AJ Tracey on BRED, Britishness and The Beautiful Game

Ahead of his performance at BRED Festival, Hypebeast spoke with AJ Tracey about taking West London to the world and some exclusive insights into his new album.

Music 
2,756 Hypes

Whenever you hear AJ Tracey on the mic, you know he’s representing West London.

After bringing back UK Garage with Conducta-produced anthem “Ladbroke Grove” – a track that stamped his hometown with a Triple Platinum record –AJ and his West London friends and family have continued to set the pace for trends that the rest of the world have followed.

Speaking from his home over Zoom, Hypebeast caught AJ in a reflective mood ahead of the release of his eagerly-anticipated third album. The rapper has been living it up in the build-up, where he’s been shutting down tour dates all over the globe. But having just turned 30, AJ is at a different point in life to when he first blew up, with an increased sense of humility when talking about his journey so far.

AJ’s meteoric route to the top of the UK rap game has gone by like a blur, with a flurry of fire freestyles like “Packages” building up his momentum and taste-making from early on, as one of the first rappers to spit grime flows over a drill beat.

AJ has gone on to drop plenty of smash singles and hit records ever since. Having flown the flag for his area with UK rap classics like “Spirit Bomb” and “Thiago Silva”, AJ now finds himself surrounded by greatness on his side of the capital.

AJ’s next album continues to celebrate this unrelenting energy, while also focusing on his unique perspective of Britishness. While AJ is quick to point out the UK’s dark history, he has been a part of a creative scene in West London doing the nation proud on the world stage – breaking down doors with a unique blend of multiculturalism, diligence and innovation.

AJ tells us how West’s creative scene is getting the respect it deserves. “Clint is manifesting everything he’s set out to do – I’d liken him to West London’s Kanye,” AJ tells us, “Clint is tight with Ellis (Gilbert), they came up together, I feel like he’s West London’s Virgil. Then you’ve got Walid (Labri) killing it… he’s our Spielberg. When you see a visual he’s done, you know what to expect.”

Having put his area on the map, AJ is continuing to take his sound international – and the next stop on his global takeover is BRED Festival, Abu Dhabi. Ahead of his performance at BRED, Hypebeast spoke with AJ Tracey about West London taking over the world, the lessons he’s learnt on his journey to the top, putting on for the UK whenever, wherever, and what we can expect from his next album.

Hypebeast: Hi AJ. Now, we know your affinity with Spurs runs deep. Are you loving life under Ange Postecoglu right now?

AJ Tracey: 100%. I was actually just out in Australia… the fans were lit as per usual, I love going over there. I went to some vintage football shirt shop out there – and all the Spurs shirts are gone because of Ange.

Football shirts are becoming an essential part of the streetwear uniform now. Do you have any shirts that have a special sentimental value to you?

Bro, there are a few – but I’ll give you my top three. The Spurs ‘Pony’ shirt, that kit is from when I was a little kid, and the first kit my dad got me – that’s when he told me “This is you for the rest of your life”, and when I realised I was doomed for this life [laughs].

Another one is attached to more memories: a Korea Home kit, that I got gifted by the club when Spurs went out to South Korea on tour during pre-season a few years ago. I’ve always worked with Spurs closely, but that was the moment where I felt like I’d become a part of the furniture. I was chilling with Kane, chilling with Sonny… it was proper lit. Then the last one, I took my Mrs to watch a couple of England games during the last EUROs. Reece James, my darg, sorted me a shirt from that tournament signed by the whole team – that’s a cold one.

But I’ve got loads man… I’ve got a signed Thiago Silva shirt, which is a full-circle moment after the track. I turned 30 the other day and the whole Spurs team signed a shirt for me, that’s a nice one as well.

I feel like the last sort of 12 months for you in particular you’ve done a lot of travelling and a lot of side quests all over the world. Where’s your favourite place you’ve visited in that time?

It’s got to be Japan, or New York. If I don’t live in London in the future, it’ll either be Tokyo or New York.

The love in New York is just different. I was walking around on a casual one, and I just headed into a bodega there and the shopkeeper starting bugging out. He was like “Broooo, keep f*cking sh*t up! AJ Tracey in my shop?! Where’s the new music?”… [laughs] The love was real, bro. Then on the other side, Tokyo just feels like such a tranquil place to me bro.

