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Off The Record: Meet AJ Tracey

Off The Record: Meet AJ Tracey

Self-assured, reserved, and well over 6 feet tall, AJ Tracey cuts a pretty imposing figure on set. As it turns out, when you look beyond the brooding rap-star exterior, he’s really just a guy waiting for his Nandos to arrive. We’re at an east London studio to shoot the FLANNELS AW19 campaign which features Tracey and fellow London artist, Raye. The studio is the other side of the city to his home in west London, and a last-minute request comes in from his manager for a specific class of Mercedes to pick him up from his gaff. Not because he’s a diva, we realise – just because he’s tall. Leg room is key.

Spacious transport secured, Tracey is laid-back and opens up when we talk, but you get the sense that there are better things he could be doing with his time. Like selling out Ally Pally or the Brixton Academy (twice), recording dancehall-inspired Butterflies in his living room with fellow MC Not3s, or spitting rhymes for another smash-hit like this summer’s chart-topping Ladbroke Grove. The song hits rewind on the mutation of garage into grime with a nostalgic two-step beat and a melodious female voice singing over Tracey’s hyped-up party-time rap. It was a genre people seemed to have forsaken, but the track’s top-5 chart position proves that UKG still has mileage – in the right hands.

AJ Tracey wearing an all-over GG Captain Gucci denim jacket layered over a dark blue Gucci tennis polo shirt with Gucci web strip track pants
AJ Tracey wearing an all-over GG Captain Gucci denim jacket layered over a dark blue Gucci tennis polo shirt with Gucci web strip track pants

Tracey grew up on an estate in the song’s namesake area of London, with garage blasting from the stereos of his neighbours. The son of a Trinidadian rapper and a Welsh pirate radio DJ, music runs in the family and Tracey is unfazed by the restrictions of genre that often define an artist. Whilst he’s faithful to his grime roots, his influences range from bashment to dance, hip hop to soca and country. Much like him, his music defies lazy categorisation.

Whilst Tracey and his lyrics tick a fair few archetypal rap-star boxes – designer labels, diamond chains and fast cars – he also has a track record of backing his local community and grafting hard alongside his peers. This combination made Tracey an obvious partner for the FLANNELS AW19 campaign, designed to celebrate London’s creative community at the launch of our London flagship store. Bonus points for dressing with as much skill and dexterity as he can rap – as his says on his eponymous album's second track "I'm in Off-White, I hit the jackpot". At the shoot, his eyes visibly light up at certain pieces hanging on our stylist’s rail. On the flip side, his look of disappointment when something isn’t to his taste cuts deep. After a quick change into Gucci, London’s most versatile rapper sits down to talk grafting, garage and the greatest city on earth.

A close-up of rapper AJ Tracey's face wearing an all-over green moster-print Prada short-sleeved shirt
A close-up of rapper AJ Tracey's face wearing an all-over green moster-print Prada short-sleeved shirt


How has being born and raised in London shaped you?

This city, in my opinion, is the greatest city in the whole world, the most fashion forward. It's just so multicultural, you get an aspect of every single different type of life and that kind of plays a part in my music and I kind of draw from different experiences and upbringings to put into my music.

When did you start making music?

I started making music when I was six years old, obviously not very coherently but I tried. I took it really seriously when I was about 19, when I was 19 I was like, “right I want to be a rapper and how can I go about doing this?” It really took off for me when I was 21. So 19 to 21, grafting, 21, I started taking off and then we are here today.

What's the story behind your song Ladbroke Grove?

I'm from Ladbroke Grove and the area is, like I told you, super multicultural. I would say Notting Hill is the most multicultural place in Europe, in my opinion. Obviously, Ladbroke Grove consists of loads of different areas, Golborne Road being one of them, and Golborne Road has a massive Moroccan community. I was raised in Notting Hill, I went to Holland Park Secondary School and most of my friends are Moroccan, that's why I shot the video in Morocco. If you're from West London you understand why.

The song is UK Garage, I thought it would be nice to bring some garage back. I didn't really care about whether people took to it or not, as I know garage is not for this musical climate, but it’s something that I like so I wanted to put some garage on my debut album. I was brought up on garage, so I was like “yeah lets do it”, and it went really well. That’s the story behind it, it’s my area and I’m sharing some love from where I'm from.

