Over a strong cup of Five Roses, rapper Nthabi talks to Helen Herimbi about her thirst to be better and hip hop being her cup of tea.

Nthabi likes her tea like her attitude: strong.

The rain is pouring outside when she asks for a big cup of Rooibos.  There is only Five Roses. She shrugs before she stirs it to her taste. This is how the rapper who was born Nthabiseng Mofokeng approaches her career.

She sees life’s obstacles and turns them around to make them work for her. That is the tale of her debut album Welcome To Me. Following the successful release of her free EP, From The Streets To The Lab, which boasts an impressive 25000 downloads, Nthabi was officially hip hop’s It girl three years ago.

Being a well-respected freestyle and battle rapper from her stints on YFM’s Rap Activity Jam, the only thing left was for her to release an album.

As an artist on the now-defunct indie label, Outrageous Records, Nthabi hibernated in the studio where she recorded with pH, the producer who brought us hits by Khuli Chana and Ill Skillz. But it took three years to reach the shelves.

Nthabi tells us why.

“The studio’s hard drive crashed,” she says, touching on a sore spot. “We were halfway done with the album when we lost everything. So I started my debut album from scratch. I didn’t re-record the tracks we lost, it was all fresh material. The title of the album stayed the same, but the sound definitely changed.”

They say everything happens for a reason and for Nthabi losing what was to be her first release gave her a new lease on her rap life.

“I wasn’t totally there. I felt like before the hard drive crashed, I was being rushed to finish the album. But after that, the puzzle just started coming together,” she says.

She didn’t have to struggle with the music, “Maybe I was just trying to bring out a sound in producers and it wasn’t really who they were.” So she decided to work with “a producer who would dedicate himself wholly to the album.” Nthabi finished the work in three months, while working with Instro, once an Outrageous Records producer, who has worked with the likes of Zubz and Reason.

Out of this partnership evolved the sound on Welcome To Me, a sound that meant session musicians were called in to play the instruments, so that there were live elements on the album.

“And we were starting to roll out plans for photo shoots,” she beams, “and starting to put ideas together when I discovered that I was about to become a mother.”  Nthabi “didn’t want to be on stage with a belly”, so she  decided to step away from the spotlight and enjoy her “special, private moment without people prying into everything”.

The petite 20-something was then struck another blow, Outrageous Records was closing down. But there were two sides to this coin.  Having no record company to support her meant she would have to do everything herself. On the other hand, she learned invaluable lessons about being independent.

She stirs her tea again.

“Instro and I became the team. We did everything ourselves. We had to find out how much it cost to release the album ourselves. To take my nine-to-five salary and throw it into this. I was hands-on with every single detail. I was sitting in on distribution meetings, discussing publishing, finding out about printers.”

She laughs, “Before, all I had to do was show up. Everything else was done for me. I never had to attend all those meetings. So this experience taught me a lot about what it means to do things independently.”

The 14-track album that features collaborations with Lebo Mashile, MXO and Maleh, as well as production by DJ Kenzhero and Ootz Tha Afronaut was definitely a labour of love. “I love this album so much,” she smiles. “It took more heart, more love and more money was spent on it than anything else I have done.”