Seattle-bred, Michigan-based rapper Othello is a master of the live performance. Upon graduating high school in 2000, the soulful MC (born Tyson Pumphrey) hit the road and hasn’t stopped much since. From playing high security boys homes to churches to local boxing rings, he’s learned many a lesson along the way, maintaining that you “gotta give it all you got” no matter what the crowd looks like.
On a long drive from Kansas City to Boulder, Colorado, BallerStatus caught up with the 26-year-old spitter to find out how he pieced together his latest product, Alive At The Assembly Line, out now on Hip Hop IS Music.
BallerStatus.com: How did you get the name Othello?
Othello: It was really just a name I liked. I tried to make it deep like referencing the game of black and white chips and using the fact I’m mixed race (African American and Caucasian) to justify it, but that was more corny than deep. I even tried to play off of the Shakespeare play and try and figure out who my Iago was, but in the end the whole plot has nothing to do with my life or who I am. I’m not the jealous type that could be suspect for killing my wife or anything like that. It just boils down to the fact I dug the name.
BallerStatus.com: How was last night’s show?
Othello: The turnout wasn’t what we expected, but we always give it our all no matter what. There are always those few days on a tour where people don’t feel like going out. But we always have a good time and get down and perform and sweat hard for each other and those who are there.
BallerStatus.com: That’s refreshing. What are your tricks for hyping up a lackluster crowd?
Othello: It’s pretty rare, unless we’re in a territory where they’re really not into our kind of hip-hop. We take it all in stride — different strokes for different folks. Crunk crowds can be harder. But if you’re giving it all you got, they will respect that. If we show up deep in the South, and we’re on the bill with a local act that gets the most draw, there’s always someone there who has come to see us, and they’ll gravitate so that even if the majority don’t feel the style of music, they respect your energy. But for the most part, if it’s a decent crowd, we rock ’em.
BallerStatus.com: Do you prefer the stage or the studio?
Othello: It depends really. The stage is very important to me because it allows me to connect with the people directly. The studio is important as well because it allows you to make your calling card — you determine what people will hear and they can sit and digest the lyrics on their own. Both are equally important in my book.
BallerStatus.com: Do you think your studio time leads to stage time? Or vice versa?
Othello: I think they work hand in hand. The live show opens up opportunities to make records and the records often grab the attention of people who want to bring me out on tour.
BallerStatus.com: I’ve heard you’ve had to play some crazy shows…
Othello: My crew, Lightheaded (made up of himself, Braille and Ohmega Watts), got the opportunity to perform for a boys home, which is like a maximum security rehab-centre, housing everything from murderers to those kids who’ve got into trouble, but the system is unsure how to handle them. The home gives them a chance to get their act together.
We were invited down because the chaplain had expressed an interest in doing something special for the kids. When we arrived, the dude met us at the front and asked if we had any instruments, etc. We had our set on CD. We figured they’d have everything we need. He takes us to the stage and it looks professional — there are lights, speakers. But there was no sound man,and we were about to crack up because chances are we’re about to perform for kids who no doubt know how to rap already. The chaplain comes out with a boom box no bigger than my arm and we put that at the front of the stage. And then discovered there were no mics either, so we’re about to be rapping with both hands available. We might as well have a headset and do the whole Bobby Brown thing.
We lined up in a trio and we pushed play and these rough-looking kids stared at us like “these guys are squares.” But in the end, they appreciated it. The set up was a bit awkward, but it did open up opportunities for us to really connect with the guys there. They wanted to rap and show us what they’d written and at the end of the day it was nice. Even though we had two available hands? It was cool, but very awkward.
We’ll perform anywhere. We’ve done everything from skate parks to churches to boys’ homes to gyms to clubs, bars where ever the opportunity shows up to do our thing we openly accept.
BallerStatus.com: Do you think the chaplain chose you because they wanted a positive style of hip-hop?
Othello: I think so. I think he wanted to bring something that the kids would dig. I don’t think anyone in there knew our stuff — some of them could reference De La Soul and Tribe, but for the most part it wasn’t the tip everyone was on. At the same time, if you’re not getting any hip-hop, then hip-hop is hip-hop. These guys sat and listened because they’d already messed their lives up. It was a different situation, but fulfilling none the less.
BallerStatus.com: Tell us about what Alive At The Assembly is about?
Othello: Yeah AAL is pretty much a conceptual record where there are two perspectives — one is how the assembly line represents life in general, the whole process of the conveyor belt is a representation of life from beginning to end. So the first perspective is as on object on the conveyor belt that is kinda working its way down the line, being contributed to at every station along the way. The other perspective is somebody working on the assembly line, contributing to the different objects put in front of them, so posing the idea that we are contributing to life and being contributed to throughout the process. And the alive part comes in to suggest that we be alive and alert and awake and conscious and weary of what we’re putting out and what we’re receiving.
BallerStatus.com: How would you classify it in terms of genre?
Othello: The whole album is about flow, and how everything you do contributes to who you are whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. I put out a record a few years ago that was all live jazz with a band and that album was successful. When I did this one, my label requested that we do some more live instrumentation to appeal to Japanese territory, where the first album was quite successful. I wanted to combine where I am at, with what they wanted, so there’s production on there and there’s life instrumentation. So, it’s a combination of both. The live instrumentation is provided by the Black Notes out of Portland, Oregon, so you’ve got a funky, soulful hip-hop record. And that’s what you get.
BallerStatus.com: What’s wrong with hip-hop today?
Othello: What’s wrong is that people aren’t getting options. I think hip-hop should be a representation of where people are at. The radio only plays one thing, one side of where hip-hop is. It would be foolish for me to say that what they’re doing in the South isn’t hip-hop, or what they’re doing here or there isn’t hip-hop, because it is. It’s a representation of where the people are, which is a beautiful thing. My problem is for some reason people are being force fed what the major labels are putting out there. I just think it’s very off-balance.
BallerStatus.com: What do you think of the Nas’ N-word album title?
Othello: I think that it’s kind of genius. The idea of having a controversial title to draw people in to hear what the heck he has to say about it is genius. He put out Hip-Hop Is Dead and everyone knows Nas is a thinker, so everyone is gonna want to hear why he thinks hip-hop is dead. People will want to pick it up out of curiosity. As for me, it’s not a word I use, but at the same time, I too will be interested to hear what he has to say about it.
BallerStatus.com: What have you got coming up?
Othello: The first major plan is the birth of my son Asa in April. My wife and I are preparing heavily for that. I’m also working on a record for Japan called Translation Please. Lightheaded is working on a new record to be released on Tres in the next year and last but not least I’m working on another solo project with producer 14KT of the mighty Lab Technitions and gearing up for the Warped tour in June-July. There’s a lot in the works. It’s keeping me busy and that’s the way I like it.