In a new SPIN interview, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All ringmaster Tyler, The Creator says, “[t]alking about rape and cutting bodies up, it just doesn’t interest me anymore. What interests me is making weird hippie music for people to get high to…I can’t rap about the same shit.” If true, this statement will surely be unwelcome news to the indie blogosphere that has garnered thousands of clicks over the last couple of years as it endlessly debates whether the homophobia and violence against women contained in many OFWGKTA tracks is a sign of the downfall of society or just kids being kids. It would also be yet another instance of the cycle of youthful envelope-pushing followed by steady maturation that we see every few years in popular music.
Ever since Tyler’s Bastard mixtape started being discussed on Pitchfork and elsewhere, the comparisons to Sex Pistols and N.W.A. have become ubiquitous. While some have called the comparisons lazy, they seem partially valid based on the parallels between each group’s drive to shock the listener through attacks on basic social mores. As Dr. Dre put it in Brian Cross’ It’s Not About the Salary…Rap, Race, and Resistance in Los Angeles:
I wanted to make people go: ‘Oh shit, I can’t believe he’s saying that shit.’ I wanted to go all the way left. Everybody trying to do this Black power and shit, so I was like, let’s give ‘em an alternative.
The parallels between the three groups are further enhanced by the reactions of older generations to each provocation: Due to public outrage over the group, Sex Pistols were famously dropped by both EMI and A&M before Never Mind the Bollocks was even recorded; N.W.A. received a letter from the FBI advising them that the “law enforcement community” took exception to their lyrics; and just a couple weeks ago OFWGKTA was kicked off a New Zealand festival bill when the Auckland City Council, which owns the stadium that was to host the festival, objected to their lyrics. Even noted provocateur Steve Albini said after meeting OFWGKTA:
If the whole thing is a put-on, a bit of Vincent Gallo life-as-theatre for the benefit of whoever happens to be sitting next to them, that’s no excuse … I am quite happy none of them engaged me directly, because at least one of us would have regretted it.
To be clear, Albini’s objections seem to focus on the group’s off-stage antics, as he also defended OFWGKTA’s “right to rap about what they wanna rap about…I am never quick to judge a person based on a superficial reading of creative output.”
More specific in his critique of Tyler is Atmosphere’s Slug:
What he’s doing right now is basically no different than what Eazy-E did for me when I was 17 years old. If you go back and listen to the second N.W.A. record, all they do is bash gay people and bash women. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t agree with using those slurs — you know, there are certain words that I won’t use in my music, because that’s just not me, and I want to represent who I am. I don’t use those words in my dialogue, so why would I [in the lyrics]? But because this dude is making some music that’s kind of shocking and making you uncomfortable, you don’t just write him off for that.
Dre’s reference to Black power, however, is where the comparisons between Sex Pistols, N.W.A., and OFWGKTA break down, as a quick glance behind the curtain shows that the groups’ reasoning for their lyrics/actions are quite different. Under the direction of Malcolm McLaren the Pistols were incredibly calculating, and used the pretense of taking on the system to further their goal of fame and fortune. For the Pistols, punk rock was simply a means to an end. Similarly, while N.W.A. was part of a larger social movement in South Central Los Angeles, their main goal was to escape the future they saw for themselves in Compton, and the best way to do that was to tell the story of the street. In Jeff Chang’s fabulous Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Chang describes N.W.A.’s ethos as:
If the thing was protest, they would toss the ideology and go straight to the riot. If the thing was sex, they would chuck the seduction and go straight to the fuck. Forget knowledge of self or empowering the race. This was about, as Eazy would put it, the strength of street knowledge.
Both Sex Pistols and N.W.A. knew exactly what they were doing every step of the way, and realized that provocation would get them the results they desired. OFWGKTA, however, do not appear to have a grander plan, but have arrived where they are simply through doing what they are interested in:
I don’t know. It’s the first shit that comes to our heads, seriously. I’m interested in serial killers’ minds and shit, so I rap about it at the moment. Who the fuck knows, next week I can be rapping about oatmeal if that’s what I’m into.
