As far as Saturday nights go, this one can’t be typical for AJ Tracey. In the middle of the Cambridge Union debating chamber, he is sitting on a grandiose looking chair, looking out to a room full of eager students. College crests and pictures of Winston Churchill line the walls. To his left sits his manager, to his right his interviewer, the slightly nervous looking president of the Cambridge Union, who is nodding intently as Tracey discusses the enduring power of the insult, ‘Suck your mum’.
‘When you come from a certain area, some things are a lot deeper to us [...] A lot of black men in the ’hood are super protective of their mum, you can’t speak about her or it becomes a massive issue. People think that’s an exaggeration, but when you have a single mum, she’s everything to you. You want to make sure she’s good, you want to protect her.’ In many ways AJ Tracey — real name Ché Wolton Grant — is a long way from the hood, and yet the Ladbroke Grove estate that the 27-year-old grew up on is a defining part of his story.
Tracey is a Brit award-nominated, multi-platinum-selling artist who will — pandemic permitting — embark on his biggest tour to date this autumn, culminating at O2 Arena here in London. He recently released his second album, Flu Game, a genre-straddling, banger-filled blast that went to number 2 in the UK. The title references an infamous 1997 performance by basketball legend Michael Jordan, who had fallen ill with food poisoning and, against all odds, still led the Chicago Bulls to victory. Like Jordan, Tracey has overcome setbacks to achieve his win.
The son of a Trinidadian rapper and a Welsh DJ and youth worker, he was immersed in a mix of sounds from a young age. ‘My mum played every genre under the sun. Hip-hop, garage, jungle. My dad played a lot of Caribbean music.’ Tracey started rapping when he was just six, imitating his father. As a teenager, music and video games were his life. ‘I was playing RuneScape, League of Legends, Halo. I had friends who were proper computer geeks. I used to stay in and play games, but also go outside and sell drugs; I walked a fine line between being a nerd and a road man.’
I meet Tracey at his PA’s house in west London a few days before his Cambridge Union address. He has a dry, offbeat sense of humour and there’s a relaxed frankness to him; he doesn’t shy away from talking about his drug-dealing past, nor does he glamorise it. ‘I waited as long as I could before I did anything illegal,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t do it for fashion or to impress people. I didn’t do it until I had to. My dad left, my mum had no money, my little brother had no money; I had no choice. When people say, “You could have got a job,” I hear you, but I was rejected for so many jobs because I didn’t have the right experience or qualifications.’
His mum encouraged him to apply to university. Tracey’s original plan was to study law but he was unable to get the grades after being moved down a set for his disruptive behaviour. ‘I was getting A*s in English, but in the lower set, the max I could get was a C. I wasn’t a bad kid, I just couldn’t concentrate for more than 15 minutes. I didn’t hurt anyone, I was just swinging on my chair or messing around with my pens.’ He was later diagnosed with ADHD.
Reluctantly, Tracey studied criminology instead, but feeling frustrated about his prospects, he made an impulsive decision. ‘I always knew I could make music, but I didn’t start trying until I saw the academic route fading away,’ he says. With his mum’s blessing (she gave him a year to try it), Tracey dropped out of university. He worked in a bar in Covent Garden to fund studio sessions and walked home every night to save the travel costs. He uploaded tracks to SoundCloud and played sets for pirate radio. In his raw and urgent early performances, Tracey proved himself as a fierce MC to be reckoned with. In early 2016 (still well within his mum’s deadline), he was invited to do a set on BBC 1Xtra’s seminal Fire In The Booth series. Two months later he went viral with the football-inspired Ruff Sqwad-sampling ‘Thiago Silva’, featuring Dave.
Tracey arrived with grime’s second coming. A scene born in the early 2000s and characterised by raw lyrics at 140bpm found itself reimagined 15 years later with the rise of artists such as Stormzy, Dave and AJ Tracey. But while Tracey’s early release reflected a grime sound, he has continually proved his versatility and dexterity as an artist outside of the genre, with everything from dancehall to country nods in his music.
It’s an approach that makes sense for someone who has always been immersed in different sounds. Tracey remembers garage as the go-to soundtrack on the estate he grew up on, and it’s his own garage revivals that have proved some of the biggest moments of his career.
2019’s ‘Ladbroke Grove’ was not just the sound of the summer, but the sound of the two and a half years that followed. It’s an infinitely catchy homage to his hometown and the opening hook, ‘Yo, it’s the hyper man set/AJ Tracey live and direct’, has become so familiar that during his talk, the Cambridge Union bar served ‘Lime and Direct’ cocktails.
