Brilliant Producer, Rapper and Washington’s best-kept secret – Oddisee – is taking the world one beat at a time. Having gathered a pilgrimage of beat fanatic’s often from two distinct corners, now with a new project Traveling Man he’s ready to break bread and arouse tastes you never new you had.
First impressions count and Amir as he’d rather be known off stage is a man of no pretence. Professional and funny, it’s clear from the start this is gonna be a good afternoon.
We met in Westminster-London, perched between a frenzy of security paranoia. Romain manages to get some epic pic’s in front of iconic Big Ben without seeing blue. Then hearing Oddisee is a man of the bean we head across the river for a decent coffee.
Born to an African American mother and Sudanese father his parents divorced at a young age and he grew up in Washington with his father and step-mother. Every summer though he spent in Sudan and North Africa, a change of scenery that had a profound effect on both his personal and musical development.
“My father didn’t like me hanging around in DC when there was no school. So I spent summer visiting family in Egypt, Yemen and Sudan – I loved it.
When I turned 18 I didn’t want to go back as much ‘cos I started getting into Hip Hop and I wanted to be in the studio.”
A slap in the face of any ignoramus that blames Hip Hop and its proprietors for societies woes, it was that mix of culture that nurtured true ethics in his music whilst swaying him from inner city vices.
“I love the sheer shock in culture and Sudanese appreciation for life, like the level of happiness when these people are struggling. I love the fact that unconsciously I didn’t glorify materialism, objectifying women, guns, drugs, etc. By the time I’d get home and all my friends were getting into thug shit, I was like I actually have cousins who know how to use assault rifles and are like 13! Are you kidding me?”
“I wasn’t sacred of it. I didn’t aspire to be it! It was pathetic! I was always grateful to know to stay away.”
Oddisee didn’t just get into Hip Hop he dived deep into the sounds the genre is built on. Exploring new boundaries his albums and past releases are riddled with live instruments conquering anything from rare boom bap Hip Hop to jazzy worldly beats. A knack his hero also shared.
“My Biggest influence is J-Dilla.” He voices proudly. “That was the blueprint for me.”
But you’d probably see more similarities in his beats with say Madlib (although listening to ‘Rico Suave Bossa Nova’ you might disagree). What he does share with the Detroit legend is a distinct difference in his solo and collaboration projects. And just like you can’t pigeon hole J-Dilla there too lies his brilliance.
“I always say its human nature to characterize people. We just can’t understand things unless we put them in a box. And a lot of artists try to fight that – intentionally deviating from their sound, which isn’t natural and upsets the fans.
The solution I found is – Ok, put me in a box, as long as you put me in as many boxes as possible!”
Committed as much as to his 3 collective Hip Hop crew -Diamond District- as to his solo stuff, raising his eyebrows he lays it down some more.
“Diamond district are for my Hip Hop purist fans that can’t understand that I listen to all other kinds of music. I love that 95 raw shit, so I had to satisfy that urge. All of my fans of that will say that’s the finest thing I’ve made.”
“Then there’s a side of me that really likes progressive Hip Hop that takes chances, and my diamond district fans will say ‘I love Oddisee but that shit is wack.’ While other fans will say it’s brilliant and cutting edge. Never the two shall meet and that’s fine with me (laughs). But I love how they go out of their way to tell me.”
And although you sense Oddisee has an open dialogue with his fans and critics – something critical to his development, he also ultimately has the confidence to place the decision making in his hands. Meaning he won’t be manipulated.
“It’s a about a developed palette – anything in life from film, food and music. It’s what you’ve been exposed to in your life and what you are conditioned to.”
When it comes to his work ethic he holds a routine that deserves attention too. A true workaholic, on average he produces 15 -10 tracks in a 20 hour day. The results- some of the sickest free downloads cyberspace has ever seen.
But how does he make sure everything he makes is still as good as the last?
