Oddisee’s Fantastic Voyage Through Hip-Hop

Amir Mohamed el Khalifa – Oddisee

“I was open to the fact there was another world outside of my own, and I always wanted to see it.”—Oddisee

From an early age, Amir Abdelmonem Abdelwahob Elkhalifa Mohamed knew he wanted to see the world. Born into a multicultural household, Mohamed grew up traveling between Prince George’s County, Md.—where his Sudanese father lived—and southeast D.C., where his mother was raised. His home life was split between two religions, two cultures, and two languages. And, as natives of the D.C. area often do, Mohamed watched the world’s politics unfold right outside his door.

“I was open to the fact there was another world outside of my own,” he says, grinding coffee in the kitchen of his Bed-Stuy apartment. “And I always wanted to see it, and how other people lived.”

In school, Mohamed read Homer’s epic poems—the Iliad and the Odyssey—and the idea of a journey as a crucible of change left an indelible mark. Years later, Mohamed started writing rhymes, and when time came to give himself a name, “odyssey” was the first word that came to mind. He changed the spelling to Oddisee, but the meaning remained the same.

Oddisee

Last spring, around the release of his latest album The Good Fight, Mohamed married his French-Moroccan fiancée and upgraded from a shared apartment in a brick townhouse to a two-bedroom unit on the floor above, where he and his wife live today.

The couple’s home is an exercise in minimalism: it’s painted in muted colors and accented with tasteful Scandinavian furniture. The walls in the entryway are adorned with old travel posters of Morocco and Sudan, and next to the open kitchen is a giant framed print of the original French cover of Tintin’s The Crab With The Golden Claws. Near the bedroom entrance is a full-length blackboard, covered in French conjunctions, which Mohamed studies when he has the time.

In official photographs, Mohamed appears fixed in a permanently stoic pose (“I just don’t know how to take photos,” he admits later), but he’s charming and attentive in person. As we walk the Brooklyn block Mohamed has called home since the early 2010s, he expresses a little discomfort being photographed in such close proximity to his apartment. His career isn’t a secret, but he’s aware of how things can appear in a neighborhood where tensions around gentrification and wealth disparity abound. It’s the same sort of tension that permeates his D.C. hometown, where the city’s black natives are pushed to neighboring suburbs, and go-go—the city’s homegrown music—has been policed to areas further south.

Khalifa-Oddisee

Mohamed is a keen observer, the kind of person who thinks everything through, making connections, plotting possibilities and weighing options before making a call. He’s a veteran of the D.C. area’s underground rap scene, breaking out in the early 2000s as part of the Low Budget Crew with his high school friend Sean Born and nearby peers Kev Brown, Kenwood and Ken Starr. His first major credit was for the track “Musik Lounge” on DJ Jazzy Jeff’s The Magnificent album, released by BBE in 2002 as part of their Beat Generation series.

But what should have been a nice break almost instantly turned sour. The credit came at the same time the internet had begun to erode the foundations of the music industry. The tempestuous changes of the ‘00s—internet piracy, a hemorrhaging of capital—left many in hip-hop disenchanted, stranded on either side of the music’s underground and mainstream divide. But Mohamed saw potential in those challenges, and made music full of creative risks. In 2012, just before the release of his debut full-length, People Hear What They See, Mohamed released Odd Renditions, a short EP that sampled folk, yacht rock and alternative soul.

Khalifa-Oddisee

“Oddisee has done it his way from the very beginning,” says Peter Rosenberg, the radio DJ and co-host of Ebro In The Morning on New York City’s Hot 97, who met Mohamed in the early 2000s. “Most people who say they don’t care about being a bigger star are lying through their teeth. Amir means it. He wants to be a professional musician who lives well doing it.”

After a disappointing deal with Halftooth Records in the mid 2000s, Mohamed met Michael Tolle, an Arizona-based fan with no music industry experience who wanted to bring together artists he thought should collaborate. Mohamed shared contacts and experience with Tolle, sowing the seeds of an enduring relationship that came to define the second act of his career. In December 2008, Tolle launched Mello Music Group with Mohamed as its flagship artist.

