There's lots of open space inside Oddisee's Bed-Stuy apartment. In the morning, sunlight floods his living room and makes every surface shine. His decorations are minimalist and most of his recording equipment stays tucked away. The place is tidy. Oddisee, a Sudanese-American MC and beatmaker born and raised in Washington D.C., strives to keeps his life orderly and as he grinds a fresh batch of coffee, he explains his goals to me. "This man only wants simple things: to eat what I want, to wake up when I want, to go where I want, and to do what I want."
Oddisee moved to New York six years ago, but the city's lineage of jazzy, socially-engaged hip-hop has resonated with him since childhood. Growing up, an older cousin introduced him to Public Enemy, Rakim, and the Native Tongues collective by bringing back records and magazines from his own trips to Manhattan. Eventually turntables and a microphone showed up in his home and by the time Oddisee—real name Amir Mohamed—was 21 rap was paying his bills. Thanks to a grueling tour schedule and a steady stream of releases, Oddisee has built himself a small but deeply devoted fanbase. His style of lush, live-instrument beats and contemplative rhymes has only sharpened with time.
"I’m an outlier," Oddisee claims, but is that really the case? Listening to his latest EP Alwasta (Arabic for "the connection), the 35-year-old sounds more engaged than ever, rapping about his hopes and fears as a Muslim American witnessing the rise of Trump's Islamophobic rhetoric. "Since 9/11 ain't too clear just what the target is / I love my country hate its politics," the hook goes. Made in only a week, Alwasta is Oddisee's most vital statement to date, but he's not about to take a break. This Friday he's releasing The Odd Tape, a new instrumental LP that's loaded with funky bass lines and unpredictable rhythmic tics. To top it all off he's just started a nationwide tour, and will play 25 shows in the next two months.
What might seem like a chaotic schedule is in truth the result of careful planning. Oddisee's keen self-awareness and high quality control is what's gotten him this far, and he shows no signs of stopping. Three days before he hit the road, we spoke with him about his new music, neighborhood politics, and the hard work needed to know yourself.
When you were young, you traveled back and forth to Sudan. What kind of impact did that have on you? Sudan shaped what I write about and what I value. Because I saw kids there who were starving, and had nothing, but were happier. Then I'd see kids in America who had everything, but complained that they didn't have enough. In D.C. I saw videos, portrayals of Black America, of the hood and gangsters. They lived amongst me, where I grew up, and we were supposed to fear them. But [in Sudan] I saw child soldiers who could disassemble a Kalashnikov with no problem, and they were nice kids! That changed my whole perspective on what I was supposed to fear, what I was supposed to glorify, what I considered wealth, what I thought success was. And to this day, that's been in my music, my lifestyle, everything that I value.
Things get complicated. Things get real complicated real fast.
How did you go about making beats for The Odd Tape? Do you have a stack of hard drives full of finished music you can pull from to make a new record? Or do you follow an entirely new idea from start to finish? I am the latter. Most of the stuff on my hard drive is out and available. I don't have a lot of extra music.
Why make an all-instrumental album now, when you've just put out two rap records and are working on another? It's a mixture of art and commerce. Every year I release an instrumental record and a vocal record. This year it will be The Odd Tape, and my solo album which will be a vocal record. Then, there's this other thing that came out called Al Wasta. There's a reason why it came out when it came out. Normally, I know that I'm going to do an instrumental album and a vocal album every year. I make those records, nothing more nothing less, from start to finish in chronological order.
And once I produce 12 tracks, then I'll write, from track one to track twelve. Once I write everything, then I'll record from track one to track twelve. Always in order, always from start to finish, and once it's done, there's nothing left over. Everyone thinks that I've got all this stuff left over, but I don't.
Now the interesting thing is timing. I started The Good Fight on the day after Thanksgiving in 2014. And I turned it in on January 13th, 2015.
You work fast. And then The Odd Tape was turned in directly a month after The Good Fight. So around February 13th, 2015. And it's been sitting in the label's Dropbox folder ever since. We said "Alright, let's go ahead and put The Odd Tape out in 2016," because my label's release schedule was already booked up. And I don't mind at all.
