Ano Chrispin almost gave up on music… but when the pandemic switched things up, the versatile artist returned to old habits, turning out ‘Metro Dread,’ a gorgeous record that examines race, identity, belonging, cynicism, and the relentless pace of the everyday.
Five years ago, Ano Chrispin made a quick decision.
“We had just started dating, and I wanted to take her out,” he says, casting his mind back to that increasingly foreign time. Money was tight, and with romance in the air, he made a fateful choice: “I sold the guitar. I was like, ‘alright, eventually I’ll get it back,’” he explains. “That’s the way my mind works. ‘Okay, I’ll sell everything now. One day, somehow, I’ll miraculously purchase another one.’”
Even as he held out some vague hope, Ano didn’t see six strings in his immediate future. “That was when I first went into university,” he elaborates, “and because I studied art history, I was like, ‘I’ll probably be writing papers for the Burlington in four years.’” Fingers trained on steel strings shifted to keyboards and mice, and though he kept a clenched fist wrapped around the mic, it wasn’t really the same. “I was rapping since I was maybe 14, and I’ve also been playing guitar since I was about 14,” says Ano, “I just kept the two separate.”
In the earliest moments of 2020, before those numbers became synonymous with death, discord and division, Ano was once again weighing up his musical future. A graduate vying for a place in a competitive field, Ano quietly resolved to move on from his emceeing, finally retiring from his musical passions altogether. That was, at least, the plan. Holed up in his apartment at the height of COVID, it didn’t take long for Ano’s fingers to return to familiar frets, and as he whittled the days away on the neck of his new electric guitar, something started to form – an idea, a sound, and eventually, a “weird-ass album.”
“It’s like being buried alive,” he says of the titular ‘Metro Dread,’ a crippling feeling of relentless inner-city fear. It’s “knowing there’s so much going on up above you and feeling separated from that,” a sensation that resonates even more in the age of home quarantine and social distance. “It’s rough, yo, it’s tough,” he waxes, “I hope no one ever feels metro dread.”
Metro Dread is a record ripped from the frontlines of urban youth; a belated coming-of-age story that plays out amongst skyscrapers, traffic jams and subway stations. It’s a tale told with an immediacy he’d yet to uncover years ago, and on reuniting with six strings a half-decade on, Ano seemed more than ready to channel his metropolitan vignettes into punchy jams. It was the subway that gave the record its grainy cover, a black-and-white portrait marred with a blood-red smear.
“I had a nosebleed in the album cover, because I got punched in the nose,” he says, lighthearted. “Not because of anything crazy, but it’s just one night, we had just got… I never thought about how crazy this is!” He shoots off a quick laugh and sets the scene: a train station, late at night. “We had gotten off, got into the altercation, and were running back to where we were staying that night, and my nose was just leaking. It was really leaking, and they were taking photos. It was for Instagram stories.”
“It was funny, because it was kind of funny! I was like, ‘Yo, this could actually be a really cool photo in general,’ so I had one of my friends take a picture of it in portrait mode on his iPhone and send it to me. Two days later I see it in Photoshop, put the threshold filter on it, doubled it, added a gradient map, and the rest was history.” It’s the relatable chaos of youth – nosebleeds on Instagram stories, exhilarating getaways and reckless abandon. That Ano found beauty in that bloody smear speaks to his ability to pull from his day-to-day, mining both style and meaning in a thoughtful way.
As Native Son, Ano’s approach bleeds into his tracks, collages of brief interactions, passing observations and relevant asides sketching an outline about the man himself. Take “Domme Kinderen,” a love song replete with “crocodile tears,” fake smiles, chrome hearts, and – in keeping with his art history cred – references to Tronies and the Mona Lisa. Ano’s is a vivid, fleeting gaze, stories imparted through sharp shorthand. The verse opens with “coffee and smoke, it’s a winter time break up,” his tight turns of phrase speaking to an anxious modern condition.
There’s a sense of unavailability in the lyrics, a longing at odds with a cynical streak. Sobering honesty comes up against emotional masquerading, his admissions carefully cloaked: “almost had a crash at a quarter past ten / Real short temper, big fake–– smile!” Vocals are delicately delivered and intricately layered, the harmonies all but hidden as witty quips press up against referential asides: “I gave you a cold shoulder that you could cry on / I’m no Martin, you’re no Gina…”
It’s the silky smooth Dutch phrase that inspired the track, though not in the way you might expect. “I found this hat in my boy’s apartment and I put it on, and I just wore it out one day and had a wild day,” he explains. “That night everyone at the party that I was at was trying to pronounce what was on the hat, and I was like, ‘I have no idea what this is!’ We looked it up and realized that it meant ‘silly children,’ and I just connected it to the events of that night.”
There’s joy in the memory, and it breaks through in the telling. “It was just a wild evening in general, just people playing with people,” he recalls, that playful energy mirrored in the song’s interpersonal push-and-pull. “This is the beginning of the pandemic, so it’s like a social distanced gathering,” he adds, “people feel like they can do whatever they want because they have the little M-95s on. It was like a contemporary masquerade ball. It was so weird, and I just ran with it.”
