Odd Future: The New Underground’s Loud Family Goes on the Road
"They are them. We are us. Fuck them all." So goes the motto of hip-hop's obscenely groundbreaking hellions.
“They are them. We are us. Fuck them all.” So goes the motto of obscenely groundbreaking hellions Odd Future. The white-hot epicenter of hip-hop’s New Underground take their stage-diving family affair on the road, and we join the caravan. And for more from OF’s always-quotable leader, read our bonus Q&A: Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator on Race, Broken Homes, and Waking Up Rich.
More From SPIN’s December 2011 Issue:
• Live from the New Underground: SPIN Celebrates Hip-Hop’s DIY Moment
• Photos: A Close-Up Look at Rap’s New Underground
• G-Side Launch a Hardscrabble, Regular-Dude Revolution
• An Insanely Obsessive Infographic Tries (in Vain) to Diagram the Hip-Hop Galaxy
It’s freezing in Vancouver, British Columbia, but these two tow-headed white kids have been waiting for hours. When the tour bus, a rock-star-sized whale, pulls up to the club, the teens — Brandon Lachance, 18, and Isabel Van Wyk, 16 — trail the driver’s slow, creaky three-point turns until the bus stops. The ten members of the Los Angeles collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, groggy after an overnight haul from Portland, lumber out, one by one, and the fans’ excitement reaches a fever pitch. As Tyler, the Creator, the group’s leader, emerges, wearing his signature devastating grin, Van Wyk is at the crest of hyperventilation. When he reaches out to hug her for a photo, she nearly erupts into a full-blown bawl. Tyler tenses, and looks a little panicked. “Don’t cry,” he begs. “Please don’t cry — it’s okay.”
This scene isn’t that extraordinary. Considering all the fan freak-outs so far, Odd Future’s first-ever North American tour (September 28 to November 8) actually resembles a microcosm of Justin Bieber’s mall jaunts. “Their music is so rebellious and they just don’t care,” says Lachance, after the group moves on to soundcheck. “It makes you do stuff you didn’t think you’d do. I used to be really shy before I listened to them, but after a while, I just kinda got crazy.” He took off from work today, hoping for a photograph.
Odd Future have provoked nonstop conversation throughout 2011, creating some of the year’s most vital, kinetic, urgent, raw music and art. A brief overview of the young crew’s output: Tyler’s solo album Goblin, which has sold 135,000 copies via indie label XL, and his riveting “Yonkers” and “She” videos; Frank Ocean’s twisted R&B confessional, Nostalgia, Ultra; MellowHype’s remastered re-release of their Blackenedwhite album and the effectively creepy “64” video; Domo Genesis’ Under the Influence mixtape; Mike G’s chopped-and-screwed mixtapes; Syd the Kyd’s Raunchboots instrumental EP; the stunning coffee-table photo book Golf Wang, with writings by Tyler; not to mention all the group’s Tyler-designed merch. Their 2012 is booked with worldwide tour dates; they’re shooting an Adult Swim show, tentatively titled Loiter Squad, set to premiere in early 2012; a clutch of releases, including a full crew album, are planned for the newly minted Odd Future Records (distributed by Sony Red); and there are rumored collaborations with Pharrell (Tyler’s idol) and Justin Bieber (an acknowledged fan).
Moreover, they’ve defined a fresh rallying cry for disaffected youth and have reinvigorated the decades-old debate over whether rap music reflects, or ruins, society. Amid discussion forums and Tumblr’d fan tributes, there are hundreds of essays parsing whether the group are misogynistic, homophobic, or hate-filled, due to several graphic depictions of murder and rape in their lyrics. They were subject to domestic-violence protests at the Pitchfork Music Festival and were admonished in GLAAD press releases. This May, Sara Quin of lesbian folkies Tegan and Sara denounced Goblin on the duo’s website, wondering, “Why should I care about this music or its ‘brilliance’ when the message is so repulsive and irresponsible?” Tyler’s response, via Twitter: “If Tegan and Sara need some hard dick, hit me up!”
