In late April, Odd Future signed a deal with RED Distribution, a sales and marketing division of Sony Music that works with independent artists. The group now owns Odd Future Records under RED/Sony distribution and will make all creative and business decisions. “If you’re an artist who is comfortable in their own skin, a traditional deal doesn’t make sense anymore,” says Christian Clancy. “The disconnect between many of the majors and youth is as wide as the one between the rich and poor in this country. Kids are now smarter than what’s being sold to them, and the gatekeepers need a new set of keys.”
Despite their light-speed ascension, Odd Future maintain an endearingly earnest attitude toward the relationship between art and commerce. The group rarely collaborates with anyone outside the camp, though Hodgy recently freestyled a verse for a British artist in exchange for $275. “I bought some ice cream, went to the movies, bought some new underwear,” he says, explaining that he came to SXSW with a single dollar in his pocket. “Not having money keeps us humble. This is the come-up. It’s priceless. You’re supposed to be broke right now.”
During a break between SXSW shows, Tyler conducts a phone interview with Rolling Stone magazine while pacing the kitchen of the Odd Future ranch. He’s wearing a shirt emblazoned with a picture of a wolf, and striped tube socks. A dozen boxes from Wing Stop sit on the counter, ignored. “Everyone thinks it was hard work, but we have connections to powerful people,” he tells the reporter, spinning an absurdist revision of the group’s history that includes mentorship from producer Jazzy Pha and friendship between his mother and the East Side Boyz. “Odd Future is just a big gimmick, and it’s working,” he says, shortly before thumbing off his BlackBerry with a snarled “Fuck you.” It was part performance art, part weariness with the media—and all because he can get away with it.
The idea of “not giving a fuck” is ingrained in the Odd Future ethos. And certainly, the group’s usage of intentional offensiveness is reminiscent of Eminem’s rise 12 years ago: references to drugs, murder and sexual assault; homophobic slurs; and the skewering of pop stars. Just as Eminem dissed other Caucasian rappers, Odd Future attack other new artists from whom they hope to separate themselves. On “Yonkers,” Tyler threatened to “crash the fuckin’ plane that faggot nigga B.o.B is in” and “stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus.”
Eminem’s manager and partner in Shady Records, Paul Rosenberg, recognizes it. “Positive or negative, the type of attention Odd Future is getting is kind of like what went on with Eminem,” he says. “That type of polarizing material is what makes people relevant and potentially important.”
Odd Future’s trajectory and intense media scrutiny have been inextricably interwoven. Because of their controversial material, digital presence and mishmash of cultural influences, the group was profiled by the New York Times, the Village Voice and Pitchfork before traditional hip-hop media outlets paid much attention. The glut of coverage inspired a second wave of navel-gazing: New York magazine pondered whether dorky music writers were living vicariously through a new generation of awkward teens, and The Root opined that White journalists were surely intrigued only by Black rage. The Odd Future phenomenon has been so overanalyzed that it sometimes seems that the music is but an afterthought. “They had this huge discography they released in total obscurity, and then people heard about them, and it snowballed,” says Ryan Schreiber, the founder of Pitchfork Media, who compares Odd Future’s digital rise to that of Justin Bieber. He describes the group’s first New York City show, held last November at Webster Hall, as a bizarre scene. “It was packed so densely with industry and press,” says Schreiber. “You felt 75 percent were there in industry capacity and 25 percent were real fuckin’ fans.”
Though they’re preternaturally media savvy, Odd Future regard the fourth estate as a barrier between themselves and the public. “When I see a bunch of journalists or writers there, it kind of hurts,” Tyler says. “Don’t take up space at my shows, when there’s a 14-year-old kid out there that saved up all this money for a ticket, and it’s overcapacity because your dumb ass got on the list just to blog about it later tonight.”
For all the distinctive elements of Odd Future’s story—the cultural slumgullion, the controversial content, the media obsession—their rise should not be regarded as a freakish anomaly but as the tip of an approaching iceberg. While new artists will continue to be introduced through major labels, mixtapes and regional club hits, Odd Future illustrate how channels of discovery are rapidly mutating. Without any conventional measurements of success, a group of teenagers went from putting bedroom-produced songs on Tumblr to being the hottest commodity in music within a matter of months. This is going to keep happening. At present, Odd Future are evolutionary forerunners that must also survive a new reality. “It’s so fuckin’ surreal,” says Hodgy from the backyard of the Austin ranch. He pulls out a joint. “This is not happening,” he says. “Slap the shit out of me, please.” —Ben Detrick