Eight years after the release of Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers,” the skateboarding teenagers from Ladera Heights, who liked eating roaches and pissing off authority, are cited as one of the most influential groups of the decade.
How vividly can you remember 2011? If your memory is as bad as mine, your recollection is definitely spotty. I remember 2011 best as the year my mother grounded me for ordering a Fucking Awesome hoodie with her credit card. Two-thousand eleven was also the year males ages twelve to sixteen started drawing on their shoes, wearing pink doughnut T-shirts around, and trying to learn how to skateboard. Interestingly enough these phenomena share a common cause. Two words—well seven words, really, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, but more specifically just Odd Future. Unbeknownst to most of America, over the previous four years, an indie-rap collective based out of Southern California had been forming and gaining traction underground. Two-thousand eleven saw the beginning of their rise to popularity and initial break into the mainstream. On February 11, 2011, Tyler, the Creator dropped the music video for his single “Yonkers” and within a week pissed off every white mom in America. In the ensuing months, countless skate decks were sold, hundreds of OF articles were written, and all my older friends became very interested in what at the time was considered “horrorcore.” Eight years later, these skateboarding teenagers from Ladera Heights, who liked eating roaches and pissing off authority, are cited as one of the most influential groups of the decade.
At the height of Odd Future’s status the group was affiliated with over twenty artists, producers, and skaters who seemed to be constantly churning out new and interesting content across media. Due to the group’s unmitigated size, they were able to create high-level entertainment in various lanes of media at an almost constant rate. This control of music, film, and fashion essentially gave them a monopoly on the “troubled male teen” demographic, as they were a one-stop shop for a weirdo’s favorite entertainment. Odd Future fans aren’t really fans at all, they’re more like cultists. In fact, Odd Future as a whole is probably more akin to a cult than a music group in the first place, and I mean that in a sincere way. To fully understand OF stans, you have to understand what Odd Future was at its inception.
Circa 2007, a group of teenagers who liked skateboarding formed a small skate collective and started calling themselves Odd Future. Wikipedia will tell you that the first members of Odd Future were Tyler and a cohort of aspiring rappers; while that is true, it’s not entirely accurate. In reality, the original OF skate crew was comprised of mostly skate-rat kids who liked obscure trap music, and filming absurd videos throughout the streets of Southern California. See the Ryan Rigsby filmed video “Street Edit” on the Deli Status YouTube channel from 2011 for an example of what I mean here. Another useful video that showcases the vibe these guys put off is the HuffPost interview that detailed their various antics both on and off camera whole filming their Adult Swim show Loiter Squad. During the interview the crew lightheartedly roasts each other, argues about giving power to words, and admits to causing trouble in the BuzzFeed office with a NERF gun.1 In the beginning, Tyler was the ringleader and guys like Hodgy Beats, Casey Veggies, and Left Brain were all present, but the original goal was never hip-hop stardom. Every interview I can dig up states that when OF first started writing and recording tracks, it was mostly for laughs. (OF mythology states that “Yonkers” was produced in just eight minutes.2) The main focus of the group was creating content and trying to have as much fun as possible. In a more recent and fairly entertaining thirty-minute interview with Larry King Tyler spoke about “becoming famous” and the early stages of Odd Future: “Like, we [Odd Future] was just fuckin around, but we made music too.”3 At the time, loud and crude skate edits were not groundbreaking or uncommon concepts. Similar groups were the likes of Deli Status, Cavi Club, and Illegal Civilization. As most of the guys across these groups seem pretty tight, and it seems like videos for every group were filmed either by Ryan Rigsby or Davonte Jolly, the lines get blurred in terms of which group actually claimed each member. Skateboarding was just becoming cool again for the first time since like 1998, so it was a close community overall; if you skated in Southern California, odds are, you knew everyone who skated in So-Cal. Skaters often appeared in edits for two or more of the groups YouTube channels circa 2009 to 2012, with many of them laughing and joking with group members on a highly personal level. Guys like Olan Prenatt (who for the longest time I thought was a girl), often cameoed in Deli Status edits, shot dice in transitions for Cavi Club, and modeled clothes for Illegal Civ interchangeably. Another notable face with early OF affiliations was Na-Kel Smith. “Nasty Nak” frequently appeared in both Cavi Club and Deli Status edits as well as cameoed in Illegal Civ short films directed by Mikey Alfred, all of which are extremely entertaining. Weirdly enough, Nak had a few musical features under his belt, on Tyler’s “Trashwang” and Earl Sweatshirt’s “DNA” before later turning pro in the skate world. In a way, Na-Kel was the first of the non-musician members of the Cali skate clubs to make it big with his placement in the skate mag TransWorld. Tyler the creator shouted out this feat on two seperate tracks, as well as in a tweet from September 25, 2012, that simply read: “NAKEL SMITH IS BETTER THAN ALL OF YOU READING THIS,” Twitter, September 25, 2012.4 Nak later signed to Thrasher.
