Oddisee chose the right name. For over ten years, Amir Mohamed el Khalifa has traveled the world, touring and exploring in equal measure. His cosmopolitan sensibility (and early album titles) reflect his origins in the D.C. area, but lyrically he’s just as likely to tackle topics without borders.
We caught up at a show last year, while Oddisee was touring in support of his excellent Alwasta EP. Colloquially, the title translates to “the plug”—he would be the first to tell you he’s peddling understanding and common ground more than pills. Our conversation was easy enough, with Oddisee clearly having already asked himself some of the more introspective questions that arose, lingering on points only to make sure that he was clearly understood.
Oddisee’s latest, The Iceberg, dropped last week courtesy of Mello Music Group, his longtime record label and fellow home of Open Mike Eagle and Quelle Chris. Entirely self-produced and short on features, listening to the album is a lot like talking to the man himself: Nothing’s held back, and here or there a line will keep you up all night. —Corrigan Blanchfield
I know you’re New York-based these days, but do you have a particular home base for creating or is that too impractical with your travels?
Oddisee:I’ve got a studio in my apartment, but that exact same studio folds up and goes in my backpack. I guess you could say that I’m mobile. The only difference is that I don’t take my monitors with me, but everything that I work with in my studio can walk out the door with me.
I first heard of you when Traveling Man (a beat tape, each track of which was completed in the titular city) dropped. How did you go about giving each track a sense of the place it was named after?
Oddisee:Travel’s really influenced a lot of my music. It’s about an overall feeling. Mostly the pace of a city, or I’ll look at the climate—whether it’s known for being sunny or cloudy, cold or warm. The speed of life—is there a healthy middle class, or is there a big separation between rich and poor? All of this creates a city’s mood. Tempo’s an obvious way to convey a city’s pace, but it’s just one ingredient. I can’t take credit for it or say it was some big thing, I was just looking back through the catalogue one day and realized, “oh, you know, I made that there, and this track was done here,” and it came together.
I’ve never heard someone cite inequality as an influence—would you say it’s a theme of your work production-wise or lyrically?
Oddisee:I wouldn’t say it’s a central theme of my music. My music is based on social observation, at least for me—I can’t speak for what other people take from it. If you go through my catalogue, especially more on the vocal side, the subject matter is all over the place: hypocrisy, questioning oneself, love, money, friendship, etc. There are so many songs dedicated to just the human experience in general. I’m a dry comedian, my writing’s based on observation. Making people realize that the small things they thought were unique to their own lives are shared by everyone else.
Do you consider there to be a unifying Washington, D.C. sound?
Oddisee:It’s hard to define a D.C. sound—if anything, it exists in go-go music. That’s as D.C. as it can get, while anything else is kind of us doing somebody else’s music. Within hip-hop, I think that the unique thing about D.C. and the surrounding area is the mix between the Northeast and the Southeast of the United States, or just the North and South in general. You’ll get artists with the focus on lyricism from the classic East Coast, New York stuff, but the tempos, accents, and slang of Southern artists. Putting those two things together really makes D.C. The balance between them can manifest itself in different ways depending on the neighborhood or the artist, but the ingredients are Northern music and Southern music and the interaction is what makes it D.C.
At the same time, it seems like people everywhere else are more intent than ever on making sure that every genre or influence has got a specific descriptor—’90s, trap, whatever.
Oddisee:Exactly. If I was doing ’90s rap, it’d be done on an SP-1200 and my samples would be limited to 6 or 12 seconds. My track would be really redundant and the drums all stiff and quantized. Oftentimes my basslines would be out of tune. And it would sound amazing [laughs]. I think the level of musicality right now, in whatever genre, is on a much more evolved level right now. You can see the beautiful progression in it from year to year where technology and ideas advance. It’s very easy to categorize things, and we need that for people to understand them. I’ve had people say that all of my music is chill. Every single track is chill. If I’m not saying, “jump up, jump up, go kill somebody, get turnt up,” people can’t get that it’s still energetic even if it’s not using the prime words that people associate with that.
But really, most people who make music will tell you that they don’t worry about categorizing themselves—that’s up to other people to do. If you go through my social media, my fanbase is constantly screaming out, “work with this person, work with that person!” It never really happens, not because I’m necessarily anti-collaboration but because I move at such a pace that it doesn’t allow me to slow down and send something off to somebody else to add onto. I work in solitude a lot of times in the studio, bringing musicians in one-by-one until we all get together on the stage. Very rarely do I set out to work with someone that I know musically but not personally.
