Oddisee digs deep emotionally for latest album, tour

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As a kid in the early ’90s, Sudanese-American rapper and producer Oddisee led an adventuresome double life. He’d spend the school year in Prince George’s County, Md., near Washington, D.C., (his mother’s hometown). Then the lad would while away summers in Khartoum with his emigrant father’s side of the family — camping in the desert, exploring Nubian pyramids, swimming in the Nile.

Oddisee with Good Compny With: Olivier St. Louis When: 9 p.m. May 20 Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: $20 (21 + over) Info: www.lh-st.com

“I loved my childhood in Sudan. I’d feel like Indiana Jones,” reminisced the artist born Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, who headlines Lincoln Hall May 20, along with his five-piece band, Good Compny. He even characterized the crocodiles famously lurking in the world’s longest river as not much more than a minor nuisance: “If you’re from there, you know which parts of the Nile are inhabited by crocs. And you stay clear of those areas.”

In a recent phone interview, Oddisee, 32, credited his dual ethnicity with instilling in him not only “an appreciation for what I have,” but also his disciplined, assiduous work ethic. “I definitely work like an immigrant,” he asserted.

The intrepid indie label Mello Music Group recently released Oddisee’s 11th studio album, “The Iceberg.” Pitchfork magazine applauds it as “a focused beam of live-band and hip-hop soul that rattles loudly in our present political moment” (one highlight, “Like Really,” is pointedly, sarcastically anti-Trump without mentioning his name). Topical and thought-provoking, multilayered and lustrous, it’s Oddisee’s latest entry in a discography teeming with albums, EPs, singles, mixtapes, guest appearances and productions – many, many productions.



You could say it all started with pictures, because Oddisee had shown considerable flair for visual art practically since infancy. As he entered young adulthood, though, a new creative passion emerged: hip-hop. Sparked by the music of rap acts from nascent superstar Jay-Z to the eclectic, Afrocentric crew A Tribe Called Quest, “I got into writing lyrics and rapping in school at the lunch table,” he related.

“And then I got into production. When I realized that I could actually make a living from production, I stopped drawing and illustrating and painting, and pursued music,” Odisee said. “I didn’t want to do anything else.”

Constructing musical beats for a plenitude of clients “enabled me to have multiple tracks out simultaneously with different artists, without oversaturating myself,” Oddisee explained, noting, “[So] I put my writing on the back burner.” But “once things started to balance out financially, I thought I’d switch the focus back to my own writing.” His full-length album debut, “People Hear What They See,” received 2012’s iTunes Music Award for best hip-hop album.

And the accolades have kept coming. One is from Complex magazine – the pop-culture arbiter placed Oddisee at No. 10 on its list of “The 23 Best Rappers Who Started As Producers” (for comparison, Kanye is No. 1).

“There aren’t many producer/rappers like Oddisee,” observed Chicago hip-hop figure Verbal Kent, an MC for whom the now Brooklyn-based artist has produced assorted tracks since 2007. “His ear is phenomenal, but his heart and soul might stick out more when listening to him.” Plus, said Kent, “His hustle inspires musicians who do what they do for the love.”

Oddisee and Good Compny are in the midst of a massive world tour called Beneath the Surface, a reference to “The Iceberg” and its theme of digging past life’s veneer. A prominent example is the powerful track “You Grew Up,” a finely-observed portrait of prejudice inexorably devolving into tragedy.

“We as children are born essentially the same, but we are indoctrinated into our fears and our beliefs,” Oddisee said. The song’s main character is his fictionalized version of a white childhood friend, one who “may very well have turned into a person fearful enough of black people to shoot on sight” – more the fault of that indoctrination than of the essential person.

“I grew up with people constantly talking about their differences, and I felt like I was one of the only ones who knew how similar they were,” Oddisee reflected. “And I try to use my music to bridge that gap.”

Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.

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