Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All is performing rap on its terms
Revolutions are still televised, but they get Tumblr’d, tweeted and YouTubed first. This one started last summer when music micro-bloggers began deifying a pack of nine skateboarding, freewheeling teenaged rap vandals from Los Angeles. Full name: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All — or OFWGKTA if you’re into brevity.
Like most Internet contagions, the first germs of information spread via viral video. Directed by the crew’s founder, Tyler the Creator, the clip for a song called “French” felt like Larry Clark’s “Kids” updated for the “Jackass” and American Apparel generation: full of skateboarding, vomiting, automatic handguns and suggestive maneuvers with a plastic Ronald McDonald statuette.
Its semi-sequel, “Earl,” featured 16-year-old Earl Sweatshirt rapping about rape, homicide and drinking “six different liquors with a Prince wig plastered on.” His deadpan dystopia featured blood, a beauty salon, a blender full of weed, booze and pills, seizures and more skateboarding -- and may have prompted the high schooler to be shipped to boarding school.
Circumventing the major rap gatekeepers, Odd Future appeared in articles by British tastemaking magazine the Wire, influential music site Pitchfork and lifestyle platform the Fader. At home, lauded producer Flying Lotus, a vanguard of the Low End Theory beat scene, began evangelically tweeting about them -- and an October booking at the storied club soon followed. Shows in London and New York won more admirers, including endorsements from Mos Def, Kanye West and Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Since then, the wolves under the Odd Future banner have released a handful of singles, mix tapes and several albums — among them, Tyler’s “Bastard,” Sweatshirt’s “Earl,” Frank Ocean’s acclaimed R&B-fusion mix tape album “Nostalgia/Ultra,” Mellowhype’s “Blackendwhite” and the Jet Age of Tomorrow’s “The Journey to the 5th Echelon” — all released free on the Odd Future Tumblr site. The onslaught has culminated in mobs of moshing teenagers wearing “Free Earl” shirts — a riff on his rumored boarding school sentence — and hollering “Wolf Gang” at every sold-out show.
The video for “Yonkers,” which found Tyler eating a cockroach, vomiting and ultimately putting a rope around his neck and appearing to hang himself, earned 5 million views and MTV rotation. The limelight also shined on the surrounding cast, whose names sound ripped from an Afro-Futurist comic book: Domo Genesis, Hodgy Beats, Syd the Kid, Frank Ocean, Mike G, Left Brain, the Super 3, Taco and Jasper the Dolphin. Self-professed computer nerds, they all have blog and Twitter accounts that they actively employ.
None are older than 23, but their sensibilities are shockingly sculpted for a rap crew of any age -- an iconography forged on upside down crucifixes, the occasional swastika, Kodachrome colors, skate culture and a slashing irony. They love bacon, cartoons and Eminem. They hate comedian Steve Harvey, school and dance rappers.
One of the most feverishly discussed acts at the South by Southwest music festival in March, Odd Future makes its Coachella debut Friday, just 15 months after it joined YouTube. It has created a cult without offering a creation story, offending thousands of people in the process, and has been compared to the Sex Pistols, Eminem, Wu Tang Clan and Nirvana.
“They aren’t user-friendly, and that’s been lacking in hip-hop for the last 20 years,” said drummer and hip-hop expert Questlove of the Roots. He compares them to gangsta rap and hard-core punk. “Lyrically, they channel the first Geto Boys’ record, and their attitude, music and presentation bring a similar dark aggression. Odd Future is the new Bad Brains, but I think the mainstream will embrace them even more.”
There will be ample opportunity. Earlier this year, Odd Future signed a deal for a pilot on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block -- a live-action skit show in the vein of “Jackass” and “Chappelle’s Show.” XL Recordings, home of indie darlings Vampire Weekend and British provocateur M.I.A., signed a one-off deal to release Tyler’s commercial debut, “Goblin,” due May 10.
Even Poetry magazine chimed in last month with an essay on the collective. “Is OFWGKTA offensive?,” asked writer Bethlehem Shoals. “Yes, but they’re also undeniably funny, sad, and, somehow, devoid of moral gravity in a way that’s both silly and nearly surreal.”
The wolf lair is in the back house of a 1920s Spanish-style home in the Washington-Crenshaw district. Like the music itself, the Odd Future studio is organized chaos: drum kits and guitars, a John Coltrane poster, a TV that looks like it’s never been turned on, books, DVDs and CDs, with a comparably pristine recording room.
The space belongs to the parents of Odd Future’s 18-year-old producer and engineer, Sydney Bennett, a.k.a. Syd the Kid, but the graduate of the Hamilton High Music Academy started renting out her homemade studio several years ago. Word spread rapidly, and one day in 2008 a dozen Odd Futurists appeared outside her window.
She was headed to In-N-Out Burger but told them if they were still there when she returned they could work. “Hodgy, Left Brain, Tyler and their friends were still there when I returned,” she said. “We recorded seven songs that night, and they never stopped coming.”
Before that, the group existed largely as subversive-minded skateboarders lingering around the Supreme store on Fairfax Avenue, rebels uninterested in mixing in with the city’s main three rap circles: gangsta rap traditionalists, skinny-jeaned jerkin’ rappers and what Tyler called “post-Drake cliched Slauson rappers.”
Tyler is at the center of Odd Future, a 20-year-old who declared last year on his Formspring account that his goal was to “make great music ... be the leader for the kids who were picked on and called weird, and show the world that being yourself and doing what you want without caring what other people think, is the key to being happy.” That’s as close as you’ll find to a mission statement for Odd Future.
Tyler says he attended 12 schools in 12 years, including Westchester High, Hawthorne’s Media Arts Academy (also known as Hip Hop High), and a stint in Sacramento. The Times, in fact, ran a story on Media Arts that featured a 16-year-old Tyler. In it, he described his interests as music, fashion design and skateboarding.