I waited as long as I could before I did anything illegal. I didn’t do it until I had to
‘I’m bored of it,’ says Tracey, of the hit that has more than 40 million views on YouTube. ‘It’s a great song but I could have done better. The lyrics aren’t really saying much. I did that on purpose — it’s a light-hearted song that everybody can vibe to — but I do consider myself an artist, I could have said some more important things.’ On Flu Game, there are some more introspective lyrics. On ‘Little More Love’, he muses on the nature of relationships. He is in one himself; is that the reason we’re seeing a more vulnerable side to Tracey? ‘It’s not because of her!’ he protests, though he does admit that having a girlfriend has forced him to tone down more sexual lyrics. ‘Being a rapper you speak from experience and not to be vulgar — I’ve had a lot of sexual encounters — but I don’t want to offend her, I don’t want to say anything that would upset her.’
Lyrics, says Tracey, are a ‘business choice. Do you pick the one that’s gonna help your business or the one that fulfils you more? You have to balance.’ That might sound cynical, but AJ Tracey is a business, and a recent lack of live shows due to the pandemic has been detrimental to his income. Tracey has never signed with a label, which means he has to pay for everything himself — from recording studios and video shoots to press and marketing. Still, he remains resolute in his choice; the cost is a small price to pay for his creative freedom. ‘Mum listened to a lot of punk. Growing up, the essence of that movement always stuck with me; being independent is a way of not conforming to what people say you should be.’
The pandemic has been difficult as an unsigned artist. ‘There is no support from the Government. We don’t get any tax relief, if a show is cancelled then it depends on your agreement with promoters, but there’s no government conversation. Everyone’s going to start crying if I say I should be looked after a little bit because I’m a millionaire, but in general the music industry is on its knees. It brings in so much money, they should really do something to help that isn’t just lending money and sticking artists in debt.’
The handling of the pandemic is one in a long list of failures that’s left Tracey disillusioned with the UK government. When Dominic Cummings’ incendiary text exchange with Boris Johnson comes up, he shakes his head dismissively. ‘That was so stupid. It’s ridiculous, it’s like EastEnders or something.’ What’s angered him the most is the Conservatives’ response to the Grenfell tragedy. ‘Four years on, no one’s been arrested; that is a crime and I’m upset but I’m not surprised. If it was white people, wealthy people in that tower, it wouldn’t have happened, but it was black people and minorities so they didn’t give a shit. I didn’t expect anyone to get in trouble for it.’
Tracey has previously backed Labour and was part of the Grime4Corbyn movement ahead of the 2017 election, but it was the former Labour leader’s position on nuclear weapons that made him ‘step away. If you want to rule a country we need to feel safe if someone wants to attack us. It didn’t instil any confidence in me. I have to vote. I’m a black person, we campaigned for our vote, but I feel like there’s not any good options. I vote Green, the Greens want to save the planet which is quite noble, if nothing else.’
As disillusioned as he is, Tracey cares about his community. He has spoken out about youth club closures and systemic racism; he was even named after revolutionary leader Che Guevara… would he ever consider a move into politics? ‘Never. I’d love Stormzy to run. He’d be a much better leader than me. He’s more just than me. If a country was threatening us, “If you do this, we’ll bomb you.” I wouldn’t even reply to them, I’d just bomb them — it wouldn’t work. I’ll be Stormzy’s right-hand man; when he’s trying to be humble, I’ll give the iron fist approach.’
Don’t be fooled by Tracey’s willingness to launch an offensive; the older he gets, the more he has realised the importance of ‘making decisions based on what makes you happy and fulfilled as a human’. Tracey says he’s less angry than he was growing up and that recently learning about Islam has helped him feel calmer. ‘I like many things about the religion; being thoughtful and charitable. I asked my cousin [fellow rapper] Big Zuu what Islam means to him. He said when he cooks food for the mandem, he will dish up the plates and if he’s hungry, his brain will tell him he wants the biggest plate. Instead, he will give the biggest plate to us and he’ll take the smallest.’ Tracey doesn’t plan on converting: ‘I’m just trying to apply it to my life a little bit; I’m still learning, I’m always learning.’
Photographs by Jenny Brough, styled by Jessica Skeete-Cross, set design by Andrew Lim Clarkson
AJ Tracey’s Flu Game tour starts in November (ajtracey.co.uk)