Pitchfork & Odd Future: Endorsing rape or showcasing art?
Pitchfork's Ryan Schreiber and Chris Kaskie Defend Booking Hip-Hop's Most Notorious Lyrical Misogynists.
UPDATED 11:50 a.m. (correcting two quotes I'd incorrectly attributed, one to Kaskie when it was Schreiber, and vice-versa).
With Eminem headlining Lollapalooza and the much-buzzed West Coast rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All claiming a key slot at the Pitchfork Music Festival, this summer is potentially a banner season for lyrics full of hateful fantasies about raping and murdering women echoing through Chicago’s parks.
Few would expect Lollapalooza owners C3 Presents and William Morris Endeavor to think twice about presenting Eminem. For one thing, the Walmart aesthetic of the reinvented destination festival is about gobbling up any act that will sell tickets—and the more tickets it sells, the better.
For another, Eminem circa 2011 is no longer the Eminem of the early 2000s. He’s long since become safe enough to be lauded by the Grammys and sell his songs to Detroit car commercials. And if no one can say that the wealthy rapper’s thoughts about women are more enlightened these days, well, at least he’s stopped endlessly envisioning the torture and murder of his ex-wife and cut back on the tedious spew of hatred at the mother who just didn’t love him enough.
Odd Future and Pitchfork are a different story.
For the uninitiated, OFWGKTA, as Pitchfork is billing the collective, emerged in Los Angeles in 2007, heavily influenced by Eminem at his nastiest, and led by the undeniably talented and charismatic producer and rapper Tyler Okonma, better known as Tyler the Creator, now 20 years old. After two mix tapes and one D.I.Y. studio album, all self-released for free via the Web, Tyler signed to XL Recordings for his first official album “Goblin,” set to be released on May 10. (With 10 full- or part-time members, including female DJ Syd, there also is a bevy of other related Odd Future releases, but the aforementioned are the core of the canon.)
The group roundly rejects the genre name “horrorcore,” a blood-drenched hip-hop subgenre that some date back to the Geto Boys, and which could be heard as rap’s answer to serial killer-obsessed death metal. But then Odd Future roundly rejects just about everything. Lashing out with maximum venom, vigor, and snotty teenage glee at any and every aspect of polite society is the rappers’ modus operandi, and what some see as their primary charm. And though by no means is it the only topic in their bag o’ tricks, their favorite tool to shock and outrage us, thrill us, or just demand our attention is the graphic depiction of violence against women.
Countless gigabytes already have been devoted to examinations of what it means to love (or at least be intrigued by) Odd Future’s music while hating (or at least being conflicted by) its most disgusting lyrics. The smartest, most cogent analysis of the issues that I’ve read is “Odd Future, Energy, Inclusion, and Exclusion” by New York magazine rock critic and blogger Nitsuh Abebe. Zach Baron also raised some solid points in the Village Voice (“Odd Future, Rape and Murder, and Why We Sometimes Like the Things That Repel Us”); this piece in the Los Angeles Times circa Coachella is worth reading for background, and an essay in the Root is notable for posing the question, “So what if Odd Future’s music makes critics feel ‘weird’ and ‘awful’? The rap group is a success—especially among white music writers.” My “Sound Opinions” colleague Greg Kot also reviewed the group at South by Southwest, where it played a festival-sanctioned showcase as well as a big-bucks corporate gig at the Fader Fort.
For its part, the Pitchfork Web site has been all over Odd Future for quite some time, championing the musical invention and, however fleetingly, pondering the meaning of the lyrics. The best piece is Pitchfork reviwer Tom Breihan’s overview of the recorded legacy to date, which includes the following observations:
[On “The Odd Future Tape Vol. 1”:] Tyler’s most illuminating moment on the album comes on the outro “Fin,” where he offers thanks to everything that ever inspired him. It’s a list that includes the 212 bus, D12’s “Devil’s Night,” Maxwell’s “Urban Hang Suite,” “Reading Rainbow,” Terry Richardson, Hitler, Mussolini, Salvador Dali, “all the porn in the world,” and Dr. Seuss… The group already had a serious collective snarl to them, but they hadn’t yet adapted the rape/stab/snort shock-value evilness that would eventually become such a huge part of their story.
[On Tyler the Creator’s “Bastard”:] This is where things get great. “Bastard” is a minor masterpiece of shock art and teenage spleen-vent, a spiritual cousin of some of the most misanthropic tantrums that the L.A. hardcore scene produced 30 years earlier… Morally, it’s repugnant, but the pure shocking force of it is so raw and distilled that it carries a certain appeal of its own.
