When a musician or group truly captures the imagination of a receptive and impressionable audience, it transcends the confines of the bedroom studios or rudimentary practice spaces in which it was forged and gives way to a genuine movement. Ever since the days when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” the pneumatic hips of Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry’s distorted guitar riffs led a youth revolution, this storied tradition of breaking new ground while gaining the ire of the establishment has been pivotal in the legacies of countless musical giants.
Ever since hip-hop began to jostle for position in mainstream consciousness during the mid-to-late ’80s, the genre has upheld this recurring tale by courting more than its fair share of controversy. Beginning with 2 Live Crew’s high-profile obscenity case and N.W.A’s skirmish with the FBI, this notion of artists falling foul of the prevailing political climate, the boundaries of ‘ good taste,’ and even the law itself permeates all the way through to today in the careers of Kendrick Lamar, Joyner Lucas, Kodak Black, 03 Greedo, 6ix9ine, and countless others. Save for the Pulitzer prize-winning K-Dot and his ability to conjure up modern day civil rights anthems at will, few artists in the last 20 years have managed to galvanize the hearts and minds of disenfranchised youths and exploit the ensuing furor to their benefit as much as Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.
Commonly known as Odd Future, ‘Golf Wang,’ or OFWGKTA, what began as a gang of artistically feral teens spewing out misanthropic venom over lo-fi beats would metamorphose into a global phenomenon that flew in the face of every taboo you could think of. Whether it was religious iconography, graphic depictions of sexual violence, or a non-plussed approach to the use of hateful slurs, the formative years of Tyler, the Creator and his multi-talented cronies were typified by moral panic that only increased both its dangerous allure and profitability.
Like all of their chaos-inciting predecessors that had tipped youth culture on its axis, all of the alarmist news reports and fanatical fandom gradually began to taper off following Tyler’s bans from both Australia and the U.K., and soon many of Odd Future’s members would be rendered a footnote in a brief yet captivating moment in time.
Aside from Tyler, Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, and the recent career resurgence of Left Brain with his Mind Gone project, the lion’s share of the group’s outspoken firebrands have languished in obscurity for the better part of the past few years. Amid the missteps or malaises that have befallen former headline grabbers such as Hodgy Beats, Domo Genesis, and Mike G, what wouldn’t have been prophesized in those early days is the fact that the seemingly innocuous figure that stood in the testosterone-fueled background would soon reveal herself as one of its most entrancing exports.
Prior to becoming the blissed-out foil in the DJ booth to her more maniacal cohorts’ onstage presence, Syd ‘Tha Kyd’ Bennett was a 14-year-old girl with a wealth of ingenuity and a home studio at her disposal. Although it was initially intended for her own use with no overarching end-goal in mind, this rudimentary set-up in her family home would become more than the sum of its parts and soon played a pivotal role in the embryonic stages of Odd Future. Affectionately known as ‘The Trap’ among the group, Syd’s skills as an engineer and producer were honed on a string of incendiary mixtapes – including Tyler, The Creator’s Bastard, Mellowhype’s Blackenedwhite, Earl Sweatshirt’s EARL, and Domo Genesis’ THC-laced Rolling Papers among others.
Founded on the group’s innate camaraderie and a shared desire to evade the trappings of the traditional industry model, it is unlikely that any of them could have been cognizant of the fact that these tracks would soon make their presence felt on a global level. Described by Syd as a “special place” and a “home to all of us” during a 2012 Noisey Special, the instrumental role that her residence played in providing the ad-hoc infrastructure and base of operations cannot be understated in Odd Future lore, and the same DIY ethos that they’d instilled would gradually allow public perception of Syd to shift from mild-mannered DJ to an innovative artist in her own right.
While others would’ve self-assuredly rested on their laurels after mixing a headline-courting major label debut such as Tyler’s Goblin, Syd was busy laying the groundwork for the project that would defy expectations, traverse new ground, and ultimately act as the catalyst for the prosperous career that she can now boast of. In spite of the fact that we are now all accustomed to the sultry and effortlessly cool vocal work that emanates from her, the younger, more precocious Sydney had yet to muster up the resolve to expose her dulcet tones to the masses, and thus her first solo foray arrived in the form of instrumental EP Raunchboots. Comprised of futuristically-minded templates that displayed an affinity for not only hip-hop and R&B but more disparate sounds such as neo-soul, contemporary jazz, and trip-hop, one listen to the ten-track tape and it’s easy to trace the lineage between her tentative dalliances with artistry and the uniquely devised catalog that was to follow.
