The Strange But True Story of How the Hip-Hop Collective Odd Future Hit the Big Time

 Photo via  LA Magazine .

Photo via LA Magazine.

Published for Los Angeles Magazine, October 28, 2014
This piece was a finalist for LA Press Club's National Arts & Journalism Awards 2015.

As music industry doomsayers bemoan the fact that no album has yet gone platinum in 2014, hip-hop collective Odd Future keeps releasing quirky hits while extending its reach—not merely as a musical tribe but as a cultural phenomenon.

“Culture,” Tyler, the Creator says, “I fucking hate that word, culture.” The statement reflects the iconoclasm of Odd Future’s fearless 23-year-old leader and offers a glimpse into how the group broke through the hip-hop industrial complex and rebuilt it according to their own rules.

In 2011 Tyler and Hodgy Beats made an intense television debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, their faces obscured by balaclavas, barking staccato rhymes into the mic. The group was immediately embraced by fans, especially young ones, who idolized their gritty beats, absurdist humor, and DIY style. Theloose collective of nearly a dozen L.A. acts has grown exponentially. R&B crooner Frank Ocean, who had collaborated with Tyler before Channel Orange made him a star, won two Grammys last year. Twenty year-old rapper Earl Sweatshirt’s signature dark cinematic sound — and lyrics influenced by his turbulent life and horror flicks — was honed as a teen in Odd Future, which led to his critically lauded 2013 Columbia Records debut, Doris. Music is only the beginning. Odd Future’s empire includes a sketch comedy show on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim (Loiter Squad), a commercial-free online radio station, a line of street fashion, and a boutique on Fairfax where you can buy the threads.

At the center of it all is effusive polymath Tyler, whose warped imagination pushes the boundaries of whatever medium he delves into. “Like any other ideas, mine come from my brain. I can’t explain it,” Tyler says about his immense creative output. Between rapping, producing, painting, designing, and filmmaking, he somehow finds time to curate next month’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival. Headlined by Pharrell Williams the festival features the entire Odd Future crew from Syd Tha Kid, who fronts the funky act The Internet, to Earl Sweatshirt with his detached West Coast flow to Hodgy Beats, who’s known for his edgy lyrical attacks. The troupe reflects a full spectrum of sounds and personalities too. Behind this seemingly chaotic bunch, the business and hype machine is kept well oiled by Christian Clancy, the group’s manager.

With his wife, and business partner, Kelly, his company 4 Strikes handles several aspects of Odd Future’s sprawling operation. Before Odd Future, Clancy had worked at Interscope with rappers Eminem and The Game and consulted on marketing for video game company Activision, but the allure of the major label rap world had worn thin. “The business built a wall around itself and left the artists outside of it,” he says. “It all felt like marketing. It was the same executives signing the same artists, putting them with the same producers and writers, shooting the same videos with the same directors, using the same video girls who were styled by the same stylists who got them to wear the same Air Force Ones from the same Nike connection. The business forced artists to play the middle and it became boring. It felt like we were selling vacuum cleaners.”

Clancy, who had left his full-time gig at Interscope but was still consulting for the company, when his friend Dave Airaudi, who had worked with him at the label, showed him the video for “French.” The clip features Tyler barfing, skateboarding, fighting in parking lots, and unleashing generalized mayhem. “I was going to hike the Himalayas, do yoga, chill the fuck out,” Clancy says. “And these little fuckers inspired the fuck out of me.”

When Airaudi introduced him to Tyler, Syd Tha Kyd, and Hodgy, Clancy connected with them instantly. “They reminded me of myself at their age. Without sounding cliche, there was just an energy about them that felt different than anything had in a while,” he says. “The ‘not giving a fuck’ element was very attractive to me, not in a negative sense, in a self fulfilling positive way. To be free from what people think is an incredible place to create from.”

With their vision aligned, Clancy and Odd Future set off on their own, building an independent label that would become the hub for all things Odd Future. “We started hanging out and the more we hung the more we clicked,” Clancy says. “It all played out naturally and wasn’t forced.”

The label was a departure point with each act developing its own narrative, aesthetic, and sound. Each member was an individual entrepreneur but they were unified under the Odd Future umbrella. Syd was the sensitive one, whose home studio was where the crew would often lay down tracks. Tyler was the maniacal genius whose could spout off controversial tweets one minute and work with superstar pop-surrealist painter Mark Ryden the next. Earl was the mysterious one, who disappeared (his family sent him to military school in the Samoa) then reappeared with a devout following. “Earl came back with some kind of mythical status,” Clancy remembers, “that was hard for a kid who was finding his own way.”

Today, Odd Future Records works with Sony to distribute various efforts but the group operates more like a startup, engaging and reacting to their audience via social media, which they use to incubate ideas for art, music, and fashion before a finished product enters the world. In the early days, it was all happening on their laptops; beats were fashioned in the bedroom, distributed on blogs, and promoted on Twitter. It’s a different scene than when 50 Cent or NWA were selling CDs after shows in parking lots. Odd Future’s business model is much closer to that of a Silicon Valley startup: lean, agile, responsive. It’s hip-hop powered by a punk ethos and tailor-made for the Tumblr age.

According to Clancy, he and Kelly act as “business advisors, managers, parental roles, friends” to the collective, which keeps them more than busy. “A typical day doesn’t exist,” he says. “Creative meetings with Tyler about the carnival. Syd will stop by for lunch to talk Internet recording. Someone might be in some sort of trouble, which has to be dealt with. Radio station planning. Strategizing 2015 meetings. Domo’s mixtape rollout. Meetings about TV shows. A game of cornhole.”

Working with the young act, most of whom are two decades his junior, the 40-something Clancy has changed his outlook not just on business but on life. “I learned so much from these guys that I’ve applied to my life. Just being a part of something that felt so honest and not worrying about all of the metrics of success that didn’t apply to what we were accomplishing. The financial implications weren’t as important as staying true to themselves, because when you do that, the money works itself out. There was no fear of failure because the failures wound up being catalysts for success elsewhere.”

Lately, Clancy has been working on the third edition of Camp Flog Gnaw, which comes to the L.A. Coliseum on November 8. The bash features rock bands Cherry Glazerr and Trash Talk as well as hip-hop heavyweights such as Rick Ross and MURS alongside the Odd Future crew.

“The 2015 version of Odd Future is very different than the 2011 version of Odd Future,” Clancy says. “Here’s a bunch of kids who came out, blew up, and toured the world. They had never done that stuff. So they’ve grown up and are much more aware. They’ve evolved.”

As for the future of Odd Future, Clancy remains cautiously optimistic. “We’ve all seen how these stories end: success, money, ego, insecurities, people growing in different directions. [It] usually plays out like a Behind the Music episode. It’s definitely not perfect, however we all seem to work more like a family that can ride out the highs and lows, the arguments and make-ups.”