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Tyler, the Creator is in full bloom

Tyler, the Creator is an exuberant rap star and a thoughtful polymath working across fashion, animation, and film. WarnerMedia, Nike, and Sony have hopped aboard. Are you ready to ride?

Tyler, the Creator is in full bloom
[Photo: JUCO; prop stylist: Dane Klingaman]

“I like getting lost, I like that shit. Exploring, makin’ a left turn.”

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Wearing a red Louis Vuitton cabana shirt, open-toed Golf sandals of his own design, and a bucket hat, Tyler, the Creator cruises his McLaren 675 through Los Angeles while appreciating the view from the port side.

“There’s just a different tone of yellow in the sky today,” he says. Northern California’s wildfires have given everything a permanent tinge of the golden hour. “It’s been like this all day. It’s weird. Like, it’s probably me and five other people who notice it too.”

Tyler weaves between cars and curses at speed-limit-abiding minivans and a stalled pickup truck looking like a haute Gilligan while gleefully singing along with every song that plays on his iPhone. It’s a mix of soul-funk and old-school hip-hop, plus some lovely contemporary stuff. Pure Pleasure. Blackstreet. Janet. John Legend. He cues trumpets with a slick point of his finger, accentuates bass drops by jutting out his chin. Fans spot him from the sidewalk or nearby cars and shout, “Tyler!”

“There’s a lot of ’70s music on this playlist,” I say, sure I can almost hear the warm, retro chords of his Grammy-nominated 2017 album, Flower Boy, somewhere in this mix.

“Oh, it’s just on shuffle,” Tyler says dismissively. He then flips quickly between a few tracks, turns the stereo to max, and I hear the ominous first notes of “Freeee” by Kanye West and Kid Cudi. That’s when, as if by his own will, L.A. traffic drains away, and Tyler floors it.

The engine crescendos into a whir that competes with the speakers, and the world blurs. With each guitar riff, Tyler yanks the steering wheel like a mixer, zigzagging the car in an angry staccato. His face has transformed from L.A.’s charming cruise director into the mutineer who points the ship straight into the iceberg just to hear the sound of the crash. With his eyes wide, he turns to me and shouts along with the track, “I feel freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

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As he pulls the car into a strip-mall doughnut shop, he confesses, “I don’t get this shit called anxiety. I guess it’s when someone’s nervous.”

[Photo: JUCO; prop stylist: Dane Klingaman]
He waits a beat, miming introspection, pretending he didn’t notice me instinctively grab the seat in the explosion of g-force.

“But uh, when I was driving like that, were you nervous?”

This is the A side, B side of Tyler Okonma, aka Tyler, the Creator. He’s high-octane, high-fructose. The 27-year-old rapper-producer-director-comedy writer–fashion designer–festival organizer is a polarizer and a crowd-pleaser. He’s a human fidget spinner, and a prolific artist with a keen attention to detail. He’s a provocateur who gleefully shares his favorite YouTube clip of an anaconda eating a vomiting dog, and an asthmatic with a dog allergy who can’t help but pet the nearest puppy. He’s an artist banned in the U.K., in part, because of homophobic lyrics, and yet he has an increasingly open penchant for men himself.

Tyler has released four singles this year and is working on more new music; he’s expanding his relationship with Converse (his first five critically lauded collections sold out); he’s significantly increasing the number of products that his own fashion label, Golf Wang, will release in the coming year, and likely launching a Golf Home line in 2019. This past summer, he signed an exclusive, first-look deal with Sony to make new TV shows, and season 2 of his cartoon series, The Jellies, will air on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim next year. He’s worked with composer Danny Elfman on an original song that’ll appear in the film adaptation of The Grinch that hits theaters November 9. He also stars as a bedsheet ghost in one of several music videos he’s directed this year, which definitely counts for something.

[Photo: JUCO; prop stylist: Dane Klingaman]
“He’s a pluralist, as are many musicians,” says Pharrell Williams, who (like West, another of Tyler’s pals) helped forge the path for recording artists to be taken seriously in fashion, film, and more. What’s different about Tyler, Williams says, is his “audacity to try.” Tyler has famously built his fan base without the benefit of radio airplay: Camp Flog Gnaw, the seven-year-old festival Tyler hosts and curates in Los Angeles each fall, will be held at Dodgers Stadium this year (its 45,000 tickets sold out in 37 minutes). As Williams notes, “Radio, AM, FM, Sirius, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. Tell me what is mainstream. What are the metrics to say something is massive or niche? That’s the beauty of existing now, and that’s why I feel like Tyler wins, because the metric is based upon his own personal success, not how it looks in one of these particular dimensions.”

