An Odd Future Retrospective: Inside Rap’s Wrecking Crew

BEFORE the roach eating and mosh pit riots, the MTV Awards and million-dollar sock line, the Adult Swim show and the resurrection of Easter-egg coloured clothing, the boycotts and international bans, there was only Syd Tha Kyd’s studio. Give or take a few gallons of Arizona Iced Tea.

If you stumbled into that drab guesthouse – just off the northern slab of Crenshaw – in the late winter of 2010, you’d have been surprised by what you discovered. At least if you believed the media hysteria that conjured hallucinations of Tyler, The Creator scarfing bacon doughnuts while sitting on a throne of pink skulls, clutching a semi-automatic with a painted cat on it, thundering malicious commands at an Odd Future Manson family who rapped the mantra, “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school”. None of this was true, except for the bacon doughnuts. Those were real and they were spectacular.

Inside The Nerve Centre

I FIRST arrived at the studio about two weeks after their canonised first show in New York, which inspired a New York Times coronation and so much blog adulation that Tumblr doubled as an Odd Future teen fanzine (WIN A DATE WITH JASPER DOLPHIN, 10 SECRETS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT MIKE G).

The hype machine heralded Odd Future as the swag generation mutation of The Sex Pistols, Wu-Tang, and Nirvana. Earl Sweatshirt was stranded in Samoa, but rampant speculation theorized that he might be in jail or worse. As for Frank Ocean, he was then known to the crew as Lonnie, but to the wider world he remained anonymous, an ignored line item on the Def Jam budget.

If mystery fuelled the legend, Syd’s studio offered a more mundane truth. For the two years prior, this had been the crew’s nerve centre, a harbour for misfits. Odd Future began as a one-off print magazine that Tyler made in high school, featuring photos, art, and interviews with skaters and musicians that he admired. But it soon became an experimental hip-hop collective when Tyler enlisted fellow skaters Left Brain and Hodgy Beats, who formed the core trinity of the Odd Future Vol. 1 tape that dropped a decade ago.

At first, they recorded in a dingy studio deep in South Central, but when they linked with Syd, her studio became the official Odd Future headquarters. It was their dungeon, their Booga Basement, a refuge to escape their chaotic home lives, a place to obsess over music, and conspire to make Steve Harvey regret rocking those inane Frankenstein suits.

They were subversive adolescents, optimistic about a future of seemingly infinite possibility, anxious about unseen forces that could drive a wedge between them, and subconsciously aware that the Edenic stage where they could experiment without intense scrutiny was hurtling to a close.

It always starts in the little room. This one was up a narrow wooden stairwell, past a messy common area adorned with a John Coltrane poster and a TV that appeared to have never been turned on. Books, videos and cassette tapes were scattered everywhere. One wall was painted lavender and another was chartreuse. A drum kit idled next to a few guitars. A stolen “No Stopping” sign slouched in a corner.

I was greeted by a grunt from Left Brain, who lovingly petted a brand new stray kitten that he’d recently adopted. In the backyard, Tyler leapt on his new trampoline with the gleeful euphoria of a rising star who knew he’d never have to go back to working at the Ladera Heights Starbucks.

Mike G and Syd were shy and affable. Domo Genesis was cherubic and grateful, having recently dropped out of Arizona State University after hearing his entire dorm playing his debut, Rolling Papers. Hodgy Beats would’ve been voted most likely to punch someone for accidentally touching his Supreme hat, but was actually kind and respectful, ecstatic about the prospect of impending fatherhood.

The barbarians at the gate didn’t want to pillage or loot, they wanted to build pop-up shops, skate, and eat Roscoe’s. No weed, alcohol, or vices were within sight. Music exerted a monomaniacal force. In this cramped space they’d already recorded a half-dozen mixtapes and albums with nothing more than an old desktop computer, two tiny but powerful speakers, and a psychedelic curtain that looked like it had been stolen from a head shop in Marin County. Someone had spray painted the words, “Syd Got Bitches”.

[Frank Ocean] was then known to the crew as Lonnie, but to the wider world he remained anonymous, an ignored line item in the Def Jam budget.

This was where they recorded Tyler’s initial breakout album, 2009’s Bastard. Earlier that year, then-15-year-old Earl Sweatshirt joined Odd Future. At first, he’d been a skater wary of telling his new friends about the MF Doom and Eminem-inspired raps that he’d been writing under the name Sly. But Tyler knew and when he finally brought Earl up to the studio he was so nervous that he asked everyone but Syd to leave the room while he recorded.

