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Why rapper AJ Tracey puts independence before profits

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The star has remained steadfastly independent since releasing his first EP in 2015
AJ Tracey is having quite a week. He has the top two singles in the indie charts, Stormzy gave him a shout-out from Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage and Brazilian football legend Thiago Silva followed him on Twitter."My head's spinning a little bit!" the 25-year-old laughs. "I'm in the clouds right now."Silva was the subject of Tracey's 2016 collaboration with rapper Dave. But he only noticed the track after 15-year-old Alex Mann was plucked from the crowd at Glastonbury and made headlines with a flawless performance of the song's intricate, rapid-fire rap."I saw the Alex thing trending and it was crazy," says Tracey, "and then I saw 'Thiago Silva followed you'. I had to click it to see the blue tick so I knew it was official."
"It means a lot to us, man," he adds. "When me and Dave made that song, we were quite a bit younger, Dave was really a baby, and we just wanted the football world to acknowledge us. So when Thiago Silva followed us, I called Dave and I was like, 'Bro, we finally did it!'"
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When he scored a top 20 hit with the mellifluous summer anthem Butterflies last year, Tracey finally knew it was time to start work on his debut album."For me, Butterflies was a massive achievement, because we recorded that in my living room," he says. "It gave me the taste. I thought, 'Maybe I can achieve more if I give it that extra bit of effort,' so I've been going my hardest to package my music properly and give it to everyone."
America's accent problem
Released in February, Tracey's record entered the UK charts at number three, since when it has sold enough copies to be the 30th best-selling album of the year.The single Ladbroke Grove, a joyous throwback to the garage records he grew up on, is set to enter the top 10 this week; and he's also starting to make waves in America."It's not really a target of ours to break the US, but it'd be cool to be one of the ones who does it," he says. "I feel like Skepta is the closest, second would be Dave. I hear a lot of people talking about J-Hus, and then maybe myself."Asked why no-one's managed it before now, Tracey says America isn't ready for the British accent."They love the accent in conversation, but in terms of music they just can't take it. They hear it and they go, 'I can't deal with this,' but they're warming up to it."I keep telling people that, once upon a time Americans didn't want to listen to Canadian accents, but now Drake, The Weeknd and Justin Bieber are some of the biggest artists in their respective fields. So we'll get there eventually."
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He tailors live shows for US audiences, "picking songs where I'm collaborating with American artists, or with a trap sound that's more familiar to them," but those gigs are often easier than ones in his hometown."People in London are so hard to impress," he laughs. "Everyone has the 'London complex', where they think the world revolves around them, me included, which is so annoying. "Don't get me wrong, London crowds still give me the love but I have to work harder. But that's ok, I'm down for the hard work."He'll be putting in the hours this summer, with a diary full of festival appearances, around which he's working on "some genuinely exciting new music". "I don't want to say too much, but there'll be more collaborations and some unexpected left-field music as well," he says.
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And if everything keeps going to plan, he intends to plough the profits back into Ladbroke Grove."I still live there now and, sad to say, I fit in because I make enough money to have all those things I couldn't have in my youth."But I'm still an active member of the community, I support the Grenfell movement, and I'd love to open a youth club, because most of them have closed down. "So when I'm in the position to do something ground-breaking in the area, I will."
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