You must have had some sort of turning point where you decided that you were going to do music professionally. Have your goals, or definition of success, changed since then?
Oddisee:I’ve got the exact same goal as when I started this: I want to make a living from music so I can live to make music. That’s it. I don’t want to make a living doing anything but music, and every year I take steps to keep that in place: creating albums, licensing, touring, etc., to make a living. And I don’t necessarily just mean generating money, but living. Eating what and when I want, sleeping when I want, traveling where I want whenever I feel like it. I want music to provide that freedom for me.
Was there anything in particular that you gave up career-wise by devoting yourself to music?
Oddisee:As a child I was very interested in illustration and painting. That’s what I did for most of my life, and what I thought I was going to do. In my last year of high school, I decided that I didn’t want to illustrate anymore. I had gotten accepted to the Art Institute of Philadelphia—no scholarship, just accepted—and right around then was when I discovered that I wanted to do music. I just abandoned it, never looked back. I had a stronger feeling for music than any other medium that I had tried to express myself in. Something about the completion of a song just gave me a feeling unsurpassed by anything else, whether it was a canvas or a blank sheet of paper. It was a feeling that I never wanted to go away.
On the topic of finishing songs, do you find that you can work on things endlessly, or do you have a quick sense of when something’s done?
Oddisee:I’m not sure who told me this, but someone told me that when you start trying to add things to a song and it’s not working, that’s the song screaming to you that it’s finished. I’m in a very comfortable place musically right now—I’ve got a lot of formulas that I can depend on when writing my music, like folders in an archive. Based on the tempo, or subject matter, or the nature of a song, I know that there are certain things that I can do to expedite the process or be effective for a listener.
On the receiving end, what do you find yourself drawn to musically? What are you listening to now?
Oddisee:I’m loving a lot of the stuff that Thundercat does, I got Views going on right now, an album by this group Blonde Redhead. Chris Brown, D’Angelo, Feist, Future. Metronomy is one of my favorite groups of all time, I probably listen to one of their records weekly. I don’t talk about samples in interviews, though, and I’m sure you can understand why.
I lived in England for a while, and recently I’ve been back on the grime tip pretty heavy. They’re like my favorite rappers right now, I love what they’re doing with bar placement and cadence. I love a lot of grime production, too. The time signatures of the drums, or how the music can be at two different tempos depending on how you interpret it. It’s an avant-garde approach to making dance music. Dance music oftentimes is very redundant and simplified, but grime or anything in rave has its own way of being a bit more complex.
I’ve talked to artists who say that once you’re past chasing superstardom—you experience it and fade out a little or just give up on it—the next step is to build a small, sustaining group of core fans. Have you gotten that, or are you interested in it?
Oddisee:I never had the top 40 aspirations to begin with, but I understand what you’re saying. People have these grandiose ideas of what they’ll become. I’ve been a very grounded individual since my childhood, and that has everything to do with going back and forth to the Sudan as a kid and seeing the poverty of a war-torn country. Coming back to America, you appreciate everything that you have and would take for granted if you hadn’t left. That had a profound impact on me as a child, as an adult, and as a businessman. I never had an aspiration to be a superstar. My father is a businessman and he’s a very good one. He taught me over and over that you can’t have one big thing. You have to have your hands in as many little things as possible.
I’ve always been that person—from the time I started music, I was a recording artist in the District of Columbia for an hourly rate in my studio, I was remixing tracks, producing for artists, writing for artists, submitting material to compilations and mixtapes. I eventually graduated to releasing my own albums, touring, and then now I’ve come into music licensing, which I do quite a lot of. I’ve never wanted the big pot. I don’t even know what it is to want that; the concept of wanting everything is just strange to me. If you just do the math, the odds of you acquiring this massive fan base vs. a smaller fan base that’s more sustainable and allows you the freedom to create and still have a sizable income is a no-brainer.
If you make that and it grows by itself into stardom, that’s another thing, but if your actual goal when you set out is to be famous…I don’t get it. I have no problem with fame—if I get more famous than I am at any given point, I’ll rise to the occasion and embrace it. But that’s because I’ll know that it didn’t come at a cost, and that I can maintain the music that made me famous in the first place because I didn’t have to do something to intentionally become famous.
