Sometimes when you’re a world-class performer, the difference between focus and failure is all about the small, most minute details. Sure, there are the big things like which hit movie or television series you’re starring in (or set to star in), what is your latest popular song? Those are the headline grabbers. But for the people who work in creative fields day in and day out, there must be smaller, more granular aspects of thinking about things so as to maintain focus and clarity.
For rapper and actor TJ Atoms, who stars in the popular Hulu series Wu-Tang: An American Saga, one bit of crucial minutia that he keyed in on was his name. Born Tyree Adams, the artist wasn’t into his last name, so he changed it to Atoms. Why? He’s all about energy. More than any line or lyric, the energy he puts into work is most essential. Which is why his latest song “Potato Chips,” which Atoms released last month, is so full of verve and vigor.
“My whole brain is about energy,” Atoms tells American Songwriter. “My new name stands for energy. When you think of me I want you to think of frequencies, energy, all that shit.”
While “Potato Chips” is Atoms’ newest single, it’s also one of “hundreds of songs” the artist has in his files. He says he’s been waiting for the right time to release them and now is that time. Atoms, who stars as Ol’ Dirty Bastard in the Wu-Tang series, shines. He embodies the spirit of one of America’s most unique and indelible artists, mastering the cadence of speech and at times-herky-jerky physicality. If he wanted to, he could teach a class on his approach.
“I went in making sure my energy was real pure with the character,” the 26-year-old Atoms says. “I feel like my energy is aligned with this role, connected. You can do all the training in the world and it still wouldn’t be like what I did.”
As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, Atoms grew up around music. He says he was a “baby of the culture.” He remembers his mom playing The Notorious B.I.G, The Lox, and Jay Z all the time in the house. His dad was a rapper in the city, too. As such, he says, music has always been in his veins. It makes sense he would both participate in it and find a groove acting in a show portraying one of the most impactful hip-hop rap groups of all time. The Wu-Tang Clan, which was founded in Staten Island, New York, included some of the biggest names in the genre, including the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, RZA, GZA, and more. The group released its seminal album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), in 1993.
“Wu-Tang has always been in my life,” Atoms says. “I’m a hip-hop baby. But I really started paying attention to them at 16.” Atoms shares that a music producer friend of his introduced him to the “legendary” group. “It’s great to be part of the legacy. It’s an honor to be part of hip-hop culture and they’re hip-hop royalty.”
Atoms says he first began rapping in school. He’d already loved hip-hop music and during downtime, he’d bang out a beat on his desk or the lunchroom table and rhyme. His peers loved it. They encouraged him to pursue it. Eventually, he found himself in recording studios, putting his words to wax. Later, as part of the now-infamous Philadelphia hip-hop group The Bakery Boys, Atoms achieved success locally and even abroad. At the same time, he developed his love and skill for acting, manifesting a path for himself through sheer personal belief, observation, and artistry.
“I love storytelling,” he says. “I love the music. I love how hip-hop samples. I like how hip-hop can pretty much make any genre hip-hop. You can mix rock with it, reggae with it. And it’s still hip-hop. That’s what drew me to it. The storytelling, the rhymes, the expression.”
Looking to the future, Atoms will continue to be busy. He anticipates releasing a few singles before eventually dropping his entire debut album. And earlier this month, Wu-Tang: An American Saga was renewed for a third and final season. Additionally, Atoms is slated for a new “key role” in the upcoming Mike Tyson series, Iron Mike.
“I don’t want to give away too much,” Atoms says, with a laugh. “But I play a really important part in Mike’s life. An O.G. coming up where he grew up at.”
In the end, it’s all about the music for the elastic-minded Atoms. It’s visible in the effort he exhibited in “Potato Chips” and it’s evident in the energy he puts into each moment of his many other creative outlets. After all, like any great creative mechanism, the energy put in yields the energy output. It’s simple, in a way, even if it can come down to the success or failure of a single detail, molecule… or atom.
“I love everything about music,” Atoms says. “I love all different kinds of music. I love how music makes you feel. I love how music makes you think.” He pauses. “I love how music inspires.”
Photo by John Ricard / The Thom Brand