“I’m Living a Real Life in the Moment”: An Interview with Oddisee

Pete Tosiello speaks with Oddisee about his forthcoming record, Iceberg, growing up in DC, and the role of leaders in our society.
By    July 20, 2016
Photo: Edgar Woo

Last month I interviewed Oddisee in his Brooklyn home for a profile feature on The Awl. He had just wrapped a 30-date American tour with his band Good Compny and was enjoying a brief layover back in New York with his wife before kicking off a leg of European dates. After breaking his Ramadan fast at sunset the following night, he’d close the Northside Festival with a packed show at Brooklyn Bowl.

His phenomenal new rap EP Alwasta opens with a blunt declaration: “These are good days for bad people.” Our discussion naturally turned to the tape’s overarching themes, namely the modern immigrant and Muslim experience. He told me his greatest fear in 2016 is what he perceives to be a general lack of critical thought, a complacent acceptance of the terms and perspectives which have been established for us. He was a candid and gracious subject, the type to make a profile writer seem a superfluous middleman trafficking already well-packaged ideas.

That night 50 people were shot dead at a gay club in Orlando by a professed ISIS sympathizer, spurring, as fear tends to, rhetoric of hate toward minorities perceived as outsiders in the United States. I couldn’t help but reconsider much of our conversation which, under the circumstances, had amassed a weighty prescience, and all the more so during the bloody weeks of gun violence which followed across America.

In the wake of tragedy commercial art can seem trite, and written analysis of it doubly so, but now more than ever Oddisee’s music begs to be heard. The following excerpts are selected from our conversation on June 11. —Pete Tosiello

You just finished a 30-city American tour. What are some things that jumped out at you while traveling the country during an election year and an Olympic year?

Oddisee: America is so geographically different, but so homogenized. Like, strip mall after strip mall. I see so many similar towns, and a lot of the sentiments and mentalities tend to be the same too. I never get used to the fact that I can be in the middle of a desert, the evergreens of the Northwest, the Rockies, the plains, New England, or Florida, and I know I’ll go past a strip mall where there’s a Kohl’s, a Target, a Walmart, and a Best Buy. When you sit back and see that, it makes you realize how homogenous we are.

We’re all privy to the same plights—trials and tribulations and achievements. When you travel you realize how similar we all are. We try to focus on our differences so much, but there aren’t that many differences.

You’ve said on record that you consider yourself a citizen of the world. What does that mean to you?

Oddisee: I was born into a multi-ethnic household, so from the beginning I’ve considered myself to be part of more than just where I was born, because where I was born wasn’t necessarily the entire story of my identity. It started as a child, growing up in a household of two faiths—my mother’s Christian and my father’s Muslim—and a house of two languages.

As I got older and was able to articulate what I was seeing, it made me realize how similar we are, all across the world. We get so caught up in political minds that we ignore cultural minds. I have cousins in England, Sweden, Canada, all across the Middle East, North Africa. We’re all the same blood and the same family.

Did you ever feel like an outsider?

Oddisee: For a time growing up I felt like an outsider, being a minority faith. I was one of the only Muslims at my school. I was privy to a lot of stereotypes—“Your dad drives a taxi, your last name’s Mohamed, are you related to Muhammad Ali?” “No, that’s his first name”—You’d be surprised how many times people thought that was funny. Post-9/11 treatment growing up in the District of Columbia and the surrounding areas, there were definitely some times where I felt like an outsider.

But as a person growing up with two faiths and two ethnicities, I started to only feel sympathy for anyone who never had my experiences. I started to realize, man, I’ve lived several lives in a very short amount of time. I’ve seen so much that the majority of people I encounter will never see. No matter what they feel toward me, I know their view is skewed. I know their view is slighted, it’s been reduced to one stream of thought that will never be broken in most cases. I can feel nothing but sympathy for them.

Dividing your output between rap and instrumental records as well as full-length collaborations and production for other artists, do you worry about straddling multiple audiences?

Oddisee: Everyone who listens to my instrumental records doesn’t necessarily listen to my vocal records. People who are fans of me from Diamond District crave for me to make more Diamond District records, and though they might be cool with my solo records, that’s not what they want from me—they want me to “take it back.” They don’t understand there was never a “take it back,” it was strategic to begin with. So that’s another thing where I feel sorry for people.

I’m always conscious of it, but I’m never held down by it. I’ll never cater to it. I’m conscious of it because all of it is me. I never see it as me compromising myself because all of it is me. I’ll never say, “Oh, I have to do this,” and I don’t care how many fans I’ll lose in the process because I know I’ll gain so many more.

