Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All are a 10-deep hip-hop collective. But don't dare call them the new Wu-Tang Clan. They insist they're different. The collective features rappers, producers, visual artists, skate kids, contrarians, outcasts, amoral teenagers, and fatherless children. They are known for several things: They excoriate the rap blogs Nah Right and 2dopeboyz, because those sites refuse to promote OFWGKTA's music. They hate the Los Angeles hip-hop dance movement called jerkin' and all practitioners. Their mantra is "Fuck Steve Harvey." They have re-appropriated swastikas for their visual palette. One of their members, 16-year-old Earl Sweatshirt, is currently in boot camp, or prison, or boarding school, or he's on a long vacation-- it's difficult to tell. They worship the streetwear brand Supreme's box logo hoodies. They have a Tumblr. On that Tumblr, active since February, they have self-released solo albums, EPs, and mixtapes. All of their music is free. They rap about raping women. Often. They live by a code-- if something is cool, it's swagged out. If it's not, fuck it. Talented, hilarious, villainous, immature, precocious, and viral-- they are at the vanguard of modern hip-hop.
Odd Future arrive at a fascinating time for micro-rap movements. In February, the storied underground label Definitive Jux, co-founded and run since 1999 by El-P, announced it would temporarily shutter operations. The news confirmed something that has been obvious to many for years: Underground rap is dead. Or is, at least, not a useful way of describing music anymore. In its stead, a different brand of homespun rappers have taken hold. Consider Lil B and Soulja Boy, who have been prolifically working the web and diametrically opposed strands of hip-hop to achieve their own kind of teenage heroism.
Soulja entered on the strength of a local dance song that became a genuine national phenomenon-- he's proved a surprisingly durable and innovative pop song creator. The minutiae of his career, from his now-defunct "Rich Nigga Shit" web series to recent accusations about cocaine abuse, has become fodder moralizing about young wealthy teens. Still, detractors may have noticed that Soulja Boy continues to crank out hits, 15 minutes be damned. Lil B, the adenoidal member of Bay Area rap group the Pack, has become a cult figure with a low pop profile but a vocal fanbase, turning out literally hundreds of songs in a short period of time, pushing the boundaries of what could reasonably be called mainstream with his Based music, a spacey, New Age-influenced sort of stream-of-consciousness flow. He is always creating-- a new Lil B album could be dropping at this exact moment. Lil B's breathless absurdism defies Soulja's hit-at-any-cost sensibility, but they have become allies, united by attitude and prolificacy. Both are fascinating, hard-working, loyalty-demanding, capable of greatness, and young. And they are inspiring dozens of young kids to do likewise everyday.
This is all happening amid a somewhat media-invented renaissance for Detroit's painted sons of outsider rap, Insane Clown Posse. This year's installment of ICP's annual Gathering of the Juggalos was alarmingly ubiquitous. It wasn't simply reports of the public degradation of Tila Tequila, or the aftershocks of the group's silly "Miracles" video, or even The Village Voice's artfully impressionistic report from the festival. There did seem, finally, an honest affection for the subculture Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope built from the ground up. Over time they became oft-underestimated owners of a tiny piece of unwanted subculture-- the ignored and humiliated. But put enough unwashed together, and the masses rise. From the enduring ICP to the insurgent Lil B, Soulja Boy and their youthful contemporaries-- Danny Brown, Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, Big K.R.I.T., Mac Miller, and others-- underground rap is changing every day, defined more by individual personality than by an all-encompassing ethos.
Odd Future, therefore, are right on time. Their de facto leader is a 19-year-old who calls himself Tyler, the Creator AKA Ace Creator. He is a rapper-producer. His album, Bastard, is among the most stunning things released in the past 12 months. He possesses a charred, viscous groan of a voice; sometimes he manipulates the frequency to make it even deeper and darker. Earl and Tyler have been the most visible, and talented OFWGKTA members to emerge, and they collaborate often. Tyler's production appears on several of the songs on Earl's Earl, a brief, often mesmerizing album. In a recent interview with cool'eh magazine Tyler cited Stereolab, James Pants, Liars, British composer Alan Tew, and Erykah Badu as musical influences. He also noted, perhaps playfully, "Grizzly Bear swags their shit out."
Tyler's productions do have flecks of those artists in his sound-- highly musical chord changes, slithering funk lines-- but they're mostly dank, claustrophobic, synth-driven constructions. Think MF DOOM meets Mobb Deep meets Eno. He produces them with Apple's Logic Studio and Fruity Loops software. They're uncomplicated, but surprisingly sophisticated for a home studio-dwelling teenager. But Tyler, though he has unusual taste, is no champion of abstract hip-hop. Consider this recent comment on his Twitter account: "Who The Fuck Is Antipop Consortium? Can People Compare Us To Cool Musicians? Fuck."
