first album where he ran wild with experimenting, and you can hear rock, hip-hop and Latin influences come through, especially on the song “Jack Sparrow.”
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The members of the hip-hop collective all met in the industrial Denver suburb of Commerce City. Bhrissy moved there from Westminster in 2003, when he was in third grade, while Inker landed there after moving from his home town of Atlanta, also during grade school. It was around that time that they met the Russo brothers and Roger.
“In a way, Commerce City brought us all together,” muses Inker, though the bandmates all live in Denver now.
“Aw, hell, no. Don’t associate me with Commerce City,” Bhrissy says. “That’ll make it seem like I’m deep in Commerce City.”
“It’s ghetto as hell,” Inker says. “A lot of crackheads on bikes all day. You still see them, but back then it was worse.”
After the crew gets done joking about the town and rattling off stereotypes, they explain that a third Russo brother, Gage, brought them together to collaborate and pushed them to take their music seriously. He was the youngest of the brothers and went by the name Bity2Fly.
“He was really talented at what he did,” says Inker. “You could throw any beat on, and he would freestyle like crazy. He was younger than me, but he was my idol because he would rap so sick.”
When the artists started recording together, they considered themselves the new-age Hot Boy$. The original Hot Boy$ were a New Orleans-based hip-hop collective that started in 1997 and included Lil Wayne, Juvenile, B.G. and Turk.
“They all had these different crazy styles, and it was like, ‘Whoa, who are these guys?’ And we feel we are a new-age type of that,” says Josh, referring to the liberal use of trap beats and story-driven lyrics that rose to prominence in early-2000s hip-hop. “We have a bunch of different people making good, hot music.”
“That’s the reference,” says RogerThat, referring to the phrase “hot music,” which links to the group’s name, SaunaBois. These artists make music “like a sauna — keep them sweating,” he says.
While Bity built his reputation on his freestyles, which he would offer to perform at any party he attended, he never made it to the Lab to record.
“He was struggling with drugs,” says BerryTooHigh. “We would try to get him to come to the studio, but he would say he was busy.”
On March 10, 2018, Bity died from a drug overdose, devastating his brothers and their community.
After his passing, the members of SaunaBois shifted their approach to writing. While the crew always wanted to create club bangers and continues to do so, the rappers have made an effort to share their personal experiences with lyrics that go beyond partying and glorifying drug use.
“I used to talk about doing drugs a lot, and I definitely don’t do that now,” says BerryTooHigh. “I had a song called ‘Bruce Banner,’ which is mainly about doing drugs, that I recorded three or four years ago, but I haven’t made music like that since, because for one, I don’t do drugs anymore.”
Carrying on the best of Bity’s legacy motivates Lil Bhrissy to keep creating honest music. “I just talk about experiences. I’m not going to downplay what goes on,” he says.
On his new album, Bhrissy doesn’t shy away from sharing his personal stories, but he keeps the mood light. He explains that the album includes three styles: his “Young Thug influence,” his “whisper voice,” and his “normal” style, defined by Auto-Tuned vocals and trap beats.
Bhrissy’s release is the first move in what’s proving to be a big summer for SaunaBois: Berry2High and Inker will soon follow with their own albums, titled Secret Swim and Swimming With the Fishes, respectively.
The members frequently collaborate on one another’s projects, but Bhrissy will be the first to say that the tracks are all undeniably each artist’s individual creation.
“I feel like no one is making music like me in the scene or even in the country,” says Bhrissy. “I’m versatile. I wouldn’t say I’m a lyricist. [The lyrics] are cool if you break them down, but I like how someone brings a melody to a song. It’s like how I wear clothes. It’s different.”
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The members have been busy performing at venues including Summit, Cervantes’ and the Marquis Theater, opening for artists such as Lil Pump and Ski Mask the Slump Dog. They have also entered local hip-hop competitions — among them Artists You Should Know, where they tied with fellow Denver rapper Koo Qua, and Who Has the Favor?, hosted by Rosa Jad from KS 107.5. SaunaBois won the first edition of the latter event earlier this year.
Each of the crew members honors Bity through their work.
“In a way, my little brother brought us all together through rapping,” says BerryTooHigh. “He inspired us to have the best capability and put it in the work. It sucks that he passed away when he had so much talent. He could be doing this right now.”
Bity would have “made it by now because of his talent,” Bhrissy adds. “And if I’m not working my hardest, then I’m already letting him down.”