There are so many sites, IG pages that will post my music, and I’ll look in the comments section, and they’ll say, “Yeah, it’s cool, but I wish he’d get back to his older stuff when he was more real, more gritty.” How can you take it upon yourself to say when an artist was more real? How arrogant or ignorant are you to say such things, when I’m living a real life in the moment, when everything I make is my reality? How narrow is your perception if you think, because it doesn’t make your head bob to a four-four beat with a simplistic drum pattern and a bassline that follows the kick, that it’s not real? I feel sorry for you.

To survive as an independent artist I had to objectively look at myself and what it takes to market music–to make music something that people want to buy and want to subscribe to and want to support. I was listening to my peers, myself, and said, “What’s the difference between underground and mainstream?” We rap about rapping, we chastise, we preach, we live in the past. And I said, “Okay, can I stay true to myself with the type of beats I’m on and the subject matter I want, without doing those things, without rapping about rapping and staying in the past?” I said, “Sure.”

In my music, vocally and instrumentally, I observe the world. I always have, since I was a kid. I take observations and absorb them into my music, whether it’s sonically or verbally. “All right,” I said, “Well, let’s make that the main point of my music.” People Hear What They See was born. Rock Creek Park, an instrumental record that’s an ode to a tangible place that you can walk through. And so on. And I wanted to continue that narrative of observational rap, of the trials and tribulations of life, ups and downs of economic strife, love, relationships, speaking from an observational point, not a point where, “This is my opinion, this is how it should be, this is how it was.” I put facts on the table of how I see things and make people question for themselves and draw conclusions for themselves. And that became the main talking point for all of my music. That’s the catalyst, the narrative.

Between streams, sales, touring, and licensing, which take priority for you financially?

Oddisee: As an independent artist all of those streams of revenue allow me to not put pressure on any specific one. I know artists who tour two years straight because that’s it, that’s how they’re making money. Or artists who, when they make an album, they’re making thirty to forty songs to pick from. When I do a twelve track album I do twelve songs, that’s it. Or artists who make their living from licensing, they’re at the mercy of phone calls. I’ve been there—you get a phone call from Nike, they say, “We need this track tomorrow, here’s the footage,” and you’re up all night making tracks so that you can land this commercial that’s fifteen seconds long on Instagram. It’s worth it, but if that’s your main source of revenue and you live like that every day, I couldn’t fathom it. Being able to tour, do 120 to 150 dates a year, sell records, or being able to license, all those things together allow me to be comfortable financially, and mentally more importantly.

What has been your biggest frustration as an independent artist?

Oddisee: The biggest frustration being an independent artist is people telling me how underrated I am, and how slept-on, and overlooked, and underappreciated I am. You don’t know how much of a slap to the face it is to have made a living off music for over a decade, to live comfortably and eat what I want when I want, to wake up when I want, sleep when I want until when I want—if I want to travel anywhere in the world right now, I can pack a bag and go. And people tell me I’m underrated and underappreciated, knowing that I’m only able to do this from people who support my music. It’s a slap to the face of my supporters, and it’s a slap to my face. It’s very difficult to ignore it after a while.

You don’t feel like those people are in your corner?

Oddisee: Not really, because it’s coming from a selfish standpoint. It’s not about me, it’s about them. They want validation of what they listen to. If you listen to my records, you’ll hear that I’m happy—the cliched story of my father coming to this country with nothing and making something, and being very happy with his little something, and living happily back in his homeland. That gave me a very valuable lesson that we strive for way too much, and if we dialed back a bit we’d realize we have more than enough.

I come from a third world mentality. If I’m sitting down eating dinner knowing there’s seafood and meat on the same table—the majority of the world can’t do that! I’m eating two forms of protein on one plate! That’s what I come from. It’s nothing for me to go on tour and sleep in a five-star hotel and the next day sleep on the floor of a promoter. And I will not complain. I don’t understand the sentiment of anyone that does complain. So I don’t get this whole, “I’m underappreciated, I’m slept-on.” I don’t get it.

The majority of my peers worked a nine-to-five and their music never took off and they had to quit, or they struggled to get gigs, or they get little to no views when their video comes out, and no one cares. No one’s asking them to get on shows, no one’s buying their beats. These are my peers, these are the people I come around, these are the artists I’m surrounded by. They’re slept on! They’re looking at me trying to get where I am, and I’ve got a whole fanbase of people trying to tell me I’m slept-on.

By rapping about international and political affairs, you’ve come to be viewed as an authority within hip hop. Is that a weight on your shoulders?

Oddisee: I’m from D.C.! Politics is in our DNA. Seeing the gaps between rich and poor, it’s what we are. That’s been the subject matter. It’s not something I jumped on. That’s a wave artists are jumping on, a wave of consciousness, suddenly everybody’s deeper, everybody’s fists are pumped up in the air, they’re for the cause. That’s been my music. When it’s in your DNA, you don’t know you’re doing it.

