Since bursting onto the scene in 2015, AJ Tracey has become one of the UK’s biggest and best rappers – and he’s done it all independently. Ahead of the AIM Awards 2020, we revisit the day Music Week joined the rapper at home to discuss his self-titled debut album and tell a success story like no other…
You’d best watch your step outside AJ Tracey’s place. There’s a water feature cut into the dark stone walkway outside, and Music Week nearly slips in headfirst. Inside, we’re greeted by darkness, as our host ushers us in and disappears for a while. He’s just woken up and needs to get ready. In the living room, a vast flatscreen TV displays Fortnite’s home screen as the viral video game’s theme music fills the air. A scented candle burns, balanced on a stack of Tottenham Hotspur coasters. AJ Tracey is a serious gamer, not to mention an avid Spurs fan (their crest is inked on his arm) and anime nerd.
With his various awards (and Bearbricks anime models) dotted around the TV and a luxurious sofa to stretch out on, the MC’s home indicates just how far he’s come since his grimy 2015 debut single, Swerve N Skid. During those early days cooking up ideas in Ladbroke Grove, Tracey set upon what he calls “the blueprint”, the ideology that would help him blaze a trail through the music business, racking up 350 million streams and a gold-selling Top 20 hit in Butterflies (which features Not3s and has 478,686 sales to date, according to the Official Charts Company) in the process. He hit the Top 20 with his Secure The Bag! EP in 2017, and his past collaborators also include Craig David, JME, 67 and close friend Dave, with whom he made Thiago Silva (207,223 sales). His fans are partisan and many in number: he has a combined 2.5m followers across streaming and social media.
On February 8, he will release his self-titled debut album, a vivid mix of the grime that made his name, dancehall, garage, UK rap and what Tracey is calling “country”. Its bars are packed with trademark detail and personality, and he indulges his singing voice, too. Clothes, restaurants, nights out, his Forbes 30 Under 30 listing and his love of football – it’s all in there. Things are shaping up well: on the day we meet, soft-focus single Psych Out passes 1m streams. A day later, it breaks into the Top 30 and is playlisted by BBC Radio 1. His March UK tour is sold out, and his festival run includes The Great Escape and a main stage slot at Reading & Leeds.
Supported by his manager, Supernature’s Andy Musgrave, Earth Agency’s Rebecca Prochnik, Wired PR, tour manager Abigail Stein and distribution from ADA, the 24-year-old is bringing his personality and ideas to life in glorious technicolour, and it’s a fascinating story.
Everything comes from me,” he says, reclining on his couch with a bottle of water in one hand and his Xbox controller in the other. “I’m fully independent, so no one can tell me [anything], no one gives me artistic direction. I just make what I want.”
I’m fully independent, so I just make what I want
He flicks a button, and Fortnite starts up. “My manager will obviously say if he thinks something’s a good idea or not, but sometimes he says, ‘That’s not a good idea,’ and I tell him to fuck off. It’s up to me, not anyone else.” Tracey laughs as he finishes his point, but he’s deadly serious. This is our first glimpse of “the blueprint” in action.
It first came to the young rapper while messing around with beats and bars during his youth club days in Brixton, where his Welsh mother, a former jungle DJ, was based in her role as a social worker for Lambeth Council. His Trinidadian father, incidentally, was once a rapper. His parents named him Ché Wolton Grant, after the great revolutionary Che Guevara. Little wonder perhaps, that Tracey began fostering his ethos so young.
He made a video for his first song using imagery he thought might attract YouTube viewers. “It had beautiful women in, half-naked, but not enough to be explicit,” he says. “I was trying tactics to see if we could get some views and it got 50,000, no one in my area had that. People were like, ‘What the fuck, how did you do that?’ From there, I knew I had this blueprint no one else had that I could use to my advantage, to try and climb up.”
The ascent continued with Swerve N Skid, which Tracey, who speaks openly about his days selling drugs in his youth, recorded “in my friend’s trap house”. You could hear voices and mobile ringtones in the background, and he smiles when remembering the terrible sound quality, but the track made an impact on SoundCloud.