In another interview a year or two back, I read that you were advocating for the importance of lyricism and saying that it was coming back to the fore. Do you see that as the result of a novel change in music consumption, or as part of a stylistic ebb and flow?
Oddisee:If you look back at any art form, whether it be fashion, architecture, or music, we’re constantly going in cycles between extremes. We’ll be in an era where music is solely oriented towards partying, which will eventually oversaturate the market for that music and open up room for someone who’s doing a more social or conscious thing. People will be more inclined to listen to that person because they stand out. And then a whole slew of artists change up to follow that person because the spotlight’s on them. It just goes back and forth constantly, and we all get caught up with it and talk about it year after year as if we don’t already know.
How do you feel about the idea of a “lyrical” rapper? It seems as though people are ready to throw the label on anything with a fairly narrow and specific set of signifiers, but it’s ridiculous to characterize everything outside of that as “non-lyrical.”
Oddisee:It’s bells and whistles. You rap really fast, stick a whole bunch of words in your sentences, and have lackluster metaphors and similes and people think you’re a god emcee. That bores me, personally—I’m not really a fan of that style of writing. I see nothing wrong with it for anyone else, but that’s not really what gets me. I like music that makes me think without realizing I’m thinking. Marvin Gaye is one of my favorite artists as a result. He had the ability to deliver a message to you over a song that you could still dance to. If you had it playing in the background while you were cooking dinner or whatever, you could hear the lyrics and understand that he’s talking about something quite heavy, but then later in the evening at a party people could two-step to it with no problem.
You can sing “What’s Going On” with a group of people and feel good doing it, even though the song’s quite sad. That’s lyricism to me. The entire Here, My Dear album is about a woman who took his money in a divorce. If you listen closely, it can be a real downer, but it depends on where you are at the time. True art is always open to interpretation, not definition. We’re constantly trying to define things instead of interpret them. I don’t know where that comes from—I think because rap is so reality-based, because it comes from the people themselves, people are more worried about defining it than interpreting it.
Taking the observational approach that you do, it seems like music would be a huge opportunity for self-exploration, whether in the moment or in a reflective sense. Putting your worldview to tape, I guess.
Oddisee:Absolutely, because it captures so much of where you are in your life. There’s one song that I recorded, many years ago, called “Gentrification.” I had moved from Prince George’s County to 69th Street Northeast, Washington, D.C. I moved over there when nobody wanted to live over there, they thought it was still dangerous. “Oh, you live over by Trinidad? I ain’t going there.” My rent was extremely cheap, I had this awesome two-bedroom apartment with a backyard, and I could walk to Capitol Hill. Then they put this trolley in, and some businesses came, and over the years this whole area and other parts of D.C. became gentrified. I was on the side of “you’re taking away my neighborhood, making it too expensive, pricing me out,” etc.
Fast-forward, years later I move to Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood very similar to 69th, where I had just come from. I looked around and observed that it was getting gentrified too, probably even faster. It just hit me one day: I’m a gentrifier. I look back and years ago I’d recorded this song about exactly what I’d become. There are parts of it that I don’t contribute to: I say hello to my neighbors, I participate in the community, but I also do like a lot of the things that are categorized as gentrifying. It was a lot of self-examination, realizing that I couldn’t write that song today.
I feel like Jay-Z has done a great job of being himself his whole career. If you listen to his old music, he’ll rap about being in a Lexus, and nowadays he’ll rap about being in a Maybach. He’s always rapped about being in a car. The price of that car has changed with his income, but it’s always been the same. I really appreciate that.
I’ve read that you prefer to work really hard for some part of the year, and then take the rest of the time working less and traveling. What dictates where you go?
Oddisee:It’s a mixture. I normally spend time back in the Sudan when I’m finished moving around, to see my father and my family. That’s a place where everything that matters in my world doesn’t mean a thing. My release schedule doesn’t matter there, the time of day doesn’t matter there. No one around me in Sudan cares about any of the things that I care about, and it’s such a breathe of fresh air. I go there to reset and re-prioritize myself, because when you live in the Western Hemisphere you can get caught up in the moment and what people are doing around you, what you consider success or what people expect from you.
When you go there, happiness is good conversation, safety, food, comfort. I constantly go back there to remind myself of what happiness is. My wife is a bit more of a vacation person—I can’t do the whole beach thing for more than four or five days. I hit my limit very quick, but I’m branching out. We went to Guadalupe for fifteen days back in January and I definitely brought my computer and worked on some tracks. But a holiday is a very new concept to me.