Tyler, The Creator Features RESPECT
Props to RESPECT.
“Fly or Die”
Yes, Tyler, the Creator’s on top of the globe, but can rap’s crazed genius gain Grammys, reach adulthood and keep his sanity? Let us pray.
Words by Elliott Wilson
Images by Mike Piscitelli
Tyler ain’t so bad. At least when he’s enjoying a spaghetti dinner at manager Christian Clancy’s Hollywood home. The modest abode serves as Odd Future’s makeshift headquarters, filled with boxes of free merch for the skateboard-riding derelicts of rap. After a few years of hard work, aggressive branding and 11 official Internet-only releases, the California collective has finally gained the full attention of the hip-hop nation.
On some Beatles on Ed Sullivan shit, the OFWGKTA (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) crew introduced its unique synth-crunched sound to late-night television this past February, and things ain’t been the same since. The stirring “Sandwitches” performance was followed with the even more
potent follow-up punch, a single release called “Yonkers.” Its black-and-white video finds 20-year-old Tyler Okonma chokin’ on a cockroach and eventually hanging himself by a noose in the end. No less an authority than Kanye West proclaimed it the video of 2011.
Both songs are featured on Tyler’s Goblin, his first album released on an official label, and although the crew has recently inked a major distribution deal with Red/Sony, a lot is still on the shoulders of Tyler to prove he and his boisterous tribe aren’t some flash-in-the-pan sensation.
But if the pressure’s on, I guess Tyler’s not gonna crack. He calmly sits at the mahogany table and for well over an hour answers all questions, even though the process of doing interviews annoys the hell out of him. Although he cusses too damn much, the mischievous man-child is a compelling conversationalist. Thank God Mr. 666 was on his best behavior.
How’d you come up with the Odd Future concept?
It was supposed to be a magazine, at first, in my sophomore year. But what 15-year-old do you know—from a single parent—who’s gonna make enough funds with no job to really do a magazine? But it was supposed to be a magazine that sponsored artists. It was me, Left Brain and Hodgy. I like keeping shit in-house. I wanted my friends to be the ones taking the pictures of the people I’d interview, which were my friends who were skateboarders. I’d make advertisements to go in there instead of getting ads from some clothing line.
But when did you take it seriously, the idea that you could be a rap star?
I knew it was gonna happen. I been rapping since I was 7—in 1998. I always knew I’d be great. I just didn’t know it would happen this quick. I thought I’d be 26, finally getting a deal. I signed that shit and I was 19 with a history already, so I’m doing pretty good. I was always into music.
What were some of the MCs and artists who influenced you the most?
The Black Eyed Peas’ first album, Eminem, Dr. Dre’s 2001 record. I thought I was Usher at one point—not gon’ front. My Way was a tight album. The video with Tyrese? The fuckin’ “My Way” video where they dancing and shit? I could do that whole muthafuckin’ dance. I liked music, it wasn’t just rap—
music in general. I didn’t know how to play piano ’til [I was] about 13, after I seen Pharrell play during the Clones DVD. I’m a big Neptunes fan, like, die-hard. Name a date—I know when it came out, how many tracks, how long they are. But when I seen him play that piano, I was like, That is the coolest shit ever. I was like, I need to learn how to fuckin’ play piano. My mom never wanted to give me lessons, so I taught myself to play.
But your mother was still supportive, right?
She bought me a keyboard when I was 14. At first I was just playin’ with four fingers, until I learned and taught myself chords. I still can’t read music to this day, still can’t even tell you what chord I’m playing, I just know. It was one summer where I printed [OutKast’s] The Love Below, all the notes, and I tried to learn ’em. I got to “She’s Alive,” number 15 off that album. I learned the first eight bars to that, and I was so happy.
So piano led you to learning how to do full production with drums and creating your own tracks?
I actually started making beats at 12. My mom had a friend, he gave me this [software] called Reason. I produced 80 percent of Bastard on Fruity Loops. I never really went to real studios. I recorded “Yonkers” at a big studio. That was my first experience.
You guys are adamant about how the prominent hip-hop blogs weren’t embracing you. Without their support, how were you guys able to build an audience?
It was word of mouth. But [the blogs] were just not fuckin’ with us. There’s this site called Hypebeast; I’d post on the forums there, and they always showed us a lot of love. I kinda feel like without them, we wouldn’t even be where we’re at now. They were the only ones who took the time out to listen. No one else would fuck with us. They still won’t. I got over it, because out of everyone they post, I’m the most successful of all those little muthafuckas they fucked with. It just made me work harder, made me wanna prove them wrong and show them they’re elitists.