[On Earl Sweatshirt’s “EARL”:] By the end of the last verse on “epaR,” Earl strangles a girl to death and stabs a cop in the neck—all because the girl in question had the temerity to put on Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” when Earl was trying to listen to Eminem's piece-of-s--- 2009 horrorcore album “Relapse.” (Needless to say, Eminem's effect on these kids can’t possibly be overstated.) On “Couch,” Earl and Tyler do their best to out-gross each other, and Tyler eventually dredges this image out of his disturbed mind: “Drag your b---- in a tub of c-- and throw a shark in it.” In its murderous absurdity, “EARL” reaches the weird heights of, say, Garth Ennis’ blood-drenched comics, or Takashi Miike’s body-horror comedies.
As I’ve noted in my coverage of every one of the Pitchfork festivals in Union Park, the event is an inspiring celebration of Chicago’s musical community—or at least the indie-rock segment of it. But, behind the scenes, there are two distinct segments of that community: The people who run the Pitchfork Web site, who bring their name and aesthetic to the festival but generally just enjoy the sounds or party in the V.I.P. area, and the people who do most of the grunt work of actually making the concert happen. Independent promoter Mike Reed leads this second group, but it also includes dozens of others—publicists, sound technicians, stage managers, hospitality workers, and just plain volunteers—whose names or at least faces are familiar to anyone who frequents live music here.
How does Odd Future playing the Pitchfork Music Festival reflect on this grassroots Chicago music community, and the broader community of music fans and Pitchfork readers? How will it affect festivalgoers and other artists playing on the same stages? And what does it mean to inject a heaping dose of hatred against women into the fun in the sun at Union Park?
Pitchfork festival promoter Reed deferred comment on these issues to the publication's owners, so I spoke to Pitchfork founder and CEO Ryan Schreiber and president Chris Kaskie. In the interest of providing the fullest airing of some complicated questions, here is the transcript of our conversation last week.
J.D.: I’m curious about Odd Future’s presence on the Pitchfork bill. There’s a lot of controversy about the group, obviously, and promoter Mike Reed, who’s usually very open, deferred comment on the issue to you guys. I gather you were the ones pushing to book them?
Schreiber: Yeah, I think that’s accurate to say.
J.D.: Okay. Why?
Schreiber: Well, I think we booked them for the same reason that we book anybody else: We think that they are creating interesting music, they have an engaging live presence, and we thought they made sense on the bill.
Kaskie: I don’t really have much to add to that, other than that the goal of the festival has always been to create a mini-, real-world scenario of the site, and obviously we try to be as comprehensive as possible of what we’re interested in talking about online.
J.D.: And you guys have written a lot about Odd Future.
Schreiber: Oh, yeah.
J.D.: Unlike some of the other publications that have written about it, though, it seems as if the moral questions of the lyrics about violence against women haven’t really been addressed much by Pitchfork’s critics.
Schreiber: I actually would disagree with that. I think that it’s been a huge… It’s something that we’ve explored a lot on the site, virtually in every feature that we’ve written about them. It’s important to discuss, because you’re talking about a group that has very controversial lyrics. These topics need to be addressed. They need to be explored and not taken lightly, and I don’t think that we have taken them lightly.
J.D.: Well, we’ll come back to that. Now, I would argue that Eminem being booked at Lollapalooza is not even worth talking about, because Lollapalooza at this point really doesn’t mean anything except selling tickets. The difference with Pitchfork has always been that the acts that you book have the imprimatur or blessing of the most important music publication today. You guys are taking a stand: “We believe in this art; here it is.” You’re saying, “We book stuff we like.” Have you wrestled with the question of, “Why do we like this music despite these lyrics?”
Schreiber: Yeah, absolutely. I think a big part of what Odd Future are about is pushing buttons and challenging people and inciting controversy. They’re kind of like the Internet trolls of rap in that way. I think their more violent lyrics have the intended effect of sparking attention and getting people talking about them, but I also think that people would be talking about them without that aspect. In some ways, it’s sort of an unfortunate distraction from their talent. At the heart of it, I think that they’re really just ridiculously great rappers and producers, and they have a totally unique perspective on rap music that partly comes from being the age that they are. There’s a lot going on in their records that, to me, comes from looking at music from a different generational vantage point. Their influences aren’t especially tied to things like established canons, and they incorporate elements from almost every genre that I can think of. It’s very much music made by people who grew up with instant access to explore any music that they were curious about, and the ability to sample and experiment with that music.
