For most of his career, Amir "Oddisee" Mohamed has lived in relative obscurity. Few of his newer fans are even aware that Oddisee has been putting out music for over a decade. Whether on the production tip or contributing vocals to the Low Budget Crew, the Washington, D.C. producer/rapper has had a hand in more than 10 projects over the years.
So when he finally dropped his first official solo album, People Hear What They See, back in June of this year, its excellence should have come as no surprise. The record scored overwhelmingly positive reviews and ended up on our list of the Best Albums of 2012 (So Far). With his lyrical prowess on full display, Oddisee’s debut features his keen observations on topics like greed, superficiality in relationships, and life in the tough streets of D.C.
While People Hear What They See is winning him new listeners, many people still have no idea who Oddisee is—but he doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he prefers it that way. Working behind the scenes has been a part of his plan since the beginning. Still, it was only right for us to pull the curtain back a bit. We got down with the Mello Music Group signee to talk about deleting his Wikipedia page, his unorthodox business plan, and how he got to be so damn smart.
Interview by Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm)
Complex: What’s it like having People Hear What They See receive so much critical acclaim?
Oddisee:It’s a great feeling for me. It’s just always nice to know that your work is being received well. Truthfully that’s only indicator that an artist can have that the music is good, is validation. Now of course that’s a bit controversial, of course it’s up to the artist whether they like their own music or not. But when you’re in the business of selling music, validation means that you’re doing a good job. So it’s definitely appreciated.
I wrote the lyrics to People Hear What They See outdoors because unless I do something to make myself go outside, I seldom have to leave my home.
How did the album come together?
My studio is my home. I’ve never really been an artist who’s had the luxury of having some elaborate studio to go to with an engineer at my disposal or anything of the sort. So I’ve always been comfortable in my home environment to create music.
I think that was one of the driving forces on why I wrote the lyrics to People Hear What They See outdoors because unless I do something to make myself go outside as far as for my music, I seldom have to leave my home to do it. So all of the lyrics for People Hear What They See were written outside.
What was that process like, writing outside? Did you just sit in your backyard?
I strolled around. I write in my phone. I have been writing in my phone for some time. So I kind of just strolled around until I visually saw things that made me want to write. That’s where the title of the album comes from. Everything that I saw, I wrote about so people could hear.
“American Greed,” for instance, was written on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. “The Need Superficial,” a song about wanting women for superficial reasons, was written in the back of a nightclub just observing men and women courting each other. And the list goes on of places I was where I wrote the songs.
So yeah, most of the songs were written outdoors, the beats were produced at home. The vocals were all recorded in my home studio. It was all mixed in my home studio. The artwork was done by friends. It’s very organic, just a family kind of environment that the record was born in.
It was a very stress-free record to be honest with you. I took my time with it and was very relaxed. Everything that I am is just constantly represented throughout the album, whether it be the artwork or the production or the mix or the vocals, where the vocals were written, they’re all reflections of who I am and what I am.
Would you come right home after writing and jump right into the booth to record your verse?
No. I literally sat in the back and wrote as I was observing things. I actually didn’t record a single track until every track was written. I wanted to have a congruency with the record the same way you would have with the song. With the song, I don’t like to record one verse today and the next verse the next day, I like to record in one session. With the album, so I could have the same voice and the same feeling, I waited until I wrote every single track before I recorded the first one so that the whole album would feel like one song.
Was writing outside something you’ve ever done before?
It was something new that I wanted to try out, but since then I prefer to do my writing outside. I find I get a clear head, and when I’m inside I’m more tempted to make beats or do admin or other things. So I like to just put the instrumentals in my phone and just go out and walk where I can’t have access to doing a lot of other things involved with my art.
Let’s move backwards a little bit. A lot has been made of your move in high school from the wealthier Prince George’s County to the tough streets of D.C. What was that like for you and for your music?
The move from Prince George’s County to D.C. wasn’t a very big one for me mentally, to be honest. One half of my family lives in D.C., the other half of my family lives throughout the world. My dad is Sudanese, my mom is African-American. My mother and her whole side are born and bred in D.C. It was my father who moved to Prince George’s County after immigrating to the states and coming to D.C. shortly after I was born.
But my parents divorced, so I grew up half of my week in D.C., half of my week in Prince George’s County for school. When I moved, I moved to a neighborhood where a lot of my family is from and that I spent a lot of time in. So it wasn’t much of a shock there. I moved to New York about a year and a half ago.
Prince George’s County is an extension of D.C. to be honest with you. Unless I told you we crossed the border, there are parts of it you wouldn’t even know you left the city. It’s kind of the same culture, the same accent, same food, same music, etc. My move to New York definitely changed a lot of my focus and my business sense changed a lot.
I will say that moving to D.C., it was right in the same time where I had a mental shift. But not because I moved, it was just a coincidence that at that time my mind kind of shifted toward thinking about music with a lot more of a business sense and using a lot of the things that I’d learned over my career and applying them directly to my own artistry, applying them to my own marketing.
I used to tour and book my own tours and I did my own tours through MySpace and kind of looking back at that and saying, ‘Wow, what did I do there?’ Then realizing that that was direct to fan marketing.
What did that involve?
That involved, like when I started off touring, I used to tour and book my own tours and I did my own tours through MySpace and kind of looking back at that and saying, ‘Wow, what did I do there?’ Then realizing that that was direct to fan marketing. These are things that I was doing subconsciously, I didn’t know that it was an actual term. I don’t think the term existed yet when I started doing it.
Communicating with fans directly online, showing personality, running a transparent business to show people that their dollars actually contribute to me making the music that they want to listen to. All of the things that have come into play to make me what I am today, I started consciously realizing what I was doing around the time I moved to D.C. I think that that definitely made a change, and it just happened at that time.
You have a large body of work prior to People Hear What They See that casual Oddisee fans may not know about. Why do you think this project has caught on so much more than your earlier work?
To be honest with you, that was all by design. The reason why it took me quite a while in my career to put out a solo record is because I wanted the buzz to be right to capitalize off of it. I didn’t want to use my solo album as yet another piece of promotional material.
I’m quite conscious of how much of my discography is unknown to my fans. It’s, in all honesty, intentional on my behalf. I don’t make an effort with every release to familiarize people with my previous releases for several reasons. It gives you a longevity if you’re constantly being discovered by a new audience. It gives you a long shelf life.
I’m constantly associated in categories of "up and coming" based on people only getting exposed to my newest record or maybe the record before. It allows me when I’m touring to get put on bills with a lot of breaking artists and at the same time get billed with a lot of legends. It’s my little secret, and I prefer it that way.
A lot of people don’t understand that philosophy, but there’s longevity in obscurity. With me it’s all intentional. If people don’t know about a lot of my records, I don’t want them to.
If you leave it up to the listeners and the fans simply based on how many records you put out, I have a fear of them being too familiar with me and not having the level of excitement I want them to with every release. So I would rather acquire a new fan base with every record versus collecting fans along the way.
I feel like I’ve done a good job of both. My core audience consists of fans who’ve been there for multiple records but a lot of the fans that when I go and do shows... every year I go out to tour in Europe and the States and the crowd is full of hundreds of people, and they’re new fans. I don’t recognize the faces from years before. There are a few who I’m like ‘Oh man you’ve been at every show since I’ve been coming to your city.’
Without fail, when I go to my merch table at the end of the show, there are fans there who say ‘So is this your first time in Berlin?’ ‘Actually, I’ve been to Berlin eight, nine times.’ ‘Really?’ And I love that. I don’t want that to change in any city that I go to. It’s all my business sense. It’s very unorthodox, it’s not the norm. If you look, I don’t think I have a Wikipedia page, and I get it taken down anytime someone puts it up. I don’t want a long history.
You’re incredibly observational and detailed in your music, from your commentary on street life to admiring a woman strictly for superficial reasons. You mention influences like Rakim and A Tribe Called Quest, but what else drove you to rhyme like that?
Growing up in D.C., my mother is a big reason behind me having an inquisitive mind and being a critical thinker. I think that’s the difference, a lot of people aren’t just critical thinkers. I think I got that from my mother because she constantly just fed me knowledge. She read me a lot of poetry, a lot of literature.
She wasn’t a very wealthy woman—in fact she was not well off at all. She comes from one of the roughest places in Washington, D.C., but had always dreamed bigger. Her dreams were kind of squashed by reality to be honest with you, and she wanted me to have better.
A lot of my weekends were spent in the Smithsonian museums which are all free in D.C. But there are activities there that my mother could take me to without having to spend money. But I didn’t know know that growing up and I loved it.
I was in every museum all the time. You get to a certain age where you can’t really read the little placard on the side, and then even if you can you don’t have a vocabulary and when you get the vocabulary you don’t really have the understanding.
So my mother was always breaking things down to me in elementary and layman's terms, and never shied away from when I asked why. You know a lot parents eventually hit their limit. She never shied away from that. So I always dove deeper and always asked why and always looked around, and my mother loved explaining the city to me from when she was a child and how it changed over the years.
Then I saw it change over the years and always asked why and I always came to some sort of logical answer, whether that be progress, whether it be gentrification, whether it be violence, the economy going up and down, I always understood why things happen and understood change. Never just looked at it and noticed a building was here today and gone yesterday, there was a reason why. My mother loves trivial knowledge and I inherited that from her. I love useless facts and trivial knowledge. I’m obsessed with it.
My dad was Muslim and my mother was Christian. So a big reason why I ask 'Why'a lot is I wanted to know why my parents believed in two different faiths. Why both of them were telling me I was going to burn in hell if I listened to the other.
Also, my father being from North Sudan and my mother being African-American, my dad was Muslim and my mother was Christian. So a big reason why I ask 'Why'a lot is I wanted to know why my parents believed in two different faiths. Why both of them were telling me I was going to burn in hell if I listened to the other. I really wanted to know why I was up shit's creek either way.
I started to understand that religion and politics and society were really intertwined more than people looked at. I spent a lot of my summers in Sudan. most of them, from the age of 6 to 18, every summer I was sent back to Sudan because my dad didn’t like me around in PG and D.C. It was really rough in the '80s and the '90s.
Understanding the changes on a third world country to a first world. Why my mother’s side, a lot of them lived in the ghettos and couldn’t rise above generation after generation, and why my dad’s side a cousin could come over and in five years be a homeowner. Just constantly being forced to look at stark differences and come to conclusions.
So I’m strictly a product of my environment, A product of free museums in the capital—home of politics—going back and forth from a third world country to a first world country, going back and forth from an oppressive state to a democracy, going back and forth from my nice home in the suburbs to my mother's home in a rough part of town.
How did you get into rhyming? Did your unique life experiences play into it?
The musical aspect of hip-hop kind of came first and the social commentary came second. I had older cousins that were into hip-hop. I won’t name their names but they were dealers and they went back and forth to New York and came back and they had turntables and microphones in they rooms. And nobody else in D.C. that I knew of had those things.
Honestly, it was a lot of dealers that brought hip-hop to D.C. because of the New York connection through drug trafficking.
Honestly, it was a lot of dealers that brought hip-hop to D.C. because of the New York connection through drug trafficking. And a lot of the highways in Prince George’s County like Route 301 that goes from Baltimore to Maryland and Central avenue that goes from D.C. to Maryland and where those two places meet were kind of a crossroads for a lot of drug trafficking.
I used to sit up in my cousin's place and just be amazed by two turntables and microphones, speakers on the walls. We would freestyle and I’d joke around with my cousins but took nothing serious.
When my father moved to Prince George’s County, we were next-door neighbors with the bass player from Parliament Funkadelic, Garry Shider. He had a full studio in his basement, so we used to grow up going over to his house and messing around with his sons in the studio and just making beats and looping tracks, etc.
My dad plays oud, it’s a traditional Sudanese guitar and my mother sings, my grandmother plays keys and sings in church—all of her cousins, all of her brothers, my great uncles are guitar players and play blues and country music from way out in the country in Maryland. Music was always around, and freestyling and playing keyboard and looping up tracks and drum machines.
When I got in high school that’s when I started to really freestyle and rhyme and battle rap with my friends. The upperclassmen took a liking and an interest in me, and one in particular, a guy named Sean Born, who was also a product of the drug trafficking meets hip hop because he lives in Queen Anne, that’s where 301 and Central Avenue meet, and he got into hip-hop that same way.
He had an MPC. Again, these things are uncommon for the Mid-Atlantic region because we’re not quite northerners and we’re not quite southerners. We have our own music which is go-go music. The east coast boom bap hip-hop kind of took a backseat to some of the southern hip-hop from Rap A Lot, like Geto Boys and Scarface and then 2Pac later on and then Three 6 Mafia and Master P. That was the type of music that held the hip-hop crown in D.C.
So we were always outcasted—the diggers, the MPC havers, etc. So Sean Born took a liking to me and I started recording tracks and he taught me how to make beats. I started making beats and then I really got into hip-hop after that and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
I made beats because I really didn’t have a lot of my own production, and I made rhymes because it was just something I just took a liking to. I’ve always loved music. Always. It was people around me that validated me and told me, ‘You’ve got a knack, you’ve got something for this, you should pursue it.’ We all look for that thing that when we do it, we get a reaction from it. I got a reaction out of it and that’s why I pursued it.
How old were you when you were with your cousins?