These guys were, for the most part, pissed off, impoverished, young males. So that’s exactly who they made content for. This is clearly evident in their early work. Tyler’s first three albums, MellowHype and MellowHigh’s albums, Hodgy’s and Domo’s mixtapes, Earl’s Doris, and both Odd Future tapes all played with themes of troubled youth and acted as obvious outlets. Looking back, it’s easy to say with absolute certainty that this was the work of kids who had immense talent but were just figuring out how to use it. They were relatable. Fans of original OF content dressed, talked, and acted just like their idols. Not saying these guys were the healthiest role models, but it made sense; they were real.
Occasionally, this stark reality backfired, as seen with the “Yonkers” backlash. The genius of Odd Future was the group’s ability to polarize their audience. Their rebellious attitude combined with an overtly sarcastic embrace of the persona the media portrayed them as (i.e. potentially dangerous to the wellbeing of young impressionable kids) forced listeners to choose a side and develop strong opinions. In a lot of ways, Odd Future were the anti-heroes of rap music and you either loved them or hated them. Many of the early tracks in the collectives’ catalog depicted anger, violence, and even rape. And while this subject matter is outlandish, don’t let that distract you from the fact that it’s hyperbolic. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together could tell they weren’t serious, but that didn’t stop major media outlets from branding them as “horrorcore.” This label was hated by both OF artists and their fandom. The whole ordeal really was a tale of two perspectives. On one side stood major media, who saw and heard this new experimental music and didn’t understand what it meant. This coverage started with underground hip-hop blogs, which mostly covered trap at the time, but was eventually picked up by Fox News.5 Ignorance of course breeds stupidity and in a search for headlines many websites jumped to the quickest and easiest conclusion, which was of course that the music encouraged violence. On the other side stood Tyler, OF, and their fans. From Tyler’s perspective, he was making vulnerable and groundbreaking art about depression, anxiety, anger, and suicidal thoughts. His art was then being misinterpreted and used as an example in a religious narrative that he, and the rest of Odd Future, didn’t even care about.
This unwanted association is one of the many topics touched on in Tyler’s dark and introspective Goblin, and is something that in time they have shaken. Back then, the content that earned them this title was most likely a combination of Tyler’s “Yonkers” and “Radicals” which brandished the lyrics, “kill people, burn shit, fuck school” on the hook.6 Tyler however touches on the thought that it was a combination of Earl’s debut tape and his use of the inverted cross on the Goblin cover in an interview with MTV.7
While many people could see these examples as perpetuation of real violence, OF fans saw it as simple, relatable venting. What is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this whole situation is that it was almost criminally easy to determine that this was in fact immature venting. A simple two-minute search by any of the writers or reporters into any of the member’s social media profiles or the group’s website would have shown who these guys really were. They were immensely talented young men, albeit immature, who did everything in their power to successfully be heard, establish a platform, and get our attention. It’s just disappointing in hindsight that instead of starting a dialogue about what these guys were presenting and the way they were presenting it in an effort to better understand the art, instead most people pushed a false narrative or quickly dismissed the group all together. When a teenager was screaming the hook of “Radicals” at a show in 2012, it didn’t really mean they wanted to perform the actions in question, simply that they could relate to the sentiments. Not in a literal sense, more as a form of rebellion. Odd Future was their voice, and rebellion is the quintessential nature of every OFWGKTA fan that has ever existed.
