Tyler, The Creator Biography
Last updated: 06/07/2014 06:42:45 AM
Tyler Okonma, better known as Tyler the Creator, 20-year-old frontman of Odd Future, the world's most notorious rap group, is having a fit. He was sitting cross-legged on the table of a boardroom in the London office of his new record company, XL – home to Adele, the xx and Dizzee Rascal – but now he's on all fours, and in raptures.
"Oh, my gosh!" he explodes as a bowl of bacon and syrup is placed in front of him. As he smells the food he emits a raspy gasp that sounds vaguely satanic. "Suck my dick," he says to no one in particular, before tucking into his hearty American breakfast. It is 4pm. "Oooh, this is so fuckin' good," he moans in an impossibly deep voice, the one that has earned him a grievous reputation for rapping about murder, rape and all manner of depraved, disgusting acts. He resents being teased about going vegetarian. "Fuck, no," he says, lifting his head from the plate to fix the Guardian with an "are you mad?" stare. "That shit's gay."
You can't really ignore Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Well, you could, but you'd have to not use the internet and not read any press. They are everywhere. There's a good reason for the ubiquity: OFWGKTA are astonishing, both on record and live, where they approximate the combined imagined force of the Sex Pistols, Slipknot and NWA. At YoYo in Notting Hill last week, London's most glamorous – as well as Adele, the xx, Mark Ronson, and Jamie Reynolds of Klaxons – turned up just to watch OF's in-house engineer Syd Tha Kyd do a DJ set. Tyler and OF mates Left Brain and Hodgy Beats were there, sitting in the background, holding court. Suddenly, Syd cut in an OF track and, out of nowhere, the three jolted into life and began moving manically as though they'd been cattle-prodded across the room. Even the none-more-cool crowd went wild, a scene repeated at two rammed OF appearances at Village Underground and the Camden Crawl.
And you should hear their records. No, you really should. For sustained and diverse brilliance, only the Wu-Tang Clan with their numerous side projects come close, and even they weren't this precocious (Odd Future are aged 17-23) or prolific. Over the past 18 months, the eight rapping and recording-artist members of OFWGKTA (a collective that also includes producers and illustrators), have made more than a dozen albums available for free download. Forget "mixtapes", these are fully realised works; sample-free, each meticulously crafted and worthy of major label release. There are two albums by the Jet Age Of Tomorrow, who specialise in light'n'breezy cosmic lounge funk; two collections of by turns psychotic and psychedelic crunk by MellowHype; two albums of hi-tech latterday G-funk by Mike G; some blunted beats and experimental studio play courtesy of Domo Genesis; even a suite of exquisite R&B with soul-baring lyrics from Frank Ocean.
Then there are the three Odd Future compilations (The Odd Future Tape Vol 1, Radical and Some OF Shit) that have hinted at what OFWGKTA are capable of, and the two solo works that have made it explicit: Tyler's Bastard and Earl by Earl Sweatshirt. Bastard is ghoulish, but it's also rather gorgeous, with its stark piano lines and pillowy keyboards. There is misogynous loathing of the most extreme kind, and there is suicidal despair, all wrapped up in murderous tunes and expressed in that viscous growl, like Rakim with all the nutritional elements removed. In this writer's opinion it is one of the best rap albums ever made, free or otherwise.
Earl is an even more sick (in both senses) attraction, with its buzzing synths like drills in an abattoir made all the more menacing by the almost facetiously pretty melodies. What impresses most is the witty intricacy of the rhymes as the appallingly articulate (and, it has to be said, furiously funny) rapper, 16 when he recorded it, moves from one repugnant scene to another. The group's totemic outlaw figure, the Sid Vicious to Tyler's Johnny Rotten, only blazingly talented, Earl is currently in a facility for wayward youth in Samoa; chants of "Free Earl!" are commonplace at OF gigs.
"He's so good," says Tyler, who has finished eating and is sitting, legs outstretched, on the table. "I want to be on his level one day. That dude's sick. He has such a natural flow; I don't know how he does it."
'I don't know where all the anger comes from. It's just this dark place that I go to when I'm alone. We all do' - Tyler the Creator
What about Tyler: how does he do it? Inspiration for the plaintive atmospheres and mournful violins, he explains, comes from "a bunch of French jazz, old soundtracks, library music, shit with crazy chord progressions and changes in it." He adores Roy Ayers: "Listening to him, it's like, 'How the fuck did he find that?' That shit's tight." There are elements in his productions that rap fans will recognise – the murk of Cannibal Ox, RZA's haunting strings – while others may hear in its billowing synths echoes of chillwave (Toro Y Moi even produced a "chopped and screwed" version of Tyler's track French). "I listen to Washed Out, Beach House and Broadcast," says Tyler. "That's what I'm influenced by. [That's why] the music is a mixture of pretty chords, fuckin' hardcore drums and basslines, and really nice strings."