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By crossing so many artistic boundaries at once, Tyler is also able to connect with his young fans in a way that they crave. They don’t want him to be just a musician or an influencer. They don’t want him to be just a spokesperson. They’re embracing his unique perspective. For the business executives who want to work with someone like Tyler—and more and more do—the old ways of corporate sponsorships no longer apply. “My core is to explore,” Tyler says. “That curiosity, people lose that, because they think they know everything.” Brands that work with him must prepare to strap in.

Anxiety optional.

“People love when I’m like, Aarrrgh

“Even when Tyler was a younger version of himself, he was always wildly magnetic,” says Christian Clancy, who serves as Tyler’s manager, along with Clancy’s wife, Kelly. The Clancys won the job only after Christian saved Tyler’s life and bought him waffles—both of which happened in the same night. In 2010, Christian was driving the members of Tyler’s hip-hop collective, Odd Future, in a van to their first paying gig. On the expressway, a semi-truck approached them head on, forcing him to swerve off the road to avoid an accident. After the gig, he took Tyler and his bandmates out to eat. The Odd Future crew split their unimaginable windfall of $500 in the bathroom, and then they all enjoyed a late-night breakfast, Tyler sealing his bond with the Clancys in syrup. “[Christian] took us to Denny’s and paid for the meal,” Tyler says. “It was probably like 50 bucks, but that fucking worked. I was like, This the dude.”

Born out of L.A.’s skater scene, Odd Future’s home-recorded, highly experimental mix tapes, filled with uncensored teenage angst and unedited hormones, were redefining hip-hop, which Tyler coproduced in a leading role. “This was the punk rock of that generation,” says Mark Williams, the record executive who signed Odd Future to Sony in 2011. “It’s YouTube and beats instead of guitars. But the energy, attitude, DIY, and rebellion was what I had seen in the late ’70s and ’80s with the Sex Pistols and Ramones.” Adds Kelly Clancy: “[Tyler] inspired kids because before, everything sounded and looked the same.”

Tyler had no shortage of ideas—for album covers, videos, clothing, and even a carnival. He’d sketch in a notebook for Christian while the two sat together on Tyler’s grandmother’s couch. Christian’s persistent challenge, to this day, has been “to play chess with the ideas,” he says. “How do I get this done? How do I help a kid, who at the time was more controversial, navigate [corporations]?”

Fortuitously, Odd Future wasn’t just punk, the group was hilarious. In early videos, Tyler would rap to a webcam while Hodgy and Left Brain danced in sync behind his head; in another, Curious George walked into a bedroom to find his bunny rabbit girlfriend in relations with another stuffed animal.

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[Photo: JUCO; prop stylist: Dane Klingaman]
Two development executives for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim late-night programming block—Walter J. Newman and Nick Weidenfeld—saw Odd Future perform at an L.A. club night called Low End Theory and found Tyler’s onstage charisma infectious. “It was like, Who is this kid?” says Newman, Adult Swim’s VP of comedy development.

As it happened, that kid had been posting on Adult Swim’s message boards for years, explaining to no one and everyone that one day he’d have his own Cartoon Network show. So Newman and Weidenfeld met with Tyler, along with Odd Future member Jasper Dolphin and a few others. “I’d never been in a meeting like that before or since,” says Newman, laughing. “Tyler can’t sit down, he and Jasper are slapping each other, whispering. They’re doing what you’d normally never do in a meeting.”

Adult Swim is known for its unfiltered content, which is beloved by adolescent males. But the channel was also part of Turner, owned by Time Warner (and now part of WarnerMedia, a subsidiary of AT&T, which has more than $160 billion in annual revenue). “Adult Swim seemed like a good place for Tyler to dip a toe into the corporate world,” says Christian Clancy.

The network green-lighted an Odd Future sketch-comedy show called Loiter Squad, and Newman paired the band with the production company Dickhouse, the team behind Jackass, to turn the idea into a TV series. Loiter Squad’s three-season run ended in 2014, right as Tyler’s team thought the project had finally gelled. Adult Swim threw some other ideas at Tyler and his writing partner, Lionel Boyce (whom Tyler befriended in high school drama class), but they passed. “At first I thought, ‘Should we just try?’ But it was Tyler who said, ‘We don’t have to,’ ” Boyce recalls. “He always says it’s in your mind that you feel obligated.”

