Ask Taha Othman Ahmad to describe his sound and the answer is “final boss music.”
In fact, the 23-year-old Palestinian American artist, better known as Odetari, is just as inspired by The Legend of Zelda as Playboi Carti. His music, which melds pitched-up rap hooks, glitchy trap flare and menacing club beats, captures the climactic melodies and energy of his favorite video games.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘I hit a new personal record in the gym today because of your song’ or ‘I went crazy on [battle royale game] Apex today because of you,” Ahmad tells Variety. “It just boots you up.”
Ahmad’s alias, Odetari, honors his Palestinian heritage (Odeh is his original family name), and his favorite pastime, by nodding to the pioneering video game company Atari. Inspired by Kingdom Hearts soundtracks and Tyler the Creator’s “Jamba,” Ahmad started producing and releasing music when he was 13, when his parents gifted him a Native Instruments “Maschine.”
It wasn’t until earlier this year that Ahmad’s music gained traction, when he was working as a high school substitute teacher in his native Houston. Around the time he got fired (he was admittedly more invested in uploading songs to SoundCloud than supervising teenagers), his music started to blow up on TikTok, where Ahmad grabbed users’ attention with bizarre video game edits.
“I made a Sonic [the Hedgehog] and Shadow edit, plugging their voices into AI and making them say obscure things,” Ahmad says. “Then my music would come in and rake in millions of views. People started asking, ‘What’s that song in the background?’ And a snowball effect happened.”
Ahmad capitalized on his virality, releasing “like nine songs in one week” and continuing to tack them onto funny TikTok videos. Just a few months after losing his job at the school, he shot to the top of Billboard’s EDM songwriters chart, passing David Guetta. He’s currently spending his 17th week atop that chart — and his fourth week as the No. 1 dance and electronic producer.
Ahmad’s music took off on TikTok because, in many ways, it’s tailored to a young, overstimulated audience. Averaging under two minutes in length, his songs reflect the sense of surprise and immediate gratification of a For You page.
“People’s attention spans are getting so short,” Ahmad says. “I’m keeping people engaged with this type of music. And there are no rules.”
On Sept. 13, Ahmad released his first proper Odetari EP, titled “XIII Sorrows.” Its opening track, “Hypnotic Data,” is a double espresso shot injected with frenetic vocals, bouncy synths and bravado (“Girl,” Ahmad snarls through distortion, “if you ain’t notice, this my world”). It’s pure adrenaline. Just after a minute and a half, it slows down and unwinds in classic Houston chopped-and-screwed fashion.
Most of Ahmad’s songs have a certain braggadocious disaffection. In the club jam “Good Loyal Thots,” he boasts, “Had to change my number ‘cause that bitch kept blowing up my phone / I lost all my feelings for that bitch as soon as I done boned.”
But Ahmad says he’s really a sweetheart, and that his music comes from a place of “anger and sadness, and maybe even regret.” Of “Good Loyal Thots,” he says, “As much as it seems like a playboy song, it’s really a heartbreak song. I made it because I was heartbroken, and I’m trying to boost myself up by acting like I’m not a lover boy, like ‘I don’t care about you and I got all these girls and fuck you.’ But it’s really the opposite.”
While he’s been dropping music for a decade, Ahmad has only just begun playing live, marking his performance debut at a New York show in June.
“I was super nervous,” he says. “But once people started asking for pictures before I got up onstage, I felt a little better. You get nervous about people not liking you, but you always make more of a big deal of it in your head than what the reality of things are.”
Asked about what his parents, who bought him his first digital instrument 10 years ago, think of his music, Ahmad says they “get some of it, but a lot they don’t understand.”
“They understand that it’s catchy. They understand the appeal,” he says. “My little brothers like it, so they listen to it all together in the car.”
But according to Ahmad, it took his parents a while to grasp his passion.
“Before everything it was like, ‘Follow your dreams, whatever, but you got to get a job and go to school and figure this life shit out,’” he says. “They didn’t not believe in me, it’s just such a one-in-a-million chance thing.”
But as Ahmad sits comfortably atop the EDM charts with nearly 9 million monthly Spotify listeners and more than 300 million streams, have their feelings changed?
“Oh,” he says with a chuckle. “They get it now.”