Syd’s studio was also where Vince Staples cut some of his first tracks. The Long Beach native never was an official member of the group, but his brilliant and anti-social verse on Earl’s ‘epaR’ introduced him as a formidable entity in his own right.

Shortly before my visit, Tyler and Hodgy recorded ‘Sandwitches’, the song from that first wave that best crystallised their appeal to suburban teenagers hexed by acne and angst. They had the organisational structure of Wu-Tang and the caustic anti-authority, salt-the-soil attitude of N.W.A. and Eminem. Tyler even adopted a Wolf Haley alias as tacit homage to Slim Shady.

Within the first two minutes of ‘Sandwitches’, Tyler calls himself the new “Mr. I Don’t Give a Fuck” and brands himself a rebel ashing blunts (even though he didn’t even smoke). He lionised Jeffrey Dahmer, made vulgar comments about Ellen DeGeneres’ sexuality, and threatened to punch a pregnant woman. Tyler’s beat re-imagined what The Neptunes would sound like during a nervous breakdown. The cover art features a Kodachrome still of vintage Lesbian porn. There is a swimming pool. It’s like David Hockney on dust.

The New Wrecking Crew

THERE are few constants in the music industry, but it’s always safe to bet on the commercial fortunes of a group that terrifies Middle American parents. Tyler’s post-modern anarchy was a perfect hemlock cocktail for that the moment. If 2010 rap was drowning in EDM Red Bull and vodka rap and milquetoast pop-crossover artists like Drake and B.o.B., Odd Future existed as a reminder that if it ain’t raw, it’s worthless.

The jokes weren’t very funny to anyone outside of homeroom, but as a marketing plan, it was commercial magic. The branding genius and exaggerated rebellion was compounded by the live shows, at which a manic Tyler would stage dive eight feet into raging infernos of fans, a flying crossbow of elbows, elongated limbs, and a Zebra shirt.

It conjured the bug-eyed fervour usually reserved for conjugal visits, monster-truck rallies, or 1977 punk shows. They weren’t the first rappers to stage dive, but they introduced a hardcore energy to their generation – a distinct strain of recklessness slightly to the left of equally rowdy peers like Waka Flocka.

If ‘Sandwitches’, Earl’s debut, Rolling Papers and the Halloween release of MellowHype’s BlackenedWhite operated as cavalry raids, ‘Yonkers’ operated as the hydrogen bomb – a nuclear detonation that divided their careers into before and after. In the months after the roach-eating, noose-tightening video became iconic, Tyler tried to downplay it as a self-conscious parody of New York rap. He claimed to have made the beat in eight minutes, and later professed to hate what remains his most popular song (91 million YouTube views and counting).

But on that night in Syd’s studio, he insisted on playing ‘Yonkers’.

“I just came from New York and I didn’t even go to Yonkers but it just made me want to make something that sounded like it,” Tyler said, alluding to the Five Boroughs-adjacent city that spawned DMX and The Lox.

When Tyler pressed play on that sinister and claustrophobic beat, the packed room went silent and everyone bobbed their head, knowing that what they had was rare. After it ended, Tyler flashed that gap-toothed lupine grin, taking full pride of ownership, video treatment already fully formed in the recesses of his brain, aware that he was about to get everything he wanted.

 

You probably know what happened after ‘Yonkers’. The week after its release, Tyler and Hodgy appeared on Jimmy Fallon, aided by a ski mask, a smoke machine, cadaverous girls dressed as escaped mental patients, and The Roots. At the end of the performance, Tyler pounced on the late-night host and Mos Def marauded the camera screaming “Swag”. All analogies feel forced, but it was the closest thing ’90s babies would get to The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, The Sex Pistols on Top of the Pops, or Nirvana at the 1992 VMAs. A generational shift had occurred, opening up creative avenues that had temporarily been occluded, and re-introducing sonic and artistic inspirations like Dr. Seuss, Thrasher, and Salvador Dali.

It’s hyperbolic to claim that Odd Future became the most influential artists of their generation, but it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. You can easily make the case for Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, Lil B, Drake, or Kendrick Lamar. But Odd Future completely ransacked the blueprint and turned it tie-die. They realised the goal that Tyler once stated on his now defunct Formspring: “To Make Great Music, And Be The Leader For The Kids Who Were Picked On And Called Weird. And To Show The World That Being Yourself And Doing What You Want Without Caring What Other People Think Is The Key To Being Happy.”

