I see who I am as a point of strength, says Sudanese-American rapper Oddisee
Ever dreamed of living like a hip-hop act just for one day? Well, now you can experience what that might be like.
Oddisee’s new album, The Odd Tape, is his own personal theme music, “an audio version of a day in the life from the moment I wake up, to sleeping, the things I’ll encounter. What would the music sound like?”
That really depends on which day you catch him, as this elegant, eloquent musician is hardly living the stereotypical hip-hop life. He spits lyrics but also gives lectures, hangs with high-finance relatives in the UAE, but slept on floors during his first European tour. As a child, he even experienced a civil war.
Oddisee, aka Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, manages his career in an actively prolific fashion: “I make an instrumental record and a vocal record every year,” he says. Most of them are concept albums, born from a “light bulb” moment, “a blueprint that already exists before I start making the record. I work a lot faster with a theme”.
This new instrumental album takes us from Alarmed to Still Sleeping via a hugely accomplished array of styles – from sharp, fresh beats to tracks reminiscent of the jazzy movie soundtracks of Bernard Herrmann and Lalo Schifrin. The tone is refreshingly feel-good, although his next vocal record should be darker. “I think my lyrics are getting increasingly heavy,” he says. “I’m always walking a line to make sure my music isn’t chastising, turning into preacher music. But, nevertheless, the climate we’re living in today, there are things that simply need to be said.”
El Khalifa was born in Washington DC to a Sudanese father and African-American mother, and “felt out of place as a child, but not anymore,” he says. “Who I am, I actually see it as a point of strength.”
It certainly affords him a powerful perspective. “I’m an African, I’m an Arab, I’m a Muslim, I’m American – at any point in any place in the world I’m hated for numerous reasons,” asserts the now Brooklyn-based rapper. “I’m hated in the east for being American, or hated in America for being black, or being African, or hated in Europe for being Muslim. So I’ve definitely got a unique experience. I relate to a lot of people who experience a lot of adversities.”
That includes being Arabic in America, right now. His last vocal EP, AlWasta, featured the track Lifting Shadows, on which el Khalifa rapped passionately that “I got a name that’ll scare all the brave in the land of the free.” He then slyly name-dropped a particularly divisive politician in a verse about the little-heard Muslims who help keep America running: “fear don’t trump your needs.”
While touring Europe last year el Khalifa met truly desperate refugees, children torn from burnt villages, and could empathise. His father escaped war-ravaged Sudan in 1976, but returned with young Amir regularly. “Sudan seemed an occupied state: military police patrolling the streets, secret police, tanks,” he recalls. “AK47s, child soldiers. I witnessed those things, as a child.”
He was perilously close to one of that country’s most notorious post-war incidents, when bombs reportedly intended for an Al Qaeda base destroyed “a penicillin factory, and I remember the bombs going off in the middle of the night, the smoke coming out. I was there.”
That was 1998. A few years on, el Khalifa would begin rapping, producing, and refusing to accept the industry norms. “I guess I was one of those people to question why?” he says. Indeed, his questioning approach would change the way that many hip-hop artists operate. Oddisee’s early mixtapes won him some enthusiastic followers in Europe, which the live-booking industry ignored. So he bypassed the regular channels and arranged his own trip, sleeping on floors, working the web, and winning new fans at established hip-hop clubs. And he toured in winter, which “no one else was doing,” he says. “Now they realise it’s a market. By 2010 it was over-saturated with American rappers coming to Europe three or four times a year.”
Perhaps he should have kept that method quiet? “Maybe.”
So influential was this DIY idea approach that el Khalifa continues to give university lectures espousing the direct-to-fan business model. Nowadays his touring is a little more polished, though, and particularly memorable was a show in Dubai late last year. “Three of my uncles work in banking in the UAE, and all their family live there,” he says. “They’re all over the country; Dubai, Abu Dhabi.”
So, no sleeping on floors on that trip?
“The gig was in a hotel anyway,” he laughs. “It’s nice, I had a lot of Sudanese support in the audience. Everything was unique about that day.”
An Odd Tape of that 24 hours would really be something.
• The Odd Tape is out now on Mello Music
Updated: June 20, 2016 04:00 AM