In conversation: AJ Tracey's relentless independence


It's 1997; game 5 of the NBA championship. Michael Jordan, unwell after a sudden bout of the flu (though it was later admitted to be food poisoning), is told by his entire medical team that he’s unable to play; leaving his team without their star player at their most crucial point. Persisting through, Jordan did the unthinkable and not only made it on court, but scored 37 points and the match, in what would forever be immortalised as the legendary ‘flu game’.

AJ Tracey, UK grime star, rapper, performer, artist and writer, knows what happens when you mix doubt with pressure. Part of a new generation of independent UK stars finding global success (including Stormzy and Dave), Tracey’s sudden rise to global fame as an independent artist has raised a lot of questions of dealing with success and integrity in the business. Do you keep your sound rough or try out a more palatable sheen? Do you write lyrics to be relatable, or aspirational? Do you try and win new fans, or retain the OG ones?
Ahead of a new album, titled ‘Flu Game’ (as well as its own custom merch line 'Revenge Athletic') out April 16th and an Australian tour in 2022, we posed the question of what one does when you’ve got limitless options, and how the BRIT and NME-award nominated, double-platinum artist looks outside of music to stay inspired. 
AJ, this album is crazy. Tell me about the Flu Game and why you decided to name this album after it. 
The actual Flu Game…you know, Jordan was dropping points left and right, and people were like: ‘Can this guy do this forever? Can he keep doing it?’ He obviously has been on now and he had a stomach ache. At the time people thought he had the flu, and regardless he was ill, he was shaking and had a towel over his head. But he was still dropping all the points and most people would drop even on their best day. For me it just says that he used the people’s hate and the doubt and this and that to crack on and cut through and do what he usually does, and that's what I’m doing. 
People just doubted me when I was coming up to six years in my career. (Asking) ‘Can he do it?, Can he get more?’ ‘Yeah sure, he done this, he done that, but can he do it again?’ And we’re just going to see if I’m going to be able to do it again. I could be wrong, but we’ll see.
Yeah, I mean you have found yourself at this next level of success, so is there tension in who you are actually making music for now? 
I’ll be honest, first and foremost I make music for myself. I make my music for me man. If I don’t like the music it’s not going to come out. I don’t care how big of a hit it’s going to be and what anyone says to me. If I don’t like the song then it’s not coming out, that's number one. Number two, after that, after myself, its really for the real fans: The people who have always rocked to me and rocked with what I stand for, who I am, how I go about things, my whole ethos. Those people there, that’s who the music’s for. That could be anyone from a little kid who’s eleven, to someone who is sixty years old, like my Mum, you know what I’m saying? I don’t really try to target my music for specific audiences, so to speak. If one is more compatible to a certain audience than another then that’s cool, that’s how it turned out. But I never really target people from a specific market or audience, I just make music. 
I guess the difference now though is that now you have access. You’ve got Drake on side, all these producers, you can do whatever you want. But you’re still out sampling Ruff Squad and keeping that DIY sound at the front too. 
It depends on the situation. If I'm making a drill track, a grime track, anything that‘s connected to the streets, I need it to be more raw. But if I want something that’s going to sit in the clubs, what I want to hear when I go out and what I want it to sit in the radio like really appropriately, then I need it to be more polished. So that, with respects to that kind view, I do definitely kind of target it to be more rough or more polished. But in terms of the sound, yeah I don’t really direct it anywhere.
Going back to the flu game and your link to the NBA. Over in the states, there is a really clear bridge between music and sports. They both serve as a way out for a lot of people facing inequality in the world, and they share similar cultural ethos. Why do you think sports and music in the UK lags in that respect? 
I think the UK for a start is quite a few years behind America in terms of cultural integration between Black people and just British people in general. I think that’s number one. But number two, football has just recently started to be a lot more entwined with music. I chat to a lot of the players who play for Tottenham, which is the team I support, even some players who play for other teams talk to me. The younger [players] are more involved in music. And I think the Premier league now have started playing music when people score goals, so in the stadiums the teams can come and vote on what songs they want to play. I know Arsenal, when they score they play Travis Scott ‘Highest in the Room’, which is a massive improvement on what was going before that was outdated and stale, but now we’re kinda keeping up with the times and the culture, so that’s a positive step in the right direction. I just feel like we're a few years behind, we’re just lagging a bit behind, but we’ll get there. We’ll get there for sure.
Do you want to be a part of that revolution?
