Meet the MC: ATO
Leeds-based rapper ATO uses music to reflect on his life and show an alternative side to the London-centric perception of Black Britishness. Ahead of his new two-part EP, he talks to DJ Mag about growing up in the North, collaboration, and the importance of being honest with his audience
It all began with Pokémon. A digital world of endless exploration, it’s a common place for kids to lose themselves entirely; a fantasy of bright colours and ‘battle to succeed’ storytelling. For Leeds-based artist ATO, it was a gateway to creativity — a way to begin his own evolution.
“It was never really the music side of things for me; I used to really enjoy drawing, and off the back of that I really got into language,” he explains. “Maybe because I was an only child and I was travelling quite a lot with my mum, but I really found an escape in creating these little narratives. I used to draw my own Pokémon and Digimon characters and sell them on the side of the street — I just found it infatuating to be able to create and share.” He lets out a shy laugh. “It was a lucrative little business for a 10-year-old!”
His ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ mentality might have transcended cartoon characters, but it’s still all there in ATO’s music. The child of first-generation immigrants — his mum from Denmark, Dad from Ghana — ATO is an artist who pulls from a rich diaspora of influence, drawing on elements of emo-rap and grime just as readily as he references ‘70s soul and ‘00s R&B. Ask him to label his sound, and he settles on “future R&B” or “art rap”, nailing a sense of duality. On the cusp of releasing his latest two-part EP, he feels like he’s truly found his sound — a place where anything goes sonically, but where certain concepts lay core: the complexities of the mixed-race experience, the blurring lines of genre, and the nature of being Black-British outside of the conventional London-centric lens.
“I think sometimes when it's your norm, it's hard to understand the importance of telling an untold story that people would find very different,” he says. “I was watching that new film Minari the other day, and I found it so emotional, this life that exists within a crevice of America that I hadn't ever considered. Every time I'm back in York where I grew up, every time I see a little Black kid on his bike, I feel butterflies. I feel the city hasn't changed that much; it’s still so white, and yet so much happened in that time that I was there that was so confusing and isolating. I feel like it's important to bring that experience to the surface, to try and tell it in such a way that it can maybe broaden the narrative on Black Britishness.”
ATO’s upbringing is central to his musical ideas. Raised by an academic mother, he spent his early years in New York, London and Seoul before settling in York. He moved to London at 17, and then back up north to Leeds again in his early twenties to study at University, made possible by a flexible course designed to accept students from alternative educational routes. “I finished school at 16 with not-very-good GCSEs and no confidence in my academic potential. But I was interested in sociology; having grown up in York and then London, there were a lot of questions that I was asking.” A foundation degree led to a full degree in politics, and a growing confidence that he could hold his own on important conversations.
Life outside of the capital also seemed to act as a creative awakening. Reconnecting with his father and attending Leeds’ annual West-Indian Carnival in Potternewton Park, he carved out a new sense of belonging and commitment to the idea of representation; “striking that balance between being completely proud of my heritage, and where I come from, but also transcending the way in which people perceive you and being confident in who you are”.
Soon after, he was on a trip to Dublin, where a mutual friend introduced him to Johnny Ng, aka EDEN, a producer known for his genre-spanning work in indie, electronic and drum & bass. Hitting it off immediately, ATO now considers EDEN a lifelong creative partner, working on both 2015’s ATO X EDEN project and 2020’s ‘EP3’ (featuring the Vic Mensa collaboration ‘Falling’), as well as his forthcoming EP.
“When I met Johnny in Dublin, I felt like I was finding my roots again,” says ATO. “That period in 2015 was pivotal for me; I was kind of done with music at the time, and the project we were working on — ‘outro’ — was meant to be a sort of send-off before I started university. We ended up calling the project ‘intro’ by the end of it, because it felt like a new beginning.”
At the beginning of Lockdown, ATO decided that it might be good to spice up their relationship with some outside influences. “I wasn't really sure who, but then this dude — Steve Cooper from New York — sent me a pack, and the first beat was called 'Muscle Twitch'. I was on the late train back to Leeds, and the title resonated with me — I'd really suffered with severe muscle twitches due to my anxiety, so as soon as I heard it, I was drawn to it and literally wrote the song in 30 minutes on the train. My phone died halfway through, so I was repeating the lyrics in my head, trying to remember it all so I could run straight home and write it all down.
“The other addition to the EP is a Japanese kid called Justin, who goes by the name Singular Balance. He's only 20, but we became aware of him due to a collaborative mixtape that he did with our friend Lontalius and we realised that he could be a really good part of this new team. All of a sudden, the four of us had created this whole virtual album.”
As the introductory song of this new era, ‘Muscle Twitch’ works perfectly to tell you exactly where ATO is at, and perhaps most pertinently, where he’s been. You hear snippets of his backstory: the health anxiety that came from dealing with both his mother and father’s simultaneous cancer diagnoses (both now thankfully recovered), the struggles of poor mental health and racial hostility, a pacing, distorted hook that gives way to the furious, cathartic release of drum & bass. But elsewhere on the EP, hope does spring: the summer breeze of ‘No Caroline’’s ‘00s-ringtone melody, the chart-friendly trap of ‘Ziamonds !!’, ’Garrowby Way’’s undeniable inner-city swagger. It’s ambitiously varied, but perfectly befitting of our ever-changing times; no feeling without its nuance, no side one without its own part two.
“The first side is definitely quite reflective,” says ATO, considering his decision to split the EP into two parts. “It's quite interrogative of the past, but by the final song, it starts to lean into a much lighter, more confident view of myself, setting me up to really explore that on ‘Side B’. I feel like it was a matter of stepping out of the comfort zone, being intrigued to move away from traditional sonic backdrops. Not really knowing where it was going to go, but feeling confident that it was going to lead somewhere.”
As an artist who’s keen to push the boundaries, the vulnerability and honesty that ATO brings to rap music is the quality that will make him a star. Whether he’s meditating on his childhood or setting out his intentions for a romantic relationship, he is constantly striving towards being a world-builder — shaping a place of both fantasy and cathartic self-recognition in which kids like him can get lost.
“I’ve just let go and tried to be honest,” he says. “I can't on the one hand be trying to tell a story about untold stories while not being genuine about who I am on the other. It's important to put myself out there, to be able to give an honest reflection of this experience that I've had and that a lot of other young people have had. I don't really think about the anxiety or the consequences of it in the moment; it feels almost like it just has to be.”
Just like any true Pokémon master, ATO’s adventure is sure to be one to watch.