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Rolling with AJ

Photographs by Jenny Brough
Styled by Jessica Skeete-Cross
Set design by Andrew Lim Clarkson

Following on from the triumphant release of his second album, AJ Tracey’s star is shining more brightly than ever. Shannon Mahanty hitches a ride with him to the Cambridge Union and hears his plans for the future

As far as Saturday nights go, this one can’t be typical for AJ Tracey. In the middle of the Cambridge Union debating chamber, he is sitting on a grandiose looking chair, looking out to a room full of eager students. College crests and pictures of Winston Churchill line the walls. To his left sits his manager, to his right his interviewer, the slightly nervous looking president of the Cambridge Union, who is nodding intently as Tracey discusses the enduring power of the insult, ‘Suck your mum’.

‘When you come from a certain area, some things are a lot deeper to us [...] A lot of black men in the ’hood are super protective of their mum, you can’t speak about her or it becomes a massive issue. People think that’s an exaggeration, but when you have a single mum, she’s everything to you. You want to make sure she’s good, you want to protect her.’ In many ways AJ Tracey — real name Ché Wolton Grant — is a long way from the hood, and yet the Ladbroke Grove estate that the 27-year-old grew up on is a defining part of his story.

Tracey is a Brit award-nominated, multi-platinum-selling artist who will — pandemic permitting — embark on his biggest tour to date this autumn, culminating at O2 Arena here in London. He recently released his second album, Flu Game, a genre-straddling, banger-filled blast that went to number 2 in the UK. The title references an infamous 1997 performance by basketball legend Michael Jordan, who had fallen ill with food poisoning and, against all odds, still led the Chicago Bulls to victory. Like Jordan, Tracey has overcome setbacks to achieve his win.

The son of a Trinidadian rapper and a Welsh DJ and youth worker, he was immersed in a mix of sounds from a young age. ‘My mum played every genre under the sun. Hip-hop, garage, jungle. My dad played a lot of Caribbean music.’ Tracey started rapping when he was just six, imitating his father. As a teenager, music and video games were his life. ‘I was playing RuneScape, League of Legends, Halo. I had friends who were proper computer geeks. I used to stay in and play games, but also go outside and sell drugs; I walked a fine line between being a nerd and a road man.’

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