'I think rappers are increasingly capable of exposing more vulnerable sides of their character, free of stigma and social pressures. It’s great to see this wave of freedom'
Evan Dale // Dec 16, 2019
Leeds-Based rapper, ATO is a young artist exploring the reach of his sound, of the UK hip-hop scene, and of music at a grand scale. Lyrically-endowed, melodically transcendent, and comfortable experimenting and adjusting his aesthetic as he grows personally and creatively, he is on the heels of his third EP release and a collaboration with Vic Mensa, but is still looking forward towards what's next.
RNGLDR: The UK – like the US – is home to an incredibly wide-ranging hip-hop tradition. But, if one common theme has delineated the UK’s hip-hop direction over the years, it’s an affinity for lyricism. From the time Slick Rick released Children’s Story in 1988 to a modern scene that sees spoken word poets turned rappers like Kojey Radical garnering international acclaim, the poetry of rap has been a British focal point. Why do you think UK artists – in a scene more lyrically in-depth than any other in music – have carved out such a reputation?
ATO: I think in the UK we are less defined by the stereotypes that can sometimes cloud messages in Hip-Hop. I think messages can become lost as stereotypes over-produce norms and tie artists to outdated rules.
Therefore, I don’t believe we’re necessarily speaking more lyrically in-depth over here. There’s always been incredible, deep lyricists in the states. There always will be. I think it’s just that what we’re speaking on is new, and naturally feels a little different lyrically. My experience as a black man from Yorkshire is just one example of this right now.
I think that the UK scene today reflects how Hip-Hop is continuously expanding, by telling untold realities. At the same time the UK scene is still developing. I would say it is driven by loose experimentation. It’s not so tied to old rules and codes.
RNGLDR: As a particularly lyrical hip-hop artist yourself, who have been some UK rappers of the past and present that have been of particular songwriting influence on you? And who have been some artists from outside of the UK altogether that have helped shape your sound?
ATO: I’ve been following Mike Skinner and Ghostpoet for a long time. Both of them inspired me to write with freedom. I’ve also always admired how the quite familiar, yet personal stories they shared made them stand out as individuals against the “scene”.
I also grew up listening to Gorillaz. Maybe my favourite band.
A big influence over the last decade has been Kano, but there’s a lot of other great young lyricists coming out now: King Krule, Jesse James Solomon, Dave, to name a few.
Outside of the UK, I really mess with Yung Lean. He is progressive in his writing and I believe he is pushing Hip-Hop into unknown territory right now.
One of the first albums I got was Get rich or Die Tryin’ by 50 Cent and I often refer back to that record. I think it influenced me heavily, too. The mix of melody and dynamic story telling really stood out to me when I was starting to write songs.
RNGLDR: Even as a lyrically driven rapper, you are a product of a modern environment that prioritizes stylistic transcendence. You have a knack for subdued yet emotive vocalism and modern electronic production. When embarking on the creation of a new song, do your bars, your vocals, or your production guide the song’s direction? Or is it a case-by-case basis?
ATO: I would say it’s usually the lyrics and concept that trigger the process of making a song for me. Often I write to traditional Hip-Hop beats and then Jon (EDEN) will send something completely different which gives a whole new backdrop to the lyrics and I’ll work a little around that change. I think that it works because we are so close as friends and understand where each other are coming from.
RNGLDR: On the subject, and to dive deeper, what does your songwriting process look like?
ATO: I would usually just start writing as a means to process a situation or circumstance beyond my control. I go back and forward with the words until I feel like I’ve reached a positive end.
I’ve also put more emphasis on flow and melody in EP3, which changed my relationship with the words a little. I think I learnt a lot through that process.
RNGLDR: Leading single to new project, EP3, 24 is a great example of your effortless ability to seamlessly transition between the lyrical and the melodic; the rapped and the sung. Thought-out, provocative lyricism in verse paints a landscape of specificity, emotionality, and experience while a melodic hook emits relatability and ambiguity while exhibiting your skills as a vocalist. Do you find that a track like 24 is reflective of an individual who – like his music – is wide-ranging and stylistically differentiating? Is hip-hop – which has become expecting of its artists to be more than just rappers, singers, or producers, but to be all three – allowing musicians the range they need to fully express themselves?
ATO: I think 24 attempts to cover a lot of feelings all at once. The track certainly isn’t trying to be one thing, because it’s really about understanding oneself, in the anticipation of the unknown. It tries to reveal a bunch of complexities that in this case lie behind a title, that one might overlook or be quick to define.
RNGLDR: We want to say congratulations on the release of EP3, your first project since 2017. Highlighting your transcendent ability and merging it with the understatedness in your musical demeanor, the project is low-key and meditative at surface-level, but in-depth and complicated when the layers are peeled back and one really starts to listen. For you as an artist, was this mark of depth and layering that invites a wide-ranging audience of hip-hop fans to its sound a sign of a refinement you’ve always been working towards. Or was the entire project more of an experimental attempt to create something altogether different?
ATO: Thanks a lot. I feel the approach to flow and melody certainly gave a slightly different, and experimental approach to this EP. At the same time, I’ve been sure to not lose the in-depth elements that have been central to my music since the first EP. I’m glad to have found a way that I think the two work well together.
RNGLDR: On the subject of difference, your kin of hip-hop artist are new and challenging to the existing UK scene. Where garage, grime, or up-tempo intensity à la artists like Headie One have been the staple of London-based hip-hop for decades, how is this new transcendent lane of understated UK rappers differentiating themselves from their predecessors?
ATO: I think rappers are increasingly capable of exposing more vulnerable sides of their character, free of stigma and social pressures. It’s great to see this wave of freedom.
RNGLDR: And from where are they drawing this inspiration to be so different?
ATO: I think the inspiration has come from a more open and socially progressive world. Very sick.
RNGLDR: If any outsider’s testament to your ability as a lyrical rapper with a knack for penmanship should solidify your talent, having the opportunity to collaborate with Vic Mensa on falling must have been an amazing moment. How did that collaboration come to fruition? What was it like working with such a respected hip-hop figure? And what did you two have to learn from one another as lyrically driven hip-hop artists from different sides of the world?
ATO: I think Vic is without doubt one of the most important voices in Hip-Hop today and I’ve been a fan of his for years. This was kind of a full circle moment. I actually took a picture with him years back outside a show in London. Don’t think he remembers that one haha.
But we really didn’t have to overthink the collaboration. Vic is very versatile and I think falling is a good example of how US and UK hip-hop culture and style meet.
RNGLDR: With EP3 having just been dropped, what’s next for ATO?
ATO: Since the EP’s dropped I haven’t stopped writing, so a lot of new music for sure and more collaborations.
Definitely some Live shows though, finally.