“I hate this part,” says Tyler, the Creator from the darkness. His angular frame is jackknifed into the back storage area of a black SUV. The vehicle crawls through swarms of people milling outside the open-air Mess With Texas concert, part of the South by Southwest music festival held every March in Austin. The 20-year-old rapper and his group, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, are scheduled to perform momentarily, and he’s been smacked with a burst of stage fright. “Dude, I’m shaking like a bitch,” he says. He leans forward and growls softly. “Fuckin’ dyke, dyke pussy, dyke pussy, fuck shit,” he says. “Fuck, my face hurts.”
The truck stops. As Tyler and his cohort extract themselves from the cramped vehicle, they’re engulfed in a thicket of boom mics, video cameras and blinding flashbulbs. Someone guides them toward a side entrance, and they stumble through the chaos. From the periphery, people shout “Swag” and “Golf Wang.” The crowd, unseen behind an eight-foot fence, is bellowing one of Odd Future’s catchphrases: “Kill people! Burn shit! Fuck school!”
Tyler’s jitters are dispelled by the time Odd Future hit the stage. Using a laptop, Syd, a lean 18-year-old girl, drops the spare, ominous beat to “Sandwiches,” a track from 2010. During the next 20 minutes, the group unleashes a brand of chaos associated more with punk rock than hip-hop. Tyler, after shedding a green ski mask, climbs 15 feet up the speaker scaffolding, peels off his shoes and plunges into the crowd. Hodgy Beats raps while floating atop the congregation’s arms. Left Brain, Domo Genesis and Mike G cause general mischief. As the Budweiser-fueled audience surges forward, crowd surfers are vomited onto the stage and heaved back into the fray by security. Bottles and cans whistle through the air. Near the end of the set, P. Diddy joins the group onstage for a wild rendition of “Fuck the Police,” a Flocka-esque track off 2010’s BlackenedWhite, an album Hodgy and Left Brain made as a duo called Mellow Hype. Tyler lunges into the audience with a skateboard, opening up a nasty gash on a fan’s head. When the victim is ushered backstage after the show, a crush of journalists, bloggers and photographers rush in to document his blood-splattered face. It’s a moment that encapsulates Odd Future: music, mayhem and media.
Despite the presence of Kanye West, Duran Duran, TV on the Radio and countless other acts, Odd Future were indisputably the story of SXSW. Their seven shows—mostly events hosted by magazines, like Billboard, Fader, Thrasher and Vice—culminated an exceedingly rapid and improbable rise to prominence. Without any major co-signs, hit records, albums in stores or major-label support, the group of young artists from Los Angeles went from obscurity to stardom over the course of several breathtaking months.
It’s easy to see why. Mixing Eminem’s toxic content and baroque rhyming with the Neptunes’ spacey production style, Odd Future present a cornucopia of delicious contradictions. They grew up in households where so-called conscious artists like Talib Kweli and The Roots were the soundtrack, yet they rap about violence, screwing White women and doing cocaine. They listen to Three 6 Mafia, Lil B and Waka Flocka Flame, yet they value dense lyricism and low-fidelity production unsuitable for contemporary clubs or radio. Their artsy integrity seems rooted in rap traditionalism, but when compared with groups from the past, they shrug at compliments and sneer at criticisms. “I really don’t listen to rap from the 1990s,” says Tyler. “I was fuckin’ 3 at the time.”
During the music festival, Odd Future and their management team—headed up by Interscope Records veteran Christian Clancy—turned a split-level ranch in the Austin suburbs into a flophouse. On a warm afternoon, members of the group spend downtime lounging in a backyard Jacuzzi. Dos Equis and marijuana circulate. Hodgy proposes chucking eggs into the crowd at the next show, and conversation veers toward other projectiles. “In the Middle East, they stone bitches for cheating,” says Syd. Domo, submerged in the bubbling water fully clothed, cracks jokes about honor killings. Much has been made of Odd Future’s offensive language, but it’s no different from the giddy prude-baiting that comes with any group of shit-talking, skateboarding teenagers.
Just last summer, they could be found on Fairfax Avenue, skating back and forth between boutiques like Diamond and Supreme. “Tyler was yelling at people in the street, screaming out, ‘I don’t punch niggas—I punch bitches in the face!’ ” says Scott Sasso, owner of Brooklyn clothing company 10 Deep, who met the group when he set up a pop-up L.A. branch last summer. “It was a spectacle. He was playfully annoying the folks on the street, but it was harmless.”
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