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

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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

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    • SFGooner

      For real many original punks, HR and the Bad Brains are a poor punk “touchstone”. They have been an amazing live band with some seminal moments, but they crapped all over their punk “legacy” with their virulent homophobic attack on the Big Boys (who embodied a true punk ethic).

      I don't know sh-t about the OFWG, but there is nothing punk about “overtures to rape and homophobia”, and true punks don't excuse this behavior. Not in 1977, 1997, or now.

      • tommmmm

        You're kind of confirming a lot of the author's points by using the phrase “true punks”.

        • Onepersonsjunk

          perhaps, but my point remains valid which is that real, genuine, thoughtful, caring, intelligent, creative, politically and socially inquisitive and motivated people (all of which are characteristics I ascribe to the time when I considered myself “punk”) do not excuse or tolerate homophobia, rape, or anything that purports to celebrate them.

        • tommmmm

          Fair enough. But I don't think Odd Future necessarily celebrates any of that. You can listen to yonkers where Tyler says some stuff that might come off homophobic but in the same breath talks about dancing around in panties. I wouldn't be surprised at all if most of the lyrics aren't completely literal and you have to take them for what they are; absurd. Also with Bad Brains, they had a history of homophobia outside of their lyrics. That wasn't really part of their music. Another point I'd raise, is would you have the same reaction to a movie with homophobia in rape? Why is that only certain forms of art can be offensive or have offensive content?

    • http://hbgwhem.tumblr.com/ HBGWHEM

      well now we know where Cage Kennylz went when Myspace Cage took over.

    • Mike

      If a white rapper were as openly racist as the members of Odd Future are homophobic, they'd get hammered in the press.

      • tommmmm

        Are they also cannibals and rapists?

      • http://twitter.com/straponheart Evan Hatch

        It seems like every attack on the content of OF comes from someone who can't comprehend satire, has no real knowledge of the group outside of hastily written 'trend pieces', and therefore misunderstands the group entirely. To everyone who still thinks Odd Future is homophobic or misogynistic, let me just say that ONE OF THE MEMBERS IS A GODDAMN LESBIAN. In that sense, they are one of the rap crews to which those terms are least applicable, and that alone should make them punks in the culture of hip-hop.

        • http://twitter.com/emceeharv Jack Spencer

          I know a lesbian. Nothing I say from here on out is homophobic or misogynist. Right, that's how it works?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=505759069 Julian Tully Alexander

      I agree that Odd Future is not punk, and unique in some sense to hip hop that is gaining mainstream recognition. Punk ideology is conveyed in the re-appropriated sense of the term not in the same way radical punks do.

      I think your article is interesting but it seems like a common trope that mainstream media doesn't know how to label youth moments or accurately depict the movement itself. Also don't really know if I consider Odd Future subversive.

    • junjun

      I don't see what's so original about them honestly.

      • Jan Uwland

        Definitely on your side

        Same as the sex pistols, 100% image, music is a vehicle for political attacks and attention grabs

    • junjun

      I don't see what's so original about them honestly.

    • Aaron

      “Just think: if we let Odd Future define themselves…”

      Are you suggesting that there is some danger to Odd Future if we attempt to define them? I would guess they don't give a crap if people compare them to punk or whatever and they will just keep doing their thing regardless.

      That's the wonderful thing about youth culture– they are generally oblivious or don't care about what the old folks are saying. Meanwhile, the old folks flatter themselves by pretending all their cultural commentary is extremely relevant and cutting edge because they are discussing the youth culture.

      • http://mehanjayasuriya.com mehan

        I agree! Even so, this stuff does have a way of framing the conversation around an artist and I think that that can ultimately be limiting or even damaging in some cases. Some artists can be really self-conscious/self-aware about criticism and taxonomy in a way that eventually creeps into the creative process–my feeling is that that's where a lot of those “difficult” sophomore records come from. These guys are obviously web-savvy enough to follow every word that's written about them on the internet but for their sake I hope that you're right and that they genuinely do not give a shit.

        • Aaron

          Apropos of this conversation, I was just reading Tyler, The Creator's tweets (funny stuff) and he had a four tweet rant yesterday complaining that XXL was comparing Odd Future to the Insane Clown Posse . So, I think you are right that they are web savvy and do care about critical comparisons.

    • http://twitter.com/chantzerolin Chantz Erolin

      Great article aside from the Kool Keith (not that I have anything against him) and ICP shout outs. A better bet would be clipse/neptunes/n*e*r*d*… and don't forget bieber.

    • http://twitter.com/bitchidonethis MargueritedeB

      I agree with artcile but simply the name “Odd Future” is reminiscent of Punk and makes a s trong case for a comparison with the former movement, albeit a way more creative one. Even the way they have a strong media machine behind them is reminiscent of what McLaren was doing with the Sex Pistols, except that this time they clearly have more control over what comes out and are able to channel that machine better.

    • http://twitter.com/bitchidonethis MargueritedeB

      Oh and I wish I'd spent my Valentine at a f*kcing OF concert!!!! True Punk does prevail!!

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