“That was the first thing that came to my head,” Tyler explains later, sitting on a Seattle hotel bed, after the show following the Vancouver date. “When I said that shit, I thought it’d be funny. But then I was like, I don’t even care anymore….I mean, I guess my dark side comes out in my music, but it’s just weird that so many people think I’m such a fucking evil person. I don’t fucking hate gay people. I’m probably one of the least homophobic rappers in the world. I don’t discriminate, because that’s what the fucking whites did to the blacks back then, and that’s what kids did to me at school, because I listened to different music and shit. So I don’t fucking discriminate.
He continues: “If you listen to ‘Yonkers’ and ‘Sandwitches’ [from Goblin] and that’s it, you would think I’m an evil asshole. People might not expect me, goofy as fuck, pulling my balls out and wearing tie-dye and shit.”
Goofiness is part of the package for Odd Future’s collection of rappers, producers, singers, artists, skateboarders, and funny people. As is irreverence. Critics have chalked up their attitude to shock tactics. To the group, their dark humor and apocalyptic imagery are more like catharsis, a natural outgrowth of all they’ve experienced. But spend any amount of time with them and it’s their charm and vitality that shines through.
“A lot of people won’t realize unless they meet us that we’re very nice people,” says Syd “the Kyd” Bennett, Odd Future’s ebullient DJ/engineer, sister of jaunty hype man Taco, and sole female member. “We’re all very honest. We realize that the truth is the only way you can go.”
A feminist outsider joining Odd Future on tour — through four cities (San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle) over seven days — might seem like a cat trying to swim with sharks. And though I’d met Tyler before and found him perfectly respectful, my pretour G-chats with friends consisted primarily of the sentiment: “FRANKLY, I’M SCARED.”
Would my age (over 25) and inherent dorkiness become a bull’s-eye for a mass of wisecracking brats? Would I become a symbol of the stodgy journalists they so vocally hate? Would they revolt and drop me off in the middle of Nowhere Valley, California, where I’d have to beg some local reclusive militiamen to drive me to the bus station? None of those things happened; Jasper Dolphin didn’t even draw on my face with a Sharpie while I slept.
During a week of crashing on their tour bus, cackling at their jokes, and marveling at their intuitive connection and unwavering honesty, it was actually tough to leave. Beneath the surface, Odd Future are an extremely tight knot of friends who have stayed close through an astonishingly quick rise to stardom.
That’s not to say that every moment is charged with blithe chaos. Huddled in a basement green room before the San Francisco show, the crew’s smokers crouch over a laptop, as the unusually stoic rapper Hodgy Beats conjures fight videos via World Star Hip Hop. It’s a weedy vibe, and the dudes — fierce, brooding producer Left Brain (Hodgy’s partner in the duo MellowHype), sharp but stony spitter Domo Genesis, sunglasses-wearing suave rhymer Mike G, and jokester hype man Jasper Dolphin — debate the best, most absurd clips. Reloading a video of two family members getting into a scrap over a cheeseburger, they laugh hysterically. Syd and outré producer Matt Martians dip in to ogle a left hook. Tyler, drug- and alcohol-free, tends to roll solo before shows, entertaining himself with Twitter pranks, answering Formspring questions, or making Mac beats.
Despite their jumble of personalities, the group operates like a fully functional family unit, bound by shared backgrounds and intense creative energy. Tyler is the centrifugal force, but each member plays a necessary role. From the audience, an Odd Future live performance looks like a vortex of arms, heads, legs, and middle fingers. As I watch from backstage, though, the members interact via instinctive physical cues; if Tyler’s asthma requires a lie-down break behind the booth after “French,” Mike G breezes in for a supersmooth delivery of “Everything That’s Yours,” without anyone missing a breath. “It’s uncanny how this happened, because we all genuinely care about each other,” says Matt Martians, who first met Tyler in an online Neptunes forum. “We’re all dependent on each other.”
