There are few artists who represent the devil-may-care and do-it-yourself attitude better than Tyler, The Creator whose entire empire has been buoyed by his unwillingness to hold his tongue. Forged at a time when artists couldn’t merely exist inside CD jewel cases or on MP3s, Tyler’s relevance has been cemented by his ability to bounce between music, fashion, technology and TV – with diverse projects ranging from his Golf Wang show, to Loiter Squad to the Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival – without ever alienating a fanbase that wants to feel like they are in on the joke with him.
It was undoubtedly Tyler’s song “Yonkers” that served as his coming out party to the world. Dark, twisted, offensive to some, and packaged like a bomber’s manifesto with a baritone delivery, the song/music video has close to 84 million views to date.
Despite its success and serving as the first major piece which brought Odd Future greater exposure and notoriety, the song itself wasn’t viewed in high-regards on a personal level when Tyler, The Creator released it in February 2011.
Prior to hitting it big, Tyler, The Creator was just Tyler Okonma – a regular teenage kid from Ladera Heights, California – whose rap aspirations were fueled by jobs like a brief stint working at FedEx in addition to a two-year stay at Starbucks as a barista.
“Starbucks was cool because I stole cheese danishes every day,” he told Jimmy Kimmel in 2015 of his time with the company. “I was nice, I was cool with people, I liked talking to people.”
However, that all changed when a new manager, Cindy, was installed into a position of power, and challenged his flippant behavior.
“I didn’t kiss ass to the people who worked there and the manager. I think she found that intimidating. She hated on me. And she fired me and I hope she’s watching because I still hate her. Her firing me was the greatest moment of my life.”
During this period, Odd Future released their debut project, The Odd Future Tape, in 2007, featuring appearances by Hodgy Beats, Casey Veggies, and Left Brain and was almost completely produced by Tyler, The Creator who had used a computer microphone to cobble together the project which spoke to teenage malcontent like punk music of yesteryear which would also become a hallmark of the Odd Future “sound.”
With million-dollar record deals and various media ventures still years away, Tyler continued to work in various facets of retail – this time trading his green barista’s apron at Starbucks – for the world of streetwear at Rick Klotz’s (of Freshjive notoriety) store Reserve – which was at the forefront of Los Angeles’s Fairfax district’s love affair with fashion and boasted other notable hangarounds like Dillon Francis and Lucien Smith.
“They were little runts,” Klotz remembers. “Tyler never seemed to have anything to do. I remember once being like, ‘Hey, intern kid. Get out of here. You’re bothering me.’ I liked him, but he was a weirdo.”
Scott Sasso, owner of 10.Deep, who also had his first interactions with Odd Future on Fairfax recalls, “It was a spectacle. He was playfully annoying the folks on the street, but it was harmless.”
Tyler, The Creator introduced himself to the world as a solo artist in 2009 with his debut project, Bastard, which was an extension of the debut Odd Future Tape in which he had established himself as the charismatic – albeit maniacal and wanton – frontman of the operation.
One song in particular, “French,” which had accompanying black-and-white visuals which surely laid the groundwork for “Yonkers,” caught the attention of Dave Airaudi, a former Interscope executive who passed it along to friend/colleague, Christian Clancy, who he had worked with at the label and had since transitioned into consulting.
“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.”
A meeting followed soon after. Clancy was immediately enamored with the collective whose in-person demeanor were no different than the “French” video.
“They reminded me of myself at their age,” Clancy says. “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.”
Tyler, The Creator released the video for “Yonkers” on February 10, 2011. Self-directed and reminiscent of the raw and edgy “French” which landed him a one-album deal with XL Recordings to release his forthcoming album, Goblin, he reached out to veteran music video director, Anthony Mandler, to achieve his unique vision.
“He comes to me with six lines,” Mandler remembers. ‘I’m sitting on a chair rapping, I’m playing with a bug, I eat it, I throw it up, my eyes go black, and I hang myself.’ That was his treatment.”
Luis “Panch” Perez, the seasoned director of photography who got his start working under Hype Williams in the early ‘90s, was integral in achieving the disorienting and tilt-shift-esque aesthetics of the video which he described as “if Nine Inch Nails and Ol’ Dirty Bastard had a baby.”
“When we were making it, we turned around and said two things,” says Mandler, “One: this video’s gonna piss a lot of people off. Two: Kanye West is gonna be jealous as fuck.”
Not surprisingly, West tweeted out a link to the video on February 23 of that year with the phrase, “The video of 2011.”
“Damn, I’m Looking At The Video Treatment I wrote In This Blackberry Back In Jan. Fuck!,” Tyler tweeted after he learned of his nomination for “Video of the Year” at the MTV VMAs which saw him squaring off against Katy Perry, Adele, Beastie Boys and Bruno Mars.
“I’m really excited, shout out to Ron Artest. If I lose to any of those wackass videos, I’m gonna be mad because they all suck — except for Adele,” he told MTV News.
The momentum would continue a week later when Tyler and Hodgy Beats took to the stage of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to perform “Sandwiches” from his upcoming sophomore album, Goblin, which also marked the TV debut for any member of the Odd Future collective.
Needless to say, the performance – coupled with the striking “Yonkers” video – solidified the crew’s reputation for delivering something truly authentic, yet weird, thanks to an amalgamation of things during the Fallon performance which included ski masks, two actors there promoting Big Momma’s House: Like Father, Like Son, and Mos Def’s refrain of “swag.”
As part of a candid conversation between Tyler and Vince Staples on Golf Radio, the two discussed the making of “Yonkers” almost exactly five years after it was released.
With the success of the song and music video firmly established, Tyler couldn’t help but be honest that his breakout piece of material was created as a “joke” of sorts.
“Dude, niggas don’t know that that beat was made as a joke. I was trying to make a shitty New York beat and we was just rapping like we was from New York like we were retarded. And then, I just had some random verses and I was just like ‘I’ll just record it to this beat, this beat is kinda cool.’ And then niggas really liked it. That’s so nuts, because that shit was actually a fucking joke. I made that beat in literally eight minutes.”
With his first Golf Wang fashion show in the books, Tyler has obviously looked to the sartorial world as a means to keep challenging the status quo in his own unique way. In fact, his approach is quite similar to the creation of “Yonkers.”
“I just make whatever clothes I want to wear for the next five months and then run that,” he told Vogue. “I don’t really put deep, intricate thought into it—it’s more like a feeling. I just figured, ‘Why not? Why not do something different?’ Not everybody in the upper fashion world is wearing all-black Saint Laurent pieces and is super pretentious. I want to show them a different world.”
- Main/Featured Image: youtube