Interview by Eamon Whalen
Photography by Oddisee
It’s safe to say that Oddisee doesn’t get culture shock. The rapper/producer, born Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, spent much of his childhood traveling from his home in Prince George County, Maryland to developing nations, including his father’s home country of Sudan. In a family of musicians he took to hip hop at an early age, and cut his teeth in a Washington D.C scene that’s best described as East Coast hip hop with a Southern twang. And though he now makes a permanent home in Brooklyn, he never stays in one place for too long. A methodically built and organically grown global fanbase has him on a constant tour, playing at least 100 shows per year spread out across North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and occasionally the Middle East, with plans to tour Asia for the first time next year.
His is not a lifestyle built on five-star hotels, chartered jets or designer shopping sprees, but one sustained through Air BnBs, long bus rides and a carry-on bag packed intentionally with only a week’s worth of clothes. Oddisee always wanted to take people on a journey with his music, and now his music has taken him all around the world living what he calls the “tangible dream.” Here’s how he does it.
[Interview has been condensed and excerpted]
Build Your Base
Initially when I started touring, I wanted to strengthen my fan base abroad and I was trying to figure out ways to do that. This was around the Myspace era, just before its peak popularity. I was reaching out to a series of artists in different countries offering to collaborate with them in hopes that the records would be released in their countries, and that I would gain some kind of notoriety or recognition from it. It was definitely methodical in that aspect.
But from that point on things grew organically and quite fast. I would do a record with an artist in a foreign country. That record would come out as a single, a 12-inch, part of a compilation, or an album. Next thing you know I would be sought out by other artists in those areas who realized that it was a tangible and feasible thing to work with me and I started to work with a series of different artists in different countries.
And what happened after that - I didn’t necessarily calculate it but it was something that I wanted to come about - is that I was being offered to do shows off the strength of the records I was releasing abroad and the first time that happened was with two artists by the names of Mike Slott and Hudson Mohawke. At that time they were in a group called Heralds of Change and I was the first hip hop artist that they had worked with. From that record I was flown to Ireland where Mike Slott was from and then Glasgow, Scotland where Ross, Hudson Mohawke, is from and I did shows in each city.
From that moment, once the ticket was already paid for, I bought a U-Rail pass for unlimited travel for a month throughout Europe. Then I reached out to fans and asked them where they go see shows and to acquire contacts for me. And many of my fans abroad did so. I checked my inbox and it was full of contacts of promoters and I offered them to book me for a fee and a one-way train ticket and that was it. Mind you, I had already paid for my transportation so I had made all my money back in the first three or four shows. So I was making a bit of income from the train tickets and from the show fee.
So from there I slept on the promoters’ couches, on their floors. I opted out of the hotel rooms to make it as cheap as possible. I made sure to book myself on nights where they had already had a club night scheduled, so whether or not I was there the place was going to be packed. And I piggy-backed off of these hip hop nights to build my fanbase abroad. To this day some of the very first promoters to book me still book me. And that’s kind of how it started.
Underdevelopment and Overexposure
Underdevelopment and overexposure is an extremely important concept to understand. You don’t want to release your work prematurely, when it’s not ready for the world to hear. You might get a sort of criticism that deters you from ever creating again, as what happens to a lot of my peers. Or you might get an over-bloated sense of confidence because you’ve had a small number of people like it. Probably because they’re close to you and wouldn’t say anything ill about your work and it gives you a false perception of what you’re really putting out.
I find that when work is ready, it’s kind of like putting something in a container. Your work is the matter that goes into the container. That container is somewhat like the world. The more you put into it, it gets so packed and so packed that eventually, without you having to do anything, it finds it’s way out. It starts to seep out through the cracks. And once that starts to happen, I find that’s when you know you’re ready. When you just can’t contain it anymore, when people hear it and the advice is always the same: people telling you, “You really need to put this out,” “I’d like you to work with this artist,” “How much for this beat?”
The harder you have to work to get people to listen to your music, the more underdeveloped your music is. That’s really the best scale for any artist to determine when they’re really ready. If you’re the one doing most of the calling to people, and most of the emailing and harassment on social networks rather than it being in reverse. That’s how you know you’re not ready.
Connect With Your Fans
It’s extremely important to be direct with fans. I say this all the time: people no longer buy music because they have to, they buy it because they want to. And a part of making them want to buy it is being transparent, noticing that they are contributing to the music you are making. Many of my fans are not only fans of my music, but fans of me as an amateur photographer. And I’ve had many times where I’ve been booked for shows because the promoter or the people in that city were enthusiastic about me documenting their hometown, along with the show.
Part of it was them wanting to be a part of my travelogue and experiencing a show at the same time. I think opening myself up to those travels and showing people that I was open to travel. I had no bias, no preconceived notions and I was just all about the experience.
Live As The Locals Do
Sacrifice a little bit. Be willing to take that promoter’s couch or that super-fan’s floor if they’ve proven that they’re safe. Because more importantly than saving money, you’re gaining an experience from traveling that you wouldn’t get in a hotel. If you’re a new artist, chances are the promoter is going to stick you out by the airport, or at some really small hotel where you won’t really get to see the city that you’re in.
