“I Never Ever Took It For Granted!” AJ Tracey Returns To The Stage

Chatting baseball, lockdown creativity, and his future plans...

When AJ Tracey was just a kid growing up in Ladbroke Grove his sights were forever set elsewhere. Absorbing music from a young age, so many of his reference points were American – from catching rap videos on MTV, to rock artists like Linkin Park, these sights seeped down into his sub-conscious, igniting a lasting love affair with the US of A.

Well, AJ is now set to celebrate a piece of American culture right here in the UK. Major League Baseball touches down in London this summer, with MLB Home Run Derby X bringing together some superb athletes within an exciting new format. AJ from the Lane is leading the way – he’ll be performing onstage, live and direct at Crystal Palace Park.

Chatting to Clash over Zoom, he doesn’t even attempt to hide his excitement. “I’ve got a lot of American friends, and if you ask them: what is the most quintessentially American sport? They’ll immediately say, baseball.”

“I’m a big American sports fan so I’m really excited to be performing at MLB Home Run Derby X. I’m looking forward to headlining the debut event in London and to be part of this new baseball format.”

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Indeed, AJ Tracey is fresh from a flight crossing the Atlantic, having completed a flurry of standout American dates. It was, he reflects, his first trip to America in this New Normal we find ourselves in. “It’s been a minute!” he laughs.

“I never ever took it for granted,” he adds. “My approach now is the same as it always was, but I do think there’s an increase in energy from the crowds.”

AJ Tracey’s live shows are a full production, with the West London rapper at the centre, pulling all the strings. As talented as his studio work is – two hit records, countless smash singles – he also leans in on the performance side. “They’re two different things, in my mind. The studio thing is one element, the live thing is another element. Some people are good at one, for others it’s a combination. I like to focus on both.”

Being kept on the sidelines during COVID wasn’t ideal, then. “Yeah of course it was frustrating. It’s like being a footballer, someone who trains hard but never gets a game. But y’know, there are worse positions to be in. I could provide for myself, and at least my family were safe.”

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As someone who once co-wrote a song called ‘Thiago Silva’, AJ Tracey is uniquely placed to muse on the contrasts and comparisons between sport and the rap game. Both require excellent technique, supreme dedication, and unlimited desire – and that little something extra, of course. “I thinking growing up, sports people are pillars in society. Just look at baseball – those athletes become pillars in your life.”

“I don’t know what it’s like to work as a team, and achieve something, like winning a major trophy. But equally, those athletes don’t know what it’s like to be me, on my own, onstage. There’s a lack of personal freedom in sport, though – they spend years on timetables, watching what they eat, training at certain times. I got into rap due to freedom of expression – that’s why I started doing this, because that’s how I feel. We’re on opposite sides of the spectrum, in some ways, but there’s a mutual respect.”

That competitive edge is what carries both athletes and musicians to the very top – AJ has it, and it’s been evident from his first radio sessions, spraying over grime and UKG as a teenager. “If you ask any rapper: who’s the best? They’ll always say themselves. Always. If they say otherwise, that’s a lack of confidence. And it’s the same in sport. Ask a Right Back who the best Right Back in the world is – they’ll say it’s them! It’s that competitiveness, the fierceness, the drive.”

“I think being an all-rounder gives me the edge. There’s a lot of people who are talented at what they do. But with respect, that’s just one trick, and to be an artist you need more. Look at Dave – he can rap, produce, sing, he taught himself guitar… that’s an artist. And for me, I’ve had hit records in multiple different genres, I can freestyle, I can rap on radio, I can perform live. For me, it’s about the ability to be multi-faceted.”  

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“I Never Ever Took It For Granted!” AJ Tracey Returns To The Stage

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Unable to tour to the extent he would have liked, AJ Tracey spent the pandemic finessing his craft, focussing on his flows, and reinterpreting his previous work. He also wrote extensively, recording track after track. “Yeah,” he says. “But it sounds like the pandemic. It sounds like being locked in. And I don’t like that energy.”

As a result, he says, it won’t be released. For AJ Tracey, the only challenge that matters is the next one. “I’m always making music – for me, I’ll make a song one week, and I won’t like it the next! With the pandemic, a lot of people felt depressed, and that darkness translates into the music. But we’re free now – to an extent – and it doesn’t sit right. For me, I don’t like releasing music I made a long time ago. I’m always trying to improve myself, work on my flows, my choice of words.”

He kept the radio on throughout lockdown, pouring over social media to catch new sounds. “I’ve always got my eyes open for everything. I’m across social media, looking on TikTok – which, to be honest, is where music breaks just now. But I listen to everything, Reggae, rock, everything.”  

“There’s a common misconception that rappers only listen to rap. That’s not true! I’ll listen to anything. I could listen to rock, then reggae, then grime all in a day.”

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AJ Tracey made some headline-worthy comments about grime to the Guardian back in 2019, but it seems his fondness for the genre hasn’t waned. “I love grime. I listen to grime a lot. I have no problem with grime, it’s just not what I’m making at the moment. If a grime beat came along and it was hard, and I liked it, then sure, I’d jump on it. Who wouldn’t?”

Part of a golden generation of UK rappers, AJ Tracey has watched global attitudes shift towards UK MCs. Whereas once American audiences were largely divorced from their music, the past few years has seen the country open up to outside voices. “100%” he grins. “And I would say the internet has helped that. It makes the whole world one place – someone in Japan can communicate seamlessly with someone in London. The internet allows you to tap into other cultures. Before, if you didn’t have an American accent, then they didn’t want to hear you rap. But now, it’s different.”

Constantly moving forwards, constantly seeking to improve himself, AJ Tracey is rapidly evolving into a different artist. We’re curious, then, to hear how he approaches and analyses his own work. “It’s a moment in time. That’s how I was feeling at that moment. You look back sometimes, and I think: well, I could do that better now… but it’s all snapshots in time, and I’m proud of all of them.”

As for what comes next, he simply wants to work and to focus, and to re-connect with his audience. “I don’t think the life span of ‘Flu Game’ has come to an end. I want to tour, I want those shows to get bigger and better.”

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MLB Home Run Derby X is a global tour kicking off in London on July 9th Crystal Palace Park.

To find out more about MLB Home Run Derby X, check out mlb.com/HomeRunDerbyX and purchase your tickets at https://www.ticketmaster.co.uk/MLB-HRDX.

Words: Robin Murray

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