Tyler, the Creator: Horsing Around
PHOTO BY STAR FOREMANTyler, the Creator
"Are there do-rags here? I want the horse to wear a do-rag."
A crisis emerges midway through the taping of bumper spot skits for the second season of Odd Future's Loiter Squad. Downtown's industrial district is do-rag-less. There are bandannas and snapbacks but no do-rags, and Tyler, the Creator, the Adult Swim show's star, wants to drape a do-rag around the pony neighing next to him.
If this doesn't make sense, take a step back. Ask yourself: Is the juxtaposition of a pony in a polyester skullcap and a 6-foot-2, 22-year-old black man (Tyler) in a woman's bathrobe and shoulder-length blond wig, inherently funny to you? If the answer is no, you're probably perplexed by Odd Future. Odds are your ADD-addled little brother or cousin feels otherwise. To them and innumerable self-identified teen outcasts, Tyler's sophomore record, Wolf, out April 2, is as anticipated as the PlayStation 4.
In two years, the hip-hop collective has emerged as likely the most organically popular in America. Without radio or major-label promotion, Tyler's Odd Future Frankenstein yielded a Billboard Top 10 debut (Tyler's Goblin), a record label, a popular cable show, an MTV Video Award (for "Yonkers") and a streetwear line with a flagship boutique on Fairfax. OF member Frank Ocean released last year's most acclaimed album and won a Grammy Award.
Tyler is a voice of his generation, rasping rebellious gospel to kids kicked out of class, the ones unable to identify with Girls.
"Last time I saw you, we was broke," Tyler greets me with a smile as canary-eating as the cats on the OF brand hoodies. "Now everyone's eating. We paid."
The barbarians stormed the gates to make a quarter of a million dollars selling socks. Tyler insists that he's not rich yet, "just financially stable." But the trappings are altered. He owns a four-story house and a Range Rover, and records in professional studios. When I first met him in the fall of 2010, he was sleeping on the dog hair–strewn couch of his mom's place and recording in a spartan back house owned by the parents of his engineer, Syd the Kid.
Tyler still dresses and acts the same, no jewelry, no frills — except he's half an inch taller and designs the logo on his garments.
Beyond the house and car, he's avoided major expenditures. Tyler describes money's greatest attribute (beyond eliminating worry) as the ability to "walk into Amoeba and buy anything I want." When asked what he wants most, he replies, "Good health."
It's as unaffected by fame as you can be when you're close friends with Justin Bieber, Kanye West and Pharrell. Odd Future are a terrarium at the edge of the mainstream, equipped with its own carnival. The group has even launched its own branding company, in which Tyler will direct a commercial for Mountain Dew.
"I was talking with Dave Wirtschafter [board member at talent agency William Morris Endeavor] and he said, 'What's the difference between Odd Future and an advertising company?' I said, 'Nothing,' " recalls Christian Clancy, the group's manager. "Tyler writes, takes his own photos, draws, makes great videos, and I'm sure will make great films. Love him or hate him, he's one of the most creative kids alive, and his following appreciates his honesty."
Somewhere in his world travels, Tyler acquired the nascent maturity and self-discipline required to properly play the game, as much as you can call someone mature who bites into a Subway sandwich (as he did at the shoot) and exclaims, "I heard white bread gives you AIDS."
This sort of sentence incited a hundred think pieces branding Odd Future as some sinister amalgamation of N.W.A and A Clockwork Orange upon their initial ascent in early 2011. When a domestic-violence group protested them at 2011's Pitchfork Music Festival, Tyler sent them red velvet cupcakes. Meanwhile, New Zealand's Big Day Out Festival banned OF from performing due to "extremely homophobic, misogynistic and hateful lyrics."
The irony is that Odd Future include two openly LGBT members, two more than any rap crew ever. And both Syd and Frank Ocean probably would tell you that their sexuality is too complicated to be boxed into a contrived, four-letter acronym.
"I'm so glad that's over," Tyler says, wearing a pink and teal OF donut hoodie, black jeans, Vans and a green hat. "I wasn't using 'fag' to refer to gay people. If I call a piece of lettuce a faggot, am I homophobic? I might be anti-lettuce but ..."
If this seems absurd, that's the point. Tyler's absurdist at the core, incorporating midgets onstage and shooting trailer trash in tutus for his videos. That's why he's an ideal fit on the cable network that pioneered the first animated milkshake detective. During his first hour at Willow Studios, he asks if he can call me Dad and whether I want a lap dance. In his Howlin' Wolf Haley baritone, Tyler gurgles: "I don't like having random purses around."
Beyond the non sequiturs, there's a steel-trap mind. Clancy declares him one of the most aware people he's seen. Tyler knows that some people think "I'm a joking piece of shit. ... They don't understand that I'm smarter than them."
You only see the full extent of his intelligence in person. His memory is photographic, and his improv ability equals anyone at Upright Citizens Brigade. Before the do-rag dilemma, he riffed for 45 minutes at his latest creation: a bi-curious, hot dog–worshipping thug rapper from New York. Writers are credited on Loiter Squad, but many characters, concepts and lines spring from Tyler.
"I have so many characters in my head," he says, beaming. "I don't even know their names yet."
Despite the controversy and cursing, Tyler smiles more than any other rapper I've met. Whereas many of his peers wallow in their success, Tyler's attitude is perennially "so fucking stoked." His biggest complaint is that people take things seriously now.
