AJ Tracey: “I’ve gone through so much. It’s been so hard, and I’m still here”

The west London rapper on his slam-dunk of a new album, ‘Flu Game’, and why he’s UK rap’s answer to Michael Jordan

“This is just a fact people need to digest: I live in the UK, but the UK is never enough,” AJ Tracey says, sprawled out on the couch of his home in west London.

His football club Tottenham Hotspur, a north London institution, has triumphantly won over the weekend and, as a childhood fan, Tracey is beaming. The victory comes a few days after his 27th birthday – the club also wished him well on Twitter — and AJ is now reminiscing about what it was like to meet the players in person. These moments feel natural for the rapper, like steps towards a journey he excitedly knows hasn’t truly started yet.

“Listen, obviously I support Tottenham, but when you go to Trinidad, they only know Manchester United,” he says. “If you ask them about football, they’re telling you David Beckham, Wayne Rooney. I need to be in that mix. I need to be in the mix with 50 Cent, Jackie Chan, the Michael Jordans – the household names all over the planet.”

NME Cover 2021 AJ Tracey
Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

The west London-born artist, whose career has spanned a decade but blossomed in the last years, has launched himself to fame through a tentacled oeuvre that touches upon drill, UK garage, soca, hip-hop, sad-rap and even brief flirtation with country twangs. Along the way, his single ‘Ladbroke Grove’ (which won Best British Song at last year’s NME Awards) soundtracked the summer of 2019, becoming a mainstay at club nights, radio stations and booming out of car speakers. Its infectious intro – ‘Yo it’s the hyperman set / AJ Tracey live and direct / DJ mash up the – mash up the deck’ – was subject to countless rewinds and helped the song to go double Platinum.

It’s a common theme for the rapper: everything AJ Tracey touches is successful, often aided and abetted by the cream of British musical talent: ‘Butterflies’ (with Not3s), ‘Thiago Silva’ (Dave), ‘Rain’ (Aitch and Tay Keith), ‘Dinner Guest’ (MoStack), ‘Ain’t It Different’ (Headie One and Stormzy) and ‘Fashion Week’ (with Steel Banglez and MoStack) – these songs have all gone Platinum.

Meanwhile, his self-titled 2019 debut studio album was a critically acclaimed project that debuted at Number Three on the UK Albums Chart. As the four-star NME review put it: “As a document of British rap’s indefinable present – a snapshot of a time that’s seen UK rappers springboard from grime’s international explosion, and warp sonic expectations at every opportunity – AJ Tracey’s debut is perhaps the best of the current crop; twisted, vibrant and ever-shifting, but linked with that confident voice.” And he’s done all of this independently. And yet AJ Tracey, sitting on a couch in an apartment paid for by his successes, is not satisfied.

NME Cover 2021 AJ Tracey
AJ Tracey on the cover of NME

“Two years ago, I said I’m the most versatile in the UK,” he says. “Most people were like, ‘Says who? Prove it. You can’t just say a big statement like that’. Obviously, I proved it. I’ve gone Platinum on a dance record, on a garage record, on a drill record. I don’t need to prove it anymore. The facts are there.” Tracey feels aggrieved at this treatment from his public, and the frustrations he feels at having not received his deserved dues run through his latest album, ‘Flu Game’.

“I think in the UK, there is a ceiling because there’s too much hate, there’s crabs in the barrel,” he laments. “People from the ends be like, ‘Why do you get to be so lit? Why are you doing all this? Why’d you get that?’ And amongst the Black community, it’s very, very, very prominent. I don’t know why it just is. We hate to see people from the same background make it, which is horrible.”

