Odd Future: Gone but impossible to forget

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have seen the entire Odd Future collective, minus Frank (we can’t have everything), at the Kentish Town Forum in July 2013. I’d been to a few hip hop gigs previously, but these were largely alternative UK artists such as Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip and Ghostpoet, and Odd Future was an entirely different beast.

There was an energy there that I hadn’t experienced since I first started going to gigs. It was reminiscent of Anti-Flag when I was fifteen, or the first time I saw Gnarwolves. Simply put, Odd Future was more punk than any punk band I’d seen in years. The crowd was visceral, rapping every vulgar and brutal lyric back at the group who bounded around stage from the first drop to the last. The entire standing area swayed like a rip tide and the floor buckled as mosh pits formed and dissipated organically, all at the behest of the group who, more than anything else, were just having fun.

Bentoboxd - Flickr
Bentoboxd - Flickr

Tyler was the ring leader, the jester and the bear baiter, encouraging the crowd to dive deeper into their base urges one minute, and the next joking and dancing with a cape on a speaker. Mike G, Hodgy, Domo and co. rotated around Tyler, happy to drop in when required and when not to just mess around on stage and fill the room with smoke from a fairly ridiculous number of blunts. Earl was still fairly newly back in the group at this point and was still finding feet again but he still shone during his features, his dexterity and flow a step up on everyone else on stage (and pretty much anybody in the world whose name isn’t Killer Mike). About a year later when I saw him solo in Islington he’d regained his swagger and appetite for rowdiness though, telling an equally enthusiastic crowd, “you do not need to feel safe tonight”.

This is the outward image Odd Future work quite hard to present, and what certain parts of the media work equally hard to give them; drugs, vulgarity and violence. The best example of this, and the inherent misunderstanding of Odd Future, is Newsnight’s hilarious attempt at interviewing them. Kids love this element of Odd Future, they say things nobody else will and have a ‘we don’t give a fuck’ attitude. This is undoubtedly a major component of their success, but to pigeonhole them as such is a vast oversimplification. The best way to highlight this is with a comparison to a group I saw a few days after Earl in 2014; Black Star.

Joe - Flickr
Joe - Flickr

Before Black Star even begin it’s clear that they’re a completely different affair. Rather than Lil B and Ace Hood cuts, the crowd is warmed up by DJ royalty J.Rocc expertly mixing hip hop, funk and jazz classics. When Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli take to the stage, both dressed smartly and armed with 50s style microphones, they have the aura of two people who are in complete control. Bey and Kweli are two of the most respected MC’s in rap history and they bounce intricate verses off each other throughout the set; seamlessly moving between rapping, a Capella, spoken word and singing. It’s a master class in craft and whilst the crowd moves with them, for the most part it’s appreciation rather than aggression that characterises Black Star.

The differences are to be expected, not least due to the fact that Earl was four years old when ‘Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star’ was released. Despite this, Black Star and Odd Future were born from similar beliefs, namely a distaste with the current state and culture of rap. Just consider the parallels of Kweli’s witty, “People thinking MC is short hand for misconception” in ‘Definition’, and Tyler, the Creator’s rough and blunt, “I started O-F because I think we’re more talented than 40 year old rappers talking about Gucci” in ‘Bastard’. Both groups have also moved beyond music to express themselves across multiple mediums, but they’ve done it in very different ways.

Odd Future is the battering ram. There’s no real why to the collective outside of them doing and making whatever they want; but just because they aren’t explicitly talking about politics and social issues, it would be foolish to not consider their music as social commentary. They’re crass, impetuous and dark in their satire, but this satire is still poignant and a reflection more on those who they’re satirising and those who attack them for it than it is on them.

Black Star is the fine toothed comb; two of rap’s finest lyricists crafting thoughtful and insightful comments about inequality, injustice and misconception.  Kweli and Bey have always been politically astute and conscientious writers, as have many of their contemporaries, and are rightly respected for this. Yet despite these efforts, the rap culture Odd Future inherited is still characterised by many of the issues Black Star were responding to in 1998; a white dominated industry that markets a fetishized view of black culture to white suburban youths to the detriment of pro-Black messages. The societal problems the Odd Future generation have inherited are also largely the same, and if thoughtful and careful messages through the proper channels have been ignored, why not do something people can’t ignore and graffiti a massive dick on their houses?

Their differences are akin to the delicate wordplay of Stewart Lee against the punch drunk bluntness of Doug Stanhope; Black Mirror Charlie Brooker versus Nathan Barley Charlie Brooker. There’s no right way of making a point and we’re still debating the most effective way; but just because the way Odd Future make their point isn’t always the easiest to digest, it still shouldn’t be disregarded.

earl
earl

In recent years Odd Future has also proven that they can be as delicate as they are direct. Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’ is an excellent blend of RnB and hip hop with beautiful production and thoughtful, at times brutally honest, lyrics (Pink Matter in particular is probably one of the best songs of this century). ‘Doris’ and ‘I don’t like shit, I don’t go outside’ have cemented Earl as one of the most talented lyricists and technicians in modern rap, as well as giving some of the most accurate and reflective representations of depression in popular culture (see Bojack Horseman). Tyler is also generally underrated as an artist as most people just recognise the character, but his production abilities and articulation have developed with every album, and these albums have overarching, complex and subtle narratives that develop as gradually as the plot of Twin Peaks. This artistry, coupled with their unique independent business model and entrepreneurial talent (their approach to merchandise and album sales was borderline revolutionary, and how many other acts can boast their own TV Show and Festival?), means they should never be just dismissed as a bunch of rowdy, vulgar teenagers.

So whilst the fact I will never again see the full Odd Future collective in all their glory (or lack thereof) is something to mourn, the group’s individuals are stronger than ever and their legacy as a whole will live on. There are few acts that can be considered a cultural force that drove the direction of rap (think Andre 3000 making it okay for rappers to sing, lil Wayne making so much music that he changed the mixtape game, and ‘808’s and Heartbreak’ allowing Drake to become a thing) and Odd Future should be talked about in this way.  They were a whirlwind that swept through 2010/11 and made kids from middle England swear at their parents whilst wearing snapbacks and Miley Cyrus tees. That’s what made them famous and there’s a lot to be celebrated in that alone, but they were always more than that, even if they weren’t always recognised for it.