Cover Story: Tyler, The Creator

A young boss grows up on his own terms.

Photographer Mark Peckmezian
November 09, 2014

Tyler, the Creator is tearing down Route 118 in an all-white BMW, blasting Death Grips. "I really wanna fucking drift," he says, shifting gears like he's in an arcade racing chair. He palms the wheel with one hand and thrashes to the music with the other, changing songs every 40 seconds. Suddenly, he's miming along to thick '70s soul, performing to his speedometer, which has climbed to 85. He is 23, born Tyler Gregory Okonma in March 1991 in Los Angeles, and the stretch of the San Fernando Valley he now calls home is all mountains and dust, lizards and mansions, a $40 Uber away from the Fairfax skate shops he lurked as a teen.

Still weaving across lanes, he grabs his phone and begins skipping through demos from his upcoming fourth album, which he's been quietly recording for the past year, and lands on a two-minute blitz of scratch verses and stampeding, jagged drums. He mashes his checkered Vans into the gas and brake pedals with binary force. We swing to a dead-footed stop centimeters short of every rear bumper we face, and slingshot out from under every fresh green light. When he finds a bend of road sloped around a rocky hill that looks promising for a clean drift, Tyler plows up it, gets some distance, and makes a sharp U-turn. Trailer homes line the road; a nearby scarecrow hangs from a tree branch by the neck. "I have no idea where we are. It gets kinda sketch out here," he says, waiting for a minivan in front of us to veer off and clear his straight shot back down the slope. "The way I drive, I have to see three cars ahead. I know when this dude is thinking about making a left turn before his blinkers are on."

"Hey sir, sorry? I was just speeding? Around a corner? In a sports car? During rush hour? My bad."

The car churns forward, growling, and Tyler swings a sharp left around the bend. My right side crushes into the passenger door as he increasingly hugs the oncoming lane. The tires screech, losing contact with the asphalt, and a motorcycle and gray sedan emerge from around the hill, heading right toward us. Tyler brakes instinctually, swerving back to the right lane a few moments before disaster. "Fuck," he says. "Okay. Wow. That was not tight. Were you scared?" He's asked me this a couple times throughout the ride, playfully testing my threshold, performing. The previous attempts didn't faze me, but that time, I felt it. "Me too," he says, surprisingly. "Cool, okay, I'm fully off that. Got my adrenaline in for the day." We ride on, and when we pass through the gate to his cul-de-sac, Tyler exhales. "That could've been a completely different reality just now," he says. I ask what he means. "We could've been exchanging information. 'Hey sir, sorry? I was just speeding? Around a corner? In a sports car? During rush hour? My bad.'"

Four years ago, Tyler went zero to 60 in record time. The early videos he made with his Odd Future collective included, among other stunts, images of Tyler hanging himself and compatriot Earl Sweatshirt ripping off his own fingernail. They were shocking for both their content and the sophistication of their hand-stitched production, and they quickly attracted the attention of an industry gasping for change. Rap's first wave of internet-empowered poster children—Wale, Kid Cudi, maybe Charles Hamilton—had used the web to push out into the world: remixing singles across genres; Myspace messaging any blogger who'd click their links; collabs, collabs, collabs. By contrast, early Odd Future clips pulled you in to a fully realized universe of the group's own creation. The crew's six core members only worked with each other, articulating a singular sound characterized by barbed beats and dense rhymes. They also had taste: Vans and Supreme, MF Doom and Waka Flocka, Adventure Time, and Six Flags. They carefully chose each hat, logo, and font, showcasing a brand identity that fans could emulate independently of appreciating their sound. "Nigga, think of any girl you like," Tyler says, trying to explain his early visual work via metaphor. "On a scale of one to 10, how attractive is she?" An 11. "Exactly. Now based off that, you're intrigued. You want to learn her. You want to know more because your eyes said, 'Wow, I like that.' Bam. Same with a fucking movie poster or trailer: before you know who directed or acted in it, those first five seconds—that shit matters. Your eyes are lowkey your most important sense of how the world works," he says. "You can't drive without your eyes."

