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Oddisee on Rap, Knowledge, and Hard Work

Speaking with the D.C.-area rapper about his great new album, ‘The Iceberg’

We often overlook how instructive hip-hop can be. Knowledge, the unofficial fifth element of the kulcha — in addition to the canonized quartet of MCing, DJing, tagging, and breaking — is arguably, as KRS-One would have it, the most important ingredient in any great hip-hop catalog. Whether it’s Rakim's impeccable diction, the Tribe’s linguistic soul circus, or the mythical personas that MF Doom inhabits and deconstructs, entire dimensions of thought and philosophy can float between beat and flow for all those willing to trip. Though the knowledge strain might not receive as much love these days as it used to, D.C.-area rap veteran Oddisee, 32, faithfully totes the banner for hip-hop's enlightened constituency with releases like his incisive new album, The Iceberg. "The whole metaphor for the title is about the encouragement of critical thinking," he says.

I reach Oddisee while he's on tour in the U.K., and I can hear the difference in our time zones when he answers the phone. It's early on a Tuesday, and despite some gruff in his voice, Oddisee seems to be in high spirits, and for good reason. He's just released his 11th studio album in a nearly two-decade career. After all those years, he can appreciate quieter moments. "I live a very stress-free lifestyle," he says. "I have little to no drama in my life."

Instead, Oddisee leaves the theatrics to his music. The Iceberg is full of snaking narratives and deft lyricism — two of his longtime hallmarks — all spread over a thoughtful combination of live-band sessions and break-beat samples. In a wonderful case of art imitating life, Oddisee is bursting with stories, concerns, and lengthy lessons that, in the mouths of more pretentious artists, might come off as condescending. But the native of Maryland's Prince George's County is more interested in knowledge of self than hubris. That difference is felt clearly in his music, which we discussed at length — along with a sprawl of other topics, including political and personal cynicism, musical misconceptions, and more.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

MTV News: Tell me about Prince George’s County, where you grew up. Is it still known as having a large wealth gap between its African-American residents?

Oddisee: More importantly, it’s known for being one of the most wealthy black areas in the United States. It’s one of the most affluent populations of African-Americans in the United States, and as a byproduct of that, being so close to D.C., there's also one of the largest gaps between rich and poor. So it’s created a strange dichotomy of wealth and prosperity and hardship at the same time.

I definitely hear that on The Iceberg. How has this dichotomy influenced you?

Oddisee: It’s a cliché at this point in rap, but I’m a product of my environment. What I experienced growing up makes its way into what I write about, into my music. [I grew up] in an area where there was a full spectrum of black identity, which is a rarity. Most black people in America don’t get necessarily as much access to seeing everything that they can be without it being inhibited by something else — some invisible wall, or some direct form of stagnation. But in Prince George’s County, you had no reason to think that you couldn’t do anything, because everyone was black just like you — the lawyers, the doctors, bus drivers, cashiers, police officers, the criminals. Everyone, full spectrum, was black. That definitely played a role in my music.

Your music is remarkable in the way it captures a realistic picture of your surroundings. How has your methodology of capturing that picture changed over time — or has it?

Oddisee: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s changed. It’s just having a keen eye and letting influence come to you in multiple forms — not only the form that you prefer. I let architecture influence me. I let soundbites from conversations on the street influence me. I let signage and graphic design in other cities influence me. I let the reactions of the crowds to the DJ that’s opening for me influence me. Just staying open to multiple aspects of influence has been a key ingredient to my methodology.

You have a song on Iceberg called “Built by Pictures,” where it feels like you're giving us all these snapshots of learning how to deal with finances and how to take on a vision. What inspired that?

Oddisee: “Built by Pictures” was a metaphor for how black people in America aren’t given the same instructional opportunities to succeed, therefore we have to look at an image of what success is and imitate it to the best of our abilities. Kinda like when you don’t have a manual and you have to assemble something, and you just look at the picture of what you’re trying to assemble. You assemble it, but there’s always a few screws left over — and you don’t know what those screws are for, but it works, so you just roll with it. Then you find out later down the line that those screws are what held it together, and it falls apart on you. It was a metaphor for the financial situation of African America, how we aren’t given the same instructional skills to what success really is. We’re just told, It looks like this, do your best to make it look like that too. I wish it was something as cool as being based on my love for photography, but unfortunately, it’s a lot more morbid. [laughs]

The past is so instructive in terms of black people wanting to create something bigger for themselves or have a safer community, and that whole notion being torn down by the state of our nation.

Oddisee: Sure. Misinformation makes you possess the largest buying power in the United States but own the least in the United States. It’s such a paradox. It’s mismanagement. Misuse.

On “Like Really,” you allude to the people looking at you as a voice. Do you think the people need a voice — and if so, is it you?

Oddisee: I think people do need a voice. I think people always have needed a voice. It almost seems innate in civilization that we need to appoint figures to represent us. Am I one of those figures? No, not necessarily. I don’t think anyone can be self-appointed. But for those that listen to me and tell me they appreciate what I have to say and that the words I choose help them — I do it for them. For me, that’s enough.

When I talk to people about your music, the word "cynical" sometimes comes up. But I always think of your music as more positive. The first song on your new album, “Digging Deep,” feels like it's distancing from anger — which is different from cynicism. What do you think about those two forces? How do we combat oppression without that anger?

Oddisee: Critical thinking. If we as a people slow down and take time to try to be more empathetic and understand why things are the way they are, view things from the perspective of another individual, we would have less reasons to be angry. I’m not an angry person at all. I’m relatively happy — but I am very cynical. I’ll say that. [laughs] And yeah, there is a difference, because cynicism doesn’t equate to anger or frustration. My cynicism comes from wanting to be proven wrong and not being, most of the time. That just comes from years. You can’t get this cynical unless you’ve got some years of seeing repetition.

