Odd Future: The Billboard Cover Story

Odd Future: The Billboard Cover Story

Part social media carousel. Part hip-hop skate crew. Part weird (offensive?) creative conglomerate -- They post relentlessly to Tumblr, get tweeted about by Kanye, and with no single, perform on "Fallon." Is this the ODD FUTURE of the music biz?

Tyler, a skinny 19-year-old with a booming voice and a slightly gapped overbite, sits cross-legged on an unmade bed sheet in a Philadelphia hotel room. Over a tray of cinnamon sticks and a half-closed MacBook he gushes about his dreams (winning a Grammy Award) and heroes (Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes).

For hours Tyler remains tethered to one spot on the bed, yet he seems to be moving constantly. His imagination travels as he pretends to be a secret agent, or that the room's furniture is slowly coming to life. He shows off a sketchbook filled with his brightly colored marker drawings of doughnuts and cats, ideas for clothing designs and chicken-scratch poetry. Flipping to a portrait of a seemingly jolly, fat-faced man he pauses.

"That's a serial killer," he says. "That's Tom, he's crazy. He looks nice, but that's how they usually are."

Tyler himself is proof that first impressions are unreliable. The bright-eyed and buzzing teen is also rap's most buzzed-about new star -- and quite possibly an emerging threat to both decency-minded parent groups and the major-label infrastructure.

Known to fans as Tyler, the Creator (the superfluous comma is intentional), he's the founder of and de facto spokesman for Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, a Los Angeles-based collective of rappers, producers, skateboarders, filmmakers, designers and general miscreants, all in their late teens and early 20s. The 11 members on the recording side specialize in splattering today's adolescent experience onto tape. With that comes rebelliousness, profanity, intense insecurity, dense sarcasm, bizarre non sequiturs and a heartfelt honesty.

Earlier that night in Philadelphia, at a sweatbox known as the Barbary, Odd Future performed to a crowd of 300 kids. There was a full-scale punk energy level on both ends, complete with stage dives and fans screaming their lyrics -- "Fuck the fame and all the hype, G/I just want to know if my father would ever like me" -- and vulgar catchphrases -- "Kill people! Burn shit! Fuck school!" -- by heart. Many were wearing homemade OFWGKTA shirts.

When Tyler released his self-produced debut album, "Bastard," on his website in late 2009, it was mostly downloaded by friends and users of the message board of popular street fashion blog Hypebeast. Tyler reached out to a few of the bigger hip-hop blogs to post the tape and received little to no response. But after about six months, Odd Future awareness began to snowball, thanks to more free albums and a couple of unforgettably masochistic music videos for Tyler's "French," and then-16-year-old Earl Sweatshirt's drug binge fantasy "Earl." By the summer of 2010, Tumblr posts and Twitter retweets begot attention from media outlets like Pitchfork and the Fader. Public co-signs from Kanye West and Soulja Boy followed.

On Feb. 16, Tyler and Odd Future MC Hodgy Beats performed "Sandwitches" on NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." Odd Future's then-pro bono publicist had sent the videos to the show's booker in the fall and they eventually found their way to Fallon himself. Backed by "Fallon" house band the Roots, the performance featured ski masks, a lawn gnome and a girl dressed as a zombie. They ran around screaming at guests and jumping on couches. They even jumped, literally, on Fallon's back.

A pair of iTunes singles, "Yonkers" and "Sandwitches," were made available just days before the "Fallon" appearance, and are the only pieces of music available from the camp at retail. The songs (credited to Tyler, the Creator) have sold 12,000 and 6,000 units, respectively.

Yet sales seem beside the point. OddFuture.com offers no less than 11 full-lengths for free download -- all self-produced. This model isn't particularly uncommon, especially in hip-hop where artists have been churning out semi-official mixtapes since forever, but Odd Future approaches it with an eye for detail that competes with major-label releases -- complete with tightly penned raps, sonic cohesion and thoughtfully executed conceptual arcs. This degree of refinement is impressive enough on its own, but even more so when you realize that it was effectively made in a vacuum by a bunch of hyperactive teenagers. They've built a self-contained world and diving into it is a lot like looking at Tyler's sketchbook. The coloring goes outside the lines, but the raw ideas are obvious.

