Plus, how to make conscious rap that doesn't condescend
Piling accolades on top of the album while we were premiering it seemed a bit gauche, but Oddisee's latest, People Hear What They See, is one of the year's best. Lush live instrumentation and beat-breaking are at its core, but it moves into sunny orchestration, country-fried interludes, and a loose improvisational swirl of instruments that traverse the D.C. producer's pan-regional influences (boom-bap, bluegrass, gospel, go-go, old school R&B). Plus, Oddisee's goal of creating message-oriented hip-hop that's free of smarmy preaching and not quite so soaked in nostalgia is a lofty one. Over the past few years, his work has become wildly ambitious (Diamond District's retrofuturistic In The Ruff, instrumental concept album Rock Creek Park), and though the soul-beats and fervid rapping might scan as "underground," he pretty much exists in a space all his own. Over coffee in a Washington, D.C. cafe, we discussed his love/hate relationship with go-go music, why, if you really think about it, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes are black music, and the specifics of People Hear What They See, available now on iTunes and out everywhere else, next week.
I know you've explained it elsewhere, but let's start with the title of the album. What does it mean?
People Hear What They See. I think when we're judging music, often times, it's so wrapped up in other types of entertainment, that we no longer listen to music first. We end up seeing it first. We end up seeing the musician character and if we believe the character and invest in the character, then we hear the music according to how the character wants us to hear it. It's just a realization I had as an artist: People hear what they see.
I feel like you get categorized as "backpack" or "conscious" for this reason. You ostensibly fit into that category, so that's where you're placed.
Of course. Because they hear what they see.
You had a great Twitter rant about being labelled "underrated," do you feel the same about being called "underground?"
I do come from the underground. But typically, people from my part of hip-hop want to make songs about how bad it is, and how it used to be, and how it should be. It clicked for me to just make the song versus the songs about the songs. I want to be the champion of the normal person. Things are more tangible than you think. If we left it to mainstream rap, Jay-Z and Kanye will tell you that you can't go to Milan unless you're buying out 2014's next line. But you can go to Milan! Right now. On the amount that you spend at the bar in a month, you can go to Milan.
You have that line on Odd Renditions's "The Gold Is Mine," where you say, "Made it to Paris without the use of a private jet."
The first time I went to Paris was on a Eurail pass. A student pass. It was 450 dollars for unlimited travel for a month. I saw all of Europe in six weeks. And I didn't have a G4. Is that what it's called? G5, I think they're on now? The fantasy that is sold to us is more tangible than you know, and we can aspire to have a good healthy normal life that's fulfilling, without the fantasy.
On People Hear What They See and Rock Creek Park from last year, you're loosening up and using more live instrumentation. What made you move in that direction?
Well, from the moment I started making hip-hop, I've always played leads and synths over my tracks. I never just stuck to samples. It's a very New York style of hip-hop to just stick to samples. The West Coast guys started putting synths on it. The Southern guys always had those chord progressions from the church. And you know, that Rap-A-Lot style was huge in D.C. Huge in D.C. My dad plays lute, my mother sings, my grandmother plays keys. I grew up here in D.C., so, go-go music and live instrumentation's just everywhere. It was just all around me constantly.
Can you characterize Washington, D.C., and it's music culture? It's fairly singular and not just because of go-go.
D.C. is in the middle of the East Coast. The thing that mid-Atlantic cities have in common with each other — well, Baltimore and D.C. specifically — is the blend of Northern and Southern culture. That's through the geography and it's through the people, and through the people, the music. You know, D.C. being a majority black city, the majority of African-Americans from D.C. come from further south. Mainly North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. So, our parents are from southern regions, and that drawl and the church and chord progressions that come from church and the slower tempos are all an influence. Then you've got New York which is four hours away.
On the Diamond District album In The Ruff, you sample New York rappers like Gang Starr and Jay-Z, like you're just going to get the city's massive influence out of the way by being explicit about it. No doubt, New York rap is an influence on you, but how did it work for or against your mid-Atlantic style?
When I was younger, go-go was all around and I loved that. But as I started to listen to more hip-hop and wanted to emcee, I became vastly outnumbered by my friends who were into go-go and weren't interested in hip-hop. The few guys that were into hip-hop became outcasts. We wanted to imitate New York at the time. We wanted to have New York accents and rap like we were in Boot Camp Clik and Wu Tang. People around the country could identify with New York rap, but in D.C. there was this other genre of music that wouldn't allow us to have a scene. After New York popped, Philly had artists and Los Angeles had artists and all these regions started popping out. And I had a level of resentment because I blamed go-go for now allowing D.C. to establish itself as a hip-hop city.