Tracey diligently emailed it to “all the famous DJs” he could think of, and when no one replied, reworded them and hit send again. “I thought it was worth a shot,” he says. “Certain DJs replied rudely, but Sian Anderson emailed saying she’d spin it on 1Xtra. All the mandem said, ‘How are you pulling these things out of the hat?”
Anderson opened “every show for two months” with Swerve N Skid, and Tracey saw the future crystallise. “I saw the pattern, I’d had this luck with this blueprint, let me keep running with it,” he says. “Everyone started asking, ‘Who’s that?’ and looking for me on Twitter.”
Tracey’s handle at the time was Looney, and he rebranded. “I changed it to AJ Tracey because it sounds like someone’s real name, I thought, ‘When people ask me my name I can just say AJ,” he explains. “I changed my name, made a new Twitter and a new Instagram, my old one was super ’hood and had loads of ridiculous stuff on it. It’s deleted, untraceable, have fun trying to find it!”
You can bet his fans have tried, but Tracey established his new identity quickly: “I started putting out more stuff, to let everyone know I was there.” Next came Spirit Bomb, and Tracey’s first GRM Daily premiere, brought about by a friend who was interning at the platform.
“He said he’d get me on there, but I didn’t take his word, because I know in music everyone is fickle,” he says. But Tracey’s pal came through, and Caroline Simionescu-Marin, GRM editor at the time, agreed to the premiere.
“I didn’t have a video, neither did I have any money for a video,” Tracey remembers. No money, no problem: he headed back towards the Westway, roped in all his mates, borrowed a couple of Mercedes and a cameraman and set to work. “Everyone in the ends knows me, but they were saying, ‘Rah, he’s got Mercedes in his video, he’s on GRM Daily, what’s going on?’ They were seeing it…” he says, visibly excited.
Simionescu-Marin enlisted Tracey for her New Gen compilation in 2017, in her role as A&R manager at XL Recordings. She remains a big believer.
It was clear to me he was going to do great things, all on his own terms
Caroline Simionescu-Marin, WME
“When I first watched Spirit Bomb I remember thinking AJ had a serious energy and I wanted to support him,” she tells Music Week. “He has amazed me with his versatility and hunger, he’s one of the few artists I know that fully understands his own vision and it was clear to me he was going to do great things, all on his own terms.”
Tracey’s vision kept evolving, after Naila, filmed near Grenfell Tower, he switched things up again. “Those were my last ’hood vids, they looked like everyone else’s,” he says. “For me to stand out, I needed my own brand of videos, so I started doing things like Buster Cannon in Tokyo, Luke Cage in New York and Thiago Silva in Paris with Dave.”
The fledgling rapper had tasted success, and he was hungry for more. He’d dropped out of his criminology degree and was plotting. “I used to sit down every night and think, how am I gonna go upwards? Not to plateau or go down, just to go up, even if it’s a tiny bit…”
AJ Tracey’s story continues in the microwave. He was hot, and people were noticing. Enter Andy Musgrave, a Bristol music obsessive whose passion for graphic design led him to making flyers for club nights and then to start a record label, Crazylegs.
“Andy hit me and asked if I’d done any live shows,” Tracey recalls. “When we met, I was like a microwave meal, everyone could see I was definitely gonna blow, I just needed the right people around me. Andy came in at a good time.”
But Tracey was resistant to outside interference. “I was so hard-headed, I was like, ‘Fuck off, no one’s helping me, I’m gonna do it myself. I was anti-industry, everything. I just wanted to make my sick music, put it out and still be in the ’hood doing what I was doing.”
But Musgrave didn’t approach with meddling in mind. “I was aware of AJ, there was a little bit of a grime scene in the clubs around that time,” he tells Music Week. “One of my other acts, Murlo, told me he’d sent some beats to AJ and told me to check out Wifey Riddim. It was this amazing, freewheeling, joyous garage beat with AJ just… it had so much personality.”
And that was it. Musgrave contacted Tracey – who was already being chased by more experienced managers and management companies and was on Coda’s books – and arranged a meeting.