But if you stay with a local, you might be inconvenienced by sleeping on a floor, but how much sleep are you going to get when you’re in a new city in a new country and excited to see it? Plus, you have a tour guide who’s taking you around to the spots where the locals eat at versus what you’re familiar with because people gravitate to what they’re familiar with when they’re in a foreign land. Having people on the ground will help you break out of that, to break out of your comfort zone. Opt to stay with the locals. Save a little bit of money and you’ll get a better experience as a result.
Keep A Light Bag
Definitely pack light. It’s one of my rules. I don’t care how long I’m on the road for, I only pack a week’s worth of clothing. And I wash my clothes every sunday and I make sure that every item in my bag is interchangeable, meaning that everything I have can be worn with anything else in the bag.
I usually stick to neutral colors because you’re safe interchanging your clothes and it allows you to pack a lot less. That’s something that’s really important to me is traveling as light as possible. I’ve seen it countless times when I’m on tour with newbies and they overpack. They get hit with baggage fees, the hassle of carrying their luggage from train to bus to plane to walking it through the streets.
As an artist, as a touring artist, as an American, as an African-American, I can definitely say that I’ve probably been turned down in the past based on my ethnicity - for fear of god knows what. My name also, I have an Arab-Muslim name. And more importantly being a musician, because that Air BnB is linked to your Facebook and your Instagram feed and they can see what kind of person you are. So having that in mind I made sure my profile picture wasn’t anything off-putting. I made myself look like an upstanding citizen basically. Just make sure there isn’t anything too crazy on your social network when people select you. As a musician they’re really weary of booking us because they think we might trash the place and put cigarette burns everywhere.
If you have any dietary restrictions, one of the first things you do when you land in a new country is learn, in their language, how to say those dietary restrictions. I don’t eat pork, so there isn’t a place I’ve been where I don’t know how to say “Is there pork in this?” If I don’t learn how to say anything else, I’ll learn how to say that. I find that’s really important for people with nut allergies, or for vegetarians, pescetarians, and vegans. Mind you, a lot of the places you go people will speak English, but oftentimes there are misunderstandings about what a word means to certain people.
If I see a bunch of people with fanny packs and Lonely Planet guides I know that means that the restaurant knows I’m coming. The prices will be inflated and oftentimes the food will be watered down to appeal to the tastes of a larger group of people who may not be able to handle spice or a lot of seasoning.
Use Your Phone Efficiently
My iPhone is my best friend on the road. Whether it’s Yelp, Google Maps, or Currency [an app for exchange rates], my phone is extremely helpful to me while abroad. With the map you don’t necessarily have to have your 3G or 4G on. You find a Wi-Fi spot, you type in where you are and where you want to go and the map prints up. And even when you disconnect from it, the map is still open and you can follow your map wherever you need to go in the city. And once you get from point A to point B, find another wi-fi source, get what you need and keep it moving. That way you can maneuver around the city without using your data plan.
Let Cultural Difference Help, Not Hinder
I traveled a lot as a child to developing countries. Egypt, Sudan and places like that where there was a total difference from the United States. It wasn’t until I was older that I started to travel to places that resembled my homeland on the exterior but were vastly different on the interior. Those differences go down to use of language — American use of the English language, and British use of the English language. And the concept of things being possible and not possible was something that I really struggled with in Europe for quite some time. I say this all the time: Americans think 100 years is a long time and Europeans think 100 miles is a long way.
I was constantly being faced with promoters saying “I want to book you for this show in Antwerp, but you’re performing in the Czech Republic the night before. There’s no way you can drive here and make the show, it’s impossible.” I’ve never heard the word “impossible” more than I have dealing with Europeans.
I say, “What do you mean ‘impossible?’ It’s an 11 hour drive.” They say, “Yes you’ll have to stop and take a rest, there’s no way you’ll make it.” And me and my bandmates just laugh so hard because we’re so used to traveling long distances. To us, 11 hours is nothing. As a band there are six of us, we do two-hour shifts in the van and keep it moving. That’s that American spirit that we have. I’m constantly met with people saying I can’t do something, it’s normal to me in my head. And I’ve definitely used that to my advantage.
Keep A Routine, Keep A Peace Of Mind
One of the most important things to me as a traveler — and to keeping my sanity — is to have a routine. An almost-militant routine has allowed me to, no matter where I am, always feel like I’m at home.
As soon as I get to a place, I immediately unpack all of my bag and put my things on a shelf or in a closet so that I don’t feel like I’m living out of a suitcase. I carry with me a coffee grinder, a single cup filter and a mug. I smoke hookah, shisha or whatever you call it. I have a little box that has my shisha tobacco and my hookah in it. I have my computer with my hard drive and my headphones.
I wake up at relatively the same time every morning and I hand-grind a cup of coffee. I watch a TED talk, I read the news, I check my emails. I go out for a walk. I eat food, make music, go out and do a gig, or go out and sightsee if I’m on an off-day. And that is pretty much the exact same thing I do when I’m at home in Brooklyn. So no matter where I am in the world my routine is consistent, whether it’s Brooklyn where I live, Washington D.C. where I’m from, Sudan where my family’s from or Europe where I spend a lot of my time. Because my routine is the same, no place feels too foreign to me and I never really feel like I miss home too much.
Oddisee is a rapper, producer and amateur photographer from Washington D.C. His latest project, a double album entitled The Beauty In All/Tangible Dream is available now on Mello Music Group.