We can’t all respond to the call of the wild. But our modern day heroes, musicians and artists hold aloft their adventures – update their statuses, post pictures on Instagram – so we can experience the journey they take from the comfort of our living rooms. Brooklyn/DC/London-based MC and producer Oddisee goes that one step further. He crafts his story into an musical experience.
And it took me three months to track him down. Skype, e-mails, Twitter and his friendly manager who signed his e-mails elusively ‘Greetings From Germany’ were no help in the amount of time zones that Amir Mohamed el Khalifa crossed, meaning that in Issue 28 of ACCLAIM ‘En Route’, the 45-minute interview was a little short for the artist whose music calls to your poetic and adventurous side and his ten-year long career. Somewhere between his European tour for his latest album People Hear What They See and North Africa, I finally found him on a crackling, international phone line.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Tunisia, working for a German non-profit doing some studio work with artists who have come from countries that have revolted against their governments. I came from my last show straight to Tunis, the capital.
For our readers that don’t know, could you tell us a little about who you are and what type of music you make?
I’m a Sudanese/American producer and MC from Washington DC. I guess I come from the underground and independent school of hip-hop, initially. But since then as a producer and an MC I’ve branched out into many genres and subgenres of instrumental hip-hop, jazz and RnB. I make a little bit of everything.
You split your time between Brooklyn, Washington and London, is there a particular place that inspires you to make music the most?
I would definitely just say the world – I don’t really spend much time anywhere these days. I really feel like the whole world is just one big city these days, just with lots of different suburbs.
How long have you been on the road now?
Wow, what month are we in? October? Since August, I think, I was only there for two weeks. I’ve been in Europe doing festivals for the summer.
You’re currently touring Europe, how has the experience been so far?
The tour was fantastic – we were very well received. It was my first tour with a live band. And it went over very well, we’ve been invited back next Spring and summer to do a large amount of festivals around Europe – which we’re really excited about. You get to play for a large amount of people, you know, and it’s a great time to be in Europe. I love summers in Europe. It basically achieved what we set out to do – get a wider appeal. So we could have some diversity for the venues we play, so I introduced a live band into my set.
Were there many tour dramas?
Oh no, the full gamut – whatever you can think of must of happened. We lost people – we found them, our bass player couldn’t make the first two shows, but then caught up with us. During two days off, one of our musicians went to Amsterdam alone and we didn’t hear from him until two days later. Typical stuff. Normal stuff.
Travelin’ Man takes listeners on an across-the-world journey through 24 cities, from NYC to Brixton to Melbourne, how did you come up with the tracks to go with each place?
I do most of my production on the road. Every city I’m in, I’m in the hotel room – I have a mobile studio which I set up on a desk and I get to work. So Travelling Man kinda created itself before the idea was conceived – in any city I go to, I work in, I walk around, I eat the local food, I talk to people, and I produce music in that environment. I just sat back and was looking through my catalogue of beats [with] how many cities I’d been to and where I’d produced what, and started to realise that they had captured the essence of each of those places. The idea came secondary to the one piece – its not like I had the idea and went out to each of those places to produce it – they were simply produced in those cities. My beats don’t have names – they have dates: for instance, here in Tunis we have October 5th – so today’s beat would be called 5.10.12 (1) so I know where I am in every part of the world when I look back at the beats, I can say ‘oh I made that there – I made that here’ so the name came afterward, when I realised where I had been.
There are many tracks on Travelling Man of places I’ve never been, yet they somehow create an audio image of location, what did you look to draw out of the place?
Well, I’m a student of sounds – just music in general in every city and every country you go to has it’s own local music and it’s own twist on popular sounds and music, and I guess it kinda finds it’s way into your music. If it wasn’t music from those towns that directly influenced the style of beat that I’d make it was just the overall feel or the atmosphere – be it the weather, or the colours, or the people – the expressions on their faces – I realised after listening to Travelling Man when I complied all the songs, that I absorb a lot more from travelling than I thought.
Your mixtape Rock Creek Park is mostly an instrumental album, moving away from some of your earlier releases – I’ve read that your album Rock Creek Park was an influential place where you grew up?
