Gang of Forty: Odd Future’s Los Angeles Riot
A few Saturdays ago, on a cool, spring night, I watched a nineteen-year-old hang from a noose inside the Los Angeles Linda Vista Community Hospital. Moments before, he had kicked a wooden box from under him, and as he dropped down, his lean, brown body thinned and his feet went limp. Every now and again, they twitched and jerked. He had on Vans and striped athletic socks that he’d pulled almost to his knees. The green in the stripes matched his green baseball cap. Green, he’d said once, was his favorite color, because so far he’d been lucky.
The Linda Vista is an abandoned hospital that sits atop a palm tree-lined hill in the gang-pocked neighborhood of Boyle Heights. All of us—me, the teenager, roughly fifteen of his friends—were there to shoot a video. After the last patients left the building in 1991, neighbors said they saw flashes and other paranormal light-works going whirly-gig in the windows. As the boy dangled, his movements slowed and his legs went stiff. Then he exhaled a sharp breath. It was finished. Nobody said a word.
Then, suddenly laughing, he pulled himself up into a curl against the rope, which he was hanging from with his arms. “Can somebody get the goddamn box? Fuck! This is not a joke. You think this hanging shit is easy!”
Once a crewmember retrieved the box and placed it under him, he seemed to be everywhere at once, flexing his muscles, farting in his hands and throwing it in peoples’ faces, tucking himself away in a corner of the room on a folding chair to listen to R. Kelly on a hot-pink iPod.
He boasted about his arms (“It almost looks like I work out, but I can’t, I have asthma”), lamented that he wasn’t taller (“Being 6’3″ would be so tight”), and got excited when he was reminded that since he’s only 19, and already 6’2’’, he will probably still grow. Smiling, he pointed to his left. “Watch out for that dragon!” He was pointing to the floor, to nothing. This is how he and his friends kill time. If you fall for it, if you look, your hand gets slapped. Somebody looked. They denied it, but he insisted, “I got you. You fucking looked. I saw you. Fuck!” He lifted his shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead. On the side of his torso, which is skinny enough to see his ribcage, he has a line of letters tattooed in black ink: “O.F.W.G.K.T.A.” They stand for his 40-person creation, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. His name is Tyler, the Creator and he is their leader.
ALTHOUGH much of the thrill of listening to Odd Future’s music comes from how they transmute the recklessness and adrenaline of youth in their music, Tyler (born Tyler Okonma) wants to be clear: Odd Future is not a movement or a scene. It’s a group of kids who were interested in the same music—Aaliyah, N.E.R.D., Erykah Badu—and who found each other when they were in middle school and high school, forming a loose-knit crew, a gang of wolves. When Frank Ocean, a 23-year-old singer-songwriter who was born in the Los Angeles area but raised in New Orleans, linked up with the crew over MySpace in 2009, he felt like their connection was less about trading music and more about making new friends. “New friends,” he adds, “who just happen to be some of the most creative people I have ever met.”
Not every member of Odd Future makes music. Of those that do, Frank Ocean, Domo Genesis, Left Brain, Hodgy Beats, Matt Martian, Earl, and Tyler are the most established talents in the group; others, like Syd tha Kyd and Mike G, are far less known. While their music can’t really be defined by style or content—Hodgy’s favorite band is the 70s-era experimental krautrock outfit Can, and Tyler, who listens to Roy Ayers and James Pants, is in many ways a jazz guy—they still work together as a unit. Some of the members make off-kilter, rhythmically complex hip-hop, and others, like Matt Martian, create ambient soundscapes. Certain details can be bundled: most of Odd Future skateboard and live in Los Angeles; all are black and under the age of 25. With the exception of Syd, a musician and the group’s sound engineer, the group is all male. They are a cloud of talents, self-contained side-groups, and off-shooting, collaborative projects organized around the same defining feature, the thing almost all of them seem to share—they are the kids from school who everybody else thought were weird.
That night in Boyle Heights, the hospital was rented to shoot a video for Mellowhype, Left Brain and Hodgy Beats’ group, a punked-out duo in which Hodgy frantically raps about everything from smoking pot to hating his absentee father while Left Brain makes noisy, ripped-down beats. The rest of Odd Future are on the set to act as extras, to sit in pews wearing werewolf masks and to play at being lynched. Twenty years of neglect has made the hospital not just desolate but frightening. There are wards that have moldy mattresses and ancient patient files. Someone reported having found an incubator on the third floor stuffed with bloody sheets. Nobody said they were scared, but nobody ventured too far from the group, either.
