AJ Tracey doesn’t arrive at his NME photoshoot with an entourage, but he does bring a dachshund called Bridget. Jordan Bassett meets the outspoken British rapper who doesn’t do things by the book, and whose eclectic, wilfully commercial debut album – veering from grime to, erm, a country song – might even make him the first artist to take UK rap truly Stateside
PHOTOGRAPHY: Mike Prior
There’s a mystery at the heart of AJ Tracey’s story.
At some point in the past, the 24-year-old rapper’s father was a fairly successful MC whose identity AJ cheerfully refuses to reveal. “Oh, you wish!” he says with a laugh when I ask for the scoop after his NME photoshoot. “Good one – I respect you for asking. It was a good one, but you wish!”
Asked why he guards the secret so fiercely, AJ explains, “It’s too much ammunition for the internet,” a phrase he’s used in previous interviews. What does it mean? “It just that we’re living in the age of memes. Why would I willingly make me and my Dad a meme? It just takes one person to search it out and find his video. They might make a mash-up; they might put my dad’s lyrics on one of my beats. I will never [tell anyone]. Maybe on, like, my fifth album.”
Spoken like a true independent artist who’s built a career online. The musician, who will next week (February 8) release his self-titled debut album, emerged in London’s then-dormant grime scene in 2011, though isn’t bound by a dogmatic DIY spirit. ‘AJ Tracey’ is a bouncy, riotous ride through contemporary UK rap that bumps from bashment and ‘swing (the hit Not3s collaboration ‘Butterflies’) to old-school grime (‘Doing It’) and even weepy acoustic (‘Country Star’). This is a distinctly 2019 star, one with a magpie approach to influences.
AJ doesn’t arrive for his photo shoot at the NME office with an entourage, but he is accompanied by Bridget, his publicist’s eight-month-old dachshund, who runs from the room when he blares the Ellie Goulding and Tinie Tempah track ‘Wonderwoman’ from the studio’s speakers.
Goulding is a massively underrated singer, AJ reckons, and one with whom he’d love to work. A roll-call of artists with whom AJ Tracey would also like to record: Dua Lipa, Bebe Rexha and, perhaps surprisingly, pop scamps The Vamps. He met the latter group at the VMA Awards last year, having been introduced by Krept from the grime duo Krept and Konan. He hadn’t heard the Vamps’ music at the time, but looked them up later and liked what he heard. “I like everything,” he explains today, Bridget (fun pop fact: her collar was made by R&B star Jorja Smith’s mum) darting around his legs as NME’s photographer captures the rapper’s incongruously moody pose. “I don’t care about genre.”
So that’s a second mystery around AJ Tracey: the question of how an artist with roots in grime, once renowned for an obsession with authenticity, could entertain the notion of working with a knock-off One Direction.
One thing appears certain: AJ has it easier than the previous generation of British rappers. There was a time when UK rap was considered a novelty at best and an embarrassment at worst, but the first-wave grime artists of the early noughties, such as Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, proved Britain could spawn its own artists making credible beats and rhymes. Did those pioneering artists walk so AJ, with his diverse and commercial sound, could run?
“No, honestly,” he says. “I have a personal relationship with Dizzee Rascal – I know him, he’s cool – so this is no disrespect to him or any other British rappers who tried to make it in America, like Wiley and Tinie Tempah, but the type of music they were making to be accepted over there – it doesn’t translate. None of us really make that kind of glossy pop-rap, so it’s not a good reflection of British music. I don’t think it helped us in the slightest. If anything, it might have been a bit detrimental.”
Yet AJ’s sound seems ready made for America. He belongs to a school of fellow London rappers – such as J Hus, Not3s and Dave, whose blissfully commercial ‘Funky Friday’ topped the UK charts last year – making buoyant, outward-looking rap that’s distinctly melodic and, as such, easily translatable.
While British drill groups such as 67 craft terse, difficult dispatches from the violent fringes of society, the likes of AJ are throwing the curtains wide open. Could AJ Tracey be the first British rapper to sell hip-hop back to America?
“A lot of people say [I could be],” he replies. “And that’s quite a hard thing to carry. I don’t think people realise how much America doesn’t care [about UK rap]. I’m not trying to be negative; I’m saying it because it’s true. In America, they don’t need to look outside their country for anything, so they definitely don’t need to look elsewhere for rappers with weird accents that they have to get accustomed to, which is like homework to them.” Yet he concludes: “Once upon a time Americans didn’t want to listen to Canadian rap and now Drake’s the biggest rapper in the world. It’s not a thing where people should think, ‘Will America ever listen to UK rap’? It’s: ‘When will America listen to UK rap?’ It will eventually happen.”
Though his debut album is eclectic, the inclusion of old-school grime is a reminder of his roots, his refusal to be cowed by trends. “I’m not going to lie,” he says, “I’m a legendary grime MC – I’ve done legendary things in grime – so for that reason I had to put some grime on there.”