Now, at the risk of sounding like a narc, I have to play devil’s advocate. The murder and rape fantasies might have been a little extreme. From a critical standpoint, it did make some earlier songs almost unlistenable, but I think that was kind of the point. In 2009, I don’t think anyone involved in the early creation of Bastard, Tyler, The Creator’s debut mixtape, or its sister tapes ever thought anyone would even listen to them, let alone the millions who wound up downloading it into their libraries. The most outspoken proponent of this perspective is group member Earl Sweatshirt, who had been sent away to a school for at-risk teens at the time the group blew up. Earl essential became an overnight sensation but was side-lined for over a year before being able to return to his now new life. He speaks about this transition in a Peter Rosenberg interview on Hot 97 in 2012, and though he is speaking strictly in the first person and about his own experience I don’t think it’s a stretch to think most of the group’s members shared this mentality.8 These guys were purposely crossing lines just to say they could, and when major media outlets started giving them more publicity and perpetuating the narrative that they were devil worshiping dangers to society, OF ran with it. They turned it up a notch and doubled down on what made them famous in the first place. The group didn’t even really take itself seriously until after Earl got home in mid-2012. It was like a bait and switch; they lured you in with what was thought to be “dangerous,” but as you learned more about the group you realized that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In May of 2011, OF appeared in SPIN’s documentary interview series “Next Big Things.” During the interview, SPIN music editor Charles Aaron describes Odd Future as “the new ‘fuck you’ in music,” and slots them somewhere between Wu-Tang Clan and internet rap’s version of Jackass.9 Both of these are very accurate assertions. Aaron also contemplates, as we are now, “who these guys really are.” He wonders if the music is a direct reflection of the group, or if they are just acting crazy, or if it’s a combination of both, but ultimately states multiple times that these guys are “big kids.” Their whole persona became an elaborate inside joke. Later in the interview, chief producer Left Brain, after having Tyler whisper in his ear, describes his sound as “a mix between Hitler and Dr. Seuss; but also the Doors, not the band but like the doors you open and close.” Left Brain, Hodgy and crew continue to state their future goals which include “fucking Taylor Swift,” and “being compared to R. Kelly as a group,” two jokes that have not aged well at all. The interview then concludes with Tyler trying to fight one of the camera guys. It’s a juvenile marketing strategy, but you can’t say it didn’t work, considering their second group tape moved over seventy-one thousand units from their own independent label.10
In combination with rebellion and a crude sense of humor, the OF fandom is a collective that heavily encourages free thinking and creativity. Not to over-generalize, but I believe many members self-identify as creatives but often feel as if they don’t have the means or platform to express themselves. From this perspective Odd Future stood as proof that it was possible to make a living doing things you loved. I think Tyler explained the feeling best in an interview he did on Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show while discussing his two-week tenure as a FedEx employee in 2008. He spoke about “being around a bunch of older dudes being okay with pushing boxes all day,” and how that scared the hell out of him.11 Odd Future fans seem to share a common fear of the average or mundane.
Odd Future are such an interesting anomaly because they were here and gone before we ever had the chance to figure out why they worked in the first place. The group has been largely inactive as a whole since 2015, with many believing them to be broken up due to inner conflict or behind-the-scenes jealousy. Since then both the artists and the fans have grown up a lot. Tyler makes more intricate and experimental music that’s almost the polar opposite of the original OF brand, Earl “doesn’t like shit” and “doesn’t go outside” but blessed us with SOME RAP SONGS this November, Syd and the rest of The Internet are doing fine alone, and Frank Ocean keeps disappearing for years at a time. OFWGKTA fans only gather together once a year now at Tyler’s camp Flog Gnaw, which is part music festival part carnival. These days they wear bright colors, mostly from Tyler’s GOLF line, or the similarly styled Illegal Civ merch. (This is an interesting shift from the 2011 OF look, which was essentially anything sold by Zumiez.) It’s hard to tell what exactly original OF fans are doing today. If you ask Fox News, probably still somewhere worshipping the devil in pink doughnut tees and telling someone named Tina to “perm her fucking weave.”
