The teen wolves of California eating rap’s guts.
Admission to the fame party‚ that 24/7 bacchanal of tangled limbs, free shit, Schedule IV drugs, paparazzi strobe, chlamydia, tiger pets, emotional illiteracy, macchiatos and mug shots‚ always follows its own inscrutable metric. It's available to anyone lucky, talented, intrepid or proximate enough to be donked on the head by the magic wand, which is why you might sometimes find Mario Lopez and Mick Jagger in the same sentence, and maybe even the same room. Lately, though, things have gone a bit haywire. Hemorrhaging cash and desperate to stay relevant, the triptych of industries traditionally responsible for furnishing the party‚ music, print media and Hollywood‚ have shed all dignity and are openly hunting the internet for fresh blood, virgin talent and the carcass of originality. Now you can get donked by the wand while sitting at your mom's house, doing your thing. The frontier is open and lawless and it's being colonized as we speak. Which brings us to the music industry in general, California rap in particular, and our lupine case studies of the hour, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA) from LA, and Lil B and Young L of The Pack, out of the Bay Area, who perfectly illustrate the possibilities and dangers and radical ingenuity and whiplash speed of the whole stinking deal.
Hungry minds, cunning schemes, light misdemeanors, young-adult horror fiction, clueless institutions, graphic revenge fantasies. It seems the basic elements of Odd Future were in place from the beginning. But let's back up.
The first time I meet Tyler, the Creator, he tells me his name is Steve. We're in the Supreme shop on Fairfax, a Los Angeles analog of Lafayette Street in New York, whose cluster of skate stores are the default playpens of the Odd Future crew. They're all lurking around here somewhere. "Are you looking for Tyler?" asks "Steve," in a helpful tone that may or may not contain traces of menace. "No," I tell him. It's a lie. Like a lot of people coming through the door these days, I'm looking for Tyler and his friends, whether or not they want to be found. Of course, by now the game is up. I recognize him from the internet, and I'm not the only one.
Later I will learn it's customary for Tyler to fuck with people this way‚ his phone's outgoing message riffs on the same Steve bit, along with fake-out beeps and other boobytraps, but in the moment I'm bracing for the kind of savage energy commonly associated with adolescence, psychopaths and genius. So which do we have here? At 20, Tyler is not only the mastermind but the resident elder of Odd Future, the steel alliance of very young MCs, beatmakers, producers, skaters and fast minds currently being eyed as the future of rap in Southern California and beyond. Animated by hormones, anarchy, a Teflon sense of invincibility and lunatic levels of creativity, the OF output of mixtapes and YouTube videos gleefully emphasize many forms of psychic and bodily harm, plus Keith Sweat and butt sex. Their transmissions are flying around the cubicles of Manhattan because it's the kind of unpasteurized mayhem you can't manufacture. The people want to know more about the babyfaced devils behind it all, but right now this Steve thing is presenting a bit of an obstacle. One beat before irrevocable awkwardness sets in, Tyler breaks into a championship smile and introduces himself for real. He's a goofball, not a bully. We head to another shop, where some of his OF associates are idling.
Across the street at Reserve, a gallery/retail spot, the inmates are running the asylum. Tyler tries on a pair of aqua sweatpants and struts outside. "You look like a nurse!" shouts Hodgy, the slick-tongued OF rapper who represents the "hype" on the group's Halloween side project, Mellowhype. Syd is unmoved. As OF's longtime sound engineer and the lone female in the mix, she's seen it all before. Left Brain, a producer and rapper (and Mellowhype's "mellow"), tunes out in earmuff headphones. Customers walk in. "If you need another size, let me know," calls out Tyler, who doesn't work here. Now they're debating the merits of a new flavor of Arizona iced tea. Now Tyler's falling off the couch in a fit of slapstick. Now he's deadpan confessing his boy-crush on Justin Bieber. Now they're ripping on a fat chick in short-shorts they saw at the mall yesterday. Someone else walks in looking for Tyler and his crew. "I'm Steve, his assistant," Tyler reiterates, and everybody laughs.
If you had all these bandwagon bloggers and industry knuckleheads suddenly tonguing your ear, you might be inclined to throw up a smokescreen too. For all their Twitter, MySpace, Tumblr, YouTube accessibility, pinning down Odd Future remains as useless and elusive as trying to catch up with that small black dot you see when you close your eyes: every time you get close, it shoots off in the other direction. Comparisons to Wu-Tang are inevitable. "I see a strong similarity to the infrastructure, not the talent," says Heathcliff Berru, a Wu-Tang publicist currently working with Odd Future. "Tyler, that's ODB, maybe a little GZA. He's well read, he likes to learn about things. Mike G, that's Masta Killa. He's doesn't really speak much but when he does, he vomits. Hodgy's like Raekwon, he'll take anything you say and flip it, cook something up with it. Left Brain is like Ghostface, he's soulful, he's charming, everything he says is a gem." Among those not namechecked is Earl Sweatshirt, the 17-year-old Odd Future rapper whose sublimely gruesome video "Earl," a nightmare fantasy about what happens when you feed a blenderful of cough syrup, pills and weed to the little monsters (hint: seizures, stigmata, botched skate tricks and a trip to the local hair salon)‚ has generated more than 150,000 hits on YouTube and is one of the masterpieces of the OF canon thus far. But Earl isn't around right now. Rumor has it he's at boot camp, or maybe "boot camp." His friends simply say he's away and will be back and "he's in our hearts" and "Free Earl!"