Instead, the duo produced their own cartoon, The Jellies, a surreal comedy loosely inspired by 1980s family dramedies, where the parents are jellyfish and their adopted human child, Cornell, is an overly sensitive teen whom many critics read as a stand-in for Tyler. They released the first season of The Jellies on Tyler’s own digital platform; Adult Swim’s Newman acquired it last year and contracted the pair to make a second season. “At Adult Swim, we wonder, who has figured out something different—comedically, visually, whatever,” says Newman. “Tyler automatically works from that space.”

“Know your worth”

When Tyler was 9 years old, he was listening to Jamiroquai’s disco-funky Love Foolosophy alone in his room in L.A.’s South Bay. Some kids from the neighborhood came by and asked what he was doing, and Tyler was ecstatic. Finally, he could nerd out with other people about music! He was never into toys; his pastime was reading album liner notes. Jamiroquai—white guys out of the U.K. making music that sounded like it came from people with his skin color—was upending his world.

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“Ten seconds into the track, they said, ‘This shit is gay,’ ” Tyler recalls. “It was hard being 9 and black.”

Tyler would find affirmation from his role models. Not just Pharrell Williams but also Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Kanye West. They inspired him sonically and stylistically; their confident, coifed looks broke the tropes of black manhood Tyler saw around him. “I love that man,” Tyler says of West. “What he did for young black kids is like crazy. It’s no rules. I grew up not liking basketball, not wanting to wear do rags and big white shirts. With him, Andre, and P, it was like, ‘Oh shit! They’re doin’ what I want to do! It’s okay!’ ”

Tyler was impressed with them as entrepreneurs as well. By 2013, Pharrell had two clothing lines, a YouTube channel, and collaborations on everything from textiles to fine jewelry. West, meanwhile, was expanding into fashion and creating spectacles, such as debuting the video for his song “New Slaves” by projecting it onto the facades of 66 buildings around the world, including the Chanel boutique in Beverly Hills.

Thanks to relationships Christian Clancy had made while getting his “PhD in bullshit” in the record industry before becoming a manager, Tyler signed to do a collaboration with Vans and scored a deal with PepsiCo to write and direct three Mountain Dew commercials.

At the same time, though, Tyler was dealing with the continued blowback from the music he had made as an angry teenager that contained violent and homophobic imagery. It didn’t matter that he stopped performing those songs, or that they were from an Eminem-esque alter ego. It didn’t matter that supporters like Mark Williams, the record exec, knew that the day would come when Tyler would share the hidden depths they sensed within him.

[Photo: JUCO; prop stylist: Dane Klingaman]
One of Tyler’s ads, about a thieving goat that attacks a waitress off screen to get his Mountain Dew fix, was interpreted by some as racist and others as misogynist. Mountain Dew pulled the ad after one TV airing. Vans stuck with Tyler, but he says they weren’t supportive of him as a designer with a real viewpoint. As he’d later put it to Dazed, “Imagine being in a fucking cocoon.” (Neither PepsiCo nor Vans responded to a request for comment.)

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The experiences helped him realize, “You just gotta know where you sit, and that’s where people fuck up,” he says. “I know I can’t do an I Heart Radio fuckin’ festival. People don’t know that they don’t matter at certain places.”

Tyler has yet to apologize for his past; he rolls his eyes preemptively at any whiff of a question on the topics of provocation or controversy. “Do I look like a terrorist?” is how he cuttingly summed up his feelings on being banned by Theresa May from performing in the U.K.

He is more reflective in his art. On Flower Boy, three songs allude to his attraction to men; in “I Ain’t Got Time,” he admitted to kissing white boys since 2004. On another track, “Where This Flower Blooms,” he expresses a message of inclusion for his young fans, rapping, “Tell these black kids they can be who they are/dye their hair blue/shit, I’ll do it, too.” He’s been deliberately enigmatic as cultural critics have tried to get him on the record about his evolution, but as Mark Williams says, “He could have made that record a little earlier, but like most artists who come from where he comes from, there’s a natural sense of editing and holding things back. It’s almost like, ‘I’m not ready to reveal that yet.’ ”

“He’s just reaching the point where people in the public are seeing him how people who know him see him,” says Boyce, his friend and writing partner. “Everyone is weird and crazy when you get to know them. He displays that side of himself first. If you can get along with this side, you can get along with my other side.”

“Everything is trust. Everything”

After Tyler severed his relationship with Vans in 2016, “he came to me and was like, ‘Let’s do our own shoe,’ ” says Christian Clancy in his ever-relaxed California drawl. “And I’m like, ‘OK, cool. Let’s figure that out.’ ”

They found an overseas manufacturing partner, and when the samples came back, they were . . . terrible. “We both realized quickly that’s a crazy business for a bunch of different reasons,” Clancy says. Pharrell Williams then introduced them to Paul Mittleman, Converse’s creative director of apparel. “We thought, Regardless of where this goes, let’s learn from someone who knows what they’re doing.”