“We just got started, it was attractive to him that I had a label and we were able to put music out to a standard from day one,” says Musgrave. Earnings from club shows provided the foundations for a business, with the proceeds going towards videos and artwork. The rapper’s increasing profile caught the attention of Earth Agency’s Rebecca Prochnik (Skepta, JME, Ms Banks) and she requested a meeting.
It was attractive to AJ that I had a label and we were able to put music out from day one
Andy Musgrave, Supernature
“We met and she said, ‘I want you,’ and I joined,” says Tracey. “No disrespect to Coda, but I felt like they just had me in case I did well, but didn’t really believe in me. Rebecca is the best, the boss lady, there’s no one better. A lot of my success is down to her, she’s an integral part of my team and I love her to bits. People say, ‘How did you get Rebecca as your agent?’ I say, ‘Bruv, I don’t know, you need to go chat to her!”
Prochnik describes her relationship with Tracey as “harmonious from day one”.
“He’s a hard worker,” she says. “At the start, we opted to keep our heads down, graft and build, rather than resting on the hype as the whole scene appeared to be blowing up. AJ is a thorough and clear thinker, and has a strong sense of self as an artist.”
Musgrave agrees. “He’s one of a kind. Social media is our marketing. He’s got amazing levels of charisma and his taste drives everything. People are drawn to him because he’s an unpredictable character, you don’t know what he’s going to do next, musically or in any sense.”
Sat next to Tracey as he taps away at his Xbox controller while shifting his gaze to hold eye contact, you get the sense that, whatever he does, he knows it’ll work, unpredictable or not. That he’s harnessed that conviction to push his music forwards makes him a formidable force.
AJ Tracey doesn’t know anything other than DIY and he doesn’t want to. He and his team are setting an example, proving to aspiring artists that success is possible without label backing. When it comes to extolling the virtues of being indie, Tracey and Musgrave parrot one another. The rapper has softened his anti-label stance slightly, but it doesn’t sound like his situation will be changing any time soon.
“I’m in a position where, unless a major can do something for me that I can’t do myself, I’m not going to take the easy way out. If I can do it I’ll do it,” he says. “I get Top 20s and plaques without a label, they’re cool, but unless they can do something I can’t achieve myself, I’m not interested, regardless of the money.”
Tracey is proud of his ethos and the achievements it’s generating, but he’s aware that his swagger might attract sideways glances from others in the industry.
“A lot of people think I’m a show-off, and I am a bit of a show-off, so that’s fine,” he says. “But it’s not about showing off, I’m proud of my achievements, genuinely. I don’t think I’m better than anyone, I’m just happy with what I’ve done.”
Some called him cocky when he shared images of a new diamond watch on Instagram, but he puts it down to mischief. “I get in moods sometimes where I want to be silly. I said, ‘A lot of you rappers are in debt for your diamond watch, but I bought mine myself. You got an advance, maybe £500,000, and you spent 50k on a watch. It’s not your money, you owe the label for it. It’s ridiculous.’ Me, I put the music out that I like, I happen to make enough to get a watch so I bought it [laughs]. I know that upset people, but it’s about being proud.”
“Some people didn’t have the chance to be independent and the label route was their route and they’re successful, more power to them,” he continues. “I just don’t like it if you have the potential do it yourself but you chose to take the easy way out. I don’t consider those people artists; they’re more in it for the money than the music.”
Musgrave warms to the theme. “AJ suits the model. People have consistently told us, ‘You need to do this thing in order to achieve that,’ and every time we say, ‘We want to do it ourselves,’ and we end up achieving it anyway,” he says.
“You get a constant sense that the industry is trying desperately to cling onto its old model. I’m not anti-labels, but there’s a certain work ethic in the independent model that you just don’t find in the major label system. It amazes me how many people don’t come at it with the same ethos but still aspire to make a living off the culture.”
