When Chicago producer oddCouple opens the door at Soundscape Studios, his smile is bright. After he gestures for me to come inside, he tinkers around in the kitchen and pours himself a drink, energetically singing under his breath. oddCouple—née Zach Henderson—has a presence that is immediately felt, largely because of his height: Standing at 6'6", he towers over most people in a room. When we sit down, he eases back in a barbershop-style chair, his long legs sitting on the sill of a nearby window. He's just gotten off from his day job at the startup SpotHero; though it's been a long work week, his attitude is still upbeat, especially as he talks about music.
You might be familiar with oddCouple through his recent collaborations with Chance the Rapper, Jamila Woods, and Joey Purp—and most recently, through his star-studded mixtape Liberation. Though he might be a new face to some, he's actually been involved in Chicago hip-hop for years.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, oddCouple had multiple entry points into music. After he began playing the upright bass in his middle school's orchestra, his 19-year-old brother started giving him music to listen to. "In seventh grade, I'm the only like 12-year-old who knows every word to every song on The Blueprint," oddCouple says.
But around the same age, his dad passed away from cirrhosis of the liver; music became something oddCouple clung to, to fill the void. He soon discovered that Kanye West had a huge hand in producing The Blueprint and was hooked on the Chicago producer's sound. Then, in ninth grade, a classmate asked him to listen to a beat he made, and put oddCouple onto FL Studio. "Once I dug in, the next thing I know is like, damn, I've been making a beat every day after school for three months."
He moved to Chicago in 2007 to attend DePaul University and was still making beats. While in school, he met a handful of people who are now elemental to the city's rap scene, including Chance the Rapper and his manager Pat Corcoran. oddCouple's first incarnation was as a duo; together, Henderson and his musical partner Tony Roche released the project Separated at Birth. Among other highlights, the project includes the Chance-featuring "Burn This City," which Henderson solely produced. oddCouple split up in 2012, and Henderson kept the name. But he felt a sense of loss after he parted ways with his partner.
"I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my career, even if I was going to have a career," he recalls. "Maybe I'm not meant to be the star of the show, maybe I'm just meant to be helping someone else." Still, he kept working with musicians and releasing music as oddCouple. Then, in 2013, while working on his next release Chatterbox the Chicago-based indie label Closed Sessions gave him a call. It became a partnership that gave him a definitive boost and showed him that he has a stake in hip-hop.
2016 has been a big year for oddCouple. He released some of his biggest songs this year—Joey Purp's "Morning Sex," Jamila and Chance the Rapper's "LSD," Jamila and Noname's "VRY BLK"—and dropped his biggest project yet, Liberation, which features a bevy of Chicago and Milwaukee musicians, including Kweku Collins, Mick Jenkins, Purp, Jamila, and GLC.
Sonically, each track is just as varied as each guest verse, more pop-laden beats, like "Slept On," paired with straightforward rap songs like "Visions" and ethereal, ghostly cuts like "Palms." Still, each song easily melds with the next, and that's because there's a shared message of liberation—of freedom.
Noisey: What was it like being in Chicago when the city's rap renaissance started?
oddCouple: Everything was exciting. I really felt like part of it even if I wasn't part of it, just because I knew how much work went into it—I knew how much care went into it. There are so many Acid Rap demos of my tracks that were gonna go on there until the album dropped on April 30. Up until March, I was on that. I didn't make the cut, but I know looking back on it that those songs had to have influenced other tracks because they're demos for the album. It was just cool being a part of that process and knowing that you had something to do with it.
Moving forward, Chance the Rapper opening up the bubble and the whole bubble just really creating off what he was doing, what Vic Mensa was doing, what Mick Jenkins was doing. It was really dope to have somebody else carry that torch and you really see how much you can get done, how much you can really accomplish without having to move to LA or New York.
So this was in 2013?
Yeah. You could feel people were starting to rebrand the city. Like drill had just popped off here the year before, too, so it's really all about violence. Everyone was like, "Oh, people in Chicago, all they do is shoot and kill each other." You could really feel people were rallying around a different identity for the city.
And you connected with Closed Sessions that year?
