February 23, 2011

What the Critical Discussion of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All Says About Our Cultural Biases

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What is the issue?

This year, I decided to spend my Valentine’s Day with the gleefully violent teenage hip-hop crew Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. I had little trouble finding a good vantage point at the bar–hardly surprising given that most of the folks in attendance had telltale black “X”s inked on their hands in sharpie. Clad in skinny jeans, hoodies and baseball caps and clutching skateboards, these kids pushed to the front of the stage as soon as the doors opened and waited patiently for two hours, breaking out into chants of “Wolf Gang! Wolf Gang!” every time the DJ dropped an Odd Future track. When pack leader Tyler the Creator and four of his disciples (5 out of 10 members is about the best you can hope for at an Odd Future show) finally hit the stage, the club exploded in a frenzy of upward thrust middle fingers and cell phones. Within 60 seconds of running onstage, Tyler had torn off his green ski mask, donned a baseball cap and stage dove into the audience for his initial crowd surf. “I Hope DC Bring It Tonight,” he wrote earlier in the day on his Twitter account. “I Wanna Have Fucking Fun And Mosh And Fuck Shit Up.”

When presented with an act like Odd Future, which is to say an act whose sensibilities don’t strictly confirm to genre lines, we critics often struggle to describe exactly what it is that we’re witnessing. Having no clear analogue among their contemporaries in the world of hip-hop, Odd Future have spurred many critics to describe their aesthetic as somehow “punk.” Writing for SPIN, Christopher Weingarten described the band’s New York debut as being, “more like a sweat-soaked punk rock teenage riot than a rap show”. Reviewing the same show, the Village Voice‘s Zach Baron went further, asserting that we were there to see Tyler the Creator “[kick] his way across the stage like a young H.R.” We were there “to see Bad Brains in 1979.” Stereogum executive editor Amrit Singh called the band’s triumphant television debut, “the punkest thing Late Night With Jimmy Fallon’s seen in its two year history.” Stereogum senior writer Brandon Stosuy agreed, tweeting, “The appeal of Odd Future, I think, is that they’re punk at a time when almost [no one] else gunning for a ‘network television debut’ is punk.”

I get it: these kids are punk as fuck. Even so, I wonder if we can’t do a little better than try to force something so bizarre, so original and so new into that same tired frame of reference. The punk rock movement is, of course, the lifeblood from which so much Generation X culture flows: indie-rock, fanzines, DIY ethics. In an attempt to understand something like Odd Future, members of Generation X (and, admittedly, older members of Generation Y like myself), try to interpret the work at hand through the familiar lens of punk, reaching for cultural touchstones like the aforementioned H.R. The problem is that in 2011, punk as a subculture encourages conformity more than creativity, its countercultural potential all but sapped through years of commercialization and calcification. In defining Odd Future as “punk,” we’re crafting a narrative where Tyler and friends are descendants rather than insurgents, where their rebellion is mimetic rather than an authentic reaction to the world in which they live.

Authenticity is, of course, a slippery concept but Odd Future are simply too inventive to dismiss as followers. From Tyler’s rants about his absent father and self-deprecating remarks about his own asthma to the band’s diatribes against hip-hop blogs and celebrities, much of Odd Future’s material seems both personal and reflexive. What’s more, as they’ve progressed as artists, they’ve sought to establish their own norms, their own vernacular and their own style, all housed under the under the umbrella of the “Wolf Gang” tribe. Far from aping the well-worn tropes of punk culture, Odd Future seem intent on crafting a subculture of their own.

To be fair, Odd Future do draw clear inspiration from other artists, though punk seems like the wrong lineage. Their closer relatives are fellow shock-mongers in the world of hip-hop, artists like Kool Keith, Eminem and Insane Clown Posse that the Odd Future MCs might very well have grown up on. Even so, the band’s penchant for disturbingly violent lyrics also gets held up as an example of punk. “OF has embraced shock imagery commonly found within the Punk subculture,” G of GRNDGD recently wrote in a post dissecting Tyler the Creators’ music video for “Yonkers,” wherein the MC eats a Madagascar hissing cockroach, vomits blood and hangs himself. Certainly, the OFWGKTA crew’s use of confrontational imagery is subversive, if that’s what’s meant by “punk”. Then again, so was Baudelaire’s. Moreover, there’s an argument to be made that even Odd Future’s most troubling lyrics–overtures to rape, murder and homophobia–are, in a sense, “authentic,” the distillation of a volatile stew of hormones, abandonment issues, teenage angst and sophomoric one-uppmanship.

Still, it’s not like our generation of critics is the first to exercise this sort of bias by trying to describe something new with an old vocabulary. We need look no further than the barrage of “new Dylan” accolades that greets every promising new singer-songwriter from Boomer critics to understand what this must look like from the outside. Greil Marcus hints at our particular predicament in Lipstick Traces: if history began with the Beatles on Sullivan for our parents, then our collective history starts in 1978 with the implosion of the Sex Pistols. Following that logic, Generation X is doomed to define everything it encounters in terms of the Pistols, Minor Threat and Nirvana, to continually point to an increasingly irrelevant canon, to wait in vain for the second coming of punk.

But we’re better than that, right? We can be, if we nip this sort of generational bias in the bud, lest we become the old cranks griping about how much better music was back in our day. Certainly, Odd Future is on to something interesting, a teenage rebellion that’s both playfully childish and deeply troubling, that’s knowingly performative yet disarmingly sincere. This thing–whatever it is–is at times a bricolage much like punk, a collage of images that the band has pulled from, as Caroline Ryder puts in the LA Weekly, “influences they don’t even know they have yet”. But to give this thing a name before it’s had a chance to fully blossom–whether that name is punk or “horrorcore” or something else entirely–is to do a disservice to some very promising young artists working to construct an aesthetic on their own terms. Just think: if we let Odd Future define themselves, those 16-year-old kids up front might just get a subversive cultural movement to call their own. I can’t speak for those kids but I can speak for myself: I wasn’t there to see Bad Brains in 1979–I was there to see Odd Future in 2011. TC mark

Mehan Jayasuriya

Mehan is a writer, photographer and digital rights activist who lives in Washington D.C. His work has appeared in …

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