In The Lab with Oddisee

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

DMV-bred, Brooklyn-based rapper/producer Oddisee released two projects earlier this week, and there’s reason to be excited about both. The first, The Beauty in All, is an instrumental album, and the official follow-up to his critically acclaimed LP People Hear What They See, which was easily one of the dopest and most impressive solo hip-hop releases of 2012. The second is Tangible Dream, a mixtape that comes free with your purchase of The Beauty in All and not only features original production and raps by Oddisee, but also a brand new song with his group Diamond District, who is slated to return next year with the follow-up to their exceptional 2009 debut album In The Ruff.

To get a better feel for the themes presented in these two new projects, and how they were created, we caught up with Oddisee for our latest In The Lab feature to discuss the compact mobile studio that he uses while he’s traveling the world on tour (he’s on the road most of the year), his unique method of creating beats inside Pro Tools, where he draws inspiration from for his lyrics and tracks, his home studio essentials (espresso and shisha!), and much more, including information on the status of the upcoming Diamond District album. Check out the interview below, and make sure you cop The Beauty in All on Bandcamp to receive Tangible Dream on the house.

The Beauty in All

Oddisee: “I had known that the next record I wanted to do was an instrumental album. I kind of like to float back and forth between vocal releases and instrumental releases. That way, I won’t oversaturate myself in one or the other. So I knew that after People Hear What They See, I wanted to do an instrumental record. I had some beats put aside for it, that didn’t make it onto vocal albums that I could touch up on. Once the record started to form itself, then I went in and made the remaining tracks on the record to make it all come together.”

Making Beats on the Road

“My environment plays a huge role in my creative process. I touch on that a lot on Tangible Dream. With The Beauty in All, just like with my other records, I’m on the road, doing a minimum of 100 to 120 shows a year, up to 180 sometimes. I spend almost half the year out of the country and on the road. So I’ve adjusted my studio to being a mobile studio, so anywhere I go [I can work on music].

“The one thing that is consistent is that I definitely try to have a schedule. Wherever I’m at, I do my best to wake up early, shower, eat my breakfast, have my coffee, catch up on some news, then I start creating. I’ll have a late lunch, where I take about an hour or two off, come back in and go straight through the evening. I try my best to do two to three tracks a day at a minimum. But when I’m touring, and I have shows, I try to do one track a day. And those tracks end up getting done on the plane, on the tour bus, on the train, at the hotel, and I try to keep my productivity up like that.”

Mobile Studio

“The studio is really, really consolidated. It’s a hard drive full of samples, headphones, and my laptop. When I am back home in New York, I’m lucky to have a lot of friends that collect a lot of records. So I load up my hard drive so I basically have a record store on my hard drive.”

Creating Beats Inside Pro Tools

“To be honest, all machines are computers, but the process of [creating beats using Pro Tools and using an MPC or some other sort of beat machine] is relatively the same. It may not start at my turntable, but it starts at somebody’s turntable, converting the record to a WAV form. That WAV form gets put on my hard drive. And, I come from sampling out of boxes as well. So instead of hitting record on my beat machine, I import the WAV into Pro Tools. I start chopping it up and arranging it, and I use the grid in Pro Tools to line everything up. It’s kind of lick piecing a puzzle together. I just click and drag.

“I always tell people it’s the difference between knowing how to do a math problem in your head, and needing a calculator to do a math problem. With a beat machine, there’s a lot more trial and error, where you get to chop something up and play around with it, beating on the MPC pads, trying to figure something out randomly. I basically do that same process, but I just do it in my head. Like, ‘If I play it this way, it will sound like this. If I play it this way, it will sound like that.’ Then I arrange it on the grid and see if I’m right or wrong. The more you do it, the more efficient you get.”

Gathering Samples

“I never really have a specific genre that I like to pull samples from. Lately, I’ve sampled less and less anyway, and used a lot more live instrumentation. But I guess all my music is deeply rooted in old music. That’s something that’s undeniable.

“For me, being on the road, and trying to make beats and do shows, time efficiency and time management is the only way I can get anything done. So the times that I designate to dig through my hard drive are the times when I have writer’s block, or beat block. Or, I’m not in an environment to make a track, but it’s a cool [place] for me to just listen to music. When I’m back in New York looking for samples, I’ll spend days and days just listening to records, while I’m cleaning, cooking, sending emails, whatever. And when I hear something I like, I’ll stop it, and put it into a specific folder that says it’s something that I want to use for later. And then I’ll let that folder accumulate while I’m home. Then, when I go back out on the road, I really don’t have to go through the rest of the hard drive. I’ll just go to that specific folder and start using that stuff, because I know it’s heat already.”

