Tyler, the Creator, Funkmaster Flex and the Wildest Interview of the Year
29 July 2019 20:18
About 10 minutes into last week’s interview between the rapper Tyler, the Creator and the Hot 97 D.J. Funkmaster Flex, the facades began to crack.
The two had been talking about the importance of staying true to your values, of not putting creativity into the world designed to please others more than yourself.
Filming in the radio station’s studios, Flex was on comfortable turf. He turned away from Tyler and toward the microphone, and addressed an imaginary detractor. “I’ve never took a penny to play music and if anybody feels any different they can always say it,” he said, puffing his chest in full WWE heel mode. Tyler, grinning, interrupted, asking for one of Flex’s signature sonic embellishments: “I hope y’all drop the bomb right there.”
Flex laughed and rolled with it, then continued, “Reason being, I want to always be able to tell a label, a manager, and a rapper, ‘[expletive] you. I don’t have to pick up your phone call.”
The camera cut to Tyler, who gasped, then grinned, like someone who has just watched Clark Kent morph into Superman. “I just saw that live,” he said, eyes bulging. “He just did that in front of me.”
What Flex does is a kind of vernacular theater, a performance with contours known to anyone familiar with New York rap radio — though perhaps not to Flex himself; those contours shape the blueprint for his life’s work. So when Tyler, as devoted and adept a student of hip-hop as he is a practitioner, arrived in the studio, he detonated a meta-Flex bomb in Flex’s house.
For more than an hour and a half, they danced like this — Tyler poking at Flex’s trademark gestures, Flex shining a light on Tyler’s shenanigans — until it was clear the two were made of similar stuff after all. The video of the conversation (available on Hot 97’s YouTube channel) is easily the most enjoyable and moving hip-hop event of this year, one of the most affecting interviews with a musician in recent memory and a potentially unrepeatable example of cross-generational understanding and détente.
For its sheer joy, its inside-baseball details and the flashes of vulnerability, it is, and likely will remain for some time, unmatched. It should be screened at cult movie houses where audiences can stand up and scream along with the best parts.
In most conversations, there is a person who sets the pace, who serves as the center of gravity. But Flex/Tyler was something different: two tornadoes swirling side-by-side for 90 minutes.
Both men are virtuosos of top-volume self-presentation. Flex is the paterfamilias of New York rap radio, a fixture on Hot 97 for more than 25 years, and, when he chooses, a theatrical antagonist. Tyler has been a mischievous disrupter of hip-hop norms for a decade, an aesthete and a goof. Flex is a nightclub-rap centrist and a booster of classic boom-bap; Tyler turned bad behavior and an outré-rap cult following into a mini-empire that nevertheless still feels like a fringe movement. They’ve had little reason to interact.
Going into the conversation, both expected friction. To Tyler, Flex isn’t a gatekeeper — Flex admitted he hasn’t really listened to Tyler’s music; Tyler very clearly didn’t care — but rather an avatar of an older approach to hip-hop that has little meaning for him. To Flex, Tyler is at best a curiosity.
At the beginning of the talk, Flex, 50, believed he was in charge. But Tyler, 28, wasn’t cowed; he was amused, thrilled, giddy, as if inserted into a virtual-reality simulator. He was at the Flex show, an audience of one.
Flex isn’t an interviewer so much as announcer — he occasionally asked Tyler a question, but mostly he provided prompts, then interrupted him. Actually, interrupted isn’t totally accurate. What Flex did was slather his familiar, intense monologue tone atop Tyler, who somehow continued, time and again, to make his points in the gaps where Flex came up for air.
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Flex wasn’t being rude or disrespectful — he’s tuned only to his own frequency. But Tyler was tuned into it as well, and slowly, over the course of the chat, the power dynamic shifted. Flex warmed to Tyler, and Tyler became impressed with Flex’s no-nonsense approach. “We get along! You’re not weird!” Tyler said, sincerely shocked. “Like, you’re not changing your perspective because you’re with me. Like, you’re you.”
