Next Big Things 2011: Odd Future

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Odd Future / Photographed by Kenneth Cappello for SPIN in Los Angeles
Chris Martins WRITTEN BY
Chris Martins

Hide the family, hip-hop's latest scourge is an obscenely talented gang of skateboarding Wolves raised in the wilds of Los Angeles. Rapping about unspeakable things, inspired by a certain Shady antihero, they just don't give a f--k! Except about a Grammy. [Magazine Excerpt]

Tyler Haley is ecstatic. It's soundcheck at the Echo in Los Angeles and Odd Future are preparing for a homecoming of sorts. The volatile, controversial ten-member posse -- rap's most outrageously subversive newcomers -- just played two sellout shows in New York and London. But before that, they'd only performed once, so this is all still very new.

Live, engineer Syd (formerly "tha Kyd") handles the beats, and as she cues up "Fuck the Police" by MellowHype (an Odd Future sub-group featuring grit-loving producer Left Brain and charismatic rapper Hodgy Beats), it's obvious no one in the room has ever heard the song sound so good and so loud. The drums' trebly machine-gun clatter pries eyes open wide. The heavy, honking tuba effect drops jaws to the dingy concrete. And the bass hits Odd Future leader Tyler like a spark to a fuse.

He rockets off the stage, hits the floor, and starts high-stepping, all six feet two inches of him -- part mosher, part drum major. He circles the small venue at a gallop, soon spying his friend Vince Staples. Tyler hooks an arm around the dude's neck and enters a full spin. It's all so pure and beautifully chaotic that no one, least of all Tyler, considers the support beam that Vince had been leaning on a millisecond before: 180 degrees...270 degrees...355 degrees -- crack! Even over the Echo's crushing sonics, the sound of skull meeting wood is terribly audible. Vince's hat flies off like he's a cartoon character. Then, the very real young man clutches his braincase and falls.

It was an accident. Not the first, certainly not the last. These things just happen when you're jumping without a parachute and crashing blindly through whatever's in your way. It's almost surprising, though, that the post didn't just snap or bend out of deference. If Odd Future have one thing that everyone can agree upon, it's uncanny velocity.

Six months ago, the blogosphere barely knew they existed. A blip on forums, they were the weird kids who showed up uninvited, skate punks in hip-hop gear. Then something gave. Writers and photographers swarmed. A&Rs too. XL Recordings, home to Vampire Weekend and the xx, picked up travel expenses for the New York and London gigs. Odd Future's managers, including a young Interscope exec, hovered around like superfans before signing on. Their publicist, who doubles as DJ for Wu-Tang Clan's GZA, agreed to work pro bono. Now there are hotly anticipated albums; a bona fide mystery surrounding a missing member; a possible record deal with either Interscope, XL, Vice, or Warner Bros.; and an Adult Swim show supposedly in the works.

So how did these hyperactive, wisecracking, incredibly lewd L.A. misfits become rap's next big thing? They didn't ask for it, exactly. Instead of following traditional channels, they built an Internet outpost and let the industry discover them. They often rap about terrible things -- their lyrics are Molotov cocktails of raging teen alienation, sexual violence, and murder fantasies that have provoked the "horrorcore" tag (which they loudly reject). They're unpredictable, antagonistic, uncompromising. Yet everyone's clawing to get next to them.

A week after the Echo gig, Tyler (a.k.a. Tyler, the Creator) and Hodgy Beats, both 19, sit in a tan vinyl booth at Canter's Deli in L.A.'s Fairfax District. It's the city's Jewish core, dotted with the streetwear shops Odd Future hold dear: Supreme, Diamond, Huf. This is their home turf, where you could've found them at any point over the past two years.

The Creator speaks. "If there's a car accident," he rasps in a gravelly baritone, "and another car is cruising through the scene, they're going to look at the accident." Tyler is calling himself the wreck on the highway, reducing his talent and vision to a mess suited for rubbernecking, but it's a good metaphor for what newbies glom onto about the crew.

The first exposure typically comes via the video for "Earl," a song by the group's most preternaturally gifted MC, Earl Sweatshirt, in which the 16-year-old lithely rhymes about date rape, cannibalism, Asher Roth, and countless other abominations, while his friends ingest a blender's puree of weed, malt liquor, pills, and cough syrup that causes them to bleed, lose body parts, and eventually die. The second contact likely involves an impossibly deep-voiced teen who rolls his eyes back into his head or sucks on an inhaler as he raps about, um, penetrating the Virgin Mother in an uncomfortable place. That's Tyler. But what happens next, once your interest has been properly harpooned, is like "pulling a string on a sweater," explains Odd Future manager David Airaudi.

The official name is Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA), ready-made for desk carvings and Sharpie-wrought knuckle graffiti. Their online presence is constant and multi-tiered: individual members' Twitter accounts and Tumblrs; YouTube caches of skate, music, and sketch-comedy clips; the "Golf Wang" photo blog maintained collectively; and the official Odd Future site itself, host in 2010 to nine free full-length releases in as many months, each featuring Tyler's arresting artwork (see sidebar).

It's the sort of thing that begs obsession, and word of Odd Future has spread from rap nerds to indie hipsters to the artier avant-garde. "I immediately downloaded every album," says Liars guitarist Aaron Hemphill, of the moment a friend sent him an MP3 of "Leather Head," a song from Odd Future's Radical mixtape that finds Tyler rapping over the clangingLiars track "Leather Prowler." Liars singer Angus Andrew credits Tyler with making an ambitious choice "seem like an obvious decision," adding: "The way they work together to make the sum bigger than its parts -- it's very exciting."

"These kids who grew up with the Internet, there are no boundaries to what they can do," says Steven Ellison, a.k.a. L.A. beat-music auteur Flying Lotus. "I think that's where we're headed, where the next pop singer will produce her own beats, make her own videos and artwork, do it all herself. The whole package is what makes Odd Future great."

And, of course, the attitude -- that perfect mix of rap "just don't give a fuck" and punk rock "just fucking with you" that manifests in their frenetic, macabre, gross-out lyrics and the footage of them jumping out of moving vehicles or giggling during slap fights. That mindset even extends to people who would try to get a piece now, evidenced by Tyler's opening words at Manhattan's Webster Hall gig in November: "Fuck every label and magazine in here. Suck my dick!"

"I thought that shit was swag!" says Tyler at Canter's, laughing between vicious bites of thick-cut bacon. Odd Future love bacon. Like using the word "swag" to describe anything that fits their definition of cool, it's part of the group's eccentric aesthetic. "Those people were there because their bosses sent them, and I wanted them to know: Fuck them for not coming because they enjoy the music. Every kid in there went crazy because they were all sitting there thinking, 'Why the fuck are there so many old white dudes in trench coats?' I was like, all right, I'm gonna back them up because I'm one of them."

Read the full story on Odd Future in SPIN's March issue.

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