"I'm Mainly Driven by Fear": A Deeply Personal Interview With Oddisee - DJBooth

"I'm Mainly Driven by Fear": A Deeply Personal Interview With Oddisee

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This here writing about rap on the internet gig is a crap shoot. There's no exact science. Pieces you expect to blow up often never do, and the ones you thought wouldn’t be popular mostly lay dormant. It took me a while, but I learned it's a mistake to chase popularity and simply write what comes from the heart, whatever is honest, whatever I want. Do that and people will respond. Sometimes, even the artist responds.

I wrote this piece on how Oddisee's music helps me stay motivated and inspired, partly for myself, and partly to celebrate the release of his new album, The Good Fight. I never expected him to read it. Flash forward a few hours and I'm attending his album release party/concert in D.C. Flash forward a few more hours and I'm talking to him on the phone for one of those interview-y things. Normally for interviews I'm so nervous, but I had a sense of calm about this one. Maybe it was his friendly, calm disposition that put the butterflies in my stomach to sleep, but I'd like to think it's because I already knew him so well.

What makes Oddisee one of my favorite emcees is how unflinchingly honest he is on the mic. No delusions of grandeur, no fronting, just an honest, talented emcee sharing his story, his life. The more I talked to him, the more I realized that his albums truly are just an extension of the man. I was talking to Amir Mohamed el Khalifa and Oddisee at the same time.

So with that in mind, I thought it would be cool to combine an interview and a look at his remarkable new album. As he told me stories, shared his thoughts, feelings and emotions, moments from The Good Fight flashed through my brain. I could fit his stories and feelings into the framework of the album and to me that's what sets Oddisee apart from the rest.

"I guess I got to do it all myself" - "Want Something Done"

Business and art are often seen as two trains headed in different directions. If you want to be a businessman, it means buttoning up creativity into a suit and tie. If you want to be creative it often means sacrificing health insurance, business hours and a steady paycheck. I knew about Oddisee's talent - you can hear it on "What Something Done" when his knifing flow slices through those clasping drums - but what I didn't know was how shrewd his business side was. Before album release parties in cushy Chinatown lofts and NPR Tiny Desk shows, Oddisee set up an entire European tour on his own.

“I was only booking shows for myself because something new was happening, but the industry hadn't caught up. Prior, you put a few records out on a label, they were monitored by Soundscan, you had a booking agent who outsourced themselves to all of their contacts and booked shows for you. But there were no more record sales because people were downloading the albums for free. So when I would reach out to try and do shows, all of the promoters, still based on the old model, would say "no one knows who you are. You can't do shows here." Yet I'm looking on the internet and dozens and dozens of fans from cities all over the world would ask me to come perform. There was this disconnect so I started doing something that now has a name, "direct to fan marketing." I didn't know that's what it was back then, but now that's the term. I never went to college, but I've spoken at universities on the subject; that blows my mind. I contacted fans, asked for promoter’s names. Collected all those fan names, went to the promoters and said, ‘Hey, all of these people live in your town and want to see me perform. You should book me.’

The first tour I did I got 700 euros a show. What I did, I bought something called Europass, which gives you unlimited travel throughout Europe for a month. It cost me about three or four hundred euro. I stayed in Europe for six weeks telling every promoter, "All you have to do is book me for the cost of a one way ticket and I'll sleep on your floor. I don't even need a hotel". They only booked me on hip-hop nights when they knew it would be a packed house. I actually made my money back for the europass within the first couple of shows. I traveled all through Europe on the europass, I slept on floors of promoters houses, I did parties where nobody knew who I was, rocked it and they ended up knowing who I was. Fast forward to today, I have a booking agent, I turned over all my contacts to him and every promoter who booked me that first year still books me to this day."

"This the man that's behind the words that do whatever it takes/ I'm not too proud to eat the scrapings off plates/Turn your nose up/You're missing out"- "A List of Withouts"

Touching on the topic above, trying to balance business and art can be very difficult. Often if you make a profit it means sacrificing your art, it means selling a chunk of your soul.

“I've definitely been in positions where I've done things for the money. However, it was for the necessity. As an independent artist, as an artist in general, you don't have the luxury of knowing you are going to get paid in two weeks. So I may get tons of offers for three months straight and there might be three months where there is no work whatsoever. Even at this moment in my career where I'm making good money I can't turn down opportunities, because of what might happen a year from now when there is no money. As a result, I've definitely worked on things I wasn't really excited for because of the money. The compromise is as long as I give it a hundred percent, maybe the  beat sucks but my verse is great or my beat is great but the rapper sucked, I know somebody will like the entire song. Knowing that, I have to remove my ego and my own personal opinion and work for a living because someone will love this song.”

"But Cali ain't got winter and that's the feelin' that made me" - "Meant It When I Said It"

Sometimes when you go to shows it can be hard to really hear the emcee, but Oddisee commands the mic. You can hear every...single...word. As I was standing in the crowd at the album release party listening to him perform "Meant It When I Said It," I heard the aforementioned line and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Something about it burned its way into the pit my stomach and the back of my brain; I pondered it the whole Metro ride home. I had to ask him just what he meant exactly.

“I'm very much a person attached to seasons and my environment. I'm a huge believer that the seasons changing are a constant reminder that time is passing and it makes you question yourself. Every year when the leaves fall to the ground and everything dies, where were you? What did you did with your year? You can't ignore it. Whereas places with warm weather all year round there isn't this reminder that time is passing. In warmer climates people are way more relaxed and chill. About everything. I don't want to be relaxed. I want to rush to get from point A to point B. I want to walk quick. I want to look at my watch a million times in an hour. I want those things. I couldn't live in places like that. I think it would hurt my work ethic.”