Home Studio Essentials

“I call [my home studio outfit] the sweatsuit of leisure. [Laughs.] I make some shisha. I smoke a lot of shisha. I always have that going on in the studio. And I drink a lot of coffee. Espresso. In the morning time, I have my espresso, and my breakfast, then I start making tracks. Then I bring my blood sugar back up with lunch and keep working, but I don’t have coffee again. Then, in the evening, I have my shisha, and zone out to what I made, and start listening to records and stuff. I don’t smoke weed or cigarettes, never have. But I do smoke shisha, or hookah. Whatever you want to call it. We call it shisha where I’m from.”

Inspiration

With The Beauty in All, like most of my records, I try to theme them around something I’m observing in life. The theme of this record was paying attention to the things that we take for granted. The ugly things that make the beautiful things. I’m in Seattle at a coffee shop right now. My booking agent is sitting across from me on a lawn chair outside. And there’s no grass on the ground in the spot where his chair is. So you would say that’s an imperfection because there’s no grass there. But, people love this place, and sit there all the time, even though there’s no grass there. So that’s basically the concept of the record. That flower that grows between the concrete.

“I did my best to capture that mood wise. I used a lot of darker, organ sounds. A lot of lo-fi drums. Things that were intentionally imperfect, to kind of create something beautiful at the same time. I also used a lot of influences from my travels. The last track on the record features a drum pattern that’s from Sudanese music, [which is where my family is from]. I love to incorporate the sounds and rhythms [from other cultures]. I used a hip-hop drum kit, but a Sudanese rhythm.

I’m always trying to find the beauty in everything I see. I’m fortunate enough to travel and see the world through my music, and I always want to put that back into my records. It’s a tedious task, trying to interpret what I experience through music. I think the drums are what help me do it best. It’s always the drums. The speed of the drums, the brightness of them, the grittiness of them. They really set the tone for what I’m trying to create.

“I like aesthetics in all things. I been pulling a lot of inspiration from designers, and architects. People that put a lot into their brand, and have this amazing ability to create something complex, but make it look simple. I’m a minimalist at heart, and I do my best to do the same with my music. Like, how can I be as clear and concise as possible, and get my point across in the least amount of time, in an effective way? How can I make it as potent as possible, without a lot of the extra bullshit? Meaning, too many songs, or being redundant with subject matter when I rhyme, or touching on the same concept from one track to the next. How can I be as diverse as possible, but make it seem seamless and fluent? Not too complex where it goes over people’s heads, but not underdeveloped at the same time. And a lot of brands that I wear, I’m fans of them for those reasons.

I Love Ugly is a clothing company that I really love. I find that they are masters at giving great design, and a level of distinguishment to streetwear, without it seeming too young or too old to be approachable. And that’s kind of where I’m at in my life. I’m not gonna wear some crazy shit that a lot of the younger kids are wearing, but I’m not some old head that’s just about to put it up and where a suit. That line in between, I appreciate that in their clothing. It’s sharp, it’s intelligent, it’s diverse. I can go out to dinner with it, rock a show with it, do a press photo wearing it, and it all makes sense. And that’s what I want my music to do. I want parents to listen to my music. High school kids. I want a wide demographic to feel that my music is approachable. I get a lot of inspiration from writers, too. Malcolm Gladwell is a huge influence on a lot of my music.”

Southern Influence in Brooklyn

My favorite beat on The Beauty in All is ‘Caprice Down.’ That’s an ode to being back home, riding in a bubble, cruising down to the city with my homies. And everytime I listen to it, it reminds me of that. I made that in my house in New York, and it was inspired by all the music I hear in my neighborhood. I live in Bed-Stuy, and all I hear in my neighborhood is southern rap. All you hear is trill. All you hear is trap music. So the drum patterns were kind of influenced by that. And the irony of me moving from Maryland to New York, and all I hear is music from below the Mason-Dixon line. [Laughs.]“

Writing Rhymes for Tangible Dreams

I haven’t put pen to paper since the Sidekick. [Laughs.] That’s for real. I love writing on paper, don’t get me wrong. But again, that time management, and efficiency. Writing in my iPhone, and being able to save it [is essential]. I’ve lost enough rhyme books to be jaded about writing in a book. Now I know everything is backed up to my iCloud once I write it. The Internet also has brought along a fan that really appreciates reading lyrics. And it’s just a bitch in general to [read your writing off a pad and type it up to put on the web]. I’m definitely about writing on my phone, where I can just upload it and put it right there on Bandcamp, and all the sites that post the lyrics. That way, I also know that I’m being quoted right.

