A Tale of Two Tylers: Odd Future, the NBA Age Limit, and the Business of Buzz

Kill people, burn shit, fuck school – Odd Future

What do Tyler Haley and Jeremy Tyler have in common? They were both were born in 1991, they both grew up in Southern California, they both dropped out of school to pursue their dreams, and they both are hoping to blow up in 2011.

Jeremy Tyler was a much-talked-about high school phenom who, in 2009, dropped out of school after his sophomore year to play professional ball in Israel while he waited to turn 19 and become eligible for the NBA draft. At the time he was roundly criticized for his decision. Writers and fans reacted with shock and horror that a teenager would leave high school to take a job making $140,000 a year. Over the past two years he has vindicated his haters by not only performing poorly on the court in Israel, but also earning a reputation as an immature, spoiled, ego maniacal asshole. He quit the team with five weeks left in the season and moved back to the U.S., only to take a new job with the Tokyo Apache team in Japan. He is eligible for the 2011 draft.

Tyler Haley is better known as Tyler the Creator, the most recognizable member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future. He raps about rape, the devil, suicide, skateboarding, and generally has a narcissistic and nihilistic worldview. He is intelligent beyond his 19 years but goes to great lengths to play it down and celebrate the lowbrow and appear dumb and careless. He is mean but at the same time hilarious and goofy. He is immature, idiotic, and full of raw energy. In a word, he’s a teenager. But his group Odd Future has been steadily growing in popularity, hitting a new crescendo in the last month as the video for his song Yonkers was tweeted by Kanye West and the group scored a performance on Jimmy Fallon and a record deal with XL. Tyler dropped out of juco to pursue OF full time.

Between the draft classes of 1995 and 2000, there were ten players drafted to the NBA straight out of high school. Stars like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady were all among those ten. Between 2001 and 2005, that number almost tripled. This group included Amar’e Stoudamire and Lebron James, but also included Kwame Brown and Sebastian Telfair, and a lot of guys you've never even heard of. In fact, in the 2001 draft when Kwame Brown went number one, high schoolers Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry both were picked in the top 5 ahead of players like Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Gilbert Arenas, and Shane Battier.

In 2006 the NBA had had enough. The league changed the rules so that players would not be eligible for the draft until they turned 19. The league (and the NCAA) had hoped this rule change would force players to attend college, even if for only one year. But they also thought it would protect teams from making stupid draft picks and give them a chance to see a player in college-level competition before pulling the trigger on them. The frenzy over drafting high school players had become too much, and the consequence was that teams wasted draft picks on immature, unprepared future washouts in the hopes that they would discover the next Kobe Bryant.

The league changed the rule to protect the teams from their own over-zealousness and bad judgement, meanwhile punishing those high school students who had a real chance at success in professional basketball. But like with most things involving the NBA, there was little concern for what was best for the players. The emphasis is always on what is best for business. There’s plenty of lip service, however, paid to the good and welfare of these high school prospects. The NBA crows about how matriculation to college (or the NBA’s D-League) is better for these kids in the long run. Despite their words, their actions prove over and over again that the league sees the players as children that need to be controlled and patronized to.

You may argue that the league is right, the players are children that need to be scolded, grounded, punished for their misbehavior. You’d certainly have ample evidence to back up your claims. But the fact is that the player has one job to do, play basketball. The team has one job to do, put together a team that wins (and/or sells lots of tickets). Everything else is just adults trying to use their power to regulate the behavior and control the lives of other adults. Sure, some of these adults are only 18 years old. But if its old enough for Uncle Sam to send them to war, then by God its old enough for them to take whatever job out of high school they so choose, be it fry cook or shooting guard.

Tyler the Creator has had quite a year. By his own admission it has been a roller coaster. Discovered by the hive mind on the internet, the buzz around Odd Future grew like a swarm. OF suddenly find themselves being called “the vanguard of modern hip-hop” by Pitchfork and getting followed around by MTV. The question is, are Odd Future going to be Kobe Bryant or Kwame Brown?

When Tyler gets asked about all the new fans by his self-proclaimed “OG fans,” he is quick to chastise them. “You’re not a real fan, a real fan would be happy for us.” Check out this exchange from Tyler's Formspring page:
Q: Do these total dickriders not piss you off, dude?
A [Tyler]: nope, people like you who complain about 'dickriders' piss me off, to be real. they're just excited fans man, let them enjoy that shit and stop trying to be so fucking cool

One could almost pity Tyler after reading this comment. He’s totally right to accuse this fan of trying to be so fucking cool. But if he has little patience or sympathy for the type of fan who relishes in being among the few who know about something great and unappreciated, he will truly hate the swarm that is currently gathering around him. His new Pitchfork-reading, Kanye-twitter-following fans are just as anxious NOT to be in on a totally great secret. Like a horde of NBA scouts eating frito pies at high school basketball games, they are desperate to be in on the ground floor of The Next Big Thing.

Jeremy Tyler once wanted to go to college. He verbally committed to Rick Pitino to attend Louisville when he graduated high school. But he got impatient. He told the New York Times he found high school “boring” and the level of competition unchallenging. He met Sonny Vaccaro, sworn enemy of the NCAA, who probably convinced Tyler that the NCAA would profit off of his labor while he earned nothing more than the chance to attend more boring classes on his way to the NBA draft. He watched Brandon Jennings opt out of doing a “one and done” year in the NCAA and head to Europe to play professionally while he waited to turn 19. His management team decided that Tyler would best be served by playing against professional competition while he waited to become eligible for the draft.