But then, I get booked for this new tour and my booking agency said, "Don't you have a new record coming out?" I was like, "Yeah, but it's an instrumental record!" So how am I going to get people to come see me do vocals with the band, if I got an instrumental record coming out? My manager told me, "How about you just do an EP and put it out on the internet for free, maybe just to stir up something?"
I see where this is headed. So I called my label and said "I want to put an EP out in May." And they said "Goddamnit Amir, you can't do that. You got the The Odd Tape coming out! We're going to be promoting this record and you're going to put something else out for free?" They ended up telling me "If you're going to do this, it's got to come out by next week."
So I hung the phone up and we produced Al Wasta and turned it in in a week, and it came out [snaps fingers] like that. Because it had to, to promote the tour. And that's the reason it exists, and that's why it was free. But it actually was a beautiful thing—it's got me wanting to create on the spot more often. So I'm looking forward to finishing my next vocal record and then spending the rest of the summer creating songs by writing, making a beat in a morning, recording vocals in the evening, and releasing it the next day.
You're gonna drive bloggers nuts. Yeah! I'm gonna have a lot of fun this summer.
Well then what's important to you about Al Wasta? When you're forced to make a record in a week, you've got a graphic designer you have to call to do the visual work. You have a publicist that has to very quickly come up with something to release it. You have songs that needs to be made, produced, recorded, et cetera. And all in a very short amount of time. So, how it happened: I called my graphic designer in London, and within 48 hours he finished the artwork. I called my keyboard player and he came up to record every song for me in a day. Then I realized there's no way to translate Arabic to English directly, because every single country spells it according to how they speak. But I needed the best way to translate these words accurately, or the Arab community will rip this apart for any inaccuracies.
So I called a friend in Saudi Arabia—he teaches at a university that has a graphic design department. I sent to him the cover and title, and his class did the translation for me, to make sure it was right. And I realized that only a person with connections, with wasta, would be able to do this, this quick. I'm so thankful. That is true power, to me, that's true wealth. This whole record wouldn't have been created without wasta.
What made you want to write a song like "Lifting Shadows"? It came about from my observations of the world while touring. From being asked to take refugees to Sweden in my tour van in Munich. Some of the people who were going into the camps to help children were fans of mine, and knew that I had a concert, and asked if they could bring Syrian and East African kids to the concert. Because they wanted them to see someone like them. I hung out with them and spoke to them, in Arabic, which made them...[trails off]
You know, I wanted them to see someone like them, whose father came from a war-torn country, to be like, "You're gonna be okay." And I saw the camps in Calais when I took the ferry from Calais to England. It was real, man.
And then, when I came home, I was escorted at JFK.
You got the random "special check?" Yeah, and I'm very scared to write about those things. I don't want to be lumped in as a political rapper, or a Muslim rapper. And then, the beat I made beat spoke to me, it said "This is what the subject matter is." I wanted to write about an angle that people could listen to, that was educational without being too angry. I'm caught in so many movements, man. I'm half Sudanese, half African American. I'm Black Lives Matter and I'm anti-Islamaphobia. And often I don't really know where I'm supposed to stand.
How seriously do you take Donald Trump's brand of Islamophobia? I don't even think Trump's a racist. Trump's a Capitalist. And being from Washington D.C. and seeing the nature of Capitalism, that man will say anything he can to anyone to get in. Will he actually do any of those things? Odds are he won't. But he'll tell you whatever you want to hear to get what he wants.
If you're a Capitalist from New England you care about money. Money has no color on it. You care about power, and power has no color and no religion and in fact it has none of those things. Many of those people are godless. In order to get there you have to be godless. So for you to be godless to get what you have and become a multi-millionaire and own so much real estate, etcetera, you can't truly have racist opinions. You can't afford it. But the idiots who follow it will believe you.
There's always going to be idiots. But, this is America. And America has no allegiance to anyone. I look at my neighborhood now that is championed for being a historically black neighborhood. It's being changed through gentrification by a lot of white people moving into the neighborhood. A lot of the community is unhappy with this. They're taking away what the neighborhood was. [Pauses] Open up a couple of history books and you'll see that before this was a black neighborhood, it was a white neighborhood. Certain parts of it were Jewish, certain parts of it were Irish, certain parts were Italian. And they were pissed that their neighborhood was changing by black people moving into it. I've realized that this city has no allegiance to anyone. It has a demand that needs to be met by a workforce, and it will accommodate anyone who can make it happen.
