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Tyler the Creator "Yonkers"
Courtesy Photo

Songs That Defined the Decade: Tyler, the Creator's 'Yonkers'

“Remember, these kids were KIDS.”

Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.

It only took a week for people who didn’t already know about Odd Future to catch up. The roughly 10-person collective of Los Angeles skate rats who sent shockwaves with their controversial lyrics formed in 2007, but over seven days in February 2011, they became a household name -- or rather, a name to terrorize your household. 

During that stretch, Tyler, the Creator signed to tastemaking XL Recordings for a one-album deal, Odd Future sold out a raucous New York show at the now-defunct Santos Party House, and Tyler, the Creator and Hodgy Beats invaded living rooms across America while performing the song “Sandwitches” in ski masks on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. But the whole series of events began, most importantly, with a dark and twisted new song called “Yonkers” that Tyler dropped into an equally warped video that marked his breakthrough and left people wondering: Did he really eat that roach? 

Part of what led him on the path to that career-defining week started when songs from his 2009 mixtape, Bastard, made it to Christian Clancy, then the former head of marketing at Interscope and now Tyler’s longtime manager. “Hip-hop had gotten to a place where everything was the same,” Clancy says. “Every artist wore the same Nike Air Force 1s and had the same car and had the same Scarface poster in their f--king episode of Cribs... And you had this whole generation of kids, not like all of them, but a certain portion going, ‘F--k, I can’t really relate to that, and if I do that, it doesn’t feel natural.’” Tyler offered something different. 

Clancy went to the Interscope office of Dave Airaudi, who’d introduced him to Odd Future, and met with some of the OF members, whom he remembers as young, ambitious, focused and totally fearless. “They were completely different than anything that was happening, and they were super confident in that,” he says. Odd Future was always presented as a collective, but it was clear that Tyler was the leader. “He was always the loudest in the room, the most opinionated and strong-willed,” says Clancy. “He had a real, full-blown vision.” 

The first taste of Tyler’s 2011 solo debut LP, Goblin, was “Yonkers,” a song driven by Tyler’s menacing growl and a stabbing synthesized beat akin to a horror movie’s shrieking strings. Though opening line “I’m a f--king walking paradox -- no, I’m not” might be the one you could put on a T-shirt, the most memorable contain a now-infamous pop star takedown: “(What you think of Hayley Williams?)/ F--k her, Wolf Haley robbin' them/ I'll crash that f--kin’ airplane that that f---ot n---a B.o.B is in/ And stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus/ And won't stop until the cops come in.” 

“What did I think of the Bruno Mars line?” asks Clancy. “A bit aggressive. Not my cuppa tea. … But it wasn’t about [Bruno Mars], right? It was about music. And it actually, in context, makes a lot of sense.” In 2010, when Tyler wrote the song, B.o.B’s song “Airplanes” with Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams was everywhere, and Bruno Mars showed up three times on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 chart. 

To Tyler, the three artists were stand-ins for pop music in general, and everything that Odd Future was against. “He never meant it as aggressive personally,” says Clancy. “Remember, these kids were kids.”

When Tyler pitched Clancy his idea for the “Yonkers” video, Clancy decided to up the ante from Tyler’s usual DIY shoots and got in touch with famed music video director Anthony Mandler. Luis “Panch” Perez, a longtime cinematographer who came up under Hype Williams, was brought in to film. Perez didn’t know much about Odd Future when he got on a conference call with a 19-year-old Tyler who hurriedly walked the team through his idea for the video treatment. “He was like, ‘I wanna sit in the chair, I wanna eat a roach, I wanna puke, I wanna hang myself,’” recalls Perez. “I was taken aback and was like, ‘Finally, somebody gets it! It’s a music visual.’” 

Mandler suggested shooting in black and white, while Perez proposed using the tilt-shift lenses that cause the video to go in and out of focus, creating an eerie sense of instability. As for the roach, Perez won’t say on the record, but he does confirm that the shoot experience brought him back to life creatively. “I was actually having fun for the first time in a very long time,” Perez says. “[Tyler’s] energy, his enthusiasm, his ability to really create, he was so pure in the sense of creativity that it was so cool to watch, one, and two, it kinda just gave me that energy back again.”

A generation of fans rallied behind that energy. Tyler eventually abandoned the slurs and offensive language that plagued his early work, but not everyone was so quick to forget. His songs on Bastard and Goblin led to him being banned from playing in the U.K. for 3-5 years in 2015. “The U.K. thing was such a strange thing because he retroactively got banned for something he acknowledged and changed and stopped doing and then got banned,” Clancy says. “He almost got in trouble for growth.” 

The setbacks didn’t hinder him. Since turning heads with “Yonkers,” he’s become one of the most exciting artists of the decade, along with his fellow Odd Future cohorts like Syd Tha Kid, Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt. “I would argue that I don’t know who has changed style and culture more from a musical artist’s perspective over the last 10 years,” Clancy says of the crew. And as for Tyler, the energy of those early days is still buzzing and keeping fans faithful. “He’s a f--king fire ball of vision and confidence and all that stuff, so how do you not trust that?”

Songs That Defined The Decade

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