Syd the Kyd Could Be Hip-Hop's Next Lesbian Icon
If she can just get past that pesky homophobia thing...
February 13 2012 12:22 PM EST
February 05 2015 9:27 PM EST
Photography by Darren Ankenman
Green laser lights shoot across the wall as ice cubes melt in the chamber of a bong sitting on the coffee table. The living room of Syd the Kyd's spacious Marina del Rey apartment is crammed with a drum set, a guitar, and a small fortune's worth of computer equipment. A menorah rests on a table next to an enormous flat-screen sprouting video game controllers. Syd says she almost never goes beyond a two-block radius of her home. No wonder.
Syd makes beats for Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the controversial and incredibly popular hip-hop collective -- boasting at least 10 members -- fronted by firecracker provocateur Tyler, The Creator and known by fans and foes alike as Odd Future. She's also half of The Internet, a side project whose debut album -- the gentle, funky Purple Naked Ladies -- was released in January. It features Syd's light, soulful voice addressing female love interests in a few songs.
Syd's the 19-year-old whiz who started mixing songs for Odd Future while she still lived with her parents. She's been an integral part of the group from its rise to fame and the harsh spotlight cast on it thanks to Tyler's larger-than-life persona (and subsequent media profile) and his lyrics, which are widely reviled for being misogynistic, homophobic, and irresponsible. To some, he's a bully spitting hateful verses; to others, he's a firebrand in the vein of Johnny Rotten, looking to make listeners uncomfortable. But being a member of Odd Future and a lesbian doesn't strike Syd as conflicting.
"Most of the homos I know use homophobic slurs, and it's never a problem unless someone who's not a part of the group is using the word," Syd says. "But a lot of people take things out of context, and you've got to understand that there is a difference between saying, 'Hey, you faggot' and 'Hey, faggot.' When Tyler says 'faggot,' he's not referring to gays, he's referring to lame people. And in our vocabulary, that's what the word 'faggot' means. I'm not offended by the word 'faggot' -- and I am one."
Talking over lunch at an In-N-Out Burger near her apartment, Syd says that Odd Future's reputation for being hateful comes from people taking the group too seriously.
"I look at it like most people do when you hear something outrageous. You go, 'Aw, that was fucked up,' " she says. "And then you hear it again, and it's like, 'That's really fucked up.' And then you hear it so many times you just start laughing, like, 'That is so fucked up!' But it's hilarious, and that's when you start to take life a little less seriously."
Odd Future's mission, according to Syd, isn't just to play its famously raucous live shows, or to laugh all the way to the bank, thanks to album royalties and branded collaborations--like a show on Adult Swim or its L.A. pop-up shop selling the group's merch, clothes from its fashion line, and skateboarding gear. The job of the group, says Syd, a slight stunner in a worn tank top and an Odd Future windbreaker who's quick to smile but wary of making eye contact, is to be truth-tellers.
"We're just a group of kids who make mistakes," she says, "and rather than lying about them, we use the truth to tell other people, people our age, 'Know that you're gonna make mistakes. Shit isn't gonna be perfect. If you need to scream at somebody, do it and apologize later.' We try to be as honest as possible."
Syd was born Sydney Bennett and grew up in Los Angeles. As a child, she played piano and loved sports. She wanted to play in the WNBA when she grew up. Although she made the JV basketball team in her freshman year of high school, she quit before the first game. "Everybody was mad at me for quitting, but I just didn't want to play anymore," she says. "I wanted to make music."
Armed with a laptop and a copy of GarageBand, Syd started to record her neighbor, Tyrone, an aspiring rapper. She stocked up on used equipment on Craigslist and took odd jobs to buy what she needed for a proper studio. Her goal, she says, was to copy Jay-Z's clean, radio-friendly sound.
Her makeshift studio moved from her bedroom, where she was charging local acts by the hour to record, to a vacant apartment above her parents' garage.
When Odd Future's Hodgy Beats came in by chance, his session led to meeting the entire group. Nobody officially asked her to join. The guys came to record and stayed, she says, and a few months later, when Syd's brother asked Tyler if she was part of Odd Future, he said yes.
"It was great being able to be a part of a group that makes music that you genuinely like," she says. "You don't have to front, you know? It felt really natural."
Syd started as a mixing engineer for the group. She didn't share her beats with the boys. She thought that when they started making money, they would move on to a more accomplished engineer. That never happened.