It sits in the centre of Washington DC and it was definitely a centre to my life at home. You know, from places where I hung out, to the route that I would use to drive through the city – you know, it’s an influential place to me and I think to a lot of Washingtonians and people from the DC/Washington Metro area – it’s a very famous park. It’s our Central Park. The idea came about when I moved to New York and I was walking through the park and I realised how much time I had spent there in RCP and I wanted to craft my next record around the theme of that place, and all of the different feelings and memories I’d had there and how I could interpret that into music. That’s what I’m all about – themed records and the interpretation of life through music.
Early in your career you spoke about being influenced by your parents and musical family, do you think that your latest solo work reflects your travels and personality rather than your influences?
I definitely think so. Initially and even now the influence I get from my family is more so on the business aspect – it always has been – I definitely get that from my father who emigrated to the US to make a better life for himself or his family, but personally I don’t think I would have had a yearn to travel and a general appreciation for the comfort of a place where I’m a minority if it wasn’t for my father being from another country and making me travel when I was younger and realising that the world is a big place – and that when we travel we realise how small it is. That’s something that was passed on to me. My dad is Sudanese and my mother black-American, and she grew up in some of the darkest parts of DC and she escaped through literature. Through books she could see the world. As much as my dad showed me the world, it was my mother who really excited me about it. She’s a very well-read woman from very rough circumstances. The books she used to read to me as a child and the museums she used to take me to – the museums in DC are free – and we didn’t have a lot of money growing up and she used to take me out to museums since you wouldn’t have to pay, which I didn’t know at the time – but I used to appreciate it, and still do. So I just loved history and different cultures because my mother exposed it to me. My father took me to those places, you know?
People Hear What They See is a title quite telling of your music, do you think you’ve now defined the Oddisee sound?
I think so, I’m an artist who never fought being put in a box – I think most artists and musicians don’t like being defined – but I realise it’s human nature to categorise people. If we can say what it is – if we fear it we can’t really comprehend it – we can’t get too close to it – so I didn’t mind being put in a box, just as long as I’m in as many boxes as possible, so, my sound is all sounds – it’s electronic, it’s funk, it’s jazz, it’s soul, it’s mainstream, it’s underground, and I think with this album I’m solidified my core fan-base and I think that’s what I didn’t have previously. I’ve designed records to appease only a percentage of my fans – I’ve got the hardcore hip-hop heads who only listen to Diamond District, I’ve got the people who like different genres who like me for Rock Creek Park, you’ve got people who don’t like rap but who like beats who like my instrumental work – I think with this record, I’ve finally collected the fans who go with me everywhere I wanna go. Whether that’s progressive, or classic, I think with this one, people understand my sound – you’re going to get a gambit of things, you’re going to get an array of things on one record. I think that’s what I’ve achieved with album.
Since you have a pretty varied and DIY approach to your music, it’s remained a more underground sound, do you feel like that gives you more room to experiment?
Oh absolutely, but I am by no means exempt from appeasing fans. I mean it’s a misconception that a lot of underground artist have – that you have the freedom to do what you want when you want as an indie artist if you don’t want to make money – and I personally want to make a living from my music. It’s something I say in many interviews, that I want to make a living so I can live to make music. It’s not that I’m coming up with generic, formulaic music, but I definitely have a listener in mind to some degree when I’m creating work. I think it’s challenging, it’s healthy, it keeps me on my toes, it keeps me grounded, rather than entering my own egotistical, dream world where I don’t pay attention to anyone else. Which a lot of artists in previous times had the luxury of doing, being these eccentric characters who made music whenever they want and feel regardless of the fans. But in today’s world where direct to fan marketing is so important I don’t think I have that luxury. I’m sure there are some artists that do, but I don’t. I definitely the listeners in mind, you know, going through Europe on this recent tour and one of the things I love to do is to go out into the crowd without people really knowing I’m there, and listen to what the DJs are playing and hear what songs excite the crowd and keep that in mind when I’m playing. People in Paris are really digging this tune and when I hear that same tune in Berlin it really didn’t get that same reception, so maybe on my next record I’ll do something special – or maybe not even the next record – maybe I’ll tell my band ‘lets make a rendition of this track, ‘cos it’s big here’ because I care. I’m paying attention to the listener.
Do you think it’s important to have an image associated with your music too?
