Op-Eds

Let’s Not Downplay the Importance of Tyler, the Creator

The full 'Cherry Bomb' doc shows he's not only influential but a testament to the idea that life is there for the taking.

by Ryan Bassil
31 May 2017, 10:19pm

"Fucking Young" video still

Tyler, the Creator hovers next to the stage, hollering at Pharrell, buzzing with excitement. "P! Get your iPod and play 'Mr Me Too'," he shrieks, referencing the 2006 Clipse single, smacking his hands together. "Please!" Moments later he's dressed in rare clothing from the song's video and performing the track with Williams, completing a goal most people only dream of.

"It was the biggest achievement of my life, I think," Tyler confesses later in a voiceover, as the moment is documented in the recently released Cherry Bomb documentary. As a self-confessed N.E.R.D stan ("probably top three, ever"), the 26 year-old has come an impressively long way from geeking out over the chord progressions on In Search Of. The performance with Pharrell took place at Tyler's own Camp Flog Gnaw festival, a yearly event and location of another personal triumph – the place where Tyler performed with Kanye West years after he'd dreamt (and tweeted) about doing so.

Though the memories of Odd Future may now pass like a distant cloud in the sky of older music fans' minds, the new doc is a pertinent reminder of what Tyler has achieved since eating that roach in his breakthrough "Yonkers" video. Interminably married with controversy, his creativity has often been overlooked in favour of his shock-and-horror politics and comedic taste. Yet there is also no living artist that young who has shifted the tectonic plates of modern rap quite like he has – or given proof to the idea that life is there for the taking.

Directed by Mikey Alfred, the Cherry Bomb film documents the recording sessions for the album of the same name. Going beyond the darker themes of Tyler's first three records, the album is a vast expanse of pastel colours, of string sections recorded with Han Zimmer, ascendent harmonies from Gap Band member Charlie Wilson, near iconic guest verses from Lil Wayne and Kanye West, lo-fi subversion – and, most importantly, a young artist finding his wings. Though perhaps not as critically favourable as Tyler's previous work, it showcases a young artist going through with his vision and emerging the other side in a new and advanced form.

This evolutionary journey can be seen vividly throughout the film. Tyler gives vocal cues to Charlie Wilson; he receives the seal of master approval from Zimmer; he brings through and melds together talents as far flung as Toro Y Moi and 18-year-old guitarist Austin Feinstein (who has since worked on Frank Ocean's Blonde). But it's one moment, in the section focused on "Smuckers", that gives weight to Tyler's importance as an artist and beacon of 21st-century creativity. "That's one of your jobs in hip-hop", says Kanye West, speaking to Tyler about his influence. "I don't think there would have been a Yeezus if it wasn't for you." It's a significant insight.

From the moment he released Bastard in 2009, Tyler has been dedicated to music as a larger artform – as more than a collection of songs, or a music video, or a live performance. As Kali Uchis eulogises at one point in the film, he doesn't care about trends – he does what he wants to do. That sounds dumber than basic on paper, but it's this approach that's lead to him arguably being a defining force in the reshaping of rap culture and its mechanics for a new audience. Dude has achieved a bucketload, so for the sake of brevity let's do this shit in a good old list.

What has Tyler, the Creator done?

1. Been a boss

Whether it's Lil Uzi Vert and his love for Marilyn Manson or Lil Yachty and his nautical aesthetic, one defining characteristic of rap's new school is the agency each artist has in formulating – and following through with – their own vision. It would be presumptuous to say these acts are influenced by Tyler directly but you can't overstate the legwork he put in to allow them to flourish. When Odd Future got got major label backing, via RED Distribution/Sony, for Odd Future Records, they were granted "100 percent creative control of all aspects of their music, art, and release schedule with no third-party participation in outside business". It's a model that's now commonplace, with labels willing to put their trust in acts who – like Odd Future – were born out of the internet.

2. Created a shitload of videos

Okay, so Kanye West laid the foundation for this one. The Louis Vuitton Don left his fingerprints all over nearly every video he's released. But when Tyler, the Creator started self-directing his own videos and created a new, fun and colour-saturated visual aesthetic, plenty of acts followed suit and began whacking their names on their work. Then there's the fact Tyler's filmography opened up the video form, creating space for visuals like Aminé's "Redmercedes" and the (accidentally great) video for Young Thug's "Wyclef Jean".

3. Made those videos really fucking good

Forget about "Yonkers", fair-weather fans. Have you seen "Fucking Young"? Featuring in the Cherry Bomb film, the visual is unlike anything you'll have seen from a rap video past or present. Then there's "IFHY", "Sam's Dead" and "She" – three stand-outs in a videography that can't be counted on two hands.

4. Done a lot, basically

All these T-shirts and hats and various pieces of merchandise you'll have seen floating around lately, pushed by everyone from TDE to Skepta? Again, it can be posited Tyler picked up where Wu Tang Clan left off in the 90s, with his GOLF brand (a clothing company that, as he boasts on Earl Sweatshirt's "Woah", shifted a quarter of a million dollar in sales of socks). In 2016, however, the brand elevated itself beyond streetwear and into the world of proper fashion, hosting its own runway show in Los Angeles. Yes, Jay Z had done something similar with Rocawear before and Rihanna continues to show Fenty x Puma ready-to-wear, but that wasn't all Tyler had lined up. There are the apps, the television series The Jellies and Loiter Squad, this new shit he's going to be doing with VICELAND. Again, the question: has anyone else created this much stuff to such a high degree of quality, and across various platforms? Lastly… there's the Camp Flog Gnaw festival, which brings us back to the beginning.

5. Founded Camp Fucking Flog Gnaw

When people say music festivals haven't changed, they all look the same, book the same acts, they obviously haven't been to Camp Flog Gnaw – a festival with a huge skatepark and a varied yet carefully curated line-up. Started by Tyler in 2012, the festival neatly slides in with the carnival-like "meet-me-by-the-lake" summer camp aesthetic that flows across his music and videos.

So, I hear you ask, what are you trying to say?

In a crazily long post published to his Tumblr page in 2013, Tyler the Creator spilled over how happy he felt to have hosted his own music festival. In his own caps-locked-to-fuck style, he wrote:

"I Just Want Who Ever Reading This To Know That Anything Is Possible, No Matter How Crazy It May Seem, Anything IS Possible You Just Have To Figure It Out. Get Your Self Esteem Up And Like Yourself, Then Like Your Ideas."

And that's the biggest takeaway from the Cherry Bomb documentary, the story preceding it and all the pieces of work surrounding it. If you want to do something, you can go and do it. In a world where so many kids (and adults!) are told they can't do anything, there are barriers, what else could be more important? As a teenager, Tyler, the Creator looked up to Pharrell. He studied those beautiful, heavenly bridges. He posted on forums. He probably has both versions of In Search Of… – the electronic version, and the live band version. As an adult, he not only performed on stage with his idol, but has him featuring on two tracks ("Keep Da O's" and "IFHY").

The incredible swathe of influence Odd Future had – and continue to have – on vast caches of the teenage population is one of a double-edged sword. It's the reason Tyler continues to be banned from the UK, after now-Prime Minister and then-Home Secretary Theresa May declared him to be "posing a threat to public order". But the work that lays beneath those controversies – which are now all years in the past – is what's more important to present and future culture. Young T saw Skateboard P and made his dreams a reality. If even one kid achieves the same thing following Tyler, the Creator then his work is done. In ten years let's see a teenager hovering next to a festival stage, buzzing with excitement, hollering: "T! Get your iPod and play 'Inside of Clouds remix'. Please!"

You can find Ryan on Twitter.