AJ Tracey with his arms open wearing an orange and brown paintball Stone Island pullover jacket with the hood up
AJ Tracey with his arms open wearing an orange and brown paintball Stone Island pullover jacket with the hood up


What are your biggest musical influences?

James Brown, LL Cool J, Mobb Deep, Bob Marley, Vybz Kartel, basically people from every single genre. I couldn't single out a genre and say this is my main influence. I listen to UK garage, I got brought up on old school hip hop, dance, I'm from Trinidad so soca music, everything really.

What was it like growing up in a musical environment?

Very noisy for one. My mum is a legend, she's my rock, she's who I aspire to be like, my dad obviously was a rapper. I think I'm a better rapper than my dad, but he led the way and obviously I'm grateful for him. Yeah a very musical family, my brother is a producer, my cousin’s an MC as well, so all of us make music, and I think it’s a happy environment. Music makes people happy, so I'm grateful to have had that kind of upbringing and I'm lucky.

Is it important to you that your sound is surprising?

To be honest, I just love taking left turns, everyone assuming I’m going to do this, then I just go and do that. That is the most exciting part of my job, because I don't have to do what anyone wants me to do. I don’t purposefully just rebel – I do left turns on purpose, I'll be listening to some country music or country influence and then I’ll try my hand at that and if someone says that I shouldn't do it, that encourages me to do it more, to prove a point. Some people are saying to me “garage is cool, people like it, but it’s really not for this type of climate”, and we've been in the charts for like 27 weeks now. We've done alright.

AJ Tracey wearing a black long-sleeved Off-White arrow-print T-shirt with black Off-White trousers and black Off-White high top 3.0 trainers with orange tags
AJ Tracey wearing a black long-sleeved Off-White arrow-print T-shirt with black Off-White trousers and black Off-White high top 3.0 trainers with orange tags


Tell us about your career highlights so far

My two biggest career highlights are having a conversation with my mum about buying her a house. My mum’s a legend, she's my rock, and I was like how can I give my mum back something after what she's given me? Just being able to do that and make my family financially stable, that’s my number one.

My second is probably the first time I got booked for a festival. I could go and show all my family I’m going to be at this festival and be on this TV programme and they understood that it was going to work out.

What role do fashion and clothes play in your life?

A big role. When I was in school, even though we had to wear a uniform, I was always finding ways to make my uniform look a little bit different to everyone else's. Instead of wearing shoes I was wearing Air Forces, and I used to split the little edges of my trousers, cut the seams and stuff to make flares. I’ve always been interested in fashion, it’s a good way of expressing yourself and even if you're wearing the same thing as someone else, the way you wear it is your expression. So yeah, fashion is a big deal to me.

Who are the most stylish men in the music industry?

Who do I think are the most stylish men? I think Skepta is very stylish, I think ASAP Rocky is quite stylish, I think I'm quite stylish.

How are you feeling about performing live at Alexandra Palace?

Yeah excited, really, really excited. I just did Brixton in March which is five thousand, give or take and Ally Pally is double that. We did one night in Brixton and we'll be doing two at Ally Pally, so the progression is quite big. I'm excited, it should be fun for everyone who is coming.

AJ Tracey wearing a grey Tom Ford chunky knit turte neck jumper
AJ Tracey wearing a grey Tom Ford chunky knit turte neck jumper

QUICKFIRE ROUND:

How would your friends describe you?

Loud, bossy, a leader.

Song that plays when you enter the club?

Gunna, Almighty

Your biggest indulgence?

Video games

Your favourite place in London?

West London, Ladbroke Grove

Your favourite album?

Nas, Illmatic

What did you do on your last day off?

Played Fortnite

Photography: Ben Morris, Interview: Florence Trott, Fashion: Karen Clarkson, Fashion Assistant: Gemma Baguley, Grooming: Teiji Utsumi, Makeup: Ammy Drammeh, Art Direction: Gini May, Set Design: Ian CY & Bryony Edwards, Production: Carley Bishop