A Year with OFWGKTA: Listening in Solitude and Amongst Sweaty Multitudes

It’s trite, cliché, whatever. But it’s amazing what time can do. In this case, one year:

When, on a humdrum Friday night about one year ago, I first read Sean Fennessey’s lengthy feature on Odd Future, I felt that rare spark of pre-listening captivation that only the best music journalism can incite. Fennessey’s piece, “The /b/ Boys: Odd Future and the Swag Generation”, begins with a breathless, pre-requisite listing of all of the 10-member collective’s idiosyncrasies:

“They excoriate the rap blogs Nah Right and 2dopeboyz, because those sites refuse to promote OFWGKTA’s music…Their mantra is “Fuck Steve Harvey.”…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…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.”

Since then, Odd Future—or more properly, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All—have found themselves the subject of nearly every member of the music blogosphere, for better or worse. Many decry their rape-riddled, misogynistic, and outright repulsive lyrical subject matter, and perhaps rightfully so. Others are, even if wincing, entranced by their raw talent. For example, critic Nitsuh Abebe, after disapprovingly noting how many times ringleader Tyler, the Creator uses the word “faggot” in his latest release, Goblin, admits to finding Goblin as one of the most musically interesting, repeat-worthy albums of the year.

If there’s a reason as to why this act from Los Angeles found itself on a nationwide tour this fall, it’s the video from Goblin’s lead single, “Yonkers.” This February, for reasons that perhaps only Malcolm Gladwell and friends can understand, the “Yonkers” video passed the tipping point of virality instantaneously; it notched over 100k views within the first 24 hours of its publishing on YouTube. The underground’s biggest, most controversial buzz act had—sometime between October and February—emerged from the underground to gather an outright massive cult following.

When I first played an Odd Future track for a friend over the summer, he seemed to be oscillating between disgust and embrace. To my interest, when I talked about Odd Future to another friend in his presence, he suggested that the first time one listens to Odd Future should be in solitude.

I hadn’t considered this since last October, but I was introduced to Odd Future in solitude as well. It’s not quite reasonably social music—putting on that record about rape and assorted, astonishingly creative violence is not quite the go-to mood setter. In fact, there’s an implicit, even intimate agreement when listening to Odd Future with someone else—something along the lines of “Let’s vibe to this, but let’s not kill anything afterwards.”

So I anticipated that an Odd Future show would be a strange dynamic. Most of their releases aren’t high energy, crowd-friendly affairs; rather, they listen more like uniquely dark and imaginative introspective tracks. For example, Tyler’s two solo releases—2009’s Bastard and Goblin—serve as a counseling session between Tyler and “Dr. TC”; we can safely presume the conversations between the two are actually just conversations Tyler is having with himself, likely alone and locked up in his room.

Yet, Odd Future has quickly gained a reputation for putting on the wildest, most carnage-laden shows in music right now. In fact, the only way most of these tracks would work live is the way they perform them: throwing the introspection and complementary unworldly production aside and going as hard as a tour bus full of angry kids could go. The result is a fearsome spectacle, and their show at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro last week was no exception.

The doors were schedule to open at 8 pm. The show was to start at 9. At 9, however, the line into the venue was still wrapped around the building, across the parking lot, and onto the sidewalk. Word was some kids showed up at 5, presumably just to be sure they were the first to be crushed by a stagediving Tyler or Hodgy Beats. At 10 sharp, the only female member of OF, prodigal producer Syd the Kyd, stepped onstage and the crowd exploded for the first of many times. She started with spinning the questionable North Carolina “anthem”, Petey Pablo’s 2001 “Raise Up”, and followed up with the likes of Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame. With most in attendance having broken into a sweat at this point, Hodgy Beats and Mike G stormed the stage with the coffin-banging “64.” The crowd surged towards the stage, achieving a density of human beings in a space that one would generally not think possible.

When Tyler and the rest of the gang took with the machine gun-fast “Transylvania,” the crowd surged towards the stage with such force that some ribs were likely cracked.

Poor quality, but maybe the only video that’s found its way online from the 10/27 show.

There was a lot of stage diving. There was a surprising amount of females in attendance. There were periodic eruptions when tracks like ‘Tron Cat” and the aforementioned “Yonkers” came on (Tyler’s booming “French” was, without question, the highlight of the show). There were a lot of tracks from Mike G’s new mixtape; his impressive, more laid-back delivery provided relative intermission between stretches of rage. There was somewhat surprising amount of moments of visible fatigue after the midpoint in the show, on-stage and off. There were a handful of technical snafus that resulted in the instrumentals skipping, a dooming incident to any hip-hop track (While most of the OF members attributed such to the “shitty venue”, Tyler insisted that he liked the venue, endearingly referring to it as “this small shit.”). There were sloppy, sometimes terribly unsuccessful attempts at crowd surfing by some fans. There was one short, stocky, shirtless man (with a goatee better suited to a Slayer show) that wanted to fight me for not willfully vacating my spot for him. I sensed that he, aside from any instigatory traits, represented the majority of those in attendance: generally angry about the same family woes Tyler cites, really young, and not so interested in hip-hop or what makes OF’s music special as much as the bloody, disaffected messages it bears.

The show was, in most every respect, a success. But for me, it was epiphanic in a sense:

There was a time in the past year when I considered Odd Future to be my favorite hip-hop act. There were times when I felt like I was living a double life, listening to unspeakable verses while walking around campus of one of the world’s most prestigious universities. There were times when I felt like I had caught the best new act in hip-hop before they blew up; I thought they’d never see light outside of the hip-hop blogosphere in fact.

When they began to foster a mainstream following, I didn’t stop enjoying their music. But as music becomes easier to find, those who find it are more likely to hold good music in much less revere. That is, however snobbish it may sound, the more and more of the “fans” of said music listeners are genuinely uninterested in what exactly they’re hearing, and are more interested in latching onto a movement or something “cool.” At Cat’s Cradle, I felt as though I was surrounded by such types.

And this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; one could have easily guessed that Odd Future live would be less about the music and more about the mayhem. This is, after all, a brand of mayhem that simply cannot be reproduced right now—it’s a one-of-a-kind show. And it’s not reasonable to cease liking a band because of what its fan base may include. I won’t stop listening to Odd Future anytime soon. But, with their music put into a broader social context, it’s impossible to listen to them in the same manner now. It may not be an important or even appropriate question, but I wonder who exactly is listening to the music as it is really meant to be heard—should I be chanting “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school” along with “Radical?” Or should I, for example be trying to fathom the unlikelihood that Tyler’s charismatic, deep growl ever found the beat-making abilities of Syd the Kid? After that show, to my slight disturbance, I have my doubts that there exists even an answer.

But, really, perhaps this incredible versatility in utility—from bouncing the listener along to careless, ignorant slurs over ironic party beats to putting him in a dark, sonic corner in space—is Odd Future’s greatest strength. Most live shows are amped up versions of what you’d find on a band’s recording; Odd Future’s live show is just one head of an incomparably broad, massive beast. It’s also just one side I might not pay visit to again.