Exclusive Interview: AJ Tracey, from the archives – “I’m ready for this. This is normal.”
To celebrate the Lil Tracey EP release, we bring you the best of our unreleased interviews with the rising star...
Who’d bet against AJ Tracey right now? Having earned his stripes on radio alongside the group of hungry, talented MCs that Jammz coined ‘The Class of 2014’, AJ has been turning heads and winning new fans with each release. In a year that has seen him rack up over 10 million views on YouTube, a quarter of those for Dave collaboration ‘Thiago Silva’, AJ has taken home Best Breakthrough at the Rated Awards and most recently earned a place on the BBC Sound of 2017 longlist.
Though unmistakably a grime MC, the West Londoner’s love of trap music has also shown through in his music and is arguably what has helped him to attain a fan base larger than his radio peers. Tracks such as ‘Spirit Bomb‘ and his Link Up TV freestyle ‘Packages‘ – a video so popular that AJ scrapped plans for a studio version – blur the lines between the genres, while his remixes for Clams Casino and Dutch pair Mula B & Louis are a world away from radio sets with General Courts, Jack Dat & co. AJ’s new EP, Lil Tracey features grimier production from Tre Mission and Faze Miyake alongside trap beats from the likes of Nyge (Section Boyz, Reeko Squeeze) and Mazza (67, Giggs), and the 22-year-old proves once again to be more than adept at both styles.
To mark the recent release of Lil Tracey, RWD have unlocked the vaults to bring you the best of two previously unreleased interviews with AJ Tracey – one, an extensive chat at the RWD office back in May, and the other during a visit to Red Bull Studios London as AJ recorded his single ‘Pasta‘ with Nyge. We’ve got plenty from the man himself on the story so far, as well as his mindset as he looks ahead. There’s also his take on the war dubs with Row D at the start of the year, which both have moved on from this point but we just couldn’t leave on the shelf.
AJ Tracey on his musical family…
My dad got a video number one on MTV when he was younger, so I knew it was possible to actually do it as a youth from London. I just had to build on what they did. My mum did the pirate radio ting first, then proper radio. They were always playing me music from early, all my influences. My mum would play me UK garage, a little bit of jungle and a little bit of house, stuff like that. My dad used to play me reggae, dancehall and rap – NWA, old school rap. I got the best of both worlds. That’s why when I do my tunes, you can hear the garage influences and then sometimes I switch it up and speak Caribbean. I feel like having a musical family let me see ‘they’ve done that, what I wanna do is this, maybe I can build on what they did and get a couple tips’. I’ve never asked my mum or dad for tips but I’ve just seen what they’ve done and been like ‘let me go about it this way’.
AJ on his name…
I used to be called Looney, but I’m business minded and I thought that tag’s a bit aggressive. Mothers aren’t gonna buy their children tunes by Looney, you get me? AJ Tracey just comes from when I was doing mischievous stuff – I didn’t want to give out my real name and I used to wear a lot of Armani, with the logo that just says AJ. The Tracey bit, which I used to never tell anyone, there’s some breh in my area called Stacey that everyone’s scared of. I thought if he’s got a girl’s name and everyone’s scared of him he’s the guy, so I’m going to put a girl’s name on the end of my ting and see if people are just as intimidated by me, and if they are I’m the guy, which they are so I’m the guy! People who call me AJ are either music people or girls, because I never tell girls my real name. They just don’t need to know.
AJ on the path from pad to radio…
I was writing bars from six years old until like 14-15 and then I started becoming a bit of a mischievous yute in school, so I just stopped writing bars and started being a troublemaker, I can’t lie. It’s not a good thing, I was just fucking about, and I think when I was about 16 I thought ‘nah I actually love music, let me try go back into it and focus my energy’.I started making two-two tunes at youth clubs and at my bredrin’s home setup.
I wasn’t really getting anywhere with it because I didn’t know how to get my music out, then when I was like 20 Marger hollered me because he’d moved to my area and he was like ‘you might as well come with me to the BBC and just spray some bars.’ I’d never in my life been anywhere like the BBC. I went there, sprayed some bars – very timid AJ, just unpolished, get me – just trying my best. I done alright, then I done Rinse and everyone was like ‘yeah that was alright’ and then Jammz hollered me on Twitter. I had like 100 followers but he must have seen my Twitter underneath the BBC video or something, and he was like ‘yo you’re hard, you might as well come Mode FM with me and spray some bars’.