In typical Odd Future fashion, it was from within the group’s own gravitational pull that Syd would find her collaborative kindred spirit in The Jet Age of Tomorrow’s Matt Martians. Digitally intertwined via Tyler, the Creator’s Myspace Top 8, the two would soon forge a symbiotic musical relationship that enabled a sumptuous and otherworldly sound to emerge from an assortment of long-suffering MacBooks. Built from elements of Stevie Wonder’s early ’70s creative zenith, the acid-drenched psych funk of Funkadelic, and the emotional candor of Sade and Terrence Trent D’arby, the sound of the duo’s work under the moniker of The Internet soon added a much-needed new dimension to the languid provocativeness and lyrical nihilism that had become a summation of what the OF collective had to offer to a jaded consumer.
Instead, The Internet’s 2011 debut LP Purple Naked Ladies dispensed with any and all preconceptions of what would be released on Odd Future’s recently minted Sony Imprint and produced a stirring R&B record which brought both Syd’s skillset and personality to the forefront to an unprecedented level. Emerging in an era that predated the championing of sonic contemporaries such as Kaytranada, Thundercat, Anderson .Paak, GoldLink, and Kelela, Purple Naked Ladies infused the realms of modern R&B textures and soul in a way that doled out a reinvigorating jolt of adrenaline. However, its divergence didn’t end there by any stretch of the imagination, with the openly-gay Syd vividly describing the trials and tribulations of her love life throughout the record and carrying this aesthetic forward in all facets of its promotion, including the visuals for lead single “Cocaine.”
Although this may seem insignificant through today’s more inclusive lens, where artists like Taylor Bennett, Kevin Abstract, Cakes Da Killa, Mykki Blanco, and Young M.A ply their trade in the genre as LGBT artists, The Internet’s debut LP emerged at a time where Odd Future were not only routinely picketed by activists but also while hip-hop’s distasteful culture of homophobia remained largely unobstructed. Teamed with the fact that their debut LP would uproot from Odd Future’s longstanding tradition of releasing music for free in order to become their label’s first physically-distributed release, this spirit of subversion proved that Syd and Matt were not content with the dismissive tag of an ‘offshoot’ or side project that dismissive commentators had aimed to attribute to them and were intent on gaining notoriety and fans of their own volition.
Now with four thrilling records in their discography, the group – which has evolved from a two-piece into a fully-fledged band featuring the talents of Patrick Paige II, Christopher Smith, and Steve Lacy – have parted ways with OF Records after acquiring a deal with Columbia and a subsequent Grammy nomination for 2015’s Ego Death along the way. On their latest record Hive Mind, the group banish all outsiders to deliver a spirited hour of cohesive, musical virtuosity that attests to their standing as masters of their chosen craft and recalls the uninhibited creativity of funk, soul, and R&B’s pioneers.
While most listeners would never peer below its surface level, their latest project’s title holds a great deal of bearing on the key principles which govern The Internet’s functionality when you consider their tendency to branch out on their own. In the traditional rock n’ roll view, calling for a moratorium on all work to pursue solo projects would register as the potential death knell for a band or a clear sign of disharmony among the ranks. Yet in the case of The Internet, their extracurricular activities have sought to bring more eyes to their shared epicenter than ever before. Within the space of a year, not only did Matt Martians drop the stellar Drum Chord Theory and Steve Lacy do wonders for his own presence due to work on Tyler’s Flower Boy and his Demo Tape, but Syd would be able add the title of solo R&B songstress to her bustling list of attributes.
Lightyears removed from the unobtrusive presence that she’d once been depicted as, Syd basked in the spotlight on 2017’s Fin, a record which took the sensual odes that she’d become synonymous with and assimilated them with hints of a more commercial sound to deliver a spellbinding body of work that would garner her a second Grammy nomination. Widely heralded as one of the finest R&B records of the year, this excursion beyond The Internet’s compound has yielded her an increased fanbase and meant that more eager eyes and ears were brought to Hive Mind. For the betterment of herself and the band as a whole, Fin reaffirmed all of the confidence that Syd had in her own abilities and this approach shines through in every joy-filled moment of the reconvened group’s latest opus.