I think we’ve felt that stateside connection to your music for a while – and Japan has definitely had a big impact on your music as well…

Bro I’m a proper weeb [laughs] but for me it’s a bit deeper than that. A lot of people get confused and think Japan is just anime. But there’s so much more to Japan than that, of course – a lot of Japanese people don’t even watch anime like that.

For me, I love the culture in Japan – the way they get things done, the way they care about the environment, it’s just different. The other day, I saw a video of someone moving a tree out there. In the UK, we’d just cut it down – but in Japan, they dig the tree up by the roots and replant the tree. That for me showcased how beautiful their culture is and the level of respect and care they have for things.

You’re going to be doing more travelling soon too, with a headline performance in Abu Dhabi at Bred. Are you looking forward to performing there?

Of course bro. It’s a beautiful place. Every time I go to the UAE, they treat me with the utmost respect – I love it over there. Bred allows me to perform like I do in the UK and bring that energy out there.
 
I think it’s a proper up-and-coming place for live shows at the minute, as well as sport. I think that’s sick, particularly for me growing up in a very Muslim area. The majority of my friends and a lot of my family are Muslim. It’s really nice that Islamic countries can showcase their culture to the West with events like this, and they can really understand what it’s about, rather than what they may have seen on the news. It allows people to explore cultures while breaking down any preconceptions they might have had.

“I went from not being able to afford school uniform and living in poverty to living in a penthouse in Chelsea. But I wish that I lived in the moment that bit more. I sort of numbed myself to all the litness… it all just hits you when you grow older.”

We know you’re gifted for creating moments at festivals – with Glastonbury the obvious example of that. Are there any other moments at a festival that have felt particularly special to you over the years?

I’m not even saying this to try and sound like a hippie, but every single festival is special to me. I can’t do this forever – and I’m grateful I can even do this at all, so they all feel special to me. 

But if I could name one, it would probably be at Woo-Ha! in 2018, when I was like 23. Having five, six-thousand people all mosh-pitting from the from to the back, within eyesight, was just crazy. I will never take that for granted.

Of course, there’s plenty more of that to come – are you feeling in a sentimental place right now, having just turned 30? I feel like that’s a time in life when you’re naturally more reflective than you’ve ever been.

Oh yeah, exactly what you’ve just said, that’s how I feel. I just want to stay grateful and enjoy it while I’m in the moment, you know? We’re gonna look back and be like “ah, that was so lit,” so just being able to do that is a blessing.

All these fleeting moments, you’ve got to live in them, and cherish them. I feel like a couple of other rappers need to take heed of that feeling, too. We’re not gonna be here forever.

“We brought UK Garage back. I don’t there’s anyone that can argue with that statement. “Ladbroke Grove” is the highest-selling UK Garage record, ever.”

Being present in here and now is important, it allows you to appreciate life that bit more…

Yeah man on a sidebar, if someone’s lit, just come out of the trenches and killing it, do your thing bro. I remember when I first started “making it,” my life was a total 180. I went from not being able to afford school uniform and living in poverty to living in a penthouse in Chelsea. But I do really wish even then that I lived in the moment that bit more. I sort of numbed myself to all the litness… it all just hits you when you grow older.

You’re close to so many guys that are having that moment now. West London is having a moment right now – with Clint and Corteiz, Walid Labri’s directing, Ellis Gilbert with Talk Nice… what do you think about the creative energy emanating out of your area at the minute?

To be honest bro, West has always been – in my biased opinion – at the forefront of a lot of things. West London is different from anywhere else in the city. We go about things differently. Living in Ladbroke Grove like me, or Kilburn, Shepherds Bush… even if you live in poverty, you’re living next to extreme wealth. That carves out a certain mentality – and that’s why we care so much about being fly over here.

We didn’t care about beefing people, or being the baddest, we care about being fly, girls respecting our ting. That matters to us. West London is like Harlem, bro. We wanna be well-presented, and clean. Whether it’s in our visuals, or with our clothes, it’s always just clean.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by AJ Tracey (@ajtracey)

That Harlem comparison is an interesting one, I’ve never heard that before… so do you think West London has this same, aspirational quality to it?

