Otis Mensah – “Even if it wasn’t getting heard, even if I wasn’t releasing anything, the writing has to happen for me”

So I kind of feel these moments where I’ve just got an urgency to write; I feel like something’s been building up, so I just let the pen do the work, let the pen bleed, or however you want to word it.

We’ve caught budding Sheffield artist Otis Mensah at a good time. Taking a stroll around Kelham Island one sunny afternoon, the young rapper-poet is literally bouncing with enthusiasm as he talks about his recent Glastonbury performance (“It was absolutely awesome, man! What an incredible place!”), his upcoming Tramlines weekend (“I’m gonna be really busy, I’ve booked so many gigs!”) and the Sheffield urban music scene (“It’s so strong, man”). The guy just radiates positive vibes.

Sitting down for a brief chill and some snaps in the Old Workshop bar, we got to know a bit more about the talented wordsmith and what makes him tick.

Words: Molly Kerkham

What can people expect from Otis Mensah when he steps on a stage?
I try and create something of a sense of community between me and the audience. My music is heavily based on existential quarrels, often like a stream of consciousness, so I try to set up a live show that kind of embraces that. Hopefully I’ll make friends with the audience by the end of the show. You can expect mellow, kind of boom bap instrumentals with a bit of spoken word and a bit of lyricism.

Your lyrics are often quite introspective and poetic. What do you do when you sit down to write a song?
For me, it’s a huge means of therapy. I was talking to a friend not too long ago about how it comes about as far as like the creative process goes and we were saying its often really sporadic. So I kind of feel these moments where I’ve just got an urgency to write, I feel like somethings been building up, just let the pen do the work, let the pen bleed or however you want to word it. I sometimes feel like I’m channelling something, obviously I’m not, but it feels like it’s out of my control sometimes. And then there are other times where I try to focus and write something specific, but I always feel more comfortable when it spills out naturally. As far as inspiration goes, the music is a huge driving force in terms of what sparks me to write. I like instrumentals with a lot of space because I feel like I fill a lot of the space on the song with my writing and I have a kind of intense style.

Your track ‘Free the Slaves’ is quite socially and politically engaged. Do you think there’s enough music like that being made these days?
I think there is enough, but the problem is that it’s not cool. There’s somehow been a switch, a shift in what is considered ‘cool’. I can’t say it from first hand because I wasn’t around, but if you look back at artists like Public Enemy, there was almost a sense of rebellion against a system that wasn’t working; it was all really cool and people were happy to embrace that. I don’t think there’s a lack of that music – those artists still exist – but I think the way people perceive that if different. It’s the element of easy listening: people want something that’s easily digestible. I can’t talk in all senses, but especially within hip-hop there’s been a shift. People want a balance these days too. For example, artists like J Cole and Kendrick Lamar – as much as I hate using those as examples, because there’s so many great artists creating great music and people always come back to those two – but what I think is special about those two specifically is that they’ve found a balance between creating a good vibe and creating something that’s conscious. Sometimes with artists these days, the message or the consciousness outweighs the vibe that allows people to enjoy it. I always like music that is a social commentary, rather than saying, “I’m going be politically charged and tell you to do and think this, this, this, and this”. A social commentary allows you to have more fun with it and it leaves more space for people to enjoy it, rather than being too preachy.

You often work with other artists and producers. Who would be your dream collaborations?
My dream artist to kind of work with is Common, who’s an MC. I love his lyrical style; to me, it’s just exceptional. I’ve got so many, I could literally go on for ages. People like Kid Cudi, Childish Gambino, just because what they are doing artistically is usually very interesting, but they’ve not pushed it so far that it’s only interesting to a certain niche. As far as the UK goes, I think Loyle Carner’s contributing to expressionism and poetic excellence, which is the field I want to be considered in – I want to contribute something that creates a community and something that means something, yeah, but using the medium of poetry. As far as producers go, I’d love to work with Flying Lotus, because of his experimental hip-hop production, something slightly to the left of field.

Considering most of the mainstream MCs are London-based, so you think being from Sheffield gives you a different edge as a performer?
Maybe. From my experience of being in contact with people from the US or Europe, their first thought when you tell them you’re from the UK is that you’re from London, as if no other area exists. That’s fair, because in the media other cities fall through the cracks internationally. I think it does give an edge, and perhaps people don’t realise this kind of music exists in their area. Maybe they’ve heard music from the US, people like Tribe Called Quest or Nas, and maybe they are massive fans of but it they didn’t realise that there are people from their area that could fit that kind of mould but bring a British identity to it.

Do you have any particular favourite Sheffield venues?
I really like DINA at the moment. I’ve been to some of the spoken word nights there, they’re called Wordlife. They’ve created a really cool, open atmosphere. I like venues that feel homely, ones that are small and intimate.