But you must admit your music can be very challenging. Have you always made music with this type of shocking content?
I’ve always been like that, doing what I wanted, being defiant. I was always making music I wanted to hear. So if I want to laugh, I’ll make a song about doo-dooing on a fuckin’ table, and people just happen to like it. That’s basically what it is. I didn’t even think of it like, Oh, I gotta make different shit, ’cause I don’t wanna sound like everyone.
What inspires that?
I don’t know. I wanted to be a video director, so I always see shit as a movie, constantly. That’s why I rap with so much detail, and when I say certain shit, you can actually see it. I shot my first video when I was 15. It’s on MySpace, but it’s private. I made that shit I wanted to make, and it got to where it’s not supposed to be. And that feels cool, because I always wanted to be on the radio, always wanted to fuckin’ be on MTV. So when I seen my shit on MTV, “Tyler, the Creator,” “Yonkers,” “Goblin,” “Director Wolf Haley”…[exhales] I waited for that fuckin’ moment and finally got it. I just turned 20. So I’m doing pretty fuckin’ good.
There’s so much attention around your career right now—and your new album, Goblin. I’ve read a quote of you saying, “I think I could win a Grammy, the sky’s the limit for me.” And then later, you’re like, “I could be over by June, I could be a failure.”
I’m optimistic and think anything is possible, but sometimes it goes through my head that I could be a failure. But that won’t happen. That’s what I’m working for, to never have to go to college. I hate that place. I went for a couple days—that was the worst shit ever.
On your new song, “Radicals,” you warn people not to do anything you say in that song. Are you really concerned that it will influence unlawful behavior?
That song is going to go two ways: It’s going to be one of the songs that could make me an icon, and that also will be a song that will get me in a lot of fuckin’ heat with a lot of parents… If Columbine is reenacted or some shit, that’s gonna be on my fuckin’ head. Yeah, it’ll be my fault, just like it was Em’s and Marilyn’s and fuckin’ Slipknot’s and all them muthafuckas.
Is the music—in a simplistic way—a release of some of your anger?
My music is my therapy, because I never was able to get it. All my albums are me reflecting and talking to myself—the dude in my head, who is the doctor dude you hear on some songs. I use him to ask me those questions, and I answer ’em, just to get shit off my chest. If I didn’t have him, it would just be weird, so I use him to have a reason to say shit.
So that was spontaneous when you jumped on Fallon’s back?
I was just having fun. I was on TV. That shit was really cool. I had never been on a set like that, so I just jumped. I don’t think too much when it comes to shit like that. That’s what people don’t understand. I’m just having fun. People don’t know how to have fun no more. They take life so serious. So when people take me really serious, some of the shit I do and say, it’s like, “Really?” I’m just a fuckin’ kid having fun. It’s fun to listen to. It’s like watching a cool movie.
Yeah, but you often describe women and sex in an unflattering way.
That shit just runs through your head sometimes, and you make a song about it.
Some girl must’ve did you dirty in junior high.
Nah, it was senior year. Fuckin’ bitch. She’s crazy now, though, I hear. I was with her friends, like, two weeks ago, and they told me she was off. She moved to New York randomly. She’s lost.
Is she one of the female’s names we hear on the records?
Danielle, Raquel, Sarah—she was Raquel—I just didn’t have the balls to let her know that song was about her. I got groupies. I get good bitches now, but there’s still shit that you always wanted. Like, I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s still like, Fuck…why couldn’t you just fuckin’ be mine? And it’s chill. I mean, you get over it at a certain point.
What is your favorite put-down?
I’m not homophobic, but if someone calls you a faggot—I don’t care who you are—you’re going to be like, What? That shit hits. Why not use that for anyone who does anything stupid? I’ve been writing a lot recently, and I have that in a fuckin’ rap where I tell you I’m not homophobic. I have gay friends and shit, so I just use that word on anyone because it hits people.
Have any folks ever come up to you and actually said that your music offends them?
The thing I get is the triple-six, I’m-atheist shit. “I don’t fuck with your music because you talking about this shit,” and I’m like, “That’s the reason I do it. Because you’re such an uptight fuckin’ prick that you won’t just put that aside and let me be me and enjoy the fuckin’ music.” It’s the dude whose profile picture is him smoking a bunch of fuckin’ weed with some bitch he just fucked, which, in the Christian community, you shouldn’t really be having sex unless you’re married. I mean, I’m atheist. I don’t fuck with religion or anything in any type of way. But when I do certain shit, it’s just to mock them.