A FEW WEEKS LATER, in New York, Odd Future stood around the outdoor café of their hotel in Chelsea. They were waiting for a van to arrive to take them to the Highline Ballroom. Their first show in New York was only a few months before, and since then, they’d become the enfant terribles of the music industry. Tyler’s Goblin, released on May 10th, was getting strong reviews in most major music publications, and he was able to fulfill his dream of meeting Justin Bieber, of whom he is a huge fan. Frank Ocean was asked by Beyonce to help write songs for her next album. “Last year I wanted to go to Coachella and I couldn’t afford to, and this year, it was crazy, they were inviting us to perform. It’s almost overwhelming,” Syd had told me back in Los Angeles.
Although they are cagey about admitting it, Odd Future seems to be equal parts terrified and eager about their newfound popularity. Even people who aren’t fans of their music are interested in their stunts (they called respected music industry veterans pedophiles for being interested in signing them), their commentary (they hate the filmmaker Tyler Perry because his movies have made their mothers and aunts his ideological slaves), and their anti-aspirational promises, like Tyler swearing on his Twitter that even after he wins a Grammy he will never wipe his ass. Gossip sites that usually only cover starlets and socialites reported that Odd Future was requesting that major labels bring them “donuts, swivel chairs, and a megaphone” in exchange for taking meetings.
As they waited for their van to arrive, Hodgy conferred with his cousins, who had driven in from New Jersey. Left Brain wore a leopard print towel over his head and sipped openly from a large bottle of Hennessy. Tyler, who is straightedge, had one last-minute request: a frozen whipped drink from McDonalds. They said they weren’t nervous—it was New York, it was time to go crazy—but when their van pulled up, they piled in quickly and quietly, and disappeared into a street full of bright lights.
Odd Future’s concert that night brought out the weirdos. It also attracted the would-be weirdos and the unweird, who know that feigning strangeness can sometimes be a good look. Tyler doesn’t think the fact that many of their fans are white is important. He dislikes analysis of the group and their fan base, and he deflects it by calling reporters—not wholly inaccurately—“stalkers.” Like the band itself, Odd Future’s fans just want to be unselfconscious, angst-filled, and uncontrolled. They wore their socks pulled up high like Tyler. They had homemade “Free Earl Shits” to support Earl Sweatshirt (Thebe Kgositsile), who obtained cult status over rumors that he was shipped against his will—erroneously, it turns out—to a reform school in Samoa by his mother, a former hip-hop journalist. Their fans channeled Malcolm Maclaren: black sleeveless jean jackets, safety pins, and marked up Chucks. A zaftig white girl with long, natty blonde dreadlocks and a bikini top rushed the stage to grind on Frank Ocean; a crew of pierced skaters from Harlem screamed from the side of the stage all night, the loudest of whom had his hair pressed and curled.
A few boys were talking about what happened at Odd Future’s last appearance. The day before, at an in-store album signing in Boston, there was a riot. They were hoping for a repeat in New York—and for a while it seemed possible. A bouncer frowned and shook his head, saying, “This is going to be long, damn night.”
MORE THAN IDENTIFYING as middle-class, which only a few of them are, Odd Future thinks of themselves as being smart. “Some people think I am really fucking stupid. Which is funny. They don’t know how smart we fucking are. I am not talking about just being intelligent. I’m talking about being book smart,” Tyler told me at one point. “People don’t understand most of us are AP students and Honor Students. We know what we are doing.” While many of their parents stressed education, they are also kids whose high school years coincided with the last recession. Perhaps as a result, they’ve honed a do-it-yourself pragmatism. They say they use skateboards to get around Los Angeles, because it’s either that or the bus. As a means of making money, Syd learned how to build a sound studio in her parents’ house, where she still lives with her brother, Taco, who is also an Odd Future member. There, she and Tyler recorded Goblin, Tyler’s first album with a label (XL Recordings), alone. When Tyler talks about his influences on Goblin, he says he didn’t really talk to anyone besides Syd and Frank Ocean during the recording process. Syd thinks the fact that they taught themselves how to play instruments is the reason they sound so different from everybody else.