Perhaps the real point of AJ’s music is that nothing about it is contrived. He hasn’t retrofitted his sound for a certain audience; he embraces Caribbean influences (his Dad’s from Trinidad) and grime because it comes naturally. ‘AJ Tracey’ features ‘Nothing But Net’, a brittle, understated drill collaboration with London rapper Giggs and, as AJ says today, “if that started doing well in America, that is a good representation of British music”. If AJ learned anything from the grime old guard, it may be that UK rap is a viable commercial force, but there’s no point adopting a new style just because it might do well across the pond.
Not that he feels enormously indebted to those forebears. AJ started to write rap lyrics when he was “10 or 11” and uploaded the grime track ‘Swerve & Skid’ to SoundCloud in 2015. It was recorded, he says, in a friend’s “trap house” with “a little microphone in the corner”. He determinedly punted the track around countless radio DJs, including Sian Anderson, who played it heavily on her influential Radio 1Xtra show. “That’s the first song that I ever got played on radio,” he explains, “Sian spun it like a million times, so big up Sian.”
Yet he found the previous generation of British rappers less forthcoming. “A lot of elders don’t really like me in music because they just think I’m a little cheeky prick and I’m arrogant,” AJ admits. “I’m definitely cheeky, I’m definitely a prick and I’m definitely arrogant. And that’s fine, but that’s partly their doing, because when I was coming up, I was just looking for help; I was just looking for someone to say, ‘You’re doing well’. That’s it; that’s all it takes”.
He reached out to established artists (though won’t name names) and was met with little support.
“It’s like, ‘We’re getting old; this is the new thing’”, he says, guessing at their motives. “If I get booked at a festival instead of them, I’ve taken their job. I’ve taken food out of their mouth. I hear that. So I’m not angry at them, but they can’t be angry with me now for not offering a hand-out, or not wanting to fuck with them. Because I don’t want to fuck with any of them.”
One person who does fuck with AJ Tracey: Canadian king Drake, whose eclectic approach he has emulated.
“I’ve met him a couple of times,” he says. “He’s super normal. He’s not weird at all and he doesn’t make anyone around him feel like you should feel weird being around him. He was at [London festival] Wireless last year. He got someone to come and give me a wristband with a scorpion on it – it was like, ‘Come into my little secret’; he had a village inside the festival. He had his own personal bar, which was like a west London bar in the middle of Wireless. It was insane.”
Might they record together in the future? “You never know. I would never say to him, ‘Yo, bro – let me get a feature’, but if it happens, it happens. If I did a song with Drake, no one would be like, ‘He definitely paid for that feature’. I have a relationship with Drake, so it would be natural.”
AJ Tracey knocks about with plenty of other accomplished rappers who have achieved transatlantic success, too. Whether he’s hammering the bank card at Harrods with New York rapper Jay Critch or enjoying a sleepover round A$AP Rocky’s house, his contacts book is often put through its paces, though he insists it’s important that these relationships are organic.
“I don’t ever message anyone on my team and say, ‘There’s this artist – like, put me in the same place as him, I want to finesse it so people think we’re friends or something,’” he explains. “Any American rapper you hear me with, it will be because I have a relationship with him.”
In some ways, AJ Tracey is the UK’s answer to Drake. He’s an outward-looking rapper who cherry-picks genres, whose music isn’t too bogged down in introspection and who has finessed impeccable timing (‘Thiago Silva’, his collaboration with Brixton rapper Dave, sampled Ruff Sqwad as old-school grime reached the apex of its commercial comeback). Yet there are crucial differences.
Like many a successful mainstream star, the Canadian rapper isn’t particularly forthcoming on political matters; in that regard, AJ is his polar opposite. And no surprise that he’s left wing: AJ’s real name is Ché Wolton Grant, named by his mum after the revolutionary Che Guevera.
During the 2017 General Election, he appeared in a campaign video on the Labour Party’s website, explaining, “In my opinion, we need a Labour government to give young people hope, a chance for their future. I genuinely believe Corbyn’s the man to do it, do you get me?”
A lot has happened since 2017, of course. As Labour spent much of 2018 arguing about whether or not they like Jewish people and organising a shit music festival, Jeremy Corbyn lost some of his cachet. “I still support him as a person,” AJ says today. “I think he’s a lovely geezer and that he genuinely does have good intentions. But I don’t think he’s the best option as a leader for our country. We need someone who’s a bit iron fisted, we need someone strong.”
His support for the party, though, remains largely undimmed. “I tried my hardest to campaign to get my area to be red [Labour],” he says, “which it now is. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that they are the best option ever, because they’re not, but they’re the best of a bad bunch and, for me, that’s better than nothing. I’d rather take that than have our area be Tory.”
Even his relatively-recently-acquired fortune hasn’t affected his stance: “I’m not doing this for me, because if I vote Tory, I’ll probably preserve my money better than if I vote Labour. Economically it’s probably better for me to vote Tory – I’m going to make sure my family are fine – but I do genuinely care about everyone else in my area, so it’s better if we vote Labour.”
Much of Corbz’s decline in reputation has been linked to his stance on Brexit, his Party having failed to offer a clear alternative to our embarrassing inability to leave the EU unscathed. Although AJ disagreed with the outcome of the EU referendum, he respects he outcome – to a point.