He and his family went from having the attention of the world of basketball to having the attention of the whole world. He was now the poster child for the story that professional basketball was robbing children of their innocence and educations in the pursuit of money. Again the paternalistic instinct kicked in. Jeremy Tyler received the kind of scrutiny for his decisions that is never laid upon the Justin Biebers and the Miley Cyrii of the world. As far as the American public was concerned, he was making an ill-informed mistake. He was being manipulated. He was just being greedy and chasing money rather than an education.

Unfortunately, Jeremy did himself little favors when he got to Israel. His much-older teammates (many of whom were also hoping to one day enter the NBA draft) and his coach didn’t warm to him. The one backer that was rooting for Jeremy in Israel was the team owner, Jeffrey Rosen, who was hoping Jeremy Tyler would be the trailblazer that led many more high school stars to his club to prepare for the draft. His coach suggested that if it wasn’t for Rosen, he would have cut the “out of shape” and “lazy” Tyler. Complaints about how loud he played his music and his attitude were reported on in the press. His swagger was unappreciated by Isreali fans and teammates. Even Vaccaro had second thoughts: “All he had to do was go do what Brandon [Jennings] did, shut up and go learn. He obviously isn’t doing that. He thinks that he’s Kevin Garnett.” Was this evidence that the NBA had a point? That there was some limit to how young a player could handle the jump to the pros?

Listening to Odd Future for the first time is a lot like what I imagine Jeremy Tyler’s coach in Israel must have felt like coaching him. On one hand, there is clearly raw talent and potential. On the other hand, the output is rough and immature to the point of being offensive. While Coach Ashkenazi probably resented that Jeffrey Rosen would expect him to treat Jeremy Tyler like an all-star, similarly one has to wonder why anyone would expect millions of more people to listen to the intentionally obnoxious and shocking lyrics of Odd Future.

Tyler the Creator says he wants to sell out. He can’t wait to blow up. He’s excited about getting huge. But, much like Jeremy Tyler, he likely has a rude awakening coming. There is a limited audience for he and the rest of OF’s brand of fun. Sure, you can point to Eminem or Insane Clown Posse, as examples of other obnoxious and shocking rappers who are successful. And much to Tyler’s chagrin, many critics have made those comparisons. But the truth is that those obnoxious, offensive rappers also happen to be white. The music industry is loyal only to what is marketable, just like the NBA. And the music industry takes its cues from a racist, paternalistic public, just like the NBA.

Does Odd Future deserve to blow up? Probably. Their music is undeniably good, even if the lyrics are so uniquely offensive and stupid. For now they are enjoying their moment, much like Jeremy Tyler did in 2009 when he shocked the world and dropped out of high school. Their real test awaits them. Can their music evolve to meet a larger audience? Will they become more self-conscious now that they are being asked to perform on television and to hang out with Mos Def and Justin Beiber? Or will they hang on to their teenage-skater-fuck-the-world swagger? The public had a hard time forgiving Kanye for upstaging Taylor Swift. One has to wonder how they will respond to whatever chaos Tyler the Creator and Odd Future have in store for us.

Jeremy Tyler will enter the NBA draft this year and will likely go in the second round. If he gets a roster spot, he’s likely going to get the league minimum. A lockout could push his draft off yet another year, leaving him stuck in Tokyo for even longer. His moment passed, he didn’t conform his attitude or his game, and the basketball hype machine is finished with him.

Should their be some version of the NBA’s age limit rule for hip hop? Do we need to let teenage Youtube sensations marinate a little longer in the underground before we plop them on Jimmy Fallon for the whole world to judge them?

There is certainly nothing wrong with allowing people to earn a living doing whatever they can. And there is no point in judging someone for choosing to pursue their dreams at any age they feel they are ready. But there does seem to be some cause for those of us in the public at large to remind ourselves that even the most talented kids are still kids, and that talent is not the same as skill. The onus is not on the kids for wanting fame and fortune before they are ready. The onus is on all of us so eager to find the Next Big Thing that we end up leading them on.

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Kelly said...

Great post! It may be because I've been living under a rock (viz., in Pittsburgh), but I still haven't heard Odd Future.

Clyde Lovellette said...

If you can't see the skill beyond the teenage-breakup inspired rape references nor the completely unique production and approach to the rap game, I feel sorry for you. If all you see is raw talent in the "Earl" video and not the creativity and insane wordplay rivaled by no one in current popular rap, you really shouldn't be referencing Odd Future. Tyler's acknowledged that he can only do the things he's doing because he is only 19 and wants to grow as a person and an entertainer. If I'm reading this correctly, you would rather OF hole up and hone their skills before going out to share them with dreams of becoming famous, or at least suggest as much. I guess the Ramones were just immature Charlie Sheens that should've spent a year in college to learn music. The parallels drawn between the NBA and popular rap music in this post are lazy and inconsequential. But good job coming up with your clever idea of comparing two black kids with the same name that have nothing to do with each other!

David Hill said...

"If I'm reading this correctly, you would rather OF hole up and hone their skills before going out to share them with dreams of becoming famous, or at least suggest as much."

you aren't reading it correctly. i actually draw the exact opposite of this conclusion in the last paragraph.

i also give the group as much credit as i do critique in the body of this piece.

perhaps any criticism at all is too much criticism for some of odd future's fans.

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