From Merit to Lollapalooza: How Classical Training Led to Hip-Hop Success for Bryce & Bruce Thompson

Bryce and Bruce Thompson stand next to each other, smiling.

Imagine: two brothers, 10 and 12 years old, padding down the hallway of Merit toting their cello and violin, excited to join that week’s orchestra rehearsal. Their mom is taking their baby sister to an Early Childhood class a few doors down. After a successful day of homeschooling, the brothers are now looking forward to seeing friends and practicing for their upcoming premier performance at a mysterious, fancy event: the Merit Gala. Fast forward to the summer of 2023 and now the brothers are grown and performing tracks from their newly released hip-hop album to cheering crowds on one of Chicago’s biggest stages: Lollapalooza.

This is the story of Bryce and Bruce Thompson, whose early classical training at Merit School of Music prepared them for a pivot into a successful hip-hop career. Now known as King Melik, Bryce reflects on how the classical training he received at Merit plays a crucial role in his current career:

A blast from the past! Bruce and Bryce performing on Windy City Live during their Merit days.

“Merit’s teachings were so diverse. It wasn’t just private lessons. It wasn’t just orchestra. We had steel drum electives, we had theory electives, and we got to explore so much. I’m using all the skills I learned every day, whether I’m producing or performing. We’re using all those different elements of music in our daily lives.”

The classical foundation laid at Merit became the backbone of the Thompson brothers’ musical prowess. Beyond that foundation, the brothers—always eager to explore new horizons—then found inspiration in the rhythmic beats of hip-hop. Their traditionally classical instruments that once resonated with sonatas and concertos now embrace the cadence of more modern beats. Merit’s emphasis on versatility and creativity helped the brothers to seamlessly pivot into the dynamic world of hip-hop, blending their classical training with the pulse of today’s new age rap. Bruce, who also dabbles in piano, guitar, and drums, found Merit’s wide and diverse education freeing. The music theory knowledge and self-discipline that he gained in studying classical music at Merit is fundamental to his own music-making today. Beyond playing bass in his brother’s band, Bruce produces for other artists as well as creating his own music. “I do R&B, I do rap, I do jazz with the jazz quartet I started,” he says. “I feel like you can’t really limit yourself to one genre, and that’s something I learned at Merit that I will always carry with me.”

The community at Merit helped Bryce and Bruce learn the impact that relatability and representation can have on their fans. As a beginning musician, Bryce recalls, “When I looked at music, it seemed like such a far thing to really achieve. It seemed like you had to be famous or you had to be insanely gifted.” Yet, through his time at Merit, his outlook shifted. “Because I’ve had so many amazing musicians to look up to growing up, I knew that my dreams in music were attainable.”

The four band members stand behind King Melik, who is crouching near the ground. They are outdoors in front of a body of water with a cityscape behind them.

King Melik, Bruce, and the rest of the band: James Watts, Gabriel Alex, and Zach Vaz.

In addition to the wonderful faculty who inspired them—both brothers cite their teachers Mónica Lugo and Janet Janz as particularly formative influences—they also had the opportunity to work with world-renowned guest musicians. One of Bruce’s favorite memories of Merit was playing alongside Yo-Yo Ma. Experiences like this were instrumental in inspiring the brothers to pursue professional careers in music.

Now, with the recent release of King Melik’s album Sanctuary where Bryce sings vocals and Bruce plays bass guitar, and after their hugely successful performance at Merit’s Play On benefit concert in November, the Thompsons are gratified that their success is now an example to the next generation of Merit students. It is with joy that they visit Merit summer camps to speak to students about careers as music producers and perform for the Conservatory students on a Saturday afternoon. Bryce particularly remembers how important role models at Merit were to him as a student musician – and how he dreamed of being one in the future. “Once you see somebody who kind of looks like you, it [living as a musician] seems a lot more attainable. I want to be that for the youth coming up at Merit.”

Bryce Thompson helps out students at a desk in a songwriting class.

Bryce sharing his expertise and insight as a songwriter as a guest artist for the songwriting class at Camp Merit 2022.

And what came of young Bryce’s experience at the fancy Gala? He recalls, “Everyone was looking nice and I’m like, ‘Man, is everyone here to listen to us play? That’s crazy!’ I remember seeing how proud Mom was [whom he brought as his date] and how beautiful she looked. It was just one of those moments where I was like, ‘Man, all of this is happening because I’m playing notes on this sheet of paper with my violin.’ It was one of those moments when I knew I wanted to do this forever.”

Thinking back to their childhood and how their musical lives that are now bigger than they could have imagined, Bryce wants to pull that little violinist aside and tell him, “Buckle up, young King, and get ready!”

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