“I don’t mind if I don’t break the US right now, but if I’m helping the young do it, that’s great”

Named and modelled after the nickname ascribed to a infamous 1997 basketball match – Michael Jordan had food poisoning the night before his team, the Chicago Bulls, played a pivotal NBA Finals match-up against the Utah Jazz – ‘Flu Game’ finds AJ Tracey doubling down against those who dare question his talent. 24 years ago, barely able to stand, Michael Jordan somehow led the Bulls to a two-point victory over the seemingly indomitable competition, collecting an incredible 38 points, seven rebounds and five assists along the way. It led the Bulls to inch ahead in the best-of-seven playoff format before their eventual series victory, cementing the team as one of the greatest sports teams in history.

“I feel like that’s what [Michael Jordan] was all about,” he says. “Even with him being ill with food poisoning, he can barely move, but he’s dropping points that the other team wishes they could drop. [The album] is about when we go through hard times, but you have to always make sure you put your best foot forward and be great to try to break boundaries. That’s what I’m about to release.”

With ‘Flu Game’, Tracey aims to launch himself to become a global pop star. Yet these ambitious plans for world domination are not new. They’ve been years in the making since he shed his old moniker of Loonz and created the character AJ Tracey.

NME Cover 2021 AJ Tracey
Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

Before he was AJ Tracey or Looney or Loonz, Ché Wolton Grant was “doing a lot of hood shit”. Named after revolutionary leader Che Guevara, the young Grant’s life was “significantly darker” than it is now, because he was “poor, angry and felt hard done by the world”. Growing up in Ladbroke Grove, Grant didn’t see a future for himself beyond his immediate surroundings. “I would take criminal risks,” he says ruefully. “I didn’t know what my path was, so those times as Loonz and Looney are associated with a completely different person.”

Grafting in the underground under the Loonz moniker, Grant saw his peers ascending to heights he aspired to attain. One day, he sat himself down and had a “heroin addict switch” where he shed his old life “cold turkey” and changed his name and persona while laying down his plans. “I needed to change my name to something that wasn’t as aggressive or doesn’t hold such a gang stigma,” he says. “What kind of Caucasian mother is going to buy her young child a tape by someone named Looney? It’s just not very sellable.”

Grant went through a million different name changes before landing on AJ Tracey, which emerged from its racial ambiguity. “When people are looking at my music or product,” he says, “it looks like someone’s name rather than some sort of gang. It could very well be a Caucasian name. I wasn’t really angling for that, but it could just be anyone.”

“There’s a ceiling in the UK because there’s too much hate – there’s a ‘crabs in barrel’ mentality”

After the name change, Tracey released a slew of semi-successful mixtapes and EPs that culminated in 2017’s ‘Secure The Bag’, a project with which he emerged as an exciting talent in the UK. It was his first project to chart, peaking at number 13 in the UK. The success that followed was a rush for the artist, but also became a benchmark that some longtime fans unfairly still hold him to.

“From the start, I didn’t think of myself as a great emcee,” Tracey recounts. “When people are like, ‘AJ Tracey started from grime’ – like, nah. I started rapping with my dad. Just rap; actual rap. Then I started on trap. And then I was like, ‘Grime is our thing in our back garden – I reckon I can do that’. So I did it. So, do you want the old grime AJ? Or the old drill AJ? They don’t even know anymore, bro. They just say it for the sake of it.”

He’s as versatile as he claims: Tracey’s success is testament to his ability to glide over any beat handed to him, his voice contorting over ice-cold drill beats, skating joyfully over soca and punctuating the rhythm on grime and hip-hop.

“The entire pandemic, I’ve been making this album with family stresses [from] my mum being ill to my dad being ill,” he says. “I am very conscious of having 20 people whose entire livelihoods depend on the decisions I make. [I’m] trying to get mortgages, trying to level up as a human, trying to be more open-minded – just bettering myself. I feel that I’ve gone through so much and it’s been so hard and I’m still here. I’m still the guy, still supporting people, still trying to give back. I’m doing what I should do as a public figure. I’m playing my position, playing my role.”

