In a 2013 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Daddy Kev, cofounder of the Los Angeles electronic club night Low End Theory, was questioned about the future of instrumental hip-hop, which had recently revitalized L.A.'s music underground. His response was hopeful, citing an unprecedented influx of new talent and a constant slew of "interesting, challenging instrumental records" as proof positive of the genre's health.
But he tempered this optimism with a shot of realism. He noted that among the thousands of acts he's worked with, the lion's share of indie artists seem to have "one good idea, usually their first album" and "everything they do after that is an attempt to get back to that." The most promising artists, he said, were those "who can show [they] have more than one idea, maybe five, album-length." One thinks of DJ Shadow, a scene veteran who has famously pursued a smattering of genres, from hazy cloud rap to blown-out American dubstep, and refused to simply re-create the scene-defining sampledelia of his debut record, 1996's Entroducing, in spite what his fans might expect.
Of course, Kev's claim that indie artists do not create anything new or valuable after their biggest release is reductive. Plenty of examples, particularly in hip-hop production, refute his contention—see Knxwledge, DJ Quik, Prefuse 73. Through the prism of modern music marketing, however, his statement is darkly illuminating. Think about the histrionic attention-at-all-costs PR cycle that comes with every album rollout these days, built on a dynamic where "decent" records without dramatic stylistic shifts tend to fall between the cracks. Unless an album is hailed as a return to form or has some SEO-friendly element to catch eyes, it runs the risk of being ignored. Thus, fantastic artists fly under the radar simply because they do not slot easily into dominating narratives.
A prime exemplar of this situation is Oddisee. Born Amir Mohamed, the Washington, D.C., native has slowly bubbled up over the last decade as one of the underground's most reliable hip-hop talents. His sprawling, unwieldly discography currently spans some two dozen releases and defies easy categorization. For every gritty, lyrical boom-bap record (2009's In the Ruff, which he recorded as a member of D.C. rap group Diamond District) there is an instrumental project, like 2011's conceptual Rock Creek Park or last year's lush, contemplative The Odd Tape. On Odd Renditions Vol. 001, from 2012, he attempted a sort of postmodern remix project that involved grafting original arrangements onto otherwise unadulterated songs by Bon Iver and Metronomy. His batting average has been fantastic, though as a result of his eclecticism he's never had what you would call a "breakout record." He's had champions in the blogosphere throughout his career, but until recently Odd remained an underground curio.
Last month, he dropped his latest album, The Iceberg, via Mello Music Group. The record is a slick, punchy collection of soulful live-band hip-hop, with frequent nods to jazz, roller disco, house music, and boom-bap revivalist rap. This time out, he plumbs his Sudanese heritage for inspiration and continues to covet the intimate and specific. "You Grew Up" weaves a true-life tale of a childhood friend who, due to situational circumstances, grew to hate immigrants and eventually became a cop. Album opener "Digging Deep" is a plea for empathy and active, considered resistance in our bleak political times.
Like most of his releases, The Iceberg deftly walks that invisible line between socially conscious and preachy. And like most of his releases, it does surprisingly little to draw attention to itself. It didn't launch on the back of incendiary interview quotes, despite a fair a bit of press. There were no PR stunts, and almost no guest features.
While The Iceberg still isn't quite a breakout record, several critics have favorably compared Oddisee's live instrumentation to the pockets that Anderson.Paak and Kendrick Lamar have been working in. This might account for Odd's increased profile as of late, which is certainly surprising for a thirty-two-year old independent artist in a genre that primarily feeds off youth. Despite continuing to follow the path he always has, one of rap's most underrated exports appears to have fallen backward into a cultural moment. While the comparison could be seen as backhanded, the man himself seems to take it in stride. As he says on "Rain Dance," "I ain't jealous or offended/I'm just glad to see reactions to a style that I invented."
This article appeared in print with the headline "No Bars Necessary."