By Luke FoxAmir Mohamed el Khalifa — better known in circles that appreciate good beats and raps as Oddisee — represents Washington, D.C., lives in New York City, and spent the afternoon in Rexdale, ON chilling at his aunt's place at Martin Grove and Finch before he and his live band wrecked a show for an enthusiastic Toronto crowd. Late on a Sunday night, no less. Though Oddisee, a wise artist equally adept with a pen or behind the boards, has roughly 15 projects with his name on it, he considers 2012's People Hear What They See his debut album. We talked about his unique approach to the self-produced record, one of 2012's best you might have missed, as well as a gang of other stuff: Obama, museums, graphic design, and why autumn is the best season ever.
Do you ever go record shopping in Toronto? I don't go record shopping, period. I used to back in the day, but I don't get an opportunity to anymore. Plus, I don't like carrying the vinyl with me.
So how do you dig for samples? Strictly on the internet? I have a lot of friends who collect a lot of records. A lot of them don't make music; they just have records. And they'll put it on their hard drives, and I'll come through when I'm low and re-up. So I have a record store on my hard drive. I've got so much music I haven't even gone through, I don't need to go digging anymore.
When did you first fall in love with hip-hop? Whew. I was young. My cousins would go up to New York and come back with mixtapes and records. I would sit in their room when they came back and listen to records with them. I come from a city that wasn't a hip-hop type of city. Sitting listening to my cousins freestyle, and they were very New York-minded when it came to music. They're ten years older than me. I must've been like seven or eight years old at this time.
How long did it take for you to go from being a listener to someone who knew this is what you wanted to do? It was a long time. I was just a fan. I was deep into illustration and drawing growing up. I wanted to go into graphic design. My last year of high school, my friend Sean Born used to hear my freestyling around school, and he said I should come through: "I'd like to record you." So I said, "OK," and I came through his studio. He didn't have any instruments. He just had this box and a whole bunch of records. And I started making beats. Nothing serious; I just messed around. Prior to meeting him, I grew up next-door neighbours with Gary Shider, the bass player for Parliament-Funkadelic. His son's my age, and we'd play around jamming. So that's how I thought music was made. I didn't know hip-hop came from samples. He changed my world when I went to his basement, and he said, "This is how you make hip-hop." He played a lot of the original samples to rap records I grew up listening to, and it blew my mind. I was like, "You have to teach me how to do this." He taught me, and I never looked back. I knew that's what I wanted to do.
Is D.C. a supportive city? Some guys are breaking through now, your crew and Wale… No. I wouldn't say D.C. is a supportive city. We're so hungry to be recognized and to have a star, that it's a crabs-in-a-barrel mentality. That's not exclusive to D.C. Any city that's not fortunate enough to birth a lot of superstars early on are all starving to put themselves on the map first. It's supportive in the sense of making music. It's an amazing place to make music — you can get up with artists, producers, find tracks, band members. I honestly wouldn't want to make music anywhere else. But as far as putting it out and getting a local support system when it comes to venues, marketing, radio… forget about it.
Where are you living now? I moved to New York a year and a half ago, but it wasn't because I wasn't getting love. Quite the opposite: I think I'm one of the few artists when I do a show in D.C., people turn up and have a good time and show love. But the industry that surrounds my industry is nonexistent in D.C. There's no journalists, graphic designers, photographers, videographers, publicists, A&Rs, managers — those things that just walk around New York don't exist in D.C.
Do you still mess around with graphic design? I haven't. I just cold-turkey'd on it. It's the strangest thing. It's the same part of the brain as music, but there wasn't room for both. Every once in a while I'll buy pencils and a sketch pad, and it sits and collects dust.
Your most recent project is described as a debut CD, but you've been around for years. How can it be your debut? If you look at my catalogue, I have never released a solo album. I've got group efforts, cameo features, instrumental albums, compilations, mixtapes… but there's never been a full-album of all-original music where I've produced and wrote everything and it's featuring me.
Why did it take so long? It wasn't a conscious decision. Over the years I would just hear a track and put it in a folder and continue working on [other] records. One day I realized I had a lot of tracks set aside and I started recording. Most of the tracks on my album are four years old.