[Interview + Podcast] Oddisee talks lessons learned in Khartoum, early influences, and defining success

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Who’s the most consistent artist in hip-hop these days? It’s a tough question, but Oddisee’s name has to be in the mix. Equally adept behind the boards and on the microphone, he very rarely disappoints when dropping new music. The Prince George’s County, Maryland-raised artist calls it releasing “quantity and quality,” and he’s got a case: in the past four years alone, he’s released Rock Creek Park, People Hear What They See, The Beauty in All, and Tangible Dream. Not a bad run, if you ask me.

Oddisee is more than just a solid musician, however. He’s a bright thinker, an observant and engaging lyricist, and one of the best examples of independent success you’ll find. Naturally, we had to pick his brain. We caught up with Oddisee to talk about lessons he learned spending summers in Khartoum, early musical influences, defining success, and much more. Listen to the podcast above and read the interview below.

TCUS: As I understand it, your cousins introduced you to hip-hop. Tell me the scenario.

Oddisee: My cousins used to go back and forth to New York often, and when they did, they would come back with records and mixtapes. That was my first introduction to hip-hop. Prior to that, I just pretty much listened to what my parents listened to, and my cousins really familiarized me with hip-hop culture by bringing back rap magazines, and posters, and 12-inches. They were the only people I knew who had two turntables, a mixer, and a microphone. So not only did they come back with records, but they came back with the culture – and that was my first introduction to it.

TCUS: What was the first album they showed you that really grabbed your attention?

Oddisee: [A Tribe Called Quest’s] Midnight Marauders was the first record that really made me fall in love with hip-hop. It’s my favourite album to this day. I think it was the melodies that they used – the jazz melodies. It was one of the first times I had really heard those types of melodies being sampled in hip-hop. And they were more like characters to me as emcees than aggressive personas, and that was something I could relate to more.

TCUS: You mentioned earlier listening to whatever your parents listened to. I know your mother writes poetry and your father gave you your first vinyl record. What kinds of things were they introducing you to?

Oddisee: My mother was introducing me to Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, and Kenny Rogers. She listened to a lot of different stuff. She wasn’t really into a lot of soul music. My father was all about soul and funk. He was introducing me to Marvin Gaye, Frankie Beverly and Mays, and things like that.

Oddisee Interview on The Come Up Show

TCUS: I read that growing up, you spent your summers in Khartoum, Sudan. What were those summers like?

Oddisee: My summers spent in Sudan were great. They were very eye-opening. But most importantly, they made me really appreciate everything that I had in the States when I came home. They also changed my perspective on what I value. Most of my peers’ opinions didn’t matter. I started at a very young age to deem most of what kids my age were into as insignificant, and that’s still stuck with me to this day. I don’t really care about what a lot of people care about, to be honest. Sudan really taught me to covet the bare necessities in life: good conversation, food, shelter, something to drink, warmth, cold, whatever you need. Once those things are met, and family is met, nothing else really matters.

TCUS: What significance does Parliament Funkadelic – and more specifically, Diaper Man – have to you?

Oddisee: Garry Shider was my neighbour growing up – I grew up with his son, who was the same age as me. That was the first introduction I had into a studio environment. He encouraged us to go into his [basement] studio as much as possible and play around and make music. So without really even knowing it, that was kind of like my grounds of cultivation, so to speak, in understanding the differences between an analog sound and digital, and cutting records, and making music for fun, as a sheer hobby. That was the start.

TCUS: Later on, you spent time at A Touch of Jazz Studios with Jazzy Jeff. What’s your most cherished memory from then?

Oddisee: My first paycheque. That’s definitely my most cherished memory: the first time I got paid from making music. It made me understand that I could make a living from music.

TCUS: I pulled this from the description of your Tangible Dream project: “The only dreams I’m interested in are the ones I can grasp. It just so happens that anything you want bad enough can be obtained.” Can you build on this?

Oddisee: I guess it was meaning to say that I only want what I can have, but you can have anything that you want, basically. So if it’s within your sight to have it, you can go after it if you want. But I don’t know if you can get it.

TCUS: I want to get into a couple lines off Tangible Dream. This first one comes from “Killing Time.” You rap, “Science only answers how/
Religion only answers why/ The two combined is the true design/
So respect to God cause he drew the lines.” Tell me about this line.

Oddisee: I’m a firm believer that a lot of issues and quarrels that people have with religion come from not understanding how similar they are, especially conflicts between people who deem themselves as scientific and people who deem themselves as religious. I, for one, see myself as both. I have an understanding that it’s not science’s job to necessarily explain why things are they way they are. There’s so many things in science that can’t be explained. And religion’s job is to explain why. They’re stories for us to live by to understand why life is the way it is.