Since Odd Future signed a distribution deal with Sony/RED in 2011, Tyler has released three albums, produced three seasons of an Adult Swim sketch series called Loiter Squad, published a book of Odd Future's photography, started a clothing line called Golf Wang, and opened a retail store—all in the time it would've taken him to get a bachelor's degree. During my time in LA, a bright pink billboard for Odd Future's third annual Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival towers above Sunset Boulevard, promoting headlining performances from Pharrell and Rick Ross. It's expected to draw over 20,000 attendees. Forbes estimates Tyler's net worth to be between $4 and $6 million, and he lives with his mother and younger sister in a two-story home on a gated estate, with a swimming pool, tennis court, and massive double doors swinging open to a spiral staircase and a large statue of a horse. "I smile randomly," he says, overlooking his property. "There was this old lady sleeping at the bus stop last night, and I had some money and I put it on her side and walked away, and all you heard was, 'Thank you!' I was smiling for like five minutes. Even if she buys crack, it's a joy, bro."

After our near-death experience, Tyler and I spend most of Sunday afternoon hanging around in his bedroom. It's massive, with towering attic ceilings and wall-to-wall royal blue carpeting, and it's mostly unfurnished, aside from a bed, a bean bag chair, and a giant trampoline he planned to buy for years and sleeps on sometimes. Lego sets are scattered across the floor, assembled into elaborate models for buildings that Tyler wants to construct. Posters of Pharrell, Eminem, Erykah Badu, Madlib, Kenan & Kel, and Napoleon Dynamite line the walls, calling back to the early '00s, an age when synth weirdos like The Neptunes and Timbaland pointed to a new sonic future for a genre addicted to funk samples from the past. Tyler has pillaged the baroque sounds of that era throughout his career, though his music doesn't adhere to any one aesthetic, other than his own. As a producer, he's gifted at articulating the specific attitudes and emotions of his brand—there's the childlike nostalgia of "Bimmer," the combative chaos of "Tamale," the slapstick parody of "Bitch Suck Dick," all jingles as much as singles. This ability to distill feeling into items for profit bleeds over into his clothing designs, bubblegum color blocks that could outfit a gang of protagonists from any classic Saturday morning cartoon. It's no wonder the two strands of output are inseparable in his mind: "Songs I listen to in the morning dictate what I wear," he explains at one point, with a draft of a new beat on loop. "This sounds like a red and white striped shirt."

Tyler's friends—Lionel Boyce, Matt Castellanos, and Cameron Lee—who work with him as writers for Loiter Squad, are crammed on the oversized bean bag, trading turns on an immersive street-racing simulator called Forza that's projected onto a large white wall from an Xbox 360. A few feet away, Tyler is loosely strumming a newly purchased electric guitar. Look into the sky/ If you see yourself, then you could fly, he sings, over and over again. Soon, Lionel tires of racing and chucks a controller Tyler's way. Selecting a green roadster, Tyler dives into the game while still mulling over the line he's been singing. When a melody he likes emerges from the riffing, he runs back to his keyboard to lay down some horn sounds. "That shit sound tight, T," Lionel comments, to no reply—Tyler is already back to his race, in third place and gunning for first.

Lego sets are scattered across the floor, assembled into elaborate models for buildings that Tyler wants to construct.

It's here in his bedroom, on aimless afternoons like this one, that Tyler's album is slowly coming to life. His team had hoped to release the LP as a surprise at November's Camp Flog Gnaw carnival, but he is adamant that as of now, "it's still nothing": no title, no theme, no release date. He does have roughs of a handful of new songs, some of which he's been working on since as far back as 2011. Like previous work, they're lyrically raw, disruptive, and acidic—there's at least one song entirely devoted to cunnilingus—but he's been drawing increasingly from the floating, rubbery chords of '70s R&B. Throughout the day's session, he swipes between his production interface and a YouTube of 1972's " Where Were You When I Needed You?" by Stevie Wonder. "Stevie's my competition," he explains. "Not these niggas on the radio."

Tyler isn't exactly known as a soul man, though. His most popular music is provokingly violent, earning early fans and detractors alike with heinous one-liners like Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome. Though his lyrics have toned down since, he still found time on his last album, 2013's Wolf, to squeeze in lines like Cut the crap like dyke booty when they scissor. He is contrarian at best and antagonizing at worst, seemingly convinced that the only way to show everyone else he's smart is to make them feel dumb, or angry, or scared, or otherwise shake them awake. All the vulgarity arguably allows him to sneak in moments of vulnerability between the chaos: Papa ain't call even though he saw me on TV/ It's all good, Tyler raps on Wolf's "Jamba," before the turn: But now my balls balls deep in this broad's jaw/ Swallow girl, it's just nut. As a rapper, maybe it's easier to miss your dad from behind a Parental Advisory sticker.