There’s music for every occasion and I want to be that type of artist
Tracey makes the point that, as an independent artist, he can drop a track whenever he fancies. He’s no plans to at the moment (“It would mash up my album roll-out”), but he could. “On a label you could never do that. They’d say it’s not a good idea. But when they say that, they mean, ‘You are not putting out a song,’ which is just horrible. How can someone control what you want to do with your music? It’s insane.”
Tracey and his team have to work “100 times as hard” as his major label peers, but they’re not saying they’ll never sign, they just don’t see any reason to at the moment.
“In the UK scene, out of everyone who’s doing well I’m the last one who doesn’t have a situation [deal],” says Tracey. This notion of being separate to the rest of the scene suits him: personality and vibrancy set him apart as much as ethos and ideology.
Naturally, he has a snappy soundbite to prove his point.
“There’s always gonna be a trending sound, it doesn’t mean you have to follow it to be big, but it’s more likely if you do,” he says. “In the UK, it’s drill and Afroswing. Drill music is cool, but I personally don’t really see the longevity in it. It’s cool to do bits and bobs, I pride myself on showing my versatility, I can do a drill song, dancehall, UK rap, whatever, it doesn’t matter, you can have music for different occasions.
“You’re not gonna listen to a drill song at someone’s wedding [laughs]. You want to be the artist that’s compatible. Drake, for example if you want to put some Drake on for a wedding, there’s Passionfruit, for when you’re gassed up, you play Nonstop. There’s music for every occasion and I want to be that type of artist.”
Musgrave uses the mix of sounds and styles on Tracey’s debut album to support this idea. He believes you have to shake things up to maintain interest. “It’s the moments where you split the fans that solidify the real followers, he says. “It’s happened a few times, the core fans initially seem disappointed and then they come round, it’s part of moving from a hyped new act into a solid act with longevity. You have to be prepared for a bit of backlash, but you have to change things otherwise you become one-dimensional. I want to see how far we can go by ourselves…”
What does it take, then, to make it as an independent rap star? Musgrave bangs the drum for patience, financial awareness and cultural understanding, knowing “what to say and when to say it”. Tracey, who describes himself as “an anxious person”, says his trajectory depends on his fans (“I’m at their mercy, if they don’t like it, I don’t make any money from it”) and believes his situation requires “nerves of steel”.
All that remains, as Tracey prepares for our photo shoot, is to ask how far he can go. He wants to emulate Drake and Skepta and become omnipresent – and he has the character and talent to do it.
“I’ve never done things for accolades,” he finishes. “It sounds like I’m being a hippy and lying, but I’m being serious. If people like the album I’ll be over the moon, as long as I get feedback saying, ‘I like this,’ ‘He’s done something different,’ or, ‘My nan likes this,’ I’ll be happy.”
With that, he grins, hits pause on his Xbox and lays back on the sofa, ready to move up yet another level.
AJ Tracey’s guide to his debut album
“Some artists change their vibe and just don’t sound like themselves. I have faith in my music, always, but I was anxious about this one. I don’t even know what genre you’d call it, but it still sounds like me. I got a DM from Stormzy when I dropped it saying, ‘That’s a frontline ting, you’re on the frontline trying to innovate and I respect you, it’s scary doing that.’”
NOTHING BUT NET (FEAT. GIGGS)
“I went to Giggs’ studio to chill because I like building relationships with people. His brother’s my jeweller, but I didn’t have a personal relationship with Giggs. He was smoking, we had a little drink and he was playing me some new music. I asked to play something, which you’re definitely not meant to say in his session, but you have to shoot your shot. I wanted him on the song, we listened but he didn’t bat an eyelid, didn’t make a face at all. I couldn’t gauge whether he liked it and right near the end, he finally said ‘What, you want me to jump on this?’ I feel like he gave me one of his best verses. I was gassed. I got him on a faster beat than normal.”
THE COVER ARTWORK
“I am the GOAT [greatest of all time] and I love animals so I thought, ‘Let’s get a baby goat on the cover.’ I had to buy two because they cry when they’re alone. I donated them to a farm in Hounslow afterwards, I’ve got OCD so them shitting in my house is not the angle. I went to see them this week, they’re cute.”