No bling, no guns, no gangsta

Rapper/producer Oddisee hails from the mean streets of D.C., but his Sudanese roots instilled in him an alternative view of hip hop culture.


Oddisee (Photo by Lukas Maeder)

He didn’t pine for designer threads. He never longed to drape himself in bling. He wasn’t afraid of the chest-thumping hustlers around the corner, nor did he revere the gun-toting”gangstas” on TV. Young Amir wasn’t simply born different from the other children in his D.C. borough — his oddities stem from an exotic ancestry, and pragmatic, globetrotting parenting.

“I always came from a really grounded perspective,” says Amir Mohamed el Khalifa (now better known as the critically lauded MC and producer Oddisee, of his formative years in the ghettos of Washington, D.C. Today, his skills would leave any aspiring hip hop act jealous— from the husky vocals he delivered on acclaimed underground albums like Mental Liberation and People Hear What They See, to the gritty beats he’s produced for Talib Kweli, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and countless others. But as a boy, Oddisee never fantasized about the glory of such successes. He adds: “The things that mattered to most people, I didn’t really care about.”

That outlook wasn’t rooted in elitist indifference. Instead, it stemmed all the way back to the Third World. Oddisee did indeed grow up with a bizarre contradiction — residing in a crime-riddled corner of the nation’s capital, only a few short miles from America’s halls of power. But that paradox wasn’t nearly as nuanced as his family lineage. Oddisee’s father was a Sudanese businessman who immigrated to the States decades earlier, marrying a local D.C. girl from the ghetto. After they divorced, the elder el Khalifa focused on his business until it grew to be lucrative. Before long, he was taking regular summer trips back to his impoverished African hometown, bringing his preteen son in tow, with the hope of helping young Amir connect to his heritage.

“Walking down the street, you’d pass someone’s house that was made of manure,” Oddisee says of Sudan’s visceral poverty, before recalling its even harsher violence. “Everybody in Sudan had guns back then, in the ’90s. Not so much now, but then you’d see Liberation fighters from the south travelling to fight against armies from the north, and a lot of those soldiers were children. It’s mandatory that you serve for two years after high school, so there were a lot of teens with AK-47s.”

Those rebels were far more menacing than any of the thugs in D.C.’s slums. But an even grimmer memory haunts Oddisee to this day.

He recalls seeing a Sudanese girl skipping down a dirt road to fill a few milk bottles at a nearby farm. With each step she gleefully splashed mud that was still soggy from a recent storm. Those fierce winds had knocked over a nearby pole, and she didn’t notice its hazards until it was too late.

“She stepped in the wet part of the sand, which had an electrical wire laying in it from that broken pole,” Oddisee says in a slow, measured tone. “It shocked her, and no one could touch her without getting shocked, too. So we had to watch her die. Those were the things I’d see, but I was fine. I had shoes on with rubber soles. This girl had no shoes at all.”

He was 12 years old at the time. Upon his return to D.C. that fall, young Amir found himself unable to relate to his friends’ complaints and fixations. He also felt unfazed by his mother’s state of poverty, even as he began to realize its magnitude for the first time. Those memories inspired some of the most moving lines on the title track of his latest release, 2013’s Tangible Dream:

“Born up in uptown,
PG is where I lived
Slept in a dresser drawer
When we couldn’t afford a crib
Parents got a divorce
My father got him a biz
My mother remained poor
And I was caught in the mix.”

“By the time I was conscious of what the ghetto was, it wasn’t even a big deal anymore. I didn’t know Mom was living in government housing. And when I found out, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t good,” Oddisee says, adding that his trips to Sudan also subdued the remaining perils of D.C.’s ghettos. “A person that I was supposed to be ‘scared’ of, I wasn’t. Or, if somebody said a pair of shoes were a must-have, I never cared. Or if my friend wanted to get into something shady, I didn’t. I just became unaffected by peer pressure. That’s one of the greatest things I’m thankful for.”

That disconnect with his peers affects Oddisee’s friendships to this day. Trek Life— a Californian MC who teamed up with the D.C. producer for his 2010 disc Everything Changed Nothing— says his childhood was far more materialistic and superficial.