“A lot of my fans have concerns, like quality over quantity. But it’s my job and I treat it as such. I have to do it good or I’ll lose my job just like anyone else.
When I’m at home and in my regiment I make an album a week. I start at 9 am and I don’t stop till 10pm. ‘ A huge grin appears. ‘Its fun, it makes you want to wake up everyday!”
A regular visitor in Europe and around the states, Oddisee passes this bullish work discipline to his ridiculous passion for touring.
“I’m a minimalist when on tour. Ryan Air is the devil, so I keep my luggage with me. I’m pretty much in a new city everyday so, no one knows I wore this yesterday.”
Are you taking note, pack soap!
“I’ve got it down to a science. The shoes I have on our feet are the only ones I’m wearing, the pants I have on and maybe another pair. I wear layers. Rule number one, everything I bring can be worn with something else.”
Don’t confuse Oddisee’s tours as a just a chance to check the local talent and dodge food poisoning either. A savvy orchestrator of his own bookings, each date is a careful opportunity to expand his music, from choosing the city and local artist to deciding on the right month to land.
“When I started touring four years ago, I was touring through Myspace while everyone else was using booking agents. My fans would hit me up. And they helped me create a small database of all the venues and promoters details from small cites in the world. I just hit them up.”
“A year before I’d pick key cities and collaborate with artists and let my records and affiliations with these artists work. I always made sure that they booked the shows on Hip Hop nights too. Whether I was gonna be there or not there was always a crowd.”
Oddisee’s tales read like a ‘Touring for Dummies’ manual, an A&R’s wet dream. And it’s this intelligent selection of collaborations in key European cities that warmed anticipation for his music before he even stepped on a plane.
“Going back to February, and why that month. The plane tickets were cheapest. There were no other tours, there was no competition and there was nothing else for people to do. So they would come out and see me.”
How do you get paid?
“400-500 plus paying 5 Euros each. At that time I was touring by myself, with my music on a CD. People would look at me and ask how you making money from this, we’re only paying you 700 Euros. But once I convert, that’s about a thousand dollars for me and I have 18 shows.”
You can sense he’s proud and excited to share his fruitful thinking. With an attitude that resembles more the thinking of a renegade economist then a still upcoming musician.
“People didn’t get it, they thought I was on a vacation. I’m an opportunist (quote) and I like making money too!” (laughs).
Heard of the saying ’sell an Eskimo a fan’, well Oddisee will travel to give that Eskimo a fan. It’s not that easy though. This all takes hard graft, a self-assurance gifted only to world leaders and a patience that out-stretches your mother’s backhand.
“I would make sure the promoters would only be responsible for paying costs getting me from the city I was in to their city. Nothing more.
So the promoter would say ‘Wait a minute all I have to do is get you from Cologne to Munich and you you’re willing to stay in my house, on my sofa and all you want is 700 Euros’, are you serious? Like yeah you got yourself a tour!”
But certainly where others may have seen a wall, Oddisee has found either a path round it or a sledgehammer of a beat to break through.
“It was still significantly cheaper for them. It was great!”
In essence what Oddisee has done is create micro-environments for his music to flourish and succeed. While at the same time making the world a much smaller place. Not sidelined by geography, he goes where people want to listen and they will pay for that privilege. Representing the true open ground of music.
But while his business mentality is still on point, its still the energy in his fingers that has Oddisee making some of the most exciting music today. A modern architect of his own destiny, he has the answer to the current download crisis too.
“I read in Freakonomic’s about getting people to be morally obliged to pay a penalty or fee. It was a passage about a day care in Israel. That shit stuck in my head.”
By releasing numerous free projects like the Odd season series he’s attracted fans worldwide and generated trust, excitement and loyalty.
“I saw it on twitter yesterday, a fan said ‘I’ve downloaded Odd Winter, Odd Summer and Odd Autumn for free – I just bought Traveling Man’ – exactly!”
“It’s about building that trust factor with your fans. If I make you pay for it its gonna be really good.”