The charismatic leader possesses an enigmatic streak that includes refusing to divulge his last name (Okonma) and neglecting to tell his mom about Odd Future (a cousin ratted him out). He repeatedly describes his dad as dead and the only evidence that he isn’t is a song lyric about how Tyler wants his email to tell him “how much I hate him in detail.”
Initially obsessed with Dr. Dre’s “Chronic 2001" and N.E.R.D’s “In Search of,” Tyler taught himself how to make beats and play the piano, spending most of his high school years doing Photoshop, making music and watching cartoons. Reflexively creative, he started a clothing line as a freshman. Starting at the Hawthorne Skate Park (“The Dirty”) and expanding outward, Tyler recruited a flock, 40 to 45 members deep, numbering skateboarders, photographers, musicians and longtime friends.
Originally conceived in 2005 as a magazine, OFWGKTA evolved into something part art collective and part unarmed menaces. One of the first members was producer Left Brain, a Crenshaw High student who bonded with Tyler over their love of left-field hip-hop and R&B-funk fusion. Pasadena rapper Hodgy Beats joined shortly thereafter.
Though the rappers owe an obvious creative debt to Eminem, they fit few previous rap archetypes. A self-described “walking talking paradox,” Tyler can evangelize on post-crunk rap, celestial indie rock (Grizzly Bear, Toro y Moi) or jazz (Roy Ayers, John Coltrane). He doesn’t drink or do drugs, he says, but raps that “all he wants to do is snort blow” nonetheless -- with a bullfrog wheeze usually reserved for smoke-ravaged octogenarians.
Musically, the group’s sound is almost entirely sample-free and can be as varied as tie-dye psychedelic and noirish zebra print. Part of the enthusiasm for the group’s sound is due to its contrast with the rest of the contemporary rap world. Although most of their peers have been forced into making watered-down pop concessions, Odd Future remain defiantly averse to sanitizing their sound or lyrics.
Tyler doesn’t profess authenticity (“no one’s authentic”), but his lyrics have both a wounded honesty and deranged imagination (including sex fantasies with Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and Goldilocks).
His talent lies in his ability to fuse a strain of post-adolescent angst found in Holden Caulfield, Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis, and lyrics rife with esoteric references and double-meaning: In one of the only rhyming couplets suitable for a family newspaper, he raps on “Yonkers,” “They say success is the best revenge/So I beat DeShay up with the stack of magazines I’m in/Oh, not again, another critic writin’ report/I’m stabbin’ any bloggin’ ... hipster with a Pitchfork.”
“People aren’t making the music they want to make anymore,” said the gangly and green-hatted Tyler, who describes himself as dark-skinned, big-eared and depressed. “The radio plays nothing but techno rap, and most artists are desperate to make everything sound pop to sell records.”
“We’re not aiming for shock value. There are just certain things that we find entertaining, so we rap about them,” said Domo Genesis, OFWGKTA marijuana connoisseur, who released last year’s well-received “Rolling Papers.” Domo joined Odd Future toward the end of 2008. A year later Left Brain’s Crenshaw High friend Mike G (a cousin of Warren G) joined.
“I was a fan before anything,” Mike G said. “They already had a small buzz that dated back to Tyler’s personal blog that existed before they even released music.” Around the same time, Odd Future absorbed Earl Sweatshirt (nee Thebe Okonma), a 15-year-old who had rapped as Sly in a group called the Backpackerz. Suspected by some to be Tyler’s half-brother (Tyler denies it), Earl had made little headway as an emcee until he meshed with the warped aesthetic of his new clan.
“Earl was a skater in OF before he was rapping,” Syd said. “Tyler was the only one who knew he could rap, but he was nervous to show us. The first time he recorded, he closed the studio door on us and made us wait outside.” Unavailable for comment, Earl’s old website remains for now a testament to his grandiose aspirations and surreal imagination.
“I’ve been making an effort to ... write more ... sophisticated,” Earl wrote in May 2009. “When I get writers block, my content gets more and more simplistic, but when I let go of whatever block I’ve clamped on my imagination, my music gets doper.”
In mid-February, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All made its network television debut. On “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and with house band the Roots backing them, Odd Future delivered a chaotically memorable performance featuring garden gnomes, zombies, ski masks, terrified actresses and enough kinetic energy to power a theme park.
That sort of national exposure, however, has to be facilitated by professionals, and despite the chaos that seems to constantly surround the group, Odd Future has considered its team wisely. Since fall, the members have been managed by former Interscope executives Christian Clancy and David Airaudi. Last month, Airaudi formed his own firm, Three Quarter, devoted to managing musicians’ intellectual property and publishing rights.
In Odd Future’s case, his central concern will be constructing the latticework of the group’s business model, which could include clothing lines, skateboards and multimedia crossovers. “Whether it’s XL, Interscope, Supreme, or even Apple, Sony or Google, we’re looking for the best partner on our content and creations,” Airaudi said.
No longer is the central concern selling recordings, he added. “A record label doesn’t necessarily have pole position. Creative control and freedom come first. Going forward, successful artists will be ones fully immersed in the intellectual property of their lifestyle.” Besides the XL pact, the duo of Mellowhype (Left Brain and Hodgy Beats) inked a similar one-off deal with Mississippi rock and blues label Fat Possum.
“I always wanted to sign to Interscope when I was a kid because it was the label of Dr. Dre and 50 Cent. I want a boat. I want a Grammy,” Tyler said. “But I’d never sign a deal without 100% creative control. You lose a lot when you sign with the major labels. I’d rather be broke than have to rap over the same chord progressions as everyone else.”
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