Their name, Odd Future, was never more accurate than when they broke with the long history of hip-hop artists who’ve gotten short-ended by the music industry. It’s no secret that the music industry can no longer afford to break new artists or take risks, so Odd Future circumvented this problem by using Tumblr, Twitter, and Myspace. The group, for all of their youth and abandon, exhibits almost uncanny business acumen. Frank Ocean tells me they never tried to hunt down the industry. Rather, they waited for it to come to them—and it did. While most people were high-fiving them for their stunts, Odd Future was busy negotiating an all-but-unheard-of deal, where they are distributed by RED/Sony but retain ownership of their master recordings.
MOST PEOPLE first glimpsed Odd Future during their performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in February of this year. They were erratic, possessed, and brilliant, the demonic godchildren of Gang of Four and The Geto Boys: hip-hop surrealists and anti-establishment intelligentsia who didn’t forsake the fun. As the synthesizers crescendoed, so did their frenzy. Girls dressed as zombies drifted behind them while Hodgy bounced and chanted “Wolf! Gang! Wolf! Gang!” Tyler made a detour to Fallon’s desk to dry hump a redheaded actress (Felicia Day) who looked like her heart was going to atomize. When it came time to close out the show, Tyler seemed to bound out of nowhere onto Fallon’s back. All legs and ears, he hunched over the host’s shoulders and gap-toothed grinned into the camera.
Wu-Tang Clan’s late Ol’ Dirty Bastard called himself a bastard because he believed there was no father to his style; Odd Future also wants to be like nobody but themselves. When they are compared to the Wu-Tang Clan—which they are often—as the next far-out, insular hip-hop collective, Tyler gets agitated, dismissing the analogy as “just lazy.” Many of the members of Odd Future tell me they’re not interested in fame. They don’t want to age into ancient rappers who make music for wads of cash. Instead, they’d just like to be able to make their art and music, so long as they never have to get day jobs.
IN ALL THIS NEWNESS, the backdrop of Los Angeles—a city that’s long been the place people migrated to in the hopes of breaking from the past and giving more to future generations—is important. What other city can claim Fishbone and The Watts Riots, Charles Mingus and Hollywood? Matt Martian, one of the older members of Odd Future, told me after a conversation about the Civil Rights Movement, “I know why our parents are mad. They feel like, ‘We worked for this, fought to make something better, and you don’t want to do what we fought for you to be able to do. We could have been musicians and done art and all that but we didn’t for you.’” Syd quietly agrees. “Yeah, I totally know why our parents are upset when they see us acting like this. They didn’t ask for this.”
Odd Future does offer up a whole host of things to be upset by: their odes to rape, necrophilia and suicide; their use of cocaine, knives, and murdered dogs as props. Then there is the awkwardness of hearing teenagers who are still consumed with the tragedy of themselves rap about it endlessly. Listening to them can either be a journey into a fantastical, macabre, post-Columbine childhood, or it can just feel icky. Certain things, like their misogyny, can even run close to cliché. Tyler, for example, often channels LeRoi Jones in his maniacal sexual quest for white women. But they are also perceptive. They hear the criticisms people level against them. Tyler likes to bring up his favorite director, Quentin Tarantino, and his critical acclaim; Tyler doesn’t understand what makes his brand of violence more distasteful. “I don’t see why it is such a big deal when I say shit,” Tyler says. “Have people ever watched a movie? Watch one, you’ll see people getting raped, killed, dicks cut off, and then I’ll say something like that in a song, and it’s a big fucking deal.” It can be difficult to understand why all too often, when young black men merely act like they are partaking in violence, they arouse unusual amounts of paranoia and censure.
ONE DAY IN LOS ANGELES, I visited Syd at Matt Martian’s house, in a light-industrial neighborhood near Fairfax full of gas stations, tire stores, and a sprawling Jiffy Lube. When I arrived, they were working on their beats and practicing DJing. Syd sat crossed legged over a DJ machine. The curtains were pulled, but even in the dim light of the sparsely furnished apartment, it was impossible not to notice her fierce, but fawn-like beauty. Dressed in what she calls her “tomboy swag” – that day she had on an oversize, N.W.A-style button-down shirt — she looked like the heir apparent to Diane Keaton, Patti Smith, and Aaliyah. Syd is often asked to explain how she can be the lone female in a group that celebrates misogyny. Recently, her Tumblr became the site of a debate about feminism. It’s a subject that frustrates her, as her feelings on Feminism and Womanism are complex and still forming. “It’s not like we are just up there being dumb,” she sighed. (Annoyed, Tyler later told me, “How can we be so sexist or whatever if we have Syd in the group and are her good friend? Without Syd none of this would even be happening.”) More than one member of Odd Future told me that they say “faggot” and “nigga” so often because they are desensitized. According to Matt Martian, “Once you get desensitized, you can use those words without much meaning. They are just a new vocabulary.” They think that people need to get over it—that, like so much else from back in the day, it’s now history.