How much of this are we going to take personal? How much of this are we going to continue to take personally? You either do something about it or you move on. But this wasn't even yours to begin with, and it is our vanity and our arrogance to think that we're exempt from it, and to take as much as we take personal. I'm going to get a lot of flack for saying shit like this, but I wholeheartedly believe it, that if I cut someone off in the street in my car and he says "You fucking asshole!" And if I'm wearing a Kufi in my head because I'm about go to go the mosque, and I cut someone off and he says "You fucking Muslim asshole!"how different is that really?
So you can be scared of me because I'm black, you can be scared of me because I'm from the city, you can be scared of me because I'm Muslim. It's not why you're scared of me, it's the fact that you're scared of me. You've got the problem. You can be scared of me for a million things, I don't give a shit about any of them, because I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing, and I urge everyone else to do the same. [laughs]
Do you talk with your friends and neighbors a lot about gentrification? I have these conversations all the time where I say "When it comes to gentrification, what is it that we're fighting to hold on to?"Is it the trash in the street, or the bodega that has age-old vegetables that we don't want to eat and has a shitty selection of beverages that we don't want to consume?
The other side of gentrification that annoys me is people moving to cities like New York for the romantic idea of it. You want the grit. The music playing out of the windows and car systems, and people talking loud on the street. But when you get it, you're the first ones to call the police to create noise ordinances and take our subwoofers from clubs. I've been coming to this city all my life and I've lived here for six years. The amount of venues that I've played in that I can no longer play in--they all moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn because of noise ordinances. That's the part that's like--I can't deal with that. Every single night I go to bed there are children on the corner of my street yelling until 3 or 4 in the morning. But I live in New York, I don't call the cops on those kids. Because this is New York City. You get with it, you assimilate. I don't even hear it anymore. That's my problem, and that's everyone else's problem.
What do you think are people's biggest misconceptions about you? I definitely champion people who might think, "Where's the music for me?" So people in turn champion me, and I've definitely become an artist who people attach their propaganda to constantly. Constantly. And that's the thing where people don't know me but think they do, it gets really fascinating. You know, I've done shows in Utah where Mormons really gravitated towards my message, because my last two records don't have profanity. And apparently, according to them, a lot of my music talks about the preparation for the future, and how you have to live for today and tomorrow, which really appeals to Mormons. Then as a Muslim, I just finished playing a Muslim charity in Atlanta last weekend because of songs that I released like "Lifting Shadows," where I feel like finally I'm a voice for the Muslim community in America. I get pulled in so many directions based on what you want to hear from my music, you know? And it's fascinating...People don't understand how conscious you have to be of branding to appear like you're the average guy.
Do you think a lot about your brand? Yeah, of course. Because I learned from the industry, where if you're going to make people want to listen to you, you're going to be conscious of branding. "What will my branding be?" I want to brand myself as someone who's as transparent as possible, you know, because that's what I am.
That's different from "My brand is no brand." That's not what you're saying...That's bullshit! I have a brand! I have a brand, and if you don't think I have one, I guess it's working.
Man, it's fascinating. The amount of people that think I'm vegetarian because of my music, that trips me out. I have never once said anything about being vegetarian! And that's the thing that devastates people's misconceptions. I don't dig for records, I don't use an MPC, I make beats on the computer, I eat meat. And when I come to your city, I don't want to come record shopping. I want to eat at some place that we don't have at home, that's a specialty in your town, and I want to walk around and take photos. On the other hand, I actually don't want to smoke weed with you after the show, and hang out with you, and go to the next after-party. People think I want to do all of those things. I don't want to do any of those things.
That's good. I end up in a lot of those situations with promoters and people like that who hand-pick things for me upon my arrival. And it really fucks with people, it really throws people off when they discover yeah, I don't want to smoke weed with you and I don't want to make beats with you, you know? I'm in the middle.
