Westway to the World: At Home with AJ Tracey
Catching up with one of the stars of 2017, as he moves from Drake's inbox to superstardom while keeping his west London roots intact.
"As a kid, I loved Air Force Ones – but they were so expensive. I always had to save up for ages to get them. Now I can call the Nike guy and be like 'can you send me ten pairs?' and they'll be here the same day."
AJ Tracey isn't exaggerating. At 6'2", he's sitting next to a pile of Nike boxes that tower above him. He's not wearing any right now though – everyone takes their shoes off at the door. This is his mum's flat after all, and she's sitting in the next room. A minute walk from Ladbroke Grove tube, the flat looks over the West London heartland that AJ Tracey is keen to finally write into grime history. From the third floor window, he points out some of the most important silhouettes on the skyline: Hazlewood Tower, Latimer Road and the estate where he grew up, playing Yugi-Oh cards in a youth club run by his mother.
Despite a century of hugely influential subculture and one of the UK's most buoyant African-Caribbean communities, the West London area where AJ Tracey lives has become synonymous with a vast juxtaposition in living conditions. Impoverished, neglected estates sit next to multi-million pound apartments complete with glass roofs and walls lined with lavish, expensive artwork. Tracey explains the tension makes poor people feel like they should go out and rob the rich. "Why do they get to have such a nice life when we're struggling right opposite them? But my mum told me it's not good to be jealous, just work hard and keep your head down. Wait your turn."
"Jumped off the roads 'cause my mum couldn't take it / Your chain man, couldn't say I couldn't take it / I get booked all over the world / And my PRS shits on your mum and dad's pay slips"
Although it's only been a year and a half since AJ's first release, The Front EP, it feels like his turn has now come. He might be sitting on his mum's sofa in his socks, but he's just appeared on a Clams Casino remix with A$AP Rocky and Lil B, has been bigged up by Drake, and is on the BBC Sound of 2017 list. We start off discussing the questions he's most used to answering: like where his name came from (a nickname from his younger days when being on road was a full time occupation) and where he was born (Central Middlesex hospital, "the same place as Dizzee Rascal"). Before settling in West London, Tracey moved all over the city. Born to a mum from Wales and a dad from Trinidad & Tobago, he tells me about experiencing a "different kind of racism".
"I'm half-white and half-black. No-one will ever say I'm white, but all the road men think because I'm mixed race that I can't be bad because I'm light skin. It's crazy. That's why you see a lot of mixed race people chilling together. But you can never judge a book by its cover. I personally know a guy who's from Essex – he's a short white guy with glasses but he's stabbed like nine people. You can never judge anyone; you don't know what man's on. There's another guy I know from Grove who wears Uggs but he went to jail for attempted murder – it just doesn't matter!"
Tracey started spitting aged six, happily recounting some of his earliest bars: "G-R-O-V-E / Where I'm from get robbed for your TV / Get a flatscreen LCD HD / Looney got the bars to make a boy whitey". But it wasn't until secondary school, with Ice Kid becoming a kind of mentor, that he started to take rap seriously. "He came up to me in Year 7 and was like, 'You're kind of hard you know… you might as well roll with me.'"
Now 22, Tracey has younger people looking up to him and older MCs resentful at how far he's already come. "There are a handful of olders who actually hate me – I won't name them – but they hate me [for] no reason, they don't even know me, they've never had a conversation with me," he says. "I reckon they feel they're on a time limit. I feel like they're just not happy because my booking fee's higher than some people double my age. It must be annoying – I hear that – but you're meant to embrace people, you get me?"
It's not all competition though. He talks about his love for his West London 'olders' Drifter and Merky Ace, and how surreal it is hanging out with artists he grew up listening to. "I took a photo with Big Narstie like six years ago and I showed him the other day and he was like, 'Fucking hell you've come a long way!' I used to tune into Spooky's sets all the time and now he's my mate and we just chill casually. It's mad."
"Not from the east, nothing ain't pearly / I'm from the west where the yats sniff Shirley / And everybody's got a home gym and a nursery"
It might be as cold as Wiley's Morgue instrumental outside, but AJ's still buzzing from taking all his mates on an impromptu trip to Tenerife last week to shoot the new video for "Pasta", from his brand new EP Lil Tracey. "That was a milestone for me. Back in the day I used to be like, 'One day when I'm a rich rapper, I'm gonna take all my friends on holiday, I swear to God I'm gonna do it!' And the other day I was just like 'Mandem, boom! Everyone be at my crib I'm paying for all of you lot to go Tenerife, I'm paying for everything!' It was £100 a cab just to get to the airport. The villa cost like 3 grand for 2 days. All the people who hated me hate me 100 times more for that trip there."
It seems like the expenditure was worth it, not least because we get to see his bromance with London MC Dave continue to blossom on camera. Although Dave is probably most known for "Wanna Know", a track that has since been blessed with a remix from Drake, he arguably broke out at the same same as AJ Tracey on their monumental collaboration "Thiago Silva", easily one of the best grime tunes of 2016. Individually, AJ and Dave are great MCs, but together they make an iconic duo. Their back-to-back bars over the trap inflected flip of Prince Rapid's "Pied Piper" is nothing short of spine-tingling.
