Oddisee: Hip-hop's subtle extremist
By David Malitz
Aug. 10, 2012
During the early days of D.C. rapper Oddisee’s career, he took pride in being an idealistic underground lyricist and producer. He was a self-described hip-hop extremist. If it wasn’t strictly, purely, solely about the music, it wasn’t for him.
Good for art, not quite as good for business. To really form a connection with listeners, he needed to give them more than just expertly crafted songs; there had to be a lifestyle and a story to go along with them.
That’s when Oddisee (born Amir Mohamed) decided to open up a little more. He didn’t invent a persona; he simply adopted a new philosophy. “Don’t fabricate what you are. Simply put a magnifying glass to what you are and blow it up for everyone to see,” he said on a recent Saturday afternoon outside Petworth’s Qualia Coffee. “And that’s when everything changed for me.”
The past few years of Oddisee’s career have played out as perfectly as possible for an independent musician. He has let his personality come to the forefront of his music, has established his own personal brand and is enjoying the greatest success of his decade-long career. He lives comfortably yet modestly off his music and makes no artistic compromises.
After increasing his profile with the D.C.-based trio Diamond District (featuring fellow local MCs X.O. and yU), Oddisee experienced a surprise, word-of-mouth hit with his 2011 album, “Rock Creek Park.” Listeners were drawn to its lush arrangements, soulful melodies and breezy production. And that’s all they were drawn to: “Rock Creek Park” is almost exclusively instrumental. That his breakout album contained few lyrics surprised Oddisee but only to an extent.
“I want the musicality to be sophisticated and complex,” he said, “so I’m going to add live instrumentation, I’m going to add a string section and a brass section. I’m going to sequence, I’m going to arrange, I’m going to layer. And I’m going to care about this music as an art form.”
The strong reviews rolled in, but direct feedback from fans was even more fulfilling,” he said. “They hit me up and told me, ‘I played it for my mom, my dad, my grandmother, and they love it.’ There’s chord progression, there’s melody. Those are the things people expect hip-hop not to have. I’m kind of on a mission to change that.”
“Rock Creek Park” plays like a perfect soundtrack to a day spent exploring one of D.C.’s sprawling green spaces, but it was moving to New York and wandering through Central Park that provided the inspiration for the album. “Sometimes you need to step outside of something to really appreciate it,” he said. “Who knows if I ever would have made it if I was still walking through Rock Creek Park on a daily basis?”
Moving to New York was a career-oriented move, putting him closer to the heart of the industry. He’s still back home regularly — Oddisee’s band practices here — and he’s not cooped up in his Bed Stuy apartment all that often.
He’s more likely to be somewhere in Europe, where he tours more regularly than the United States. It’s not because he’s more popular there. It’s just that the logistics are better: More major cities close to each other and a euro that’s stronger than the dollar make it a more lucrative venture. Like most of Oddisee’s decisions, it’s calculated and prioritizes longevity over quick fame.
“Most rappers will tell you you can’t go to Paris unless you’re on a private jet,” he said, a topic he references on his song “The Gold Is Mine.”
"But you can go to Paris for $450 from Newark if you want to, if you know the time of year to go. And you can stay in a hostel. So when I say I’m in Paris and I’m eating good and I’m walking past the Eiffel Tower, looking at the ‘Mona Lisa,’ it may sound as if it’s braggadocio rap, but it’s not. It’s tangible. And that’s what I preach. And I realize that I can display that side of my personality and my lifestyle without it compromising the integrity of my music.”
The success of “Rock Creek Park” put Oddisee in a unique position when releasing his next album: He suddenly had a built-in fan base, but one that wasn’t all that familiar with his abilities as a rapper. “People Hear What They See,” released in June, was his chance to show he was someone with a strong lyrical point of view, not just a “producer who also raps,” a stigma that often proves difficult to break.
As fits his personality in general, Oddisee does not dazzle with rapid-fire flow or pack his rhymes with catchphrases and pop-culture references. He’s a storyteller who prefers subtle wordplay, something that goes back to his mother reading him poetry as a child.
“My mom read me a lot of Robert Frost and Edgar Allen Poe, and she was the one who taught me what metaphors and similes and double entendres were, and that’s what I choose to put into my music,” he said.
Like all of his projects, Oddisee conceived “People Hear What They See” — which retains soul and R&B influences while adding some harder-hitting beats — as a complete idea, with an overall theme that will make it more rewarding over time. This isn’t always how it goes in hip-hop (or the music industry in general), where getting a quick hit and then capitalizing on it as fast as possible is the normal route.
It can lead to instant riches and a high flame-out rate. But for Oddisee, the road less traveled has paid off.