With journalists, Tyler can be an expert troll—one Vine finds him telling a British reporter, "My lyrics are to piss old white people off like you," on infinite loop. Through our talks, I catch flickers of the hyperactive daredevil I've witnessed on stage: Tyler stopping mid-sentence to catch a lizard, or balance-beaming on a white stone railing above a 12-foot drop while answering a question, not once seeming to consider that he could fall. But hanging out among family and friends, he projects, and seeks out, a quiet composure. When we head out to a diner for breakfast, and he's told the next table won't be free for 40 minutes, he politely obliges, and we wait our turn outside, alongside all the other patrons. These days, he rolls with a much smaller, more professionally minded circle than the rambunctious tornado of limbs that comprised Odd Future's starting roster. "My close circle of friends has changed in the past year," he explains. "And I don't mean that in a bad way. You just attract what you are." Watching TV, he and his Loiter Squad co-conspirators obsess over commercials and comedy shows, picking apart branding decisions and humor comparable to their own. You get the sense that these kids spend a lot more time thinking than talking, and that Tyler feels productive sitting around here, even if it doesn't look like work. In fact, the loudest exchange I witness him have all weekend is shared with his mom.

"Where's your fucking friends?" She warns, approaching his room, her voice booming from behind a large curtain that opens into the hallway.

"They went to get food while I do this interview."

"Okay, Imma say this once," she says, tossing the curtain out of the way. "You guys never clean up the kitchen. I'm so fucking serious."

"What the fuck are you talking about right now?" Tyler shouts through a mouth full of Doritos.

"I need you to guys to spray the counters down, because you and your fucking friends use my utensils, my fucking plates, my kitchen," his mom prods. "If they don't clean it up—"

"We not going in your kitchen for anything. Them niggas went to Chic-Fil-A! Yeah? Right? See: now you feel dumb, you feel stupid, right?" He taunts, sure he has her cornered.

She steps forward. "No, because today is Sunday and Chic-Fil-A isn't open, and your sister told me you guys were grilling, so you're full of shit. Like I said, if my kitchen is fucked up, they're not coming back."

Tyler pauses, then smirks, accepting defeat. "Get off my dick!"

Tyler grew up on the border of Inglewood, on 81st and New Hampshire. At age 4, he says, he witnessed a nail salon being robbed at gunpoint. He's never known his father, or any grandfather, and says his grandmother nearly joined suicide cult-leader Jim Jones' flock on a trip to South America before being stopped by his aunt. "I could not be here right now," he adds, considering an alternate reality. "She was about to dipset." Mom, an L.A. native, provided him with most needs and wants; Christmas and birthday wish lists were filled diligently, and he looks back on his childhood with pride. He's aware that some of his fans assume he grew up wealthy because of his smart aleck precociousness, and tightens a bit when asked about it. "It's crazy people think that," he says. "Maybe because I say I'm from Ladera. Ladera is a pretty nice place, but we were just near there. My grandmother lived on the outskirts in a shitty apartment behind Ralph's. It wasn't really that tight. I slept on the floor for months."

He's still close with his mother. In conversation, her curious nature and refreshingly low filter make the smallest of talk feel engaged and impassioned. When I tell her I'm visiting from New York, she asks me if the NYPD is really as brutal as she keeps seeing in the news. When I explain to her the specifics of Stop & Frisk, she gasps in disbelief. "That makes me want to get into activism," she says genuinely. "They'd have to arrest me. I can't believe that." Tyler reveres her strong personality. "Where the fuck do you think I get it from?" he asks. "That's my nigga. There's still respect there. I'm her son—it's nothing disrespectful. She lets me breathe. She doesn't understand me, but she understands that she doesn't understand me."