Tracey used to share a room with his little brother. They both slept in adjacent single beds and took turns hanging out in there – when Tracey was in the bedroom, his brother would often be in the living room, chatting with their mum (an ex-drum and bass DJ who Tracey took as his +1 to the MOBO Awards this year), and vice versa. One day when she wasn't home the pair shared some music. "[My brother] was playing music kinda loud," remembers Tracey. "He only loves old school hip-hop, so for him to be listening to a UK artist means they're good. I was like, 'Who's this?' And he was like, 'This guy Dave.' I sat down next to him, turned him up, took him in. I was like, 'Yeah, he's hard man.'"
After a follow back and a few DMs, Tracey and Dave started meeting up. "Everyone was doing their 'One Take' riddims (over the Rude Kid instrumental of the same name) and I was like, 'Can we do that?' We was both freestyling – I said the first 8, then he used the flow and said the second 8, then he changed the flow and we kept copying each other. Then I decided 'fuck this! Our bars are too hard to be doing a cheesy 'One Take' – let's make a tune'. I knew it would bang."
The video, which now has over 2.5 million views, doubles down on the same energy, with DIY footage of the pair wandering through London and Paris, the footage interlocking until you're not sure what city you're in. "We were stood outside the PSG stadium, just taking it in for like five minutes," recalls Tracey. "We're in Paris because of music – filming a vid in PSG tops that Nike have given us for free - it's mad! Then we went into the PSG shop and Nike were like 'we've got a present for you' and gave us the black kits which you can't get anywhere – you can't buy them. Kylie Jenner has one, all these famous people have them. Me and Dave were super gassed."
"Call for the ting, looking like Han Solo / Make a man ooze up the middle like Rolo"
With rare football shirts, a seemingly endless supply of trainers, and video shoots in France, Japan and the Canaries this year alone, Tracey looks like he's living the life most people his age (and a lot older) can only fantasise about. But what does an international new wave grime playboy do in his spare time? He tries to play it down, talking about Fifa, COD, eating at Boom Burger and playing pool at Mau Mau, but also can't help veering off into the sort of anecdotes you couldn't make up, like the time he went to Mahiki with Stormzy and ended up singing karaoke with Brian McFadden (of Westlife), or how he can no longer walk through Westfield without being repeatedly stopped for selfies. That said, his interest in the world goes far beyond his immediate surroundings.
"I made a vow to myself since Brexit, if I hear anyone say to any Eastern European people 'go home' or anything like that, I have to speak up. I'm not having it – that's horrible," he says. He also studied criminology at university. Despite not finishing, he says he learned a lot about what motivates people to break the law, and the difference between crimes that hurt people ("robbery, burglary") and the ones that don't ("corporate fraud against big companies, selling weed"). "I enjoyed it, but overall uni wasn't for me. I used to come in, say 'wagwan' to my mandem, chat to a couple girls and see if anyone wanted any drugs then bounce."
Now that Skepta's generation have succeeded in taking grime mainstream without compromising its sound, there's an argument that this third generation of MCs (all in their early 20s and yet to put albums out) kind of have it easy: no one's getting ASBOs scaling buildings to put up aerials to get the sound heard, or having to rely on crime or clueless major labels to pay for studio time and marketing. There are FM stations playing grime throughout the day and brands bending over backwards to align themselves with credible artists. I point out a recent tweet of Spooky's which reads "the new gen only care about premieres, numbers and flexing on Insta" and we both laugh.
"I don't blame Spooky for saying that at all and he's my friend, he's an OG - he grew up in the era of old school grime. But what a lot of people need to realise is that this is a completely different generation. We think different to those guys, we've been brought up on different things, our musical influences are completely different, and nowadays there's more money in grime as well. I don't take it for granted. I know as quickly as people come up you can go down and I'm just trying to enjoy it and experience things that I never got to have, that's all it is. [When] I travel I take a million pictures like a tourist – I don't care, I wanna take it all in. I'll buy magnets for my mum - I'll show you my fridge in a minute, it's ridiculous. I'm just trying to live my life – I'm only 22, bruv! But this generation of grime had it easier – way way easier."
"Anybody said he touched me? He lied / Man thought west was a joke, he tried / My block's just like a hornet's nest / Your block's sweet just like a beehive"
As we watch the sun go down on the blocks where Tracey cut his teeth, talk returns to these ends and how Tracey's music could put them on the map. The world is beckoning, and with some of the highest property prices in the UK, repping West London forever could be easier said than done. Is he in it for the long haul? Does he get scared now he's well known but still local? "I wanna leave the hood behind eventually," he says. "In the meantime, I think I'd rather take over the rent of this house and move my mum somewhere quiet. I love Ladbroke Grove, but everyone knows where I live."
Before we leave, Tracey shows me his bedroom, although it's filled with so many clothes you could be forgiven for thinking he'd been sleeping in a walk in wardrobe or the Mr. Porter stockroom. Is this what happiness look like? "Even my mum said it to me - and she's not into superficial things at all – 'if buying Gucci sandals for £200 makes you happy and you've got the money, then go and do it'".
He continues: "The only opinions that matter to me are close friends and my mum. People over there who know nothing about me just chatting shit? I don't care. That means nothing. It's hard for people to bring me down because I'm confident. I know what I'm worth, my mum loves me, I have a healthy family, my friends are all good, man just came back from Tenerife with a bunch of girls, you get me? I'm fine."
You can find Fred on Twitter.
All photos (except a still from the "Thiago Silva" video) by Jack Donlon.