“When I was a kid, and I just started making songs, I’d need to get fully dressed just to write a rap. I’d put on the full Adidas jumpsuit and look in the mirror while I made rhymes or answered imaginary reporters’ questions,” Trek says of his former method. His clothing fixation has very much faded now, especially in comparison to his all-star collaborators like and T.I. “It’s all about comfort for me now. At shows, even Oddisee will be completely against what I’m wearing onstage, but I’ll just tell him I have shorts on because they feel right.”

But Oddisee’s preteen journeys affected far more than his fashion sense. Those forays also left him with an insatiable wanderlust, which has been apparent in everything from his stage name to one of his most underrated discs. In 2010 he released Travelling Man, a gripping, evocative collection of instrumentals each named after, and influenced by, the cities he’s visited while on tour. But his biggest muse is the motherland that traumatized him so deeply. And while Oddisee may have witnessed unspeakable tragedies in Sudan, he also glimpsed innovative talent from even the most amateur local performers.

“A lot of my beats come from Sudanese music. I’ll take their unorthodox drum patterns, but instead of using congas I’ll play them on a snare and high hat,” he says, adding that he prefers to apply those African techniques to western instruments for one key reason: “It makes my beats stand out subtly. Because they’re Sudanese-rooted, they’re off kilter. So, instead of bobbing your head up and down, you’ll want to move it in a circular motion.”

That mild African ingredient gives Oddisee’s beats a distinctive flavour, which has drawn hordes of underground MC’s that are hungry to spit and salivate over his savory samples. Everyone seemed to be impressed by Oddisee’s Sudanese muse, except for the one person who introduced him to it in the first place.

“He definitely pushed me to be a doctor or a lawyer,” Oddisee says of his father, who longed for his family to find stability and prosperity, especially after the years he had spent growing up in a war ravaged nation. Young Amir could empathize with his father’s concerns, but he also knew how to circumvent them: “My dad’s a businessman first, and I proposed a deal to him.”

The transaction was simple: if Oddisee could release and be paid for a song before he turned 21, then the elder el Khalifa would have to respect and condone his son’s decision. Not long after graduating from high school, Amir sent the demo for a pristine, gleaming beat to DJ Jazzy Jeff (of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air fame). The beloved producer eagerly added the track (called “Musik Lounge,”) to his 2002 compilation Magnificent.

“I got a handsome cheque. I remember that morning Dad was reading the paper in the kitchen, and I set the cheque in front of him,” Oddisee says. “To this day he’s never heard a single one of my songs. He just asks me how my finances are. No one in my family listens to my music actually — the Sudanese side don’t know hip hop, and the D.C. side don’t like anything underground. That makes things easy for me though, since I don’t have to worry about long guest lists at my shows.”

Despite their indifference, Oddisee’s family has always inspired him, from the tribal rhythms of his father’s village, to the ghetto poverty that his mother endured.

His lyrics are fuelled not only by his loved ones, but also by his old flames. The latter is especially evident on “The Need Superficial,” a highlight from his 2012 release People Hear What They See. Despite its title, Oddisee digs deep on the song, dodging typical rap “booty and bling” clichés in favour of the commitment issues that nearly any young couple can relate to. Some of its key lines include:

“So good at courtin’
And yet keepin’ I ain’t quite perfected
I’m just horrid
Steady deceivin’ myself
Believin’ I ain’t leavin’ for somebody else
It’s a cycle that I just can’t get through
I love her right now, though, superficial.”

“I definitely went through a period in my life where I appreciated trophy women, who were just attractive and not good for me,” Oddisee says, adding that he never worries about disclosing such intimacy on wax. “My family and my love life get into my music. Definitely, you can’t run from it. There’s nothing I can do about it, and nothing I’d like to do about it to be honest. I love it.”

That attitude, and all the others that define him — from the nuance of his lyrics, to the subtle exoticism of his beats — are evident on one of Oddisee’s songs, “You Know Who You Are,” the climactic track on People Hear What They See.

“You were there from the start
Taught me that whatever I’m doin’ to do it from the heart…
I won’t even mention your name up in my bars
You’re too close to the scar, but you know who are…”

Oddisee perform at Club Soda (1225 St-Laurent) on Friday, July 4, 11 p.m., $28/$29.50