Their visual sensibility is equally arresting. Tyler handles most of the crew's imagery himself, directing videos and designing artwork and fliers. He brings with him a built-in iconography, mostly tied to deviance, indulgence or childhood -- upside-down crosses, yearbook photos and human oddities. The resulting blend often looks more like something from an '80s punk or industrial demo. The videos have their roots in skate videos and youth-gone-wild, nonmalicious public spectacle shows like "Jackass."

"Yonkers," the black-and-white clip from his forthcoming commercial debut, "Goblin," shows Tyler intimately fondling a cockroach for about a minute -- before he swallows it. Then he vomits everywhere, and eventually hangs himself. In less than a month the clip has amassed nearly 2.5 million YouTube views, thanks in some part to Kanye West recently declaring on Twitter that it was "the video of 2011."


Tyler, The Creator's video for "Yonkers." (contains explicit language)

The song itself is a decidedly uncommercial effort. It lacks a chorus entirely, but Tyler hard-pronounces every curse word (and there are many) and offers Eminem-esque threats of violence against Haley Williams, Bruno Mars and B.o.B. In fact, early Eminem is the largest precedent for Tyler's sense of humor, which occupies a space where casual homophobia, murderous tendencies and misogyny aren't taboo. Many critics read this as an attempt to purposefully shock, but mostly that shock can be attributed to a generational divide drawn along humor lines.

The Odd Future Crew
From "Black Sabbath rap" to a Chris Martin/the-Dream-inspired singer/ songwriter: the (far from entire) Odd Future crew...

Domo Genesis
The proud pothead rapper. As such, his "Rolling Papers" LP finds him kicking a slow and deliberate flow. His voice oozes comfortably into the lo-fi, syrupy production of Odd Future mates Tyler, the Creator and Left Brain.

Earl Sweatshirt
Odd Future's youngest rapper, Earl, 17, might be the most technically deft lyricist. He's also gone. Just before the world began to take notice, Earl's mom enrolled him in a boarding school, cutting off all communication with the crew. The group's "Free Earl" campaign has grown to mythical proportions among fans.

Frank Ocean
Singer/songwriter who finds a hazy and psychedelic midpoint between the-Dream and Coldplay's Chris Martin. Born in New Orleans, Ocean moved to Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina and jumped headfirst into the major-label system, landing a few songwriting credits and eventually a deal with Island Def Jam under the name Lonny Breaux. While that project sat in purgatory, he met Odd Future founder Tyler and was introduced to the world of DIY. Now his self-released free album, "Nostalgia, Ultra," has received rave reviews from critics and (through Twitter) such names as Sean "Diddy" Combs and Lupe Fiasco.

Hodgy Beats
The rapping half of duo MellowHype, Hodgy is a tongue-twisting lyricist who owes much of his style to traditionalist underground hip-hop but never sacrifices the youthful energy of today's more popular rap. Hodgy is Odd Future's most productive rapper, with two MellowHype full-lengths and one solo project under his belt.

Left Brain
MellowHype's production arm. A hulking, mysterious presence at shows, Left Brain's behind-the-boards style is ever-evolving from traditionalist boom bap to Waka Flocka Flame-inspired post-crunk. Manager Christian Clancy describes the forthcoming MellowHype material as "Black Sabbath rap."

Matt Martian
The brainchild behind production crew Jet Age of Tomorrow. Its recent "Journey to the 5th Echelon" is a far cry from much of Odd Future's output, leaning toward alternative space funk in the vein of the Neptunes' N*E*R*D project.