NME Cover 2021 AJ Tracey
Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

For Tracey, the parallels between AJ and MJ run deep. Aside from the family dependency and taking care of those around him, there is a sense of projecting a façade of stoicism. MJ weathered a gruelling setback to deliver a memorable game; AJ Tracey hopes to do something similar with this album: “For me, the album is seeing that no matter what I’m going through with these things, it doesn’t matter – I’m still going to crack on and push through it. I’m going to deliver hopefully the best project I’ve ever dropped.”

‘Flu Game’ is stacked with a surprising amount of features, too. The direction of the album push feels outward towards a global audience, inviting them in. The album is still under wraps at the time of our conversation, but ‘Anxious’, the lead single, offers an insight into the vulnerability Tracey promises to show, along with braggadocio rap layered over ice cold production. Confirmed names on the project include the likes of Canadian producer, rapper and global superstar Nav. “I’ve been a fan of Nav forever,” Tracey says passionately. “I’ve always thought he was dope and the fact that he’s of [South] Asian descent… he’s carved out that path and no one before him has really set the precedent for someone from his background.”

There’s also “the Auto-Tune god himself” T-Pain and R&B star Kehlani, “a longtime friend” of Tracey whose name slots alongside SahBabii, a frequent collaborator with whom the main man “will work until he’s bored with me”. London singer MillieGoLightly, the aforementioned MoStack and British-Swedish singer Mabel feature too. And the album promises to reveal a layer of Tracey he’s sometimes shy to acknowledge: “I don’t give people the emotional side of my music that much. So I thought it would be good to be a little vulnerable. You get more of an in-depth insight into my life here.”

“#grime4corbyn was bullshit. It made no difference to anyone”

With a roster of stars on the album alongside several solo tracks, Tracey has carved out a starting team with a strong bench to help elevate him to a global superstar. His intentions are transparent, but are the long-rumoured moves to America – which he discussed in his previous NME cover story in 2019 – finally coming to fruition? AJ and Manchester rapper Aitch headed to Los Angeles to film the video for their massive collaborative ‘Rain’, one of YouTube UK’s highest viewed music videos last year (it’s racked up almost 43 million viewers since last March), fuelling the speculation.

“If it happens, it happens,” Tracey says almost coyly before pivoting. “I’d be grateful and it’ll be great. I just need to finish conquering the UK, then Germany, Australia, France. But I would love to be huge in Japan. Even if someone said, ‘You can never ever be famous in America, just Japan’ – I say fine, let’s go. That’s it.”

Whether or not he makes it in America, Tracey is happy to help carve a path for those younger than him. “It’s a matter of time,” he says of UK artists dominating in the States. “Even if it’s not my time, I’m just trying to plant the seeds. There’s a good phrase I heard a long time ago: ‘Sometimes you plant the seeds and don’t get to sit underneath the tree’, so I don’t mind if I don’t break the US right now, but if I’m helping the young do it, that’s great. Progress is progress regardless.”

NME Cover 2021 AJ Tracey
Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

Over the years, Tracey has extended that sense of leadership past the arts and towards politics. “In my area, I got the youth and rallied them to vote Labour [in the 2019 general election],” he says. “Everything is in white people’s favour. If I can’t use my power to give Black and ethnic kids a leg up, then what’s the point of even having this power?”

The election came two years after the #Grime4Corbyn movement, which saw Tracey – along with a host of other famous grime artists including Novelist, JME and Krucial – join ranks to connect fans with then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his left-wing politics. Several of the genre’s heavyweight names have distanced themselves from the movement following Corbyn’s crushing defeat at the polls – as has Tracey. “To be honest with you, it was bullshit,” he says. “It made no difference to anyone.”

Losing that momentum has led Tracey to experience a certain disillusionment and apathy. The indifference of the current centre-left Labour leader, Keir Starmer, isn’t helping either. “I will never vote Conservative in my life – they are just wankers,” Tracey says vehemently, “[but] Labour are not that much better. Regardless of any party, most of these people don’t care about us. None of the parties represent me, my morals, how I grew up, my mum, any of my friends, us. I’m done with supporting political parties.”

