The independent option: Oddisee does hip hop his way

Oddisee is coming to town. He’s the classic independent hip hop artist, making his own music for the last 20 years and running his own label now, avoiding the temptations of big-money promoters and organising his own promotion. In a time when hip hop is often reduced to clichés and repetitive production, Oddisee remains a beacon of creativity and innovation. And if you think that’s OTT, check him out for yourself at The Arts Centre at NYUAD on 28 May.

Basically, the lyrics can sometimes get in the way: Oddisee is a musician who uses the style of hip hop – spoken word poetry, very little actual singing, fast wordplay, double-entendres, quirky rhymes and assonance – but will often let the melody do the work where others might feel the need to fill the space with verbal expression.

But then Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, aka Oddisee, is a pretty unusual rapper. He was born in Washington DC to a Sudanese father and African American mother, raised in the Maryland suburbs where he grew up with Parliament Funkadelic’s bass player Gary Shider as a neighbour, influenced by Black American Jazz traditions and the Golden Age of Hip-Hop sounds from his older American cousins, “listening to a little bit of everything” from his mother’s mother’s folk, soul and R&B to the music of Sudan, Egypt and the Middle East that came from his father. And he now lives in Brooklyn, epicentre of East Coast hip hop production. So it’s little surprise that Oddisee merges elements of jazz, funk, and go-go into his production.

Even so, it was always hip hop for him – a beat machine was his “weapon of choice”, and hip hop sounded like “it was made for me and for my time … it was very accepting to any and everyone who wanted to listen to it. You could see a reflection of yourself in this music”.

Way back at the start of his career, he told NPR that he related to East Coast emcees like Eric B & Rakim and groups like A Tribe Called Quest because their lyrics offered more than drugs and guns. That’s seen in mature writing that reflects the world he sees and explores the possibilities of the medium. “We hear of people like Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe being great American authors and writers,” he says. “But what we love about them is being displayed in rap times ten: double entendres, metaphors, similes, plays on words, the ability to use poetic devices. These are all standard mechanisms to create beautiful literature and poetry, which are executed on an Olympic level in rap music.”

He started in hip hop more than 20 years ago; and rather than pursue record deals and big-money marketing support, Oddisee has always taken a much more individualistic route, single-handedly recording, producing, and mixing his music, steering his own marketing strategy, managing his own tours. As Pitchfork put it recently, “as long as he can create how he wants, Oddisee has been content to exist on rap’s fringes. The Brooklyn-via-Washington DC rapper-producer has treated his independent music career like a small business long before that became the norm …” As he puts it on 2015’s ‘Belong to the World’, “Being overlooked did wonders for my esteem”.

In January he released a 20-track compilation album made up of “rough drafts, songs that had got cut previously and music I just didn’t think was good enough” under the title Odd Sketches, Vol. 1. He described that as a “therapeutic exercise just to see – am I crazy? Is this stuff good? Will anybody like it?”

We’ll probably get the chance to find out; his Abu Dhabi show will surely include some of this material, along with stuff from last year’s release, To What End – a rather fine mix of generally laid back hip hop with extended vocal stanzas and easy rolling beats plus a lot of guests and live instrumentation. There’s a track titled “Already Knew” that manages to summarise the best of Oddisee: the kind of live instrumentation that will inevitably sound really good live, the soulful, jazzy melody, and lyrics that draw lessons from personal experience: “Back when I stressed for a check, didn’t know I was blessed / Happy with a whole lot less, no way for me to know that yet / Put me to test when the world tried to put me to rest …” He learned the benefits of niche stardom, and parlays that into a message about self-confidence as well as self-reliance, hoping to be surprised by what you can find within yourself.

In Abu Dhabi, Oddisee will be performing with DJ Unown. Unown may not be too well known (boom tish) outside the hip hop community, but he’s a respected producer and DJ within the genre; hey certainly share a similar approach to music (as well as a background in Washington DC).

The support act is Jindi (right), probably the closest home-grown equivalent to Oddisee — there are stories in his songs, melodies that mix genres from funk to dancehall via Afrobeat. We’ll be getting pieces from his brand-new album, Reign & Fire (released 23 May and previewed in a storming gig at The Fridge a few days ago). The warm-up comes from the ever-reliable Big Hass and DJ Katt, known for his high-energy Afrobeat-and-house-music sets.

“It is great to have Oddisee ‘return’ to The Arts Center,” said Bill Bragin, Executive Artistic Director of The Arts Center at NYUAD. “We presented a virtual concert with him during the pandemic and are thrilled to finally host him live on our stage, along with one of the UAE’s leading Sudanese artists, Jindi. Jindi has been part of Numoo – The Arts Center’s program that fosters the growth of performers in the UAE and contributes to the development of the nation’s arts ecosystem – and has been a leading ambassador of the UAE’s grassroots scene to global stages.”

Oddisee plays The Arts Center’s Black Box theatre at 7.30pm on 28 May. Tickets are AED 105, which is a real bargain for a gig this good. The day before he’ll be talking about the DIY entrepreneurial approach that has built his career, covering some of the essential keys to artistic independence: building a brand, identifying markets, booking shows by yourself, developing relationships with promoters, and running your own label. That’s at 6.30pm on 27 May in the NYUAD Art Gallery Reading Room; it’s free, but you’ll need to request an invitation.

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