By Franc Sayol
“ We've always been an outcast, and that's kinda cool cause it's what's gonna make us big in the future ”.
This quote from Tyler, The Creator, leader and ideologist of Odd Future (full name: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), perfectly sums up the essence of a gang of friends who, in a few months, have gone from hanging out at the skate parks in South Los Angeles to turning the music industry upside down. From roaming the streets to millions of YouTube views, from reading The Fader to appearing in mainstream media like The New Yorker, Thrasher, Spin and Billboard, from home videos to offering already mythical performances on television shows like Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. A group of youngsters who, without asking for anyone’s help and without any label’s support, have placed themselves in the eye of the music media hurricane, generating many opposing reactions among the public and gaining the attention of the specialist music press, Pitchfork at the front, who have received them with open arms. They make rap, but their subversive spirit and their impact on the youth make sure that they are compared to Sex Pistols and Nirvana rather than N.W.A and Wu-Tang Clan. It’s still unclear whether we’re dealing with the start of a new transformation of processes in pop culture, or if Odd Future will be a one-off. But it’s obvious that today, right at this moment, they are one of the music acts with the biggest potential impact of the past few years and, at the same time, a clear paradigm of how fast things are going in the new online order. But what do this group of angry post-adolescents have that’s made them rise so fast?
At first, Odd Future was nothing more than the name of one of the countless skate gangs on Fairfax Avenue, the L.A. streetware Mecca. A group of youngsters who, apart from filming themselves doing kick flips , smoking weed and wandering around looking for fun, were amateur musicians and rappers. And they had an idea: before the records, there was “The Odd Future Magazine”, a magazine initiated by Tyler –who was 16 at the time– in which they interviewed skaters and musicians they admired, like James Pants. The magazine was never released because it was too expensive to do it the way they wanted to, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the pick up the idea again in the near future. Then they started to upload music and design work to MySpace and later to their famous Tumblr. site, where they’ve uploaded everything they’ve recorded so far to download for free. The rest is history. So far, this is a tale of online music success similar to others before them. The difference is that, apart from using the Internet as a stepping stone to get to the “official” circuits, Odd Future have absolutely no intention of joining “the game”. They want to get to the Presidential Suite, of course, but they’re not willing to take the guests elevator. They prefer to climb the façade. And all that, in order to keep being what they were at the start: a group of friends who are up for anything. Born in the nineties and bred in the information age (the youngest, Earl, is 17 years old, “veteran” Frank Ocean is 23), they have been working as a collective since 2007, and today, there’s eleven of them: producers, rappers, singers, composers, illustrators, DJs, skaters, photographers and film makers. Tyler, the leader of the pack, is all of that at once. Hodgy Beats, Domo Genesis and Mike G just rap. LeftBrain produces and raps occasionally. Syd is the live DJ and the studio engineer, Frank Ocean has been in the industry for years, signed as he used to be to Def Jam and writing songs for Brandy and Justin Bieber. The enigma is Earl Sweatshirt, the youngest and best rapper of the group, apparently sent to a school for problematic kids in Samoa by his mother to keep him away from his wild friends. Jasper Dolphin and Taco Bennett are two lesser known figures, but equally part of the collective. The first is an expert skater with the air of a comedian; the latter a scraggy film student who is responsible for many of the photos and video related to the clan, the Golf Wang blog graphically documents the gang’s adventures with photos made by him and Tyler. The combo is completed by producer Matt Martians, member of the Super 3 production crew.
Although most of them come from broken homes, Odd Future has little to do with class conflicts. Syd, for example, has said that the studio where they record their music is based at the home of her “upper-middle class parents”. But having grown up without authority figures or behavioural beacons (Hodgy Beats told New York Times that almost all of them are bastard children) has no doubt had a deep impact both on their music and their actions. And, most of all, OF are a slap in the face of the establishment of white America. For years, they were the troublemakers nobody took seriously, the kids who didn’t count. Now, they have transformed their rage in a concept that clashes frontally with the mentality of a big part of the American establishment. They’re not Satan-worshippers, they don’t rape girls, they’re not drinking purple drank or snorting coke all day. They just feel like being annoying. And, as the smart kids that they are, they know very well how to do that. Apart from the names appearing in their songs, their rage is directed at a certain way of understanding life. Their war is against hypocrisy, keeping up appearances, authority, prejudice, clichés and narrow-mindedness in general. But, beyond their social repercussion, their real battle is music. And they’re winning.
Their sound is born from a musical education that has less to do with the traditional formats than with infinite YouTube archives. It’s no wonder, therefore, that, parting from more or less traditional hip-hop references –like for example early Eminem or The Neptunes–, OF have managed to create a sonic amalgamation that incorporates elements from all over the place, from which emerges a kind of dark and cosmic jazz that serves as the backing track for their sulphuric flows. And that’s where the debate starts. A big part of the attention on Odd Future is for the songs about rape, blood, obsessive characters and drug abuse. It’s not like they are new themes in hip-hop, but the rawness with which the tales are told is shocking. You could argue that it’s a way of getting attention quickly or that it’s simply provocation, but it all comes from a straightforward vision on the world and an almost sickly will to remain faithful to their instincts. Whichever way, it’s beyond any doubt that they have managed to find a way to make hip-hop that rebels against the eternal commonplaces of the genre, against the boredom of 40-year old rappers going in about Gucci and against any canonical mentality.