What brought you back to go-go?
I understood that hip-hop is an export from New York. The United States was hip-hop-ized basically, and D.C. stood and fought against that. So, my feelings towards go-go changed. I've always loved it and listened to it and always went to go-gos, but I always had this love/hate relationship with it because I felt that it stifled hip-hop. But now, one of the biggest things in forging the identity of D.C. rap music is the percussive swing of our drums. You may not include congos, which is a staple in go-go, but it's our swing. That Chuck Brown go-go swing and that's in our rap music. It's throughout the entire Diamond District record [In The Ruff]. On "I Mean Business," where I sample Gang Starr, there's a tom that plays constantly that doesn't stop. The way I'm repetitively playing it is signature go-go. And that was me saying to New York music, "This still sounds East Coast to you, but there's go-go in that."
Are you a fan of the artists you remixed on Odd Renditions? It shouldn't be a surprise, but when hip-hop reaches out to other genres, it's still shocking to a lot of people.
Odd Renditions is definitely a reflection of what I'm listening to. Metronomy and Bon Iver are two of my favorite artists out right now. There's a lot of trends today going on in indie music like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, like, gospel and Appalachian harmonies. And my mother's side of the family is country and they grew up on bluegrass and the church. So, it's my way of saying to people, all popular music in America comes from black music. It's a full circle. All those folk and country harmonies? It's black music, let's be honest! Of course there are influences from the Irish and the English and whoever incorporated their sounds into the music, but black music is its one foundation and root and I hear that constantly and I wanted to tell people that.
It's pretty bold to remix Marvin Gaye. Were you concerned about how that would be interpreted?
Was I worried? Not at all, man. I love it. I love the original and I wanted to contribute something to make our generation listen to a real singer. Listen to the simplicity of the lyrics and the metaphor. Instead of just saying, "Bitch, I hate you," or "You're a cheater," or "I wanna fuck you on the dance floor." That remix has done very well. I've never been on World Star Hip-Hop prior to that Marvin Gaye song. World Star frightens me, if I'm honest. And that audience is listening and I think that's great. But they'll probably be disappointed because I'm not going to cater to that. That Marvin remix isn't in my normal production style.
On People Hear What They See's first track, "Ready to Rock," you're balancing many different sounds. It reminds me of Isaac Hayes or David Axelrod. Ambitious soulful music. Was it a conscious choice to get more ambitious with the live instrumentation or did it just happen?
It was a natural thing. However, I'm a big fan of soul and orchestra. Any kind of dynamic, cinematic sound. That's what I love. With the whole album, I was conscious to cover all the different styles of music that I like to make. Really syncopated, quantized, or swinging drums, big strings, gritty sampled-based two to four-bar loops. So, that track was the sum of the album: "You're gonna hear breaks, you're gonna hear orchestral instruments, you're going to hear grooves, you're going to hear synths and electronic music." You hear all of it on one record.
Can you talk about "American Greed?" It's one of my favorites on People Hear What They See.
That song is just the sum of my circumstances. My dad is Sudanese and my mom's from Southeast D.C., so I've been back and forth to Sudan my whole life. So, I saw the differences between a developed country and a third world country, and what one country thinks is poor and struggling versus another. And I also saw what this country does that affects others. The chorus is basically, like, if you didn't know better, you'd think I was glorifying our greed. By saying "We get it how we get it and we spend it how we spend it." But it's not about glorifying it at all. It's about saying this is matter of fact, and you're okay with that. We'll stop at nothing, know what I mean? But if you think this is another get money song, then congratulations, you've got a new get money song for your iPod!
I misread "You Know Who You Are" like that. At first, I thought it was a "haters" song.
The first verse is about the people who really weren't on my side. The second verse is about the people who helped me along the way and encouraged me. The third verse is about, no matter what people try to tell you about yourself, you have to know who you are. I think the third verse loses people, No one seems to get that it's supposed to be about you, the listener. One of my friends thought the whole song was an angry song. Maybe I didn't craft that song like I should've.
I think different readings come about because you have a way of making the listener feel comfortable. You're rarely forcing the message through.
People like messages but they don't want you to be preachy, and that's something that took me a long time to learn how to do. I understood it, but to write that way? To deliver messages without preaching? That takes effort. I wish that hip-hop was as free as other genres, and hip-hop lyricism could be contradictory or hypocritical. To say this on one song and contradict that on the next, without being scrutinized. I wish hip-hop could explain things so that people could come to their own conclusions, like Bon Iver's allowed to do. Every other genre enjoys that freedom. That's something that I wanted bring to the forefront on People Hear What They See but in a constructive and honest way.