To close SXSW 2011, Kanye West and JAY-Z teamed up for an intimate show in a disused power station. As the duo ran through a medley of hits from their Watch the Throne album, at one point they could be heard chanting the refrain of “Swag! Swag! Swag!” in what many interpreted as an ode to new kids on the block OFWGKTA — the big talking point from that week’s festivities.
With his music, clothes, carnivals and TV shows, Tyler, The Creator has gone on to leave his own unique imprint on pop culture, evolving into a bona fide media mogul. But back then, no one — save for those on Tumblr and forums — really knew what to make of him or OFWGKTA (full name: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All Don’t Give A Fuck Litter Life Bacon Boys Loiter Squad Butt Fuck Bitch N*ggas).
At this point, the group had just scratched the surface of the mainstream, appearing on the cover of Billboard magazine before marking their televisual debut with a terrifying performance of “Sandwitches” on The Tonight Show. To like Odd Future was to rebel; if you were in your early 20’s, not since Eminem had there been an act so thrillingly transgressive to listen to. That facets of the group were problematic only added to the attraction (I still cringe when I think back to how my friends and I would yell along to “Kill People Burn Shit Fuck School” at parties). As one blogger sagely noted, “Odd Future was like the collective ID of 4chan set to a beat.”
If OF’s star was already ascendant, Austin, Texas, was where it exploded. Pitching up with a 10-plus squad (without Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt), unacquainted media types were bewildered, intrigued, and even a little frightened by their presence. Who were these skate rats? And what the fuck was “Swag” supposed to mean? Was this really what the future of hip-hop looked like?
But then, OF were never hip-hop; from their DIY ethos to spontaneous live shows, they were a punk band. And nowhere was that more evident than their first SXSW live shows where – in between media duties and checking out performances by Toro Y Moi, James Blake and Black Lips – the group played five different showcases, each going down in folklore for both the right and wrong reasons.
One performance in particular, at the Scoot Inn dive bar, would live with those in attendance forever.
Bounding on stage to chants of “Wolf Gang! Wolf Gang!,” this performance was something else – even for Odd Future’s raucous standards. Wearing his (then) trademark balaclava and a psychedelic T-shirt, an unhinged Tyler prowled the stage, contorting his body and jumping around like a kid who had spent the past three hours hooked up to an IV drip of Coca-Cola. If OF were hyped, the crowd were even more frenzied: rushing the venue, then the stage, and swan-diving into the camera pit below. It was pandemonium. Hodgy Beats scaled the three-story roof, while Tyler climbed the speaker stack and screamed “FUCK STEVE HARVEY!” before leaping off and leaving one unlucky kid named Kyle with a broken nose. “Kyle took it like a fuckin g tho,” wrote Tyler on the OF Tumblr shortly after (as karma would have it, someone ended up hitting Ty smack on in the face with a Mountain Dew bottle at the following night’s FADER Fort show.)
In one short live set, the kids of Odd Future had turned up and obliterated SXSW’s corporate, industry-friendly image. The performance was the perfect encapsulation of everything OF meant; it was unhinged, visceral anarchy of the most fun kind imaginable. The Guardian‘s Tim Jonze described the group as “A liberal-baiting combination of Wu-Tang Clan, the Sex Pistols, Eminem, Cannibal Ox and Slipknot,” and was moved to call the show “one of the best I’ve ever seen.” In a retrospective op-ed, Stereogum’s Tom Breighan wrote: “Of the six years I went to SXSW, the most exciting was easily 2011, the year that Odd Future came down and took over. I’ve never seen anything like that, all that energy surrounding one group of kids.”
If the Scoot Inn show was one for the record books, OF’s official SXSW Billboard — the same magazine that had just put them on its cover — slot would go down in infamy, with the squad famously departing the stage after just three songs, citing sound problems and the turned down audience. “Billboard Is Cool. That Show Was Stupid. Thanks to the Fans and N***as that Was There In The Front,” tweeted Tyler afterward. “Wasn’t Billboards Fault. F**K THAT CLUB,” he continued.
Still, OF’s mark on the festival was instantly legendary and became the yardstick for future hyped artists to measure themselves against (perhaps only Death Grips’ appearance — complete with giant inflatable ecstasy pills — in 2014 has come close to bettering it in the time since). Whether you were in Austin or watching the madness unfold from home on your computer, it was almost life-affirming to observe these teenagers — these best friends — turn up and have the time of their lives while not giving a fuck about what anyone else thought about them.
Odd Future would make one more mixtape together before growing up and setting out on their own paths, which, all things considered, has been a good thing: Tyler continues to make some of the most interesting hip-hop music on the planet; Syd is killing it in (and out of) The Internet; Frank Ocean is Frank Ocean; and the others are still young enough to realize something truly great. Still, it’s easy to get nostalgic at those memories of the early days when it felt like one massive gang. And nowhere better was that gang mentality more exemplified than SXSW 2011.
Who do you think will be the big break out act at this year’s SXSW? Let us know your comments below.
- Main and Featured Image: YouTube