By sixth grade, Tyler knew he was different from his classmates. He hated sports and loved jazz, and he was inspired to skateboard after he found out Tony Hawk's Pro Skater's Kareem Campbell wasn't the only black dude that skated. "It was just hard, man," he tells me. "Black people aren't really open to things. I used to get called 'white boy.' I hated that shit. I'm in seventh grade in Inglewood, too white for the black kids, too black for the white kids. We're in LA, so the Mexicans don't like blacks, and there's no Asians around. So who the fuck do I really fuck with at school?" With no men in his life, Tyler found idols on TV. "I had [Eminem]. I had Pharrell. I had Dave Chappelle. He was a skinny, lanky black guy; I was a lanky, goofy black dude. He made it cool to me."

"I used to get called 'white boy.' I hated that shit. I'm in seventh grade in Inglewood, too white for the black kids, too black for the white kids."

The young rapper always engaged with race in curious ways. His father is Nigerian, though Tyler says he has no connection to that native culture, and tells me his mother is "half-white or some shit." From a young age, he worshiped figures that hacked new cheats into America's rigid racial codings: a blond, blue-eyed rapper; a brown producer/skateboarder with a multicultural rock band; and a black comedian whose subversion of race was so pronounced that it made those two artists seem tame. From them, he inherited an outsider's perspective within a black culture he might otherwise be able to claim as his own, an internal conflict that's continued to manifest in his work. In 2013, Tyler directed an absurdist commercial for Mountain Dew that depicted black suspects standing alongside a goat in a police line-up, comically draped in du-rags, sagging jeans, and eye patches. In a scathing editorial, Syracuse University scholar-in-residence Boyce Watkins deemed it "the most racist commercial in history," calling it the hip-hop equivalent of a "minstrel show." Though Watkins eventually apologized for misconstruing Tyler's imagery, PepsiCo cut the campaign short.

Tyler tells me he attempted to respond to the controversy in a scene from his video for " Tamale" later that year, where he filmed himself in blackface in front of a likeness of Dr. Watkins. "And then a goat runs by," he explains of the scene. "The same goat from the commercial. And I'm in blackface dancing in front of white people. It's fucked, cause it was a black guy who said that. He should be happy for me: a young black kid making something, infiltrating this corporate thing called Pepsi. You should be fucking happy and hope that more black kids follow in my fucking path." His manager since 2010, Christian Clancy, who is white and helped market Eminem's early career, advised Tyler to choose his battles wisely: the scene would surely draw even more controversy, no matter how well Tyler explained it. He even put Tyler on the phone with Pharrell to back him up. In the final video, the scene was censored, with a message overlaid: "Due to the 'graphic nature' of this film, I was forced to blur because people aren't ready to have intelligent conversations before they judge. Welcome to America." In the very next scene, Tyler jumps on a bikini model's gyrating butt like a trampoline, with the caption, "But this shit is allowed." "That next scene was the [real] modern day blackface," he explains. "A model shaking her ass. It's niggas with cars, money, guns. 'We sell drugs, we shoot and kill other black people.' And no one says nothing about it."

Recently, Tyler has begun to take this glamorized imagery, and the lifestyle it represents, to task. On the collection of songs he's currently recording, he offers up heavy-handed indictments of gang culture and rapper consumerism, calling them detrimental not just to the progress of his race, but to humanity as a whole. He recites a minute-long, white-knuckle verse from a demo he refers to as "Run" that condemns cyclical gang violence: Oh you the big nigga? Took a hit, nigga?/ Well, I hope you understand you ain't shit, nigga/ Cause them niggas' whole purpose is to get niggas/ And make sure that your momma cry the pain out. On "Keep the O's," another work-in-progress, he stabs an index finger at his rap peers, mocking an extravagance he sees as being built on debt: Your garden is full from raking these hoes/ A handful of green and a couple of stones/ Your lawnmower's foreign, you rent you a home/ But nigga how much of that shit do you own?

After years of obsessive self-analysis in his music, it seems Tyler is beginning to hold his magnifying glass up to the world around him. "The Tyler you're used to is, 'Fuck, I hate my dad!'" he says. "You know where I'm at right now? I hate everything. You have fucking people like Morgan Freeman and Oprah, and all these positive black people who fucking figured it out and found their wings. Sometimes, shit is fucked up. But I've been with niggas where you got a case, you hotbox your auntie's car, you driving real fast, the police pull you over, take you to jail, and then your friends are like, 'Free Tony! Free Tony! Fuck the ops!' No, you dumbass, if this nigga wasn't doing some stupid nigga shit like riding around in his aunt's car with no license, smoking weed, and doing 80 in a 30, he wouldn't be fucking arrested right now," he says. He doesn't register that he just demonstrated a similar contempt for authority behind the wheel on a dusty bend of road.