Yeah, I feel like we share the same motivation – money. When you don’t have the right clothes and rips in your uniform, you don’t feel good, or confident. Confidence breeds success – it makes you feel like that guy who can make it happen. Honourable shout out to Ellis Gilbert as well, he’s one of those guys that has been dressing well, forever. When it comes to setting pace and setting trends, Ellis is one of them guys. 

“When you don’t have the right clothes and rips in your uniform, you don’t feel good, or confident. Confidence breeds success – it makes you feel like that guy who can make it happen.”

How much does it mean to you to see guys like Ellis, your cousin Big Zuu and others shining right now?

Zuu is BAFTA-nominated, he’s going crazy right now. Clint with Corteiz – I don’t know how he’d feel about me saying this, but I’d liken him to our Kanye bro – he’s setting pace for fashion. He’s referencing his own work and manifesting things like he did. He’s in a position to make his old dreams a reality now. Clint is tight with Ellis, they came up together, I feel like he’s West London’s Virgil, rest in peace. Ellis is trying to help everyone and join the dots. He’s everyone’s friend, all about community, and brings in as many people as possible. Then you’ve got Walid (Labri) killing it… he’s our Spielberg. When you see a visual he’s done, you know what to expect. It’s nuts, but it’s making sense. 

Another friend of yours, Conducta, produced your biggest track to date, “Ladbroke Grove,” which put your area on the map to the world as a Platinum record. Do you think that helped lead a UK Garage resurgence in recent years?

I’m gonna be completely honest and not mince my words here. We brought Garage back. I don’t there’s anyone that can argue with that statement. It’s the highest-selling Garage record, ever. It’s funny ‘cos when I first rang Conducta, I knew he was the only guy whom I felt could do it authentically. But when I started sharing the track, the majority of people around me were like “it’s an OK track, but you could do better.” 

But me and Conducta knew what it was bro. People had their doubts… but I really knew it was gonna connect when I saw Mostack and Dave share the track and say it was hard. Dave, you know nothing more needs to be said about his influence. But Mostack? He’s got one of the most musically gifted ears in the UK – so to hear that from him was special. 

“Ladbroke Grove” taught me a lot, too. A lot of young rappers need to realise that a song can be bigger than you – so you need to work on having a catalogue of music.

<q<”Clint with Corteiz – I don’t know how he’d feel about me saying this, but I’d liken him to our Kanye bro – he’s setting pace for fashion. He’s referencing his own work and manifesting things in real life. He’s in a position to make his old dreams a reality now.”

Everyone is excited to hear your catalogue of music expand. I’m hearing there’s an album in the works… can you tell us any more about it?

The album is almost done, bro. I can’t say too much, but I’ll tell you what I can. So firstly, there aren’t too many features on it. It’s mostly AJ music. But I’ll tell you a few of the features. One is with MTP, the collective I’ve been with from the jump, and the other is with Jorja Smith. That track isn’t another garage joint – but it’s a banger. 

The other thing I can say, is the theme of the album: it’s what it’s like to be British. For me personally bro, I feel like I represent the UK in music well. No matter what song I’m on, you can tell it’s AJ on the rhythm. I’ve been giving out a couple features recently, some French, German, American ones – but when I jump on, it sounds like UK on the track. 

If I do a song with Jay Critch or Kelahni or T Pain, or Denzel Curry and Rick Ross, Missy Elliot, Amine… there’s always a tinge of UK, because of the way I deliver a verse. 

“West has always been at the forefront of a lot of things… even if you live in poverty, you’re living next to extreme wealth. That carves out a certain mentality – and that’s why we care so much about being fly over here.”

Is that something you’ve always wanted to do with your music?

The first album was me just saying I’m ‘AJ Tracey’ – that was the intro. The second album was a concept album – I think a lot of the casual listeners weren’t ready for a themed album in my personal opinion. But a concept album was good – it showed that we’re growing the UK rap culture because now, other rappers feel like they can do a concept album.

But this album is about being Black and British, and being mixed race and British. It’s different from just being straight Black and British, as I’ve lived a different experience. People forget I’m half-white – so my experience of growing up as a mixed race Brit is channelled into the album.

It’s a lot more vulnerable as a result, and there’s a lot of growth with the music, too. That’s what I always try and do with my music: grow. My favourite UK artist ever is Skepta, and whenever he drops a new album or project, I’m always looking to hear that growth in his music, and he delivers every time. 

Is Skepta someone you look up to a lot?

