Photography by Ian Lewis

Otarel Seeks Balance Through Her Raps

In the current era of hip-hop, it says something about a rapper when they approach Ready D to mix and scratch on their mixtape. It says they know and respect the history of their craft. It says they’re not trying to do what everyone else is currently doing. It says they rate themselves enough to ask a legend to put their name behind their talent. But what does it say when a hip-hop legend like Ready D agrees to work with that rapper? It says that you should probably give them a listen.

Otarel’s debut release, ‘Dirty All Stars’, has to be a SA Hip-Hop Awards contender for Mixtape of the Year. Not just because Ready D put his deft touch on it, but because Otarel can R-A-P better than your fav. In a time where hooks typically outweigh lyricism, and the combo a rapper wears is more important than what they have to say, Otarel takes it back to the days where knowledge reigned supreme over nearly everyone with boom-bap and jazz influenced beats. I asked her how she navigates being a lyrical rapper in the era of the hook, expecting her to knock those who put more effort into one line than the rest of the song, instead she told me “I always seek balance. I’ve been rapping for 13 odd years and it’s taken me this long to release something that is mine because I needed to perfect a certain style that merges the hooks with the lyrical aspect, and I am still fine tuning it. I mean, we can’t stop a genre from expanding just because we have mastered a particular sound within it.” Fair enough. Hip-hop has been expanding since Day 1 and those who don’t adapt, die. Otarel knows this, “Adaptability is the MCee’s most important tool, as long as he can attain it without compromising themselves or their desires. I used to hate it though, ‘cause I know that that’s not all that hip-hop comprises of, and it dilutes the flexibility of an artist, but if an MCee wants to attract the ears of the people then it’s a good quality to have, balance.”

‘Dirty All Stars’ is a balanced release. At times Otarel comes across as the toughest woman in the world, at other times, her edges get sanded down and her soul is laid bare. “The toughness comes from being around dudes a lot, ne?” She explains, “I did a lot of sports growing up, I was tomboyish so I hardly had a lot of female friends, and I was raised by a strong willed single parent who never showed weakness unless she felt it was going to teach us something about humanity. Plus she whipped our asses if we fucked up, so that contributed. At some stage I got bullied in primary school, and had to do karate to build self defense, but as I grew up, I sort of toned down on the hardness cause it was no longer necessary and I just kept the bits so I could protect me against preying dudes in hip-hop.”

Being a woman in hip-hop can’t be easy, I asked Otarel how the industry treats her as a female rapper, she laughed and told me, “Like I wear too much clothing and too little make up (laughs). I have had an experience where organizers would rather book a talentless hack, just because she semi-dresses, over me, because I just have too much to say and won’t fuck him for a slot on a non paying event. Imagine (laughs). But that’s why I have a manager person. He knows where I knock ‘em dead in terms of appeal and I am pretty good at what I do, which is the most important factor in a long lasting music career.”

While she has to be tough to survive in a male-dominated industry, it’s her sensitive side that balances out Otarel’s sound and gives her an edge over her male counterparts. When I enquired how important it is for artists to be emotionally open with their work, Otarel explained, “Vital. Writing from the heart and from experience is what makes a person be able to relate to you as an artist. Having the ability to connect with a person simply because you are open to feeling. A lot of music now is based on energy and words, where the focus is on what’s being said instead of the emotional capacity of the music and  how it makes a person feel through the content and the expressions and the production as a whole.”

It’s wild to think that Otarel has been rapping for 13 years yet this is her first release. It’s why ‘Dirty All Stars’ comes across as way more mature than your traditional debut. Nobody wants to put in their 10, 000 hours anymore and it’s lead to wack shit dominating the airwaves. I guess that’s why Otarel’s mixtape is so refreshing, you can hear that it’s a well developed piece of art that came from years of hard work, struggle and sacrifice. If you’re tired of hearing the same old shit from kids who don’t know shit, get an education in hip-hop and life from Otarel.

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