When I listen to your music, I’m usually like, “This dude sounds wise.” But then when I look up how old you actually are, I think, Yo, he’s not that old!

Oddisee: I’ve seen a lot in a short amount of time. I definitely — and this isn’t something I’m bragging about — have seen a lot. My mother is from below the poverty line in black America, and my father is from [Sudan]. I’ve lived between the two, and it’s forced me to see a lot from a lot of different perspectives in a very short amount of time.

I want to talk about jazz for a second, because it seems like jazz has stuck with you over your entire career. Hip-hop has always been about bringing back those black musical traditions, but you’re inflecting your work with some jazz tones and some funk tones. Is that the influence of go-go?

Oddisee: OK, let’s talk about some real shit. Let’s dig deep. I don’t sample jazz records that much. In fact, most of my career has come from sampling more funk and soul music — not jazz. And I think that because popular music has become electronic for so long, the minute anyone has melody, chord progression, or uses real instruments in their music, the first buzzword that pops into people’s heads is “jazz,” or “jazzy.” I don’t agree with that, to be honest with you. I’m in a band with five musicians that come from jazz backgrounds, and they tell me constantly what jazz really is. And I’m not jazz to them. But to listeners of rap — if you went through the whole crunk era and transitioning into the trap era — I definitely sound like I’m jazz. I consider it musical. I consider it layered. I consider it very black, very African-American in its nature. But I don’t necessarily consider my music to be jazzy. I leave that up to fans to define it.

Go-go has definitely had an influence on my music. Go-go comes from funk. Chuck Brown comes from soul; soul comes from jazz. You can’t escape jazz when you talk about black music. You very rarely can escape jazz when you talk about any form of music that comes from America. But to credit everything that comes after it with being jazz, I think, isn’t the right definition of it. Tribe and the Native Tongues — these fellas were sampling Chick Corea, they were sampling George Duke. And although my music is of that vein, I'm not sampling a lot of jazz records.

So what is it that makes people hear you as "jazzy"? Is it just because of the melodies and chord progressions, like you said?

Oddisee: It comes from what music is popular now. It’s become a trend in R&B to not even harmonize. So if you’re a person like myself who likes chord progressions, melody, and harmony, the closest thing people know to that is jazz. But rock music will have melody and harmony and chord progressions, and just because you hear those things, you wouldn’t necessarily call it jazz. But, OK — black guy, live band, Fender Rhodes — it’s gotta be jazz! Clearly!

Of course. The Fender Rhodes gives it away.

Oddisee: Is he wearing some sorta earth-tone color? Oh, it’s gotta be jazz! This is the cynicism you were talking about. [laughs] It’s just black! I’m not jazzy, I’m just black!

OK, but you are doing some cool things with live instruments. What does your band, Good Company, add to your sound? I saw you last year in Toronto, and it seemed like people didn’t really understand what was going on.

Oddisee: It’s interesting that you say that. A lot of people come to me after shows and apologize to me for the crowd. They’ll say things like, “I’m sorry the crowd wasn’t moving, but we had a good time.” We paralyze crowds, man — like the one you witnessed in Toronto. They’re processing what they’re seeing. It’s so much information that they’re taking in from the sheer musicality. They’re enjoying it so much that the body somewhat shuts down. It’s not that they’re not having a good time, but we’re just not giving them the type of stage performance that allows you to turn your brain off and move around. It’s almost like a UFO coming toward you [that] pulls you into that light. The sensors in your brain are going off so much that your body almost shuts down.

The reason why I say that is because it’s the very same crowds that are paralyzed that [will] queue for an hour or an hour and a half that just wanna talk about their experience directly after [the show]. Dozens and dozens of people telling me they enjoyed the show, though it appeared that they didn’t. We put on a show where some people party, but the majority are so engaged that they’re just listening. It was something I was worried about in the beginning. I was worried we weren’t connecting to crowds, but I learned quickly that we connect with crowds in a completely different way. I’ve grown to appreciate it and expect it.

When you’re performing, are you mostly feeling the energy of the band and the music flowing through you? Have you stopped searching in the audience for that sort of energy?

Oddisee: Have you seen this documentary [series] on Netflix called Abstract by any chance? Check out Episode 1. Famous illustrator Christoph Niemann from Germany, he does covers for The New Yorker. It really touched me when I watched it. Niemann said, "Many creatives depend on bursts of creativity and reaction to create. [But] you really should consider it a job. You need to sit at your desk and stay there until something happens, because this is your job." I saw that documentary and that quote maybe two weeks ago, but it’s something I’ve been living by for quite some time. I cannot depend on the crowd's reaction to have a good show. It’s gotta come from within. I’ve got to show up and I’ve gotta go to work every night. That’s the best way for me to describe it: If I don’t go to work or do my job, I’ll be fired. So I can’t have an off day. I can’t be grumpy with my patrons or give them bad service. Or they’ll rate me on Yelp and I’ll get shut down.

Yo, those Yelp reviews mean so much to the chefs, man!

Oddisee: [laughs] Yeah. I gotta show up and do a good job, or I’ll be fired. And I think artists and creatives believe they can somehow escape that. They think that fans believe we’re above that. But we’re not. We’re at the mercy of our performance.

I’m still most passionate when I’m in the studio. I love it. Every day that I sit at my desk, it’s like the first time I made a beat. The feeling never goes away. I absolutely love it. The passion is right there, and I’m literally making music for the love of making music when I’m in my studio working. Now, once that album is done, that hat is taken off and it’s replaced by another — it’s replaced by, How can I market this record? How can I maximize the exposure? What are my constraints, budget, and reach? How can I make a living from what I’ve created? So I create out of passion and promote out of interest.