A couple of times during the trip, when the tour bus is too hotboxed or somebody’s boxers are on the floor, Tyler jokes about going solo. But when he accepted his MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist this year, his mom crying and screaming at his side, he delivered his largely bleeped-out speech with the group hopping around and hugging behind him. “I would never, never leave these dudes,” he says. “Without them trusting my lead and having my back no matter what the fuck happened, I wouldn’t be here. Because I come up with some crazy shit, and nobody trusted me, but these motherfuckers was like, ‘You know what? Fuck it, eat a roach.'”
Lionel boyce, or l-boy, wakes up early every day, incapable of sleeping in. And on this particular morning, Odd Future’s resident idea man, a linebacker-sized 20-year-old, is sitting at the front of the tour bus, working on “Thoughts From a Random Black Guy,” his column for the LA Weekly blog. This week’s topic: a fantastical story about adopting an Asian baby for the purpose of attending her career day. (In another column, he imagined Jasper Dolphin rescuing said baby and “three baseheads” from a burning building.)
Al B. Sure’s 1988 R&B classic In Effect Mode bumps from his laptop speakers. L-Boy, like several others in Odd Future, shares a love for the bass-heavy slow jams of the ’90s — particularly Aaliyah — but he doesn’t remember how he first discovered Al B. Sure. “I was born in ’91, so it was, like, ’98, ’99 when the Internet started getting big,” he says. “I had friends who used Limewire in ninth grade and followed music blogs to see when songs came out. I always wonder how people found out how new songs came out before the Internet.”
Part of Odd Future’s success, of course, has been due to their brilliant use of Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, Formspring, the Hypebeast forums, et al. to spread their gospel, whether releasing the free albums that created an early buzz on their website or uploading their spastic, often hard-to-watch videos of skateboarding face-plants, and other tragicomic slapstick. Similarly, Odd Future obsessives have compiled intricate networks of fandom online, hoarding stray shreds of info and photos. Spend any time on Formspring, for instance, and you’ll find out which ex-girlfriend appears in Tyler’s “She” video, why they broke up, and what he thinks about her new haircut. “These guys are a walking new-media department,” says manager/de facto dad Christian Clancy, who formerly worked at Interscope with Eminem and 50 Cent. “I’ve learned more from them in a year and a half than I did at a label in ten years.”
But as their fame skyrockets, transparency gets more complicated. It’s sweet that there’s a blog dedicated to the cuteness of Lucas Vercetti, Tyler’s straight-edge skater homie, and that when Vercetti and L-Boy work the merch booth, kids ask for their autographs, too. But then territorial fans found out about Lucas’ young girlfriend via Facebook. “They hate her!” says the bleach-blonde Vercetti one night after a show, sucking down an ever-present Red Bull. “She’s like, ‘What the fuck, why are all these people all crazy over you.’ I don’t even do anything.”
Those more fleeting worries are tempered by the nagging absence of Tyler’s close friend Thebe Kgositsile, a.k.a. the preternaturally talented Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt, who is still, presumably, residing in a Samoan reform school (where his mother sent him in the summer of 2010), even as fans chant for his freedom every night. “I want him to be out here with us on fucking tour, or I just wanna skate the 7-11 with him, ’cause those are times I won’t be able to get back,” he says. “That shit just kills me. I miss him.”
Insecurity, fear, loneliness, and mistrust are themes that Tyler revisits often, in songs like “Golden” and “Inglorious,” belying a deep vulnerability. Like many in Odd Future, he’s never had any stability or consistency in his life. “I don’t trust anybody,” he says, in the green room before the Vancouver show, his gruff voice getting quiet as group members mill about. “Even my close best friends who I would take a bullet for, there’s things I don’t talk to them about, so I had to make those songs just to get shit out. It sucks being 18 years old, living at my grandma’s house, fucking stealing from cars and going to the pawn shop just to go to McDonald’s and have something to eat.”
