Inside AJ Tracey’s stunning ‘Live & Direct’ stage show: “We brought an element of theatre to the audience”

Tawbox give us the lowdown on how the rapper's epic double header came together at Ally Pally

AJ Tracey’s ambitious double header at London’s Alexandra Palace was a grime fan’s paradise – with the likes of Stormzy, Dave and Skepta all rocking up to perform inside his Live & Direct stage centrepiece. Creative studio Tawbox were responsible for putting the epic stage show together pulling in pyrotechnics, giant screens, flames and er… football pitch smells. Bronski (creative director) and choreographer Amber Rimell (creative director, choreographer) gave us the lowdown on how it all came together.

AJ’s show had a hanging square stage right in the middle of the audience. Was that to make the show more interactive?

Bronski, creative director: “Obviously AJ had a massive hit this year and unbelievable success with (single) ‘Ladbroke Grove’. The fans really kind of coined the term “AJ Tracey live & direct” from the lyrics. So when he announced those shows, he announced them as ‘AJ Tracey: Live & Direct from Ally Pally’.”

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“So, with that in mind, we kind of looked at that concept with him because AJ loves to be hugely involved and he was really adamant from day one that we were able to do the shows in the round, which is essentially a stage in the middle of the crowd, rather than it being at the end of the venue like it traditionally is.”

Amber, creative director/choreographer: “I think that was also because he definitely wanted to have more interaction with the audience and with the crowd and by being in the round he was able to engage with and get a lot closer to his fans”.

What ideas did you get from his songs to come up with the stage concept?

Bronski: “That was an interesting one because we wanted to work within the theme of live and direct, so from the very beginning we showed a VT which was based on how Alexandra Palace in 1936 became the home of British broadcasting with its first ever television broadcast.

“With that, people felt and AJ felt like that was a strong concept to run through the entire show. It was perfect, we really jumped on that concept and we worked on a set with kind of smaller concepts that played alongside that. We used a lot of light camera on the big, we called it a scoreboard, but the box LED screen.

“We would show AJ as being a host on a weather channel. For ‘Thiago Silva’ with Dave, we projected that on to screen like Sky Sports News. And there were many other elements along the way that lent itself to that broadcast element. The other thing that was great was that it allowed us to give it a gritty edge just because it suited the more grime-y aspect of the show. We got to play with broken television, banned television and B-movies. We really ventured out.”

You had a lot of guests onstage. How did you integrate them into the set?

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Bronski: “The stage itself, we designed in such a way that it was a square but it was a diamond formation. It was more south east, west rather than a flat face. We actually cut a massive chunk out of the middle of the stage and what that enabled us to do was to hide some tricks within that.

“We had a lift which was how AJ got revealed inside the box. There was various lighting, smoke machines and lots of fire and other pyro special effects. We essentially had, in order to get the guests in, there was a Mojo barrier from one side of the venue to the other. I guess it was not really too different from how any other show would work in that sense. The biggest intricacy was how we worked with AJ on the music side of it by making sure it felt like the guests were spread out well. So you didn’t have five guests in five songs. You felt like you were always getting something along the way.”

There was a voice-over throughout the show too. What was the thinking behind that?

Bronski: “We hired a voice-over artist to buy into the theme of our broadcast element of the show. When we were splitting the setlist into sections, we would break them up by having a short voice-over element which would introduce the sport or say for instance when Stormzy was introduced it would say: ‘We interrupt this broadcast to bring you someone who needs no introduction’. It was all very much delivered in that traditional broadcast sense.”

Just on Stormzy, were there any ideas that spilled in from his Glastonbury show, into this one?

Bronski: “No, I don’t think so. This was its own thing altogether.”

Amber: “I think another thing that Bronski hasn’t mentioned yet is the kind of experience that AJ wanted to create with us and his audience. In the sports section of the show, we released smoke and the smell of fresh cut grass. I remember having one of our first meetings with AJ and he said he wanted it to be an experience for the fans. So we reached out to see if we could get hold of any smells.

“Once we got our creative order with the setlist and we had our sections, we then then started figuring out how we could use fresh cut grass like in the football pitch with ‘Thiago Silva’. So people were kind of questioning what they were smelling but they weren’t prepared for it.

“We also had a shopping channel section where we put a phone number up on the screen and that was really just a test to see if anyone called it. We actually did buy a SIM card and put it in a phone. It was really interesting to see the amount of people that called it or text it and people that didn’t. It was kind of a creative option there for an audience, that were intrigued and wondered what would happen if they called that number. That was pretty cool to see that happen and see fans texting and leaving messages.”

“We used the smell of fresh cut grass on ‘Thiago Silva’ – people were questioning what they were smelling and they weren’t prepared for it”

Do you see this as the future for concerts?

Amber: “I do. I remember going to watch an evening called Punch Drunk in Paddington a few years ago with a friend of mine and that was an immersive experience. It had performance, it had music, it had acting and it was really great to not only watch something but choose the journey of it and where I went and what I decided I wanted to watch and see. So it’s good to try and latch on to those senses and stuff being interactive in the show because I do think that’s where it’s going.”

Do you think it was quite revolutionary?

Bronski: “I certainly haven’t been to a show at Alexandra Palace in the round. One thing a lot of people say about Ally Pally is that if you’re at the back, your view is terrible. It’s a long way away, it’s a flat floor so by having the stage in the middle, everyone in that venue was able to have an incredible view.”

Are there any plans to incorporate AR & VR in future shows?

Bronski: “That’s a hard one to answer. The answer is yes, ultimately, but it’s all about the time and the place. We say this a lot but one thing myself and Amber always do is that we always look at the canvas we have to work with and where it’s situated. The canvas being almost the stage and what we are able to do within that stage. Where that stage would be and who the audience are.

“One thing I would say is the way the MTV VMA awards used augmented reality this year was incredibly exciting. Yes, there are ultimately many ways of using AR/VR but I think there’s still an element of … there’s a part of us that wants people to put their phones down when they watch a show rather than giving them another reason to hold them up.

“That’s not to say that’s going to change. There might be the right artist, the right show, the right concept where it’s just a no brainer and we’ve got to jump on board. But capturing people’s imaginations with the canvas we have is always the most important thing. We certainly haven’t felt like we’ve needed AR or VR to achieve that but we do feel like in the future that is something we’d love to produce, definitely.”

Finally you both helped put together Stormzy’s awesome stage show at Glastonbury. He recently said his in ear monitors blew and he thought he’d “fucked it”. With that in mind, were you amazed he pulled it off?

Amber: “I think that shows what a true professional Stormzy is as an artist and I think he’s incredible at what he does, how he writes, what he writes about and how he performs. It’s just full credit to him that as you say nobody realised or knew that is what had happened to him. Only he knew at the time, which just shows what a true professional he absolutely is.”

Bronski: “We missed out on anything that might have happened. That’s about as much as I know to be honest. Ultimately, that show was a success beyond anyone’s imagination involved.”

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