“At every level, Amir would take the chances needed to test the waters,” Tolle says. “He was fearlessly making moves, and then relaying that info to me. It’s always about his growing perspective from outside of music being applied to what he is doing inside of music. He has become a new artist with each release, a true musician who has gone from looping beats to composing entire albums.”

When Mohamed released The Good Fight last year, it was praised by critics for its musicality and vast subject matter. Mohamed’s art is always expansive, but that LP felt especially unhindered.

“I’ve systematically broadened my audience to allow me to create whatever I want,” Mohamed says. “When I started off, I had to cater to the purist hip-hop head, so to speak, and to what they think rap should sound like. So I used my instrumental records to push the envelope, just a little. It was a gradual evolution to the point where [today] I can do whatever the fuck I want.”

And what Mohamed wants is the freedom to be an artist “on the mic, behind the board, and on stage.” In 2010, he formed Good Compny, a sextet that contributes heavily to Mohamed’s albums. In early May, they began an international 29-city tour less than a year after a 90-day run supporting The Good Fight.

Yet somewhere in all of this, Mohamed still finds time to write. Before his new album drops later this year, he will have released a seven-track EP, Alwasta, and a new instrumental album, The Odd Tape. This intense schedule reflects an approach Mohamed has honed over the years where different projects—albums, instrumentals, live recordings—cater to different tastes while feeding his overall progression, allowing him to sidestep restrictive definitions.

To wit: In April 2009, Mohamed, alongside fellow DMV rappers Uptown XO and yU, released an album called In The Ruff under the name Diamond District. Considered a classic in the D.C. area, the album was both an experiment and a statement of intent. Following years of dismissal from industry gatekeepers—“What does Maryland know about rap?”—Mohamed embraced his hometown’s position as, “the gateway between north and south.” The beats were true to what he liked, rooted in the sample-heavy East Coast boom-bap, but the flows carried a distinct D.C. drawl.

“That album is East Coast and Southern influences, married to give our city a sound,” Mohamed says. “That’s the DMV sound: twang over beat breaks.”

Mohamed gave the album away for free in exchange for emails. He didn’t know how he would use them, but he understood the need to create incentive. “I was reading Freakonomics and [Malcolm] Gladwell at the time,” he recalls. “I began to understand that people no longer buy things because they have to, but because they want to.”

At the same time, Mohamed realized the importance of branding. “That’s when I split from Kev Brown and Low Budget,” he continues. “I’m not the underground head anymore. I don’t let the music speak for itself anymore. It’s about the person behind the music, and making people want to buy the music.”

In 2011, Mohamed released what is arguably his most popular album, Rock Creek Park, a sprawling 12-track set of soul samples and live instrumentation, dedicated to the D.C. landmark where he used to ride his bike. The album arrived at a time when rap was becoming more electronic and ambient, spearheaded by the rise of artists like Hudson Mohawke and Flying Lotus.

“I was listening to the music Ross [Hudson Mohawke] and Steve [Flying Lotus] were making,” Mohamed says. “I was a fan, but I also knew that by making a different-sounding record, I’d stand out more.”

These days, Mohamed’s creative impulses are informed by his interactions with Good Compny, which includes Ralph Washington on keys, Olivier St. Louis and Ameer Dyson on guitars, Jon Laine on drums, Dennis Turner on bass, and Richard Patterson on the MPC.

Mohamed formed the band as a way to create new opportunities. “They were already playing on the albums anyway,” he says, “and I knew we would become eligible to play gigs certain rap acts can’t.”

The business decision also provided a creative upside: observing his band members during extensive touring, Mohamed picked up new ways to understand music. “They’ve contributed to my drum programming, chord progressions, my understanding of predictability,” he explains. “But they can also get too cerebral, too deep, and that doesn’t sell records. That’s where I come in. We balance each other out.”