Alternately, Hodgy Beats, whose gritty voice is one of the group’s most distinctive, assumes such a take-no-prisoners attitude in his rhymes because he’s got a fresh, positive focus: his two-and-a-half-month-old son, Trenton, named after the city in New Jersey where Hodgy was born. “I look at life differently now,” he says. “I grew up without my father, so my goal is to look out for my child, look out for his mother, keep making money and being the best I can be. I still got dreams.” Hodgy started rapping when he was just six years old, at the urging of his cousin. MellowHype may package their next release, Numbers, as a triple album, and Hodgy wants to form a band influenced by the Black Keys, Pink Floyd, and Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell. The duo live in a house with a “big-ass couch,” but they’re almost constantly in the Odd Future studio. “We don’t wanna be failures,” says Hodgy. “We don’t want to be our parents, making certain mistakes.”
Earlier this year, Syd the Kyd also moved out of her parents’ home — Odd Future’s longtime clubhouse, where much of their early music was recorded — into an apartment on the beach with Mike G and Matt Martians. (By contrast, Tyler just bought his mother a house, where he lives with his 12-year-old sister.) Syd, Matt, and Left Brain have been working on a gossamer pop project called the Internet. Syd sings in a haunting, formidable, R&B-influenced voice, and their first video, for the song “Cocaine,” features Syd and another lovely girl on a date at a carnival, tripping out and making out.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be in the video until three days before the shoot,” she says. “I didn’t want to put myself out there like that. Then it just got to the point where I figured, you know what? Some of this stuff is unavoidable, and if I just eliminate some of the wondering about my sexual orientation, then in one way people will leave me alone about it. And in another way, I’ll be able to inspire people.”
It’s a brave video, and it establishes Syd as the first prominent artist in hip-hop to unequivocally come out.
Tyler and jasper are wandering around an outdoor souvenir market in Seattle, sneaking up behind unsuspecting bystanders to barrage them with yard-long thought bubbles cut from whiteboard, with silly lines written on them, like, “I [heart] Ja Rule.” Production assistants scatter, out of sight, while director Lance Bangs, wily gray hair sticking out from beneath a visor, films their antics for the Adult Swim series.
Tyler and Jasper Dolphin, along with L-Boy and Taco, act as the show’s producers, with cameos from the rest of Odd Future (and, eventually, Jasper’s dad, “an ex-gangbanger, but one of them dudes who’s funny all the time,” explains his son). The pranks — typical of those that the show’s production company, Dickhouse, invented for Jackass — beef up the airtime, but the majority of the show will consist of wacky skits and original characters. Essentially, it’s their everyday joking life transmitted into homes across America.
Later, Tyler films a scene in character as Fernando, a homoerotic Mexican dance instructor whose passion is manifested in his catchphrase: “The hips? They do not lie.” His accent falls somewhere between French, Chinese, and Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride. He’s got glued-on fake chest hair and does pelvic thrusts while standing in a tub filled with bubble bath. “Some people might think it’s so unfunny and stupid,” he says, emitting one of his deep, volcanic giggles. “But luckily, we’re in a position to come up with dumb ideas and film them. It’s so cool.”
Considering Tyler’s self-awareness and creativity, it’s easy to forget that he’s only 20 years old. But his enthusiasm betrays his age. He’s certainly ADHD, and essentially straight-edge, so his energy is totally channeled into his various projects. And when he’s around his best friends — Taco and Lucas, in particular — he might as well be 17 forever, for the amount of boy-typical wrestling. During one face-off, while Taco attempts to pin down Lucas and poke his butt with the end of a cordless phone, Tyler says, “Open up any music magazine and it’s Tyler, so homophobic. They don’t know how gay this shit gets.”
Transfer this sort of pent-up adrenaline into an Odd Future live show and you get lots of debris — hats, T-shirts, shoes, even bras, lost in the mosh pit, eventually floating up or thrown onstage, often smacking someone in the mouth or shoulder mid-rap. To reiterate: bras. Girls actually take off their bras and throw them onstage. San Francisco has the highest count, at three; Tyler picks up a padded white satin number and sniffs it, then tosses it, cackling.
