Family First: Backstage With AJ Tracey
Nothing could have prepared AJ Tracey for his meteoric rise to fame, and the London born artist continues to push the boundaries with his music.
Having released tracks since 2011, he is one of UK rap’s most influential artists. Not only has his single ‘Ladbroke Grove’ reached over 500 million streams, it has become a summer soundtrack of 2019. But above all he demonstrates that it is possible to make the type of music you want make and achieve popularity at the same time.
Having toured Europe extensively throughout last year, he has played a string of UK and European festival dates this summer including Lost & Found, Wireless, Parklife, Primavera, Longitude and Glastonbury. He has already played Reading and Leeds Festivals a couple of times before, but this year he played the main stage for the first time.
Clash caught up with him on Saturday afternoon in Reading’s main stage area just before his set.
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Are you excited about your set at Reading today?
I am very excited. It should be a piece of history.
Are you looking to surprise the crowd?
It’s going to be a full production set that we have invested a lot of money into. I like to give something back to people, the fans are always there for me, so it’s my duty to give them something in return. It should be a good set, it’s a new one that I’ve never done before.
What does it mean for you to be back at Reading? It’s always such a good crowd.
It means a lot, it’s one of my favourite festivals. I have been here a couple of times now and every time I come here our shows improve. I think the festivals recognise that so they got me a really good slot this time.
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‘Ladbroke Grove’ is a huge success. What made you think of Jorja Smith for the track and how did you approach her?
It’s doing alright (laughs quietly). it’s is obviously named after my area. I love west London and thought it would be a nice positive thing. A positive way to shine light on our area. I’ve been friend with Jorja for a while. I have known her for a while. I’d say it’s at least four to five years ago since I first met her.
I’ve been supporting her, just following her journey. I really appreciate her vocals, she is local to me so I thought I’d just see if she could jump in. I’m quite an informal guy, I wouldn’t send an email to someone’s management or anything like that. I just hit her up and said "I’d really love you to sing on this track that I’ve got. You sound great on garage, do you wanna do this?"
Was she free at the time?
She was working on an album and so was I. She wasn’t able to jump on a track so I just said to her ‘if you could send me some stems I’ll sample you’ so in essence she is still on the track. It’s quite unusual for people to send stems out because they are really raw, it’s very personal.
I would never send my stems out but she obviously trusted me. She is a massive artist, so I didn’t expect her to say yes but she did!
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Would you ever collaborate with a rock band?
A hundred percent, without a doubt. My favourite rock band ever is Linkin Park - rest in peace Chester Bennington. I was actually meant to interview the band for MTV but I became really ill, I was bedbound, I couldn’t get out of bed. Then unfortunately he passed, so I missed my opportunity on that one. It would have been amazing.
Do you listen to Linkin Park a lot?
When I was growing up I used to listen to them. When I had a bad day I would come home and put some of their music on. It’s something people don’t see or know about me because I’m into rap but I actually listen to a lot of rock too. I like Yellowcard, Breaking Benjamin, Bullet for My Valentine and Thirty Seconds to Mars, all these bands I really love. I would love to do a tune with a rock band.
I like the idea of artists who refuse to accept boundaries.
Exactly. I feel the only way to make history is to keep pushing boundaries and do things that people don’t normally do. I feel as if everyone is open to it now. I feel as though now is the time, if you want to do something different, do it and everyone is going to accept it.
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How much do you see the area Ladbroke Broke as an influence on your music?
It is where I grew up. I am 25 years old now. My mum lives in the area, Portobello Road, Notting Hill Gate. I grew up on a white estate – and my mother is white. I used to listen to a lot of UK garage. My dad is from Trinidad, he is rapper and my mum is a DJ.
The mix of sounds I was introduced to as a young kid is very diverse. I was listening to reggae, dancehall and soca music. Our national instrument is steel pan, so there would be a lot of steel pan music around the house. I would also listen to LL Cool J and UK garage. It gave me a wide range of music to choose from.
How did the music influences come to play a part in practical terms?
The thing is even if I don’t really like a genre I can still appreciate and see artistry in it, I look at music and see how it sits sonically. I consider how long the track is, what kind of chords are used, all of these things influenced me, so when I made my album it was: everything that influences me, I will embody, and I am going to put it on the album.
We have got garage, trap, rap, drill, grime, everything really. I just don’t like to be boxed in so when it came to ‘Ladbroke Grove’ I was like ‘this is my time I’m gonna make a garage track. I’ve never made one before but the lyrics and the hook I actually wrote five years before and I thought "this is gonna be suitable now..."
When it comes diversity in music, what would you like to see more of?
I would like to see a lot more of Latin music being mixed into UK music. I feel like we have quite a big Latin community even if people don’t know about it. In Trinidad a lot of people speak Spanish, I personally don’t but my mother is actually fluent in Spanish. I’ve got a Spanish tattoo [he points it on his arm].
What does it say - ‘Familia’?
Yes it means ‘family first’ in Spanish. I would love for Latin music to be more integrated that’s the only thing that’s lacking. We have got the African music doing wonders, Caribbean music obviously doing wonders, it always has been. But the other day I spoke to someone about British music and they said: ‘what do you think about Americans making garage?’
But actually garage is American, Americans invented it, we just adapted it and turned it into UK garage. It is good to actually know about music, where it comes from.
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You know Drake. In fact, the two of you are friends?
Yes he is cool, that’s my guy. It is mad isn’t it? It doesn’t sound real but I am friends with Drake.
Is the American market something you are keen to break into?
I’m not targeting it as such, but I always keep it in mind. I am interested in any market really but if I could pick one place outside the UK to be famous in it would be Japan and Asia. When I went there about three or four years ago, it was like there was a grime scene in Japan. When I went to Tokyo I had 250 people at a show. They didn’t speak English but they knew my lyrics and that literally blew my mind.
Did you have an interest in Japanese culture before you got the opportunity to experience it first hand?
Growing up I watched a lot of like Japanese Manga and Anime. I have even got a symbol on my hand so I’ve always been a fan. When I went there, it was a culture shock, it was like: this place is nothing like where I’m from.
To know that there are people who listen to my music in Japan is amazing, so that would be my main target, but America I always keep in mind.
How do you see British rap compared with American now?
It is like British rappers have a long history of trying their hardest to please Americans. I feel like that’s not the time anymore, we should just please ourselves and make the music what we want to make.
If you look at people like Drake and A$AP Rocky they acknowledge that we set the pace not only in terms of style but the culture as well.
Do you have new projects in the pipeline? Is there anything you can reveal?
Just more music. More shows of course. There will definitely be a lot of exciting things that I don’t think people see coming.
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Words: Susan Hansen