For controversial rap group Odd Future, Sunday afternoon at the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival began with a little damage control.
Less than an hour before taking the stage in Chicago's Union Park, members of the group delivered boxes of cupcakes to the anti-violence organizations on site -- the same organizations manning booths and handing out paper fans containing domestic violence resource information specifically to counter what they saw as dangerous expressions of hate, violence and homophobia in Odd Future's music.
"They took some of the fans, too," said Amanda Wapiennik with Family Shelter Service. "One of them said, 'See we're nice.' I said, 'We never said you weren't.' ... That's exactly the kind of dialogue and exchange we're looking for."
It was nice while it lasted.
Odd Future's set, at the height of Sunday's swelter, was rife with the usual foul language and appalling exhortations to violence and misogyny -- lots of "smack you, bitch," "f--- the police," "f---in' ho," happy tales of "punches to the stomach" and advice to "shoot that f---in' nigga, aim for the head," and I lost count of the number of times someone shouted "f---in' bitch!" -- even while they gave lip service to opposing voices. Group leader and breakout solo star Tyler the Creator, his left leg in a cast for a broken foot, said, "A big shout out to the domestic violence groups out here." This came as the echo of the latest "f---in' bitch!" died away and right before the next song, "I Got a Gun (You Better Run)."
Shock tactics simply are in the young group's DNA and their 15-song set was thick with the confrontation that's caused such a fuss all year around their mostly free online recordings and raucous live shows. Problem is, the shock and awe is all they brought. Odd Future knows how to engage a crowd with nasty talk, stage diving (even Tyler, in his cast) and the mystical bond between crowd and performer created by the middle finger, but musically the 45-minute set was a very average hip-hop show. (Big Boi, on this same stage and nearly same slot last year, brought so much more.)
Members Left Brain and Hodgy Beats opened the show, dishing up a song from their reissued MellowHype album "Blackendwhite." DJ Syd Tha Kid provided most of the beats and musical backing, thin as it usually was; Odd Future's recordings sound much more inventive. At times, five members were prancing back and forth at the lip of the stage or diving over it. The whole thing was like watching a "Chinese fire drill," but the often monotonous beats and hate speech was more like listening to Oi! (a punk subgenre) without guitars.
In the end, though, Odd Future wanted us to know, as they repeated over and over, that they don't care what you, me or anyone thinks of them. Before launching into "Pidgeons," with its refrain of "Kill people, burn sh--, f--- school," Tyler dedicated "this beautiful song to everyone who don't like me, every protestor ... everyone writing a faggot-ass review of this show." There was extra, unprintable advice for the latter, even though reviews like this one and other articles about the group's controversy are likely the chief reason Odd Future has seen a spike in sales. Even Hodgy Beats, a member of Odd Future and half of MellowHype, in our interview last week, admitted: "I'm honestly not mad at the media. They help sell records, I guess."
But of all the hot air, the most absurd thing the group shouted during that song may have been this: "I'm radical! I'm f---in' radical!" There's really nothing radical about their potty mouths and juvenile gross-out humor. If anything, it's old.
If Odd Future's doing anything noteworthy, it's forcing another occasional re-evaluation of language. I've seen much high-minded discussion of how Odd Future is determined to soften if not break down the sharpness of certain language and how they cleverly define their particular audience with prescient knowledge of who will get the joke and who won't. I think this ascribes way too much forethought to teenage kids who are cranking out hip-hop with incredible speed and spontaneity, but that doesn't mean they're not achieving a result. If there's anything academic in Odd Future, it's the simple fact that they're a bellwether to a generation that's absorbed some slightly different cultural standards, mainly from video games (which sell nearly four times as much as music) -- many of them violent and all of them, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, freely available to all ages -- that does not necessarily see the same gravity in words or depictions of rape, murder and violence.
At the end of my chat with Hodgy Beats he said, "There's gays running around and sh--, but when you call someone a faggot people think you're talking about a gay person." It could be simply a matter for the linguists. Faggot used to mean a bundle of sticks, a meatball, and in today's slang it's still a common pejorative for a gay man. But what does it mean to the youth of Odd Future? By the time I asked for clarification as to how else he might define and employ the word "faggot," he'd hung up.