COVER

AJ Tracey

Has No Regrets

By Gabby Sgherri

A

AJ Tracey logs onto our Zoom meeting from London and you can instantly hear the intense West London articulation as he says “Hello.” Tracey’s 27th year on earth is a good one. His second studio album, Flu Game, and three nominations for the upcoming 2021 Brit Awards are just a handful of his accolades. That praise sprouted its roots deep in a subreddit on Flu Game, flooded with positive comments like, “West London take a bow please” from redditor u/vodlin and “This is banging. Best AJ project by far I would say,” from redditor u/WmWich98. It’s an endless scroll of compliments. 

Tracey was born Ché (after Guevara) Wolton Grant. Life in his neighborhood of Ladbroke Grove, West London, wasn’t always award shows and studio sessions. It had its challenges. It was steeped in multiculturalism, but a stark contrast between the classes living within such close proximities created some socio-economic tension. It was a crossroads, as Tracey would explain—you either chose to be bitter about the poverty you’re born into or use it as motivation to succeed. “I can do what they’re doing, I just need to work hard,” he would tell himself. And work hard he did. 

His success wasn’t overnight, but as he sits comfortably in his home, it’s fair to say he’s not only overcome the odds but become a success story for others to look up to. His decade-long perseverance has established him as a tastemaker in the UK music scene.

Tracey’s relationship with music goes back much further than a decade. He learned how to construct bars and sentences at the age of six from his dad, who was a rapper in the ‘80s and ‘90s. While his dad wasn’t always around, Tracey’s mom, a former DJ, took the reins and taught him about reggae, dancehall, and UK and US garage. Tracey lights up when he brings up her musical impact. “She put me through the School of Music, so to speak,” he beams.  

AJ Tracey logs onto our Zoom meeting from London and you can instantly hear the intense West London articulation as he says “Hello.” Tracey’s 27th year on earth is a good one. His second studio album, Flu Game, and three nominations for the upcoming 2021 Brit Awards are just a handful of his accolades. That praise sprouted its roots deep in a subreddit on Flu Game, flooded with positive comments like, “West London take a bow please” from redditor u/vodlin and “This is banging. Best AJ project by far I would say,” from redditor u/WmWich98. It’s an endless scroll of compliments. 

Tracey was born Ché (after Guevara) Wolton Grant. Life in his neighborhood of Ladbroke Grove, West London, wasn’t always award shows and studio sessions. It had its challenges. It was steeped in multiculturalism, but a stark contrast between the classes living within such close proximities created some socio-economic tension. It was a crossroads, as Tracey would explain—you either chose to be bitter about the poverty you’re born into or use it as motivation to succeed. “I can do what they’re doing, I just need to work hard,” he would tell himself. And work hard he did. 

His success wasn’t overnight, but as he sits comfortably in his home, it’s fair to say he’s not only overcome the odds but become a success story for others to look up to. His decade-long perseverance has established him as a tastemaker in the UK music scene.

Tracey’s relationship with music goes back much further than a decade. He learned how to construct bars and sentences at the age of six from his dad, who was a rapper in the ‘80s and ‘90s. While his dad wasn’t always around, Tracey’s mom, a former DJ, took the reins and taught him about reggae, dancehall, and UK and US garage. Tracey lights up when he brings up her musical impact. “She put me through the School of Music, so to speak,” he beams.  

“For me, it’s the little things that make you feel special like you've achieved something.”

“For me, it’s the little things that make you feel special like you've achieved something.”


These days, save for 13 months of shutdowns, it’s common for him to perform to thousands of fans screaming “AJ Tracey,” but when he first started putting out music, it was under a different moniker—his neighborhood nickname, “Looney” or “Loonz” for short. Upon some reflection, a younger Tracey decided his name needed an evolution that was more approachable to the masses. And he thought, what better way than to take inspiration from his favorite childhood show, Recess? “TJ was the leader and that’s kind of how I see myself in my peer group. So I was like, cool TJ, I’m going to take AJ,” he says. Needing a second name to round it out, he turned to someone he knew in real life. “There was a guy in my hood called Stacey, who people just didn’t really want to fuck with,” he says emphasizing Stacey’s intimidation factor. He turned Stacey into Tracey and AJ Tracey was born.

As we settle into the banter, it becomes clear that while many of Tracey’s raps have braggadocious lyrics and clever double entendres, nothing has gone to his head. He’s humble as he muses the moments he’s grateful for. “When I was a little kid, I went to the Brit Awards as a guest because I was well behaved in school. I actually met Missy Elliott and Kanye West. I told Missy Elliott that I’m a rapper [but] I was a kid so she was obviously just like ‘aw that’s cool, keep it up.’ This childhood memory came full-circle when Tracey was featured on the same track as Elliott and Portland rapper Aminé four years ago. After the song’s release, ”She tweeted me and was like ‘yo, your verse is fire’ and I was like ‘yes’,” he recounts. He cites it as one of the craziest moments of his life.  

