While a chain may only be as strong as its weakest link, the opposite can also be said to be true when it comes to any underground hip-hop scene. For small cities like Lansing, local music thrives on the success of its most diverse artists.
Local producer and emcee Tyson “Othello” Pumphrey has proved over the last few years to be Lansing’s most dynamic hip-hop artist. Othello has enjoyed international and domestic success with the group Lightheaded, a product of his native West Coast roots, and albums containing his music can be found at records shops from Lansing to Tokyo.
Courtesy photos Tyson Pumphrey, better known as Othello, is leaving Lansing to return to the West Coast after spending the last few years as a major player in the local hip-hop scene, where he hopes his influence will live on. The fulltime emcee and producer puts in eight hours a day in the studio, working with a sampler (right) and keyboards.Initially arriving in Lansing for family purposes, Othello quickly assimilated into the hip-hop mix with his raw, energetic stage presence and dynamic vocals. Last summer, Othello helped spearhead Elevation, a Sunday hip-hop night at Rendezvous on the Grand placing emphasis on the old school, showcasing songs that have provided melodies for modern rap songs with as well as heavy emphasis on DJ-ing that he had to give up to do a stint on the Vans Warped Tour. “He was a breath of fresh air,” said Lansing emcee James “P.H.I.L.T.H.Y.”
Gardin. “Him being here helped revive the scene a lot, because he made all the artists excited about doing shows. He brought a new element to performances.”
Over the last few weeks Othello has made his rounds, bidding his farewells as he sets to depart for Portland, Ore., this month. While many have fond memories of performances, the most overlooked component of his musical versatility is his prowess as a producer. “I think a lot of people aren’t aware what I’m capable of behind the boards,” Othello said. “I’m hoping that people really pick up on it when I leave, because they’ll always have access to that music no matter where I am.” The room where Othello creates his work resembles a producer’s shrine, complete with stacks of vinyl the size of an adolescent. Memorabilia of past concerts and albums adorn the walls with two essential production tools, an MPC 2000 sampler and Korg keyboard, resting snugly in a corner and available for easy access.
Unlike most in underground hip hop, music is Othello’s day job, and he typically puts in eight hours a day in the studio, likening his grind to that found at a standard 9 to 5 job. “It takes a minute to complete a beat,” he explains. “A lot of producers are defined by quantity but I usually complete a beat a day.” A beat a day may not seem like an impressive feat without knowing that Othello’s production, along with his performances, are his main source of income.
“I have to put in so much time in the studio, because I don’t have the privilege of knowing when my next paycheck is coming in,” he said. “If you work a 9 to 5, you know when you’re income is scheduled to arrive, whereas for me I have to keep moving, keep grinding.”
His ear as an accomplished emcee aids Othello’s dedication. Having a sense of what a beat’s purpose is, he is also able to understand what elements need to be included for a prospective buyer. Fans often wonder why he so rarely equips his own raps with homemade production.
He says the economic implications of not selling beats is one reason, but also that he’s inspired in a different way by others’ work. “I’d make a beat and come back to it later with a fresh perspective,” he explained. “You sit and make a beat for four hours, then you say to yourself ‘I don’t want to hear this anymore.’
When other cats send in beats, it gives me instant inspiration.” Othello cites the works of Midwest producers, such as Tony “Hi-Tek” Cottrell and Curtis Cross, known as Black Milk, as a huge influence on his music. With a style best defined as a cross between old school and boom-bap, Othello opts for a smooth “cipher-soul” approach with his beats. “It depends on the artist what type of beat I’ll craft,” he said. “I tend to go with a soulful, funky, jazzy feel if the artist is a real ‘golden era of hip-hop’ dude.” Othello has also having crafted uptempo beats for a lot of artists. However, he explains he doesn’t like what he calls “sweaty” music — a style reminiscent of southeastern composers, like The Neptunes or Scott Storch.
“I like raw-hard or I like feel-good,” he said. “I either like to provide heater that’ll make someone do the ‘ugly face’ or give them something they can chill to.” For now, his focus is on helping to craft the debut EP of current protg Venson Dix, known as Theolo Inkwell. He aims to produce a couple tracks for Dix, while also serving as an executive producer for the project as a whole. “It’s been a dope experience,” Dix said. “I wish I could use all his material.”
Dix’s story as an upcoming Lansing musician is another example of Othello’s significance in the scene. “When I got to Lansing I didn’t know anybody,” he explained. “Othello was the only one who reached out and offered to set me up. The end result was Othellos extending the offer to Dix to record his EP for free at his abode, while feeding him energetic beats that complement his voracious lyrical delivery. Previewing a track from the EP confirms these two are musically compatible.
Despite having a magnanimous streak, Othello does have business interests in mind with the economics of beat making. The price of an Othello production can sell for between $50 and $500, depending on what is required to complete the project, and the means of the artist to pay. Othello’s future away from Lansing is ultimately something he laments, but he feels that his presence as an artist within the city’s hip-hop community is complete.
Realizing that in many ways the underground hip-hop scene is at an impasse, Othello has opted to return to the West Coast in search of new opportunities.
“I honestly didn’t know that people viewed me like that,” Othello said referring to a recent farewell concert at Lansing’s Club 621. “Now I realize why I was here.” “For the people I’ve left an impression on, it’s good, because I feel I’ve accomplished what I’ve come to do.”