“None of the political parties represent me. I’m done with supporting them”

Clearly, touching on politics has sparked a flame during our conversation. Gone is the affable demeanour and cheery smile Tracey displays throughout, replaced by a hard, steely look. Ché has emerged and wants to speak.

“They’ve been cutting youth clubs and shutting them down, as opposed to cutting on nuclear defence systems,” he says, going on to insist that the older generation of politicians is apathetic to younger people’s needs. “Why are you cutting things for the youth? Why do you love cutting things for the next generation? These kids you’re taking away from are going to be the leaders of the country. You don’t mind destroying the planet, making it harder for us, segregating us, creating race tensions – you don’t mind doing all that because you’re going to die soon. But we have to deal with the consequences of that. They say we need more police. The reason you need more police – you idiots – is because there are no youth clubs for your kids to be somewhere safe.”

NME Cover 2021 AJ Tracey
Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

He pauses for breath before ruminating on the upcoming London mayoral elections and representation of ethnic minorities in politics. Again, Ché seems disappointed. “Sadiq Khan?” He kisses his teeth and shakes his head at the Labour mayor. “The picture of him and what he does is two worlds apart. I expect someone ethnic to have a heart.” The current Conservative Home Secretary doesn’t fare much better: “Priti Patel, she’s worse than a lot of white people, and I’m gobsmacked by that. That is crazy to me. You’ve literally sold your ethnicity to be part of their gang.”

The frustration of the past year has caught up on Ché. Given that he’s seen family members struggle with their health and the ends stuck in a cycle of poverty, along with the government’s failure in dealing with a generational pandemic, his grievances should come as no surprise. There seems to be light on the horizon, though.

With the roadmap out of lockdown ticking away, AJ Tracey is hoping that when ‘Flu Game’ is released, he can thank fans with something similar to his 2019 concert at London’s 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace. “I would love to do something for the kids,” he says. “I would love to see everyone and do a meet-and-greet. A basketball match for charity would be great. As soon as things are back to normal, then we’ll get going.” He’s also hoping that a few summer festivals take place, including the highly anticipated Reading and Leeds festivals. “Fingers crossed,” he says. “I hope it goes through because I’ve been waiting for that booking for two years. Hopefully, it goes ahead. I’m really excited.”

“Whatever ceiling they put on me, I’m going to keep smashing it”

The Chicago Bulls team of the 1990s – which helped popularise American basketball worldwide – is recognised as one of the greatest sports dynasties in history. They won six championships in eight seasons. All six were led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. With the imminent release of ‘Flu Game’, Tracey is looking towards planting his legacy in soil, hoping to see the tree blossom. Along the way, much like Michael Jordan, he hopes his fellow cohorts – in his case, rappers – will write themselves into history. And if he had to pick a dream-team to ride with him on this journey?

“That’s very easy,” he says. “No disrespect to any of the other rappers out there but we got Stormzy, Dave, [J] Hus – and that last spot? There are a lot of contenders. If we’re talking longevity, and I think he’s going to be great, because we’ve all done things that other people have not done and that people probably won’t do… With that last person, it’ll probably be Aitch. He’s a lot younger and hasn’t been doing it for as long, but I think he will get there and that’s the truth.”

NME Cover 2021 AJ Tracey
Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

High praise from an artist comparing himself to one of the greatest athletes in history. Ultimately, though, is Tracey worried about putting himself on a pedestal? Of placing expectations too high and then not being able to deliver on them?

“Whatever ceiling they put on me, I’m going to keep smashing it,” he says defiantly. “What they want is what you’ve already given them. What they need is something new, something that breaks barriers and opens their mind to a new sonic. That’s what they need and that’s what I focus on.”

AJ Tracey’s ‘Flu Game’ is out April 16