His memory jogged to another memorable moment at Paris Fashion Week in recent years. “There was a long queue of literally thousands of people and I saw Virgil [Abloh] and some of A$AP Mob. They were like ‘Yo, just skip the queue and come through,’” he gushes. You could get lost in the haze of his stories—from the time he toured with Skepta’s for his European and UK leg of Ignorance Is Bliss tour, linked up with the late New York drill artist Pop Smoke, partied with Drake in Toronto, and stayed at A$AP Rocky’s house in L.A—yet what is crystal clear is that Tracey’s talents are felt and celebrated far beyond his home turf. 

While those stories sound like a flex, it’s easy to see a glimpse of that young West London boy that used to look up to these popular US artists. “For me, it’s the little things that make you feel special like you’ve achieved something,” he says. 

“If I take an L [loss], that L is not just mine, everyone that I’m supporting is taking an L as well."

I pivot the conversation to the pressures of supporting his inner circle while being in the public eye. He’s been steadfast on remaining an independent artist to this day, but he knows that with that comes a responsibility to succeed, not just for himself, but his loved ones. He opens up about his losses, “If I take an L [loss], that L is not just mine, everyone that I’m supporting is taking an L as well. So it’s quite daunting. I don’t want to make a mistake and then someone goes without [reaching their goals].” Tracey admits that he deals with it as best he can by doing normal things like playing Fifa and spending time with his mom. He’s an avid gamer, regularly playing League of Legends online under the username Glockie. “The more normality you have, it’s easier to just stay grounded and deal with the pressure.” 

A unique trait that’s led Tracey to accumulate so many wins is his ability to seamlessly transition between genres while keeping a style of rapping that’s true to him. He doesn’t box himself in sonically, and his latest album Flu Game has a range of different beats from drill and trap to garage and R&B. How does he manage to accomplish such a feat? “I think my tone of voice and cadence play a big role in that because my voice is quite unique and I have a strong West London accent.” The key is in his delivery, “If I’m on a pop record, it’s going to sound similar to if I was on a drill record, the delivery is going to be the same. So that’s how I maintain one sound.”

Flu Game is the perfect fusion of UK hip-hop and US pop culture. Tracey took heavy inspiration from Michael Jordan and the NBA for the album but the lyrics are chock full of slang with sayings like “Tek Time” and “Pagans.” AJ laughs when I point this out and admits that slang is so heavily integrated into his vocabulary he can’t tell the difference between it and English anymore. If he had to choose his favorite hometown sayings it would be “say less,” “loud,” and “styll,” he boasts. One of his NBA heroes growing up was Michael Jordan, who he likens to himself. “I feel I’m the same because there’s only so much I’m going to hold punches, so to speak, to save people’s feelings,” he says in comparison to Jordan’s ruthless approach to performing his best, regardless of how others felt about it. “At the end of the day, my life apart from my career, it’s only mine. Everyone is walking their own path and I have to make sure that I achieve what I need to achieve.”

He tapped popular North American artists like NAV and Kehlani, to be featured on the album but his reasoning for choosing collaborators has nothing to do with popularity. “You need to put features on your track that make sense sonically. They need to be cohesive and there has to be a reason for them being on a track.” This is why NAV jumped onto a UK drill beat for “Kukoč” rather than an auto-tune-heavy song.

With every accolade, he makes sure to check back with his roots. “It’s about remembering the reason why I made music in the first place,” he affirms. Motivation for him doesn’t come in the form of fancy items and material luxuries. “If you set goals that are materialistic and you reach them, what’s the next goal after that? You need to set goals that are fulfilling within you like emotional goals or if you’re spiritual, spiritual goals.” 

Adaptation has been one of Tracey’s secret weapons. When live music halted in 2020, he joined TikTok as a way to connect with his fans. Despite a bit of reluctance on his part—Twitter is his favorite—he could spot the importance of getting on a platform that houses so many of his fans. Yet, he was going to do it his way. “I don’t want to be one of those boomers that’s against the new school, so I’m rocking with it. Just don’t try and be younger than you are and you’ll be okay.” 

As parts of the world begin to re-open, Tracey is euphoric with the thought of live music soon enough. He can’t wait to relive a moment like one that he experienced at a festival in Scotland two years ago called TRNSMT. While performing his hit “Ladbroke Grove,” the crowd left him speechless. “It was 40,000 kids and they were all lighting different colored flares. It was so loud, I didn’t even have to say the words. I could just hear them singing. It was crazy.” He smiles, “I’ll never forget that. Genuinely, I’ve never felt anything like that in my whole life.” 

As our call comes to a close after covering some of the highs and lows of his life, I can’t help but wonder if Tracey has any advice for his younger self. He takes a minute to reflect and says, “I feel like everything that’s been done was for a reason and it played out to good effect.” Just before we hang up, he leaves with some optimistic words of wisdom; “I believe in life there’s yin and yang, so if you take an L, you’re going to get a win at some point in exchange.”



Photographer: Sabb Adams


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