“I do most of my writing while I’m walking around. I pop the headphones on, and listen to an instrumental. I walk around wherever I’m at, and just start writing rhymes. The majority of Tangible Dream was written in Berlin. I stayed for a month and a half there this year working on records, and I wrote the majority of it there. Berlin has a crazy history, and the separation between east and west. I was staying in a neighborhood called Neukölln, which is New Cologne in English, and it’s historically and predominantly a neighborhood for immigrants. Predominantly Turkish people, and Muslim. I was there during Ramadan, and it’s cool to be there at that time. It was a really good place for me to be. And knowing the history of Berlin and Germany, and being a black man writing rhymes for a hip-hop record in a Muslim neighborhood in Berlin, do I need to say anything else about the type of inspiration that could provoke?”

The Meaning Behind “Yeezus Was a Mortal Man”

“I’m Muslin, and in Islam, we do acknowledge Jesus Christ as a prophet, but we don’t acknowledge him as the son of God. So in Islam, we say Jesus Christ was just a mortal man. On this record, there’s a whole popular fad right now of religious iconography. You see it in the videos, and in the artwork, of artists like Kanye West and Jay Z. And Jay Z was calling himself Hov for quite some time, and Kanye’s calling himself Yeezus. And Ye looks at Jay as his older brother, so what is this, God and Jesus? Me, I’m not really for all of that. I’m Muslim. I don’t even agree with artists saying, ‘I am a God.’ I don’t believe that any man on earth is a God. No disrespect to the Five Percenters, that’s just my own belief.

“So for Tangible Dream, the whole concept of the record is there are too many rappers selling you this idea that you can’t go to Paris unless you have a Lear or a G5 jet. You can’t go out and have a nice night unless you have a Black Card and you have no budget. Where in fact, I was in Paris a couple weeks ago shopping in Colette, and as I’m walking out of the store, Kanye walks in the store. The week before, I was in Czech Republic performing at a festival, and just as I was going on stage to do my set, Kendrick Lamar was coming off stage. So according to the hip-hop world, I can’t shop at the same places as Kanye, but I’m doing that already. And that’s what this record is all about. I know these people are mortal men, just like me. They’re in the same stores, and on the same stages as me. I’m not on MTV or BET, but I make a living from my music. And that’s what I’m trying to convey and get across to people. It’s a feasible reality.

“My girl saw Kanye first, and was like, ‘Can I get a picture!?’ And he was like, ‘Cool.’ But she was so starstruck, that she took so long to realize that he said yes, so he was like, ‘I guess you don’t want one,’ and just went into the store. [Laughs.] It was a funny interaction, but he was actually a really nice, down to earth guy. I didn’t get a chance to speak to Kendrick, because he was coming off as I was getting ready to go on. But I watched his set on the side of the stage with Fashawn, and he killed it.”

The Return of Diamond District

“[The final song on Tangible Dream] ‘Bonus Flow’ is to let everyone know that we’re coming back. That’s probably my favorite song on Tangible Dream right now at this moment. If I was a fan, I’d have the fear of God in me if I heard that track. [Laughs.] It’s crazy. Everyone murdered that. We’re eight songs done [with the new album], and we’re wrapping up the record when I come home. This track is on there to remind people that nothing’s wrong, we’re in the lab, we’re grinding. The record will be done by December, and will be out in early 2014.

“Four of the tracks were done at my studio in New York, and four were done via the Internet. We had to collab that way because of our schedules. I’m doing my best to get us all in the same place at the same time, because that’s when I feel we make our best music. So that’s why I postponed working on the rest of it until December. I definitely got all the beats done, and I can send them out, but I think we bring the best out of each other when we’re in the same place at the same time. I’ll be home for like three weeks in December, and we’ll bang that out. The last record, In The Ruff, we did that in two weeks. But, it was two weeks of us being in the same spot at the same time every day.

“[The beats I pull for Diamond District] just have that boom bap, heavy hitting sound that makes you love the world and at the same time want to punch somebody in the face. [Laughs.] I’d like to wait [on sending them the beats for this project]. I kind of get my Fidel Castro on when it comes to the production on the record. I like to deal with entirety. What will happen if I give them the beats now is XO will come up with a subject matter and start writing, and yU will come up with a subject matter and start writing, and I’ll have my ideas in my head. Then, when we come to the table, we’ll have three different subject matters and verses written that are about completely different things. Whereas when we’re in the same room, those three subject matters get talked about, and they somehow become one, and then we all come from different perspectives on the same thing. And that’s when we make our best music.”

Photos via Oddisee’s Instagram

Previously: In The Lab with Pete RockIn The Lab with Party Supplies | In The Lab with Mac Miller | In The Lab with Roc Marciano