As far as the shock value aspect is concerned, that’s sort of now becoming the first thing anyone learns about them, and it’s kind of giving the false impression that it’s the focal point of what they do, or it’s what all of their lyrics are about. Now, I haven’t heard “Goblin” yet, so it’s hard to know what to expect from that lyrically. But to me, their more extreme lyrics are by far the least interesting thing about their music, and it’s definitely not why they matter.
J.D.: Shock is the cheapest trick that any artist can employ, whether you’re talking about “Piss Christ” or Marilyn Manson. And it gets old quickly: A decade ago, Manson was Satan; now he’s on the state fair circuit. Nevertheless, if we took some of Tyler’s murder/rape fantasies and substituted Jews or blacks as the targets instead of women, would you still book them?
Schreiber: I think that would be a totally different band at that point. Look, as far as that aspect of their music goes, they talk a lot about how they’re trying to piss off parents and old white people who live in Middle America. Whatever. Like I said, they’re about pushing buttons and offending people, getting them worked up, and almost everything they do is in service of that. I haven’t spoken to them about their lyrics, but it seems clear from their music that at the age of 19 or whatever age they are, that none of them have ever done even 10 percent of what they talk about.
Most rap music, too, is sensationalized or exaggerated, and as with most rappers, there are countless contradictions in their music. One is that Tyler often talks about doing all kinds of drugs, while at other times he talks about being straight edge and never engaging in recreational drug or alcohol use. He opens “Yonkers” saying, “I’m a f---ing walking paradox/No, I’m not,” which to me sounds like his way of confessing that they present themselves saying that they do a lot of things that they don’t actually do.
J.D.: Well, there’s doing something and there’s talking about something, and no one says they’re doing these things. But who wants to listen to them talk about them? The sanest piece of criticism I read was on Nitsuh Abebe’s blog, where he ponders the question of these great musicians excluding a significant portion of their potential listenership from enjoying their music because of their lyrics. There’s no denying that a fair amount of women—and some men—in Union Park are going to be disgusted by that content, and why shouldn’t they be? It’s torture porn. Now, you can make great art out of this subject matter: You can make “Psycho,” or you can make “Saw IV.” I would argue that lyrically, when it’s on that turf, Odd Future is “Saw IV.” The trouble with the group is that musically, it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” It can be brilliant.
Kaskie: To address a little bit about the festival, obviously it’s not just booking bands we like. There’s an interest by music fans to see things, and a lot of people in Chicago haven’t ever seen the band before. We tried on Pitchfork [the Web site] to be open-minded and do a good job of covering them early and informing and covering all the bases comprehensively, as Ryan pointed out earlier. With the festival, we’re trying to create a snapshot of what we do online and provide a chance for attendees to come and check things out. The goal is by providing it, not only are we interested in all the attendees being able to see it or experience it, but we’re also interested in that as well. We want to do that job first and foremost. And everyone in the audience—people can make decisions for themselves while they’re there. The art that’s being created, we’re just trying to present that in a tangible environment.
I mean… It’s hard to answer some of your questions, obviously. But this is just us trying to make sure that the things we’re interested in and liking, other people can check out.
J.D.: Sure. I just wonder if you guys have thought about where the moral line is, or if there even is one for you? As a journalist, I’m a free-speech absolutist; I’d absolutely fight for these rappers’ right to say these things. But then my job as a critic is to say that what they’re saying is repugnant. So where do you draw the line: If these lyrics are really going to offend some people at the festival—or make some women or men feel threatened—is Pitchfork stepping over a line?
Schreiber: Here’s the thing: We definitely put the music out there, as I said, that’s interesting. These are important questions, and they are questions that we’ve talked about and grappled with. We’ve addressed them in all of our coverage on the site, or in the vast majority of it. We expect people to make up their own minds about music. I’ve said this before, but I believe Pitchfork helps artists reach a wider audience more quickly than they might otherwise, and then people make up their own minds from there. I don’t think that there’s anyone who likes everything that we like, and I think there also is a lot of music that we’ve covered that people would be offended by. In this case, I’m sure that if Pitchfork didn’t exist, you would still be writing a piece about them from some other angle. When we started writing about them, they were already starting to become popular of their own accord. That’s happening more often and more quickly now because I think the Web is sort of taking down barriers between artists and fans. And both are sort of becoming increasingly media- and Internet-savvy.
