Posted by Mike Hobson on 04/04 at 02:58 PM
It seems as if recent discussion of independent music always veers toward some great tech-fueled triumph of the artist over antiquated industrial burdens. Visions of languishing music industry suits lamenting the downfall of commodified intellectual property in the broadband age seem to overpower that of the struggling artist. The artist has proven immeasurably more agile in using technology to his/her advantage. The chains of the music business have been broken! Our tastes will no longer be at the mercy of the fat cat corporate label A&R types!
This sentiment, while seemingly over-idealized, is complemented by the downsizing of popular music production. Witness the intersection of independent marketing and production that offers any kid with the increasingly available tools a shot at rock superstardom. Despite the potential in this model to bombard the listener with a dizzying influx of hacks, some of its products demand attention. The rise of Los Angeles based Hip Hop collective OFWGKTA (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill them All, shortened also to Odd Future) is the textbook example of this phenomenon.
Over the past year this independent group of 11 rappers, producers, and social media promoters has released 12 mix tapes, all of them available for free download. Ranging in age from late teens to early twenties, they are led by group founder Tyler the Creator. He boasts production, writing, and directing credits among their work, and his solo mix tape “Bastard” is held by many fans to be the strongest in their library. It starts off with a six-minute track framing Tyler’s verses as addressing an ominously deep voiced psychiatrist, a dehumanized authority figure that appears in-between verses throughout “Bastard.” This lyrical theme is established over a slow piano dirge with colorful but subtle synth layers, making for an overall sound immediately notable for its originality among free Internet hip hop releases.
The rest of the material continues this feel. The theme of psychological disturbance continues with the reappearance of the psychiatrist character, fully realized in strikingly obscene lyrical content reminiscent of a young Eminem. It is violent, misogynistic, vaguely Satanist at times, offending on just about every level for which rap music has been criticized. It is not, however, motivated by the money-cars-women materialist trap that many artists of the genre fall into—the lyrics shock and alienate to advance a well-developed theme, albeit an unsettling one of outright mental illness. The production compliments it with sparse, yet formidable, compositions like the opening title track as well as more upbeat synth-heavy beats with minor punk rock sensibilities. It embodies the signature sound of Odd Future. It’s a balance of shock value, youthful disillusionment, and artistic integrity also struck in their music videos. Fellow Odd future rapper Earl Sweatshirt’s “Earl” video portrays strange group drug experimentation followed by amateurish, but nonetheless unsettling, gore in a homemade Jackass-skate movie style that aligns well with his playfully explicit lyrical prowess.
Tyler the Creator establishes a similar feel in the visual for “French,” another track off his “Bastard” mix tape. It was the YouTube release of a song off of his upcoming album, however, that was dubbed by Kanye West as “the video of 2011.” “Yonkers” consists of a single three minute and five second shot of Tyler rapping in front of a plain white backdrop, over the course of which he experiences violent nausea after eating a cockroach, goes blind, flips us off, and concludes by hanging himself. To date it has received over 2 million views. The Kanye West endorsement came via Twitter, one week after Tyler and band mate Hodgy Beats made their national television debut with a performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
While their mix tapes and videos had been circulating at an increasing pace over Facebook and YouTube in the year preceding, their television debut seemed to open the floodgates of Odd Future hype. The unique nature of Odd Future’s talent and their sudden rise to national fame carries with it a certain degree of uncertainty as to where exactly it’s all headed. A cynical observer would predict the surrender of creative control in a major label deal and the subsequent fizzling out of their originality-generated hype. Moves made by the group thus far, however, suggest that efforts made by major labels to sign Odd Future will be fruitless.
The day after the Jimmy Fallon appearance, Tyler the Creator signed with independent label XL Recordings on the condition of complete creative control. Odd future subgroup Mellowhype are in a similar deal with Oxford, Mississippi based Fat Possum Records. The group even satirized the idea of signing with a major label in an online sketch for funnyordie.com, in which comedian Paul Scheer plays the record executive with career ideas that include a Disney Channel show. “You’re animated, you have a dragon named Chauncey, a bicycle built for nine, and you travel through time solving mysteries!”
And so it seems for now that the group will retain the creative energy that fueled the past year of exposure in their upcoming album releases—if they do, it will make for some great material, as well as a bold new direction for hip hop and independent music as a whole.
Author: Mike Hobson
Bio: Mike Hobson is a junior at Penn State majoring in English and minoring in human development and family studies. He is a member of the Penn State Rugby Football Club, Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity, and he plays drums for local funk band Jackie and the Stylists. Growing up around a vibrant live entertainment scene in the Philadelphia area, Mike developed a passion for live music and comedy from a young age. His favorite bands are Led Zeppelin, the Meters, and Moe.
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