ICON: You’ve been dubbed as UK’s hottest grime and trap artists. What kind of sacrifices have you made to get to this point?
AJ Tracey: “I’ve had to cut friends off, I had to move areas, I had to cut women out of my life, I had to take a very harsh approach to my safety. Every day I have to make sacrifices. To be honest it was hard at the start. But not very hard now, I understand how it is. In order to be successful and make sure leave a legacy it has to be done.”
You come from London’s Ladbroke Grove. That can be a hard place to live and work. What was the turning point for you to step away from the cycle of poverty and write your own future?
“To be honest I was very fortunate that people wanted to listen to my music.”
AT: “It’s not really a choice, you’ve got to be lucky. If there is no luck in you, then it’s not going to happen. I don’t want to put all my success down to luck but I would say that what got me out of the cycle was the opportunity and taking it.”
What drew you to become an independent artist, rather than sign with a record label?
AT: “I would say because I had complete control, that’s the main thing. And then after that, the fact that I could put out music when I want, how I want. I don’t have to work with anyone specific, if there is someone I really want to work with even though people might say, ‘Oh but that’s not going to be a hit’, then it won’t be a hit. I understand it’s my job and I rely on the money, I’m better by myself.”
What lessons did you learn from that?
AT: “I think from the beginning because I’ve never been signed with a label, I learnt how to operate as an independent artist. I just kept running with that. I don’t really have anything to compare it to.”
You’ve worked with huge stars such as Stormzy and Skepta. What is the creative process with these collaborations?
“To be honest with Skepta, I just hit him up and said, ‘We should do something’. And he said, ‘Yeah, cool.’ “
AT: “If it’s an artist you don’t have a good relationship with, it’s a little bit more complicated but I only work with people I know and have a good relationship with.”
What has it been like having Stormzy as a mentor?
AT: “Obviously, we’re the same age so I wouldn’t say ‘mentor’ but as someone who gives me good advice, it has definitely been really helpful having someone there that has been through what I’m going through in my career. I’m lucky to have that because a lot of people don’t have that. Also, I consider him my friend. So it is nice to have someone I have a genuine relationship with as opposed to someone who has advice but isn’t really my friend.”
How has your music evolved since the early days?
AT: “I never knew I could sing – I can’t sing to be fair – but I never knew I could a hold a note (laughs). What else? I’m just trying new things. I’m very experimental nowadays. Before, I just wanted to stick to one song and not do anything experimental.”
When you first started it was predominately grime genre. You’ve branched out.
AT: “Yes, I’ve branched out and now I’m doing a mixed bag of things.”
Where do you look to for inspiration?
AT: “I look everywhere. I watch a lot of anime so I would put down that as my main inspiration. But also my family, my friends…”
Do you have a dream collaboration, someone you would really love to work with?
AT: “I don’t have a dream collaboration but someone who I really admire, her music at the moment is Clairo. I really want to make something with her.”
You’ve been very vocal in the past about what it is to be black youth in London. Do you see the problem getting any better? Or worse with the current powers in office?
AT: “I don’t want to get too political but obviously it has been a bit bleak. I don’t see it improving, I hope that something that we can work towards happening because at the moment it doesn’t look like it’s getting any better.
What needs to be done?
AT: “Set up more youth clubs, give more opportunities to young people and for more young people to be taken more seriously. People think if you’re not 30-years-old plus then your opinion doesn’t matter. It has been happening to me my whole life.”
What’s next for you in 2020?
AT: “Honestly, I just want more people to play my music. That’s that.”