But at the end of the day, certainly there probably will be a lot of people who are offended by their music, and we continue to grapple with that ourselves—the weird intersection of liking what they do musically and trying to rectify that with some of the things they say to piss people off and make people angry. That is having their desired effect of getting people talking about them. Again, we’ve said it’s an age-old tactic. It’s not very becoming, but at the same time, if they didn’t rap about any of that stuff, I think people would still be talking about them.
Kaskie: To add to that, the whole thing about the festival, we can’t control… It remains to be seen what they’ll even do when they’re there. I mean, what songs they decide to play. Who knows what’s going on on their side of the thing. We’re not in the business of censoring, nor, I think it’s safe to say, condoning the actions that are described. But there’s an element of art that’s created that those guys are going to speak to, and we want to be able to experience it ourselves and for our audience to make their own decisions about the music and grapple with the same issues that we grapple with as a magazine and a festival.
J.D.: Here’s the difference, Ryan, and this goes back to the last long chat we had when you were launching Pitchfork.tv. I understand Pitchfork covering Odd Future: We as critics have to deal with it, and its popularity, and what we think of it as art. But you’re charging people to come see it, and you’re making money from it performing in concert. You’ll be profiting from this troubling music you’re presenting, which makes it different from a critic going to see Odd Future, or a curious hip-hop fan going to see it at Metro.
Schreiber: I think that’s an extreme over-simplification. The festival has sold out every year since its inception. As with any other festival, I think that its success is due to the overall package. We book great music, from headliners to openers, and we treat our attendees with respect and make their safety and comfort a priority. That’s known about the festival; that’s established. We create a positive neighborhood atmosphere, focus on local and independent like-minded businesses, and we do it at a good price.
J.D.: I believe I’ve written that about 700 times [laughing].
Schreiber: Yeah, but that can’t be chalked up to any one specific act.
J.D.: Of course not.
Kaskie: But if you also look at it as just a snapshot of Pitchfork as a festival, it’s inspired by the work that goes on on a day-to-day basis at Pitchfork the magazine. It’s a snapshot, but it runs like a business. It isn’t a critical element; it runs as a reflection of the critical element. It’s a time and place in the world that you sit back and enjoy these things.
Schreiber: Obviously, we don’t condone a lot of what they rap about. And again, I think that the uglier lyrics have been blown out of proportion as the only thing that they do. Obviously, that they do it at all is conflicting. It’s a little bit difficult to sort of wrap your head around. But we don’t condone it, and I don’t think that we’ve given people that impression. Like I said, the moral dilemma of their lyrics has been a recurring theme in Pitchfork’s coverage of them.
Let’s use Salem as an example. Their album has lyrics that can be seen as glamorizing violence against women. When that was among your top five albums of the year, I didn’t take that to mean that you condone those actions. It seems to me like a foregone conclusion. I don’t think any of us want to start putting disclaimers on our reviews or festival lineups stating that the artists’ views do not necessarily reflect those of the parent company.
J.D.: No. But I would go back to “Saw IV” vs. “Psycho.” I think the members of Salem are portraying certain characters, and I think that what they’re doing is more artful than when Tyler the Creator fantasizes about going into an old-age home and raping women. But this debate is as old as rock ’n’ roll. Can we forgive the Rolling Stones for “Black and Blue,” or the lyrics of “Brown Sugar”? And should we?
You know what I’ve written about the festival, and how I believe in it, and you know what I’ve written about the Web site; despite taking an occasional shot at it, I love people writing about music because they care about it, and you certainly do. The bigger philosophical question is: Does the festival mean anything more than people just paying money to be entertained? To me, that crowd in Union Park is a reflection of a very real musical community. And that’s why having an at-times blatantly misogynistic act there is troubling to me.
What does it say about us as a musical community? And what does it say to other musicians at the festival? I’ve reached out to several artists on the bill—Merrill Garbus of tune-yArDs, Neko Case, and Ema—and none of them have gotten back to me yet about their opinions of sharing a bill with Odd Future. I think they’re trying to wrap their heads around it, too.
Kaskie: That’s what Pitchfork is all about. And the community that’s there is the community of music fans, just like Pitchfork itself. The fact that this band, for whatever reasons, is getting a lot of notoriety—whether it be people valuing the talent and skills, or their shock value is creating an interest that they wanted to investigate more—ultimately, the community that built it is there. We don’t have a real-world tangible community as Pitchfork, an online music publication. This is how we connect with our community in a small way that is tangible in real life and is reflective of what people can find on the site every day. So you can’t say that the festival is a different thing than covering the music.