Animated by hormones, anarchy, a Teflon sense of invincibility and lunatic levels of creativity, the Odd Future output of mixtapes and YouTube videos gleefully emphasize many forms of psychic and bodily harm, plus Keith Sweat and butt sex.
"I sucked at life when I was younger," says Tyler several days later. "I started rapping when I was seven. My mom went on a date with this dude, he gave me this thing with Reason on it, an illegal version. I started fucking with that and just started learning. Then I taught myself piano when I was 15." We're at the studio and Tyler, who has a habit of naming inanimate objects, is dry-humping Stacy, the broken futon, and discussing his influences, which range from R. Kelly and Biggie to Roy Ayers, James Pants and the Canadian electronic composer Bruce Haack. He dismounts Stacy and puts on "In the Sun," a song he's been working on. "Haack inspired me to make this beat. His shit is cool, random beeps and stuff. If you did acid and listened to it that would be swagged the fuck out." Tyler's able to recall album-release dates with autistic accuracy and is prone to blurty outbursts ("I am a Mexican who has sex with trucks!" "I am not pregnant, I dress like this ON PURPOSE!"), but the attention sponge requires his solitude. "I hate parties, I hate being around a bunch of fucking people. When I record, I like it to just be me and Sydney, our engineer," he says. "I don't like to have my shit attacked. My mom used to attack shit, I'd be making beats in my room and she'd hear it and be like, I don't like that. That's when I got this 'fuck opinions' thing‚ fuck opinions, I'm just going to make music I like."
It was a good move. After Tyler, Hodgy, Mike G, Left Brain, Earl and their collaborators Syd, Taco, Domo Genesis and Jasper the Dolphin began assaulting the internet with their recreational audiovisuals, they went cult with admirable haste. White-kid skate mobs in Cincinnati picked it up and starting tagging OFWGFTA on municipal buildings; fans in ever-progressive Great Britain began mocking up Odd Future T-shirts. After July, everything got faster and weirder. At an LA show in September, The XX brought the kids backstage and confessed to listening to them all the time on tour. Two weeks ago, Tyler quit his job making $250 a week at FedEx and was flown to New York by interested parties‚ it was the first time he'd ever left California‚ and put up in the SoHo Grand. "It was swagged out," he says of the trip. "I saw rats and shit and the females were pretty." In November, the whole crew went to London on XL's dime. Most of them had never left the country. Most of them don't drive. Taco has braces.
"If you did acid and listened to it that would be swagged the fuck out." Tyler, The Creator
Left Brain shows up with a new line knocking around his head. Roll up in a four-door Porsche/ Got two bitches in the kitchen that's a four-whore course. The others nod in approval, mutter "swag." Anyone looking to break off a chunk of Odd Future should consider the supreme power of the group dynamic, an incubator that's both collaborative and competitive. "Domo was the second rapper, so when he first came to the studio I'm looking at him like, Aight, I'm going to give this nigga a hard time," Hodgy says. "Tyler put on the beat and I was like, Hey, you know I'm going to kill you on this song, right? That's how it started. Domo picks up pretty easily when it comes to writing, and he likes to write with someone. Mike G, I believe he likes to write alone. Earl's fast, he comes on some shit quick. It's just a vibe‚ you get it in the atmosphere and it's there to grab." Tyler jumps in to elaborate. "If you do ballet and a person you're influenced by does ballet, you appreciate their balleting, and if you're with them all the time‚ WHAT THE FUCK AM I TALKING ABOUT? YO, WHAT THE FUCK? I need to get back on Twitter."
Several years before Odd Future and approximately 400 miles to the north, a precocious middle-school kid in baggy jeans and Jordans began copying lyrics off OHHLA.com and swapping out his favorite artists' words with his own. "I remember when the internet first came I had a WebTV and all that, I was on Kazaa, WinMX, Morpheus, all that file-sharing, illegal-downloading stuff. I was a young pioneer with all that," says Brandon McCartney, better known these days as Lil B the Based God. At Albany High, he met Lloyd "Young L" Omadhebo, a skater kid of musician parents who liked to mess around with Fruityloops 3.56. "B had been rapping for awhile, he just had nobody to make him beats. And I didn't have anybody to rap over my beats, so we just hooked up," remembers Young L. Along with Keith "Stunnaman" Jenkins and Damonte "Lil Uno" Johnson, they formed The Pack and started generating quantities of danceable house-party music out of a closet in Young L's house. They'd grown up listening to California rappers like Killa Tay, Lunasicc, Mac Dre and Keak da Sneak, but the violence and anger of that era felt stale; girls and parties and wilding out were the new lexicon. In 2006, a Pack single called "Bootybounce Bopper" caught local attention; their next mixtape, Wolfpack Muzik Vol. 2, included the hit "Vans," an electronically tweaked ode to the beloved slip-on, which blew up on MySpace, made the charts and took on a life of its own. Too $hort came calling, and they signed with him at Jive. "I was so young and everything happened so fast," says Lil B. "I was 15, 16, still in school but on the TV and traveling. It was an amazing and humbling journey."
