Oddisee: Hip-Hop Leaves The City Rapper Amir Elkhalifa, better known as Oddisee, grew up in Prince George's County, Md., the wealthiest majority black county in the U.S. Not long ago, his suburban roots might have been considered a strike against his legitimacy in hip-hop. But Oddisee says it's not an issue now thanks to rapper-producers like Kanye West and Pharrell.
NPR logo

Oddisee: Hip-Hop Leaves The City

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128285608/128290725" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Oddisee: Hip-Hop Leaves The City

Oddisee: Hip-Hop Leaves The City

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128285608/128290725" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

The Brookings Institution released a report last month that showed for the first time in American history, most ethnic minorities live in suburbs. And it coincided with something that's been happening in hip-hop and rap: MCs that aren't talking about the streets of the city but the strip malls of the suburbs - places like Prince George's County in Maryland.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm from PG")

ODDISEE (Rapper): (Singing) 'Cause I'm from PG, I rep DMV, I step easily. Now, who's saying me? Nah. You got a problem, bring it on. You know that I'm a (unintelligible) sing along. Yeah. 'Cause I'm from PG, I rep DMV, I step easily. Now, who's saying me? Nah...

RAZ: All the music you'll hear in this story, including this track called "I'm from PG," was produced, recorded and written by a rapper named Emir Mohammad Elkhalifa, who calls himself Oddisee.

ODDISEE: When I was younger, I read "The Odyssey" and "Iliad" by Homer. And so I wanted my music to take people on journeys beyond just where they're from to another place. That's where the name really came from, Just wanting my music to be a journey for people.

RAZ: Oddisee grew up in Prince George's County, Maryland; that's just outside Washington, D.C. It's the wealthiest majority African-American county in the country. There was a time not so long ago when a rapper wasn't considered legitimate unless he spoke about life in the city.

ODDISEE: I think we're coming into an age where people were coming out and admitting that they're from the suburbs 'cause they've been from the suburbs. Kanye is from the suburbs; Pharrell is from the suburbs. These are the people who dominate the music industry right now. These are the reason why jeans are tighter in the hood because these are the reason why kids are on skateboards in the hood now. The transformation has been underway for a long time now.

RAZ: A transformation that's inspired a whole new crop of hip-hop artists who are returning to the earlier roots of rap - East Coast hip-hop that was once dominated by MCs, like Eric B and Rakim, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, music that spoke to rappers like Oddisee.

ODDISEE: It just related to where I came from. They didn't talk about crack, drugs, killing, murder.

RAZ: The hood.

ODDISEE: No, they didn't. And it made sense to me.

RAZ: And yet you wouldn't call the music Oddisee makes necessarily safe or (unintelligible). He tackles subjects ranging from boredom to false bravado to the dramatic inequality he witnessed as a kid living in a comfortable place where almost everyone he knew was black.

ODDISEE: When you grow up with opportunity, yet poverty and drastic differences in your lifestyle is so close and the proximity is so close to one another, it directly affects the type of music you listen to and the type of music you make.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Prince George's County straddles the border of some of the roughest parts of Washington, D.C. And while the county might also be home to some of the wealthiest African-Americans in the country, it was also a place where 92 people were murdered last year.

ODDISEE: The urban issues made their way to the suburbs the same day that blacks who could afford to move out of D.C. to escape D.C. in the '80s, the day they moved, the issues came with them.

RAZ: Oddisee is part of a loose collective of rappers, producers and R and B singers who identify with a regional sound known as DMV - DMV for the District, Maryland and Virginia.

ODDISEE: D.C. sits in the middle of the East Coast. We're not quite southern and we're not quite northern. We're a direct amalgamation of northern and southern culture. And that has given our music an identity. It's East Coast rap with a southern twang.

RAZ: It's a sound that's rooted in a particular kind of funk that was created in Washington. It's called go-go. And so unlike hip-hop trends in other parts of the country, the DMV sound is less about sampling and more about creating original music with swinging percussion and identifiable rhythms.

(Soundbite of song, "Let the Party Roll")

Mr. CHUCK BROWN (Jazz Guitarist): (Singing) Let the party roll (let the body roll), around, round and round...

ODDISEE: We are really accustomed to live instrumentation because of go-go music, which originated from funk. And that's something that really makes us different from lots of other scenes of hip-hop around the country.

(Soundbite of song, "Let the Party Roll")

Mr. BROWN: (Singing) On the east side (let the party roll), on the west side (let the party roll)...

RAZ: This track is called "The Party Roll" by D.C. jazz guitarist Chuck Brown. He's considered the godfather of go-go.

Mr. ANDREW NOZ (Blogger, CBRap.com): D.C. is a really unique American city because it's one of the few predominantly black cities where hip-hop never really took a hold.

RAZ: That's Andrew Noz. He's a hip-hop blogger who writes at CBRap.com.

Mr. NOZ: D.C. has always been a go-go city, which is a, you know, a style of music that's--it's derived from funk and kind of conga driven. It's live music. It's not rapping over records.

(Soundbite of song, "Let the Party Roll")

Mr. BROWN: (Singing) Let the party roll...

RAZ: A short time after he finished high school, Oddisee moved from PG County, Maryland to Washington, D.C. He saw how once low-income neighborhoods were transformed with high-rent condos and fancy restaurants, something he has mixed feelings about.

ODDISEE: A decline in authenticity in the neighborhoods, mom and pop chains and, you know, southern restaurants being replaced by franchises.

RAZ: And it's the subject of his track called "Gentrification."

(Soundbite of song, "Gentrification")

ODDISEE: (Singing) Starbucks here and a Starbucks there. How much coffee you need? My God, it's unfair. They move away from the burbs to escape the monotony, bring along with them their Pilates and pottery...

RAZ: On this track, he performs with his frequent collaborators, XO and YU. Together, they're known as Diamond District. The song, "Gentrification," is in part about how high rents in Washington, D.C. have pushed out more and more poor and middle-class residents into the suburbs.

But like almost all of Oddisee's work, this track isn't necessarily angry but rather observational, even wistful. And he thinks that that perspective is increasingly coming to dominate hip-hop.

RAZ: We're in a comfortable state right now. There is no - the rebels have no cause right now. There's nothing truly to fight for. We have a black president. The same issues and divides that we've faced in previous decades have lessened and dwindled. I'm not saying they're completely gone, but we're definitely as blacks in a more comfortable state.

You don't have to be so aggressive and hardcore, and it's actually frowned upon right now. Soulja Boy's newest single, I just heard, is called "Pretty Boy Swag." You were made fun of if you were considered a pretty boy when I was in high school.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Now, as much as Oddisee is Washington, D.C., PG County, the DMV, he's also on his way up as a producer. He was recognized pretty early on by the hit-making DJ Peter Rosenberg, who has a show on the influential New York station Hot 97. And so even with the DMV ethic flowing through his sound, Oddisee is leaving the city in the coming months and headed to New York.

ODDISEE: D.C. and DMV is an amazing place to create music but there's no industry here.

RAZ: He's already had contacts with some of the biggest names in hip-hop, like Kanye West and The Roots. And while he wished it were different, it won't be the strip malls of the D.C. suburbs that will make Oddisee a star, but rather the streets of the city, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And if you'd like to hear more music by Oddisee, check out our website, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening and have a great night.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.