Oddisee, PNC Studios, Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Neil Maclean for The Couch Sessions.
The ability to distinguish oneself in the always trending, unwavering, and saturated market that is rap music, encompassed by a fickle culture in hip-hop has become an art form that demands perfection before the actual art (the album), is released.
Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, better known as Oddisee, a native of the Washington metropolitan area, more commonly referred to as the D.M.V. (District of Columbia, Maryland & Virginia), has masterfully designed a how-to on mapping and successfully executing a career in the rap industry, specifically in the indie field, which many would argue could conveniently morph into the mainstream at some point in the near future of his ascent. I caught up with nomadic emcee and beat-maker to talk about his difficult decision to relocate from the D.M.V. to Brooklyn, NY, technology and its influence on music production, how constant travel can make the world seem flat and his concept of home.
On a still summer night in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a, hop-skip-and-jump away from the A-train, we began our conversation on his move up north, potentially, one of the biggest decisions of his career. When the question of relocation was posed, like all responses, Oddisee methodically placed each word in front of the other like a chess move he’s strategically positioning to win, “I moved to Brooklyn because of the industry that surrounds my industry. That existence is stronger in New York than in D.C. There’s only a few choices if I wanted to be around that supportive industry, L.A. or New York, and I’m not really an L.A. person, that’s too far,” he elaborates, “What I mean by the industry that supports mine is, the photographers, the journalists, the videographers, the label employees etc. The things that fuel and push my career are in closer proximity here.” However, the son of a Sudanese father and African American mother will tell you, this isn’t happenstance, “This isn’t fools gold, I wouldn’t want anyone thinking that just happens automatically when you move here.”
As a member of the D.M.V.’s notorious Low Budget Crew, which houses the likes of the enigmatic, yet talented Kev Brown, Kaimbr, DJ Quartermaine, Kenn Starr, DJ RoddyRod and a few others, Oddisee has defiantly made a name for himself within and outside the hub, becoming a staple in D.C.’s rap music timeline. But when asked if the decision was a difficult one, his perspective was, and still is concise as where he places the next sample or violin, “The decision to move here was a very difficult one up until the point I decided to move. For years I had contemplated moving here but almost felt some sort of obligation to stay at home because I felt that so many reputable artists from D.C. had left D.C. So there was a sense of pride that I wanted to stay home and make it happen from there.” It would be that same reasoning that would lead him to leave and sign a lease in Bed-Stuy before ever seeing the apartment. “Because I made a name for myself at home, which is far easier to do than making a name in New York, it was easier to come here with a name already established. Had I just up and left when I initially wanted to, it would’ve been a completely different New York. So by the time I was ready to come, it was a split decision, I actually signed the lease for this place without even looking at it. I just left.”
Having roots in D.C., Sudan and everywhere his music affords him to lay a beat, the producer of 11 years hasn’t seen it all but he’s witnessed enough to feel like the world has shrunk in size, he recalls his conversation with a Turkish cab driver on the way to the airport in London, “…on the way to Heathrow (airport), we got to talkin’ about my travels and he (cab driver) says to me, “The world is a big place and when you travel you realize how small it is.” This has rung true for Oddisee who understands he has to search to out new destinations, “They’re few places in the western world where I actually feel like I’m in a different place. The romantic idea of traveling and the view of it, is in all honesty, gone. I wake up here (Brooklyn), make beats, grab a cup of coffee and walk around; that same thing will happen in Paris, Berlin and London with the exact same attitude.” He continues and speaks on the commonalities of his travel and where his music fits into that equation. “The things they all have in common, the bare necessities for humanity. People want a release. They want to have things to do in their spare time and they go after art and music to fulfill those things. That doesn’t change anywhere, it’s just the particular kinds of art and music that change.”
With constant travel flooding his schedule, I inquired about what home means to him and if his heavy jet-setting affects his ability to make music, “With my family being Sudanese and my people being desert-dwelling nomadic people; with the huge exodus in Sudan and it’s people escaping the regime of the ‘70s, which has scattered Sudanese people all across the globe. They have the understanding of long distance and being separated for long periods of time,” he continues, “People who have left Sudan in the ‘70s but haven’t been back since the ‘90s is common. There isn’t this emotional connection of, ‘Oh my god, I miss you, this is tearing us apart, come back.’ The necessity to live and survive trumps that all the time. D.C. is my first (home), America is second and the world is third. It’s usually after two months where I want my accent to make sense, the little references I want to say them and they just click. The biggest need is being familiar with strangers again.” When you’re in another country you don’t know what a gesture, look or salutation may look like but when you’re home, it all makes sense.
With technology granting anyone the opportunity to make beats, I asked Oddisee has his process of making music changed since he made this career his profession. “My motives have changed drastically but my process hasn’t. I’ve always been inspired by living and living translates into art for me. So if I travel to a new place, I eat a new dish, the beginning of a relationship, the end of one, life in general has always dictated the type of music I make and my surroundings. The ideas are conceived by me, for me, with an idea of who would listen to it in mind. Who listens to it doesn’t dictate what I make but after I make it, who I target it towards does and I’m conscious of that.”
There’s so much more that was said, but it would’ve turned into a how-to and rather than give that information away for free, maybe he’ll write it in a book or if you watch him close enough, you can acquire a skill or two, observe.