James Otha knows that he’s an underdog.
He’s a white rapper hailing from Indianapolis, Indiana – a town that isn’t necessarily known for its rap music. However, what drives James as an artist isn’t money or clout, it’s the pure authenticity that gave birth to the early days of hip-hop.
In preparation for the release of his newest album, The Black Hole Demo, I called James Otha to discuss his start in hip-hop music, his self-awareness as a white rapper in today’s rap culture, and his growing collaborations with Indiana-based musicians and creatives.
I got questions, I got questions
This interview has been lightly edited for the sake of clarity and brevity.
As a lyricist and a producer, you’re an all-around music creator. When was the decision to try your hand at hip-hop music specifically?
My mom is a cellist, she’s been doing that since I was really little. Back in the day, all I listened to was rock and country but I knew that I didn’t want to make that kind of music. Then hip-hop sort of popped up.
How’d it pop up? What was your first exposure to it?
The first rap album I ever heard was The Eminem Show. The Real Slim Shady was the first track that I’d heard, but I didn’t like it! I didn’t start dreaming about hip-hop music until I heard Wu-Tang Clan. I’m a huge ODB fan. I also love RZA. Being a producer, I fell in love with the crazy producers first.
So producing came first? Before the actual rapping?
Well I wanted to rap at first but my friends told me to just try and make beats. I’ve been making beats and mixing. Once you do something so much you can’t help but get better at it. Luckily I was born with rhythm – I think from my mom being a musician. Rhythm isn’t something you can teach.
Even while producing, I still wanted to be a rapper so I tried really hard at that craft. The only way to do it is to do it.
The only way to do it is to do it.
Before I fail to mention it… we have to talk about GO, the Willis and Mula Kkhan track that you produced. Amazing!
Thank you! When I played that beat for Willy he flipped out. [Laughs.] He was running around his room like a little kid. It wasn’t originally made for him – I make all of my beats for myself, but if it doesn’t go too well with my sound I’ll give it to someone else.
That joint was crazy!
“I heard this beat and then in 30 seconds had a full erection!” [Laughs.] That track totally gave me a Quentin Tarantino vibe.
Speaking of Willis, you mention him quite frequently in your music. What’s the back story?
I reference Willy a lot because he’s like my spirit guide. I learn from him very frequently.
Let’s keep it real: to this day, many hip-hop fans don’t enjoy white rappers. As an artist, you really have to make listeners aware of your intentions and keep it as real as possible. I personally think that’s something that Willis has done really well. How do you combat that?
Being a white dude in hip-hop gives you a sense of being an outcast that most white men don’t experience in their lifetime. White men usually aren’t outcasted – we’re the majority. I personally think you just have to be authentic. I’m never on the “pop a xanax” and all that sh*t. I appreciate real hip-hop culture and, at its core, black culture. No matter what I’m an outsider of the culture, but it gives you a certain level of respect for what you’re trying to do. I’d never try to portray or be something I’m not.
What’s your goal as an artist?
Whenever someone listens to my music or approaches me in person, they know that they’re getting the real me. I also want to share the roots of hip-hop.
Getting to the new project – The Black Hole Demo. What was the inspiration behind the name?
It’s the concept for the story. A black hole is a star that has reached stellar mass and collapses on itself creating a black hole. This demo is me becoming a black hole in a way, metaphorically.
What’s your goal with this particular project? How’d it all come together?
I want people to have a journey and to learn something new from this project. All of my favorite albums taught me something, and I hope to have that same effect on someone else. People who really like to dig in to the music and dissect lines will appreciate this. I personally appreciate dissecting bars and counting syllables and I love when people do that to my music.
I’m also a comic book nerd so those who are into the same sh*t will recognize some references.
The content matter seems pretty personal. Do you think that music could ever be too personal?
No! Nothing is off limits! I love sharing those stories and offering my perspective, because nobody else could do the same thing. There’s a mix of heavy and light stuff on this album, but ultimately it’s my decision because it’s my art.
Ultimately it’s my decision because it’s my art.
Did you produce the entirety of this project or did you pull in help from other producers?
There are three tracks on there that weren’t produced by me: Space, Therapy, and Garcia Vega. [The project’s tracklist wasn’t completely finalized at the time of this interview. Some tracks may be released on a future album.]
What are your personal favorites on the album?
I love Space with Ridley Victoria. It reminds me of a Joey Bada$$ track.
What’s your relationship like with other Indianapolis creators?
A bunch of them I knew previously from growing up, but a lot of them I met from shows or just selling beats. When I went to my first local show, everybody knew who I was from my beats but they didn’t approach me. You’ve gotta just get in their face and be assertive. Once people get to know me, they enjoy my personality and we work together more.
Ridley Victoria is an Indianapolis-based musician – she’s actually sitting next to me right now! I did the beat for Check Mate. If you like the brazenness of Cardi B, you’ll love Ridley Victoria’s attitude on that track.
End of Interview.
The music industry proves time and time again that longstanding popularity is earned, not given. James Otha is clearly taking that lesson to heart as he develops relationships with musical stakeholders all over the city and uses his production as a gateway to his ultimate goal of being a lyricist.
What I appreciate most about James is his authenticity. He’s well aware of the role that preexisting judgements may play on the public’s perception of his music. He uses his platform as a channel for his personal anecdotes, hoping to share those lessons with any hip-hop fan that will listen. Luckily for him, the rap style that he’s chosen is perfect for sharing stories. Taking tips from hip-hop’s history makers, The Black Hole Demo is well-equipped to offer a break from the trap beats and melodically drugged cadences that we’ve grown accustomed to.