A candid interview with young Tyler, the Creator from i-D's archive
To celebrate 10 years of ‘Goblin’, we revisit one of the artist’s earliest interviews, from right before Odd Future’s incendiary SXSW show.
Photography Zach Wolfe
Back in March 2011, a young collective calling themselves OFWGKTA were billed to perform at Austin’s SXSW. There to document a new generation of hip-hop talent, i-D’s Hattie Collins interviewed Odd Future and their eccentric leader Tyler, the Creator ahead of their now legendary, blood-splattered set. At the time, 20-year-old Tyler had just dropped the self-directed black-and-white cockroach-eating masterpiece that was "Yonkers" and was gearing up to release his industry-shaking album, Goblin, on London label XL Recordings. Ten years on from that release, we revisit the resulting feature from i-D’s The Hedonist Issue, in which Tyler discusses serial killers, his wild imagination and being a massive weirdo.
**This aural anarchist is almost indefinable; Tyler, the Creator and his group, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, are one of the most exciting movements in hip-hop right now. Taking a punk aesthetic to their live shows and a cut and paste ethic to their recorded work, this DIY band, led by Tyler, are disturbing and darkly funny. The Future is right here, right now…
“I don’t want to die. Not today. I could get shot. You never know…” Turns out today isn’t the day for Tyler, the Creator to meet, well, The Creator. It’s a good job, he decides, as he’d rather wait a bit anyway. “I don’t know how I’m going to die,” he ponders, sat on a stool under some serious sun in the house he and his group, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA), have rented for this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. “Everything’s funny to me. It sucks cos it gets me in trouble, but life’s like a movie to me. I can’t work out how the movie is going to end though,” the 20 year-old continues with a grimacing laugh. “I thought at 25 I was going to get shot in the stomach by an obsessed fan, but I have to be 40 and doing jazz and shit, so that can’t happen.”
Tyler taught himself piano at 12, after watching Pharrell Williams play “Thrasher” on the bonus DVD that came with N.E.R.D.s Clones album, and has decided he’ll take up the saxophone soon. “I want to play it when I get older. That shit’s a fucking bitch to learn, same thing with the trumpet.” Anyway, he continues, his bass-filled voice box barely taking a breath, the death thing. He goes on to rule out a car accident, concedes cancer could be a possibility before deciding on natural causes at “like 70 and shit,” he says. “I have asthma pretty bad, so it’s cool cos I’m young, but when you get older it gets bad. Try and swim more I guess. It’s hot as fuck,” he adds, taking another sudden tangent for the 80th time in 30 minutes. “Lets swag it out.”
Swagging it out is something he and his 11 Odd Future friends are pretty good at. His self-directed debut video, “Yonkers” — debut in the sense that it’s his first signed to a label (XL) — sees the LA skater, writer, director, rapper and artist eating a cockroach, puking it up and then jumping off a stool and hanging himself. If ‘swagging it out’ or being ‘swag’ is the epitome of being really flipping great in the truly autonomous sense, then Tyler is massively swag. “I stand up and I be what I want,” he continues. “Most people want to do what they want, but they’re not allowed to, so I’m like their escape to say all the shit they wish they could say.” This could explain why his self-released album, Bastard, has caused such a stir with skaters, hipsters, hip-hop heads and the Internet. “I’m not the only person in the world doing this, everyone has opinions, but I’m one of the youngest right now to not care about other people. I just do what makes me happy.”
What makes him happy, perhaps, is being the most divisive member of Odd Future. While other members concentrate on cannabis-based wordplay or are slightly more Mos Def in their metaphors, Tyler prefers to rip straight through the acceptable jugular. He’s reluctant to reveal too much about his forthcoming XL album, Goblin, to be released this May, but points out that it is ‘Part 2’ to his debut. Bastard was an inglorious mix of murder, ‘assmilk’, dumbass dads and the death of weave. Provocative, yet darkly and brilliantly funny, the record unsurprisingly caused even the most liberal to be terribly outraged. “People have to listen. Most of it is just concepts and shit. If I write a song about drugging some girl up and taking her to my house, it’s not just random,” he argues. “I write songs from the mind state of serial killers, like, Ted Bundy. I have songs that I thought would be cool to write from his point of view. That’s what a lot of people miss.”