That same day, I took a drive out to the Hawthorne section of Los Angeles. I wanted to see where Tyler went to middle school. His old school is a boxy, single-story municipal building in a rigidly-planned neighborhood near the airport, less than a mile from a military base and the skyscraper offices of Lockheed Martin. The houses are all white, square clones.
Like Tyler and many of the other members of Odd Future, Syd struggled with being an outcast. During our conversation at Matt Martian’s house, she mentioned being “ostracized” at least four times. Remembering her still-recent childhood, she said in a soft voice, “I had always been a tomboy, until middle school, when I tried to get ‘girlie’ and failed. So I went back to being ‘whatever.’” She punctuates “whatever” with a shrug. “And then the first year of high school I didn’t need to dress like anything because I didn’t have any friends anyways, so I wore sweatpants and t-shirts every day.” Matt Martian, who hovered near the refrigerator while we talked, said he couldn’t count how many times he heard jokes about hanging with Tyler, the “lame, weirdo guy.” Syd nodded in agreement. “You know what we are?” said Matt Martian as he made a circle around himself and Syd with his hand. “Odd Future? We are the glitches. We are just being ourselves. And we prove that being the weird guy, the person who people don’t get, is okay. Tyler was considered a lame, weird dude for the longest. Now look.”
It’s easy to imagine that as teenagers with the world at their fingertips, Odd Future would be giddy with ego. Instead, they are reflective, if not pensive, in person. As we waited between takes of Mellowhype’s video in the Linda Vista Hospital, Tyler told me, “Even if Goblin fails, I’ll still be doing the same things. Being talented, making music and art, skating, and eating at Roscoe’s [House of Chicken and Waffles] on Sunday’s like I do now. Or people could like Goblin, like I do, and I won’t have a Sunday off for a long time. Other than that, I don’t even think about that shit.”
But it’s difficult not to think about what happens next as far as their staying-power is concerned. There’s no question that Odd Future started out in extremis: eating roaches, telling the school’s therapist on “Bastard” how Tyler “only wants his father’s email /so he can tell him how much he hates him in detail,” and rapping other lyrics like, “And three hours in the showers with the corpse/ I’ve ejaculated enough semen to sink a boat.” To make a real impact, they’ll have to stay edgy—and very far out there—for at least a little while. They will have to conceive of something new to say on the subject of women and violence—and it will not be easy. But it will define them against the older rappers who’ve exhausted the subject, and who Odd Future, confident in their youth, mock for being uncreative. It’s difficult being the first generation that no longer feels like they have to be a credit to their race; it’s difficult to decide which things to keep and which things to totally destroy. A FEW HOURS before dawn, we sat in a room in the hospital with a mosaic archway that reads “Thou shalt not sin.” Much of the night had been spent talking to kill time. Frank Ocean says that a bad break-up and some time spent reading Malcolm Gladwell and Dave Eggers moved him to write many of the songs on his album, Nostalgia, Ultra. Hodgy, sitting to the side, debates buying gold fronts, but then he looks at his pregnant girlfriend’s belly and says, “No, that will have to wait.” Taco obsessively repeats how cool it would be to have a gun, swearing that the next day he will go buy one. He’s said this every day I’ve been with them to little concern or effect; he is not old enough or rough enough to make it happen. Frank Ocean talks about experimenting with non-cow milks, to which Tyler replies, “Fuck, I wonder if when I’m like old as fuck, like twenty-four or something and fucked up, I wonder if will start to eat like some white-girl journalist from Williamsburg. Like using almond milk and shit.”
Out of all them, it’s Tyler who seems best adapted to the moment—the most ready. He knows he’s become a Billboard-profiled music executive before he can legally drink. Squeezing his head, finger tips to his temples, half-joking and half-serious, he says, “Any day I now I am going to have a nervous breakdown. Watch. By next year, I’ll have a total fucking nervous breakdown. I promise.”
Photography by Brick Stowell