Toward the end of that year, maybe September. I was like, "I don't know if putting all these hours into making beats and them not even getting heard most of the time is worth it." I was like, "Fuck it, I'm gonna try one more time. I'm working on this beat tape, and I'm gonna make it as hot as I possibly can, and this is going to be everything I got." Then around the same time, when I got about halfway done, Closed Sessions hit me up.
We started talking and working out of the studio. At this point, I had nothing to lose. I remember, when I first got in the studio, like my first real session was with Joey Purp, and that's when we made "Morning Sex." That was my first legitimate session with any artist.
It's kind of an old song then.
It is. It was gonna be the intro on my project. We started rapping and recording, and he was like, "Nah bro, I gotta keep this." I was just like, "Dude I'm just happy to be in the studio with you. Take it."
"Morning Sex" is exactly what I envisioned when I made the beat, and that was just like, for me, ahead of its time because I wasn't that dope yet. That was a breakthrough. Like shit, I can make beats like that. Even now, talking to Joey, he's like, "Man, I found my sound with that song." And for me, I learned how to be a producer—not just a beatmaker, but a producer with that song.
I was going through like the hardest time as a musician in late 2013. It's crazy because all of the hottest tracks, my biggest shit that came out this year, they got started then. Literally, these beats were my last chance. "LSD," pretty much 75 to 80 percent of that beat was made in late 2013. "Morning Sex," same thing. "Way Up" off Jamila's Heavn, same thing. I think I made that in early 2014. So I think the breakthrough was just having those pipedream beats that I made—and the gratifying thing is for that to work out after two years, three years of trying.
I remember you tweeting once about how important producing Jamila's song "VRY BLK" was to you.
I know firsthand, being with my mom and her holding me up through the hardest time in my life, that I didn't even know was the hardest time in my life—my mom is just like holding it down. To work on a song called "VRY BLK" with two of the strongest female musicians in Chicago, message-wise and just Jamila's conviction—she believes in what is right. I don't really know anybody else who's carrying the mantle like that, in a way that Jamila does. Being able to make a song like that, that's just a war cry when we're literally getting killed out in the streets without people even being questioned more than once about it—being able to make a song that people can rally around, it's surreal.
The name Liberation feels like an extension of Jamila's album, in some ways.
I explain it to people like this: I had gone through moderate success from my first project. People started to know who I was—it really was a reintroduction of who I am and really got artists to pay attention. All I wanted to get out of it was to see if I had another chance in this game.
After that, I put Chatterbox out, and I got reception. I got little things that really made me feel like, okay I have a place in this. I'm gonna be a producer for a while at least. But at the same time, I wasn't happy. There's a difference between being happy and content. I wasn't content with anything.
"When you start to forgive yourself, you can forgive other people for things that they didn't even know they did."
A lot of times, people just think they'll get over things, or they'll just let things go. Or it'll go away, and it doesn't—it manifests itself in other ways. I just really started to look at things and why I was acting the way I was acting, and why I was feeling the way I was feeling. Just found out I needed closure on a lot of shit. You lose your dad at 12 and everybody asks you if you're okay and you just say "yeah" every time. You don't ever really dive into why you're not okay. I haven't been okay.
I started piecing things together within myself. A lot of things that I can talk about now, I could still talk about freely back then, but I'd be hiding how I truly felt about it. But I don't feel that way anymore. I feel really free, real happy.
Exactly. So like I started to really look at myself and look at shit that I had fucked up in my own life. I really started to forgive myself. When you start to forgive yourself, you can forgive other people for things that they didn't even know they did. I had animosity towards my own family, my own mom, my own brother.
I really started to think outside of myself, but also within myself, if that makes sense. Look at you and analyze you, and once you can do that, you can really start to understand this shit don't revolve around you. You can't control everything. Accept it, move on. In doing that, you really do embrace you, truly. At the same time, all this shit is going on: Bombings in Paris, black lives getting slaughtered in the streets. I'm finding personal freedom, but my people are not.
Liberation is a pretty heavy word. When you hear it, it pushes you to think what liberation or freedom means to you.
It is very subjective. Liberation means so many different things to so many different people. To us, it's equality. To some people, it's literal freedom. But for me, it means being free as a person but also understanding that we need real freedom—that everyone needs to have some sort of real liberation.
Photos courtesy of Closed Sessions
Tara Mahadevan is a writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter.