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.