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Interviewed by
Martyn Pepperell
Wednesday 16th October, 2013 10:03AM

Calm, articulate and collected, Oddisee (government name: Amir Mohamed) is one of the shining lights of the independent American hip-hop scene. Raised by Sudanese and American parents between Washington DC and Khartoum, he approaches his work as a rapper, beatmaker, remixer and music consultant with a considered sense of low key cool, and the worldliness that comes from having been part of, and been exposed to the larger world from a young age. 

Initially informed by his father's Oud playing, New York hip-hop and gospel music, since 2002 Oddisee has gone on to perform with The Roots, produce for Freeway, Jazzy Jeff, Little Brother, De La Soul and Nikki Jean, rap on production from Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke and Kev Brown, from the critically loved trio Diamond District with fellow Washingtonians X.O. and yU. As focused on the business side of things as he is on his art, through his own multifaceted endeavours and his association with Mello Music Group, he's been sustaining himself off music since 2006, and building a tasteful global profile and release portfolio in the process. 

In New Zealand this month to work with local singer/beatmaker Estère as part of the Redbull Prodigy Program, Oddisee is also playing two live shows in Wellington and Auckland. Martyn Pepperell spoke with him about making a living as a musician, travel, the ways in which we perceive time, globalisation, and the impact and presence of hip-hop internationally.  

The first work I ever remember hearing from you, and being aware that it was from you, was on Muneshine's Status Symbol album, which Sam Dutch from Grindin Music released in Australia and New Zealand. Could you tell us how that happened?

Wow. I don't even know when I did that record. Muneshine hit me up for a verse, I liked the track, and I went and recorded a verse for it, then it was released. To be honest, beyond that, I have no memory of that particular song. I don't even know what year that was. Your guess is as good as mine, if it's in my discography, it's in my discography. I've made so much music that sometimes I have no idea man [laughs].

Tell me about where you were at in 2008 as an artist and an entertainer?

I've always had an objective of making a living from music and being able to sustain myself from music. Expanding from that point, I've been doing that since 2006. I've been making an absolute living off, and sustaining myself off music since then. The only difference between then and now is the amount of music that I have put out, and the amount of people that know about it. But me, myself as an individual and what it is that I do musically? I can't say I have deviated from that much. I am a relatively consistent and habitual person. 

The next way I encountered your music was through J-Live. He came and performed in New Zealand. While he was here he did a radio interview with Nick D, and your name came up a lot. 

I produced a track for him called 'The Upgrade', it featured Pos from De La Soul. J-Live has been a long-time friend of mine. He was one of the first artists to take me on tour with him. I learned a lot from him about the independent hustle, and the overall way to navigate in the industry. He gave me a lot of valuable lessons as a friend. 

The independent hustle, making a lot of music, doing a lot of shows, how central has this been to your sustainability? 

For me to make a decent living from independent hip-hop, or independent music in general, I find that you can't really do one thing. So from touring, to production, to releasing albums, to licensing, and all other aspects that pay you to be a musician, I make a living. All of those things combined afford me a pretty comfortable life. 

The next time I remember your music really jumping in my face was when you released the Travelling Man instrumental album. My friend Jaz72 runs a music blog called Cold Rock Da Spot, and he was massively excited about that record. Could you tell us about it?

I had been on the road, around the world, and really started producing more on the road than I did at home. My studio became consolidated, I was a lot more portable, and I was making music on the road a lot more, which is what I do to this day. So that record was to pay homage to a lot of the places I was when I was making music. It was about the impressions those cities gave me musically. It was just my interpretations of my travels at the time.

How important do you think having the freedom to create music on the road has been to you in the years following?

It's been wonderful. It allows me to continue to tour, but for the most part not suffer as far as having music ready to put out. It really allows me to keep putting records out, and continue to perform them at the same time. 

Then in early 2012 you came and performed in Auckland, but it wasn't the first time you'd played in New Zealand.

Yeah. I was there last year. I've been there so many times. When did I first come there? I'm so bad with years man, because I don't really care about time. I just kind of work on projects. I don't pay attention to the years, or when my records come out or anything like that, too be honest with you. 

You don't care about time in the traditional sense. Could you talk to us about that?

I'm pretty regimented within my daily schedule, but as far as keeping up with release dates, and when things happen, it's all one big blur for me. I place no importance on the specific date of when something was released, or where I was. I travel so much that I almost can't. This year alone, I haven't spent more than eight consecutive weeks in my house. And if you asked me all the places I went this year, I couldn't tell you. I kind of just come up with an idea for a project, I work on it until it's finished, then I release it, promote it and tour it. Then at some point in the midst of all that, I start working on another project, and so on, and so forth. For me January first doesn't mark a year, my birthday doesn't mark a year. I'm not really looking for a mark in the first place. I just kind of keep living and keep working.

I feel like you're come into being an international music figure from an interesting space. I understand you grew up between America and Sudan, so I'm going to go ahead and assume you already had an international awareness before you started performing around the world? How does this awareness inform your craft?

For sure. One hundred percent. For me, I've noticed that different cities and countries  are like Petri dishes. Hip-hop is like a chemical you drop in, and you observe it's reaction under different circumstances. You drop the same element  in one city, and you'll get a completely different reaction to another city. I've always observed it that way, and definitely taken notes on what I've observed and witnessed, and the things that I think I can incorporate back into my music to make it more effective and more potent. I'm interested in the things that I've noticed are consistent throughout every city, and throughout every experiment if you will. Those are the things I really take note of. 

When you start to really travel as much as I do, you start to realise that there are very few differences in most places in the world, if you really really look at it. Things are relatively the same everywhere I go. I really don't feel like I am in a foreign country unless I'm in a developing country. Even then, most developing countries give me the same feeling, you know? Whether you're in India, South America, or some place in North Africa, you will witness the same overcrowded independent buses that are picking up people on the side of the road where people are hanging outside. You will witness open sewage in places. You will witness everyone having stories of electricity being periodically cut off by the city. You realise that those things you think are unique to your experience in a developing country are absolutely not. 


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