Taken from the autumn 2021 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
“There was no blueprint for us coming up, we had to be the pioneers,” says ATH Kids beatmaker Taj Jamal. “So now we want to lay down the blueprint for those who come after us.” Before ATH Kids, hip hop was the last thing you would associate with Athens. But the crew, founded by rapper Kareem Kalokoh and creative director Valentin Rivera in 2015, is fast helping to establish the city as a new frontier for the genre. The collective, which also comprises DJ Joseph Mouzakitis, rappers Complex Shadow and Majin Cost, and producer Dazedboi, has created a new, cosmopolitan vision of the city, broadcasting its DIY energy to a global audience with bars as strikingly original as their visuals.
ATH Kids’ ambition is staggering, especially given that the collective was born from the ashes of the Greek nancial crisis – a period which crushed the dreams of a generation of young Athenians, with protests and riots breaking out on an almost daily basis. With the economy in tatters, capital controls, austerity and huge youth unemployment, opportunities for young people were thin on the ground, prompting tens of thousands to emigrate. If you wanted to do something creative and enterprising in Athens, you had to do it all yourself – but ATH Kids have never let the constraints of their surroundings get in the way of their ambition to speak to the world. “This thing has always been bigger than the city we live in,” Kalokoh reflects. “I just wanna show there are dope artists coming out of Athens.”
The group are currently focusing on a short lm inspired by the cult youth movie Kids, which expands upon the themes and messages they have been developing through a series of keenly received solo albums, EPs, singles and music videos. Spear- headed by creative director Rivera, it’s a project that hits close to home for the collective, whose diverse roots can be traced as far and wide as Sierra Leone, Peru and Ecuador. “It’s based around second-generation immigrant kids born in Athens: all of the experiences we went through, which just aren’t spoken about,” Kalokoh explains. “We want to give a voice to those kids who share similar dreams.”
ATH Kids’ journey began with Kalokoh’s ATH2090s mixtape, uploaded to Soundcloud in 2015. But things really started to heat up with the video for his track “New Flame”, an ethereal vision of a nocturnal Athens that nobody had seen before. The response was immediate. “That’s when people started asking, ‘Woah, is this coming from Athens?’” says Dazedboi. “They don’t really show this side of the city.”
“It’s all very natural for us,” says Kalokoh. “From the outside looking in, it might seem unique, but this is our world.” ATH Kids’ communique from the multicultural, urban underbelly of Athens was as much a news flash for Greeks as it was for foreign observers. Up until the 90s, Greece was mainly a country young people emigrated from rather than migrated to, as the huge Greek diaspora around the world reveals. Diverse faces, languages and skin colours were confined to a few central Athenian neighbourhoods, and to this day have little to no visibility in mainstream media. “Aside from (Greek-Nigerian hip hop pioneer) MC Yinka, we couldn’t really relate to a lot of homegrown hip hop growing up – or a lot of Greek culture,” says Jamal. “Being from a bilingual or trilingual household and having different identities at home and at school – nobody was talking about that. It’s important to see someone who looks like you, so you can relate.”
“That’s why we were so fascinated by what was going on (in the rest of the world),” Kalokoh adds. “We wanted to bring it here.” In their early years, parents’ record collections and bootleg CDs provided a lifeline for the group. The internet – especially LimeWire – opened up a world of inspiration previously beyond their reach. Thanks to illegal downloading, they grew up listening to Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Dr Dre, moving on more recently to trap pioneers like the late Pop Smoke.
“The ideas we shared as individuals brought us together,” Kalokoh recalls. “You go through shared experiences, you speak the same language. Sometimes you don’t even have to say it, you just know.” Their early experiences weren’t always positive: racism, discrimination and far-right violence (often given cover by the police) remain rife in Athens. Greece doesn’t usually get behind its foreign-born stars until they’re successful – like Greek-Nigerian Milwaukee Bucks titan and NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose nationality was listed as ‘alien’ on his 2009 middle school leaving certificate and was denied Greek citizenship, making him effectively stateless until two months before his 2013 NBA draft.
Yet, despite the barriers, Greece’s multicultural youth has given rise to some of the country’s biggest new stars, breathing a kaleidoscopic new vitality into its culture. People like Negros Tou Moria, a rebrand philosopher-poet who raps in Greek and drops deep references to ancient philosophy and rebetiko, Greece’s outlaw folk music, which goes over the heads of much of his audience. And Greek- Sudanese songstress Marina Satti – who shared the stage with ATH Kids during a special lockdown online performance for the Onassis Foundation – with her own dizzying collage of Greek lyrics, Arabic harmonics, Balkan beats and Romani aesthetics.
A year after dropping his debut, CONGO, in 2017, Kalokoh visited New York and Def Jam called him in to chat. He’s tight-lipped about what was discussed in their meeting, only that “we were talking about taking this way out of Greece”. The trip had a transformative effect on Kalokoh, inspiring him to retool his next work-in-progress solo album, firming up collaborations from major American rappers and beatmakers as well as a stock of talented local Athenians.
Coronavirus and lockdown looked set to disrupt the collective’s march forwards, but they quickly found a way to turn it to their advantage. “Personally, I took the time to focus on my album,” says Kalokoh. “Lockdown really boosted our creativity. We would lock ourselves in the studio or in Airbnbs – anywhere we could record music – for ten, 12 hours. Our productivity was really high: take a break from everything else, just work on music. The best music comes when we all work together and push each other.”
Meanwhile, Complex Shadow has been developing his own solo album called Self Aware; the rapper says he has been collaborating with session musicians on guitar, drums and synths to “bring something different out of myself”. Mouzakitis is pairing the freshest future beats from around the world with the latest tracks from Athens’ emerging hip-hop stars on his Escapade show for Movement Radio, an online station spotlighting migrant sto- ries and cultures from around the Mediterranean. But the vehicle that will transport the sounds of ATH Kids and their hometown throughout the world of hip hop could be the A Town Beats store, launched by Jamal and Dazedboi “to promote more sounds from our city,” Jamal explains, “(and) share our own identity.”