Who Is…Oddisee

Christina Lee

By Christina Lee

on 06.11.12 in Who Is...?s

File under: Understated observations of a middle-class present while time-traveling through generations of soul

For fans of: J Dilla, J.Cole, and Rakim

From: Largo, Maryland

Personae: Amir Mohamed

Oddisee now lives in Brooklyn, but his solo rap debut references details of his Maryland upbringing, such as his hometownLargoand his Washington, D.C.-based crew Low Budget Collective. While the DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia) tri-state area isn’t exactly known for its mass production of hip-hop greats, the half-Sudanese producer-emcee made himself known right where he was, as he churned out beats, lent raps to founding D.C. trio Diamond District and helped oversee independent hip-hop label Mello Music Group.

Oddisee still embraces the differences between his upbringing and that of his industry peers, his own music and the rest of what rap seems to offer. The story that runs through People Hear What They See, however, should read as familiar to everyone. Without raising his voice, Oddisee rhymes of fighting for his time, debating a career in politics, riding public transportation and even buying milk — an average existence that, given rap’s obsession with luxurious living, feels purposeful.

eMusic’s Christina Lee talked with Oddisee about his rap debut, his annual visits to his Sudanese roots and his favorite record of last year.

Why he references a Rick Ross hook on the record:

You know, I like to look at things from different perspectives, so I say, “I’m not a star, somebody lied/ I ride the subway as a car, I’m getting by.” I think normal people need to be okay with being normal, and I think that so few champion the average person. A lot of black music and urban music caters to the fantasy of Having. They cater to the fans who are Having, and they cater to the despair of Not Having, but no music is given to the people who are living and existing but who aren’t necessarily in despair. And, there isn’t a lot of music out there that caters to the fantasy of, “If I had, what would I do?” There’s no real responsible rap really; I think because it hasn’t been cool. It’s not cool to not have a car, you know? I don’t have a car. I haven’t had a car for a very long time. I cycle everywhere, and I think that’s great, you know? I want to make music that reflects that — says that’s okay, that you should place importance on other things.

How he spends his money:

I want time. Time is the most important thing to me, and money buys time. Money doesn’t buy material things. People would love for you to believe that, but at its essence, money buys time. If you want to spend that time going shopping, you can; if you want to spend that time doing anything, you can — if you have that money. So I want to live a life where the money I earn buys me the opportunity and the privilege to do what I want with my time. I want to continue waking up when I want to, eat what I want when I want to, go where I want when I want to. I want my time. I think every working-class person wants that time, because they’re reduced to only having life on the weekends. Most of us don’t get our time until we’re 65, and by that time you can’t even do the maximum of what you could with your time. My dad’s an immigrant to this country, and I would always tell him that he used to kill himself to make a living. He bought his time, but it took him longer than I want to take, which is why I’m lyrically conscious and money-driven at the same time, you know?

His first impressions of Sudan:

The first time I went I was six or seven years old, and I went every year after that, every summer after every school year. So, I would probably jump until I was around nine or 10, because that’s when I started to have my own individual thoughts and identity.

That’s around the age I started to realize I was okay with the duality of my life, and that in order to live in both places I had to be. Every summer I went to Sudan, I had to be okay with seeing extreme poverty, people without running water, children eating whatever remains you have on your plate. I would go back to the States and be in comfortable circumstances; I had to be okay with that. And I also had to be okay with knowing that my mother’s people from Washington, D.C. — a lot more privileged simply because they were born inAmerica— were also living in a city still up against them.

So I didn’t value a lot of the same things as my peers. I didn’t care about the latest Jordans. I didn’t care to be popular. I was never peer-pressured into doing anything, ever. I never drank, never smoked. I saw child soldiers in Sudan, so I didn’t fear gang culture or guys in school who claimed to be rough; it was almost a joke to me when I came back and started school. It definitely gave me a completely different perspective on the world. It taught me about the imbalance of the world, how unfair the world is.

But one of the biggest things that made that easier was how much happier people were, having only a fraction of what I had. They seemed much happier than me or any of my friends from the States, or any of my family, you know? In Sudan, true happiness comes from family and community. There’s no real room for arrogance. So I’m okay with a lot more than a lot of other people are. I sleep on the floor, no problem, when I go on tour. I don’t need a hotel, all kinds of things, because in the grand scheme of things I still have a roof over my head.

His favorite rapper from childhood:

Oh, I was a big Rakim fan, when I finally heard Rakim. He had such a conversational flow that wasn’t so animated. It was more about what he was saying versus how he was saying it, and I became really attracted to that. The use of jazz samples and the rhythms, I really enjoyed that too, coming from D.C., where we have go-go music. He just sounded like a regular person, and his flow is crazy, you know what I mean? It wasn’t necessarily about being the biggest, most animated rapper, you know?

His favorite record of 2011:

Feist’s Metals. I’m a fan of everything that she does, I think she’s an amazing singer-songwriter, but the dynamics of Metals — the mixing of it, the range, the way the vocals were EQed, how wonderfully dynamic the horn sections were, the strings — it was so epic and cinematic you know? It’s a beautiful record to listen to with headphones as well.

Why he tackles instrumental projects like Rock Creek Park:

I found myself at that point in my career, in that scenario where a person would come to me and say, “I love the track you did with such and such, and I’d like something similar.” I hate hearing those words. If you say those words I won’t work with you, you know? You probably never know the reason, but I’ll never work with you. Those [instrumental] records were so that my fanbase wouldn’t pigeonhole me. I want to make sure that people listen to me for everything, and for any playlist they can throw in some of my songs. They were like me saying, “These are some of the songs that I want to make that rappers won’t buy from me and won’t take from me. You don’t know that I can make them, because you don’t ever ask.”

What he does on his days off in D.C.:

I kind of have a routine every day that I’m here. I wake up in the morning, I go eat breakfast, and then I would ride my bike through Rock Creek Park and then around D.C., for no less than six or seven miles a day. I ride through Georgetown and I usually end up around New Hamp[shire Ave], right around the Capitol and the [National] Mall down there. Then I would come back up to Chinatown and then make my way to Adams Morgan, and then I stop at my favorite cafe in D.C., where I have a coffee and get something small to eat. Then I come back to the house, work on some music, and then after that just hang out in the streets, chill with my friends, catch a movie — anything. I keep it real low key.