Between songs during Pharrell Williams’ jubilant, rhythm-happy set to cap the third annual Camp Flog Gnaw in downtown Los Angeles, the mega-producer and pop star paused to honor Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. The young L.A. hip-hop collective imagined and executed the daylong musical carnival at Exposition Park and delivered some of the day’s best sets.
Speaking to thousands from an outdoor stage, Williams said that in the early 2000s, he and his bandmates in the influential group N.E.R.D. faced institutional skeptics when introducing “In Search of ...,” its sublimely weird amalgam of rock, hip-hop and soul. “We were trying so hard to break a system,” he said, one that ignored a free-thinking population of hip-hop kids obsessed with skateboards and independence.
Calling out the network BET’s influence on hip-hop during that era, he explained, “They thought you looked a certain way and you fit in a box. We kept trying to tell them, ‘You don’t understand. One day, there’s going to be an odd future. They’ll be kids like us.’”
Odd Future is that odd future, and its members further confirmed that across two stages Saturday. Featuring rappers, DJs and singers including Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Taco, MellowHype, Mike D, the Internet and others, the collective stormed the hip-hop castle four years ago with an insistent, rebellious approach to the music.
Drawing eyes and ears through menacing tracks and a few fascinating back stories, the team released a string of free albums, YouTube clips and mixtapes brimming with rough ideas, delivered with playful defiance and an immediately recognizable visual aesthetic.
Odd Future has since become a self-sustaining creative force and merchandising machine with a thriving Web presence, a shop on Fairfax, an Adult Swim TV series and bigger projects on the horizon.
The third, and best, carnival drew thousands for a tightly run roster of Odd Future sets mixed with more by kindred spirits and collaborators Mac Miller, Rick Ross, Action Bronson, Vince Staples and others. Also part of the event: a flock of whirling carnival rides, games including Whac-a-Mole, surprise appearances by Diplo and SchoolboyQ and a raffle that awarded an Odd Future-redesigned 1990 BMW to an 18-year-old kid. (Conspicuously absent was superstar Odd Future member Frank Ocean.)
The collective sent audible waves of joy through the crowd with a surprise reunion during Pharrell’s set of the aforementioned N.E.R.D., the Virginia Beach, Va.-born group also featuring Chad Hugo and Shay Haley.
Throughout the afternoon and night, rhymes bounced like so many beach balls, mixed amid hundreds of inventive cusses and witticisms. During “Easy Rider,” the big-bearded Bronson described an LSD vision-quest occurring over “10 days straight up in the mountains/ Started running with the stallions.”
Upstart indie-rap hero Miller rapped confidently to his devoted base, who chanted the lyrics to “Onaroll” from memory: “Got a mill at the age of 19 but I may just give that back/ To show my friends I could do it again if I started from scratch.”
South Florida outlier Ross seemed beamed in from another planet, a bearded Miami don who pitched his Maybach Music line to a crowd less interested in his brand of bling — but certainly down with in his sturdy, no-nonsense boasts on classic jams “Hustlin’,” “The Devil Is a Lie” and “Hold Me Back.”
The rising Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, long an Odd Future affiliate, appeared alongside Earl to tag-team through verses. In Staples’ new track “Blue Suede,” he rapped of new shoes before turning dark: “Blue suede, blue suede, young graves get the bouquets.” He repeated the last word while a spacious, static-heavy rhythm buzzed. “I hope I outlive them red roses.”
Sweatshirt, 20, has grown increasingly comfortable onstage. No longer intimidated by his devoted base, he ran through a mix of recent and older tracks (meaning, from way back when he was 17). He peaked when teaming with the Jagger to his Richards, Tyler, the Creator, for their “Earlwolf” track “Orange Juice.”
A sinuous, overwhelming presence, Odd Future’s mastermind Tyler performed on a stage fitted to look like an oversized bedroom. A jumbo bed was blanketed with a red, white and blue American flag pattern; when Tyler sat on it or on the big green chair to the side he looked like a 3-year-old.
But on the microphone, Tyler, 23, was anything but, even if some of his lesser ballads dragged. In a notably raw and honest interlude that was part pep talk and part sermon, he professed his love for Odd Future’s fan base: “I love you guys so hard, you weirdos.”
Tyler pointed up at a billboard overhead, which featured a huge picture of his mug looking coyly at the sky. Using an unprintable cuss, he declared, “That’s called, trust in your ... ideas.” He urged them: “Trust your ideas.”
Headliner Williams then arrived to rip through a selection of hits he’s produced or performed on from throughout his career, including “Get Lucky,” “Hot in Herre,” “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” “Hollaback Girl” and a soon-to-be released new Gwen Stefani track and, with Tyler, the Creator’s help, “Mr. Me Too,” the buoyant hit by the Clipse.
Midway through, after praising Odd Future’s vision, Williams called out N.E.R.D., the genre-defying rap-rock-R&B trio that helped spawn Odd Future. Through a sprint of tracks from “In Search of ...” and more — “Lapdance,” “Truth or Dare,” “Rockstar,” “Run to the Sun” — the three members of N.E.R.D., backed by a full band and some remarkably nimble dancers, offered throwback glory that sounded fresh.
It was a lot to take in, and so deep was the talent and inspiration that it shined wherever you looked. It was in the kids wearing now iconic “Tron Cat” Odd Future T-shirts, the same hollow-eyed cat image projected onto the side of the Sports Arena and in the hub of the Ferris wheel. It was on fans’ funny Odd Future socks, free pea-green backpacks, “Golf Wang” caps and old-school “Free Earl” tees.
It was in everywhere at Flog Gnaw, a truth that Pharrell noted from the stage. Praising the collective for its general weirdness, he celebrated the notion of “putting a carnival together so that you guys can come here and be free and be different.”
He certainly had a point — despite the volume of identical “Tron Cat” merch permeating the crowd.