In an industry where everyone moves with increased trepidation due to fans’ fickle affections and the seismic effect that any public scrape can have on your future prosperity, the decision to cast off the comfortability of an established brand for a solo debut would be considered brazen. In the case of Syd Bennett, however, this courageousness has been a cornerstone of not only her career trajectory but her approach to life within the public sphere as well.
For someone who was once thought to be comparatively staid amid a braying mass of braggadocio-fueled extroverts, Syd has proven to be independently-minded in both her art and life, and has continually rallied around what she feels to be pertinent causes. As touched upon previously, Syd’s willingness to express her sexuality in her material has long been an inspiration to others, and the aforementioned “Cocaine” video garnered her no shortage of admirers and detractors in equal measure. In a 2012 interview with LA Weekly, Syd divulged that “I decided to do it because I wish I had someone like that while I was coming up. People write on my Tumblr just thanking me for making the video, saying that I really inspire them, and they want to be like me. But I wasn’t always this way, this comfortable with myself, and I remember what that was like. So, I figure, fuck it.”
Yet in the reactionary fashion that we’ve come to expect online, this heartfelt outline of her motivations wouldn’t be the main talking point to arise from this interview – and the focus would hinge upon the admission that she hated the word “lesbian.” Setting aside the fact that Syd also espoused her aversion to “thespian” in the same sentence on the grounds that they are simply “awkward words,” this comment and her well-documented affiliation to a group that has been vilified by some for their misogynistic content was enough for her to be written off by certain sections of the LGBT community. While it has never deterred her from discussing her life in interviews or through song, Syd has since admitted that this outcry “hurt [her] feelings.” Years on from the tumult around her perceived indiscretions, Syd further explained why her sexuality has been such an overarching presence in her output to NME, and it ultimately boils down to remaining true to herself above all else:
“One of my old friends, she was a rapper and she rapped about men and being involved with men. I think I asked her one time, ‘Aren’t you gay?’ She was like, ‘Yeah, but all my friends are straight – I make music for them to ‘enjoy.’ I thought that was really interesting. But for me, I make music for myself to enjoy.”
Aside from remaining creatively liberated in her own right, Syd has also utilized her platform and gifts to benefit others or oppose the injustices that are so hardwired into society. While there may be countless artists that will lend a few bars to any cause in an act of facile virtue signaling, what is refreshing is that this yearning to rectify the world’s misgivings can be seen in both the professional and personal strands of her life. From an artistic standpoint, one need only examine the lyrics of “Penthouse Cloud” from 2015’s Ego Death and the story behind its conception to see an example of this sense of obligation shining through. Concerned with not only the ongoing scourge of police brutality but also filled with thoughtful ruminations on faith, morality, and the inherent dissociation of living a privileged life, Syd explained to MIC that it was penned in the wake of the Mike Brown verdict and in an attempt to not merely support the Black Lives Matter movement but “to make music to go along with it.”
In addition to her defiance in the face of discriminatory policing, Syd has also been commended for her charitable work. Set in motion by her now defunct Twitter account in November of last year, she spoke of her decision to refrain from donating an expensive jacket to an LA mission as she’d typically done and instead concocted a plan to host a celebrity auction. Built around the premise of getting “all the celeb homies to donate cool clothes, maybe something they wore in a video or on stage once,” this idea blossomed into the inaugural ‘Syd’s Sidewalk Benefit Auction’ with all proceeds going to LA-based non-profits and making a tangible impact on the lives of those who rely on these services.
It is this onus on enacting change rather than being waylaid by the enormity of doing and simply pondering it which has taken Syd from behind the mixing board to the rarefied air that she finds herself in today. Throughout her career, we bore witness to Syd coming to terms with her own evolution as both an artist and an individual before our eyes, and her irrepressible urge to flout expectation and convention has proven far more compelling than a string of inflammatory remarks for shock value could ever hope to be. As resounding praise streams in for Hive Mind from fans and critics alike, it is clear that this multi-talented artist will not adhere to trends, and opt to continue to carve her own path to greatness in a medium where countless artists wilfully remain in the confines of tolerable mediocrity.
Next, check out our in-depth interview with jazz innovator Kamasi Washington.
- Words: Robert Blair