Amir 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.
And you wrote all of your lyrics outdoors for the album. Describe that process.
It happened organically. I found that when I tried to write in my studio, I would be too distracted by the yearning to make beats or check my email or surf the web or something. Too many objects in my room. So when I go outside and I'm walking around, it forces me to just do that and not divide my attention. Then while I was doing that, what I was observing was finding its way into my music. What better way for an artist who wants to reflect reality than to write in that environment.
So were you eavesdropping on stranger's conversations?
Oh, yeah. All the time. Super creep. Couples fighting, people on the phone screaming at each other, guys walking by joking, making fun of someone in the corner, guys trying to pick up girls and being rejected or being successful, going into a shop and hearing an employee be rude to someone, whatever. There's so much to go off of when you're just walking around.
Not often enough do MCs force themselves to write from other perspectives. It's often me, me, me.
That's something I'm really trying to change. I think hip-hop's the only genre that's restricted to its reality being about the artist themselves. It holds back the potential of what a hip-hop artist can do, because it's the greatest form of modern-day poetry we have, but it's so self-oriented that so much of what we experience isn't being touched on. What happens is, you get a lot of generic material because you're only covering your life — and your life involves imitating someone else. So we end up hearing the same track about the same cars and the same girls and the same drinks because you're not living life. You're not riding a bike or walking down the street or really experiencing things. I really want to change that. Just because it's not my reality doesn't mean it's not real.
What's your favourite season?
Fall. Autumn, definitely.
I like the briskness of the air. I like the balance between warm and cold. I like the colour palette of the season in general. I like the reminder that the year is coming to an end and to look back on what you've done. I don't need a birthday to do that, I don't need a Jan. 1 to do that. I think the seasons alone tell you time is passing, whether you want to admit it or not. And as things start to fall to the ground, it makes me wonder, "What have I done this year?"
As a kid you spent a lot of time at the Smithsonian.
Yeah, my mom wasn't really wealthy [and] museums in D.C. are free. So that was one way to occupy me, take me out for a nice day without having to spend money. So she took me to museums a lot.
Was there something specifically you were into?
I fell in love with natural history and religion. The Air and Space Museum was one of my favourite ones. The portrait gallery, the art museum, was a favourite. I love surrealism. That made me want to draw and paint myself when I saw surrealism and impressionism.
When was the last time you were in D.C.?
Two or three days ago.
Does the vibe change around election time?
There are three D.C.'s. There's the black, local D.C.; the young professional D.C.; and the transient D.C. The black, local D.C. is pretty unaffected by everything else that goes on. The others don't get a glimpse of our D.C. They moved from the Midwest and got a good IT job or they're lobbyists. They hang out in a specific part of town. I think the temperature in the air changes for them, but for us, it doesn't really change.
You voted for Obama, but do you agree with all of his policies?
I don't like the fact that Guantanamo Bay is still open. I don't like the rocket shot at the moon. I don't like that we have soldiers in Iraq. I don't like that the health care hasn't been reformed yet. There's a lot of things I don't agree with, but the lesser of two evils is important. I'm a firm believer that he needs two terms in order to undo the damage Bush did. He may not have done it now, but hopefully he'll change it.
How hard is it for you to sell beats?
I don't shop. I tried that early in my career. If you don't come to me, I don't come to you. I don't need the pressure. I don't like working under those constraints. "Oh, my God, such-and-such is working on an album. I want to deliver. What should I make?" I want them to come to me for my sound. And it's starting to happen.
A snowball effect.
The more I release, the more people are interested. It gives them a wider scope of what I can do. Because when you just submit tracks, it limits them. They think that's all you're doing.
Most of your catalogue is streamable for free on Bandcamp, the entire records. What was the thinking of that?
We want a really transparent business at Mellow Music, and we believe in the understanding that people no longer buy music because they have to; they buy music because they want to. If they see that their dollars go to us making more music for them to listen to, we build a closer relationship with our fans. It's not about bait to get the purchase; it's about insurance. We assure you that your dollar is worth it. They're going to steal it anyway, so why not centralize our fans to one place where we can use those stream numbers to get bigger distribution deals, to get bigger interest. Information is where the biggest dollars come from now. The info we get from those streams translates into bigger things.
What does your mom think of your music?
My mom loves my music, man. She read a lot of poetry to me. She was the first person to introduce me to double entendres, plays on words, metaphors, similes. She read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe to me, who was a master. Robert Frost, stuff like that. My mom can rhyme, man. In a more poetic way. She'll call me up and say, "Listen to this play on words," because she likes to write poetry. She listens to my music from a poetic standpoint. I'll come over and recite my rhymes to her, and she'll pick up all the metaphors. She loves it.
Was she ever worried about it not being a financially successful endeavour?
To this day she is, because she comes from that school where if you're not on radio or television, then you're not successful. She recognizes the skill in my work, but she doesn't feel like I'm getting the benefits of it. She's like, "Oh, I met someone who can get you on the radio." I'm like, "Mom, I'm on the radio that counts in my world. That online radio. My listeners are there. My listeners don't listen to mainstream radio, and I have a lot of listeners." She can't comprehend that, and I'm not mad at that.
"Another's Grind" is a personal favourite. What was your inspiration for that song?
I like to admit my humanity in my records. I don't mind being called a conscious rapper because I'm conscious of my hypocrisy. "Another's Grind" is the duality of being self-oriented but also I'm being about my community and my peers, so if you listen to lines in the verse where the hook is, "I don't care about another's grind/ It's all about mine," but then the second verse I say, "Handle biz with my partners like the Beretta spray 'cause everybody fuckin' with me's in a better place." It's the duality of looking out for my team, but also knowing that I'm really out for myself at the same time. And I'm OK with that. You can't help others until you help yourself. So I don't try to preach this false idea of unity and everybody help everyone; I don't believe in that utopia. It's not real. But the whole go-go-go-for-self, fuck-everyone-else I also don't believe in. There needs to be a balance. So I attack that balance from a human state as opposed to preaching.
So what's next? Diamond District?
Diamond District album, March on Washington; a compilation called Good Company; another instrumental album; and I've already started on my second solo album. All of that in 2013, for sure.
Anything you want to add or let people know?
Thank you for listening. That's it.