Life & Culture

Talking Politics Over PlayStation with AJ Tracey

As his new single Ladbroke Grove, a love letter to west London, is released, Shannon Mahanty sits down to play some Fortnite and Fifa with AJ Tracey

The first thing I see in AJ Tracey’s apartment is a corridor full of shoes. Air Jordans and box-fresh, bright white Nikes litter the floor, and as AJ – real name Ché Wolton Grant – leads me through to an open-plan kitchen and living room, he resumes his place in front of an impressively large TV.

To be fair, Tracey deserves some downtime. This year alone he’s sold out Brixton Academy (twice), toured Europe and Australia and landed a top five with his self-titled debut album, an ambitious project that spans grime, garage and even country influences. His musical polymathy makes sense for an artist who grew up surrounded by juxtaposing influences. His father is a Trinidadian rapper, and his mother is a Welsh pirate radio DJ.

Influenced by his mother’s world, as an aspiring rapper Tracey spent his teenage years doing pirate radio circuits, performing freestyles while uploading tracks to Soundcloud. After a slew of EPs, a viral hit Thiago Silva with the rapper Dave, and a standout freestyle on Radio 1’s Fire in the Booth series, AJ Tracey cemented his status as one of the UK’s most exciting rap talents.

Despite a hectic schedule, when he’s not riding camels around Morocco’s Atlas mountains for his latest video or tearing up Brixton and beyond, Tracey is a revered gamer, often teaming up with his fans to play Fifa or Fortnite, a Hunger Games-esque battle for survival. After a few rounds on his most prized posession, west London’s most dexterous rapper takes a break and opens up about politics, garage and gaming.

AJ Tracey: OK, for Fortnite I’ll give you a two out of five stars because you’re good at choosing your character outfit. It takes months to get good. Fifa, four out of five stars. I won, but you almost scored!

Shannon Mahanty: Thanks, I’ll keep practicing. Let’s talk about your latest single, Ladbroke Grove. It feels like a love letter to west London...

AJT: The inspiration was the predominantly white estate I grew up on, the theme music of my area was UK garage blaring out of people’s houses. I love my area and I picked the name so that every time someone on the radio says, ‘here’s AJ Tracey’s new song’, they have to say ‘Ladbroke Grove’.

SM: From grime moments to garage inspired tracks, your album [AJ Tracey] has a lot of different sounds. What’s the story behind Country Star?

AJT: Listen, when I made that song, Old Town Road didn’t exist! We’d already reached out to this label saying we want Billy Ray Cyrus on Country Star. They considered it but said he didn’t want to do anything before he drops his new project. My theory – I don’t know if it’s true so don’t take my word for it – is that the label who put Billy Ray Cyrus on Old Town Road went to this kid and said “AJ wants to do this, you should do it instead”.

SM: It doesn’t need Billy Ray Cyrus on it!

AJT: It doesn’t, but actually it does because it gives it a genuine, stamp of approval from the country world. Because Billy Ray, he’s the man.

SM: Why country in the first place?

AJT: Young Thug did it first that’s where I got my inspiration from. I think it’s cool to do things that are unexpected. I love the juxtaposition.

SM: Where do you think that comes from?

AJT: I don’t know. I like doing things that are to the left. When I was younger my music was a lot more angry and aggressive, now I like to be innovative.

AM: Why were you making angry music?

AJT: Because I was angry at life. I was angry about my situation, my family life, everything. My music reflected that; why am I broke? Why is everyone else not broke? The area I grew up in is the hood and it’s right next to billionaires’ houses. We had to look at rich people everyday and not have anything, so I was angry at that, I think everyone in my area was. I didn’t think I’d really amount to anything, so I was living recklessly because it didn’t make a difference. I knew I could make music but I didn’t know it was going to work. I didn’t think I’d have a house and a fucking diamond chain and be talking about getting dogs and shit!

SM: When did you start making music?

AJT: I’ve been writing since I was six. My dad was a rapper so I used to listen to him and his friends. When I was 11, I started performing in youth clubs like Seven Feathers which was on the estate we used to live on. It’s still there thankfully, but the name has changed.

SM: Did you experience youth clubs closing down? Last year, an enquiry into London’s youth services found that 81 clubs and youth council projects had closed since 2011. 

AJT: No, it happened after I’d stopped going to them, but it’s really sad. Part of the problem we have with these youths running around trying to kill everyone is because there’s nothing for them to do. There’s nowhere safe for them to go, youth clubs were literally that safe haven and by the government taking the funding away from youth work, you’re just making things worse and blaming the kids for a problem they created, it’s insane.

SM: You’ve spoken out in the past about the housing crisis, would you say you’re very politically engaged?

AJT: It comes from my mum. She named me Ché after Ché Guevara.

SM: What other changes do you hope to see in the future?

AJT: So much. More youth clubs and more opportunities for young people, I think that private education shouldn’t exist because it takes resources from state schools. I’d ban private funding for political parties because obviously that’s corrupt, I’d decriminalise all drugs like in Portugal. If someone’s taking heroine, are they really a criminal? They have a problem that you need to help them with, not put them in jail. Sending someone to jail for weed has to be the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Sending a kid who potentially just likes to smoke a bit of pot to jail to meet other criminals, to link up and become a better criminal makes no sense. And now you’ve ruined his chances of getting a job, so when he gets out of jail he has to be a criminal. I think everyone who’s ever been to jail for weed should get their charges wiped, it’s not that serious.

SM: Anything else?

AJT: Free haircuts. That’s a big thing when you’re a little kid. When you can’t afford a proper haircut and everyone starts mocking you. If you had a bowl cut at school you’d get bullied.

SM: Finally, you’re playing Glastonbury next week, how are you feeling about it?

AJT: I can’t wait. It’s my favourite part of doing music. I love festivals, it’s just a different experience. Whatever energy you give, they’ll give you back. Shout out the little white kids at the front who everyone hates on, they’re always the one’s really going for it. That’s what I love, that’s what makes me smile. People ask, “why has AJ got such a good billing on this line-up?” If you come to one of my shows, you’re going to understand why.

Ladbroke Grove by AJ Tracey is out now.