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How Odd Future’s Jimmy Fallon Debut Brought Tumblr Energy To The Mainstream

Questlove and Fallon recall the unforgettable 2011 late-night TV debut by the L.A. rap rebels

Tyler, the Creator gets a piggyback ride from Jimmy Fallon while Felicia Day and Hodgy Beats look on, February 16th, 2011.

Lloyd Bishop/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Ten years ago, the members of Odd Future wore balaclavas with sharpied inverted crosses on them for an appearance on network television. Tyler, the Creator was 19 years old, Hodgy Beats about 16 months older, and Earl Sweatshirt was still sequestered in Samoa. They took the soundstage of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon on February 16th, 2011 — backed by three members of the Roots and a girl dressed in full Ring make-up — and begrudgingly censored the many indecencies that appear in their early deep-cut “Sandwitches.” (“Not Dom, but if I was a Dahm I would be Jeffrey” somehow did slip past the FCC.) For a generation weaned on the blog era, the set was an instant classic, on par with Elvis Costello on SNL or the Foo Fighters on Letterman. Tyler mean-mugged Felicia Day and jumped on Jimmy Fallon’s back; the show ended with Mos Def hopping in the frame to scream his head off like a 14-year-old in the throes of Beatlemania. A few months later, Odd Future would sign with Sony and film collaborations with Pusha T. The kids from Tumblr had made it big.

Tyler’s debut on Fallon serves as a useful origin story for the entire Odd Future mythos. At the time, the group was blowing up on rap blogs thanks to a unique mix of oozy production, lyricism peppered with contemptible ethics, and a dash of unmitigated anarchy. It was the chaotic energy of the internet, manifested IRL. Which is why nobody was prepared for Odd Future to make the jump to TV, at the time still an arbiter of mainstream success. This mysterious L.A. collective, equipped with nothing but a handful of free MP3s and a vaguely sinister aura, would soon be introduced to meemaws and papas all over America. 

“I saw Odd Future on the schedule, and my first thought was that there must be some other Brooklyn rock band with the same name. There’s no way it was that Odd Future,” Questlove recalls. “Once I realized who was coming to Late Night, I immediately went to The Roots’ dressing room, and I was like, ‘I can see what’s about to happen. We’re all about to lose our jobs.’”

He was bracing for the worst. Some of the iconic disasters of talk-show history flashed through the drummer’s mind; he thought of the Sex Pistols on Thames Television, where Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious gleefully battered around an overwhelmed Bill Grundy, entrenching a new moral panic in the public consciousness of the Seventies. Fallon had barely been on the air for two years at the time of the booking, and welcoming Odd Future to the show could have been a risky move. “Definitely, leading up to the show, there was trepidation,” Questlove continues. “I knew this was either going to be our paradigm shift, or the end of the Fallon show.”

Fallon himself has nothing but fond memories of the way the performance turned out. “It was dangerous to me in a good way,” says the Late Night host. “That’s what a show should be, and what rock & roll TV could be. You can’t really plan danger. When it’s unplanned, and that type of stuff happens. It changed the way we booked things. People started going, ‘We want to do that show.’ Because we can do weird stuff, and dangerous stuff.”

For all the hand-wringing that defined Odd Future’s early chapters, the more the public got to know them, the easier it became to see through the shock-jock artifice — in part because of how simply charming they were. Questlove remembers his first impression when they met: “We had done something with Justin Bieber that week, and Tyler was geeked about it in a non-ironic way… ‘Yo man, that thing you did with Bieber was incredible.‘ I thought he was trolling me, but after the soundcheck he came back with more Bieber questions. I chopped it up with him a little bit, and a few minutes into the conversation I was like, ‘Yo, he’s a kid. He just really loves Justin Bieber.’ I thought there was some Black Marilyn Manson shit about to go down, but instead he has a gazillion questions for me about drumming.”

Out of all the musical guests who have performed on Fallon, Tyler remains one of only two artists who have asked the Roots to dress up in something other than their customary charcoal suits. (The other was Kanye West.) So the rhythm section dredged up some ratty old hoodies from the depths of the set to better complement Odd Future’s style. The 30 Rock set was full of young Odd Future acolytes there for their new favorite band’s television debut, and Quest felt their nerves reverberating throughout the final commercial break before showtime. Nothing compared to that electricity, he says — not Vampire Weekend, not Dirty Projectors, or any of the other buzzy acts who’d been booked on the show before then.

Nobody is quite sure who invited Mos Def. According to Questlove, the Brooklyn MC more or less materialized out of nowhere shortly before the performance. “I can’t get him to appear at a show for a cameo, but I came back from lunch break, and there he was,” he says.

Tyler asked him one final question before the cue: “Yo, can I go anywhere?”

“I said, ‘Yeah,’ and then I was like, ‘Oh god, what is he going to do?’” 

Sure enough, halfway through “Sandwitches,” Tyler bolted off in the direction of Jimmy Fallon’s desk. “I was so scare,” Quest says. “I thought he might pull some kamikaze Bugs Bunny shit and punch Jimmy live on air. My heart was racing.” Fallon recalls feeling a little concerned in that moment, too. But nothing worse happened than Tyler trying to coax both Fallon and Day, that night’s couch guest, into a quick “WOLF” chant — she obliged — and then darting back to the stage. Fallon walked over to congratulate the two young rappers, and the rest was history.

Within four years of the performance, Odd Future had more or less ceased to exist as an active entity, though they’ve never officially broken up. (Both Tyler and Hodgy declined interviews for this story.) The group only released a single commercial album under the name Odd Future — 2012’s scattershot OF Tape Vol. 2 — before following diverging paths to widely acclaimed solo releases like Tyler’s Igor, Earl’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. If Fallon was supposed to represent the beginning of OF’s reign, it captured the group’s white-hot peak instead. As kind as the music industry has been to the individual members of the collective, that version of the band — Tyler and Hodgy on a giddy rampage through Rockefeller Center — never existed in quite the same way again.

Yet that Odd Future performance ended up foreshadowing a new orientation in the music industry as a whole. Consider how normal their story seems now. In 2021, it’s a standard business model: Generate a ton of interest online, then break into the mainstream fully-formed, without needing to pay your dues in crappy record deals, listless opening sets, or 11 a.m. festival slots. (Imanbek, a 20-year-old DJ from Kazakhstan, went platinum with a single remix.) Nowadays, who isn’t a relative unknown with a lot of Soundcloud plays?

Questlove goes a step further. For him, that performance marked the end of hip-hop as he understood it. That virality – the ability for anything, from anyone, to catch fire – changed the genre. “Now, ‘Gangnam Style’ was blowing up. It was becoming more international. We have these TikTok rappers and social media rappers,” he says. “Tyler, to me, is the last guy who truly did his homework.” He notes that the two remain close friends, and that they constantly talk about music in quarantine. Questlove says he doesn’t sense the same reverence for hip-hop history within other rappers of Tyler’s generation. In fact, sometimes they don’t even know who he is. 

“I definitely know that Cardi B thought I was NBC security when she first came on the show,” he says with a laugh.

Questlove also remembers the Odd Future performance as the moment he first sensed clarity in his role playing in a late-night show’s house band. How do you justify moving on from a legendary recording career to sit courtside for Jimmy Fallon’s celebrity interviews? Simple: By being part of the force that brings Tyler and Hodgy out of the shadows, and into the American public eye.

“That was our man on the moon, flag-planting moment,” he says. “I needed something legit to validate why we turned our back on 18 years of touring for something unseen. If someone unproven and unsigned can make that big of a statement, then that makes it one of my top moments on the show.”

From Rolling Stone US