It's the kind of contrarian outlook that we've come to expect from Tyler, but that doesn't make it any less controversial. "I'm not the only one saying this shit, bro," he stresses. "Nas said it on ' 2nd Childhood.' Clipse said it on 'Hello New World.'" But what about his thousands of white fans that frequent his store, use slang from his songs, and shout the N-word at his shows? Aren't they set up for success way better than a kid like hypothetical Tony, or the real teenagers in neighborhoods plagued by racism and violence? "I get it," Tyler concedes. "But at a certain age, man, you have to think, 'What the fuck do I want to be? What do I want to do? Okay, what are the steps that I have to take to get that?' You can end up dead, shot by a cop, in jail. Nothing positive. Niggas choose their own destinies. It's like the choose-your-own-adventure books, fucking by Goosebumps. I want everyone to fucking win. If everyone wins, everyone is smiling. And if everyone is smiling, everyone is happy. And when everyone is happy, we won't have niggas killing each other no more."

Tyler's self-determinist view is refreshing, but it also highlights a blind optimism, one no doubt validated by his unchallenged personal success. Not everyone is built like him. When I ask him if his schedule is grueling, he scoffs at the idea, nonchalantly citing 11PM bedtimes and 5AM call times while filming Loiter Squad, as though these were the self-assigned hours to which most rappers sign up.

Having stacked one ambition on top of the other, Tyler now has less time to micromanage the details of the Odd Future brand than before. Once the creative hand behind each of the label's releases—producing the beats, making the cover art, and directing the videos—Tyler admits he's less hands-on than ever, and hasn't made any Odd Future merch since 2012. "Everyone started designing their own shit," he says. "So I started my baby, Golf Wang. Every design, the way the photos are shot, the way the site is." While he avoids disclosing business details—"That's the one thing I don't think about"—he admits to feeling most fulfilled when he has complete creative control. His work is still fun, he says, "because I'm the boss. I've never said that before. I don't like saying that; I like being regular. But I call the shots. I am my reality. Everything with T is fucking what he wanted."

But what about what others want? Is there any room in Tyler's universe for people whose desires may run contrary to his own? At its inception, Odd Future combined the talents of many strong personalities. These days, Tyler says, "everyone's on their own island." He still sees the Odd Future guys, but they're not all in his inner orbit. "I talked to Hodgy like a week ago, and he played me some crazy shit. It's no problems, it's just who I vibe with. Nobody up there in my room smokes," he says, referring to his Loiter Squad crew. "We talk about cars and the buildings we're gonna own. We can sit in my room and play video games for hours and do nothing." Odd Future's Syd tha Kid witnessed the birth of the group firsthand, recording their earliest sessions together at her home studio, and she confirms the changing dynamic. "With us it's a little bit more like a family," she explains, "because you're not always going to like your cousin or your brother. You can beef and fight, but you can never split up because you're family. We don't always get along with one another, but you know you can come back."

"Niggas choose their own destinies. I want everyone to fucking win."

"The hardest part is all the different personalities," Clancy says, explaining the state of the group he's overseen since orchestrating their deal with Sony. "Having people together more, keeping things tighter—I can't drive that. I can help facilitate that; I can create a setting, maybe." This year, Odd Future partnered with the internet broadcasting platform Dash Radio to launch Odd Future Radio, a 24-hour, commercial-free radio station Clancy says has "kept them more consistently together. Not implying that they're at each other's throats. It's probably better that they aren't [together more], for that reason."

Tyler and Earl Sweatshirt were once Odd Future's tightest duo, and their sibling-like dynamic on and off record was paramount to the group's initial appeal. Today, long since Earl returned from a two-year stint at a reform school in Samoa, Tyler tells me that relationship has changed. Upon his return, Earl found his best friends not only famous but versed in a complex music industry in which they'd established their own distribution partnership, touring outfit, internal salaries, and more. Earl also still answered to the same mother that had sent him away in response to a spat of bad behavior—a mom whom he loved and respected, as Tyler does his. "There's so much in the balance," he told the New York Times upon his return. "For me, for my mom, for Tyler, for everyone I care about." Earl ultimately opted out of an offer to join Odd Future Records and seek Clancy's management, instead starting his own imprint with Columbia.