If I were to say what kind of rapper you are, I would have to call you a solidarity rapper. In your lyrics, time and time again you seem to be stressing "I get you. I get where you're coming from. I understand, and I hope you can understand me." Definitely. Some of my favorite writing is comedy. Comedians have this amazing ability to make us laugh about things that we thought were personal. And when we realize that this comedian who's on stage, we almost blush. We think "Oh my gosh, he's telling something from my life." And we laugh hysterically thinking "How did this guy know?" But that's why comedians are geniuses because they find these things, these observation in life, that we think are just exclusive to us, and then when we discover that they're not we bust out laughing. I study that, and I want to do that in my music, where you think this thing that you think is just you but it's not. It is the world. We all do it, in every language and every religion. We're all laughing, crying, and living on the same principles and same things. How can I really do my best to connect people on those things? That is what my writing is all about. I'm very conscious of that.
And I did want to fill a void. There's enough rap dedicated to aspiration. And I love that kind of rap. That's what the majority of what I listen to. I spend my time making music to show you that you are enough, so I like to listen to music about aspiration. Drake's my favorite MC right now, and has been for a while.
What do you aspire to? I aspire to be self-sufficient and financially stable for the rest of my life. That is my main focus.
But do you think about that before you think about making pure, satisfying music? One actually has no effect on the other, it's weird to say. When I close that door to my studio and I'm working on music, I'm not thinking of marketing or strategy at all. I freely create. I'm not even thinking of any specific record.
The minute those records are done, I don't make music at all, until the next time when I'm scheduled to work on music. I'm sheerly focused on marketing and branding and maximizing my product. Because when the door's closed, it's music. When the doors open, it's not music anymore, it's a product and I'm only thinking about it as a product. And one isn't really conscious of the other. I guess the product is conscious of the music, but the music isn't conscious of the marketing. When I'm in there, I'm free. And that's the only time when I'm free.
You've constantly traveled back and forth between America and Sudan. How has that shaped who you are? It was traveling to and from Sudan that made me realize what real wealth was, or that wealth had different definitions according to where you were in the world. I remember being a kid and, if you were fat in Sudan people considered you healthy and wealthy. But if you were fat in America, you were most likely considered poor, obese, and unhealthy. That tripped me out.
What would you say your purpose in life is? What would you like your legacy to be? I think my purpose in life is to be a champion for everyday people. For them to not feel like they're not enough. I think that's the purpose of my music message. It's for people to understand that they are enough, and you're ok. Who you are is actually enough. I think most of us don't know that. I would want my legacy to be helping the world re-define its definition of success. What I really want that to be what I'm known for. Our definition of success is outdated. It's really outdated. A house, picket fence, two kids, and a dog--that's not success anymore. That's not a reality, and a overabundance of money where you could show off your wealth, that not success. Going platinum is not success anymore. None of the things that we think are success. Being on stage at Coachella or on Kimmel or receiving a Grammy is not success.
We really need to redraw those lines. How important is a Grammy if it's a committee of people who are so out of touch with what they're voting on and it's a popularity contest where the people on the board--especially in rap--pick the person with the loudest voice. How important is this accolade by this same community that you fight against? For recognition. You want their approval but you fight them. Black America is at a standstill. You want the approval of white America i.e. the Grammys even when you fight it at the same time, because your own award shows aren't enough. You don't respect an Essence award or a BET award with the same esteem as a Grammy. Why? Why?
Why do you want the approval of the same person that you're fighting against. I don't give a fuck about the approval of the Grammys, or a whole white board of people who don't even listen to my music or my culture in the first place. We really have to define these ideas of success. Really. It's insane to me what people consider success.
Vindication, validation. Fans really want me to be bigger than I am, they want the world to know what they know. But if you're listening to me, why can't that be enough? Why does your neighbor have to know who I am? I don't care if my neighbors don't know who I am...It doesn't matter. What really matters is only what matters to you, and I really want my legacy to be helping people redefine that. Especially creative people who get hung up thinking they're not good enough and are scared for what their futures are going to be because they don't get the accolades that they think they deserve. I really want to help people understand that you've got to redefine your definition of success and make it your own.