I was a little kid man. It wasn’t too much hanging out. It was just in the house. I don’t know. How old was I? Like, 8, 9, 10 years old I guess.
How has producing helped you become a better MC and vice versa?
Being a producer for numerous reasons has been good for me. One, it’s a lot more lucrative to be a producer. It’s a lot easier to sell beats than it is rhymes. I have several tracks on several different artists’ albums at the same time. But it’s a lot more difficult to do that with verses or lyrics in general.
Selling beats and putting out tracks for other artists has allowed me to comfortably fund my career to explore other avenues of my artistry. Selling beats has allowed me the time to walk around writing rhymes during the middle of the day, and not have to get a 9 to 5. That’s definitely due to selling beats.
A background in production gives you a completely different perspective on how to tackle a track, how to rhyme on the beat. It teaches you that certain beats are for you and certain beats aren’t. I think a lot of purebred MCs, simply because they’re in love with their own voice and their rhymes, fall victim to believing that they can rhyme over everything. It’s not necessarily about having a dope beat and a dope rhyme. There could be genius lyricists and an incredible beat and they think that that’s going to make a great song. That may not be what makes a great song. It’s a marriage between a beat and rhyme. They have to complement each other.
There could be genius lyricists and an incredible beat and they think that that’s going to make a great song. That may not be what makes a great song. It’s a marriage between a beat and rhyme. They have to complement each other.
I think MC/producers understand that more so than pure producers and pure emcees. A lot of times I hear pure producers who pitch beats to me. They don’t understand that you have to leave room for an artist to complete it. The vocals from an MC are another instrument. They’re the lead instrument. You have to let that lead instrument take preference. And a lot of pure producers don’t understand that, and a lot of emcees don’t understand layers and instrumentation and subtlety.
I think a producer/MC really understands both. Just continuity in general for a whole album, sequencing and arranging a record, and having that record have a climax and having that record have an outro and an intro and just the overall feel of it and attaching emotion to it. Vocals deliver emotion. Beats deliver emotion. When you’re an MC/producer, you really tackle emotion on both angles and both aspects.
Of course MC/producers never get the respect they deserve as MCs. It’s always good for a producer. And that’s something with People Hear What They See—I really wanted to shake [things] up. I don’t think you can say, personally, I don’t think you can say that I’m "good for a producer." I think you have to rate me as both on this record.
What’s next for Oddisee after the success of this latest project?
I’m always open to talk about the future and future projects, just not the past ones. Up next I want to do a compilation. The compilation is going to be called Good Company.
The theme behind the record is kind of like a tree tracing back to how I know all these individual artists and how we met. The artwork will be kind of a tree dialogue thing showing how I’m connected to all of the artists and how they’re connected to each other. A lot of the people that I’m personal friends with that I’ve been wanting to collaborate with, I want to throw them all on a record.
I’m in London now, I’m working on an instrumental album out here. I haven’t decided on the title or the theme, I’ve just been producing a lot of beats that’s just been coming to me and I’ll theme it later. This year I’ll probably drop a mixtape towards the end of the year because I fear that when you drop an album as early into the year as I have, you tend to be forgotten towards the end of the year. I don’t want my record or myself and the steam I’ve built up to be forgotten.
So I think I’ll drop a mixtape towards the end of the year, just to remind people what I’ve done this year. As far as free projects, a mixtape, as far as projects for sale, I’ll probably drop a compilation and an instrumental album.
Are you worried that your business strategy will be derailed with the success of People Hear What They See?
I’m actually not worried about it at all to be honest with you. My business plan is only necessary for an indie artist who is constantly in that category of being an underground, under-the-radar artist. If I was to ever get to the point where I have tons of recognition, I would no longer have to play that game to maintain longevity.
I’ve seen people asking why am I not on the [XXL Magazine] freshman list? I hear that from a lot of my peers. I want to keep it that way.
The plan that I use, as far as keeping myself fresh, is so that I’ll have the opportunity to blow up. If you’re around for a long time, the chances of you catching on and catching fire, it kind of dwindles over the years if it hasn’t happened already. I think the only chance you stand of getting to where People Hear What They See is, is if you kind of remain obscure for as long as possible.
There are a lot of artists who have been in the game as long as me, but people deem them as having too many miles on them. While I’ve been in the game, I’ve seen people asking why am I not on the [XXL Magazine] freshman list? I hear that from a lot of my peers. I want to keep it that way. But the minute I am on the freshman list, then the game plan switches.
Also check out Oddisee on Complex TV's The Process below.