There have been twelve albums and three compilations in eighteen months, all of them good or better. Apart from their mixtapes, on which they rap over a variety of known beats, their efforts are entirely built and produced by themselves, almost without samples and of a level that is as high as any “official” release. From the dark jazz of “Bastard” (Tyler, The Creator) to the smokers fantasies of “Rolling Papers” (Domo Genesis), from the rawness of “Earl” (Earl Sweatshirt) to the softness of “Nostalgia, Ultra” (Frank Ocean), from the Detroit pads of “Ali” (Mike G) to the psychedelic touch of MellowHype, we’re dealing with a collection of works influenced by a surprisingly wide range of nuances and sounds, of unusually high quality for self-produced mixtapes by youngsters, which at the same time establishes new paradigms for the rap of the next decade. And it was all recorded at Syd’s parents’ place, with her being the DJ and engineer on almost all of the records. She’s the only girl and she’s a lesbian, but she assures she has no problem whatsoever with the themes of some of the songs. And, as Tyler never ceases to repeat, we’re dealing with fiction here. With dark fantasies, that need to get out. Because the only way to understand their music is to recognise that it’s made from the heart.
Furthermore, it’s not all violence and misogyny with OF. Not at all. HodgyBeats makes songs about girls, Domo Genesis raps almost exclusively about weed, Frank Ocean is a silky R’n’B singer and Mike G is a classic reflexive MC. It’s not all rap with Odd Future, either. Apart from aforementioned Ocean, the collective has released two cosmic and experimental funk albums by The Jet Age Of Tomorrow, with Martian electro-funk, galactic lounge and almost ambient digressions. A broadening of horizons, that shows a will to cover fields much wider than the breadth of hip-hop.
To accompany their astonishing musical production, the collective has managed to create a powerful visual identity, full of Satanic references, perverted family photos and harsh pictures of children. All that, with a cracked version of Photoshop: the digital era’s DIY. Likewise, they’ve recorded videos like “Earl” and “French”, in which drug abuse, violence and vandalism replace the usual hot girls, cars and watches. A special mention for the videos of “VCR” and “Yonkers”, where Tyler uses his talent for dark fantasies about rape and suicidal tendencies in a couple of high quality videos that show that, when he says he wants to be a video director, he’s not just saying it. Equally impressive are his live shows, brutally cathartic, with energy running wild and the audience moshing rather then nodding their heads to the beat.
This groundbreaking music, the equally defiant and phlegmatic attitude, iconographic visual identity and ton of charisma is what’s taken them, in little more than a year, from nothing to the top. Of course, as almost everything these days, the concept of the top is extremely relative. Yes, they appeared on big magazine covers and every self-respecting media channel ( The Guardian and NY Times for example) has dedicated many an article to them, but they’re still far from being mainstream. And they probably never will be if they don’t change their subject matter and performance (which is, the way things are now, highly unlikely). But Odd Future have undoubtedly managed to establish contact with a young audience in a way nobody has done since the appearance of Eminem. Thousands of young children of the cybernetic age, most of them white (and many of them unfamiliar with hip-hop), have found in the music and permanent provocation of these kids a way to canalise all the alienation and disorientation a big part of western urban society exists amongst. Sitting in their rooms in front of a computer screen, they see how a gang of troublemakers not so different from themselves, are conquering the world on their own terms and without thinking for a second about what people might say or think. And, of course, they want to be part of that. That’s why they create forums in the boy band tradition, why they end every phrase with the word “swag” and why they shout “Free Earl” without even knowing him. Whether this phenomenon is a the result of hype or if it’s genuine identification remains to be seen, but images like those of their recent gig at the London Camden Crawl, where a wild bunch of white post-adolescents took the stage shouting “Wolf Gang” have been unseen in contemporary pop culture for some time.
But what’s next? The group themselves admits they’re living in a permanent dichotomy between what they want and what they don’t want to be. They want the Grammys, no doubt, but they don’t want to change anything in their art to achieve it. They want desirable stuff, but not at any price. It’s a permanent conflict that shows we’re dealing with a group of people trying to find new ways. People who blindly rely on their talents and don’t want anyone or anything to get in the way of developing them. That’s why they created Odd Future Records, a label to be distributed by RED (a division of Sony) but which will guarantee them total freedom and ownership of their work on every level, which is why they don’t do collaborations and don’t release their instrumentals. They do it their way and, for now, they’re doing rather well. They are aware of the fact that, if anything is going to make them big, it will, paradoxically, be remaining true to their marginal nature. In short, they’re voluntarily exiled, looking for new territories to conquer.
To be continued…
----------------------- Odd Future will be playing at San Miguel Primavera Sound 2011 on Saturday 28th May. San Miguel Primavera Sound 2011 takes place on 25 and 29 May at Poble Español, and from 26 to 28 May at Parc del Forum in Barcelona. Tickets are on sale here.
PlayGround is a media partner of Primavera Sound We’re entering the harsh universe of Odd Future, the Los Angeles collective that is shaking the grounds of youth culture with a savage cocktail of hip-hop, dark lyrics, online activism and hard drug consumption. Today is part one, more tomorrow.