I’d never done any of that pirate radio or anything. I went there and took Zuu with me just in case it was like some set up or something! I met Jammz, Mic Ty and coincidentally Big H and them man were there. It was mad, all the MCs that man listens to. So I went there, sprayed, learned the art of radio really then I started hitting Mode up. I think at one point I was going Mode like three times a week. It’d be like Mode on a Monday, Mode on a Tuesday, Wednesday Radar – which had just started – Thursday Flex and I got no sleep. After I started doing that my name started buzzing just a little bit amongst the underground. I thought ‘let me build on this’. Bang, Radar I started putting shifts in, like spraying new bars trying to hammer the reloads and let man know I’m here. Bang, a couple grime MCs like P Money started talking about me so I was like ‘yeah this is good’, carried on and kept it up then started dropping tunes. After ‘Naila’ and ‘Spirit Bomb’ everyone was like ‘yeah, I want to see this guy live’. I started doing bookings and that, and the rest is history really.
Artists AJ looked up to…
Back in the day when Krept & Konan were doing grime, I thought they were bare hard and wanted to spray bars like them, and get on SBTV. Obviously Skepta, that’s my favourite MC from day. I made the ‘Skepta‘ tune, and I didn’t do it for any recognition or for him to recognise me. I just did it cos growing up he was my favorite emcee and I take a lot of inspiration from him, so I wanted to make a tune as gratitude to show people ‘yo, this is who I look up to. This is why I’m sick, because I listen to people like him’ just to show people that I’m not just some breh that thinks that I just came out of nowhere completely not taking any inspiration from no one.
Novelist is one of them. Even though Novelist is younger than me, he’s shared bare wisdom with me. A lot of things that I do today and things I’ve achieved are because of things he’s told me. You should act like this, do that, don’t ever do this, because he’s been through it already you get me? So when I went through it I knew how to act and it just went much smoother thanks to Nov, so big up Nov.
AJ on improving performances…
I’m telling you right now. If you listen to my old sets, when I’ve not done any radio work, obviously I have the same lyrics – “white girl Angelina Jolie…” – but with no confidence. My delivery wasn’t correct, my breathing was wrong, I was timid, I wasn’t holding the mic properly, I wasn’t projecting my voice. Now when I spray those same bars, I’m controlling everything. Everything is completely under control, I know exactly when to breathe, how I’m saying it, my tone of voice, the pitch, everything. It’s mad. You can only learn that through going and practicing on radio. You can’t learn anywhere else, your bedroom is not going to cut it. That’s the realness!
As for a show, bruv…the jump from bedroom to studio is massive because you don’t know what you’re doing in a studio. When you’ve mastered that, the jump from studio to radio is enormous, because you don’t know what you’re doing at radio – you have to hold it a certain way, the energy in a room, not losing your breath, projecting your voice so people can hear you, holding a mic right, it’s all a technique you’ve gotta learn. When you’ve learned that, you might think you’re ready but the leap from there to jumping on stage is even bigger! It’s crazy.On stage, you can run out of bars and that’s you, or you can lose your breath and that’s you. You can trip, you can hold a mic wrong and no one can hear you. That’s you. You might not even get a next booking because of that, so if you’re not ready then it’s peak.
My first ever performance to a big crowd was at a Tropical event in Bristol, I think it was last year. Basically I went with Jme & Nov, and obviously Nov being my mate he wanted to give me some experience. He was like ‘when I’ve sprayed, grab the mic and spray some bars’. Him & Elf, them two are encouraging me. ‘Spray! Spray man!’ I was like ‘nah nah I’m not ready’, and then I got gassed. I was like ‘yeah yeah, I’m ready I’m ready’…but I wasn’t read.y I grabbed the mic yeah, sprayed my “thought I missed the drop but I never…“. Now if I did that today? Jack’um, reload and going mad, but when I did it it didn’t really have much impact. I didn’t say it properly, I was slyly out of breath, off-beat. I was a bit worried, I wasn’t holding the mic, people couldn’t really hear me. I run out of breath after like eight bars, which is mental because now I can stand in front of a massive crowd and spray for like 20 minutes calm. I gave the mic back to Nov, he carried on spraying, he saved my arse. Afterwards he was like ‘do you get me? That’s why you need to practice’. I’m like ‘I hear you loud and clear!’ I learned the hard way, bang.
AJ on the Row D war dubs earlier this year…
I’m not even trying to be bare cocky, but because of the presence I have on the mic people don’t wanna send for me because they feel that they’re just going to get buried, and the thing is…that is exactly correct. If you send for me, I’ll go all out until you actually have no career because I feel like if you want to take digs at me I’m going to do whatever’s in my power to erase you. Row D, for example. I understand why he sent, but I don’t get his thought process behind it.
