Odd Future Ride The Bus, Become Unicorns

We ride along with hip-hop's unlikely breakout stars, in Bigger Than the Sound.

The morning after they terrified Jimmy Fallon, Brandon T. Jackson, Felicia Day and most of Middle America with their lurching, unhinged performance of “Sandwitches” on “Late Night,” 45 percent of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (or “OFWGKTA” if you’re nasty) were sprawled out on a Chinatown bus bound for Philadelphia. They weren’t particularly happy about it.

Tyler, the Creator — who, in recent months, has become the rather unwilling focal point of the group (if “group” is even the right word) — sat facing forward, surveying the rapidly disappearing New York City skyline. His eyes were wide and the brim of his omnipresent Supreme ball cap jutted up at a 90-degree angle (the same cap made an appearance on “Late Night,” but only after Tyler had removed a green ski-mask with an inverted cross scrawled on it), a sartorial choice that made him look like a member of Fat Albert’s Junkyard Gang. He was thinking about the previous night’s performance, which, to this point, is the high-water mark in Odd Future’s rather odd anti-career. And when he finally spoke, in a gravelly voice that belied his 19 years, any and all resemblances to cartoon characters ceased. Because, whether he realized it or not, what he said was unquestionably real.

“When people say you can do whatever you want, I really thought that sh– was corny, until this moment right now,” he said. “Like, that’s when I say, ‘I’m a f—ing unicorn,’ people are f—ing confused. I’m a f—ing unicorn, and you’re not going to tell me I’m f—ing not. I’m a f—ing table. I’m a f—ing table, and you can literally be whatever you f—ing want, as long as you believe that’s what you are.”

Right now, Odd Future most assuredly believe they are unicorns. And tables. From unlikely beginnings — they formed as a ratty skateboarding crew in Los Angeles, then graduated to making homemade videos that combined gross-out stunts with lyrical odes to inebriation, masturbation and wanton violence (missing-in-action member Earl Sweatshirt’s “EARL” video does a nice job of summing up this early period) — have somehow become the hottest-tipped act in hip-hop. They’re now the subject of millions of “next big thing” features, even if they don’t want to be (Tyler reportedly turned down XXL magazine’s offer to appear on the cover of its 2011 “Freshman” Class issue , and just as many analytical pieces about the very nature of their success.

From their loose status — there are something like 11 people in Odd Future, depending on whether or not you count Earl, who is either in boot camp or living with his mother — to their improbable rise from the blogs to the big stage, to Tyler’s short-shorts and knee-high socks, there truly is nothing else like them in hip-hop today. They are a knee-jerk reaction to the past decade of the genre that has been dominated by sneering, WWE-style heels, boastful “Scarface” impresarios, super-producers-turned-rappers and dudes who just plain-old use Auto-Tune. This is apparent in their live shows (which usually devolve into mosh-pit-and-middle-finger frenzies) and their prodigious, grits-and-gravel back catalog (three group albums and seven solo albums, all available for free on their website). Not surprisingly, they’ve also earned more than their fair share of detractors, who call them a flash in the pan or, worse yet, “horrorcore” revivalists. But this does not faze Odd Future in the slightest. They are, after all, f—ing unicorns, creatures that just seem unreal, not to mention slightly magical, and they don’t have time for the haters.

But today, hip-hop’s brightest hopes are riding the Chinatown bus. Seems all the hype in the world couldn’t get them train tickets to Philly, or, God forbid, seats on an airplane. Tyler, Hodgy Beats (with whom he appeared on “Late Night”), Domo Genesis, Left Brain and producer Syd tha Kyd do their best not to terrify the elderly Chinese women who are making the trip with them, preferring instead to listen to new songs on massive headphones. As a collective, they are always working, but really, everything is pointing toward the upcoming release of Tyler’s Goblin album, on XL Recordings. The video for its first single, “Yonkers,” produced entirely by Tyler himself, was on its way to breaking the million-view mark while they were on the bus, thanks in no small part to its sputtering backbeat, Ty’s jaw-dropping verses and the shocking video, in which he devours a hissing cockroach, vomits, removes all his clothes and hangs himself. Big things are happening, even if the Odd Future kids — especially Tyler — don’t seem willing to admit it.

But can they cross over to the mainstream? It would take, to say the very least, a rather seismic shift in popular tastes, but I suppose anything is possible. As I wrote last week , it seems like rock music is already undergoing a similar shift — in with the old, out with the new — and perhaps hip-hop is due. Things simply cannot continue on at their current pace. And who knows, maybe Odd Future are the group that will push things forward. Watching them run amok in Philly that evening — humping the city’s iconic “Rocky” statue, skateboarding around the streets — and then whip the crowd at the Barbary into a madcap froth, it’s not exactly a stretch to say they’re already on their way. Can they keep it together? Can they coexist? Can they free Earl? Shoot, they’ve already made it this far, by doing their own thing, their own way, so who’s to say they can’t take it all the way? They can be unicorns. They can be tables. And hopefully, someday, they can even be passengers in first class.

Could Odd Future ever become mainstream successes? Should they? Sound off in the comments.