Back On Road:
AJ Tracey‘s Transatlantic Takeover
As grime continues to seep into American soil, AJ Tracey seems like the next logical step for a US audience who have soaked in Skepta’s Konnichiwa album and are thirsting for more. With a trap influence in his beat selections, and clarity in his flow patterns, it won’t be long before the West London MC’s tracks are being rinsed from Laylow Ladbroke Grove all the way to the streets of LA.
Tracey is holed up in Queens, New York when we catch up with him. It’s the final day of a two-week trip to the States, and he’s ramming all of his belongings – including a bunch of new purchases – into a suitcase while he takes in Gucci Mane’s freshly released album, Everybody’s Looking. “I listened to Gucci for the longest time while I was waiting for him to come home,” he says of the Atlanta veteran, who was incarcerated until May. AJ’s life for the past couple of weeks has been soundtracked by the likes of French Montana, Drake and iLoveMakonnen. “I’m quite influenced by American rap,” he admits. “When I’m out here, everyone else listens to it as well. I like garage too, but that’s more nostalgic. I keep up to date with the US rap that comes out.”
Tracey begins stuffing his suitcase with the $100 worth of American sweets that he’s bringing back home for his crew, MTP, which he started with his cousin Big Zuu alongside fellow West Londoners Wax, Dee and Ets. “They don’t deserve it,” he laughs. “They’re pricks!” During his stay in New York he’s been recording with longtime grime fans Ratking, as well as hitting Mixpak Records for sessions with Cadenza and Sir Spyro. “The vibe was all different,” he says, comparing it to studio time back home. “It was quiet, relaxed and everyone was happy to have me there, which is different! Back home I’m there all the time so nobody cares too much.”
Performing live is AJ’s favourite part of the job, and he aims to release music that will allow him to continue interacting with audiences directly. “They have to be bangers,” he says. “You put out bangers, you get the shows. It’s as real as that. People take drugs to get their thrills, my thing is live performance. Standing in front of a massive crowd and having them say my lyrics – it gives me purpose. There’s people that actually want to hear what I have to say.”
Over the past six months, Tracey has summoned an appetite for his sound, proving himself to be a master of supply and demand. While his name constantly arises in conversations about grime and new British music in general, it’s interesting to note that he has only dropped one solo single so far in 2016, Leave Me Alone. “If you put out too much music, or you put it out too fast, then you’re saturating the market,” he states. “If you drop too much music then it won’t get the chance to hit home.”
"I care about Black Lives Matter, I fucking hate Brexit, but my music is an escape from real life. I want people to enjoy themselves"
As a result, Tracey sets his gaze on the reception that a track receives. “You’ve got to be watching,” he expounds. “Demand for a tune could die out way before it’s meant to die, it could lose its momentum instantly. The same way, a tune can outlive your expectations.” It’s this insight that has given tracks – like Naila, which saw him tearing up Zeph Ellis’ XCXD BXMB, and the bass-heavy Spirit Bomb – the space to take on a life of their own.
Between releases he’s kept fans fed with freestyles, live shows, remixes and collaborations – notably with the likes of Jammz, P Money and Last Japan. His link up with West London representative Dave, entitled Thiago Silva, has had a phenomenal reaction so far, with the video racking up well over a million views in just two months. “We’re friends first and foremost so the chemistry is already there,” he reflects. “We could have made a tune way before that, but we wanted to wait for the right beat.” Producer 169’s bass-heavy reimagining of Prince Rapid’s classic Pied Piper instrumental turned out to be exactly what they’d been waiting for. “We heard that like, ‘this is it isn’t it?’ and just banged it out.”
Most recently, he appeared on Cadenza’s remix of Thinking Of You by rising RnB star Mabel – a fellow West London dweller and daughter of Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack’s Cameron McVey. He takes to the romantic jam with ease, dropping a smooth verse in which he tells his lover: “You’re breathtaking like Gucci Mane’s Cartiers.” It’s a glimpse at the versatility that will allow him to transcend the core grime audience and reach the masses. “That’s where I show people I’m actually an artist. You can’t box me in,” he says. “Cadenza is my mate anyway, dancehall and those vibes are in my background, Mabel lives around the corner, so I said ‘lets link up.’ If you pick the wrong collaborations though you’re going to look like a prick. I’ve got a very good sense of what’s correct and what’s wrong.
As he forces the zip around the edge of his suitcase, AJ begins to consider the space in which he sees himself occupying artistically. Known for barring out on energetic instrumentals, his intention is to entertain. “The topics I spit about always vary,” he offers. “The things I want to get across via tweets and interviews often differ from the topics I deal with in my music. I care about Black Lives Matter, I fucking hate Brexit, but my music is an escape from real life. I want people to enjoy themselves.”
He pauses for a moment, looking at his luggage, ready for his return home. “My only fear is not being able to support my mum anymore. I want her to be able to relax, play Candy Crush or whatever. I just care about making the music I want to make and supporting my mum, that’s all that matters. As long as they’re ok, then I’m happy.”
AJ Tracey performs at:
Bestival, Isle of Wight, 8-11 September
Simple Things Festival, Bristol, 22 October