"In the studio, I was the only girl," she says. "Part of it was because I was a tomboy; another part was because they were the only ones making music. Rather than make myself special, as a female producer, I'd rather compete with the boys. I'm not a female producer. I'm a producer. I'm just as good as this dude."
Her position within Odd Future was cemented as the group began to play more gigs and found itself in need of a DJ. After arranging to receive a cheap set-up as a Christmas gift, Syd taught herself to spin and became part of the live show.
"Even before I was in O.F., they had a local following -- it was mostly Internet-based, but it was very real," says Syd. Still, "there was a point in time where we all hit a break wall. It was like, 'What are we going to do?' "
The answer, she says, was outreach. Sure, the group could put stuff on their blog and leave it for fans to find -- a cool-kids move that kept them from looking hard-up for attention--but that didn't increase the number of people listening to their work. So Syd created a promotion company, made a logo, and started sending out releases about the band's music and live shows.
Blogs became obsessed, music executives hounded them, and then The New Yorker ran a story on the alleged mystery of Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt, who had supposedly gone missing but was really shipped off to boarding school by his overprotective mother.
"The combination of their talent and teen rebellion, and the fact that they were very young and vital kids coming at rap in a different way [was compelling]," says Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, a journalist who's covered the group since the early days. "And also because their imagery was extreme and shocking."
The attention heaped upon the group drew in not just the media, but the music industry. "Everyone was more interested in Tyler than the group," Syd says. "Thankfully, we have a leader who values his group. He knows that he didn't do this alone, even though he plays the biggest part in it. He didn't leave us behind--he always had our back."
It hasn't always been easy to return the favor. In May of 2011, after Goblin, his slur-laden album, was released, Tyler got into what now seems like a typical tussle.
Canadian lesbian twin rockers Tegan & Sara took him to task by way of a post on their website. The duo referred to his "misogynistic and homophobic ranting and raving" as "vile" and encouraged others to ignore his Pitchfork-approved hip factor and speak out against him. Tyler responded in a tweet: "If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!"
A rep for Tegan & Sara tells Out that they're not open to discussing the incident, but Tyler went on to defend himself with the favored Odd Future method of blaming those offended for being too uptight.
"I'm not homophobic," he told The Guardian. "I just say 'faggot' and use 'gay' as an adjective to describe stupid shit." (Tyler had agreed to speak to Out and explain himself, but after many attempts to schedule the interview, it never happened.)
Shepherd, who's traveled with the band, says, "They're not just saying words that people find offensive; they do it because people find it offensive. Their vocabulary pushes the limit, and they like to get a rise out of people. I think they are going to mature out of it. I don't think they, as a crew, are actively homophobic."
Matt Martians, an Odd Future member who plays with Syd in The Internet, backs that statement up.
"The energy going on isn't hate. If you're around us, we're probably the least homophobic group you could make," he says. "Syd's gay, but nobody makes fun of her, and nothing is ever a problem."
Mindy Abovitz, the editor of Tom Tom magazine, which is dedicated to female drummers, says that paying attention is the mistake people are making. Abovitz's magazine canceled a story on Syd after the video for The Internet's "Cocaine" -- which depicts Syd as she meets a girl at a carnival, blows lines, and then tosses her from a car -- was released. The writer assigned the piece chronicled the ordeal on a popular lesbian culture blog, calling Syd "careless and offensive."
"We finally have an empowered, talented, young black queer female artist," says Abovitz, "and she is performing and presenting as a misogynistic dude. Perhaps we need to take the limelight off the artists that are doing us a disservice."
Syd balks at the criticism. "All the stuff that people got mad about, I just took with a grain of salt," she says. "I respect everyone's argument, but at the same time, I have counter arguments. The main [complaint] was, 'You're portraying lesbians in a bad light and you're saying all they do is drugs and they're so mean, they kick people out of cars.' That's totally not what I was trying to say. I mean, why would I say that about myself?"
As far as being a role model goes, she says she prefers for girls to look up to her for her accomplishments than because she fits into someone else's idea of what she should be. In a recent interview with L.A. Weekly, Syd also lamented the lack of queer female artists for her to idolize and accused Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, and Alicia Keys of being closeted.
"People like me, and they want me to be flattered," Syd says. "I'll try my best, but I think my biggest message to them would be, 'Don't make gender a big deal. Let your work speak for itself.' My message is, 'Be you. I'm gonna be me, watch me be me. You might not agree with everything I do or say, but I hope that I can inspire you to say what you want and do what makes you feel happy.' "