"Everything I've been doing is calculated. It's like test-tracking, and I'm able to get a sense of what works. I can drive a million views on my channel, I can drive a couple of hundred thousand views in a couple of days. It's amazing." Lil B
Ultimately, though, the Jive relationship didn't pan out, and now The Pack is back to doing what they do best: working on solo stuff and coming together for group projects, keeping their product homegrown (their latest release, Wolfpack Party, is through SMC, a small Bay Area label that has supported them from the beginning) and online, which comes with the added bonus of not having to deal with too many people. "I like interacting with machinery, stuff that's predictable," says Young L. "If I'm playing video games or making beats or hanging with my dog, I can trust that stuff easier than I can trust people. You never know what somebody's going to say to you, you never know what somebody's going to do."
"If I'm playing video games or making beats or hanging with my dog, I can trust that stuff easier than I can trust people." -Young L
At a solo show in Pomona, Lil B enters to M83's "We Own the Sky." He's the hip-hop Tony Robbins now, a proselytizer for peace and love with a book (written entirely via email and Twitter) called Takin' Over by Imposing the Positive, who, with zero irony, can hold forth on the importance of anti-violence before working the crowd into a lather with "Shoot the Bitch Bra." The kids, aspiring local rappers and frat boys and young girls in tube tops‚ all have arms raised with cell phone cameras, making recordings they'll later put on YouTube, dozens of versions of the same story. It's a plotless Rashomon, digital-style. Backstage after the show, Lil B greets a fan he's known online for years but never met in person; a camera crew from Japan documents the entire exchange.
It's possible to go online, watch some dude sucker-punch Lil B in the face after an appearance at Berkeley, check out B's subsequent response to the incident, then watch his assailant's response to the response; while you're at it, you may as well take in a fan's Solid Gold treatment of "Pretty Boy," which pastes that song's smooth ride against the dance moves of what appears to be working-class Detroit circa 1983. Or check in with Lil B's multiple instructional videos on how to do the cooking dance. Or his Twitter, his 100-plus MySpace music pages, or the infinite gutter chatter of the commenters. Whatever your opinion of him as an artist, Lil B's online presence is undeniably ferocious. But it's one thing to get 300,000 hits on YouTube; converting that notice into cash in your hand is another beast entirely.
Lil B stops by the day after the Pomona show. While uploading a new video on his laptop, he estimates he's online 22 hours a day. "The other two I'm sleeping and being a perv." He describes his ambitious plans for his Based World empire. "I want to continue to build a brand, I want to become a very reliable brand, like Whole Foods," he says. "I want Based World and everything that goes around with Based, everything that means‚ I want people to see that and think of that like the ASPCA, a real peaceful and trusted brand." Thanks to YouTube Insights, he knows where the pockets of fans are. "I got a lot of stuff in Europe, nice percentages in Poland and Yugoslavia. We're going to take it there. We're going to turn it up. I've been talking to people overseas and trying to lock down these tours," he says.
While uploading a new video on his laptop, Lil B estimates he's online 22 hours a day.
As always, Lil B is on the hustle. He professes admiration for the genre-busting showmanship of acts like Antony & the Johnsons and Ariel Pink, and tells me about Dior Paint, the most recent of his various personae, who was unveiled on a new ambient recording called Rain in London (a radical departure from traditional Lil B territory). There is now an entire Based World populated by fragments and versions of himself. He breaks them down. "Brandon McCartney, that's like me‚ the nerd, cool, hip, thug-but-not-thug-at-all, smart, loving dude. Lil B is fearless, mighty, a lot of heart, well-spoken, smooth. The Based God is almighty, untouchable, praised, knowledgeable, a healer. Dior Paint is a stylist, fashion savvy, the composer, the princess, the diva. Dior Paint is the real love pizazz." When the video finishes uploading, he packs up his laptop and heads back on his way.
Later that week in Los Angeles, it's late and raining on a school night, but people are packed body-to-body to see Odd Future take it actual at the Low End Theory party at the Airliner. They've had shows before, but Syd says this one's different. Who cares about the fame party when you can watch a full-on fang battle? Odd Future comes out and the crowd surges like a minor ocean. Shouts of "Golf Wang!" and "Swag!" and "Fuck Steve Harvey!" ping-pong across the room. The dudes are all up there‚ Tyler, Left Brain, Hodgy, Mike G, Jasper‚ and everyone gets his moment under the hot lights. Tonight they're full of swagger, killing it live in the flesh, they're rock stars, and in a few minutes the room has so much steam they dispense with their shirts. For a moment, anyway, laptops and labels and branding and business managers have nothing to do with it. Right now they're young and bulletproof, and it's hard not to wish their summer would be endless.