When you combine the two, you really have a firm understanding of our existence on Earth, and Earth in general. I respect that, whatever you want to call it, a higher power is responsible for creating this mathematically perfect Earth that we inhabit, and everything that exists here is in a perfect balance in order for [life] to exist in the first place. [That line is] just being in awe of that, and at the same time understanding the science and the spirituality behind it.

TCUS: Here’s a line off “Own Appeal”: “The sun’s still shining off the same old lessons/
Then why does life feel like an educated guess and/
My thoughts are like meals, I’m a sucker for the seconds/ Impressions got a lot of us stressing/ But how we are perceived is more about a reflection.” Can you dig into those lines?

Oddisee: Well, it’s basically trying to explain that people make too many of their problems personal. The things [we] care about, [we] take personally, when in fact, if you look at humanity historically, we’ve been experiencing the same emotional trials and tribulations since the dawn of humanity – yet we always make ourselves out to believe that we’re special and unique in what we’re experiencing, when we’re not. There’s countless amounts of examples and experiences throughout time to let us know that most of us are just going in accordance to life itself, and nothing you really stress is that big of a deal. That’s a general philosophy of mine: I don’t really sweat too much of anything.

“My thoughts are like meals, I’m a sucker for the seconds” is meaning that I, too, am a victim of just being a human being and being a hypocrite, and not going with my first instincts, and second guessing things, and over-analyzing things. [That line is me] understanding that I also may be taking things personal that aren’t, simply because I second-guessed them, and I harbour on thoughts, and trying not to do so will make life a lot less stressful.

TCUS: Do you think it’s possible to permanently get out of that mind-frame? I mean, it’s so easy get caught up in thinking that everything is such a big deal.

Oddisee: I, for one, feel like I’m doing a pretty good job of it [laughs]. Yeah, I think it’s possible. I mean, different spiritualities and faiths call it different things – reaching different levels of consciousness – but yeah, just being self-aware is a start, and that’s not too difficult to do.

Oddisee Interview on The Come Up Show

TCUS: Here’s another line from that same song: “How you grade your self is the mark that will matter most/
To separate the heart of the strong and the battered folks.” Tell me about this line.

Oddisee: I feel like people live by other people’s standards all too often. When you, as an individual, live by someone else’s standards, you’re automatically setting yourself up for failure – [you’re setting yourself up] to be one of the battered people. Whereas the more you understand that your own standards are the only thing that matters, the stronger you’ll be, and the better you’ll be at pursuing and reaching your own standards. In the end, that’s all that really matters: not somebody else’s ideas of success, or wealth, or achievement – none of those things really matter as long as you, yourself, are content.

TCUS: How do you think that you came to learn these kinds of things? Do you attribute this all the way back to those summers in Khartoum, or are these things you’ve picked up along the way?

Oddisee: Honestly, it [goes] all the way back to those summers: seeing one side of my family, when I went back to Sudan, happy with eating beans practically every day. [They’d have] beans in the morning with eggs, beans in the afternoon with bread, and beans in the evening with some small piece of meat and something else. [Despite that, they were] significantly happier than a lot of people that I knew growing up in the Western world, and [they were] wearing flip-flops all day, all year long, not having a pair of shoes in the whole house. As long as the clothing was clean, nothing else really mattered.

Those things really, really stayed with me and shaped who I was when I came back home to Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is the wealthiest black county in the United States – and black people are the largest consumers in the United States, so you’re looking at the apex of consumption where I come from, where lot of African-Americans have a lot of money and consume a lot. People had Sunday cars, and everyone’s mom had a fur coat that she only wore to church on the weekends, and everybody skipped school to buy a pair of Jordans. Everybody had to have a haircut every week. Everybody had to have the newest this and the newest that, and [they] made fun of the kids who didn’t.

[Coming back, I] realized that none of that shit mattered at all, and most of those people today are not doing that well. And my life is a testament to that. I was living in that paradox of two worlds.

TCUS: What was it like to grow up having a foot in both worlds? How did you balance that?

Oddisee: I can’t consciously say I balanced it. I think I’m a product of my circumstances, and I know plenty of other Sudanese-Americans, or children with African parents, who when their children were raised in Western countries, would either dive head-in to the Western world or reject it completely and go to the Eastern world. I think I was just a perfect mix of the two to really have a balance.

I can’t say that I necessarily controlled the balance; I think it was more so just my circumstances, and being an artist helped me have an objective eye in my circumstances, versus being [led into] a world of academia that most African parents stress on their children. I don’t know if my perspective would have been the same. I do meet a lot of people who were first-generation Americans who have the same outlook as me, and then I meet a lot that don’t. I’m just a product of my circumstances, but I can’t say that I’m necessarily responsible for them.

