“Fear is why I live”
Amir Mohamed, better known as Oddisee, has been fighting the good fight for longer than he can remember – and he has no intention of giving up anytime soon. The Red Bulletin spoke to the American rapper and producer at this year’s Waves Central Europe Music Festival and Conference in Vienna about the fear that drives him to create, and why he would tell his younger self to be more selfish.
THE RED BULLETIN: You’re most recent album is called The Good Fight – what are you fighting for with your music?
ODDISEE: Something that’s so good that you don’t even realise you’re fighting for it in the first place. It’s an unconscious fight. I’m fighting for a certain style of music that isn’t found anywhere anymore. I didn’t realise that at first, but now I’m fighting for those people that love, respect and need this kind of music.
You moved to Brooklyn from Washington DC in 2010 – how much of an influence has that move had on your career?
It hasn’t had any affect on me musically or inspirationally, really. I’m not a romantic. New York doesn’t have some kind of spell over me. I moved there for proximity to the industry. DC is an amazing place to make music, but not really the best place to put it out.
Has it changed you as a person?
Not at all! I’ve been the same person since I came out of the womb! I was just talking to my band about that today. I haven’t changed much since I’ve had conscious memory [Laughs.]
What feeds your creativity?
When I started writing rhymes, a lot of my peers got into smoking weed and it became a vice to say, ‘If I’m gonna freestyle then let me get high first.’ I wanted to be better than my friends and I said to myself that I was not going to smoke, and that if I can get to that place of creativity without the drug then I’ll be better than them. I started with that goal, and now 50 to 60,000 hours later it’s more muscle memory than anything else.
I could just stop right now and work on a song. I’m also constantly taking in inspiration. I’m recording the fact that the acoustic sound of the kick drums sound differently here than at my soundcheck last night. Every day when we hit a new venue and my band is setting up, I hit the streets with my tote bag and camera, and I just walk around the new city, shooting photos and observing, taking notes and recording with my phone. Then I’ll come back and listen to it all in the evening and look at the photos.
What’s the hardest part of being in this business?
The whole thing! The hardest part is accepting that what you love is your business, and that those two things can’t be separated if you truly want to survive. It’s the saddest thing and you can’t shy away from it. When you don’t want to do an interview, you have to. When you don’t want to sign autographs, you have to. When you don’t want to drive eight hours in a van, perform on stage until sweat burns your eyes for an hour and a half, and then stand there and talk to drunk people every single night of the week for month straight, you have to. And if you bitch about it, people will say, ‘Look, what you get to do for a living!’ You’re not allowed to bitch about it and you can’t not do it. This is the business that came from what you love and you can never separate them. That’s the hardest part of this whole thing.
Has there ever been a time when you considered giving up?
Never. I would never want to do anything else. I couldn’t work for anyone else. I couldn’t be stationary for long. I could not use creativity to make a living in any other way.
What keeps you going in times of doubt?
Fear. The fear of failure. The fear of having to work for someone else doing a 9-5, and the fear of not surviving. That fear is enough; I don’t have a plan B. My dad is doing all right, but he lives in Sudan, my mums from a hard part of town. I don’t have a trust fund, I have no back up plan and I have no degree. This is it. So if there is ever a doubt in my mind to do something that could sabotage my career then I’m shooting myself in the foot. I cannot ever stop doing this.
Do you think about that a lot?
All the time. Fear is why I live. But I use it to help me, instead of crippling me.
What piece of advice would you give to yourself if you had the chance to go back to the very beginning?
[Laughs.] Oh man! I would’ve said be more selfish, be more self-absorbed and be more obsessive. This is coming from a person who’s already all of those things. I’d have told myself to be more of all of it.
Time is short. My main driving force is that I know that right now, while I’m doing this interview, somebody else is out there making music, and I want to be better than them. That thought used to just wake me up every day and still does. I used to spend about 14 hours a day just making music. I was about 111 kilograms at the worst of it, because I did nothing but sit in my chair and work on music. If I could go back, I’d tell myself to go outside and take a walk, but actually, go ahead and bump that up to 17 hours a day, and don’t take a day off. Don’t worry about your parents; they’ll understand when the money comes in. And I think the money would have came in sooner. [Laughs]
You’re pretty active on Instagram with some really cool photography – has anything you have seen or photographed inspired your music or vice versa?
Definitely. I released a record called Travelling, where every name of each song was based on the city of where I made the song. That was all about walking around and being inspired. I looked at the colour spectrum of each city. You know the light hits each city differently, and that’s something we take for granted. I love paying attention to that.
Do you have any tips for artists, musicians or just anyone in general looking to make their Instagram pics look as good as yours?
Well, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a ‘perfect photo’ but you can develop the eye. I hate being asked about what camera I use, so thanks for not asking. People assume that I take photos with a camera when I’ve done it with my phone and vice versa. That doesn’t really matter – it’s all about the eye. The thing I think photography has in common with all art, whether it be making beats or writing rhymes or painting, is composition. Foreground, background, positives, negatives. Symmetry is important. It’s what makes everything beautiful. Human beings, a plate of food, a photo, or music – it’s all symmetry.
So it’s all very mathematical to you, even the emotional side?
I think emotions are mathematical, but they’re really complex equations that we can’t understand. But they are mathematical. [Laughs.]
Is it still true that you don’t own any of your own records?
Yeah, I don’t have a collection of my own records. I don’t even own most of the music people are looking for. I’m not a very nostalgic person. There’s no wall in my house with my records on. I don’t save the posters from shows – I’d be a hoarder if I did!
Won’t you regret that in 10 years time? Having nothing to show your children?
I have a computer. I don’t need to have something in my hand to remember the past. Some people want to have the tangible possession to remember their first tour by. My first tour meant nothing to me. Maybe that’s a cultural thing, I don’t know. I grew up Sudanese, I grew up Islamic and anti-celebratory of self, and I’m very much that person. I don’t celebrate myself. I don’t have birthdays, I don’t hang my records on the wall, I just live everyday as if it was my last and I plan is as if I will live forever.
In a recent interview you said you’d rather be in a farmer’s market than a record shop.
Absolutely! When I come to a new city, I want to see the city. I don’t give a f**k about a record store. I don’t care about getting a dusty record, blowing it off, and putting the needle on the groove. I want to live the life of people when I am in their cities.