Newsbeat

AJ Tracey: 'There's no massive machine pushing me'

AJ Tracey Image copyright Press Eye

There are two framed football shirts proudly displayed side by side on the wall of AJ Tracey's home.

The first is a signed Tottenham shirt from the final of the 2019 Champions League. The club means everything to him.

The other is a Paris Saint-Germain shirt, signed by the man whose name reflects a pivotal moment in AJ's career - Thiago Silva.

It was the name of his breakthrough 2016 duet with Dave, and since then the 26-year-old has never looked back.

He's one of the most successful rappers in the UK with a million-selling anthem - Ladbroke Grove - and two singles currently in the top ten: West Ten (with Mabel) and Dinner Guest (with Mostack).

AJ says he's done his career his way and remained an independent artist. To reflect that, he'll receive the Innovator award at next month's AIM Independent Music Awards in London.

He spoke to Radio 1 Newsbeat about a "crazy and historical" 2020, his career, football, Black Lives Matter and being "a nerd".

AJ Tracey on… Staying independent

I can only speak for myself, but being independent is the only way you know that the hard work you put in has been yours and yours alone.

There are some artists that have success being on a record label, and some have success being independent, and I'm happy for everyone.

You really understand how much effort you've put in and you really get the fruits of your labour by being independent.

Contrary to popular belief, it's just me and my small team. There's no massive machine behind me pushing anything.

If I take a loss it's my loss to bear. If I win, it was my call and we won.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The rapper won Best British Song for Ladbroke Grove at the 2020 NME Awards

AJ Tracey on… Family

Remaining independent means things have got easier for me because when I first started making music, my main goal was to help my family.

Obviously I wanted to enjoy the music and achieve artistic success, but I wanted to give my family an opportunity to live a better life.

I've done that now by buying my mum a house. Whatever I do now is a bonus.

Signing a record deal would have given me financial comfort but now I've done it my way, it doesn't really matter.

AJ Tracey on… Black Lives Matter

We've made our voices heard and they need to continue to be heard.

I'm an avid supporter of the Grenfell cause too and I feel all these different injustices that happen to us as a people means something needs to change.

If it takes us going outside during a global pandemic to make people realise, then I don't mind putting myself at risk to show you that we need to be treated equally.

However much success I have, I'm a black man and that's what it comes down to and until I'm treated like all my other counterparts, something needs to change.

AJ Tracey on… Missing live gigs

I knew I would miss live shows but I didn't know to what extent and it's been genuinely hard because I feel it's my life. It gives me energy and I love interacting with fans.

I wish I could explain the buzz I get off doing a show.

It's like going on a rollercoaster for the first time. Not the second or third time you ride it, but that thrill of the very first time you experience it.

Image caption On stage at BBC Radio 1Xtra live in Birmingham in 2019

Going on stage is like an excitable anxiety. You've got to remember there's a crowd of 40,000 people waiting to see you. That's intense if you say the wrong ting or trip up or forget your lyrics.

When I pull it off and I hit every lyric perfectly and get the crowd's reaction - there's nothing like it.

AJ Tracey on… Learning music in lockdown

I've been trying to improve my craft as a musician and a producer.

I can't play keyboard so I've been learning notes and the difference between all the keys and the octaves.

I wish I'd taken music more seriously at school because the technicals are so good to know.

If I could play keyboard then I'd be a whole other level of artist. So I'm trying to learn it.

AJ Tracey on… Tottenham's season

A lot of the lads are genuinely my mates so it's a bit of a tightrope to talk about but if I put out a song that everyone doesn't like, you've got to remember I'm human and I might have thought it was good.

In that case, I had the best intentions and I've never tried to let anyone down - so I bear that in mind for the footballers.

Most of them are humans and if they have a bad run, they have a bad run.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption AJ met with the Spurs team, including Harry Kane, last year

This year we just need to chalk it up as an all right season. We didn't do our best but we gave our all and we finished above Arsenal so that's all good.

One thing I didn't think would affect me as much as it would was not going to the football.

Me and my little brother don't live in the same household so I don't see him that much.

The only time we get to link up is at the football and we go and see Tottenham every other weekend. And I've genuinely missed it.

AJ Tracey on… Being a nerd

I have been a genuine fan of Zelda my entire life. My core fans will know that I love games. I'm obsessed with Mario, Zelda, Kirby, Pokemon - I love it.

I'm a real big nerd.

It's funny when I link up with certain artists and they look at me and my mates and we're chatting about Zelda.

They must think 'what's going on?'

Follow Newsbeat on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Listen to Newsbeat live at 12:45 and 17:45 weekdays - or listen back here.