Before Odd Future, 2000s rap crews had largely been collections of solo artists that came together for cross-promotional mixtapes (Brick Squad, Re-Up Gang, Dipset, Young Money). Odd Future expanded that model so that kids grasped it as a revolutionary movement. They weren’t just a like-minded congregation; this was a cult. Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Afterwards, you saw A$AP Mob, Pro Era, Save Money, Brockhampton, and TDE’s Black Hippy – the latter of whom never even released an album together but understand the “closed hand equals a fist” marketing sensibility that Tyler and OF mastered.

If Lil B’s based eccentricity helped demolish the reductive binaries between underground and mainstream, Odd Future served as the wrecking crew. They screamed at reporters to never call them underground, but openly championed subterranean artists like Madlib and James Pants (whose name even inspired Earl Sweatshirt’s pseudonym). They revitalised Supreme as a brand, inspired a million kids to wear psychedelic colour schemes and exponentially increased the popularity of skateboarding and cat ownership.

Their crew even had its own in-house photographer, a tiny detail, but one that helped inspire young rappers to think of their music as being bigger than hip-hop. You can trace that concept back to Basquiat’s collaboration with Rammellzee through Kanye West, but Tyler and Odd Future translated it to ’90s babies, who absorbed it as first-hand gospel. The influence is ubiquitous, from their aesthetic (see the cover of good kid, m.A.A.d city) to starting their own multi-million-dollar clothing line, carnival, magazine, and television show.

“I was talking with Dave Wirtschafter [board member at talent agency William Morris Endeavor] and he said, ‘What’s the difference between Odd Future and an advertising company?’ I said, ‘Nothing’,” Christian Clancy, the group’s manager, told me in 2013. “Tyler writes, takes his own photos, draws, makes great videos, and I’m sure will make great films. Love him or hate him, he’s one of the most creative kids alive, and his following appreciates his honesty.”

A Threat To Public Order

LIKE most transgressive artists, the success didn’t come without controversy. At the 2011 Pitchfork Festival, an advocacy group called Between Friends protested Tyler’s lyrics that contained anti-LGBTQ slurs and threats of violence against women. Before his performance, Tyler brought the protesters red-velvet cupcakes. That same year, Big Day Out dropped them from the bill for homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. In 2014 they were banned from playing Eminem’s Rapture Festival in New Zealand for being a “potential threat to public order and the public interest.”

Even as Tyler distanced himself from the often-galling lyrics that he wrote as a teenager, the conflicts continued to hound him. In 2015, the United Kingdom banned him from entering for three to five years, citing bars he wrote in 2009. “Coming to the UK is a privilege, and we expect those who come here to respect our shared values,” claimed the British Home Office. That same year, OF cancelled an Australian jaunt due to public pressure from the feminist group Collective Shout.

 

“Love him or hate him, he [Tyler is] one of the most creative kids alive."

The negative attention that constantly shrouded them overlooked the actual truth. For all the attention-seeking, button-pushing lyrics, Odd Future prominently featured Syd, an openly gay artist, as one of their core members. Frank Ocean’s Tumblr admission of his love for another man was arguably one of the most candid and brave cultural moments of the decade. While on his latest album, Tyler admits to “kissing white boys since 2004”. This honesty and openness about the fluidity and realities of sexuality helped eradicate decades of entrenched homophobia in hip-hop.

But just on a purely musical level, the group’s impact has been groundbreaking. Frank Ocean is perhaps the most adored and critically acclaimed songwriter of his generation, shattering boundaries of genre and lyrical convention. Earl Sweatshirt might wind up his era’s best pure rapper, existing wholly outside the corny orbit of hip-hop celebrity, important for both his words and willingness to opt out. Syd’s group, The Internet, has evolved into one of the most innovative soul-fusion groups of the era. While Tyler continues to evolve as a musician and artist, and figures to wind up as rap’s Wes Anderson.

If they once existed to disrupt the mores of middlebrow society and hip-hop old heads, Odd Future’s influence has seeped into the DNA of the genre in the 21st century. They broke every rule and won, revealing the importance of untrammelled imagination to an entire generation of teenagers that continues to come of age. In innumerable ways, the modern face of rap exists as a partial reflection of Odd Future. What once seemed weird and shocking became the new normal.

Something Else