How’s your lifestyle changed at this point?
I’m not gonna front, I got a little money, but I’ve worked hard for that. That’s from little shows and remixes and shit. I mean, you see I don’t have jewelry on. I just bought a fuckin’ watch—my favorite watch in the world is from eighth grade, that they sold at Burger King. I bought it off eBay, for five bucks. Shit like that matters to me. I don’t buy jewelry. The money I do have, it just goes to cereal, shirts with unicorns and kitties on them and food. I’m finally able to eat now. It’s kinda cool to go to the store and buy some fuckin’ cereal and some cookies and go back to the house.
How are you doing with being recognized now? Are you ready to deal with all the attention?
Every time I’m where I’m at, I gotta take pictures. It kinda sucks because I go there to skate and loiter, but someone will come by, “Can I take a picture? I’m a big fan,” telling me their life story and shit. Another side of me secretly likes it. I get to meet a lot of girls. So it’s chill. You’ll be surprised the type of races that I bring together, which is really cool. The races are cool—the people kinda suck, some of their mentalities. “Oh, you bringing hip-hop back. I’m only down with real hip-hop, under-fuckin’-ground. Don’t sell out. Don’t go mainstream.” Shut the fuck up. I hate those dudes.
You want to be successful, but you want to keep your creative vision.
I want to get where I want to be. That’s what I was telling you—I made it on the radio, where you have to make a fuckin’ poppy-ass song, and I did it with the shit I wanted to make. That’s big to me. I only do shit I really, really want to do. A lot of people would ask me to perform at their things—I’ve turned down a lot of shit ’cause I just don’t fuck with it. I mean, sure, that money looks good, but that doesn’t excite me. If it doesn’t really excite me or it’s not on my goal list, I say no. Sometimes I don’t want all this shit on me. Sometimes people only look at me, and I have to remind them that it’s, like, seven other niggas I’m with.
How did Frank Ocean get into the picture?
I talked to Frank on the phone for like two hours once before I even knew him; he was picking my brain because he liked what he was seeing, and he was signed to Def Jam. When we met, he’d come by the studio and watch us work. We just started kicking it. He’s like an older brother. I’d introduce him to shit like skateboarding and us doing mischievous shit like yelling at people and throwing eggs. He introduced me to rich-nigga shit. He was doing the good life, driving a fuckin’ Beemer and doing cool shit I’ve never seen, going to weird-ass restaurants and just changing some of my views. Like now, I want to make a million by 23, shit like that. That’s my deal. I stay in contact with him every day.
I thought your response to B.o.B’s “No Future” was interesting.
I didn’t hear my name or anything about us directly, so it was like, Oh, okay. Whatever. Maybe this song just leaked, and someone called it “No Future.” And then it was like, Oh, shit! If he made a whole song about that one line I said, then I’m in the fuckin’ business! Sure. This is kinda tight. And then I was like, Should I just rip this nigga? Because I know, lyrically, I could. I was there when “Nail in the Coffin” dropped. I was there for “Ether” and “Takeover.” So I was like, Should I just kill this nigga off? Then I was like, Well, I didn’t hear it directly, so, ehhh.
See how it plays out. Whatever. But when I first heard it, I was like, Yo, this nigga spitting. I’ve never actually heard him rap like that. Because you listen to any other song by him, and it’s all this “positive singing but I’m rapping, but a 10-year-old white girl can recite this shit.” And then when I heard that, I was like, Shit—he said the N-word.
Do you have lines on Goblin that you think will offend other rappers?
Yes. Not other rappers, but I have this line where I feel like, Ah, shit this is gonna be awkward. I like Rihanna, I think she’s really beautiful and talented, and I respect her, and I really want to meet her. When I actually do meet her, it’s gonna be really weird, because I’m a fan even though I made fun of her getting beat up a couple times—on my album.
So is your Grammy speech ready, man?
Yeah, it is, I been thinking about it. There’s a lot I could do. And I think Shake from 2DopeBoyz is going to love it.
You don’t want me to put together a beer summit for you and those bloggers?
Fuck them dudes. I’m over it. I’m not gonna sit here and hate on them no more, but that Grammy speech is directly for them. Yet they haven’t said anything, so that might just be for that eskay dude from Nah Right.
You don’t even drink, right?
Never had a drink in my life—at all. Not ’til Grammy night.