Mike G
He just might be Odd Future's secret weapon. His quietly released debut, "Ali," is a collection of artfully penned, whimsical narratives that would make Slick Rick proud. Currently prepping follow-up "Gold."

Syd the Kid
Serving as the in-house engineer, producer and tour DJ, Syd's home studio is ground zero for most Odd Future projects. Soft-spoken and sweet, Syd gives off a positive, hippie-ish vibe that contradicts the chaos of her male counterparts. She's also openly gay and a blossoming icon for hip-hop's Tumblr generation. "It's weird," Syd says. "The only reason people even know is because [I got too comfortable on] Twitter. But it's kind of cool that I inspire people."

Taco & Jasper
Odd Future's comic relief. Neither can be considered a serious rapper or artist - how little they do has become a running joke within the collective - but their Internet antics and occasional scene-stealing, offbeat rhymes on tracks like Tyler's "Tina" have turned them into minor celebrities in their own right.

Tyler, the Creator
The founder of Odd Future, which was first formed as a self-published magazine that seems to have only existed in his mind. Though his "Goblin" album will be the first commercial full-length from the crew, and Tyler pegged as its breakout star, he remains a tireless advocate for his peers: "Obviously they have talent if I'm fucking with them," he says.

The rise of Odd Future has been accompanied by several think pieces that attempt to link the group to the schlocky horrorcore trend of the '90s or frame the act's humor as an overarching personal worldview. A writer on TheHairpin.com noted that "Tyler's misogynistic and at times rapey personal is probably influencing younger, dumber kids who may not know that it's all an act." A Village Voice blog post concluded: "Odd Future's lyrics are offensive to moral people however you slice it."

"People just choose to be offended by stuff. If they are, then that sucks and I'm sorry, but they don't have to keep listening," says Syd the Kid, 18, the group's in-house sound engineer and only female member. "Words are words. They don't act out what they say, they just say it."

Apart from Tyler and Earl, the rest of the camp tends to be less "offensive," anyway. Domo Genesis primarily raps playfully about smoking weed, while Mike G tells fantastical heist tales. On MellowHype's "Polyurethane," Hodgy even takes a critical look at gang violence. Odd Future transcends genre borders, too, with Jet Age of Tomorrow and Frank Ocean churning out instrumental funk and emotional singer/songwriter projects, respectively.

Perhaps that's why, right before the end of 2010, major labels came calling for OFWGKTA. But Tyler is bringing "Goblin" to XL instead. It's a one-album deal, set for release in April, and Tyler maintains complete creative control. "The best thing we can do," XL senior A&R manager Caius Pawson says, "is let them do what they do. We just help turn their vision into a full campaign."

Hodgy, and producer Left Brain, known collectively as MellowHype, just signed a similar deal with Mississippi-based indie Fat Possum for the remaster and physical release of their previously Internet-only sophomore LP, "Blackendwhite," this summer. "There's a lot of people that would be interested in this that haven't even heard of it yet," Fat Possum co-founder/president Matthew Johnson says. "This record is fucking great, and we're going to make [the release] special. It's going to have great packaging and get what the artist wanted out there."

Odd Future co-manager Christian Clancy echoes that sentiment. "The new business model is to find authentic artists and let them be themselves," he says (see story, right). "They need help to navigate, put things together, have the right meetings, but as far as the art goes? I'd want to punch somebody who wants to get involved in their art."

Calling this an entirely new model is a bit of an exaggeration, but in recent years, despite hip-hop's rich independent legacy, rap crews of autonomous esteem -- Gucci Mane's Brick Squad or Wiz Khalifa's Taylor Gang, for instance -- made beelines for major deals. Even the most iconic youth-music movements of past generations were often guided and groomed by an older industry veteran in their early stages. N.W.A had Jerry Heller. The Sex Pistols had Malcolm McLaren. Odd Future was a fully formed and self-sustained entity before anyone in the music industry had even heard of it. The large-scale collective autonomy sets it apart.

