May 9, 2011 Odd Future
by Alex Hartland
Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (more often known as Odd Future) are a group of ten or so foul-mouthed young rappers and musicians based in Los Angeles but incorporating members from New Orleans, Florida and Canada. Judging by their prodigious recorded output of 12 albums in 14 months, they spend most of their time making music but there are also videos of them skateboarding and goofing around on YouTube.
In February Hodgy Beats and group leader Tyler, the Creator made their TV debut on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. For the previous 12 months they had been steadily building an underground following through free albums and mixtapes of innovative, profane and often profoundly unpleasant hip hop via their tumblr site. But after the wild performance of these two then-19 year olds, backed by the Roots and, apparently, Sadako from Ringu, the profile of the group was raised beyond all measure. Following sold out shows at South By South West and much media hype, Tyler will tomorrow release “Goblin”, his second solo album and the group’s 13th in total. But how did these apparently repulsive records made by a bunch of upstarts build such a following in so short a time?
There is, it should be said, something terribly exciting about a gang of musical rebels. Everybody wants to join, the closest most can get is to buy the records. The Rolling Stones, The Clash, The Stone Roses, Public Enemy and others all seemed aware of this at some point in their careers. Even notorious bad boys Coldplay felt the need to trade on this while promoting their last album. However, it’s comparisons between Odd Future and New York’s Wu-Tang Clan that are most inevitable; but also inaccurate. Both groups were formed from several elements (like Voltron, or a hip hop club sandwich), a bunch of solo rappers and friends tied together under the same banner and built up with a strong word of mouth following. In the early days, Wu-Tang member Ghostface appeared in a mask for fear of unwanted police attention, while Ol’ Dirty Bastard spent large portions of his career evading the constabulary on a variety of charges. Odd Future’s 17 year old Earl Sweatshirt has also run afoul of the authorities, popping up in a reform school in Samoa after his mother got wind of his career as a rapper and professional potty mouth. This was not the kind of bust likely to improve his street cred, but nevertheless it became grist to the group’s publicity mill as “Free Earl” sweatshirts became a popular mark of allegiance among fans. It’s also a sign of the group’s tender years (all members are aged between 17 and 23) and their relatively middle class upbringing. There are precious few raps about guns and drug deals on their records, and Tyler’s default dress sense of knee high tube socks and Hawaiian shirts is more Magnum PI than Badass MC. Odd Future are happy to be known as a bunch of skate kids, not the pimps and drug dealers other rappers would have you believe they are. This public image would also become important to critical interpretations of their music.
Odd Future and Wu-Tang Clan have both shown a cool assessment of the record industry. Though the group was signed to RCA, The Wu retained the right to sign solo deals for each of its members, potentially taking advantage of 10 different record labels all promoting the popularity of the original group. Odd Future could be moving in the same direction, the group as a whole recently having formed their own label under the Sony umbrella, while Tyler is signed up to XL and MellowHype (Hodgy Beats’ collaboration with producer Left Brain) is signed to Fat Possum. Both of these labels are more famous for putting out indie rock albums, an indication that OF aren’t just aiming at the skateboarder and b-boy market. But they have made it to this point without any label support, a sign of the times perhaps. Oldest member Frank Ocean turned his back on a Def Jam recording deal to self release his first record, and Tyler’s “Goblin” will be the first OF record to be available purely for real cash money.
Odd Future are a rather ramshackle collective with no apparent guiding philosophy or unified sound, unlike the Wu-Tang and their stream of entertainingly silly kung fu narratives, all produced under the steady directorial hand of The RZA. Though Tyler is the public face of Odd Future and was responsible for recording the bulk of their early records, the band includes additional producers Left Brain, Syd tha Kyd (their sole female member) and the duo Super 3. And while the Wu-Tang’s first album was an instant classic, Odd Future have done their growing up in public.
Their early releases, still available for free on the group’s website, introduce a limited palette of sounds, namely somewhat cheap, repetitive beats, moody synths and hoarse, amelodic rhymes about rape, violence and bragging, that would only expand in the later stages of their discography. Make no mistake, these records are not a comfortable listen. At times they sound like a group of Ol’ Dirty Bastards flatly enunciating over the same note for three minutes at a time. To whatever extent these young MCs are narrating tales of rape and depravity through the eyes of invented characters (as they explain in interviews), critics of the group will always hold that their rhymes are more aimed at wish fulfillment and glorification of sexual violence and the listener will understandably wonder, after several hours of relentlessly aggressive misogyny, who is likely to be entertained by such role playing. What is clear about these albums is that they include a handful of early classics that hint at what’s getting everyone so excited. The abrasive beats of “French” (from the album “Bastard”), which wouldn’t be out of place on a Dälek record, give an early example of Tyler and Hodgy’s Good Cop/ Bad Cop double act and the evil excitement the group are capable of. The loping rhythm and subtle melodies of “Rok Rok” (from the album “Yellow/White”) allows Left Brain to demonstrate the benefits of life beyond Tyler’s occasionally unimaginative production. Best of the lot is the warped pianola and Silence of the Lambs narrative of “Luper” (from the album “EARL”). Appearances by Earl have been understandably rare since he was escorted from the premises but his smooth, hypnotic delivery shows what the group are currently missing (albeit somewhat diluted here by a predictable twist in the tale at the end of the song).
After releasing six albums in the space of two months, Odd Future then pulled a rabbit out of the hat with Jet Age of Tomorrow’s “Voyager”. As the name suggests, this isn’t your typical underground hip hop record but an accomplished space age electronica album from Odd Future production duo Super 3, to be more appropriately filed alongside Daft Punk or Kraftwerk. Not what you’d necessarily expect from innercity Los Angeles teenagers, but a sign of the musical polygamy Odd Future embrace. While the early albums show an appreciation of Depeche Mode, Portishead and IDM records to go with the usual hip hop dues, the group have at various times professed a love of Stereolab, Roy Ayers and British composer Alan Tew. To say these influences have been successfully integrated into the music would be overstating it, but the Jet Age record (and it’s equally diverse, acid jazz tinged follow up “Journey to the 5th Echelon”, where Roy Ayer’s influence is most apparent) suggest a skill and a palette broad enough to achieve that aim.
More recently, this taste for the expansive has led to the group’s high water mark. Frank Ocean’s “Nostalgia/Ultra” has been reviewed elsewhere in these pages and, at a couple of months’ remove, still stands out from the pack. Our Frank arrived with the most musical experience of any in the gang, working as a writer for John Legend, Brandy and, there’s no easy way to say this but, Justin Bieber, before he joined the group. He appears here fully formed and bursting with tunes philosophical (“We All Try”), lovelorn (“There Will Be Tears”) and romantic (“Dust”). He sounds as confused as the rest of us on “Novacane” but is smart enough to repurpose Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut and, yes, even Coldplay into an even whole. But the whole that he presents here is much more his own sound, not that of a group.
So now that it’s time for the new album “Goblin”, will it be another step towards the world domination the group are aiming for? It will be interesting to see if they can achieve this without smoothing off their rough edges. With his influences from established multiplatinum sellers like Kanye West and Radiohead, as opposed to Waka Flocka Flame and Clipse, it would certainly be a shorter step for Frank Ocean than for partner in crime Tyler. But as the Wu-Tang Clan discovered before, attention for one can be translated into attention for all. Not that fame will change Tyler. Whatever happens, he plans to go home, watch the Cartoon Network and bounce on his trampoline.
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