By Lola Pak
Less than a minute into the hip-hop show at The Bench in downtown Atlanta, the music dies. As the deejay tinkers with his MacBook, scrambling to revive the beat, all is silent in the cramped, graffiti-tagged space.
Except for the rapper himself.
Twenty-two-year-old Kato continues to spit, now in a cappella, the lyrics to “Ears & Voices,” the title track off his latest EP. When he finishes, he murmurs “technical difficulties” and then quickly praises the deejay for coming out before transitioning into his introduction.Clearly, this guy doesn’t like to stop.
Wearing a checkered button-up shirt, fitted black jeans and a crisp, black cap tilted on his head, Kato, whose given name is Chris Ju, blends into the colorful crowd at this warehouse venue that attracts everyone from underground hip-hoppers to punk rockers to New Age hippies.
A “one-man sweatshop,” he’s doing it all to make a name for himself as an artist/producer, searching for new talent to collaborate with, creating digital mixtapes, and sending out album samples and press releases. He’s part of the growing pool of Korean Americans pursuing the world of hip-hop full throttle.
Ears & Voices, which fuses today’s beats with mellow, old-school undertones that ring familiar with fans of Talib Kweli and The Roots, reflects the many stages of his journey.
“I’m not one-dimensional, so I’ve had a lot of different feelings at different points in my life,” Kato says. “I’d say all the songs have a special meaning to me.”
Even his stage moniker carries a distinct significance. Named after Bruce Lee’s character on the 1960s TV show, The Green Hornet, Kato cites the martial arts master as a major influence.
“Growing up, there weren’t a lot of Asians on TV, but he was an icon,” says Kato, who would watch the show in syndication.
Raised in Fairfax, Va., Kato comes from aesthetic roots. His mother is a skilled painter. His older sister is a Parsons fashion graduate.
“We’re all very creative people,” he says. “When I was starting out in the underground scene, my dad would roll up to my shows. My family is really tight and is a really important thing in my life.”
He can also credit them for bringing him to Atlanta. Like many Koreans in the area, his parentsmigrated to town four years ago for business opportunities. Kato followed, transferring to Georgia State University from Drexel University in Philadelphia. Now with an established network in the South, he has plans to stay.
“I gotta be honest,” he says. “Before I came down to Atlanta, I really wasn’t feeling the whole Southern music thing. But since I’ve been living here, I’ve really been getting into it. … I feel really lucky now that I’m in Atlanta, to be part of some huge hip-hop center.”
He went ahead and took his chances with “crunk” (Southern shorthand for “cranked up,” as in increased volume), producing the hit single “Crank It” for Atlanta hip-hop artist Mike Petrone, which also features Lil Scrappy and Iam of Soul Mafia, last December.
Still, he remains a part of the underground scene, adding that being Asian in an African American-dominated genre has worked to his advantage.
“In L.A. and New York, there’s an indescribable number of Korean emcees, but here in Atlanta, there’s not a whole lot of them at all,” he says. “So people look at me differently, but I think it’s a good thing because they don’t expect this type of music to come from an Asian American. I take it as something positive.”
If his track “Clones” is any indication, Kato is quite proud to be Korean. Lyrics such as “Callin’ all small-eyed killer emcees” and “This Korean cat loves collecting the cold facts” shows he’s got nothing to hide.
Now on a break from school, Kato is recording and producing full-time in his Sandy Springs apartment, while keeping a lookout for a day job to pay the bills. He ultimately wants to produce music and plans to put out an entire album of original production within the year.
But for the moment, Kato finishes his show on The Bench’s makeshift stage and wiggles through the crowd. He’s stopped by various fans who either want to purchase a CD or talk shop about potential projects. Just like “The Green Hornet,” Kato is ready to make a buzz.