Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, aka Oddisee, is arguably one of the busiest artists in hip-hop. The Washington native books his own international tours, markets and promotes himself, and works as a consultant with Mello Music Group — all while maintaining an impressive musical catalogue. His production skills have seen him working with the likes of Stonesthrow artist Homeboy Sandman and wonder kid Joey Bada$$, and his rapping abilities have placed him on productions from Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke. He’s a natural talent in all of these fields, something of a musical polymath, but his creative drive isn’t just limited to the aural field.
What came first for you, producing or rapping?
MCing came first to me. I started rhyming in high school and another upperclassman by the name of Sean Born heard me around school and asked me if I was interested in doing some recording. I went to his house t and asked him where all of his musical instruments were, ‘cos up until that point I didn’t know that rap music was made from sampling. When he explained, I fell in love with the process and started to make my own productions as well.
As a producer/MC do you find that when making music there is a different creative process when you’re making a beat compared to writing a verse? Or do you approach the two in a similar way?
I can’t really categorise creativity, too many times in the genre of rap music it’s been reduced and restricted to beats and rhymes. I feel that those are definitions that no other music has to face. No one asks a singer/songwriter which one they prefer. It’s very much something that’s exclusive to rap, and I think that those questions were created by the artists themselves and then perpetuated by everyone else. I feel that it’s just a creative process to me. Sometimes I want to express myself through melody, and sometimes I want to express myself through words. There’s some things that I witness in life that can only be described by creating some sort of metaphor for them verbally, and then there’s some things that need no words and can only be painted through sound.
Is it true that Garry Shider of Parliament Funkadelic was your neighbour? And did he introduce you to producing, or was it your high school friend?
Yes, that is true. He was my neighbour for many years. Sean Born introduced me to beat making from a sampling perspective, but prior to that I was exposed to creating music with Mr Gary Shider and his sons, Marshall and Garrett. Gary Shider was the bass player from Parliament Funkadelic, he had a full analogue studio in his basement. I grew up with his sons, jamming on drums and keyboards and reel-to-reels and actual analogue mixing boards. So before I was even aware that I wanted to do music, we were already messing around in full analogue studios as children.
Do you remember the types of equipment that you started out on in his studio?
There were a couple of Dr Rhythms, a Juno. I’m trying to remember what the board was, I think it was a Ghost.There were a couple of Tascam ADAT tape recorders, an Avalon compressor. I can’t really remember to be honest with you, because back then I wasn’t really conscious that I wanted to make music. I wasn’t a gear head yet, it was just stuff that was there.
You’re heading on a huge European tour soon, trailing off your most recent album The Good Fight. So you think it will be different to the last time you toured Europe?
It’s tough to say, I was in Europe several times just this summer. I did a whole bunch of festivals there. But I guess my last run outside of those festivals would have been this time last year. The thing that shocked me the most when I toured North America just after the release of The Good Fight was that this was the first time I had witnessed a crowd that didn’t know necessarily my catalogue, but only knew my new material. I’ve never really experienced that before. We played to many sold out crowds that were anticipating hearing songs from The Good Fight over anything else. That was very welcoming and very surprising and I’m imagining there will be a lot more of that in Europe as well.
Your Europe tour is followed with a North American tour, then Asia, New Zealand and Australia. Do you find that these consecutive tours take away the motivation to make music, or does travelling trigger inspiration for you?
Oh, I would definitely agree with the latter, travelling has been a huge part of my inspiration and I think that travelling so much back to back will be very helpful for my creative process. I’m actually looking forward to it. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to someplace new, I’m very appreciative of all the new fans that I acquire. This time I’m actually going to some cities and to some countries that I’ve never been too, mostly Asia.
I recently was overseas in Amsterdam where I stumbled passed a record store and I found a copy of The Good Fight LP. What’s it like knowing that your music has reached places like the Netherlands?
I guess I’m a very pragmatic individual. I wanted that to happen and that was the point for me. From the beginning when I decided I wanted to do music as a career, I said ‘Right, if I’m going to do this as a career, people need to hear it.’ In order to survive in this industry people need to buy my records and listen to it and what are the major markets in the world? What are the cities that people constantly have legendary tales of hip-hop shows? Places like Melbourne, Sydney, Amsterdam, London, Paris and Berlin. These are key demographics that hip-hop artists aspire to perform in and aspire to have their records sold in. So when it happened my first impulse was ‘Wow it actually happened, that’s great, okay we will do it again.’ I’m definitely not the artist who’s bewildered by his own accomplishments and surprised and amazed. I expect it all, you know?
I feel that the majority of your releases are telling stories. Is this something that you sit down and figure out before you begin working on an album, or do you just begin creating and your music moulds itself?
Normally I come up with the concept and the title of the record first, and once I have the title of the record I base the concept around it. Then I just start to freely make music, for myself, for other records, for other artists, and whenever I hear a track that sounds like it belongs on my record I put it in a folder. I only make twelve tracks per album — nothing more, nothing less. I never have anything extra left over afterwards.
After I hear the twelve tracks that fit my record, meaning twelve beats that fit what I want to do musically. I put them in an order of which one I want to be track one all the way to track twelve and then I write the album from start to finish, without recording a single song. Once every album song is written from start to finish, then I record from track one to track twelve in that order.
I read that you’re heavily into photography, if you didn’t pursue music, was that the next creative based job for you?
I wish it were, I didn’t really discover photography until there was a boom in digital SLRs, and the ability to take a million shots without any consequences of developing and wasting film. I kind of felt that I discovered having a knack for photography, as a result of progression in the technology. But if it wasn’t for music, I got accepted into the Philadelphia Institution of Art for art illustration and graphic design and that’s what I would of most likely pursued.
Are there any plans on an upcoming release, perhaps another instrumental album or some new Diamond District?
I don’t know. If you’ve noticed with my career I always release a vocal album, then an instrumental album, and that’s how they go back and forth. With the release of The Good Fight, the next instrumental album is coming out at the end of the year or the beginning of next year.