He’s the 20-year-old behind the most hyped hip-hop collective since the Wu-tang Clan, but despite the attention, Jim Carroll discovers Tyler, the Creator doesn’t like the challenge of tricky questions
IT BEGAN ON The Jimmy Fallon Show. Of course, the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (or Odd Future, in short) story began much earlier with a bunch of brilliant albums which had been released in the previous 18 months. But that appearance by Tyler, the Creator and Hodgy Beats in February was when this Los Angeles collective landed on the mainstream radar with a bang. It was a moment and there have been many moments since.
Within days, everyone was an expert on these whipsmart, bratty, snotty teenage rappers, producers, skate kids and visual artists. They knew about Odd Future’s über-talented leader Tyler, the Creator. They checked out the dozen or so albums including Bastard,
Earl and BlackenedWhite which had been released by the collective online and, leaving aside those who didn’t get beyond the dark, menacing, horrorcore lyrics, were struck by the sheer brilliance of the sounds. They added to the stock of conspiracy theories about their talented but missing rapper Earl Sweatshirt (currently believed to be attending a “therapeutic centre” in Samoa).
Odd Future travelled to the South By Southwest festival in Austin in March and the mainstream buzz reached fever pitch. By the time they left town after a bunch of incendiary, riotous, swaggering shows, Odd Future were the talk of the festival. It felt as if hip-hop was finally getting that long, overdue kick up the rearend. They were the kind of gigs you reckoned were for the “I was there” scrapbook.
It’s May Day in London town and the bunting to mark the royal wedding a few days earlier is still up on leafy streets around Ladbroke Grove, the neighbourhood XL Records call home. Long before Odd Future landed on US TV shows and began to receive mainstream media attention, label boss Richard Russell had signed Tyler for a solo album. There’s a big poster for that album, Goblin, at the office front door surrounded by promo paraphernalia for current XL acts such as Adele, The xx and Friendly Fires.
Tyler is working in the tiny studio attached to the office, intensely plonking away on a keyboard to create sinister, eerie, slow, dark beats. What he’s producing sounds a bit like a creepy Bernard Herrmann soundtrack, but a lot of the beats which the self-taught Tyler has already created sound just like that. Those beats, though, were created by Tyler at home. Getting to work in a studio like this, the one where The xx recorded their debut album, is a new experience for him. “It’s just more stuff to play with,” he shrugs and points to the bank of equipment: “I don’t even know what half of this shit does.”
There is just one thing to note before we get any further: Tyler hates interviews.
“I fucking hate interviews,” he reiterates just to be sure. “And photo shoots. They’re stupid. They both equally suck because I don’t like being told what to do. I don’t mind my friends taking my picture, though.”
The problem for the lanky 20-year-old is that he has a new album on a record label to promote and this requires sitting down to do interviews. Much as he’d prefer to just communicate via Twitter – he incessantly tweets as @fucktyler – releasing an album in the conventional way requires the act to do promo in the conventional way too.
So how did he get here in the first place? Tyler says he started making music in his midteens because he was bored. “I was really into cartoons and skateboarding and stuff like that and hanging out with my friends. The music I liked was people like Clipse and Neptunes and Eminem. I don’t like old-school hip-hop, I never have. I don’t rate them or what they’ve done. I just liked music and decided to start doing that.”
The reason why the music he and his cohorts began to make got so much attention to begin with was because the music was quite special. In a hip-hop arena where some rhythms and rhyming topics are beginning to develop repetitive-strain injuries from overuse, Tyler and Odd Future’s work stood out by virtue of its ingenuity. It’s also quite rare to come across such an exceptional body of work from every member of a collective. Hip-hop hasn’t seen it since the Wu-Tang Clan, hence the comparisons between Odd Future and the Staten Island gamechangers.
The fuss hasn’t changed Tyler. “The only thing that has changed is I have to do these interviews. That’s it. Nothing else has changed, nothing else has been altered. Everything’s the same.”
What is new, though, is a much more vociferous critical focus on Tyler’s lyrics. Yes, it’s true that no one was making an issue of Tyler’s angry, bitter, raging, vicious rhymes about rape, violence, misogyny and homophobia when he was just another kid making tapes for a small, devoted underground audience.
But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question Tyler about his thought process now. The arrival of XL in his corner, increased hype for the collective and the attention of people who weren’t initially championing the band means Tyler is now facing questions he’s never had to think about before, which is the whole
“I hate interviews. And photo shoots. They’re stupid. They both equally suck because I don’t like being told what to do”
point of interviews.
His excuse of the violent fantasies that pepper his songs, though, are not terribly convincing. “People who go on about the lyrics just don’t get me,” is the rapper’s defence. “The focus on the lyrics comes from people who are not fans. The lyrics are just characters doing stuff in just fantasy stories. The people who are fans ask me different questions.”
What kind of questions do your fans ask you? “Questions like ‘ what’s my favourite colour?’ ” Your favourite colour? “I prefer those questions. I’m fed up answering questions about the lyrics. That’s another reason why I hate doing interviews. Didn’t those people once have fun? I just say the stuff that’s on my mind and that often happens to be dark.”
But attempting to dismiss the lyrics as simply “dark” or “fun” fantasies is not enough when the topics under the microscope are as vile as rape. There may be plenty of precedents for equally calculated outrage using offensive lyrics in hip-hop – from 2 Live Crew to Snoop Dogg-– but this doesn’t mean that Tyler should get a pass when it comes to dissecting what drives his songs. He can’t just point to those who have gone before him and say he’s doing the same thing.
As Tyler and Odd Future’s profile grows (and it will continue to grow – Sony have just signed a deal with the group for more albums) and if the lyrics continue to mine the same terrain, these questions should rightly continue to come at him. Instead of discussing his views on how and why those lyrics may well cause anger and upset (or if this is the intent), Tyler would prefer to either refuse to do interviews or just talk to a gallery of fanboys who want to know what his favourite colour is. It’s not very convincing.
He might grow out of it – after all, the Beastie Boys grew out of such juvenile pranks as having a 20-foot inflatable penis and women in cages onstage with them – but just ignoring the questions is a bit of a cop-out. Any further attempt to bring up the topic again today is met with sulky silence, which is not a great defence when the questions don’t suit you.
Tyler is not sure what the hell is going to come next. “It’s all a roller coaster at the moment,” he sighs. “I don’t know yet what I want. I don’t think about becoming as big as Eminem. I think we’re only starting, though. I think everyone in the group is underrated for different reasons. I think I’m underrated and don’t get the credit I should for doing what I’ve done. Syd doesn’t get enough credit, Mike gets overlooked, Hodgy doesn’t get attention. That will change eventually once we pass this shitty hype and people realise that we’re so talented and so young.”
Goblin is out now on XL. Odd Future play Oxegen on July 10th and The Academy, Dublin, on August 23th