I always click play on Skepta music and hope I can learn something new about – luckily for me, I have the fortune of being a friend of his now. But I’m still listening to hear if I can hear some growth, as a listener, or consumer. When I was younger, I might have said some things that weren’t quite correct – but as I’m growing I’m acknowledging my wrongs.

What are the sonics we can expect from the album? 

It’s gonna be strictly British genres. You might hear some Jersey breakdowns, because I love the Jersey wave, but yeah there are elements of garage, grime, funky house… It’s strictly UK.

Finally, with the album being centred on Britishness, what does being British mean to you?

Being British to me… you’ve got to be careful when you talk about this topic because, in my personal opinion, the UK has a dark history. So when I’m representing the UK, I’m talking about the best things about this country in the present and future.

London is the most multicultural city on the planet – and Ladbroke Grove is at the heart of that. The next generation in the UK can set pace and show people how things are meant to be done – it’s our job to use my artistry to show how people should be conducting themselves. That’s what I wanna do with this album.

Read Full Article

What to Read Next

‘Football’ Documents North Africa and the Middle East’s Love for the Beautiful Game
Art

‘Football’ Documents North Africa and the Middle East’s Love for the Beautiful Game

Published by MIDDLE EAST ARCHIVE.

Urs Fischer Meditates on the Ephemerality of ‘Beauty’ in Gagosian Exhibition
Art

Urs Fischer Meditates on the Ephemerality of ‘Beauty’ in Gagosian Exhibition

On view in Paris until May 25.

Inside The Met's 'Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion' Exhibition
Fashion

Inside The Met's 'Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion' Exhibition

Featuring 220 garments and accessories spanning four different centuries in the Museum’s collection.


Burberry's Spring 2024 Campaign Embraces Natural British Beauty
Fashion 

Burberry's Spring 2024 Campaign Embraces Natural British Beauty

Starring Bukayo Saka, Jourdan Dunn, Ramla Ali, and more.

Dr. Martens’ Genix Nappa Line Takes Sustainability Into Its Own Hands
Footwear 

Dr. Martens’ Genix Nappa Line Takes Sustainability Into Its Own Hands

Hypebeast caught up with Chief Product Officer Adam Meek to discuss the brand’s new eco-friendly collection and its most progressive styles to date.

Official Images of This Year's Nike KD 4 "Nerf"
Footwear

Official Images of This Year's Nike KD 4 "Nerf"

Another fan-favorite colorway of the KD 4 is returning later this year.

Check Out the LEGO 'Star Wars' May the 4th Lineup
Toys

Check Out the LEGO 'Star Wars' May the 4th Lineup

Featuring a new UCS TIE Interceptor, a Mod Espa Podrace Diorama and a $150 USD coffee table book.

A "Jade Horizon" Reaches Across the Nike Zoom Vomero 5
Footwear

A "Jade Horizon" Reaches Across the Nike Zoom Vomero 5

Another spring-ready colorway for the popular runner.

New Balance Unveils the KAWHI IV
Footwear

New Balance Unveils the KAWHI IV

Kawhi Leonard’s fourth signature shoe releases next week.


Triennale Paints a Portrait of the Enigmatic Alessandro Mendini in New Retrospective Exhibition
Art

Triennale Paints a Portrait of the Enigmatic Alessandro Mendini in New Retrospective Exhibition

The show features over 400 works, spanning painting, sculpture, installation, film and more.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to Receive Signature Shoe With Converse Next Year
Footwear

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to Receive Signature Shoe With Converse Next Year

According to NBA insider Shams Charania, who noted SGA will also become the creative director of Converse Basketball.

Bodega x Heineken Strip Down the Smartphone: Presenting the "Boring Phone"
Tech & Gadgets

Bodega x Heineken Strip Down the Smartphone: Presenting the "Boring Phone"

No emails, apps or internet access.

Dior and Parley for the Oceans Reunite for Third Beachwear Capsule
Fashion

Dior and Parley for the Oceans Reunite for Third Beachwear Capsule

Crafted from eco-certified textiles and Parley for the Oceans’ ocean plastic fabric.

Official Look at the Nike Kobe 8 Protro "Mambacita"
Footwear

Official Look at the Nike Kobe 8 Protro "Mambacita"

The third pair serving as a tribute to Gigi Bryant.

More ▾