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.
Clearly, if you are simply rapping about what you’re into at a particular moment or to make yourself laugh, there isn’t a larger vision behind your individual actions. In and of itself, this isn’t a negative, but it may well signal a significant departure from the paths taken by Sex Pistols and N.W.A.
Following the sudden dissolution of the Sex Pistols, John Lydon took only a brief time off before forming Public Image Ltd. PiL created some of the most experimental music under the post-punk umbrella and firmly established Lydon as a well-respected, if still snarling, musician. Paul Cook and Glen Matlock have also turned in long careers as professional musicians, while Sid Vicious’ heroin addiction kept us from seeing what he could have become.
The primary members of N.W.A. have in many ways become even more mainstream than the Pistols. Ice Cube has released well-received albums, but became a household name mostly through his movie work in the Friday series and the very PG Are We There Yet? movies. Dr. Dre helped found Death Row Records, is a sought-after producer, and a successful entrepreneur. Meanwhile, MC Ren and Arabian Prince have largely stayed out of the public eye over the last 15 years while Eazy-E, like Sid Vicious, unfortunately was victimized by the lifestyle that made him famous. Only DJ Yella continues to push the boundaries as a porn movie producer.
Clearly, Sex Pistols and N.W.A. have mostly matured during the years since their days as rabble-rousers. This could be the standard maturity that comes with age, but it is also possible that the calculated actions taken by these groups betray a heightened initial maturity level that was ignored at the time, simply because of their shocking lyrics. Based upon the speed of their maturation, particularly in the case of Lydon, the latter case seems likely. In either case, though, the question brings us back to the starting point: Can we believe Tyler’s apparent statement that he is moving away from the homophobia and misogyny of Bastard and Goblin?
Tyler claims he is not homophobic, but argues that he uses that language because it’s the strongest insult he could use:
I’m not homophobic, but if someone calls you a f[-----]—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.
This point of view coincides with the kinds of attitudes detailed by C.J. Pascoe in her book Dude You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Pascoe uses the term “gendered homophobia” to describe her finding that the sadly common use of the title term among high school students has more to do with masculinity than sexuality. In this light, Tyler’s use of the term in what appears to be the same manner as the students interviewed by Pascoe, in addition to Albini’s observations of the full OFWGKTA group, leads to the conclusion that there is not a heightened maturity level lurking behind Tyler’s public persona.
Accordingly, if Tyler is to continue the cycle of envelope-pushing to maturation as previously explored by Sex Pistols and N.W.A., the maturation needs to develop from here on out, and his statements to SPIN are a good start. Tyler is 20 years old and has toured the world. Exceedingly few people his age get to experience the things he has in the last two years and hopefully that will set him up for a long career, because it cannot be denied that he is a major talent. As Slug noted:
[T]hese dudes are so young that, if this is what they’re doing now? Whoa, five years from now, they might be making some shit that’s fucking blowing the world away. Who knows? It’s like, give them some room to grow.
In May 2012, Tyler is set to release his next album. Wolf. Tyler and OFWGKTA have been given a lot of room to grow thus far, and this album will go a long way towards telling us if they will mature into artists that can blow the world away, or will remain kids rapping about whatever pops into their head. Hopefully, the maturation has begun because the music industry needs their talent and energy just like it needed John Lydon, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre.
An author and editor at MiG, Craig lives in Minnesota with his wife and son and is an attorney in his real life. Once upon a time Craig played the trumpet and spent four years in the Hawkeye Marching Band and pep band. These days Craig finds himself most often listening to experimental rock, hip hop, and post punk, but you can see everything he's listening to at: www.last.fm/user/cafreema Craig is not ashamed to admit the first concert he ever attended was New Kids on the Block.
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