So tomorrow we get Tyler, the Creator’s third studio album Cherry Bomb. For followers of the trailblazing OFWGKTA, it has so far been an interesting journey in which we’ve seen the various different characters unravel artistically in a variety of ways. In the interest of the under-rock dwelling population I’ll include a vague recap below:
Odd Future came out or nowhere and became a weather-making force in Hip Hop and wider youth culture. This irreverent collective of Rappers, Producers, Singers, Skateboarders and visual Artists emerged from the Ladera Heights suburbs of Los Angeles with an explosive new take on alternative hip hop. With the new sound they brought their own visual aesthetic, culture and brand persona. The IDGAFness was infectious and many youngsters wanted to be a part of what felt like a radically new cultural movement. Groups of teenagers were titillated by the brash expressiveness, reckless abandon of common decency and refusal to adhere to any preconceived notion of what a group of black kids from LA should be like.
Odd Future, or OFWGKTA were a unique proposition that could have potentially been difficult to market. Existing somewhere in between your mainstream mainstays Drake, Nicki Minaj, DJ Khaled etc and the alternative sphere consisting of everything from your socially conscious Talib Kwelis and hyper-verbally-dexterous Aesop Rocks to your abstract texturalists Shabazz Palaces, Odd Future didn’t identify with either side of the binary. Equally contemptuous of ’40 year old rappers rapping about Gucci’ and ‘the Immortal Tech-of-the-nique…and all that real Hip Hop that’s full of the sheet [shit],’ the collective liberated listeners from the established norms of Hip Hop fandom. Head honcho Tyler, the Creator’s reverence of mainstream acts such as Pharrell, Eminem, Justin Timberlake and even Justin Bieber as well as obscure Jazz, indie surf-rockers, ‘chillwave’, post-punk legends and neo-soul icons such as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo helped establish the idea that both top-40 indoctrination and the dictates of ‘credible’ music tastemakers are largely false idols. From the intelligent use of merchandising to the organic approach to collaboration and partnerships, Odd Future have become a massive movement influencing mainstream culture whilst continuing to be a subculture and maintaining a strong core fan base.
Below are some ways in which Tyler, the Creator has turned what started as a hobby then mutated into a career into an established and growing brand:
1. Establishing a brand template
Odd Future were wrongly cast, when they first burst on to the scene, as a horrorcore or shock-rap group. However, that reception was quickly put to bed once the initial wave of press hit the internet. We soon learned that behind the obscenity, murder fantasies, gross lyrical indecency and casual use of offensive slurs such as ‘faggot’ and ‘bitch’ there was a delicate balance of juvenile rebelliousness and actual sincere complexity. This potentially confusing public image was channelled into the aesthetic template that the collective built for itself. Sonically many Odd Future releases were juxtaposing dark minimalism with intervals of soul-infused Neptunes-esque vibes which were evocative of West Coast weather and summers spent outside Skateboarding, socialising with friends and having awkward exchanges with members of the opposite sex. The OF clothing and merchandise being sold was defined by a kind of absurdly blunt sense of humour with hoodies adorned with badly-drawn pictures of the (at that point) absent Earl Sweatshirt or a photograph of the frankly un-epic looking group associate Lucas. Kittens adorned tie-dye t-shirts and knee-length socks from which Tyler claims to have made ‘a quarter million’ from became a fashion staple of countless mesmerised teens. Tyler appeared on the cover of NME in a wedding dress whilst having an album out which derides ‘faggots’ and details the fantasy of ‘rape[ing] a pregnant bitch’, a year later he was declaring himself the representative of kids marginalised by slurs such as ‘weird, fag, bitch, nerd‘ whilst constantly fluctuating between anger, depression, goofiness, absurdity and extreme focus on his personal goals. Tyler, as the captain of this disparate collective took all of these complex different elements and assigned them to specific signifiers of the Odd Future brand thus being able to communicate the anti-authoritarian, passionately creative and utterly irreverent character of the group.