“Domme Kinderen,” like the record itself, sets a mean pace with a bevy of allusions and asides, but it still owes a strange debt to the lethargic year of isolation. “This is such a weird thing to say, but if it wasn’t for coronavirus – for the pandemic, and losing my job, and getting unemployment, and being able to pay for studio time – I probably would’ve never made the album.”
Threads of memory, heritage, identity and belonging weaved about the crisis, fraying into personal insights and vast social movements all the same. “At the beginning of the shutdown, the pandemic and whatnot, going out became a lot more precarious, but I started hanging out in parks with friends like I used to do when I was in high school,” says Ano, pandemic days at Tompkins Square Park recalling his musical Brooklyn youth. “The Lower East Side, in general, was the heart of the punk scene, and we just started getting into bullshit with our masks on, and it was just… the feelings were so different.”
It’s hard to be ignorant of New York’s rich cultural history, but even then, Ano is keenly aware. Tompkin’s Square isn’t far from where nightspots like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City once ushered in whole musical movements; sacred sites for punk, new wave and the uniquely New Yorkian no wave scene. It’s from the latter that Native Son sourced inspiration, a devotee of Bronx innovators ESG and avant-garde jazz purveyors The Lounge Lizards.
“I’m from Brooklyn originally, East Flatbush,” explains Ano, his return to park bench hangs stoking wistful retrospection. “I’d moved out, and had moved a little ways away, and got away from a lot of bad, bad stuff. Terrible stuff… getting away from those people and that place gave me a lot of room to explore a lot of different things, my own emotions,” he admits, caught a little off guard by his own words. “That sounds corny, but I got to look in for a while!”
This flurry of change – and the bygone revisions it made starker still – saw Ano slipping back into his own past, this time with a sharper eye and greater sense of self. The health crisis deepened, particularly in New York, and residents soon retreated to their boxy lots. “Everyone was on their own with little to nothing to do,” recalls Ano. “I had all these complex emotions from being stuck in this little-ass apartment all day.”
That complexity shows in the sly distress of Ano’s songwriting. His sharp lyrics are cushioned by backing vocals and cloaked in a light arrangement, the curious interplay of riffs and drums providing a strange pep. “I produce most of these things at home, with the clear intention of making them sound a little odd, just unsettling and disquieting,” he explains. “With a track like ‘Brown Water,’ no one can really hear it. I feel like it affects your subconscious… There’s a drone underneath the whole song that’s flat.”
That’s a detail nobody – this author included – had picked up on. “I thought that was the creepiest thing about the song,” he says eagerly, still a little shocked at how well hidden it remains. “I just like the inflections at the end of every line that I was doing with the dark lyrics… I don’t know, I just loved it.” There’s an easygoing guitar groove to “Brown Water,” the drone hardly noticeable as the lyrics fall into an eerie mantra. “Slow bleed like brown skin,” he says on the refrain, just moments after crooning an even more striking phrase: “I can’t breathe.” There’s a beauty, but don’t confuse it for joy: “I don’t want to feel this way / But it’s been my whole life / Big head full of trauma,” he sings, closing the first verse.
In a way, that subtle note gives voice to the titular dread. Ano’s delivery douses the lyrics in a deceptive sweetness as the instrumental itself all but obscures the nigh-subliminal dissonance. The chorus is passionately sung, only to segue into verses of jagged, clipped repetition. No matter the hardship expressed, Ano approaches it with restraint – even the more scathing moments are imparted through inflection, not rage. As a mantle, Native Son provides an emotive accounting, but his lyrics are too impressionistic to support a soapbox. It’s things he’s seen, heard and thought, grouped in loose arcs and vivid moods.
“I feel like the existence of Native Son is a cautionary one, mainly because I’m presenting myself as someone who is actively looking around,” he says, considering that mantle as a response to his world. “Something I noticed with everything going on right now, is we’re seeing a really big rise of people who are actively reading, actively researching, realizing that we’re not ahistorical people.”
“Recently I’ve just really stepped into it,” he says of the storied name. “With so many things going on in the States regarding racial injustice and stuff like that, I’ve seen everyone reading James Baldwin, which is so great, and I just jumped back in.” Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, published in 1955, comprised both critical and personal essays, including a focused critique of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son. Though a fierce critic of that book, Baldwin adopted the powerful title as an identifier of his own. 66 years on, Ano finds it just as potent.
“It’s more of an affirmation than anything, because I feel like I’ve always been a native son,” he admits. “Obviously we’re all native sons in one way or another, but I feel like being American especially, it’s just such a complex identity to have. It’s like we have such a specific set of epistemes that are just set into all of our heads.” He pauses a moment, considering it. “We’re all just brainwashed. Sometimes in good ways, but yeah, we’re all completely fucked. I don’t know how else to say it, man.”
