A Candid Conversation with Oddisee

“The project is called ‘Odd Cure’ because whatever your fears are, your remedy is catered to your ideals.”
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Brooklyn-via-Maryland rapper Oddisee, 35, is leaving a real estate meeting when I call him for our interview. The rapper born Amir Mohamed el Khalifa is considering investing in houses throughout Brooklyn over a handful of years to create non-music-based revenue streams. 

Throughout his 10-plus year recording and performing career, Oddisee and his worldly perspective and live-band hip-hop sound have bred an everyman relatability that grounds projects like 2017’s The Iceberg and 2020’s Odd Cure, his latest EP, out today.

Created over eight weeks—two of which he spent in self-isolation in his Brooklyn studio—Odd Cure is an attempt at navigating the looming anxieties of a global pandemic in the broadest sense. 

Aside from phone call interludes with his family and friends and explicit references to the coronavirus on “Still Strange,” the whole of Odd Cure isn’t bound to any specific time.

“I didn’t want to make a record dedicated to a global crisis and a pandemic,” Oddisee explains. “I was fearful of how it would age as a product or how it would be viewed by ears that listened without context. You gotta take responsibility for your art.”

Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: First thing’s first: How’ve you been holding up through quarantine?

Oddisee: It’s been a blessing in disguise for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to say that. It’s given me more time than I’ve ever had to work on music. It’s given me more time with my family than I’ve ever had before since I don’t have to tour. Before COVID, I was very much a homebody, anyway. If I wasn’t on tour, I was pretty much in the house. If I wasn’t in the house, I was in the studio. My studio’s about a 15-minute walk from my house, so I just kinda go back and forth. It hasn’t changed. In fact, I’ve just had more time to do stuff.

Odd Cure came together over eight weeks, two of which you spent in self-isolation in your studio in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Walk me through the process.

I think it was late February [when] my Asia booking agent hit me up saying there were cancellations from headliners at festivals throughout the continent due to the coronavirus. Some festivals wanted to continue, and he was wondering if I would be interested. The numbers were crazy for shows in Manilla, Jakarta, Singapore, Bangkok, and Saigon, Vietnam.

All the festivals started canceling. After a while, the only festival that was still going was the one in Bangkok. I was supposed to fly from New York, transfer in Seoul, South Korea, and then head to Thailand. South Korea had one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus, so they changed my flight and routed me to Qatar in the Middle East. I basically went all around the world to get to this one show. Because of the circumstances, though, it was a lot of money.

I had good faith in my health. I’ve been a touring artist for over a decade, so there isn’t a strand of the common cold or diarrhea I haven’t caught from every corner of the Earth. I was like, “I’mma go make this bread and come back.” I was told when you come back, you can’t go home, and I would have to quarantine in my studio for two weeks. I said, “Deal.”

My engineer [Delf] is actually from Hong Kong and is relocating to New York to work for me. He [came] and isolated in my studio while I was gone. He became my roommate [so] I was able to write and record, and he was mixing. That’s how we got it done over those two weeks.

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I can relate. I visited Tulsa in mid-March on a press trip and self-quarantined when I got home. I had my dad leave me a garbage bag that I put all my clothes in to make sure there were as few germs as possible.

It’s crazy, man. Everyone was just trying to figure it out. Looming death is so normal for most of the world. It’s new for the Western world.

I wanna say something personal to you—my brother’s bipolar schizophrenic. I remember when he first got diagnosed, he came to live with me for some time while he got his life back together. He was on medication, and he was doing great and getting back to himself. He was taking up hobbies and gaining interests. My stepmother came back from Sudan to watch my brother while I [went] on tour. While I’m gone, my brother convinced my stepmother he no longer [needed] his medication. He said, “I’m fine. I feel great. I don’t need it.” He only felt great because he was on the medication. Because it was effective, he felt he didn’t need it. When he got off of it, he quickly picked up assault charges and was arrested.

That story reminds me of anti-vaccination. The only reason you think you don’t need it is because it worked so well you think you’re the one responsible for your health. People are probably not gonna like me saying that.

That’s what my new record is about. The project is called Odd Cure because whatever your fears are, your remedy is catered to your ideals. We’re all living through a sort of placebo effect right now. If you’re scared of the government or the state, then your remedy is helping yourself naturally and staying away from vaccinations. That might work for you, but your cure might not be someone else’s cure. We need to have everything available because everyone’s different. We’re pitted against each other by our government, and that makes us spend a lot of time fighting about our differences instead of focusing on our similarities. This pandemic cracked that open.

The EP’s cover is striking. What inspired the idea of a “Missing” style poster tacked to a phone pole?

I can’t take any credit for any of the artwork. It was designed by a talented musician, videographer, art director by the name of Keith Charles. The cover is his interpretation of what he heard from the record. He wanted something that would be startling, to show distress. It’s a photograph taken by [Nayquan Shuler] who photographed me washing my face and trying to cleanse myself of my problems. They printed the photo, Xerox’d it, plastered it up onto poles, wrote on it, and photographed that, and that’s the cover.

I liked the concept he came up with because it visually represented what I did musically. Moving forward, I’m trying to wear fewer hats because you tend to give off subpar work when you’re a jack of all trades but master of none. I was happy to meet Keith in the middle, as someone who cares about a visual aesthetic as I do about an audio aesthetic. That’s all Keith Charles right there.

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How has your production process changed over the years?

My process hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years. I start with samples and MIDI instruments. Listening to records, I hear something I like and chop that motherfucker up. Then I play MIDI instruments over top of the sounds. Once that’s done, I let my bass player hear it and pick out the root melody live. He sends me the WAV files, and I take the MIDI bass out. Then I send it over to my keyboard player to hear the chord progressions I have on the 1, 2, 3, and 4 of a measure. He listens to that and replays it. And then I FaceTime my guitar player Olivier [St. Louis], who lives in Germany and hum a lick I want him to put down. Then we work through the harmonies on that lick, and then it’s done.

It’s interesting when you start with samples and programming drums, and then musicians come in and play the sounds, and that becomes the album. It’s already evolved from one phase to the next. Then it’s time to do it live where some of the electronic sounds aren’t available, or the arrangement just doesn’t work. By the time we’ve hit the stage, the song has been reinterpreted three times. It gives you a lot to play around with all the different instruments—drums, bass, guitar, and MPC. When we’re putting together a show, we’ll say we want one part to feel like it’s made of samples. We’ll want another part to feel like it’s live. We’ll want another part to feel like a studio recording. And then another part will feel like all three in one. That’s the dynamic you’re listening to.

In the project’s press release, you said Odd Cure is “a record I didn’t want to make but needed to.” Why did you feel the need to make this record?

I try to have a balance between where I’m at emotionally and musically and making music that people want to hear. Finding that balance is a challenge I love. I love being able to make something I care about catchy or something people gravitate towards. I know a lot of artists struggle with the idea that art and commerce are connected, and you can’t selfishly make music. Very few of us are genius enough to make music that resonates with a mass amount of people. So many of us are conscious of what we’re making while we’re making it. That’s a spectrum.

Is it challenging to make music addressing such a timely subject while making the music as timeless as possible?

I didn’t want to make a record dedicated to a global crisis and a pandemic. I was fearful of how it would age as a product or how it would be viewed by ears that listened without context. You gotta take responsibility for your art. It was tough to let go of such a subject matter with a big fear that people wouldn’t appreciate it. I’m always making music thinking, “Oh, I like it, but will other people like it?” I care about both of those things. But [Odd Cure] slotted more into what I wanted than any of my previous records. It should’ve been a challenge, but I was very selfish on this record. It was no challenge at all.

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