Yeah man, I’d love to be part of that. I’m not too old yet, I think I’ve got a few more years left in me hopefully before I bow out, so I’d love to be involved in it.
Flu Game - AJ Tracy
Flu Game LP art © AJ Tracey
Aj Tracey Friends - Video Shoot-113-reszied
You have been pretty vocal about the importance of being independent as an artist. Can too much freedom and independence be a bad thing? Do you ever get lost in the possibilities of doing whatever you want? 
I can see why it could be a bad thing. But for me personally it has never been a bad thing man, it has always been a great thing. The way I make music and the speed in which I get bored of my music means that I gotta put things out like NOW. Like my manager hates the way I say to him…bro, like Dinner Guest I dropped with MoStack. I literally made that song which was sitting in the hard drive, something upset me and I was like ‘Yo I need to put a song out’. And I called my manager in the morning and I woke up and I was like ‘we’re dropping this song’ and he was like ‘Bro, we have a whole schedule laid out with XYZ, and I said ‘Bro, no we need to drop this song now’. And I’m sure it gave him a headache, and I’m sorry Andy wherever you are, but it had to be done, do you get me? So like that freedom that we have as an independent business is priceless because we can put out wherever we want whenever we want. 
There’s no pressures, or the only pressures are whatever I make it. If I want to buy a Lamborghini, then I have pressure because I need a hit to get that kind of money. If I just wanna continue doing what I’m doing and have enough to go to the park every now and then and take my mum for a picnic, then there is no pressure at all. I’m all good for life to be honest if that’s what I wanna do. It just depends.
Tell me about the visual universe of AJ Tracey. What are the things outside of music, like art, film and television, that keep you going? 
I love art so much. That is something that a lot of people don’t even know about me. If you could just see in the camera like look [AJ flips the camera] I got a Murakami here, Fidel Castro painting from my mum over there. Japanese culture and art is a large influence on me. I love anime, I love the morals of Japanese culture, I love the history, which is intriguing to me. That’s a big influence also. Fashion. I love French and Italian fashion. I love American and Japanese fashion, but probably European fashion the most. In terms of films...boy, I don’t really watch films. But when I do, if I watch a film, I love it. Like Limitless is one of my favourite ever films, I feel like that’s just an amazing film. Obviously Wolf of Wall Street, amazing film. Shawshank Redemption, another amazing film. Loads! Things that catch my attention most of the time are ‘what ifs’, like you know we are humans but what if we were able to do more… that kind of stuff loops me in most of the time. Outside of that, Che Guevara, my real name’s Che, my mum made sure that I can never be a right wing politician with a name like that. So I was just destined to have certain political views on things. Yeah I have loads of crazy influences. 
You know actually, furthermore, you know the guy that made these pillows in front of me, Murakami. When I got these pillows I was so gassed and I put them on my (Instagram) story and was like ‘Yo I finally got my Murakami pillows blah, blah blah’ and then he replied to my story with like a little hands up or something. And then he followed me and I was so gassed I was super, super, super gassed.
I got to interview him a couple of months ago. He said his favourite movie is Silence of the Lambs.
Oh damn, ok damnnn.
Aj Tracey Friends
I just caught the Off-White rug there in front of you. You’ve name dropped Virgil Abloh in the past as something of a mentor. Can you talk about how his work intertwines with your own interests?
I feel like no matter what you think or feel about Virgil, even if you don’t like his designs, or whatever you feel… Just as a person of colour who’s able to make it into that position he is in now. That position, I don’t think people understand. That is very rare for a black man to be in that position that he is in and he is really opening so many doors that people don’t even realise. Just him being there, him rocking with the whole music world and the youth and helping everyone you know even like (rest in peace) Pop Smoke and putting him in a fashion show with LV. Like these things are crazy for the culture, we need them. And that’s how we elevate. And I feel like him being able to reach that position he is in should be an inspiration to everyone, not just people of colour, but anyone in general who wants to break barriers. So on that scope he is a great inspiration and then on a personal level, he’s always been really helpful to me, like he used to sort me out with clothes and put me in designer clothes before I could even afford it. Like when I went to Japan he let me shoot my video in his store that just opened. And he didn’t even know me, you know what I’m saying I could have been one of these guys who trashed the place and he didn’t care, he just trusted me which is crazy and I respect him. And we still keep in touch every now and then, I hit him up and we just have little chats here and there and I look into what he's doing and just try to support him in how he supports me. 
We’ve mentioned a few people here—Drake, Virgil, Murakami—all known for aggressively borrowing from different cultures and blurring the borders between them. Some people get upset about that, others think it’s good. Where do you sit? 
