Oddisee // Interview

Oddisee 5

“Londoners are known for their taste in good music,” says Washington DC rapper and producer Oddisee. “So if you want the hip hop you used to be in love with, I’m your man.” He’s a sweet talker indeed. And tonight is your chance to see the smooth MC take the mic at Camden’s Jazz Café for an evening of beats and treats from his recent album, The Good Fight.

Entirely self-recorded, mixed and produced, it sees the joyful rapper team up with the soulful guest vocals of Maimouna Yousef and Nick Hakim, expert guitar player Gary Clarke Jr, and some superb bars from the UK’s very own Tranqill. And demonstrating the new album’s wide appeal, his brass band-funky and deliriously up-tempo opening track, ‘It’s Love’, was chosen by the BBC to close their coverage of the men’s Wimbledon final this summer.

But it’s not all fun and games for the lanky and exuberant rapper. On feisty track Something Done, he gets down to business as he channels Chuck D to share his experience as a black artist in America:

I just had another phone meeting
Felt like I was all alone speaking
To the clones keeping, black music soul weeping
I’m a new angel, and they’re only want the old demons
Glorifying music, that’s abusive and a threat to us
And if you got a message in your records
You collecting dust upon the shelf

Born to a Sudanese immigrant father and African American mother Oddisee – real name Amir Mohamed el Khalifa – was raised in the America’s capital city on a steady diet of New York hip hop. Amir took his first steps as a musician in the analogue basement studio of his legendary and friendly musical neighbour, Garry Shider of Parliament-Funkadelic.

Convincing his entrepreneurial father that he too had business acumen, Amir laid the cheque from his first commercial release on the kitchen table before his 21st birthday and never looked back. “I discovered that I can make a career in an arena dominated by artists that sell false dreams,” Amir says. “The only dreams I’m interested in are the ones I can grasp.”

Oddisee has performed with The Roots, produced for Freeway, Jazzy Jeff, Little Brother, De La Soul & Nikki Jean, rapped on production from Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke and Kev Brown, and formed killer trio The Diamond District with fellow Washingtonians X.O. and yU.

And now, he’s landed in London. We caught up with Amir in north London and asked him a few burning questions about the importance of fighting the good fight, why he hates the Gap and his daily work routine.

What is the ‘good fight’ for you these days?
Continuing to make a form of music not widely popular and managing to make a career out of it. Not easy but incredibly fun and rewarding.

And if you had to describe your music in three words…
Necessary, thoughtful and potent.

A lot is said about/boasted/mythologised about rap from New York and California. But what do you think makes the music scene in DC unique and special to you?
Being located in the middle of the East Coast has allowed the DC area to receive cultural influence from both the north and south. Think Three-Six Mafia meets Rockafella and you’ll start to get the gist of my hometown.

You take care to make your rapping is as crisp and clear as possible. How hard was that delivery to perfect?
I’ve never really thought about it. A rapper’s main goal should be to be understood – listening back to my recordings to see if I was clear or not has been part of my process from day one. It normally takes me anywhere between two and five takes to get the recording I’m looking for.

On ‘Want Something Done’ you express frustration with the corporate music industry’s obsession with promoting music that is a ‘threat’. Do you feel that rap has lost its edge as an outsider’s art and as a political protest?
No, not at all. It may not have as big of a draw as other sub-genres of rap but it’s here nonetheless. I have no problem with what the radio plays, I just wish there was more of a balance. I wouldn’t want to hear only rap about politics either.

You connect a lot of dots within musical traditions in America – funk, soul, jazz and rap. There are some lovely organs and very ‘organic’ sounding tracks on the new album, which give it a really earthy feel. What artists/sounds influenced your sound outside of rap?
My musical pallet is one that comes from many influences. Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Van Hunt and Feist are just a few artists that inspire my writing and production.

Where is the apartment pictured on the front of your new album – and why is it important?
It’s my apartment in Brooklyn, NY. Normally I write lyrics while on the road and produce when I’m home. With this album, I did everything at home from start to finish. The cover represents the minimal approach I took to the album and the four walls it was created within.

The worst job you’ve ever had is…
Working in the stock room of the Gap – I hated that place with a passion.

How do you write your music? Beats first? Lyrics first? Late at night? First thing in the morning? After a glass of wine? Or ten?
I sleep around midnight and wake up around 8am every day. Shower, eat breakfast, make coffee and get to work. I usually start on beats first. Once a beat sticks, I write to it and do my best to record in the evening before dinner.

If you had a super power you’d want it to be…
To be able to live in outer space – I would love to have the ability get away from everyone and everything sometimes!

If you could play a gig anywhere it would be where?
I would love to play a gig in Sudan for all my family and friends there. I think that will happen someday soon.

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Oddisee plays the Jazz Café on September 10th

The Good Fight is out now on Mello Music Group