Khalifa-Oddisee

Good Fight track “Counter-Clockwise” was created after Mohamed spent days listening to the band discuss time signatures. “I’m rapping over a 5/4 beat and everyone’s impressed,” he says jokingly. Then came the Alwasta track “No Reservations,” which features an intricate pattern of chord changes and time signatures. “I designed the song specifically to watch the band suffer in rehearsals,” he says with a laugh. “The first time I played it [for] them, they were like baby deers on ice. All over the place.” He smiles before concluding, “The greatest gift they’ve given me is advancing my musicality.”

Keyboardist Washington has been a key player in Mohamed’s musical growth. The pair began working together over 10 years ago, and today Washington—a man of a few words—is the yin to Mohamed’s yang.

“It was always about the music, from the moment we met,” Washington recalls. Their working process is one of collaborative respect; Mohamed “creates a blueprint” for Washington to work from. “Amir will say, ‘These are the colors I need’ and let me paint them in,” he says. “That’s what I love about him. He always lets me be creative in the process.”

Another of Mohamed’s earliest, and strongest, inspirations is the late James “J Dilla” Yancey. “He’s the reason why I produce and MC,” Mohamed affirms. A young Oddisee aspired to achieve the same ease with which Yancey rapped over his own productions. To Mohamed, lyrical prowess pales in comparison to sonic finesse.

“The overall song is what’s important to me,” Mohamed continues, “and Dilla mastered songs.” Yancey was also a producer who knew to trust other musicians to enrich his work. Hearing Washington speak about his process with Mohamed, it’s hard not to notice a similar dynamic. “A lot of producers I work with try to control everything,” Washington says, “but with Amir, I become a part of his music.”

A central element in Mohamed’s current sound is a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, the church tradition central to so much black music in America. It’s in the chords, the arrangements, the instrumentation.

“I didn’t gravitate to this kind of sound on purpose. I was born into it,” he says. His great uncle on his mother’s side is Warner Williams, a celebrated blues musician who would get down on the guitar at family gatherings with Mohamed’s grandmother, while the children harmonized in the back.

“I learned gospel songs from my mother and Marvin Gaye from my father,” he says. Gaye inspired him to create “powerful, politically-charged but entertaining music,” while the gospel lends it a soulful depth.

In person, Mohamed is an eloquent and engrossing storyteller. During our day together, we discuss the realities of gentrification, the origins of rap’s expansion to Europe in the early ’80s, the physical characteristics of Sudanese people, the merits of short-term fame versus steady growth, and the differences between UK grime and UK rap.

Khalifa-Oddisee

For Mohamed, multiculturalism is everything, though he only recently started to engage it in his art. At first his work “focused more on classism,” an interest born of a youth spent between immigrants who embodied the American Dream and poor working-class African-Americans trapped in the cracks of that same dream.

Alwasta was the first time Mohamed openly acknowledged his Sudanese roots; the cover sported a visual design reminiscent of African art and a title featuring Arabic writing. On “Asked About You,” he offers a subtle summary of the failed lessons of European imperialism, while on “Lifting Shadows,” he uses his love of grime—musically and lyrically—to flesh out the realities of Muslims in today’s America, and to wrestle with loving his country while hating its politics.

“I keep a healthy degree of cynicism,” Mohamed admits. “I observe the world, and what I see worries me. I have concerns, but my way of dealing with it is to get more people to ask ‘why’ through music.”

Mohamed is an avid explorer, combining expansive sonic structures with lyrical insight. “You hear what he says and it rings true,” Tolle says. “I think it’ll take years for us to look back and see what was happening. Amir is opening hip-hop’s boundaries and blurring the lines so that this music can continue to grow and reflect the circumstances around us.”

Rosenberg agrees. “Amir is the conscience of hip-hop,” he says. “He doesn’t make ‘conscious’ hip-hop. He is the conscience. He is someone who you always know is going to be keeping the game honest. Without people like Amir, part of our soul would be missing from the culture.”

Laurent Fintoni
Photos by Elyssa Goodman

One Comment

  1. Posted June 13, 2016 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    I’m super excited for more of this from Bandcamp. And I’m really liking Oddisee’s music as well. I actually had Oddisee in an “artists to check out” list, and I wake up, get on here, and hey, what do you know.

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