So what do you think of the Sheffield urban scene? Naturally, guitar bands get plenty of attention but there are a numbers of talented hip-hop/grime artists and producers out there too.
The talent and the artistry is definitely there; we’re not lacking in people who are innovative with their art in Sheffield, across all genres. As far as my own development as an artist goes, I can’t really talk about a scene too much as I was really isolated as an artist. During my time when I wanted to solidify what I was doing, I was very much an internet child. I was discovering realms of hip-hop on the internet, cultures of music and art online and on YouTube, from all around the world – all these different kinds of places where I saw people doing something that was experimental. I wasn’t really aware of the scene in Sheffield then. Somewhere down the line I realised that it’s important for me to sustain my British and Sheffield identity; I was listening so much to artists from across the pond but I wanted it to be authentic to me.

Talking about the internet, how do you think that’s changed the music industry, or your approach to music and your career?
It’s changed everything. There’s been a big paradigm shift in the last five years where the internet has become this unstoppable entity. When I was around 13 it was very much my goal to be signed to a major record label. I was looking at artists and imagining if I could be signed to their label – ones like Roc Nation – and thought that giant companies are how you make it. But then around 2013, there was all of a sudden this awakening to what you can do yourself as an independent artist and that really intrigued me. I’m a massive fan of artists like Tech N9ne, who’ve created a cult-like community – in a positive sense; they’ve not actually created a cult! – that gives them freedom. They use their integrity as a guiding force in the music industry, not wavering in the tides of what you should do to impress a major record label. But they’ve managed to solidify their own kind of legacy by using the internet and getting out and doing shows. So I used the internet to learn how to do myself what a record label would do for me, and keep my creative control at the same time.

How do you think your music has changed since you started out? Has there been any significant learning curves or shifts?
It’s changed in the sense of a natural progression. When I was 13-years-old I was looking towards any influences that I could see around me, like grime, but I wasn’t too into it for myself. I realised somewhere down the line that I could create music that I want to listen to and speaks to me. I started finding artists that spoke to me on a personal level, and realised that I could do that for other people. Those artists happened to be really lyrical and word-heavy, experimental with words and rhyme patterns and rhythm schemes. I took that upon myself to do what they did but in my own way. I try to be as complex and expressionistic as possible. That was kind of my building blocks, but once I realised I wanted to say something that means something I was able to leave behind the competitive thing of ‘you’ve gotta rap a hundred lyrics in 30 seconds’, you know. That gave me the training wheels to make stuff that was appealing to me.

Who are those artist who shifted your thinking in that sense?
Artists such as Atmosphere and POS who were really happy to be vulnerable with their art and create this sense of community. And of course influences like Tribe Called Quest or The Pharcyde, who were doing something really interesting. Stuff like that.

Kudos on getting your gig at Glastonbury earlier this year. Tell us more about that.
It was incredible, just amazing to be honest. I was great to see all the artists that I really wanted to see; I got to see Thundercat, and Anderson Paak. It was great to delve into that world but know that I was a part of it as well – obviously on a smaller scale. It was incredible to be part of the festival, like a validation of what I’m doing. It was just a blessing to be able to play on a stage of that kind of calibre.

How do you build on that platform?
I’m currently planning an unofficial UK tour, and to play as much as possible, as a means to support a series of new singles that I’m producing. I’m working with a handful of producers. We’re trying to put out as much new music as possible, because of the surge of music created by the internet; we’re we’re trying to keep in the public eye because attention spans are so short these days, even mine. So I’m just trying to stay consistent, releasing and playing as much music as possible, without compromising the quality.

Last year you produced a mixtape. How was that different to putting out single after single?
I did a mixtape called Days Over Damson, which was me writing songs over my favourite J Dilla instrumentation and I wanted to use that as a basis for the direction that I’m going to continue with. I felt like the five songs on my mixtape were what had been building up over the years and are a kind of representation of what had happened so far. Whereas the singles are more based on what’s going on with me now. I also did a project called Computers Outside with Ray Soso, a producer from Baltimore, which was my first kind of look at how I could write a conceptual piece of work, delving into the internet generation and the internet age as a concept. But, yeah, so those two were my starting blocks but now I’m just going with the flow and writing as I go.

Where does inspiration come from in terms of themes?
The recurring thing is social commentary. Whether that’s being as self-aware as I can and looking at myself and where I go, or external reality. Commenting on what I see in the world and what I see in myself. I’ve been writing since I was 13 as a means of expression, it’s a process that’s really important to my life. Even if it wasn’t getting heard, even if I wasn’t releasing anything, the writing has to happen for me. It’s natural that I find things to talk about.

You’ve talked about rappers being vulnerable and talking about their feelings. Why do you think it can be rare for some artists to open up in their music?
It’s always been there, but I think it was underrepresented. What you got was the braggadocio, because rap is like a competitive sport so naturally you get this masculine vibe. It has its place, because the roots of hip-hop is the battling scene and being better than the next MC, so that’s what that boisterousness comes from. Then you got artists like Tribe Called Quest who allowed themselves to be open and vulnerable. I think the forefront of hip-hop is still the bravado, but I think the difference is the internet. People who relate to what these artists are saying have a network where they can find this music and others who feel the same; it’s always been there but the internet has provided a home for people who want to find it.

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