It's mid-December, and the corner of Fairfax and Oakwood is filled with teens in hoodies taking turns skateboarding over a wooden plank and biting the pavement.
“Oh shit!” yells Odd Future's Tyler, the Creator, rushing to join in. “Do it again!”
The sidewalk in front of the L.A. hip-hop collective's pop-up clothing and art shop on Fairfax becomes impassable as folks pour outside to watch the spectacle. They're here to celebrate the digital release of Purple Naked Ladies, the debut album from the Internet, an Odd Future subgroup featuring members Syd the Kyd and Matt Martians. The ethereal vibes from the work — the first release on Odd Future's eponymous label, hitting stores at the end of this month — are pumped from speakers out into the street.
In the shadows is Syd herself, Odd Future's resident DJ-producer-engineer. Despite a quickly rising profile, she's something of an outsider in the hotly discussed collective, which often is accused of being misogynistic and homophobic. Often glossed over is that Syd happens to prefer women.
And if you don't think that's a big deal, you're wrong: The notoriously gay-unfriendly world of hip-hop boasts not a single viable artist who has come out of the closet. Thus the 19-year-old born Sydney Bennett is literally its most famous gay person.
Tonight she hardly stands out from her male compatriots in her loose T-shirt, even looser jeans and a mohawk, and spends much of the evening observing the antics from the sidelines. As the night wraps up, she slips away without fanfare. It's strange behavior from an Odd Future member, considering the group thrives on attention-grabbing antics and controversy.
“[They're] my family,” she says. “But people forget that half of Odd Future isn't like Tyler. It's more than just shock rap.”
Indeed. Purple Naked Ladies departs from the aggressive, vein-popping hip-hop favored by other collective members. With Martians (né Matthew Martin) helming production and Syd on vocals, the album is a sort of pop experiment, a dissonant blend of electro, soul and psychedelia.
Having previously remained quietly behind Odd Future's turntables, Syd emerges on the album with a voice that's smooth, elegant and often quite fragile, couched in Martians' atonal electronic blips and arrhythmic beats. It's what Radiohead's Amnesiac might have sounded like with Sade on vocals.
“Who would ever think Odd Future's lesbian DJ would have a voice like that?” says Odd Future manager Kelly Clancy, who adds that Syd and Martians only began their project at the prodding of Clancy's husband and co-manager, Christian, who observed their chemistry behind the mixing board.
“Our music made it easier to express things we were going through personally,” Martians explains.
Earlier that week, Syd and Martians are watching TV in the spacious Marina del Rey apartment they share with Mike G, who is also in Odd Future. A pair of kaleidoscopic laser projectors casts glowing, multihued shapes across the bare walls and ceiling; a flat-screen TV and an assortment of video game consoles sit on the carpet. The only furniture in sight is a sofa set and coffee table, harboring a vaporizer, colored pencils and a jumbo pack of Twizzlers. Elsewhere there's a drum kit, an acoustic guitar and the small living room studio where the duo cut their album.
“This right here is all we need,” Syd says. “We don't leave the apartment unless we have to.”
Syd hasn't been long out of her parents' house. She and her 17-year-old brother, Odd Future member Taco, grew up in Inglewood, children of a wholesale toy buyer father and a DJ turned stay-at-home mom. Self-conscious and racked with low self-esteem, Syd transferred during her sophomore year from Palisades High School to the Hamilton High Music Academy. She was depressed, she says, in part due to struggles with her identity and sexuality.
Odd Future seem to have helped bring her out of her shell, and her partnership with Martians is particularly inspiring. The duo struck up a MySpace friendship (which inspired their group name) in 2007 while he was working as a producer near Atlanta. Meanwhile, Syd met Odd Future's Hodgy Beats when he tagged along to a friend's session that she was engineering. The collective coalesced, and she became their go-to studio gal.
Now, the lithe Syd folds herself, catlike, into an office chair, while the bald and burly 23-year-old Martians sprawls across the sofa. Self-described best friends, they share frequent belly laughs and an uncanny chemistry. “Here's the thing about shock value,” Syd starts, before Martians finishes her sentence. “You have to strike a nerve in any kind of way, because the world is so desensitized.”
They're speaking of the video for the Internet's first single, “Cocaine,” in which Syd picks up a doe-eyed girl at a carnival, gets her to snort the white powder, makes out with her and then shoves her out of a truck when she passes out. Upon its November release, Syd faced criticism. “[The video] completely degrades the kind of positive media attention lesbians and women have fought for,” opined writer Courtney Gillette in a piece for queer women's media site Afterellen.com, calling her “just as careless and offensive as the rest of Odd Future.”
But Syd says such reactions miss the point. The song's lyrics, like, “Baby just ignore the consequence/You look like you could use a little confidence,” are reactions to the drugs and vice that have accompanied Odd Future's newfound fame. “I haven't tried cocaine,” she says, exasperated. “[The whole point is] don't go to a carnival and do cocaine with a stranger! Or someone who would kick you out of a car for O.D.ing!”
Curiosity about Syd tends to focus on two things: her sexuality, and how she can tolerate being in a group known for homophobic and misogynistic slurs.
The former, she prefers not to address directly. “I hate the word lesbian,” Syd says. Although she's comfortable with who she is, she worries that talk of her personal life will overshadow her music. “I don't want anyone saying, 'Oh, that's dope, for a gay girl.' ”
“Look, I don't represent bald niggas,” Martians adds. “And Syd doesn't represent women or gay people.”
As for Odd Future's slurs — NME reported more than 200 variations of “faggot” on Tyler's album Goblin — Syd maintains they're not meant to be taken literally. “We know where we cross the line, but we also think the world would be a much better and funnier place if people weren't so offended by it. One thing you can't say about Tyler is that he's a liar. He's not really out there raping girls. He tells you that they're fantasies.”
Odd Future are currently working on a group album, due out this year. The question lingers: Where does Syd fit in among all the vitriol? “We're all very honest people,” she explains. “We try really hard to be ourselves. Because it's a struggle sometimes.”
She accuses Alicia Keys, Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott of being closeted lesbians and laments the lack of “openly dyke” artists for her to look up to. That's where she comes in, she says, noting that she's been flooded with fan mail for her openness in the “Cocaine” video.
“If I could help open a door for someone, who knows what I could do next?” she says, hugging her knees to her chest. “It took me a very long time to be comfortable in my own skin. I would love if everyone could be that happy.”