April 12, 2019
Jakob ‘ODF J-Top’ Oudhof Topur is a 20-year-old hip-hop artist and musician. He works as an artist for Liberty City Records and as a game master for Escape World in Waterlooplein. ODF, who was born and raised in Amsterdam, sits down to talk about his music and the personal journey that took him from dark days of drugs and drinking to inspiration and light. ODF is the fifth and final face of The Creatives Series, published every Friday for the past weeks in The Amsterdammer.
I whisk past the construction sites on the residential Island of IJburg as I make my way to an Espressofabriek cafe to meet ODF J-Top. I have never been to IJburg, and I still don’t know my interviewee’s full name. Like any good hip-hop artist, ODF signs his last message to me with a humorously rapper-esque diamond emoji; in person he is an open book and curiously down to earth.
“Jos! That’s a good one, that’s funny but no, it’s Jakob!” he laughs, after I ask him about his name. He explains his artist name as a series of abbreviations; ‘ODF’ for Oudhof, ‘J’ for Jakob, and ‘Top’ for ‘Topur’ – an ode to his family. As much as he believes that parents can present themselves as obstacles, they are the first people with whom a child will interact, and their initial source of inspiration.
ODF would be the first to describe himself as a big child at heart; he’s a lover of cold Chocomel and the simple things in life. He has even been a game master in an escape room for the past two years. The job consists in providing clues to game-players who attempt to escape from a mysterious room. ODF says that it has helped him grow socially to become more of an extrovert, and says the lessons he has learned in guiding people at work is something he likes to bring back home with him and into his personal life and music. “As much as I try to help friends, sometimes you have to do it by yourself. I give my advice and then I leave it like that,” he notes. “I’d say it’s the same in my music.”
ODF’s music has been on a long and difficult journey, starting with the first time he properly listened to a song at the age of around 8 or 9. “I got like a pocket radio. I have a twin sister and she got the same, and I figured out how to record a song.” He smiles, “I think that’s when I first listened to music.”
Before sustaining an injury, the artist’s main hobby growing up was basketball. He had to discover music entirely on his own as there were no classes being taught in his school that could foster his creativity. “School actually held me back a lot, if there ever was the incentive to start earlier with music. I’m grateful that there was much more I could explore by myself, but I could have explored it earlier.”
As stated on his website, he has been most inspired by the artistry of Nas, Outkast, MF Doom, the late Tupac, and more recently, Jedi Mind Tricks. Seemingly an old generation hip-hop enthusiast, I’m curious about his thoughts on new school generation hip-hop. “I think it’s good that there’s a lot of variation, it just pushes artists to be more unique. It’s also better for the artist who wants to put their own story out there, like me. You can’t be against it; that’s just how it is.”
That being said, ODF doesn’t label himself, let alone describe himself as a rapper. “The genre looks like a label on me, but I recently got into some pop songs. And if I say this is hip-hop, this is rap, well you could say that because of the rhyme scheme. But I don’t want people to say that I ‘sound a lot like’ [anyone]. I started with hip-hop, and the last years I got into poets like Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Rumi (the 13th century Persian poet).” His current interests diverge even further. “Classical piano music is really what I’m studying a lot now.”
If prodded, ‘poetry on a beat’ is how the musician would describe rap. “For the artists that really treat it with the respect that it deserves, it’s the most self-reflective, abstract music there is – [and] it keeps changing.”
ODF also has much praise for his employers at Liberty City Records, and the freedom they give him, especially in regards to creating without being labelled. When it comes to his own work, he writes the music to his lyrics, with a preference for English as Dutch is “too close to who [he] normally [is],” and has as much involvement as possible in the music videos that are released alongside his songs. “Though if I trust [someone else’s] vision, I will step aside and let them take over,” he adds.
On the way to our meeting, I listened to three of ODF’s songs: Interference, Amsterdam and Shift. I want to know more about the meaning of each of them. He leans towards me and lays his hands on the table. Interference, he says, is about “people [who] really don’t know what is stirring up inside of an artist, when they say they’re going to make something out of themselves. It’s an inner reality for the artist, but it’s 3 or 5 years off of what you see now […] I’ve learned that other people [can be] an interference.” Amsterdam critiques commercialisation and praises “the power of the individual cutting themselves off from a brand, and rising up.” Shift is more introspective, and refers to the recent changes in his life. “I learned a lot going through things that were painful mentally; I was praying for a better path because it was destroying me.”
ODF describes the path that was destroying him as an uncomfortable nightlife full of drugs and alcohol. “I’m talking nightlife, alcohol [abuse] and drugs. I actually felt incredibly uncomfortable, [and] I’m more respected now for not dabbling in it. I completely cut out all the ‘crooked shit’,” he says in reference to one of the verses in Amsterdam. “Because that is just not me. I’m sanctifying my life, and not dabbling in stuff that makes me feel bad.”
In fact, ODF’s journey ended up taking an unexpectedly spiritual turn. “Five months ago I found a church right here. I had something in my heart that was longing for something deeper, stuff you couldn’t really find in people. I was a Buddhist at first. I wasn’t really going to the temples, but kind of practicing that belief,” he laughs. “I even did Ramadan, and prayed once for a month.” ODF says that although he’s not really one for writing music about Christianity literally, and even his parent’s aren’t religious, his identity has changed because of God and he’s left dark days behind him.
“I’m actually glad that the music that’s been released is dated so that you can really see [the change]; if you track it from the first to the last song, then Flatline is probably the worst I felt. It refers to the ECG of a stopped heartbeat.” The lyrics reflect this: ‘No looking left and right at the stop sign / The vibe to say fuck the world if I flatline.’
“At the end of the song I’m saying that nothing can stop me now that I’ve found music, even at my lowest.” But his emotional attachment to his music has since taken a more positive turn. “I realised that the same way people can get depressed by music, they can get lifted up.” ODF says that his newest song Here is all about this feel-good vibe.
But not everyone in the community has managed to dig themselves out of the abyss of drugs and bling. “The drug and alcohol culture in hip-hop, I think it’s one of the greatest compared to other music,” he warns. “I don’t understand how it’s gotten so much attention when you look at what’s actually meaningful in life, [like] the love for people, or pouring your life out for people, instead of golden rings, diamond cars… It drags people into that same culture of carelessness. In the past, I used to go with that flow, but then even I cringed at it,” he sighs, leaning back into the sofa.
Other types of violence in the community, such as the one that seeps into the cracks of the artists’ lyrics, don’t necessarily come from a place of hatred but from a feeling of not belonging. “If I’m looking at myself, it was very necessary for me to be angry,” ODF laments. “I feel like I hadn’t found my place, and maybe a lot of people are feeling the same way in hip-hop. They are not in a place they want to be.”
When it comes to giving advice to others who might be writing lyrics or composing music, ODF says not to get overwhelmed by the interference, whether that comes from the outside or from oneself. “Fear and doubt are actually way more productive than people give them credit for. The first thing I recorded was really bad and I threw it away, but the next day I wanted to do it again. You’re going to be by yourself – that’s the most opposition you have.”
Flo McQuibban is Masters’ student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.