“I Was Trying to Take Control of My Narrative” — An Oddisee Interview
The DC native discusses making beats 14 hours a day as a teenager, his frustration with misleading reviews of ‘The Iceberg,’ and the importance of rethinking how we define success.
A storied career in the music industry usually comes from a blend of hard work, timing, and luck. Unfortunately, dominant narratives of artist success often focus solely on hard work. Veteran MC and producer Oddisee wants to challenge that perception by openly discussing some of the chance events that sparked his career in music. “It’s taking the romance out of success, which more people need to do,” he explains.
Once the romance of success is taken out of the equation, he believes people need to recognize which life circumstances they can transform into opportunities. “You kind of MacGuyver life, whatever you have, to use it to your advantage,” he says.
When late Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Gary Shider moved into Oddisee’s DC neighborhood in the mid-90s, the proximity to a successful musician provided such an opportunity. Only in middle school at the time, he quickly became friends with Shider’s sons Marshall and Garret. Before long he found himself participating in frequent jam sessions inside the musician’s analog studio. Without even realizing it, he had taken his first step towards becoming a professional musician.
“I was like, ‘Where’s your studio, where’s your drums, where’s your keyboards?’ He was like ‘I sample.’”
With no vast ambition of music industry success clouding his mind, he explored the art of making music and recording without any external or financial pressures. This involved avoiding drum machines or samplers at first, as Shider forbid his pupils from any sampling or looping. “We had to play the drums out for 3 minutes by hand, play all the keyboards by hand,” Oddisee told Red Bull Music Academy in a 2012 interview.
Oddisee’s musical journey took another important turn when he established himself as a promising MC in high school, eventually catching the ear of a senior producer named Sean Born during his junior year. When Born invited him over for a session, he was surprised by the lack of equipment he’d grown so accustomed to in Shider’s studio. “I walked in and it’s just a bunch of records and a sampler and I had no idea what it was,” he says. “I was like, ‘Where’s your studio, where’s your drums, where’s your keyboards?’ He was like ‘I sample.’”
When Born demonstrated the basics of sampling, it marked the beginning of a production masterclass for Oddisee. “Shout out to Sean,” he says. “First person to record me, first person to show me how to make beats, first person to show me how to dig, first person to show me what a breakbeat was in the sample — looking for openings and how to read grooves in a record.”
“We just made beats all day and whenever we finished we would play one out loud. And we’d just keep going, it was like 14 hours a day sometimes.”
During studio sessions, the aspiring producers took turns on Born’s ASR-X and made do with the sampler’s subpar sequencing as best they could. After Born graduated to an MPC 2000 and then a 2000XL, Oddisee convinced him to hang onto the ASR-X so he could continue to use it.
Looking back, he remembers these marathon recording sessions from his teenage years with great clarity and fondness. “We sat the mixing board in the middle. We had a really long bedroom dresser that was up against the wall, and on the left side was me with my ASR-X. There was a mixer in the middle with the turntable, and on the right side was him with the MPC. On the floor was a stack of records between us.”
With both producers using their headphones to block out the world around them, they would enter a meditative state of beatmaking that was only broken when they decided to share a work in progress. “We just made beats all day and whenever we finished we would play one out loud,” Oddisee says. “And we’d just keep going, it was like 14 hours a day sometimes.”
“I think my 10,000 hours happened around 2007. And that’s when I started to make serious money from music.”
Attending class quickly became an afterthought, but Oddisee realized he wouldn’t receive a diploma if he didn’t take drastic measures as his senior year came to a close. “I had to take night classes to graduate high school because I stopped going, I just skipped,” he says.
When he broke the news of his delayed graduation to his parents they were beyond disappointed. Now, many years later, his dad’s occasional disappointment in his actions remains incredibly difficult to navigate. “In my personal experience, my father being disappointed in me — to this day — is one of the most painful things I can endure,” he says. “I can handle a lot of bullshit from a lot of people in the music industry. But my father being disappointed in me is one of the things that hurts me the most.”