There are a lot of bands that people don’t like that play the festival. I’ve talked to you a million times, and there are things you’re bored with or whatever. And if there’s an additional layer of thought going on [with Odd Future], there’s an element that I think is encouraging about that because people are thinking about these issues or are being able to experience it and see how it plays out. Because, at the end of the day, the artists are the ones who have to be accountable for it and prove themselves to people. We’re not going to do that. We’re just trying to make sure that people are getting the full picture.
J.D.: Is there any way to balance it? Is there a way to have this discussion at the festival and not just let it happen onstage in a vacuum? Women are raped in Chicago. [The Chicago Police index of crime statistics for 2010 lists 1,359 cases of sexual assault.] Women are raped at the colleges many of your readers attend, and President Obama has launched an initiative for more effort to prevent sexual assaults on campus. When I said earlier that Pitchfork has not dealt enough with this issue in its coverage of Odd Future, I have not seen a significant home-page feature article or essay strictly wrestling with these questions. In 1979, Lester Bangs famously wrote a piece called “The White Noise Supremacists” struggling to deal with racism in the punk scene. It was a tortured, conflicted, and problematic essay. But where is Pitchfork with a piece asking, “What does it say that so many people in this music community love this band but its lyrics are at times hateful toward women?”
Schreiber: For one thing, look, they’ve been covered by virtually every single music publication out there. The majority of those writers said what we say: There’s more to these guys than just the fact that a few of their songs contain offensive lyrics. Even NPR ran a piece called “Why You Should Listen to the Rap Group Odd Future, Even Though It’s Hard.” We very carefully considered how and when to start covering them, even though it became clear to us immediately that the music itself—their production, their voices, and their songs—warranted coverage, we held off to discuss and debate all of these topics internally, and to look at these issues from every possible angle. And those conversations are ongoing as they continue to release more music. We’ve addressed it in every feature that we’ve run. And I feel that like every other music publication, we’re taking it on a case-by-case basis.
J.D.: But is there a way to have those conversations at the festival?
Schreiber: Well, look, there’s also a lot of enthusiasm that Odd Future is playing the festival. I guess I don’t believe in the idea that song lyrics have a hypnotic effect on people. I think this is a larger chicken-or-egg conversation, but it’s one that’s come up over and over again, as you said, throughout history, whenever pop music or movies or video games or books or any type of art appears to be glorifying despicable actions, especially when they push into new extremes. To me, it was a big talking point around Eminem, Body Count, N.W.A, Ozzy, Alice Cooper—this list goes on. It’s good to have these discussions, which is why we’ve addressed that aspect of it so frequently. But at the same time, unsavory or ugly topics don’t to me inherently strip a piece of work of its artistic worth.
Some people, for example, have moral issues with the video game “Grand Theft Auto.” But I don’t think it changed any minds about whether killing police is acceptable behavior. At the same time, there’s no getting around that it’s an amazing game. People tend to over-simplify these things, to talk about the one or two aspects that disturb them and blow it up, as if that’s the only reason that people engage with it. And, like, “Grand Theft Auto” has amazing graphics, a great storyline, fantastic music, and great action; there’s so much more to it than just the fact that you can, for example, snipe pedestrians from the tops of buildings. If it was a terrible game, no one would have cared. But it was an incredible game, and a popular game, and that’s why all of those other aspects became part of the discussion.
J.D.: Alright. I wanted to present your arguments in full, and I appreciate your giving me the time.
Schreiber: At the end of the day, on one hand, I absolutely understand your perspective, because you’re grappling with the same things that we are. But my sense is that you don’t feel that the music has any redeeming qualities.
J.D.: No, that’s not true at all. I think there are some amazing things about this collective musically. But I wish Tyler and his cohorts were rapping about anything else other than taking this cheap shock route of saying vile, hateful things about women. And gays, for that matter.
Kaskie: But I think that’s going to continue [to evolve], don’t you? I mean, they got our attention with the shock value. It remains to be seen if they develop in a different way.
J.D.: Maybe; maybe not. You’ve booked them now. And the different position I’m in as a critic versus what Pitchfork is doing is that I’m writing about them, but I’m not charging somebody to come and see this group under my aegis. It’s unique for a critical or journalistic publication to be in that position, and that’s why I thought it was important to ask you the questions.
Schreiber: They are important questions. Thanks.