"And you don't need a bigger plate, just a smaller stomach" - "Belong To The World"

Though the angelic, atmospheric beat soothes my soul, that line really stirred something in me. I love what I do. I love being creative and writing about rap music, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't want more money. Money's great. It lets us do things and we definitely need it, but it’s not all there is. I'm able to pay bills and keep a roof over my head, which is remarkable really, but it doesn't feel like enough; it never does. That's what "Contradictions Maze" deals with, trying to find the balance between being satisfied and wanting more.

“The balance is within itself. I'm adamant and persistent about the things that I like within my own realm. There isn't something outside of it that I'm striving for. There's more than enough to deal with in the bubble I exist in  before I start dreaming and aspiring towards bigger things that people want from me. I've barely scraped the surface of what's possible in my own constraints right now. I try to stress that in my music."

"Tell me I ain't buzzin' welp/Last year I made well over a hundred stacks" - "Flight Delays"

The conversation started with "Contradictions Maze" but this bar from "Flight Delays" is just as apt. It may seem strange in a society driven by excess and greed, but Oddisee seems content with where he is. He's found a way to live off of making music, and that’s enough for him. We, the fans, want him to be rich and famous as badly as we want it for ourselves. We force that on him, but to him, it's of no concern; buzz, awards and acclaim don't mean anything to Oddisee.

“The only thing I'm working towards is the main thing when I decided I wanted to do music. I want to make a living from music and nothing else. There's so many avenues to do that right now before moving on. Meaning, like today alone, I just got two messages for two separate licensing  opportunities. One from ESPN and one from a premiere league in Ireland. That sounds super random, I'll license a song to them and nobody will ever hear it, but the money I make from that is someone's salary. Everyone thinks I'm underrated, but I just made someone's salary from one song. People think I need to be on the radio. People think I need to win a Grammy.

Success for me is very direct.  If I put out an album and I get two calls in a day to license to two separate companies and my manager hits me up about a festival. That is validation. You put out this record and suddenly somebody wants to book you for shows. Suddenly people want to license your music. Suddenly people like you want to interview me. If the record wasn't good I wouldn't get those things. That is the validation.”

"Got a couple ounces, the customers came and went/Section 8 the housing, you best come up with rent/Wasn't the smartest move, it was better than havin' no plan/Cut that out as quick as I started/Back on my mission to be an artist" - "Meant It When I Said It"

The piece I wrote on Oddisee was based around the low-point of my rap bloggin' career. I wanted to know what the low-point was for Oddisee. He told me both on the phone and on "Meant It When I Said It" and honestly, it made me rethink what "struggling" really means. In retrospect a trip to A3C gone wrong isn't that bad at all.

“There was one point in my career where I was living in my mother’s basement. She was on section 8 and I definitely needed money. My sister wasn't doing good and my mom was helping her out. My mother was struggling and she was helping me while I stayed in this basement for 10 to 14 hours a day making music. At a certain point, she was like, "You have to quit music, get a job and make money for this house." That was one of those points where I thought I was going to quit. During that time I was actually doing some really stupid things to make money. I dealt with it, took care of it and things started to pick up in my music career and I stopped immediately and went back to music. Thank goodness.”

"'I'm scared to death that/ This the best I'ma get before God come and collect his breath back" - "A List Of Withouts"

It was surreal to hear how Oddisee, a man I admire so much was touched by my piece. He was so appreciative in fact that he shared something with me that nobody else knows, something he's never shared before. While he may have never explicitly told anyone what he told me, he touched on it on "A List Of Withouts." It's interesting that the thing we are all trying to escape from is the thing that drives him.

“I'm mainly driven by fear. Fear of failure. Fear the record won’t sell. Fear that this will be the last record that will be relevant and I wont be able to make music anymore."

"I perform, they put on, that's the norm, trying to get me on a song like baller this, shooter that/Then they got wrong mic/This the wrong platform, they about the wrong life" - "Belong To The World"

All this time - writing that article, seeing him live, talking to him on the phone - I've been trying to pinpoint, just what it is about him and his music that awakens something inside me. Why I identify, admire and respect him more than any other emcee. I thought it might be because he's a dope producer, I love me some samples, or maybe it’s because we are both from the DMV. While both are true and are part of the equation they aren't the reason why. The sentiment he shares on "Belong To The World" and the way he summarized it himself is why.

“I'm always looking inward. I'm very introspective. I think that's an ongoing theme in a lot of my music. There's definitely a void that I think needs to be filled. In music there's a lot of artists dedicated to selling a fantasy. I love fantasy too. I love songs about things I'll never be able to obtain. I love songs about partying all night even though I'm normally asleep by 11. It's fantasy. But we also need music that's deep rooted in reality and I feel like that's my calling. To write about that kind of music. That's what comes natural to me and I think that's what missing in music. What I do is quintessential reality rap.”

I thought that was a fitting quote to end on. Rap can be an escape from reality, but Oddisee thrives in that reality we don't want to face. I'll listen to Action Bronson rap about squid ink soup so I can stop thinking about bills and my credit score, but Oddisee makes me confront those issues. It may not be easy,but I know in the end it makes me better and more focused.

The Good Fight is a phenomenal album. There's soul samples for the purists but there's also horns, Gary Clark Jr. riffs. His flow is raw and primal yet soothing and surgical. Still, the real strength of this album comes not from a beat or a hook, but from the practical usage, from how it makes me better. We often ask "What makes a classic?" and to me, a large part of the equation is how the body of work stands the test of time. I don't know it The Good Fight is a classic, I'm not the classic album gatekeeper, but I do know that I look to Oddisee in times of crisis and I'm learning now that crisis is ceaseless. In ten years I may be panicking about kids, marriage and a 401K, but I will still be in crisis...and I will still have Oddisee.

[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth]

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