"That's my nigga," Tyler says. "We just aren't as close as we were. It's kind of weird, but I'm aware and smart enough to know, okay, shit changes." Tyler confirms that the duo hasn't worked on music together since Earl's 2013 album cut "Sasquatch." "Shit changes, people get older, people's goals change. As fucking outlandish and outspoken as I am, I don't like confrontation. I'm not a piece of shit, man. I'm fair to everyone." (Earl declined to speak to The FADER for this story.)

And what about Frank Ocean, the reclusive singer who came up as a member of Odd Future's extended family but hasn't released music since his celebrated 2012 debut, and severed ties with Odd Future's management and publicity firm this past summer? "He's a different case," Tyler says. "He could care less about the spotlight type shit, which is cool. I wish I took his route and just disappeared from social media for the past year," he sighs. "I got too much shit going on... But that would be so tight." It's a relatable sentiment. Ambition comes with many punishments, the most pronounced of which may be earning scorn from the very people you once needed closest. But how else could Odd Future's story end up? Friends brought together over dick jokes and tenth grade music obsessions may grow to answer life's big questions differently— What the fuck do I want to be? What do I want to do?—or opt out of answering them all together. Tyler's strategy is clear: keep speeding forward, crashing through walls, no matter who's riding shotgun along with him.

Sitting out on his deck, flanked by a Los Angeles sunset, I ask him if he's ever felt betrayed, and he pauses for longer than he has at any point throughout our talks. He dismounts his perch atop the stone railing and paces slowly, words unfolding as he finds them. "Not betrayed... but there were times where I questioned, 'You fuckin with me, man?' And it's not even who you might think it is. But there's sometimes where I'm like, 'Damn, you ain't fuckin with me.' Just on some friend shit." Like what? "Like I ain't talk to niggas in a month and a half. I hit niggas up, no reply. I don't see niggas. Damn, you ain't fuckin' with T? Alright."

"Everything with T is fucking what he wanted."

The Eagles have just shut out the Giants, and we're channel surfing on Tyler's couch after a long day of doing jack shit. Lionel lands on Adult Swim's Mr. Pickles, a 15-minute onslaught of violent, sexually explicit animation that stars a murderous dog and his clueless victims. Mr. Pickles impales a father in the eyes with a pitchfork, takes a chainsaw to a couple having sex, and always escapes blame with a wink of his puppy eyes, a wag of the tail, and an adorable lap of the tongue. The credits roll, and a pall falls over the room as we all process what we've just watched, waiting to see who will jump first. "Every second of that was entertaining," Tyler eventually says, looking right through the blood and gore to how effectively the art achieved its goal: to entertain. Maybe he hopes people will look at his work the same way.

Hunger sets in, and we ride out to Fatburger in search of late night salt and grease. Once served, Tyler starts thinking out loud about his new album, combing through his circle of friends and musical acquaintances for the right voice to lay harmonies on a soulful synth-funk song called "Pilot." "The pocket of singing is like a real strong black gospel voice," he explains. Tyler says he's sitting on material with the young Colombian singer Kali Uchis, but her airy, pastel voice won't fit what he hears between his ears for "Pilot." At the table, he continues sketching vocals for the album: "I want to get Jay Z and Rick Ross on a remix of one song. I'm [gonna get] Cherry Glazerr and Leon Ware on this other one. I sent some shit to Willow Smith, man. She better not flex!" His friends toss out ideas for the latest missing slot: Cee-Lo? Bruno Mars? Keyshia Cole? "Yeah… Keyshia Cole could do it. That's who I need. Keyshia Cole." The album, like the reality he's constructed, is one big wish list come to life, drafted by a child raised to affirm his identity by his own decisions. I like this, I want this, I need this. "It's like a museum, and I know how to put the art I want in it now," he says, maybe referring to his album, or his bedroom, or his circle, or his life. "I know how to curate it better."

Pre-order a copy of Tyler's issue of The FADER now. The issue hits newsstands December 9th.

Cover Story: Tyler, The Creator