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How Odd Future’s Tum­blr tore up the rules of music marketing

Before Instagram existed, Tyler and his crew built their own aesthetic universe, inviting fans along for the wild ride. The music industry watched closely.

Whether it was their lo-fi musi­cal­i­ty, reck­less humour, or their DIY aes­thet­ic – for which demon­ic cats and Earl Sweatshirt’s indif­fer­ent glare were logos for t-shirts – in their ear­ly days Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All were proud­ly out-of-sync with the rest of hip-hop cul­ture. When the LA col­lec­tive real­ly start­ed to make waves in 2010, the tepid rap that ruled the air­waves had a heav­i­ly pol­ished feel (B.o.B’s The Adven­tures of Bob­by Ray and Eminem’s Recov­ery were two of the year’s high­est sell­ing records). Dis­cov­er­ing Odd Future, who made being a weirdo cool and weren’t afraid to piss off rap’s elder states­men (or, lat­er on, Bruno Mars) was exhil­a­rat­ing. They were like the droogs from A Clock­work Orange if they could spit bars. To ado­les­cents across the world, it was like stum­bling upon the coolest cult on earth.

Cen­tral to their ascent was the group’s pop­u­lar Tum­blr page, some­thing that rev­o­lu­tionised how rap­pers approached self-pro­mo­tion. From Decem­ber 2009 onwards (when Tyler, the Cre­ator uploaded his debut mix­tape Bas­tard), Odd Future post­ed dozens of mix­tapes, includ­ing debuts from now major acts like Frank Ocean and Earl Sweat­shirt along­side projects from The Jet Age Free, Mike G and Mel­lowhype onto Tum­blr for free, quick­ly build­ing a glob­al fan­base with­out label-backed album release strate­gies or hip-hop mix­tape sites like Dat­piff. The page became a can­vas for the group to exper­i­ment with their strik­ing aes­thet­ic, shar­ing goofy videos of them mak­ing fun of rap clich­es, skate­board­ing, mosh­ing, falling asleep, and react­ing to fan-made art and music videos. The group soon learnt how to mon­e­tise their brand, sign­ing a dis­tri­b­u­tion deal with Sony, launch­ing pop­u­lar cloth­ing labels as well as the com­e­dy sketch show Loi­ter Squad.

But in the ear­ly stages, Odd Future post­ed stuff straight away, seem­ing­ly unchecked by indus­try pro­fes­sion­als. They were ama­teurs with big ideas, shap­ing their own mythol­o­gy in real time, essen­tial­ly run­ning an Insta­gram account many years before the app, which launched in late 2010, prop­er­ly gained trac­tion. Over the course of the decade, it’s become essen­tial for musi­cians to keep their fans engaged by con­stant­ly post­ing casu­al videos on Snapchat and Insta­gram sto­ries. By reg­u­lar­ly post­ing lo-fi footage, art­works and pho­tos to their Tum­blr, Odd Future were tak­ing you behind the scenes before such plat­forms existed.

It was excit­ing. From the very begin­ning it felt dis­rup­tive,” says Jacob Moore, the founder of Pigeons and Planes, an inde­pen­dent rap blog that cham­pi­oned Odd Future at a time where oth­er pop­u­lar blogs, like 2DOPEBOYZ and Nah Right, famous­ly refused to post Tyler’s music. A reminder that the group’s brash­ness could enthral and alien­ate in equal measure. 

Accord­ing to Moore, the genius of Odd Future’s Tum­blr page was how it made you feel like one of the fam­i­ly. You had a front row seat and got to watch as the group slept on each other’s floors, dealt with dodgy pro­mot­ers, and humbly ate French fries togeth­er at a din­er. This meant that by the time they did their first TV per­for­mance, or when Tyler won a VMA and Frank won a Gram­my, the day one Tum­blr fol­low­ers felt like they had gone on the same jour­ney, and each had a per­son­al stake in this success. 

With oth­er rap­pers, you were just being fed pro­mo or wait­ing on media to pack­age it up and add con­text. But with Odd Future, a lot of the time there was no con­text,” Moore explains. If you didn’t spend time going through every­thing and fol­low­ing along, you felt like you were miss­ing out on some­thing. It encour­aged the fans to pay atten­tion and to form this com­mu­ni­ty of like-mind­ed kids. Today, that’s the norm.” 