Seattle is tamer — no lingerie — but it’s their best show so far on tour, complete with impromptu snap dancing, wilder than usual ad-libs, and heightened fan interaction, including a fake fight with a girl in the front row. The roving Adult Swim camera crew is filming for posterity, and Jasper suggests that all the members of Odd Future stage-dive simultaneously during their signature finale performance of rebel anthem “Radicals.” They line up in a row, teasing out the moment, and on the count of three, launch themselves simultaneously onto the crowd’s eager hands, held skyward like worshipers at a tent revival.
“My thing is just to be yourself,” says Tyler, back in the hotel room. “I dedicated ‘Radicals’ to Kurt Cobain [while wearing a Nirvana T-shirt] because I was fucking born when that shit came out, so I absorbed that energy, of the Rodney King riots and the grunge era. I feel like the kids you see at shows, they are me. I am those kids I make songs for. My dad didn’t teach me nothing, and there’s kids out there that feel like that. So I feel like I’m the leader dude they look up to, to tell them they can do whatever the fuck they want.”
“Radicals” is oft-quoted for its revolutionary chorus — “Kill people! Burn shit! Fuck school!” or Tyler’s hilarious proclamation “I’m a fucking unicorn!” — but he points out that it’s the final refrain that’s most important: “Fuck your traditions, fuck your positions / Fuck your religion, fuck your decisions / See, they’re not mine, so you gotta let ‘em go / See, we can be ourselves, but you gotta let us know.” This is the crux of Odd Future, the flag-plant, the call to upheaval and urgent individuality that every generation deserves. As Hodgy puts it, “We came out raunchy and our lyrics were nasty as fuck, ’cause that’s how the world is. The triple-six [imagery], that shit’s not real at all. Some people can’t think for themselves.”
On the last day in Seattle, after Adult Swim shooting has wrapped and the rest of the crew has boarded the tour bus for Salt Lake City, Tyler is meticulously folding new T-shirts he has procured: all tie-dye, with different cat illustrations on the front, his taste seemingly that of a tween-girl environmentalist. The StepKids, a psychedelic, jazz-influenced band he likes, play on his laptop. “My new album [Wolf, expected to released in May 2012] is gonna sound like this,” he says. “I wanna make the music I actually get all my influence from. I don’t know how, but I’m gonna try shit like this out. I’m gonna make a band or something.”
In a few days, though, Tyler will release a video for “Bitch Suck Dick,” Goblin‘s most lunkheadedly brazen song. It’s an absurd, spoofy clip featuring, among other things, Jasper rolling around in a tracksuit and Lionel ripping apart his shirt. “It’s an ignorant-ass song,” says Tyler, anticipating backlash. “If I’m not listening to cheesy indie-jazzy rock shit, I’m listening to ignorant-ass rap shit like Waka Flocka and OJ Da Juiceman. And I made a song that sounds like that energy, but in my world. I think making a song about punching a bitch in the face is funny, because if you’re a regular person, just hearing that is fucking crazy, and 90 percent of the people know I’m just fucking around.”
But as Odd Future’s new projects are released — and as they become an ever bigger force in hip-hop — will his approach shift away from contrarianism and provocation? “Talking about rape and cutting bodies up, it just doesn’t interest me anymore,” he says, contemplative and sincere, looking directly into my eyes, now sitting cross-legged on the hotel bed. “What interests me is making weird hippie music for people to get high to. With Wolf, I’ll brag a little bit more, talk about money and buying shit. But not like any other rapper, I’ll be a smart-ass about it. Now it’s just girls throwing themselves at me and shit, but I got a girl back home. People who want the first album again, I can’t do that. I was 18, broke as fuck. On my third album, I have money and I’m hanging out with my idols. I can’t rap about the same shit.” The look on his face is uncompromising. The man knows where his power lies.
We spend two more hours chatting, about heartbreak, piano lessons, and how it sucks when your mom follows you on Twitter. At one point he exclaims, “I’ve never been this happy in my life. I just got a shirt with a fuckin’ cat on it!” The next day, when Tyler hugs me goodbye, he says, “Bye, loser,” in his famous, growling baritone. I snap back, “I hate you.” As my cab pulls away to go to the airport, I already miss the Wolf Gang.