AJ Tracey interview: 'I want to show people that I'm versatile'

The West London MC on new EP 'Secure The Bag!' and fending off attempts to label him

Roisin O'Connor
Music Correspondent
Thursday 26 October 2017 13:38 BST
'I’m a very vengeful person - if someone didn’t wanna get on board with me and I’m doing it well then I’m gonna rub it in their face'
'I’m a very vengeful person - if someone didn’t wanna get on board with me and I’m doing it well then I’m gonna rub it in their face'

AJ Tracey's Secure The Bag! EP is a project. It's not an album – at eight tracks and 26 minutes it's too short. It's too carefully curated to be a mixtape. What it is, unquestionably, is a tantalising glimpse of what Tracey is capable of.

Listening to Secure The Bag! is like watching a movie car chase; those moments of adrenaline as it swerves a way you weren't expecting, driving at breakneck speed with plenty of heat behind it.

Tipped by The Independent as 'one to watch' back in December 2016, Tracey's upward trajectory has been just as speedy: the 23-year-old recently racked up millions of YouTube views with his appearance on MC showcase Fire In The Booth and, soon after we speak, it is confirmed that his EP will enter the top 20 of the UK album charts.

Three days earlier, sipping a bottle of Coke and contemplating the bottle of Cristal he'll crack open should he achieve chart success, the artist born Ché Wolton Grant is talking a million miles per minute outside a pub in Kensington.

"It's a moment, you know?" he says at the idea of Secure The Bag! making the top 20. "Exciting and a little bit scary. Independent, no label pushing, no backing ... so it’d open doors for other people, that’s what matters to me. And the only reason it’s possible is because of Stormzy."

The sheer range of influences on Secure The Bag! are impressive. There are his classic game samples – Pokemon on "Alakazam" ft Jme and Denzel Curry being the most notable – perhaps a little more subtle than on previous tracks such as "Thiago Silva" with south London MC Dave, where they feature more heavily as a constant synth tune.

But there are also moments that throw you for a loop, like on "Shisha", where the tripping beat beneath a female vocal recalls "Kerala" off Bonobo's latest record Migration.

Tracey is a self-confessed anime addict: when he thinks of things to write about, more often than not that's the first thing that comes to mind. That and football, he admits. "That's the only thing I like as much as music."

He was pleased for Giggs when the fellow London rapper got onto the FIFA 18 video game soundtrack before he did: "There’s not many people I’d be happy about getting there before me, but he deserves it." You get the feeling it won't be too long before he makes it on there as well.

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"​I have to give credit to my mum for my music taste," he says. "She’s white and Welsh but she listens to dancehall, reggae, Reggaeton…"

Listening to Linkin Park prompted him to change the way he spits, with more emotion. "I used to listen to tons of that: 30 Seconds To Mars, Bullet for My Valentine and Breaking Benjamin.

"When I put my first project out ages ago, I didn't want to show anyone my emotions. Now I think it’s better for people to understand how I am as a person and let them relate. It’s about sharing your life with people, putting your essence into the track.

"I wasn't super emo when I was younger but I’m very neurotic, my mood swings really heavily so when I’m upset I go away from everyone. So while I didn't understand everything Chester [Bennington; the Linkin Park singer who took his own life in July] was going through, I related to it on a lot of levels, so I could vibe to it and shut everything else out and just listen."

When he was starting out, Tracey had to put up with some hostility from some of the old guard of the grime scene; some believing that he's broken too many rules. Now, he says they hide that hostility, but it's still there.

"People were telling me I shouldn't care so much, and it is true, but when you’re coming up and people completely disregard your existence it feels a bit crappy," he says, then adds with a laugh: "At the same time it feels good when they have to acknowledge you. I’m a very vengeful person – if someone didn't wanna get on board with me and I’m doing it well I’m gonna rub it in their face."

He's highly selective about who he features on a track. There are only four credited features on Secure The Bag! – Jme, 67, Denzel Curry, and Craig David. The latter, who appears on closing track "You Don't Know Me", was a fan of his work and reached out through his management. They ended up recording around nine songs together. One track went on Tracey's EP, another went on David's upcoming album The Time Is Now.

"I don’t wanna work with anyone I don’t vibe with," Tracey says. "Craig's studio is like 10 minutes from my house, so we showed... ate an abundance of chocolate... and now we’ve got like eight or nine tracks together. We’ve got trap tunes, grime, a dance one, two pop ones … we’ll see how we feel about putting them all out."

Jme, co-founder of grime collective Boy Better Know, reached out to Tracey early on in his career.

"He’s one of the few gatekeepers who supports people," Tracey says. "He doesn't need to; he’s established and cool with his life, but he does. He’s local but he’s busy, but when he’s around he’s up for chilling. When I asked him if he wanted to put a verse on Secure The Bag! he was like 'bro I started writing it already'."

US rapper Denzel Curry reminded him right before the EP was finished that they said they'd do something together. "The third time we met, in LA, he was like ‘yeah bro I can spit grime now’. And me and my producer laughed a bit - lovingly! But we thought he could give it a try. And he went off."

With his reputation growing fast, the media pushed to label Tracey as the "new grime star". Yet the young MC, like several of his contemporaries, is reluctant to be pinned to one genre. His music draws on much more than that, and it's understandable that he'd also want to distance himself from a scene where some of its more established stars have been less than friendly.

"It’s weird with grime in general," he says. "Me, I’ve broken bare rules and that’s why some people don’t like me. Because I can go on a radio show and spit grime, 100 per cent grime, in a tracksuit. Then on the flipside I’ll be in LA in a sports car with loads of girls. So they’re like ‘ah he’s not traditional’. But music changes. I try my hardest to show people that I’m versatile.

"It sounds like I’m playing the race card but it does feel a bit racist to label everything in the UK and black as grime. With me, I was actually a grime MC, I do dabble, so it's fair enough - I’m not that offended if you call me that. J Hus, on the other hand, is nothing to do with grime... Loyle Carner… even Rejjie Snow gets called that. Giggs gets called grime. He is a rapper. Out and out.

"I don't think a lot of them pay attention," he continues. "They care more about the heat on something than what’s actually happening. Just the fact that we're British, people should be celebrating me, Giggs, Dave, whoever’s dropping music and doing really well"

AJ Tracey: 'I don't want to work with anyone I don't vibe with (Supplied)

Tracey was a strong voice during the 2017 general election, appearing in a video on housing for Labour, and expressing support for Jeremy Corbyn. More recently he's been reminding people on social media that the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire are still in need of help.

"I always keep an eye on politics," he nods. "My main concern now is Grenfell and seeing some action. There’s no more coverage but people are still there who really need help. We can shine a light on it but if the government really don't wanna help there’s nothing we can do about it."

He wonders if the fact that he's an independent artist means there's less pressure on him to stay quiet about political and social issues: "I don’t have a label, no one tells me what to do. I will go from tweeting about Jeremy Corbyn to the size of a girl’s bum." he grins. "That’s what social media is for."

"I think I helped swing my area in the election. All the youth in my area were hitting me up saying I’m gonna vote because of you.

"My mum was bare proud," he adds, smiling. "'Cos she named me Che after Che Guevera. If I don’t do something political, I’ve gone wrong somewhere."

The 'Secure The Bag!' EP is out now. Catch AJ Tracey live on 25 October at Motion, Bristol; 31 October at Concorde 2, Brighton or 5 November at O2 Kentish Town Forum

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