If you’ve heard of Earlwolf – Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt from hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (I love typing that) – you’ve probably heard how jaw-droppingly talented they are; a bunch of LA upstarts with virtuosic production skills and rapping ability to match; teens who released home-made tracks and videos for free on Tumblr and Twitter and generated blog-buzz like a bad Oscars dress. But just occasionally some of the hype surrounding their rise does get obscured by their ability to generate controversy. Their lyrics break just about every popular entertainment taboo – rape, abuse of women, cannibalism, torture, necrophilia – and they cultivate a public image of, to quote Tyler, “Idontgiveafuck-ness”.
Inhaling secondhand pot smoke in the Palace’s notorious up-the-street-round-the-corner-down-the-alley queue, we took a moment to wonder: Who goes to an Earlwolf gig?
Not ‘Parents’ Councils’ and feminist groups in protest, disappointingly, for there were rumours, and if the sparring on Twitter between fans and ‘unfans’ in the last few days was a reliable guide then things would have got spicy.
Nor were these the antisocial ruffian rabble keeping mums and dads up at night. In the interests of quality journalism we tested the temperature of the mob by saying ‘Yo!’ and offering high-fives to strangers on the way to the back. Some greeted us warmly, some didn’t, but we met no outright hostility. This wasn’t an Eminem show. These kids weren’t angry.
But they were kids. The CIA (why do they care?) calls hip-hop the most powerful youth culture in the world today, but these youth were young. The bouncers insisted on ID from everyone at the door, but inside, grooving along to I OH YOU DJs (book them for your 18th birthday guys, they’re fun) I already felt like a hairy old man at the age of 23. Earlwolf played an all-ages show in Sydney the night before, much to the chagrin of those who like to worry about that sort of thing, but I doubt it would have made much difference to the demographic. Tyler the Creator is 22; Earl Sweatshirt is 19. That’s the same age as Justin Bieber. In the U.S. Earl wouldn’t be old enough to attend the shows he performs. At 15 he wasn’t old enough to buy his own debut album, Earl, because of its lyrical content. Nor was he old enough to refuse when his mother packed him off to reform school in Samoa as soon as she heard it.
And pretty close to half of them were female. This would not ordinarily be worth mentioning, but it’s never been the case at a hip-hop gig I’ve been to before. Yet for an act whose lyrics are noted for their violent misogyny even within rap culture, women make up something like fifty percent of their Melbourne fans. What this might mean is simply too big and scary to be contemplated here.
Odd Future member Taco kicked off the main act with some beats that kept the crowd bopping after we’d all sung along to a highlights mix of Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city from the aforementioned opening DJs. Then Tyler (still with a valid Australian work visa despite Liberal MP Alex Hawke’s best efforts to have it revoked), Earl, and surprise guest Jasper (also an Odd Future member) rushed on to the stage to the first verse of ‘Check My French!’ from Tyler’s 2009 debut Bastard. Then Tyler called us assholes and fuckfaces and faggots gave us all the finger and we loved it.
Tyler and Earl, too, were curious about the composition of the crowd. ‘Any niggas here tonight? Any black people? There – there’s one – oh I see one there – what’s that like four? – five?’ People of all skin tones cheered as we moved on to ‘We Got Bitches’ from last year’s OF Mixtape Vol. 2, with Taco swapping places with Tyler, taking a microphone and rapping a verse while Tyler donned a chef’s apron for some reason, and wanked his microphone at the crowd for some other reason, or maybe the same reason.
After whispers of trademark opening song stage dives in the line, this was all a bit of a let-down. There was plenty of energy in the delivery of the raps, but set stage formations (whoever’s verse it was standing front and centre, flanked by a pair of equidistant hype-men and Taco at the back bobbing to the beats) was somewhat stagnant. Between-song banter about how tired they all were tended to drag, robbing the show of momentum. Songs were continually cut off after just a verse and a chorus, either because other verses belonged to absent Odd Future members or because they didn’t want to commit too much time to each song, so as to fit more of them in. It was a show for an attention deficit generation audience. Some were well and truly caught up in it – at least two people at the front right corner of the first balcony and echoing every word from the stage seemed to be having the night of their lives – but others were left behind.
After a few songs in the front section crush we shifted upstairs for a different perspective, and found more disappointment, although this time unrelated to the performers. The acoustics at the Palace are terrible; lyrics were barely coherent anywhere in the venue, and because of the overhanging balconies, speakers loud enough at the front to shake loose what few chest-hairs there were in the crowd were quiet enough for tolerable conversation at the back. Towards the end of the show Tyler was complaining to those up the top of the theatre to get more involved, but I could understand why they might not have been totally into it. Songs could be unrecognisable until the chorus from certain (disad)vantage points, and not really loud enough to overwhelm sing-along inhibitions.
There were some real highlights though. Earl’s post-Samoa singles ‘Chum’ and ‘Whoa’ have made his forthcoming album Doris one of the most anticipated of the year, and, interestingly, everyone seemed to know all the words to ‘Awkward’, a touching story of a first kiss from Tyler’s new album Wolf. It’s still weird for me seeing hetero couples really get down together to the refrain of ‘My Bitch Suck Dick’, but you couldn’t deny that they were having a great time. The song’s intro includes the line “by the way, we do punch bitches”, to which an audience member responded “Australia says no!” – causing general tittering in the vicinity.
Earlwolf fans reading this will probably want to know what the last song of the night was, but unfortunately I do not possess that information, although I can say that it was a resounding triumph with the crowd. When Tyler organised a circle pit in the front I burrowed my way through the sweaty mass of meat and got dirty with the dirtiest, bodies colliding and tumbling in a filthy washing machine as powerful as the waves at Woolamai. I was impressed by the commitment to communal concern in the crowd (demanded by Tyler) in immediately hauling back to their feet any who might fall among that roiling rip-current, but I did miss the music.
It was a long show; there was no encore, and no need for one. The lights came up, people finished their drinks and joints and headed for the doors. Whether anyone walked out sexist, homophobic, violent, or criminally insane who wasn’t already when they went in, I couldn’t say.