Producer-Emcee Oddisee Talks Branching Out In 'The Beauty In All'


Last spring, producer-emcee Oddisee stayed at his Brooklyn apartment for eight weeks straight, the longest he'd lingered since he relocated from Largo, Maryland, in 2010. There, as he completed his new album The Beauty In All -- which drops today with free mixtape Tangible Dream -- he felt freer as an artist to roam.

Born Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, Oddisee cut his teeth as a part of D.C. throwback rap trio Diamond District, evolving into a flagship artist for rising independent hip-hop label Mello Music Group. Around that time, he started dabbling with instrumental albums, releasing his first such record, appropriately titled Instrumental Mixtape Volume One.

In 2011, though, he started getting rankled by a common problem among other rap producers: having his original sounds passed over in favor of mass-produced ones. You see, emcees are often keen on scoring a surefire hit, so they feel more comfortable with the off-the-rack sounds than trying something new -- something like what Oddisee had to offer.

So Oddisee decided to stop waiting around for rappers to buy or cop his songs, instead dropping Rock Creek Park, an instrumental album named after the Maryland park he first visited as child. There, he picked up where jazz-funk group The Blackbyrds left off with their 1975 hit "Rock Creek Park," marking a sublime departure for the boom bap-oriented artist. The kicker: Soon after its release, Oddisee received word that higher-profile rappers like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar had bought, if not rapped to Rock Creek Park.

Beauty In All is Oddisee's latest words-free effort. The lead single "Lonely Planet," cues serrated blips to cut through loops of aqueous synths -- a happy medium between Rock Creek Park and its schizophrenic predecessor Odd Seasons, and a surefire sign that if you can't beat 'em, do your own thing. "I just went in and knew fully well that now I'm in a position where no matter what I make, there's gonna be somebody that likes it," Oddisee says.

Calling from a tour pit stop in Seattle, Oddisee spoke with Hive about his beat-making process, his travels and the biggest reason why The Beauty In All comes with a free rap mixtape, Tangible Dream.

You write lyrics outside. Do you have a similar routine for beat-making?

Sometimes I actually make beats outside. I make all of my beats on my laptop, so as long as I got a charged battery, I'm good for a few hours. For my Odd Seasons record, the majority of the "Odd Spring" portion was produced outside on the back porch of my friend Richie's place.

The Beauty In All -- it's been done since about late spring of this year. I spent eight weeks straight in New York. I'd never spent that much time at one consecutive period in New York before. Then I went on the road. I toured the whole summer, doing shows and festivals. I worked on my mixtape Tangible Dream in Berlin and I finalized it out here in Seattle, where I am right now. I just finished the record last night.

Do you see your travels reflected in your music?

Totally. Everywhere I go leaves an imprint on the music. Berlin was really, really interesting. I stayed in a majority Turkish-Muslim neighborhood, and I found myself soaking up the local culture, eating the local food and doing my best to live like a Berliner. It's all about riding to Prague and not paying for the subway. I was hopping off trains, getting off and walking around, writing rhymes.

I love learning the history that Berlin has to offer, especially between the east and west. Their immigrant population has a really amazing story of how they came in to help rebuild the country after World War II and how many of them were disliked by right-wing conservatives from Germany. I can relate to that, being a Sudanese immigrant coming into the United States and the struggle you go through being Muslim in the Western world. A lot of that plays into my music.

A press release says that The Beauty In All celebrates "the flaws and mistakes that give life its character and worth." Can you give a real-life example?

I dabble in photography. That's where I get a lot of my influences for music, where I snap images of things that visually represent what I want to do musically. I was walking around Berlin, listening to music that I was writing to, and I come across this window on this ground-level apartment. The window has a massive crack, and right inside the frame was just filthy -- it had been neglected -- but behind the glass was some of the most beautiful plants I had ever seen. Whoever lived there had such an amazing green thumb. And then I thought to myself, "Would I have noticed the plants if I didn't see the massive crack?" So to me it was the crack, the imperfection in the window, that made me see what was beautiful behind it.

Walking around Berlin and seeing the Roman Egyptian population and what they do to make a living there and how below the poverty line they seem and how happy they are, it's almost as if they choose to live a life like that. We really don't have that in the States, but I really observe them a lot, all through France, Germany and other places in Europe. I kind of saw the beauty in their lifestyle. It's not one that I would choose myself, but their story ties way into my music.

I hear The Beauty In All as a happy medium between Odd Seasons and Rock Creek Park. Do you view it differently?

I don't think it's something that's totally different. I work in sittings, I work in moods where I extract a little more and more from straight-up classical, and I just go through different theories. So definitely, the themes of my music will always be recurring. With The Beauty In All, I feel as if it's a mix between a lot of my previous instrumental records, combined into one. I did a lot of live instrumentation on Rock Creek Park, and on The Beauty In All I stripped it down to be friendlier to MCs rhyming on it.

There's more room to add vocals.

Exactly. And I knew that I wanted to pair a mixtape with my next instrumental release for some time now. Rock Creek Park was an instrumental album, then [his 2012 debut solo rap album] People Hear What They See was a vocal album, so then I wanted to do an instrumental and vocal release at the same time. I kind of wanted them to reflect each other, so you kind of have to listen to both records for them to make sense.

That's cool that you've had that idea in mind for a while.

For some time I've been wanting to show the world that I'm an emcee-producer. I take both seriously.

What's a major difference that fans will hear between The Beauty In All and your other instrumental albums?

The focus of this record isn't really about major differences. It's about a moment in time. It's a period where I was in my life and what I was reflecting on and and the types of ways I was feeling at that particular time. When making The Beauty In All I'm not saying to myself, "It has to be better than Rock Creek Park" or, "It has to be extremely different from Rock Creek Park." When I made Rock Creek Park I was walking around Central Park. It hit me how much I missed Rock Creek Park, and I went home and I started making a record. The Beauty In All came about the same way. It's more just about a period. I can only hope that people can relate to it.

It's more like a photograph.

Totally. I'm a very visual person. I always take in what I see and create my own interpretations of it. My instrumental albums and vocal albums all follow those same guidelines -- I'm seeing visually and doing my best to interpret that through my music. It's pretty different to do it lyrically and doing it through instrumentals, and I do my best to do both.

Oddisee's album The Beauty In All is out October 1 via Mello Music Group.