I don’t think there’s one way to skin a cat – I don’t think there’s one way to do anything anymore. Maybe there used to be, maybe there was a few ways to market music. But personally, I can only speak for my experience, but yes, for me, my imagery and my marketing of myself is very important to my music. You can see it, you know – social networks like Instagram or Facebook, you can see if you choose to look at them that way as data. As social experiments, or you can dismiss them as posting a picture – but for me, I see a lot more than that. If I’m in Tunisia I’ll post a picture of a building I’ll get X amount of likes, if I put myself in front of that very same building, I’ll get triple the amount. That’s not to say that it’s me that’s making them like the photo – it’s simply me in that photo that makes them like it, it’s not like me being attractive, or some model, it’s now helping them paint a picture of the artist they like, or they know travels the world, or the artist they know that get’s influenced by his travels, they are seeing me in that environment, and I think it makes them excited to say ‘oh look where he is now – who knows what he’ll come up with next’ and I think that that’s important, and I’m conscious of it and I use it to my advantage for sure.
I actually follow you on Instagram – you do have an approach to setting the mood with your photos – do you have much interest in photography as well, or do you feel it comes with the travelling experience?
I definitely consider myself an amateur photographer, I’m by no means a professional – but photography for me is one of the very few things in my life, artwise, that I do for myself. That I’m not dependent on so it’s some what of a release for me to document my travels. It’s fun, I get to have exclusive content, of course, that’s relating back to my work, but when I have writers block, one of the best things I’ve found is I can pick up my camera and walk around and take photos and it’s one of the best forms of expression for me. I apply the same way I make music to it. Art, to me, is about symmetry – so photography makes sense to me I guess. It’s a lot about composition and symmetry so it kind of just made sense to me. You know, my photography got popular for my fans and cannon gave me a camera for free and I started getting more serious.
And you’ve been in the industry for over ten years now – do you appreciate the way it’s evolving?
Yeah, I guess I got my professional start in music in about 2004 – prior to that I was just another kid in my basement and what I’ve seen in that time has been amazing for artists like myself you know, who take a lot of matters into their own hands independent artists to flourish, but during the start of my career that definitely wasn’t the case. We saw the decline of that, but now… we get to witness the rise – but now it’s come a full circle, where a lot of artists, like me are being courted by major labels and pushed onto bigger things – now, they don’t find one artists that will sell a million records – they’ll find ten that will sell a 100,000 each, and as long as the budget is low enough and the marketing is good, the profits are still good. Make no mistake, labels aren’t on their way out – yes, they’re in a decline, but the reason they still exist is that there is still money to be made.
Do you think you have moved more into instrumental music because it sets a mood, rather than tells a specific story?
I think now, instrumental rap – I’m a business man as well as an artist – and it’s far easier for me to produce an instrumental album rather than a vocal one. It’s less hours, its less mixing. And there’s a marketing for it. But prior to that my music was mostly vocal based – but where there’s a market I’ll participate in it – I definitely think that we’re now in an age where you have older hip-hop fans, and that’s not really happened before – you know, you’ve got fans that are thirty-five and up and a lot of them have kids, and don’t wanna listen to the messages of current hip-hop, but are tired of listening to music from an older time and a lot of times instrumental albums are the perfect thing for older fans that want to listen to hip-hop with kids, or at work, or in a coffee shop, or wherever. Instrumental hip-hop has just found its place. We’re also seeing resurgence in instrumental music, it was a very common thing before the 80’s and 90’s – a lot of jazz artists just put out instrumental work and a lot of my uncle’s collections are full of instrumental music. So we’re kinda going full circle.
What keeps exciting you about music?
I guess, my inspiration is like cold fusion – it’s unlimited – I don’t really have to find things. It’s just me – what keeps me inspired and making music, is just living. It’s my purpose, you know? It feels like it constantly replenishes itself – it feels infinite.
You’ve also collaborated with people as diverse as Flying Lotus, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Kevin Brown…
I’m always working on collaborations – my next record is called Good Company which I’ve entitled that because I’ve realised I know a lot of different artists who I’ve met over the years, personally. So my next record is going to be all of the artists I’ve worked with closely, as many of them as possible!
You’re immensely passionate about music – what has been your personal, biggest achievement as an artist?
Definitely that I manage to make a living from my music, still to this day I cannot believe it. I cannot believe that you care about interviewing me from Australia. I can’t believe that the German government is paying me to be here to make music in Tunisia. I can’t believe that I that I came here from a tour in Europe. I can’t believe that, when I leave here, I start a US tour for a month. And I can’t believe that I’m being paid to make music, because it’s crazy to me – I would have done it anyway. So definitely my biggest achievement is being paid to do something I love.