Gang of DIY Hip-Hop Prodigies Love the Internet

These days, the music business – or at least the industry’s old-school business model – has become obsolete, as illegal downloading continues to diminish record labels’ profits.

Yet piracy and the Internet are also opening up the music world, exposing more genres and bands to more people than ever before, without gatekeepers choosing which Top 40 hits to play. The Internet has no radio format.

When a friend of mine posted the video below, I caught my first glimpse of a musician who thrives on downloading: Tyler, the Creator. I had heard of his group, Odd Future, but as Tyler sat on that stool and rapped to a cockroach, then ate it and threw it up, I was entranced. The music was dark yet catchy, and the lyrical content was imaginative and impressively thought-out.

Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA) is a rap collective from Los Angeles, and are the latest “saviors of hip-hop.” First and foremost, however, they are young – a rascally gang all under 25. Along with Tyler, the Creator, there’s the mysteriously absent Earl Sweatshirt. Hodgy Beats, who doesn’t actually make beats, partners with LeftBrain, a precocious producer, in the duo MellowHype. Weed-infatuated rapper Domo Genesis named his album Rolling Papers even before Wiz Khalifa did, while the laid back Mike G sprinkles some gangsta into the group. There’s crooner Frank Ocean, an R&B singer/songwriter who has been signed to Def Jam since 2009, and clowns Taco and Jasper, who don’t rap, but appear on tracks for comedic effect. Matt Martians is the oldest member and one-half of “The Jet Age of Tomorrow.” Finally, there’s the DJ: at age 19, Syd tha Kid is the only female member of OFWGKTA.

Together, they’re a collective, much like the Wu-Tang Clan, although Tyler has told the press that while he sees the comparison, they are not Wu-Tang.

OFWGKTA has released most of their material for free. They’ve also done most of their marketing and production with the do-it-yourself ethic many musicians have supported. Their popularity has risen so explosively that by the time Odd Future visited Boston, hundreds flocked to an autograph signing by Tyler, the Creator, stopping traffic and causing what the local media called a “riot” on Newbury Street. The OF boys took to the roof to entertain the crowd, who were enjoying the chaos as much as the rascally rappers were.

Earlier that day, I’d watched people follow two OFWGKTA members, LeftBrain and Mike G, as they updated their Twitter accounts from locations around my neighborhood, Allston, Mass. Odd Future uses social networking so regularly that there are updates almost every time you refresh. I walked around my usual route a bit in hopes of catching a glimpse of the group, and ended up running into them three times. The fact that they decided to explore the area for themselves, instead of ordering a private tour, shows how genuinely personable and accessible these guys are. They’re just like us, and that message of humility and equality is one of the reasons the Odd Future phenomenon has blown up so fast.

As the media becomes aware of the OF collective, controversy surrounding their shockingly graphic lyrical content has arisen. Especially offensive is their use of derogatory terms for homosexuals and the subject of rape as a plot device within songs. But with this generation, as Eminem’s success implies, shock value sells, whether it hurts feelings or not.

“Random disclaimer: Hey, don’t do anything that I say in this song, okay? It’s fuckin’ fiction. If anything happens, don’t fuckin’ blame me, white America. Fuck Bill O’Reilly,” announces Tyler before the song “Radicals,” the third track of his album Goblin, released May 10. Tyler has said he’s not writing instructions; violence is just the subject matter on his mind.

It’s not uncommon for Internet surfers, like those who frequent forum site 4chan, to joke about rape, so it’s not surprising to see this attitude in online music. However, some are taking this kind of content very seriously, including Sara Quin, one half of the musical duo Tegan and Sara, who identifies as lesbian. Quin wrote a blog post this month entitled “A Call for Change,” in which she states, “Why should I care about this music or its ‘brilliance’ when the message is so repulsive and irresponsible?”

However, Syd also identifies as homosexual. Search for her name on YouTube and an interview pops up in which Syd addresses how she can stand being in a group that uses such hateful language. She responds with, “I smack b***hes, that’s what I do.” Tyler has also explained that he is in no way homophobic.

In the next few years, I expect OFWGKTA to become stronger as they gain more fans via DIY self-promotion, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Earl’s return means a more productively responsible rap style. Maybe Odd Future, now that they have our ears, will persuade positive change for the future. Then again, maybe not.

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