And while it's accessible, their music can be awfully difficult to listen to. These are shameless kids, trying to one-up each other in order to amuse themselves. The videos for "French!" and "Earl" reveal a cracked charisma that's hard to articulate. How far will you go to make someone laugh is a standard in the ritual emptiness of teenage life. Which explains their deplorable desire to rap about rape as much as it explains their slapping contests. What makes Tyler such a fascinating figure is how he pairs these indefensible expressions of depravity (From "French!": "I'm opening a church to sell coke and Led Zeppelin/ To fuck Mary in her ass") with a wounded emotional clarity. When Bastard isn't about screwing around with his friends or violating women, it's about the father he never met. The haunting opening song on the album, the title track, ends with this: "I just want my father's email/ So I can tell him how much I fucking hate him in detail." Tyler is clearly a loving son, aware of how his mother has been both crucial male and female figure in his life. He raps about both of his parents often. His screeds to his father make this otherwise ghoulish teenager sympathetic.
I was told by a prominent manager currently circling the crew that Eminem's violent, outlandish 2009 album Relapse, is their favorite in recent memory. They are not fans of this year's more popular "return to form," Recovery. On Tyler's "AssMilk", Earl raps, "I'm the reincarnation of 98 Eminem," a line notable because 1998 is one year before the release of Eminem's breakthrough The Slim Shady LP. Marshall Mathers is an important guidepost for Odd Future, but even at his most debased, Eminem never quite made skin crawl the way Tyler can. So what makes them like this? What turns a teenager's mind so dark? Not much, really. Tyler explains himself flippantly. "It's the first shit that comes to our heads, seriously. I'm interested in serial killers' minds and shit, so I rap about it at the moment. Who the fuck knows, next week I can be rapping about oatmeal if that's what I'm into. And for the record, I don't worship the devil, I just hate religion." That godless outlook, for Tyler in particular, is defining. There is no compass, other than, maybe, the Internet-- and the Internet has no compass.
Tyler and Earl, while the most notable of the crew, are also the most divisive. Hawthorne's Domo Genesis, the group's delegated stoner, is more approachable. His recently-released Rolling Papers is less accomplished-- it recalls Wiz Khalifa's recent blunted-for-life output. But it diversified the crew's discography to some extent-- it's full of mellow, hollow grooves, and is decidedly less dark. Ditto MellowHype, a collaboration between members Left Brain and Hodgy Beats. Domo, Hodgy, Left Brain, and the other members, including Jasper the Dolphin, Mike G, Taco and Syd Tha Kyd, are artists, producers, and videographers of varying talent.Radical, while not quite the cohesive achievement of Earl or Bastard works as a collective sampler. It features nearly every member, and showcases their taste beyond gothic, post-horrorcore productions, which is often impeccable. The group raps over beats from songs by artists like Gucci Mane, Rich Boy, and Roscoe Dash. Other inspired choices include 9th Wonder's unheralded "Alright" for Memphis Bleek, the Neptunes' alien "Skrung Owt" for Fam-Lay, and Jonell's minor R&B 2003 hit, "Round and Round", from Hi-Tek's Hi-Teknology. These are hardly conventional moves-- they imply a level of nerdery not seen by many 19-year-olds. But then, these kids are smart.
The same sense of interiority that Insane Clown Posse has instilled in the Juggalos, appears to be crucial to Odd Future, too. Their ethos is well-defined-- either you're in or out; for Odd Future or against it. And in that categorical way, it makes them the perfect rap crew for our time: Where we all live on the Internet, alone. Where the darkest corners of desire are a Google search away. Where you can say anything and hide in the shadows of blog commenter anonymity or meme Tumblrs or fake Twitter accounts. And right now is a sublime moment for Odd Future, before they're not yet exploited and corrupted by the system that is coming for them. Their admiration for, say, Waka Flocka Flame, could become a collaboration with him by this time next year. Or sooner. And so Odd Future face a difficult decision: Continue on, undeterred by the demands of the mainstream's social mores and face the wraths of conservatism, or change up and burn away their hard-earned integrity. But then, Tyler seems to know that, too. "Now that we have a little fan base and cult following coming along, I don't even want any of the opinions and reviews to jeopardize my natural way of doing music," he told cool'eh. "Shit, that would just fuck everything up."