I was trolling him online. He made a comment saying that he brought in GHSTLY into the scene and he helped Mic Ty be who he is today. That’s just a lie. I know them individually, they’ve done their ting and it’s like undermining all the work they’ve done. They put in their own grind, you get me? I saw that comment and I just let it slide cos I ain’t got time to argue with people online, then I saw some guy @ him saying ‘What do you think of the youngers’ so he tweeted him something like ‘Most of the youngers you see who are popping, I’ve helped them‘. That is just a lie. You haven’t helped me or Zuu. You might have helped Jammz a little but you’ve definitely not helped Mic Ty, PK and them man. Who are you talking about? I thought ‘I’ve had enough of this guy so I @ him under the comment and I said ‘who have you helped because you haven’t helped me’. Then he tried to air me, so I changed my name to Row D’s dad with a baby emoji to just piss him off and get his attention, and it did! He was getting bare vexed and I found it hilarious. I love getting a reaction from people init, I’m a troll by nature. Everyone who knows me was looking at that thinking ‘you’re just feeding AJ, you’re just giving him the energy that he wants’. It was a recipe for disaster init.
I was thinking in my head ‘I hope he doesn’t send for me because he is actually cool and I don’t really wanna end his career because it’s deep, because you don’t have any buzz and the position I’m in right now, if I wanna push someone under the dirt I’ll just do it’. I actually didn’t want him to send to me. I saw him at Ministry of Sound the next day, he kind of stood in a corner awkwardly so I was just thinking ‘rah, it’s not beef like that! I’m not going to come and assault you’. I walked past him and he’s come over to me like ‘what was that about, why did you wind me up and that? Do you hate me? You know I’m going to send for you’ and I said ‘bro that will be your decision init!’ He said in his bars something like I was saying sorry to him at Ministry. Fam, I never said sorry to no one, because if I wanna wind someone up I’ll take it on the chin. It’s up to me, you get me?! Anyway he said whatever he said in his dub, I was in Nando’s on a date eating my chicken and I see my phone just buzzing off. I’m like ‘OK what’s happened now’. I’ve looked at it, seen it, and didn’t even listen to the dub. I just closed it, finished off my food, got home, relaxed and I thought ‘should I send for him? Should I not? Hmmm’.
Jay Amo did a dub first, and then it was me, then it was Big Zuu. I told them man ‘Don’t send for him. Just leave him and just forget about it’. I don’t know why he put Zuu’s name in it, that pissed me off. When people insult me I’m a confident guy so the things that people say to me don’t hurt my feelings at all. You can say I’ve got curly hair and spots, or that I’m lanky. Alright. When you insult my family or my bredrins it’s annoying to me because it’s like, why are you targeting them? You have a problem with me but you’re scared so you want to target them instead. Why are you doing that? When he sent for Zuu I was thinking ‘why are you calling Zuu a fat shit when this guy has been nothing but nice to you?’ When everyone’s deep to Row D, Zuu’s always nice to him. That’s why I did the dub, solely because of that. Zuu even called me and said ‘allow Row D’, it’s mad.
My mum told me off as well, because I said something like ‘I heard you got depression so I was gonna allow you.’ My mom told me you shouldn’t make jokes about it and I was actually going to just not send back because I felt that it’s not fair and it’s not cool, but then I realised the things he’s saying in the dub…he’s trying to hurt my feelings. I thought since he’s trying to be personal, I’ll just be personal. That’s how grime is, you have to learn a lessen init. That’s your fault. I didn’t tell you to send for me, in fact I told you not to send for me.
To elevate into being a grime veteran, you need to have at least one body, at least one. I just put that one on the shelf, and Zuu just swept him up and finished him off, I didn’t even need to talk again. He called the mandem and he was like ‘I’m going to do another dub’ so we was like ‘Why are you calling us? Do your dub then init’ but then he’s like ‘forget it, I’m not gonna do another dub’. I got some bars on ‘Thiago Silva’: “Put a couple dead MCs in a grave, trust me darg you can go there too“. That’s the censored version. The real version says, “Put a couple dead MCs in the grave like Row D, trust you can go there too” but I just allowed him. I thought ‘this tune’s going to bang and I don’t want to just humiliate him even more’ so I just eased up fam.