“If we vote for something and you get the result, you should follow through with it because that is democracy,” he says. “I do agree with that. However, my opinion on it is that the initial vote was mis-sold to the public. They said, ‘You’re going to get this if you leave; you’ll get that if you leave’. Ridiculous things. I’ve seen people online saying, ‘Fewer Muslims will come into our country if you vote Leave.’ Just scare-mongering and trying to play on xenophobia and racism, which obviously encouraged loads of people to vote. A lot of people realised, ‘Wait – I voted for that and that’s not even what I’m getting! I’ve just been tricked’. That’s why we need a second referendum because the original one was mis-sold. That’s not democracy.”
He relaxes, concluding, with a chuckle, “When the pound’s worth less than the dollar, everyone will be like, ‘Fuck! No more cheap Ralph Lauren.’”
In addition to the future of Labour, the rapper has been outspoken on the Grenfell Tower disaster, which happened close to both the council house in which he grew up (and which his mum still lives in) and the near-£5000-per-month luxury apartment that he currently rents. When it happened in summer 2017, he appeared in a Guardian video calling for Theresa May to resign over what he saw as the Conservatives’ mismanagement of the disaster.
Given that his career’s so clearly on the up, and that his album sounds ready to be canon-fired into the mainstream, does he ever think twice about alienating potential fans with these missives?
“100 percent,” he admits. “I’m not going to lie and sit here and say I don’t [worry about that].” But I don’t let that affect my judgment. I don’t care what anyone’s opinion is on Grenfell – I’m going to tell you the truth about it. My friends died in Grenfell Tower, and I grew up underneath the Tower my whole life, so I’m going to give you my truth about it whether you like it or not. If you don’t want to play me on radio now because you have some sort of corporate tie with someone who was something to do with it, then that’s your business. I don’t really care.”
That’s also the reason AJ prefers to remain an independent artist: “No one can silence me and say, “’You’re not allowed to talk about that’, because I will actually do whatever I want.”
AJ came of age in the broadband era, and his varied musical influences are typical of somebody his age. As a teenager he listened to Linkin Park and Bullet For My Valentine, and one AJ Tracey logo, a collection of spiky letters that spell out his moniker, the ‘R’ and’ A’ arranged to resemble devil horns, appears more like that of a death metal band than a grime and hip-hop MC.
“It’s the emotions that it brings out of you,” he says. “Rock music has sad emotions that you don’t usually get from other genres. Growing up, when I was sad, listening to that music enhanced the feeling. That sounds a bit weird, that you would want to enhance the feeling of being sad, the more intensely sad you feel, the more intensely happy you can feel. Those influences probably are in my music, but you have to look for them.”
He found early notoriety on Soundcloud, where ‘Swerve & Skid’ first blew up. This is something AJ has in common with American artists: it’s an unusual route to fame for a British rapper, but common in the US, where ‘Soundcloud rap’ has become its own subgenre. “I saw [American rappers] get big off Soundcloud,” he says. “We don’t really do that, but I remember thinking, ‘Why not? Fuck it. I have no portal, no radio, I have no nothing.’ And it started working. I love Soundcloud. It gives opportunities to kids that don’t have any.”
In the US, Soundloud rappers such as Lil Xan and Smokepurrp, having circumvented the traditional music industry, uploading music directly for fans, incited something of a moral panic over their perceived glorification of drugs. “Country and rock music have a lot more drug references than rap,” AJ counters. “When people say things like, ‘Oh, rap music is turning everyone into savages and making them take drugs’, that’s really not the case at all. It’s a very easy scapegoat, to be like, ‘It’s a black genre, so let’s blame them for X, Y and Z as well’.”
AJ has experienced run-ins with the law, a past he hasn’t tried to expunge, asking on recent single ‘Psych Out!’, “How’d I look so clean when I got all these felonies?” In December his friend J Hus, whose shimmering Afrobeat-influenced songs – such as the jubilant ‘Did You See’ – saw him nominated for three Brit Awards, while his debut album ‘Common Sense’ was up for the Mercury Music Prize, received an eight-month jail sentence for carrying a knife.
“I felt sorry for him,” AJ says, “I’m from the roads, and in the hood, the basic rule is that if you’re friends with someone – with the exception of heinous crimes – you’re always going to say, ‘Free my friend’, because you don’t want your friend in the system. So my stance on that is: free J Hus. I think if anyone has an opinion on what he should and shouldn’t be doing, they should maybe try and put themselves in his shoes and think about what they would do.”
Reclining on a sofa in the NME office, Bridget running around both our feet, AJ jokes that that last answer was “media trained”, but it’s actually way more open than many musicians in his position would be. Not as honest as admitting you like Ellie Goulding’s music, maybe, but still an indication that the man poised for massive success has yet to be consumed by the PR machine. It’s a trait that will hopefully remain intact if he does manage to crack America.
Yet AJ Tracey stays tight-lipped on one subject.
Before we wrap up for the afternoon, I have another crack at unveiling his Dad’s mystery identity.
“No, no,” he laughs, shaking his head. “I know the internet would love that. It’s like me handing them a treat – why would I give you that?”
Looks like we’ll just have to wait for that fifth album.