Despite the stress caused by almost missing out on a high school diploma, nothing could derail Oddisee’s desire to create. With time, his work ethic with the ASR-X started to pay major dividends. 2002 saw him snag a production credit and a guest verse on DJ Jazzy Jeff’s The Magnificent with “Musik Lounge,” the first time he received a paycheck for his music. When his parents learned of this high-profile collaboration, he earned their blessing to pursue music as his sole source of revenue.
“I can handle a lot of bullshit from a lot of people in the music industry. But my father being disappointed in me is one of the things that hurts me the most.”
Oddisee turned into a true professional ten years after first working with his friend Sean Born. “I think my 10,000 hours happened around 2007,” he says. “And that’s when I started to make serious money from music.”
Signing to Mello Music Group and releasing his debut album 101 in 2008, Oddisee’s first official release marked the beginning of a long, fruitful, and ongoing relationship with label owner Michael Tolle. His output has been prolific in the time since, with a grand total of 13 releases — both instrumental and lyrical — now available from him on the imprint.
Oddisee’s rapid release of quality music has earned him a slew of guest production duties and verses, as well as some very stellar work with his group Diamond District. It also led to his music being used for a Google product unveiling and licensing ventures with ESPN and Ireland’s premiere league.
“This album is about the finances of black America, depression, Donald Trump and elections, racism, anti-immigration, Islamaphobia.”
His artistic success and opportunities beyond mere streams and sales, along with his song “After Thoughts” earning a remarkable 17,000,000 plays on Spotify, continue to blur the line between what audiences consider mainstream and underground. “Everyone thinks I’m underrated, but I just made someone’s salary from one song,” he said while explaining music licensing in a 2015 interview with DJ Booth.
Yet despite the formidable success that Oddisee has seen since he first tapped ASR-X buttons with Sean Born, he found the recent reception of his most lyrically ambitious project disappointing. “The Iceberg (2017) failed to me in a couple of aspects,” he says. “Not musically, but I was trying to take control of my narrative. I’ve been trying to take control of my narrative for years and it has been the most difficult part of my battle.”
Though he remains proud of the music and message contained within The Iceberg’s 12 intricately composed songs, he found the reviews on highly respected websites maddening. “No matter what I talk about, NPR or Noisy or anyone else, when they come out with the review — it’s from the perspective of an underground rapper who’s struggling, who wants attention,” he says. “Even though I haven’t dedicated a single song to that.”
“I was trying to take control of my narrative. I’ve been trying to take control of my narrative for years and it has been the most difficult part of my battle.”
He was so off-put by The Iceberg reviews that he contacted several of the people who wrote them for an explanation. “I actually had to call journalists when I released The Iceberg and be like, ‘Yo, what in the fuck. This album is about the finances of black America, depression, Donald Trump and elections, racism, anti-immigration, Islamaphobia — and you said that The Iceberg was about someone who was beneath the surface, underground, who was trying to make it to the top.’ I said, ‘What the fuck. Did you listen to this record?!’”
When further pressed by Oddisee, the unnamed journalist’s responses were underwhelming. “Everyone said to me, ‘I have to write about so much bullshit that comes across my table and I wish I could write more about artists like you. So when I got the opportunity to write about you I painted it from the perspective of more people need to know who you are.’”
Unimpressed, he let them know if no uncertain terms that their decision to present The Iceberg’s important social and political messages as something bland and less provocative was both unhelpful and unappreciated. Whether or not they’ll get the message right in the future remains to be seen.
“I’m trying to show people a tangible way to success and that there’s not one definition. I’m genuinely happy in my life and in my music.”
Despite the post-Iceberg letdown, Oddisee isn’t giving up on putting his music and message out into the world. Late 2017 saw the release of his first live album Beneath The Surface (Live) with his backing band GoodCOMPANY. He also maintains an always active touring schedule that allows him to travel all over the world.
Now, as an ever-widening audience discovers and re-discovers his work, Oddisee is happy to show people there are many different paths to victory in the modern industry. “I’m trying to show people a tangible way to success and that there’s not one definition,” he says. “I’m genuinely happy in my life and in my music. I’m not ‘slept on, underrated, and struggling.’”