Wrecking crew: Odd Future

Boston Globe, May 8, 2011

“They say I’m immature, I say that they’re repressed.” It’s an eternal complaint of misunderstood youth, and, in this instance, a line from the wildly talented and at times deeply off-putting debut album “Bastard,” by the young and outre Los Angeles rapper Tyler, the Creator.

The line also sums up the debate raging among music nerds as Tyler’s posse/creative collective, the absurdly named Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA), has emerged from the Los Angeles skater scene and become a national phenomenon behind a dozen albums, each made by various sub-sets of the crew, all free to download from the group’s site and myriad blogs.

The records introduce a cast of characters who recall the way Wu-Tang Clan burst on the scene in 1993 – when Odd Future’s members were children. There’s dark-witted Tyler, the provocative founder; Earl Sweatshirt, the gifted MC who has mysteriously disappeared; Domo Genesis, the weedhead; Syd, the DJ and sole woman; and others. A total of eight make up the current core unit, which visits the Paradise Thursday for a sold-out show.

Sold-out because Odd Future has quite a reputation, forged in LA, on their first East Coast tour last year, and at several epic sets at this year’s SXSW festival – orgies of punk provocation and stage-diving into crowds that knew every lyric and broke out in chants of “Wolf Gang! Wolf Gang!” to roar their appreciation.

About those lyrics: N-words, B-words, and several kinds of F-words abound. Rape fantasies are explicitly stated. Homophobia is pervasive. The vitriol isn’t universal: some songs are too preoccupied with weed smoking, for instance, to address these other topics. But the overall atmosphere goes past provocative and can turn sinister.

This would not matter much if no one listened to Odd Future or it remained a local novelty act. And invective and sexual violence aren’t new in any genre. But Odd Future muddles the picture by making some of the best hip-hop in years in terms of inventiveness (they’re great story-tellers, and when not being ugly or dissolute, they’re referencing writers, movies, and politics), sonic innovation, and charisma. This has critics looking for how to have it both ways.

Querying the group directly is complicated by its volatile media relations. For several weeks recently, Tyler stopped talking to reporters. This was apparently triggered by a music magazine’s investigation of Earl’s disappearance, which concluded that Earl was packed off by his mother to a reform school in Samoa. No one denied this, but press relations cooled.

It fell to Domo Genesis to answer questions for this story, in a phone conversation more coherent than his stoned on-record personality might suggest.

“I think people are being sensitive,” Domo said on the question of lyrics. “The things we say are the things they’re afraid to say. So we say them. We like to press buttons. But we don’t do it just as a matter of shock value, it’s just that we’re not afraid to cross the line artistically.”

In that sense, Odd Future are rapping who they are – a bunch of kids from LA who mostly connected on the skate scene, hanging out in the Fairfax district, or in high school (Domo met Tyler in 11th grade at Westchester High School) – and whose songs spin fantasies using that milieu’s language and references.

But they’re also smart, and not just street smart. Domo, for instance, only dropped out of Arizona State because opportunities to perform were taking off: “It was, do I want to be a graphic designer for the rest of my life, or do I want to chase my dream?”

“All of us are smart,” Domo said. “We’re really smart. We’re not computer nerds … well, we’re pretty much computer nerds. And everyone individually has things they’re interested in outside the music. Everyone’s always checking out movies and books.” They share these references, he said, as they make music.

Earlier that day, Odd Future had announced a distribution deal with Sony Records that will let them run their own label with creative control. Domo’s mood, recorded in his Twitter feed throughout the morning, was ecstatic.

“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been waiting for my entire life, confirmation that I’m a music artist. It’s in our hands. It escalates. It’s official now.”

Becoming “official” means Odd Future has a good chance to be more than a flash in the pan. The group is adding associates, notably alternative-soul singer Frank Ocean, whose remarkable album “Nostalgia, Ultra” evokes a mixture of Shuggy Otis and lo-fi eccentric Ariel Pink. Tyler’s new album “Goblin” is due out next week.

Where the group takes this momentum as their reputation grows is an open question. They are all between 17 and 23 years old, so their creative personalities are far from locked. All Domo promises is that the crew will stay together, augmented by Earl whenever he returns.

“We’re going to do it as long as we can,” he said, “progress together a lot further.”