Listen I’ll be honest with you man. The way I see the world I don't think I’m a hippie or anything. I just think that this is a pretty logical way to think of the world: We are all the same species. Man, woman, whatever you identify as we are all the same. For me, I think there shouldn’t be any boundaries or borders, because in a couple hundred years of time, everyone is going to be mixed raced anyway. Not necessarily my colour but some sort of mixed ethnicity because everywhere you look nowadays people from different cultures are getting together and it’s inevitable that eventually there will just be this one race of everyone mixed together. Which is great. And I can’t wait for that because there will be no racism, no judging, no nothing. Cause you can’t. So I just feel like there shouldn’t be any barriers for anything. As long as you pay homage and you’re respectful of the culture you’re tapping into or borrow, then it’s fine. 
You just need to read up about people and where they are coming from, their roots and why they do certain things. I love African-influenced music and I myself have made a conscious decision that I can’t make a sound or track like that unless I have someone from that culture producing the beat or on that beat with me as a vocalist. Because I like to borrow, but I don’t like to take. So when I made Butterflies, the original sounded more African influenced and I just told my producer, cause he is Jamaican and I’m from Trinidad, I just said ‘Yo, let's make it a bit more Caribbean’, because it’s our take on it. Let’s use our sounds because I feel a bit inappropriate taking rather than- you know you need someone alongside you to verify whether you could do this or not is what I mean. So Not3s is on the track, I know he would have been fine with me tapping into Nigerian influences, but I just wanted it to sound like mine.
How competitive are you?
That’s an easy answer bro. I’m the most competitive person you’ll ever meet. Easy.
And that’s across the board, music, FIFA, whatever. 
That is anything that you can compete with me in, then I will compete in.
Like if your car is faster than mine, I’m trying to beat you off the mark. If your house is bigger than mine, I will try to fit more stuff into mine. If we play FIFA, I’m trying to win. If it’s music, I try to chart higher up. I’m just trying to be the best version of myself. But not in a toxic way. I don’t mind if I lose. Losing is fine, losing is part of it. There always has to be losers, you can’t win every time. I just enjoy competing. It excites me, I feel like you can get the best out of yourself when you’re competing. When you have no competition you can be lax, because you’re setting the record. Imagine if you're going for a hundred meter sprint and there’s no one directly before you. Then you’re just going to set whatever record you want to set. Whatever you feel like running on that day, that is the number you’re trying to set. Whereas when people set records before you, you can either be there or be a loser.
Are you prepared for the point in your life when someone does take over?
One hundred percent. One hundred percent. Listen, when I was younger and I used to hang around with some older kids, they were telling me ‘Yo, go speak to that girl. You think she’s pretty? Go and try to speak to her.’ And I’d just be like ‘Nah, I don’t want to speak to her I’m embarrassed. And they're like ‘Bro what are you embarrassed of?’ And I’m like ‘I don’t want her to say no I don’t like you’. And then they say ‘Bro, of course she is going to say no, not every girl is going to like you, but you need to get comfortable with a no, because there is nothing wrong with a no. She doesn’t like you, it's not the end of the world. And I gained the confidence and now I can have a conversation, whether they like me or not it doesn't matter. So it’s the same with music, same with everything. You can’t be on top forever. Eventually we all have to move on. And trust me when I say, you can hold this to me bro, when it’s my time, it’s my time, I’ll gracefully bow out, I won’t force it, I’ll be done.
AJ Tracey
You launched a merch line as an athletic brand with the album too. Are you keen to get into all that other stuff we talked about earlier? Fashion? Movies? TV? 
I have a long list of things I want to do. I have aspirations for not only after music, but hand in hand with music. I would love to be an actor, I need some acting lessons but we’ll get there. I would love to take singing lessons. Some of my family speak Spanish and I would like to learn another language, because English people as you know we think we’re the best, so we don’t bother to learn other languages; it’s kind of sad, but it’s just how it is.
I’d love to direct movies, I’d like to be head of a fashion house. I want to make my own clothes. Not just merch, but like real fashion and clothes with textiles and materials. I’d just love to do loads of things, like travel the world. I’d love to learn how to cook; I can cook, but like to cook properly, like really cook like a professional. There’s loads of things I wanna do man. I feel like I’m young and I’m doing well as music, but music is not the be all end all when the time comes.
Flu Game is out globally April 16th. 
AJ Tracey tours Australia in January, 2022. Tickets via Handsome Tours and
Astral People.