TCUS: At what point did you know that you wanted to be an artist?

Oddisee: I knew I wanted to be an artist when people continuously told me that I should pursue it. It was a hobby for me, and then that hobby turned into an obsession, and that obsession turned into a career. It was put on me: people constantly telling me I should pursue it, and then I took that advice.

TCUS: I want to get into a few more lyrics. This one’s from “Interlude Flow.” You rap, “Lord knows you can’t have the sweet without the bitter/
The nose bleed seats will help you see the bigger picture.” Can you dig into this?

Oddisee: I think we live in a generation today where people want to expedite stardom and shooting to the top, and [don’t understand] that the struggle and the ups and downs are what make everything worth it. It makes you value when you do have something. Again, back to my upbringing, so much of my music is based around that. It’s when you see that struggle that you understand a series of things, that in order to have happiness in the world that we exist in – especially in a capitalist country like the United States – it’s at the price of somebody else, so your sweetness is at the price of someone else’s bitterness oftentimes.

“Friends of mine is mad that they never made it/
The saddest state of affairs, cause they haven’t covered the basics.” – Oddisee in “Tangible Dream”

Also, it’s the price of your own. You have to struggle in order to pursue something, and anyone can relate to that, whether it’s long hours studying for exams, or putting in more than 40 hours [a week] at a new job to be noticed, or staying up all night working on music. There has to be a bit of sacrifice in order to get what you want out of life.

TCUS: What about in your own experience? At what point did you feel the furthest away from your dream?

Oddisee: Well, I haven’t really ever been far away from it, to be honest with you. I can’t really relate to that. Once I knew this is what I wanted to do, I kept it close. People have tried to discourage me or tell me things, but I’ve never cared about what they said.

“I used to have a higher tolerance for when people be talking shit/ Now I just put ’em on mute when they cursin’.” – Oddisee in “Back of My Mind”

TCUS: Here’s a line from “Tomorrow Today”: “The lesser me ain’t worthy of existing in the present/
That brother had me messing with some shit that had me stressing.” Tell me about that line.

Oddisee: It comes from when I wasn’t living up to my own musical expectations. I got caught up with a lot of trying to please [other] people around me, and help out other artists’ careers, and juggle too many things, and being a jack of all trades but a king of none. I also worked so much, musically, that I neglected a lot of my family members and my personal life, [including] my girlfriend at the time. They suffered during that period.

I gained a lot of weight at one point, because I worked so hard. I ate [once] a day, around 5, and then just worked until I passed out. I didn’t go outside; I didn’t do anything; I didn’t have a social life. Those things became stressful. My mom was complaining that she never saw me; my girlfriend was complaining that I never did anything with her, my friends were asking me why I’m not doing more for them; I wasn’t eating right; and one day I just had an epiphany that I wasn’t living up to my maximum potential, and I changed all of that.

TCUS: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Oddisee: Never ask anybody to do anything for you that you can’t do yourself, or at least have a firm understanding of. When you ask someone to do something for you without having any understanding of it, you don’t get the results you want. You’re more inclined to blame people for things that are your own fault, whether that be the marketing of a record or tour, or an album cover, etcetera.

If you don’t have an understanding of whatever it takes to create graphic work, or how many phone calls and interviews your booking agent has to go through in order to secure a show for you, or what your label has to do to hire a publicist, and the content that you have to deliver yourself in order for that publicist to properly work your album, then all you do is complain and blame the label for a lack of sales, or blame the label for the fact that your viewership or hits aren’t large enough, or blame your booking agent for the fact that you’re getting enough shows, or paid enough.

You start to point a finger at everyone else, but when you have a firm understanding of what other people’s jobs are, you can help assist them to getting where you want to be, and you’ll become more successful as a result.

TCUS: What’s the next project you’re working on right now?

Oddisee: When I finish this tour, I’m gonna go home and work on my next solo album. I’m [also] going to do an album with my band Good Company – we’re going to do a live album.

TCUS: What about as far as Mello Music Group goes? What’s next for the label?

Oddisee: Mello Music will continue to release quantity and quality, simultaneously. [It] will continue to break new artists, support artists that have created a cult following for themselves, and continue to give fans really good projects consistently. That’s what we do best, and we’ll continue to do so.

TCUS: Final question: what do you want your legacy to be?

Oddisee: [Laughs] I was just asked that question earlier today. I want my legacy to be of an artist who worked for himself and made his own definition of success, and lived to it without compromising his music. That’s what I want my legacy to be.

TCUS: Any final words from you?

Oddisee: Thank you for listening to my music, and I hope everyone continues to do so.

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