That complexity can push into contradiction, and as protest erupted across the States in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, such incongruent markers once again came to the fore. “It’s a feeling of having a home in a place that doesn’t feel like one,” he says of his country. “One of the staples of a place being home is that you feel welcome, and obviously you go back to your little box every night, if you have one, and you feel safe.”
In the past three years alone, the Black home has been shown as deeply unsafe: Stephon Clark was shot dead taking a call in his grandmothers’ backyard; Breonna Taylor was shot dead when plainclothes officers forced entry into her Louisville apartment; Atatiana Jefferson was shot dead by officers during a so-called ‘welfare call’; Botham Jean was shot dead by an off-duty officer who claimed she walked into Jean’s apartment believing it to be hers and mistook him for a burglar.
“Outside of that, just knowing many people don’t like you, and knowing that many people would tell you to go back somewhere that you’ve never been before… it’s just so confusing and stressful,” he says, flagging a little. “It’s a tough existence, but a lot of people have it tougher than I do. I’m just living it out, rapping it out as much as I can.”
It’s a thread that tracks through the project, cropping up in personal admissions and passing observations. On standout “Serial Misery,” he’ll “break the bank tryna break [his] chains,” but soon enough he’s “drowning in all this bleach, tryna blot out [his] stains.” The propulsive “Ragtime” puts his fear to sleep down to “genes,” his heart beating with the steady cadence of a 19th-century Black art form. It all comes to a head with “Honey / Drowning,” on which the liberating feeling of urban insignificance and the crushing weight of existential dread go hand in hand — flip sides of the very same coin.
“I wrote that after a day of biking around Manhattan,” he says of the ambitious closer. “In such a huge city, you can do whatever you want, because everyone will forget you in the next five minutes. I was biking, just screaming, just rapping Tribe out loud, just mad loud! Something I could never do in Brownsville or Flatbush, because I know everybody, you know what I mean? I was just riding around, just so free, because no one knew who the fuck I was.”
It’s more than just a closing statement – it’s a distillation of his mission, filled with all manner of harmonious contradictions. He’s speeding “in the bike lane” but “going nowhere,” “laying down” but “running in place,” admitting that “even home don’t feel like home.” Even as Ano has difficulty both getting moving and slowing down, his mindstate is resiliently self-assured – “ain’t you know that honey come in all hues?”
“Honey” segues to “Drowning” with the simplest of cues, an organ bursting forth with real emotive power. A daisy chain of panicked, bleak images paints a picture of ceaseless stress — an experience burnished by his city, his identity and his modern upbringing. “Thick hair, brown skin, pink lungs / Close a coffin with the nails I’ve chewed / Rolling like a stone off a countertop drug / Cuban link looking like a new noose…”. Words repeat, fractured and ajar, a soft falsetto ushering it all to a close with a harrowing last word – “I feel like I’m drowning…”
He hopes you never feel it, but as Metro Dread continues to make waves, Ano really believes you ought to hear it. “My projects that I made before I was making music under Native Son… I just didn’t like them,” he admits. “This, I’m extremely proud of… after making it, I can’t hear another song from it ever again or I’ll tear my head off,” he says with a laugh, “but people sending me screenshots of them listening to it still is insane!”
It’s been enough to see him stay in the game, at least for now. “Originally I’d seen an ad from them,” he said of label Radio Silence, “[and] my inner graphic designer was like, ‘this ad is so hard’.” It took another chance advertisement for Ano to submit his demo, part of a greater look into label interest. “The response from Radio Silence was the fastest. It was also the most enthusiastic, and it seems like [label head] Snny actually cared about the product. He called me maybe eight hours after I sent it to him.”
“I’m still in so much shock, because I really made this in my bedroom,” he admits with palpable disbelief. “I can’t stress that enough: I recorded it at a studio, but everything was produced basically in bed, with a 22-key keyboard and my guitar.” It’s a modest setup, but as he barrels towards his sophomore record, Ano’s not ready to dispose of it quite yet.
“I’m here with $50, but stuff is still different,” he says of that upcoming record, provisionally about changes in his life since the release of Metro Dread. It’s not the usual post-fame reflection, but if anything, that’s all the more promising. “I have creative block, and I can’t think straight. The world is progressively getting crazier, and now it’s cold outside, and I just had a friend pass away. People are calling me famous now, because I have 1000 Instagram followers.” He takes it in for a second, the highs and lows abutting each other. “Yo, it’s just such a weird time.” That record, fixed once again on his “day-to-day,” is “like a genre painting in the form of an LP.”
In the meantime, you can find Ano in his New York City shoebox, laying tracks and falling further into his musical craft. His is a restless home in a sleepless city, where blood courses through veins and spills on sidewalks, cold hearts and colder winds whipping whirlwinds about the boroughs. It’s wild that Native Son comes back to a simple twist of fate, but as Ano speaks, it’s easy to think he was right about the fated guitar.
A welcome surprise, even to the man himself – “I’m so happy I got it back!”