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At the time, Converse had painted itself into a corner. It made a big bet in 2015 on updating its signature shoe, the Chuck Taylor, mimicking the strategy used successfully by Nike, Converse’s parent company: Improve the technology, market the performance, and profit.

The Chuck Taylor II, if you will, flopped hard. By early 2016, Converse sales, which had been delivering low double-digit revenue growth, dropped 1.5%. Nike installed its chief marketing officer, Davide Grasso, as Converse’s CEO, with the mandate to shake up the brand. To help him do it, Converse needed a collaborator the way Kanye and Pharrell elevated Adidas.

As Converse dug through its archives looking for product ideas, its leaders rediscovered a low-top called the One Star, which had debuted in 1974 as a low top basketball shoe and had been popular in skateboarding, but had since faded from relevance. Mittleman saw Tyler’s name on a short list of potential partners and moved him to the top.

Their first release, in July 2017, was a limited-edition powder blue One Star, which quickly sold out on Tyler’s site and Converse.com. They quickly followed up a month later with a full collection, available exclusively at Foot Locker. “I haven’t talked about a Converse shoe on the earnings call for a long time,” Foot Locker CEO Richard A. Johnson told investors in August 2017, “but we had a great collaboration with Converse One Star and Tyler, the Creator. . . . We saw kids lined up.”

Converse worked with Tyler to design his own silhouette, a modification of the One Star, which it dubbed “Le Fleur.” Over several collections, he’s played with bright colors and a rich, suede texture, fashioning a daisy that boldly enveloped a Converse star. He also conceptualized their creative campaigns, down to how the shoes were photographed. In one instance, he sent the Converse team an instructional video of himself re-lacing the sneakers so they could be depicted specifically as he wore them. “When we think about Tyler, we talk about a cocreator,” says Grasso, contrasting this relationship with how a lot of collaborations are just co-marketing exercises.

Converse won’t share sales numbers, but executives disclosed that they have increased production of Tyler’s line by a factor of 10. For his November 2018 collection (which will launch exclusively at Camp Flog Gnaw), Tyler has taken a sharp left turn from this aesthetic in his expanded line, which will include a burlap Chuck Taylor with the daisies hidden from sight. “Expectations are low-key trash,” Tyler says. “When you don’t know what to expect, that shit is fun.”

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Converse is, like Adult Swim, a platform within a larger company (Nike generated $36 billion in revenue in its fiscal 2018) where Tyler can get the kind of mutual buy-in he needs. “You buy a car, you trust that the manufacturer has it safe enough for you to drive,” he says. “And [companies I work with] trust that whatever art I put out, or whatever we collaborate on together, is gonna work.”

“Everyone has their base thing. I’ve just figured out ways to switch it up to keep people engaged”

“What are you working on?”

“A song,” Tyler responds, with the deflated confidence of a 13-year-old caught writing poetry.

We’re at a recording studio that Tyler calls “Dr. Dre’s house,” a mandala and Christmas light–infused space where some of the most famous hip-hop artists have cut records. Most days, Tyler wakes up early and composes at home, but today he’s going to be working into the evening, sampling his new album for some friends.

First, he has a bridge to write. He turns to me, and for the first time asks me to cut the recorder. Then his hands fiddle on the keyboard, finding a series of beautiful chords that harken back to 1979.

Gradually, he gets down the progression that he’s looking for. Then he switches instruments on his keyboard, pulling up a bass. He rips off a deep electric riff spiritually reminiscent of “Freeee.” His engineer, Vic Wainstein, steps out of the room. “Save me some!” Tyler yells, as he often does when anyone heads to the bathroom. “Save me some pee pee this time. I always ask, and you never do!”

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It’s just the two of us in this windowless studio, and time melts away while he coaxes the trickiest four bars of a song together. The fidget spinner is finally at rest.

[Photo: JUCO; prop stylist: Dane Klingaman]
As the pieces come together, Tyler begins to dance in his chair. His head cues the downbeats. He surfs his hands along with vocals and mumble raps over the top. After another nudge, the beats and chords click. He cranks up the volume and stands in front of the studio’s massive speakers. He falls and flails and kicks with his strange, signature grace, putting on a concert for one. When he’s done, he’s sweating hard enough that he needs to towel off.