2. Being able to diversify comfortably
When the notorious ‘EARL’ video crashed onto the internet back in 2009 the average viewer had no clue that this group of reckless teens and young adults were anything but pranksters looking to illicit cheap shocks from the viral community. However, right from the outset OFWGKTA was a diverse group of talented individuals. On the music arm you had the foul-mother and charismatic Tyler, the mysteriously absent (rumours ranged from his being serving life in prison to him not actually existing at all) master-wordsmith Earl Sweatshirt, the aggressively hardcore Hodgy Beats and his MellowHype counterpart producer and occasional rapper Left Brain who is by contrast very mellow (as the sub-group name suggests), the stoner-rap aficionado Domo Genesis, neo-soul gurus Syd the Kid and Matt Martians, the swag-King Mike G and the melancholy alt-RnB crooner Frank Ocean.
Odd Future’s often wild antics quickly captured the imagination of youths across the Western World which opened the door for the groups to explore other creative outlets. The ranks were soon padded out by existing friends and associates such as Travis ‘Taco’ Bennett (brother of Syd), Jasper the Fucking Dolphin and L-Boy who were the architects of the Loiter Squad venture on Adult Swim. Whilst Tyler has been pulling fans towards the group from the get-go by filling the collective with all sorts of diverse talents, there is no indication that the doors are closed to partnering with new talent. From signing the Hardcore punk group Trash Talk to Odd Future Records and doing production work for the up-and-coming vintage soulstress Kali Uchis to directing a dreamy music video for ex-Chester French member D.A. Wallach’s ‘Glowing’ to making a re-imagined West Coast crip anthem for Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron album, Tyler has kept his fingers in many creative pies. This organic approach to brand building through pursuing various different creative channels has allowed Tyler, the Creator to maximise OF’s exposure whilst retaining the core values and aesthetic.
3. Responding to failure in the right way
When Tyler’s second 60″ Mountain Dew ad which featured the ‘Felicia the Goat’ character alongside a group of black men (all OF members) was pulled for being racist and misogynistic, it was clearly a source of disappointment for the budding director. His official response stated that the ad was ‘never meant to spark a controversy about race’ and was intentionally ‘absurd’ and ‘not meant to be taken seriously.’ Whilst I let the internet intersectionalists argue this one out with the libertarians with regard to the rights and wrongs but in terms of Tyler’s brand, the minor controversy only helped. Tyler’s position as a charismatic and free thinking creative unjustly bound by the contemporary concept of poor taste was only cemented as he continued to offend the sensibilities of both left and right. The self-directed video for the raucous ‘Tamale‘ off 2013’s Wolf, was a fitting address towards these issues as the artist continued to prick the consensus of what constitutes acceptability.
Another instance of (at least partial) failure was the critical reception towards Tyler’s first studio album Goblin. Whilst an exciting enough project for existing fans, for others Goblin was a disappointment in that it did little to really bring across the artist’s full musical potential. I enjoyed the album at the time but with some time plus critical distance I can see that the artists had perhaps become trapped within the impression that fans and critics alike had made of his. The root of this failure, I believe is in Tyler’s becoming too comfortable with the media caricature and lacking adherence to the creative irreverence that is core to the OF brand that he created. However, Tyler has since been vocal about his own disappointment in the end-product and has learned from the experience with subsequent releases. The sophomoric Wolf did a much better job of channel the diverse range of influences, and whilst not being by any means perfect, helped give a truer impression of the artist. Tyler, in essence took ownership of this failure and built his learning a into his subsequent creative approaches.
4. Trying new things
The recently-launched Golf Media paid app for which Tyler has partnered with media tech company Whalerock Industries has been created in order to allow him to share content such as his own new music, film & music video work and interviews as well as other licensed content such as music, art and film that has inspired him directly with his fans. Whether or not this will prove to be a profitable venture I don’t know, OF do have a large and extremely dedicated core fan base who would likely not blink twice at paying a £4.99 subscription but there are always concerns about making people pay for stuff that they can get for free online. Regardless of the outcome, the move is not likely to damage Tyler and the brand that he has built in the long term. The core values of ‘Fuck the rules’ and ‘Find your wings’ that Tyler built the Odd Future brand around are being reasserted here with confidence.