Clashing-wise, it’s only really him that I’ve sent for. There’s a couple man that’s tried to send for me but I don’t pay anyone attention. If you’re not on my level there’s no need for me to even communicate with you. I’m busy playing FIFA, leave me with my Ultimate Team bruv. I swear down.
AJ on his music taste…
Sorry to the UK artists innit, but there’s not many I listen to in my spare time fam. If I do, you’re very sick. I listen to Merky Ace in my spare time, Skepta, obviously Zuu & them man but that don’t count, they’re the mandem. I don’t even listen to myself, I listen to drill music, Chicago music and American music – Lil Uzi, these man. I draw a lot of inspiration from that and I just translate it into what I do so I just put a bit if their pattern into mine, do you get what I’m saying? I love trap, I’ve always loved trap and I’m always gonna love trap so that’s one thing, but then the other aspect of it is that there’s a lot of similarities between trap and grime, because what people are saying on trap beats and what people are saying on grime beats are the same subject matter really. It’s aggressive really, it’s gritty and you’re talking about dark things a lot of time. I think there’s a lot of compatibility between the two anyway.
I done my Link up TV ‘Packages’ ting, and that beat’s a drill riddim so it’s not quite trap. A drill riddim really is any riddim you use to spray bars about drilling people. That’s not what I was talking about, but the reason why I picked that riddim is because it was 140 and obviously I spray 140, so I thought let me just confuse everyone and spray grime on a drill riddim and see what everyone’s reaction is. Because Link Up TV’s audience is rap as well, they were like ‘rah, how is he rapping so fast for so long without having to breathe and take a break?’ but you don’t understand, this is what we do at radio daily! I’m ready for this, this is normal.
Novelist was the first one say to me that ‘Spirit Bomb’ is not grime. Because he’s my bredrin we can argue and it’s fine, no one takes it personally, so I was like to him ‘tell me why it’s not grime’. He said it’s because there’s rolling hi-hats in the beat. I asked him why can’t there be rolling hi-hats in grime and he said that traditionally if it has that, it’s trap and not grime. That’s his opinion. I told him ‘bro, in my opinion there’s things that sound nothing like grime at all which are actually grime just because of the person who’s doing it or the style, you get me? This is just a sound’. I don’t think there’s any template to it, honestly. Dizzee Rascal, everyone thinks he’s like the prince of grime, but on Boy In Da Corner there’s bare like 150bpm. It’s not to do the speed or what instruments used, it’s nothing to do with Wiley’s little snare, nothing to do with any that or the cowbells. It’s the sound. If it sounds like grime and you think it’s grime, it’s grime. It’s down to the artist as well – you can’t tell man that their tune that they’ve made is not grime.
I’m a grime MC first and foremost but I’m an artist as well, I’ll make good music regardless. It doesn’t have to be grime, I’m not boxed in to some little category. I’ve been in studio up with so many people, people you wouldn’t even expect – American people, Lily Allen, Mumdance and these people – it’s crazy still, some exciting stuff but I just don’t want to give away too much. I’m not trying to be boxed in and just be weird and just sit in a corner be like ‘I’m only going to work with just Jammz, just Zuu and just Ets’. I love the UK, I’m repping it, but I like to make music for everyone with everyone, just whatever sounds good. Create sick music and art, get me.
AJ’s aspirations and motivations…
I want people to recognise me globally as an artist and for everyone to enjoy my music without language barriers. I just want to be known internationally, to put it simply. I want people to listen to my music everywhere and not just in the area that I grew up in. I think the wheels are in motion right now. I’ve been touring the world, raising awareness about not just my music but grime in general, and I think if I just keep doing what I’m doing the day will come eventually.
Not to sound shallow, but one of the main things that drives me is money. Not just because I want to be rich and have this and that, but because I never had a lot growing up and I see my mum struggle. I’d like her to just be comfortable. Even if I wasn’t super rich but my mum was comfy and I could just live normally by doing what I love, that’d be fine. ‘All my Ps go to my mum, if you try and rob me you’re tryna take from my mum, are you dumb?’.
I actually think you can be big without hard work. The luck works in different ways for different people. With me, I would honestly say it’s mostly hard work and talent, but every now and then I need a bit of luck to help me do things. Some people, there’s not any talent or hard work but they just get so super lucky that one time, it just propels them all the way to where someone like I would be. I’m not hating – shit happens, that’s how life is – but I think you can actually get far with just luck. I know my ting, with my hard work I know where I’m gonna be and I know what my ting is gonna do so I just focus on that. If a little bit of luck comes my way I’m not complaining.