It’s rare that Tyler encounters someone more committed to a shtick than he is to his own. Rather than attempt to overpower the conversation, he bobbed and weaved. The rhythm of the conversation was wild, erratic and dizzying, and never let up. Sometimes they were having two separate conversations altogether — Flex speaking to his cronies off-camera, and Tyler to his, everyone totally gobsmacked.
In the middle of the interview, it fully melted into a new rhythm. Tyler got Flex to hold court on his interests outside music (he collects baseball cards, which impressed Tyler, who appreciates geeky passion). When they discovered they both love cars, Tyler scooted his chair over to show a photo of one on his phone to Flex, who cooed appreciatively.
“I like watching you smile when you talk about [expletive] you love,” Tyler said, the way you might to someone you’ve just fallen for. In these moments, Flex was loose and personal, almost young again. Tyler’s unbridled enthusiasm and willingness to access the childlike provided a safe space for Flex to be something other than he ordinarily has to be.
At times, Tyler treated Flex how a puppy treats a new toy — with curiosity, and maybe just a touch of boundary-testing aggression. He gave him a hard time for having the same beard as Fred Durst, and responded with glee when he got Flex to admit he used to wear Lugz boots.
Flex was clearly enjoying the tête-à-tête — that someone would have the temerity to come into his house and goad him was a kind of thrill. Throughout the conversation, Flex insisted that Tyler was “disarming” the room — meaning, playing naïve as a way of gaining advantage. In the beginning, it seemed preposterous, but over the course of the talk it appeared likely that Flex identified part of Tyler’s rhetorical strength: the veneer of who-me innocence.
And besides, they do in fact have loads in common. Tyler speaks about music with both the passion of a devoted fan and the attention to detail of a critic. Flex is a similarly intense listener. They talked for a while about the 1990s/2000s hip-hop and R&B producer Kay Gee, and agreed that Eminem’s later albums don’t hold up to the early ones. By the end of the interview, Flex invited himself to warm up the crowd at Tyler’s Madison Square Garden concert in September. He also asked if Tyler would come to his car show next month.
Tyler suggested they hang out: “What do you do? I like shopping for perfume. You go shop for Timbs?”
Flex/Tyler upends all the usual rhythms of an interview: It’s not promotional, it’s not gossipy and there are barely any questions asked. Even Tyler’s freestyle — the ostensible reason for the appearance on Flex’s show — didn’t play by the usual rules. Tyler emphasized that he, unlike the typical guest, didn’t have anything prepared. Here, too, he imploded the rubric — these days, most rappers arrive with pre-written, not-yet-heard verses, a far cry from when rappers would actually freestyle.
But improvisation is what Tyler specializes in, and so he improvised, making what happened during his freestyle all the more improbable and impressive. For the last year or so, he has been referring to same-sex attraction in his music — a subject that is still widely taboo in hip-hop. Given that Tyler freely used anti-gay slurs early in his career, the move has been received with uncertainty.
In various moments of the talk, Tyler performatively flirted with Flex, telling him, “Hey, hey, look at me — I’m yours,” when Flex asked if he needed to leave. In his freestyle, Tyler doubled down, rapping several different ways about sex with men, and conjured an elaborate intimate scenario with his host: “Me and Flex was cuddled up watching Scooby-Doo eating Scooby Snacks.” It’s a masterful performance of staring into the heteronormative abyss and not flinching. (As a freestyle, maybe a little less masterful.)
Flex appeared intermittently uncomfortable — “What made you go with that verse?” he asked at one point — but mostly stayed out of the way. Full control of the conversation shifted to Tyler, who slowly injected small doses of absurdism, provocation and wit until he had, in fact, disarmed the room. He took the staid form of the radio interview and freestyle and injected them with rowdy, unpredictable energy. And he made an ally of someone who never seemed like he could be one.
“Who would have thought we would be besties?” Tyler asked.
“We gonna break the internet,” Flex promised.