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Meet the MC: AntsLive

Taking lessons from his time as a teenage footballer and a life spent in North London, AntsLive knows the importance of hard work and being yourself. He speaks to DJ Mag about honing his skills, his now-famous horse riding clip, and connecting with his heritage in Sierra Leone

When DJ Mag catches up with AntsLive — the precocious North London rapper with a knack for effortlessly crisp verses, catchy hooks and striking visuals — he’s basking in the afterglow of a dying- seconds victory for his beloved Arsenal, after Reiss Nelson’s thunderbolt saw off Bournemouth at the weekend. “The squad’s coming like mentality monsters,” he says over Zoom. His camera is off but we can sense the warmth of a broad smile spreading across his face. “It just shows that they never give up. And I just love that, in football and in life. It gasses me up.”

Before music, Ants was a young footballer, daydreaming of scoring his own last-gasp winner at the Emirates Stadium, and emptying his dad’s pockets courtesy of his skills. “I remember when I used to go see my pops, he would set challenges for me. Like doing 50 kick-ups with my right foot for a tenner. And then 20 with my left for the same price. We’d spend the whole day at the park. I might leave with 20 quid in my pocket,” he remembers. “Shout out those makeshift coach-fathers!”

He spent some time on Chelsea’s books as a teenager, before being released by the club. It was an important learning experience for him. “I was always talented and technically gifted, but I didn’t quite understand the level of discipline it took, at that age. Looking back, I know that the other boys just wanted it a bit more,” he explains. “Afterwards, I remember thinking, maybe I’ve gotta get my head down and approach things in a better way.”

He idolised the Brazilian Ronaldinho, whose playful genius on the pitch was the result of thousands of practice hours. Despite his fun-loving exterior, Ants applies a similar formula to making music. “It isn’t all fun and games. At the end of the day, if I approach music correctly and work harder than other people, there’s no reason why I can’t reach the top. That’s my mindset.”

His life as an artist began as part of a group, alongside friends Jay Blu and Tejy. “That was like training camp, in a good way,” he remembers. “We were all having fun together, but never really diving into our own things because we were just an amalgamation of each other’s sounds at that point.” The pandemic limited opportunities for him to connect with them, so he struck out on his own, dropping his first solo cut, ‘Brown Liquor’, in May 2020. With Ants’ mellow raps floating above Spanish strings, the track feels like a warm, Henny-induced haze.

“It’s funny, when I listen back to that song now, I feel like my voice has developed a lot,” he admits, “but definitely back then, it was more my style to just chill on beats. Now I like to attack the beat sometimes, and chill sometimes, and even sing.” He’s learned to manipulate his cadence, switch-hitting back and forth between chilled — like over the dreamy synths of ‘Talking Stages’ — and chest-thumping, like on the boastful, bouncy ‘Glow Up’. Both feature on his debut EP, ‘Just A Matter Of Time’, which was released in January. “It takes time to really understand your register,” he says. “You have to really spend time and figure out where your voice sits. It’s an instrument. You couldn’t just pick up a guitar one day and play. It’s the same with your voice.”

Ants is currently enjoying his breakout moment, courtesy of the EP’s lead single, ‘Number One Candidate’, and its accompanying video, directed by friend and long-time collaborator Tom Emmerson. It begins with 25 uninterrupted seconds of him galloping on horseback like a gold-toothed cowboy, in a white vest and jeans, across the stunning foothills of the Dolomite Alps. The song’s entire aura is victorious, with its blaring trumpets and booming percussion soundtracking Ants’ epic mountain adventure.

AntsLive shot by Tom Emmerson

“I just don’t like it when people say I can’t do something. It kinda drives me a bit crazy.”

“It feels like you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re putting all your effort into creating a song, but then not marrying it with the right visuals to fully translate the vision,” he explains. “When I wrote that song, I was like, ‘Yo, I’m sick and tired of people not rating my ting. I’m next up, bro! Let me prove it to you’. To show that in a video, we had to do something outrageous. And it took about a year, from when we first had the idea to gallop a horse in the opening shot, to flying out and actually doing it.” Conventional wisdom says it takes at least six weeks to learn to gallop; Ants dashed that ‘wisdom’ in the bin and did it in the six days prior to shooting: “I just don’t like it when people say I can’t do something. It kinda drives me a bit crazy.”

Just like his Arsenal heroes, growing up on the red side of North London has helped mould Ants into a ‘mentality monster’ who’s determined to push boundaries. Both its people and its places are where he draws his strength from. “I love North, man. I love how many different cultures there are in the area,” he says. “I feel so grateful that I grew up around people from all over the planet. It gave me an understanding of the world. North London is like a melting pot of people just tryna make it. It’s inspiring seeing people doing different things and just taking life by the balls, basically! I just feel inspired by the place I grew up in.”

From Facebook-organised summertime raves on Parliament Hill, where the panoramic views of London had him feeling like he was sitting on top of the world, to getting his ear pierced in Camden Town as a teenager and realising the importance of being yourself, Ants’ scrapbook of North London memories is beautifully vivid. “I remember bopping through the parlour and seeing what I thought at the time were the weirdest looking people,” he says. “It really hit me after that, that they were just there being themselves. I realised I didn’t have to think about who I ‘should be’; I could just be myself. That was a massive thing for me.”

Fundamental to truly being yourself, is understanding where you’re from. In December 2021, Ants was able to travel to Sierra Leone, his mother’s homeland. He captured three days of his experience on a VHS camcorder before it broke, and used the footage for the visuals of ‘Skeet’ — another breezy cut from ‘Just A Matter Of Time’, laced with laidback swagger. “That trip was pretty life changing,” he admits. “I learnt so much about my mother’s upbringing, and about myself, because of the values from there that she’s drilled into me. I connected with a bunch of new family.” Once again, we can sense that smile from the start of our conversation. “It all made me feel a part of something bigger.”

Pics: Tom Emmerson

Robert Kazandjian is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @RKazandjian