The song is haunting and hooky, with an ethereal, distorted refrain: “Running out of time running out of time running out of time . . . to make you love me.” Only when I hear the words do I realize this song has been in his head all day. He’s been singing it to himself everywhere we went. Tyler lives his life to a soundtrack of his own making, a grand composition full of sunsets and sudden, aggressive chord changes that sound right only three seconds in retrospect.

Austin Anderson, an L.A. guitarist with Cole Sprouse looks, walks in and listens to the track. Tyler wants acoustic guitar, not electronic chords. Anderson can’t discern the notes and asks which key they’re in. “You know I don’t know what the fuck keys are,” Tyler responds.

After Anderson deciphers the chords, Tyler exclaims, “Aaahh! When that guitar happens, all those white [girls] at Coachella are gonna love that shit.” (Tyler was disappointed in his 2018 Coachella performance.) We celebrate by ducking out for Starbucks, where an exultant Tyler grinds on the café’s umbrella like a stripper pole and orders a white hot chocolate with the peppermint mixed in and a caramel drizzle on top. “Y’all never experimented?” he shouts, defending his beverage choice when we wretch. “Or y’all straight?”

“Just take a different way home”

It’s 10 p.m. in the studio, and Tyler’s last task before his night is done is closing out another music project, remixing his almost-finished Grinch theme. His most significant tweak is making the choir of singing children more prominent. “This movie is for fucking 10-year-olds, so bring them up,” he says. “That shit’s important to me.”

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During moments like this, Tyler seems, well, more grown-up. There are signs in his fashion ambitions as well. Golf Wang started by selling T-shirts, hats, and hoodies, but it will soon sell a needlepoint cardigan, a bike, a helmet, a forest-green bulletproof vest that reads no violence, and a jacket that looks straight out of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Golf has doubled its products from 293 to 508 in the past year, and with each new category, Tyler finds new and better partners to realize his vision. Two years ago, his puffy coat was “kind of trash,” in the words of Brad Scoffern, Tyler’s former road manager who grew to run operations, strategy, and marketing for Golf Wang. Now, that coat is made by a company that works with North Face and Patagonia.

In August, Golf Wang relocated from a Spanish-style bungalow on a residential street in West Hollywood to a large warehouse in Culver City, leveling up in the same way that his other projects are. What if Golf Wang gets too big for him to manage? “Oh, when it gets to that point I know how to let shit go,” he says without hesitation. “If it’s ever something I don’t take time for, then that means I don’t care about it and it shouldn’t exist.”

Two days later, Tyler rolls into Whole Foods on his bicycle along with his close friend and Golf Wang model Wyatt Navarro. They don’t have locks. “I’m gonna leave them out there, they’re okay, they’re good,” Tyler muses. “And if they get stolen, that’s kinda sick.” Travis Bennett, aka Taco, a DJ and former Odd Future member, sits down as well.

Tyler is eating the most adulting food I’ve seen him consume all week—a salmon bowl with extra teriyaki sauce—but he still somehow looks more youthful than the numerous occasions I’ve watched him catch gummy bears in his mouth (or eye) from across the room. In this moment, Tyler and his friends could be the characters from some 1980s monster movie, solving a mystery in their small town after the authorities didn’t take them seriously.

Pulling at his necklace, Tyler shows me I’m not far off. About a year ago, Tyler assembled his closest confidants, his “ride or dies”—Dolphin, Boyce, Navarro, and Bennett—and gifted them each with a piece of custom jewelry, a chain with a daisy charm, modeled from the Flower Boy cover art Tyler drew himself. Each necklace is a different monotone hue; Tyler’s features multicolored petals from them all.

“It’s like he’s Captain Planet,” Bennett later tells me, laughing, before confessing how moving he found the gesture. He’s never taken the chain off.

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“We don’t dress the same. We don’t listen to all the same music. We have different opinions for shit—that’s why I love them,” Tyler says. “We’ll be on each other’s team during the zombie apocalypse.” He feels the same way about his fans, encouraging them to see his art and his personal style as not a model to be copied, but as proof-of-concept to be emulated. “For his generation,” says Kelly Clancy, “he’s made people think they can do it too.”

Tyler turns to debating how to spend the rest of his afternoon. Should he get strawberries or ice cream? Should they ride their bikes more? “I want a Jamba Juice like a motherfucker,” Tyler declares, turning to Navarro. “Where should we go?”

And Navarro, looking up from his iPhone on a beautiful day as the breeze tussles his curls, answers with the chillest of whimsy. “Wherever the wind takes us.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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