AJ TRACEY interview – Evening Standard, 25 Jan 2019

It may be mid-January but it’s still Christmas in AJ Tracey’s Chelsea flat. There’s one tree in his hall and another drawing attention away from the enormous TV in the living room. The bigger one’s ongoing presence tells us a few things about the west London rapper: how busy he is, his ballooning status and his disinclination towards too much forward planning. It’s from Harrods, as is every gleaming decoration, and one of the reasons it’s still up is that he neglected to keep the packaging to protect them for next year.

“I know it looks ridiculous to have a Christmas tree up, honestly,” he says. “Basically I went to Argos and bought a tree – the one you saw in the hall – and then my friends were like, ‘Bruv, you’re like, rich now so why do you have this shit tree? That’s not what celebrities are meant to have.’ I was like, ‘Well what are they meant to have?’ So we went to Harrods.”

He’s proud of it, giving me a brief tutorial on bauble placement. “You get the big ones to fill the inside, then the hanging ones are for the lower outside, and the signature pieces go towards the top. Look at that bell with the little bear in it. That actually works. Jiggle it! That’s sick, innit!”

It may still be standing by the summer, looking at the 24-year-old’s schedule. His debut album is released next month, he plays the 100 Club the same week, then he heads out on a UK tour of major venues including Brixton Academy in March. The self-titled album should secure his status as one of the booming London rap scene’s most popular acts, following both his Secure the Bag! EP and his single Butterflies into the top 20 at least.

“I remember tweeting saying, ‘I’m the most versatile rapper in London,’ which I definitely believe with my heart and soul. Hopefully the album proves it,” he says. “There’s grime on there, there’s a garage song on there, there are American-influenced tracks. The one I’m about to drop, I don’t know what you’d call it. There’s one on there called Country Star which is my take on country music.”

Before you start picturing this tall, bearded, mixed race Londoner in a stetson, line-dancing across a barn, by “country music” he means it has a melancholy acoustic guitar on it. He also thinks people will be surprised by the amount that he sings on the 15-track collection. “At one point about 90 per cent of the album was singing. Then I reconsidered. It’s a bit cheeky as a rapper to make a singing album,” he says. “A lot of my fans want easily digestible music, which I’m not really prepared to give anyone, ever. That’s just trash. That’s boring.”

He’s certainly brimming with confidence, as fans will have already ascertained from the lyrics to his recent single, the rapidfire grime track Doing It: “Now I gotta house in the west/Now I put the ice on my chest/Now I got plaques on the wall/Now I never answer a call.” I check for the plaques and there’s a decent selection: MTV’s Brand New award for the artist most likely to succeed in 2017, plus Track of the Year at the Rated Awards and silver and gold discs, all for Butterflies, his smooth, melodic collaboration with Not3s.

He’s also self-assured enough to appear on his album sleeve without the traditional excessive jewellery, looking pensive while holding a pygmy goat. He conducts our interview in his favoured relaxation pose: side-on, playing the popular survival video game Fortnite, with both feet tucked into a single pink furry slipper in the shape of a love heart. He plays as a female character because they have the best outfits, and has been known to give out his gamer tag to play online with fans. For a while he couldn’t do it because he had so many friend requests that the game kept crashing.

When it’s not Fortnite it’s FIFA for this zealous Spurs fan, whose work with the club and with Nike enables him to take his younger brother to a box for the home games. One of his biggest songs is a collaboration with fellow rapper Dave titled Thiago Silva, after the Brazilian defender. I ask him which team he would be if his music career was a football club, and of course he answers Tottenham. “Like Tottenham, people sleep on me but they can see I’m one of the best. They’re thinking, ‘Can he do the mad ting? Maybe he can and maybe he can’t. But he’s got all the makings of the best.’”

Tracey grew up in Ladbroke Grove, christened Che Wolton Grant after Che Guevara. “My mum wanted me to be as left as possible,” he says. He appeared in a video shared by the Labour Party just before the 2017 election, expressing his support for Jeremy Corbyn. “I did the Labour thing because I wanted my community to be better off. I’m pretty sure people are aware of the kind of money I make. I’m not telling people to vote Labour to benefit me,” he tells me. “I had loads of kids Snapping me and DM-ing me saying, ‘I’m making my mum vote Labour because of you.’ I feel like I genuinely made a difference in the area.” Maybe he did – Labour’s Emma Dent Coad defeated Kensington’s Conservative MP Victoria Borwick by just 20 votes.

Rapping was in his blood. He says he started at six. His Trinidadian dad was a rapper too. “He had a pretty high charting video on MTV. He did all right. But everyone asks me who my dad is and I will never reveal it. It’s too much ammunition for the internet.”

His Welsh mum sounds even cooler. “She did pirate radio, she used to row for the Olympic team, she trained as a pilot, she had a Harley-Davidson. Now she’s a youth worker, helping impoverished kids get into a good position. She’s an all-round wonder woman to be honest.”

After putting various songs on Soundcloud, Tracey got his break on the radio, making appearances on Sian Anderson’s BBC 1Xtra show and Sir Spyro’s show on Rinse FM in mid-2015. Then he started going on Mode FM in Enfield, driving across London for a 2am show sparring with other rappers and getting home at 6am. He completed one year of a Criminology degree at London Metropolitan University, but music was the real goal.

A tongue-twisting turn on Charlie Sloth’s freestyle challenge Fire in the Booth in February 2016 got more people talking. By the following year he was infiltrating the top 40 without signing a record deal. “Because I’m independent, it’s a lot more of an achievement to be doing what I’m doing. I don’t have a big machine behind me. The big machine would love to have me, but for now anyway, that’s not the angle,” he says. “Getting to number 19 with Butterflies – that to me is as good as a number one because I know, with label backing, it would have been number one.”

In another life, he would have liked to be a footballer, but at least he’s got footballers for neighbours in his brand new block, and can mix in that world of high worth men who can blow their money on baubles.

“Footballers and rappers have a bond,” he says. “A lot of rappers when they were younger used to play football, and a lot of footballers used to rap. We might wonder what it would feel like to score a goal in the 90th minute for England. But a lot of footballers imagine what it’s like, instead of being one of 11 people on the pitch taking the glory, being one person on a stage with everyone there for you. I’m not complaining.”

AJ Tracey’s self-titled album is released on Feb 8.

He plays the 100 club on Feb 12 for War Child Brits Week (britsweekwarchild.co.uk) and O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 on March 23 (o2academybrixton.co.uk)