I prefer a different perspective. While researching this paper I spent a lot of time on some older rap forums searching current threads about the current and past state of Odd Future. It surprised me how much interest there still was in an inactive group, and originally I wrote it off as people who don’t know how to let go. As I continued reading, it dawned on me: Odd Future was a lot bigger than anyone realized. Most of the posts on these forums talked about the appreciation for the work of the group as a whole and its overall impact on the current culture. Everything from Bastard to “Trashwang” to the group’s Adult Swim show, Loiter Squad. These guys really meant a lot to a lot of people. Common sentiments that I found reoccurring through the posts was the thought that Odd Future showed people what it was like to live for yourself. Many of the members on the site often talk about former site members who went on to find success in hip-hop. Whether it be rumor or not it’s still impressive that these guys support each other even years after the group that brought them together disbanded. Pursuit of passion and social freedom are things that these fans still to this day share in common, which is a really beautiful way to look at songs about pure anger. At the end of the day Odd Future, for better or worse, helped shape a new generation of creators and consumers across the culture. Odd Future was raw, unapologetic, and at times indescribable, but above all else OF showed all of us you can come from anywhere and do anything. I’ll leave you all with this quote by Tyler the Creator from Arsenio Hall’s talk show in 2013:
“We live in a society where a lot of people are followers and they can’t make their set opinions . . . Think for yourself and you’ll be way happier in the long run.”12
- “Full Huff Post Interview | Tyler The Creator, Earl, Taco, Jasper and Lionel,” posted by yongstuna, June 7, 2014, https://youtu.be/TNcUm71T_Co.
- “‘Yonkers’ by Tyler the Creator,” Genius.com, https://genius.com/Tyler-the-creator-yonkers-lyrics
- “Tyler, the Creator on Gay Rappers, Profanity, and His Artistic Idiosyncrasies | SEASON 2,” Larry King, June 4, 2014, https://youtu.be/kC3y_9PNaoM.
- Tyler Okonma (@tylerthecreator), “NAKEL SMITH IS BETTER THAN ALL OF YOU READING THIS,” Twitter, September 25, 2012, 4:15 p.m., https://twitter.com/tylerthecreator/status/251460680941711360
- J J Duncan, “Fox News Vs. Odd Future: Video,” Zimbio, May 17, 2011, http://www.zimbio.com/Odd+Future/articles/pd_Ll6HN2RD/Fox+News+Vs+Odd+Future+Video.
- “Radicals,” MP3 audio, track 3 on Tyler, The Creator, Goblin, XL Recordings Ltd., 2011.
- “tyler has choice words for people who label his music ‘horror-core,’” Extended Play: Tyler the Creator, MTV News, mtv.com, http://www.mtv.com/video-clips/t6ngm6/tyler-has-choice-words-for-people-who-label-his-music-horror-core.
- “Earl Sweatshirt on Hot 97 with Peter Rosenberg (First Interview EVER),” Peter Rosenberg, March 20, 2012, https://youtu.be/s8SU097uOPA.
- “Next Big Thing: Odd Future,” SPIN, May 4, 2011, https://youtu.be/s8SU097uOPA.
- Allen Jacobs, Hip Hop Album Sales: The Week Ending 4/29/2012, HipHopDX, May 2, 2012, https://hiphopdx.com/news/id.19592/title.hip-hop-album-sales-the-week-ending-4292012.
- “Tyler, The Creator Worked at Starbucks,” Jimmy Kimmel Live, June 12, 2015, https://youtu.be/5t30cC2payc.
- “Tyler The Creator Explains Pretty Much Everything,” Christopher Francis, February 28, 2014, https://youtu.be/jJ6PQQ_vEdA.