It was Fader and Pitchfork who first picked up on OF. They were rejected by the hip-hop blogs, and Tyler is less enamoured of the form ("I respect it but I don't really like it"). He seems happier with the notion of OF continuing a legacy of rock radicalism rather than fitting into rap history. When it's proposed that they're signalling one of those seismic moments comparable to Public Enemy in 1987 or Dre and Snoop in 1992, he seems disappointed. When I add names such as the Sex Pistols and Nirvana, making OF part of a bigger continuum, he perks up.
"You mean like how the Sex Pistols and the Doors came along and changed everything?" he wonders. "Oh, I see what you're saying now." He loves Joy Division – Ian Curtis, Hitler and late US comedian Bernie Mac would be his three perfect interviewees – and the idea of Berlin. "I've never been there but I'm expecting it to be fuckin' grimy and scary and dark, but like a really beautiful place once you look past it," he says.
You really couldn't ask for a more pithy encapsulation of the OF aesthetic. But what about those lyrics, Tyler?
"I usually just say what I'm feeling at the time, what I think is cool," he replies. "It's sporadic. It's the first things that come in my head. Like the word 'goblin'," he says, referring to the title of his imminent solo album and first official release. "It randomly came to me. Goblins are little mischievous fucks."
Brought up by his mother, a former social worker, much of the rage in his music is directed at his father, who abandoned him, and at women, for whom he reserves his most chilling put-downs.
"I don't know where that anger comes from," he reflects. "It's just this dark place that I go to when I'm alone. We all do."
Does he not consider the effect his music might have? "I never think of that. I just make shit I want to listen to. Not everyone's got to like it."
Tyler still lives with his mother and he claims she doesn't listen to his lyrics, but she has been seen at OF gigs, getting off on the music. "She just supports her son doing what he always wanted to do, being on the cover of magazines, so she can show her friends," he laughs. "I know if I was a parent and my son was on fuckin' TV, I would look past any negative shit he said and just support my kid."
'They're some of the nicest people you will ever meet. We play, we joke, we have fun. None of us wanted to grow up. This is how we keep our innocence' - OF DJ-engineer, Syd Tha Kid
And yet, for all Tyler's debased language and casual use of the word "faggot" in conversation, he and OF are not feral skatekids rampaging across the States on a diet of pills and "purple drank" cough syrup. He might announce, "I'm bad milk – drink it" on Bastard, and he might lurch around on stage in a ski mask, but actually he's a teetotal non-smoker who doesn't touch coffee.
"I'm a pretty nice dude," he says. "I have fun and people take it the wrong way. Like when I start making fun of people and fucking with them, it's just funny to me."
Is there anything he wouldn't rap about? He pauses for a moment:
"Not that I know of yet."
Has he ever been offended by anything? "Somebody called me a homophobe. I'm not homophobic. I just say 'faggot' and use 'gay' as an adjective to describe stupid shit."
Enter Syd "Tha Kyd" Bennett. She's engineered most of the group's recordings in the guest house at the back of her "upper-middle class" (her phrase) parents' home. Still only 19, she used to be a business student; she also happens to be gay. Does her presence allow the boys to "get away with it"?
"In a sense it does," she says, although she adds that, "Even if I wasn't here, they'd still be saying the same stuff." Asked whether she condones the use of brutal language against women, she replies that she must do; after all, she says, "I mixed it all. I listened to those tracks millions of times."
She argues that "offensive words don't deserve their value, their power", and that they're just words. "He [Tyler] isn't necessarily saying, 'I want to rape so-and-so.' They're just sick, twisted fantasies that he's had, based on girls that have hurt him in the past. A lot of people have sick, twisted fantasies, so why not give them something to relate to?"
She considers her male Wolf Gang members "some of the nicest people you will ever meet. We play, we joke, we have fun. None of us wanted to grow up. This is how we keep our innocence."
Just when you're reeling from the idea of OF as joyous naifs, you read Tyler's Twitter feed, where he's declaring his intention to slap a child at the airport for wearing a Donald Duck hat.
"Yeah, she wouldn't shut the fuck up," says Tyler of his message. "I didn't want her to have it [the hat]. Stupid little bitch. I shoulda socked her ass. See? A six-foot-two black guy talking about socking a seven-year-old Asian kid in the face … that's funny to me!"