Moore claims the page direct­ly inspired mod­ern pop acts like Bil­lie Eil­ish, the teenage star who has called Tyler a major influ­ence, the hyper­ac­tive group Brock­hamp­ton (who were picked up by OF’s man­agers Chris­t­ian and Kel­ly Clan­cy) and the love­able troll Lil Nas X. I think their relent­less rejec­tion of stereo­types set the stage for a more open-mind­ed audi­ence and for those artists who are com­fort­able not fit­ting in. Odd Future changed the rules on how you approached build­ing an audi­ence and a brand and doing business.”

For Chica­go rap­per Chris Crack, who has a taste for sur­re­al visu­als and off-the-wall humour, and who recent­ly won a co-sign from Earl on Twit­ter, Odd Future’s Tum­blr opened up the door for him and count­less oth­ers to approach social media in a fresh way. The rea­son it worked so well is because it was the road less trav­elled and they utilised the fuck out of that,” he says. Look at Megan thee Stal­lion, we know about her cause she was doing freestyles on Tum­blr about ani­me and being a bad bitch [and that’s down to Odd Future].

Tum­blr is a total­ly dif­fer­ent uni­verse,” he adds. But Odd Future showed if you can cap­ture your essence as an artist on there then you’ve auto­mat­i­cal­ly won. I think they were way ahead of their time. They used Tum­blr like Twit­ter or Insta­gram TV way back in 2010, and that’s crazy!” 

Most impres­sive, accord­ing to Ben Har­ris, the founder of Run Music, a UK-based inde­pen­dent music PR firm that looks after artists such as Dan­ny Brown, Run The Jew­els and Fred­die Gibbs, was how in their ear­ly days Odd Future craft­ed their own aes­thet­ic with­out a team of pub­li­cists around them. He says they also opened the door for the more fer­vent social media fan­doms we see today. 

Giv­ing away down­loads of music felt like a fair­ly rad­i­cal thing to do; this was before Fools Gold and Dan­ny Brown offered XXX as a free down­load,” Har­ris says. They forged their own iden­ti­ty and aes­thet­ic. It meant they arrived ful­ly-formed and could quick­ly devel­op a loy­al following.”

How­ev­er, Har­ris also thinks it’s impor­tant that we look at Odd Future as kids of their era. Their focus on Tum­blr was just a nat­ur­al exten­sion of the lives teenagers were start­ing to have around that time,” he says. Remem­ber that they would have been among the first wave of teenagers to grow up with the inter­net and spend­ing a large chunk of time online, expe­ri­enc­ing the world in that way.” 

Some of the posts have dis­ap­peared, but look­ing back at Odd Future’s Tum­blr in 2019, when Tyler the Cre­ator, Frank Ocean, Earl Sweat­shirt and The Inter­net are each major names, is a strange­ly inti­mate expe­ri­ence. We’ve since entered an era of wok­e­ness”, in which self-reflec­tion is encour­aged and poten­tial­ly prob­lem­at­ic com­ments tend to be avoid­ed. In this con­text, the unfil­tered stream of slurs and polit­i­cal­ly-incor­rect jokes spew­ing from Odd Future dur­ing their teenage years seems strik­ing­ly raw.

In Feb­ru­ary 2011, those con­stant­ly check­ing the page were treat­ed to new music. It was Nos­tal­gia Ultra, the debut project from Frank Ocean, who’d appeared on some of the pre­vi­ous OF mix­tapes but hadn’t ful­ly stepped into the spot­light. The cap­tion, pre­sum­ably writ­ten by Tyler, encour­aged the fans to give it a shot: Smooth Ass Music About Bitch­es, Rela­tion­ships And Being A Rich Young Nigga…But In A Swagged Out Way. Click Pho­to To Down­load. Wolves Know How To Sing Too.” Today, many look at the likes of Tyler and Frank as unreach­able genius­es, but they were once just a bunch of kids try­ing to make their way in the world. Through Odd Future’s refresh­ing­ly down-to-earth Tum­blr page, we’re remind­ed that every­one has to start somewhere. 

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