Of anything else going on in the world, the lack of critical thinking is what scares me the most. I’m constantly shocked, when I ride on the train and hear sound bites and conversations, the table next to me at dinner, the person in the movie theater next to me, a person in line when I’m ordering something—I’m constantly listening to people talk. I won’t say stupidity, but there’s a seriously severe lack of critical thinking in the world right now. People aren’t digging beneath the surface at all.

What’s been the recording process for your next record Iceberg?

Oddisee: Every record I do, I come up with the concept first. I come up with the concept and I come up with a title. After I come up with a concept and a title, I make twelve instrumentals in chronological order. Then I write tracks one through twelve, then I record in the order of tracks one through twelve. So I’m always sticking to the narrative, and I’m never redundant, because I’m listening back because I’ve already recorded in order. Every record is done like that.

As a writer I want an opening, a middle, and a closing. That’s how I was taught to write in middle school—a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s how all of my records are, I think that’s how people digest stories. That design of storytelling is constantly thrown at us, through films, through everything. I like to make my music the same way.

What can listeners expect from Iceberg? Is it an angry record?

Oddisee: It’s probably one of my more angry records. It comes from my frustration with the lack of critical thinking. It comes from me being called underrated when I’m a musician who makes a living from music. It comes from performing a song that mentions where I’m from and being asked by a fan afterward where I’m from. It comes from ideas I’ve conceived and shared with my peers and they’ve stolen them and taken them, ran off and pitched them to labels and have had success with them and I’ve been cut out. It comes from artists who I’ve been instrumental in the development of their sound and foundation, and I’m not spoken about when they do interviews. So much. It comes from people thinking I decide where I go on tour and being resentful at me for not going to their hometown, not understanding that there’s a booking agent and promoter, I have nothing to do with it. It comes from promoting a show, people saying, “Where can I get tickets?” knowing a quick Google search will find that.

No one wants to think anymore about anything. I feel like it’s my duty to make whoever listens to this record value critical thinking. Whether that be politically, socially, personally, we need to value critical thinking. We need to really listen to what the media tells us, what artists tell us, what movies tell us, what our friends tell us, and really listen to what they’re saying and understand it and critique it, break it apart, reconstruct it, because no one’s doing that. And I feel like my own life has been enriched so much by digging beneath the surface and understanding why things are the way they are.

If someone is racist to me, I’m not angry with them for being racist. I feel sorry for them. Because they come from somewhere that’s seen so much economic strife, from their own government, they don’t know the same people they vote for are the same people that outsource their jobs. They blame the immigrant who comes into town, when that immigrant is contributing, doing jobs they wouldn’t want to do in the first place. They’re not the enemy. They haven’t had access to higher education, and this society has been homogenized, allowing thoughts not to flow freely and allowing hate to be spread. So they’re a victim of their environment and circumstances which is why they’re a racist. And if you know that, you’re not angry with that person, you feel sorry for that person. So that’s what this record is about.

I think there were more leaders in previous eras to question critical thinking for everyone. But the majority of people don’t critically think, and the Malcolm Xs and Martin Luther Kings of the world understood how to critically think for the masses and took it upon themselves to do so. As a result of assassination and demonization, there are less people stepping up to take those roles, out of fear. But there were always those people who took it upon themselves to think for everyone, because the majority of people don’t think.

It’s far easier when another black child is killed by a police officer to take up a picket sign and march in the streets for that child’s death than it is to question what makes a white police officer so trigger-happy. What happened in that officer’s life to make him so fearful that he pulls a gun out, shoots first and asks questions later? Was he ex-military? Did he grow up in an area where he was unfamiliar with minorities? Did something happen in his life to give him this heightened sense of paranoia around people that don’t resemble himself? What happened in his life, and why isn’t there training, psychologically, for these types of officers, knowing they’re going to be patrolling areas where people don’t look like them? That’s what we need to focus on. Not the effect, but the cause. But there’s so much more focus on the effect than on the cause.

Do you think we need more leaders to encourage critical thinking on an individual level?

Oddisee: I don’t want to see more leaders. Most people are not leaders. We’re lying to ourselves if we think that there’s a leader in all of us. There isn’t. Throughout human existence we’ve appointed leaders. There’s always been someone for us to say, “You do it. You do it, king or chief.” It’s just in us. And we need to accept that. But a leader is nothing without followers. He’s a nut, he’s a psychopath, if he’s just out on his high horse by himself. So let’s not underappreciate the value of followership. A leader is just a crazy man until a whole bunch of people follow him.

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