On cue, a production coordinator interrupts to inform him that do-rags have been procured and he has to return to the shoot.
"I'll be there in two minutes," he replies.
"After you draw that dick?" she points to a paper where he has gone Superbad, drawing "I [heart] D-12," several phalluses and a donut.
"I'm just going to give it a squirt."
The coordinator exits and Tyler flashes the first frustrated look he's shown all afternoon.
"That's the only thing that's changed," Tyler says. "I could've got a 5-D [camera] and shot this like I used to do. It's a funny video, not a music video. If it's too clean, it's not funny."
Then he draws the squirt, stands up and bounces back toward the cameras.
"You're a monster!!" Tyler's eyes bulge and he's fake-sobbing and screaming at the brown and white pony, which vacantly gazes back at him. No do-rag.
Horses can't wear do-rags. The trainer claims that wrapping anything over the horse's ears could make it bolt out the third-floor window. The cameras focus on Tyler, wearing a dirty blond wig and floral print robe, kneeling over the prostrate body of a small girl, who presumably has been murdered by the reckless, would-be do-rag'd pony.
"How could you do this? You're a fucking animal," Tyler roars, extending his middle finger at the placid equine. Someone says cut. People stir and start talking again. Tyler extends his hand to the horse. "No hard feelings."
Between horse whispering and Kurt Cobain wigs, it's easy to forget the significance of this month for Tyler. There's the second-season premiere of Loiter Squad, the release of his second album and a sold-out, first-ever solo tour.
"I'm nervous as fuck," he admits in an office area concealed within the 150,000-square-foot commercial studio. "Hodgy [Beats] not being on tour with me is kind of scary."
Tyler and Hodgy were the stage-diving and ski-masked cavalry leading Odd Future's original attack. It was the closest thing 21st-century rap had to a Sex Pistols moment, a generational shift sparked by Tumblr, YouTube and a devoured roach. So strong was their wave that it washed over everything, from A$AP Rocky's stage show to Lil Wayne's adoption of skateboarding. Even Diddy vainly changed his name to "Swag."
Credit Tyler for knowing when something is dead. "Swag" has left his vocabulary. Nor does he exhibit nostalgia for his days of anonymity. He had to be famous. There's too much restlessness. He's always avoided drugs and alcohol; there's no need when your brain is always firing. At any minute, it feels as if he could bolt out of his chair and shatter the framed photos hanging in this ersatz office.
"The album sucks," he preempts discussion of Wolf. He's not playing it for press — not even his publicist has heard it. I ask if he really believes that, and he mischievously raises his eyebrows.
Tyler wants to make radio pop but on his own terms. Maybe an album with Justin Bieber or collaborations with Tame Impala and Toro y Moi. He plays piano and the drums, and plans to learn guitar. He'd rather sing, but his voice is too low to hit his ideal timbres à la Stevie Wonder, Pharrell or Prince. Instead, it's gnarled and hellish, which makes it perfect for rap.
"The lyrics are the same stupid shit ... still rapping about dicks," Tyler continues drawing. "The only difference is that I brag about how much money I made last year."
This is partially a self-defensive pose. When asked what happened to the furious kid of Bastard, the free mixtape that launched his career in the summer of 2009, Tyler replies: "I was pissed, and then life kinda started getting good. But Wolf is emotional. It's bright and dark. I brag about having a four-story house but being lonely."
The loneliness isn't emotional but an inability to relate to anyone. It's a form of creative salvation. No matter how deep he goes inside the system, he can retreat to whatever weird, tie-died sanctuary makes him unique.
"Even if I'm at the Grammys, I feel like I'm an outsider. I don't really think about shit until someone brings it up. I can't explain how it is. I'm not lonely, I just don't have anyone to relate to," Tyler says. "I'm the same dude. I'm still regular. This shirt must've been washed a hundred times."
He can't relate to anyone and neither can his fans, so they fall for him. I ask my 14-year-old cousin why she has "I [heart] Odd Future" on her Instagram and she offers as good an answer as any: "I like how their sound is different from other artists. I like Tyler's humor and how he's his own unique person. Everything else feels fake."
Tyler relates to these stories the most. He still responds to fans' questions on a personal Formspring account, ranging from his favorite theme park (Magic Mountain) to what color fans should dye their hair (green). Mr. Kill People Burn Shit Fuck School even occasionally offers the old-fashioned advice to get off the Internet, go play outside with friends, and eat ice cream.
His eyes particularly light up when telling the story about a girl who wanted to be a ballerina but abandoned her dreams to focus on studying for college.
"She sent me a letter saying that I gave her the courage to try out and win a ballerina scholarship," Tyler says. "We put so much confidence in kids. I just want them to be themselves. I don't know how I did it. ... But it's cool."
The production coordinator interrupts again to tell Tyler to prepare for the last skit. So he wraps orange and blue do-rags around his head and slips on a shirt with an airbrushed piece of bread. Printed in bubble letters is: "RIP JOHN JOHN."
Tyler explains that the skit's genesis stemmed from wondering what would happen if your best friend were made of bread and he died. He lets the ridiculousness of the question linger for a second, shrugs his shoulders, grabs a votive candle and goes off to mourn John John.
The good news is that it's pretty easy to put a do-rag on a piece of bread.
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