AJ Tracey is having quite a week.
He has the top two singles in the indie charts, Stormzy gave him a shout-out from Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage and Brazilian football legend Thiago Silva followed him on Twitter.
“My head’s spinning a little bit!” the 25-year-old laughs. “I’m in the clouds right now.”
Silva was the subject of Tracey’s 2016 collaboration with rapper Dave. But he only noticed the track after 15-year-old Alex Mann was plucked from the crowd at Glastonbury and made headlines with a flawless performance of the song’s intricate, rapid-fire rap.
“I saw the Alex thing trending and it was crazy,” says Tracey, “and then I saw ‘Thiago Silva followed you’. I had to click it to see the blue tick so I knew it was official.”
“It means a lot to us, man,” he adds.
“When me and Dave made that song, we were quite a bit younger, Dave was really a baby, and we just wanted the football world to acknowledge us. So when Thiago Silva followed us, I called Dave and I was like, ‘Bro, we finally did it!’”
The success is sweeter, Tracey says, because he’s built his career from the ground up. Like many of his contemporaries in UK rap, he is not signed to a record company – taking full control of every aspect of his career, from artwork and promotion to the team he works with.
He even directs his own videos, in locations from Atlanta to Havana, to differentiate himself from other UK artists.
“For me, being independent is about being able to express myself exactly how I want to, instead of maximising profits,” says Tracey.
“As long as everyone around me is comfortable and we have a roof over our heads and we’re eating, then it’s fine and I can go off and do whatever I want.
“Thank God we’re in that position. I’m very grateful.”
It’s certainly hard to imagine a major label releasing an album as wilfully eclectic as AJ Tracey’s self-titled debut, which encompasses country guitars, Caribbean soca rhythm and claustrophobic grime beats, all wrapped around the story of his life so far.
But being independent has “big downsides”, too, the star cautions.
“We don’t have the connections, we don’t have someone in our corner in America,” he says.
“And I have to front my own money for the music videos, which can be very expensive. If I shoot a £50,000 video and I don’t recoup on it, there’s no label behind me to write off that money. It’s me. I’ve just lost 50k out of my account.”
Tracey says his work ethic came from his upbringing in London’s Ladbroke Grove, where he was born Ché Wolton Grant in 1994.
“Growing up there… Pffff. I don’t know man. It’s a hard place to live,” he recalls.
“Half of it is poverty and half of it is wealth. You go home and there’s no gas, no electricity and you see people outside your front door with a Rolex on.
“It either depresses you and you want to give up, or it motivates you to say, ‘I can achieve everything that they have if I just work hard’.
“That’s what happened for me.”
He was turned on to music by his parents – his Trinidadian father was an MC, while his Welsh mother was a pirate radio DJ (although she’s now a youth worker) and the house was filled with the sounds of dancehall, reggae, garage and jungle.
A rapper from the age of six, he initially performed under the names Looney and Loonz before adopting the moniker AJ Tracey in 2014.
AJ is a tribute to his favourite label, Armani, while the surname came from a hard man on the local estate.
“I thought, if a man has a girl’s name and he’s still scaring people, then maybe I should try doing it so I can be that guy,” he told Time Out in 2017.
His first two EPs, The Front and Alex Moran, established him on pirate radio, but it was his first freestyle for BBC 1Xtra’s Charlie Sloth in 2016, swiftly followed by the release of Thiago Silva, that really made people pay attention.
He made the BBC Sound of 2017 longlist, and was named best newcomer at the GRM Daily Awards – but rather than rush out an album, he kept honing his style over a series of increasingly high-profile EPs.
Musically, he leaps surefootedly between styles, while his sense of humour shines through in lyrics like Blacked Out’s swaggering couplet: “Man did Belgium twice in a week / Then I flew Bordeaux for a slice of the cheese.“
“No-one’s ever written for me, which is important,” he says. “To really be one of the best, the lyrics have to come from you. Otherwise you’re not really the best rapper. Whoever’s writing your lyrics is the best rapper, and you’re just the best performer. “
When he scored a top 20 hit with the mellifluous summer anthem Butterflies last year, Tracey finally knew it was time to start work on his debut album.
“For me, Butterflies was a massive achievement, because we recorded that in my living room,” he says.
“It gave me the taste. I thought, ‘Maybe I can achieve more if I give it that extra bit of effort,’ so I’ve been going my hardest to package my music properly and give it to everyone.”
America’s accent problem
Released in February, Tracey’s record entered the UK charts at number three, since when it has sold enough copies to be the 30th best-selling album of the year.
The single Ladbroke Grove, a joyous throwback to the garage records he grew up on, is set to enter the top 10 this week; and he’s also starting to make waves in America.
“It’s not really a target of ours to break the US, but it’d be cool to be one of the ones who does it,” he says.
“I feel like Skepta is the closest, second would be Dave. I hear a lot of people talking about J-Hus, and then maybe myself.”
Asked why no-one’s managed it before now, Tracey says America isn’t ready for the British accent.
“They love the accent in conversation, but in terms of music they just can’t take it. They hear it and they go, ‘I can’t deal with this,’ but they’re warming up to it.
“I keep telling people that, once upon a time Americans didn’t want to listen to Canadian accents, but now Drake, The Weeknd and Justin Bieber are some of the biggest artists in their respective fields. So we’ll get there eventually.”
He tailors live shows for US audiences, “picking songs where I’m collaborating with American artists, or with a trap sound that’s more familiar to them,” but those gigs are often easier than ones in his hometown.
“People in London are so hard to impress,” he laughs.
“Everyone has the ‘London complex’, where they think the world revolves around them, me included, which is so annoying.
“Don’t get me wrong, London crowds still give me the love but I have to work harder. But that’s ok, I’m down for the hard work.”
He’ll be putting in the hours this summer, with a diary full of festival appearances, around which he’s working on “some genuinely exciting new music”.
“I don’t want to say too much, but there’ll be more collaborations and some unexpected left-field music as well,” he says.
And if everything keeps going to plan, he intends to plough the profits back into Ladbroke Grove.
“I still live there now and, sad to say, I fit in because I make enough money to have all those things I couldn’t have in my youth.
“But I’m still an active member of the community, I support the Grenfell movement, and I’d love to open a youth club, because most of them have closed down.
“So when I’m in the position to do something ground-breaking in the area, I will.”
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