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ATO: A tale of a few cities

PAM spoke to thoughtful Leeds based rapper ATO about lyrical honesty, relatability, and collaboration ahead of a return to live gigs.

Any favourite tropes of hip-hop music videos are abruptly flipped for the second part of the video for ATO’s new single “No Caroline” for which the visuals switch to mirror the musical shift from melodic trap to twitchy drum and bass. A rapper as likely to sing hooks as he might chat bars – ATO is an exciting new storyteller unafraid to bring vulnerability and honesty to the table and offer an alternative to the oversimplification of the Black-British experience via his Northern lens. Having called New York, Seoul and Edinburgh home by the time he was a teenager, the talented lyricist grew up in North Yorkshire of Ghanaian and Danish descent before moving to London to pursue a music career and then returning to Leeds, connecting along the way with Dublin based producer EDEN with whom he released the 2015 mixtape ATO X EDEN.

Looking ahead to the release of Side A, PAM jumped on a call with ATO to talk about belonging, music, and music videos.

You spent time in a lot of different countries growing up and moved around quite a bit. What music did you bump into during that time? And how did that influence the music that you’re making now?

It’s a good question. So the first 10 years of my life I was moving around a lot. And so it wasn’t necessarily the music per se that I was drawn to because I was more into painting and writing stories at that time. But the cultures and being so exposed to the cultures I think, especially looking back retrospectively, I can see how those experiences opened my mind and gave me a sort of broader identity and allowed me to feel comfortable. Yeah, I felt like it gave me a feeling of confidence to be able to connect with different cultures and I think that gave me a license when drawing or writing or making music to have no boundaries.

Your music and your videos are very complete concepts in terms of how the imagery and the music go together. When you write a song do you have the visuals in mind?

Yeah, I think the whole process for me is quite a visual process. I like to visualise the world that I’m writing about, but I don’t necessarily imagine how the videos would look, once the song has sort of realised itself. I like to sit down and talk with the directors and talk about ways in which I feel that this song could visually reach its potential. And so I’ve found more recently that it’s important to involve myself in that area – Although I don’t like to overstep my mark and I like to leave people to their own devices.

ATO – no caroline (Official Video)

On “No Caroline” we hear your singing voice. Have you always sung as well as rapped?

I’ve only started to feel more confident singing really in the last year or so. I can express myself really comfortably through singing. I went to Leeds College of Music for a year then ended up leaving because I moved to London when I was 17, and I just sort of started to dabble more in the scenes here and there. So a lot of it has been more about just my experiences meeting musicians and spending time building relationships and friendships. I’ve been lucky enough to work with really talented friends. So through them I’ve been able to build confidence, build trust and safe spaces to create music.

How important is it for you to represent an experience that isn’t the London one? (which can tend to dominate UK rap)

Yeah I think for me it’s become more and more important to symbolise my experience. Obviously it’s my norm, but I realise that for many people it’s sort of unique and a slightly different reflection on the Black British experience. I feel that it’s important to tell stories that are untold and actually unifying and empowering for all involved, and to broaden the understanding of what it means to be Black and British.

How did the collaboration in 2020 with Vic Mensa on “Falling” come about?

It was a big one and came about quite randomly really. We made the song and he was like, the number one person that I wanted to have on. I’ve always sort of looked up to him. Just also being Ghanian and for his strong conviction for black empowerment, and his status and role in the city of Chicago. So I felt a connection with him and there just happened to be a connection through a mutual friend and he put us in touch and we were able to put the tracks together really easily actually. It wasn’t, you know, a long difficult process but was done separately (we actually did meet once a couple of years before) but the song was made very briefly in London. 

ATO – falling (Official Video) ft. VIC MENSA

Here in the UK we’re seeing a gradual return of live music following the lockdowns of the past year or so. How do crowds respond to your music when you play live?

My first real experiences were last year just before the pandemic. I got three shows into the No Future tour And that was a serious deep end situation. Big, big venues and I was very new to it. I feel that there was a nice rapport and there was a lot of good communication throughout the performances. 

I’m trying when performing live to express a personal side of myself, and when performing I can feel that there is a relatability or a connection whereby others are able to identify themselves.

And finally where can people see and hear you next?

We’ve got the 4th and 5th October – The 4th is at Headrow House in Leeds which will be great, and then The Grace in London on October the 5th – So yeah, very, very excited about being able to get back!

Listen to ATO in our Pan African Rap playlist on Spotify and Deezer.