Jeffrey Dahmer, Otis Tooey and Hitler are all points of reference for Tyler when it comes to creating. Other influences include Pharrell and N.E.R.D (“I met him just last week, it was fucking tight”), R.A. Stein, Salvador Dali, Supreme, Toro Y Moi, R. Kelly and Eminem. In fact, Tyler’s twisted wordplay is similar in style to the warped mind of Slim Shady. “I’m still listening to Em’s Relapse. A lot of people hated that CD, but I never heard no shit as genius as the wordplay on that album. That shit made me listen to my shit like, I fucking suck,: he points out, taking his swear count all the way to the top. “It’s like a movie, he sounds like a really calm serial killer,” he concludes.
A self-confessed straight edge (“I’ve never had a smoke or drink, ever”) how does he get into the frame of mood required for making tracks like “Blow” (“All I really wanna do is fuck and snort blooow”) or the landlord raping tenants in “AssMilk”? “I write songs with my 8 year-old imagination. I used to get in trouble cos it was so wild. I just think random shit is really funny. Like, if a fucking table just bust through here,” says Tyler, pointing across the yard, “and started fucking those rocks up, that’s funny to me”.
Brought up by his mum in LA, before being sent to live with his grandmother, Tyler — called a “weirdo” at school thanks to his love of odd music and Slipknot tees — had a childhood steeped in sounds and words. “My mum used to have Sade, Alex Bueno, Herbie Hancock and I would just explore. I remember I was five in 1996 when she bought the Baduizm tape and that shit fucked me up,” he says of Erykah Badu’s debut. “When I was younger, I didn’t know what pitch and chord changes were, so I’d say ‘I like it when the sound goes down and up’ until I got older and taught myself what everything meant.” He describes his mum as “chill… though she tried to push me to do shit I didn’t want to do, like play basketball or wear certain clothes. Until I got older and she moved up north and I went to live with my grandmother. Then I was finally able to do what I wanted and it worked out.”
Like his music, Tyler ‘Comma’ (“It’s very dramatic, it has to be there”) is unpredictable. He recently recorded with his hero Pharrell, but also loves Justin Bieber. A lot. “Justin’s tight, he’s chill,” he insists. “He’s young, and he has talent. You don’t really see that much now, young kids with talent. Me and Justin, in some people’s eyes are total opposites; I’m a Black kid talking crazy shit, he’s a white kid talking about whatever… But it’s the deeper shit.” With Tyler, it’s hard to tell how serious he's being. Initially he introduces himself as Jeffrey, before deciding he’s actually R. Kelly. “I like lying a lot,” he admits. “I lie every day. There hasn’t been a day I haven’t lied. I like fucking with people; some people like stealing. I like stealing too.” Just the other day, he and Odd Future ran through Target, buying sweets and fooling about. “We’re all big ass kids who don’t want to grow up,” he concludes.
It’s pointless trying to decide if his real name is actually Tyler Okonma, Jeffrey, Keith, or, indeed, R. Kelly. The only conclusion to draw — about the man himself and the music he makes — is not to try to over-analyse. Listen to it if you like it, don’t if you don’t. But there’s no doubt he’s leading rap into a new revolution. Between them, Odd Future have released some eleven free albums, produced mostly by Tyler on Fruity Loops and crack copies of Reason. His Goblin album artwork (a picture of a young Buffalo Bill) is also self-designed. Watch them play live at SXSW and while punk bands have been doing this for years, it’s rare you get a rap crew scaling the speakers and diving feet first into a crowd, before breaking a kids nose after stage-diving. OFWGKTA, with Tyler their gnarly leader, make for an intense, euphoric live experience, as electric onstage as they are on record.
It might have seemed implausible a year ago, but with over five million views on YouTube, appearances on Jimmy Kimmel and the must-see show of SXSW, Tyler looks likely to become pop’s most unlikely new star. Something he’s decided is most swag. “Grammy’s, VMA’s, I’m into all that shit. Then there’s the little shit like, I want a trampoline and a house with a mini-ramp, the little shit,” he insists. “I’m slowly getting it. Swag!”