The members cast a wide multimedia net, too -- Clancy's partner, David Airaudi, talks not of deals and albums but of partnerships and content. "These are not traditional record-making guys. Music is the core of what they do but they have ambitions beyond music," he says. "There are so many creative outlets for the guys that the idea is to be able to maximize the totality of the brand that is Odd Future."

The managers are in a unique position to buck major-label trends. Clancy is an industry veteran who recently left his position as head of urban marketing at Interscope, while Airaudi remains strategy executive there.

These affiliations have raised eyebrows about the crew's self-sufficiency, but the management seems firm in its indie stance. "They built it," Clancy says. "And they need to own it."

The Odd Future collective is filled with obsessive self-documenters, and part of its rise is about being able to see childhood fantasies turn into reality in real time. For months Tyler tweeted about his Justin Bieber fandom, how he just wanted the star to acknowledge him.

Then, on Feb. 25, Tyler posted a Twitpic of he and Bieber hanging out offset at a Manhattan Beach, Calif., soundstage. In the pre-buzz days, the Odd Future crew would post homemade comedy skits on their Tumblr and mention dreams of one day turning them into a show for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming. Now they're producing a pilot for the network, which management describes as a mixture of "Jackass" and "Chappelle's Show."



SEEMS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT

While business churns behind them, and the press buzzes to translate the crew, the Odd Future youth fan base still seems largely sustained by DIY and word-of-mouth networks. A glance at the YouTube views for "Yonkers" shows the vast majority of traffic coming from social networks like Facebook and Twitter, not the so-called tastemaker sites that posted it. Most Odd Future members maintain running Q&A sessions on Tumblr and Formspring accounts.

They offer seemingly honest -- if brief -- answers to fan queries regarding everything from production tips to half-joking sexual propositions. These sites aren't necessarily publicized; some are even maintained under semi-anonymous aliases (on Formspring Tyler goes by his alter-ego "WolfHaley") but the fans, now coming from around the world, always seem to find them, and the interactions often spill into the real world.

"Talking to fans [is] easy when your fan base is the size of ours," Syd says. "When it comes to the die-hards, we do know them. You answer questions [online] just to get the story straight, and during that you end up building a relationship."

Some speculate that Odd Future will do to the polished hip-pop of Drake and B.o.B what Nirvana did to hair metal. The charisma, intelligence and sheer destructive impulse are definitely similar, spearheaded by hyper-creative music nerds who play the rebel role artfully. The members of Odd Future have of course yet to produce a "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and it's unclear if that's even their goal. Today's media is perhaps too fragmented to even support such a big bang movement. Instead, Odd Future moves horizontally through word-of-mouth.

This is how its age group consumes music. Thousands of teens record from home and release it to the Web. Millions more find it and share it. No middlemen, except social networking sites and chat windows. But there's a disconnect between this network and the outlets that still rule the airwaves. How does an Internet star get into radio or MTV rotation? Do they need to? Odd Future peers like Bieber and Soulja Boy quickly jumped from YouTube fame into major-label situations, but Tyler and crew are consciously trying to raise the ceiling on that model. If successful, they could be paving the way for an entire generation of musical independence.

Of course, Internet fame is notoriously fickle when translated into the real world. Odd Future has sold out every show it has put on, but they've all been small venues in large markets. It's still hard to say what percentage of the 2.5 million people who have watched the "Yonkers" clip were simply rubbernecking on the shock and buzz highway. It's also hard to expect roach-eating to connect across demographics. But the numbers will speak when "Goblin" drops.

"I could be a complete failure come June," Tyler says. " 'Goblin' could brick. Everyone could hate it. The hype could be over. I could be back to trying to fill out junior college [applications]." Then he snaps back into dreamer mode. "But I don't see that happening. I see Grammys."


This piece's writer, Andrew Nosnitsky (@noz on Twitter), contributes to NPR and the Washington Post.