“He’s very different in a time when every grime artist sounds the same.”
It’s 10pm in the green room area of Shoreditch’s Village Underground. Earlier in the day, Footlocker launched their #ItStartsHere 2017 collection. The day is over now and it’s almost time for the after party, headlined by AJ Tracey and Santan Dave. There’s already a massive queue outside the venue of fans eager to catch a glimpse of two of grime’s fastest rising names.
AJ and Dave pose for photos in the tiny room, which is packed with entourage, photographers, racks of clothes and Footlocker reps. Despite the hectic atmosphere, GRM Daily manage to grab the boys to catch up on the evening’s event, what’s coming up for them, and of course what their favourite trainers are…
Tell me about what tonight’s event is about.
Dave: “Footlocker are unveiling their 2017 collection. We’re going to be doing some performances and yeah…”
AJ: “Me and Dave and Semtex gonna shut it down wearing some fresh garms and I really hope everyone enjoys it. Should be a good night.”
Why do you think grime music and trainer culture are so linked?
AJ: “That’s a hard one… it’s part of the lifestyle. I don’t think grime is just a type of music anymore: it’s a lifestyle. The way you dress and the way you talk, where you hang out and what you do while you’re hanging out, you know what I’m saying? It’s always been Air Max and Nike tracksuits. It’s part of the culture that’s ingrained and it has been ingrained forever. That’s just how it is.”
Dave: “For grime artists, that is how they behave. It’s their sort of culture. It goes hand in hand. It’s always been a boisterous industry. Everyone is loud and confident and everyone wants to have the best clothes, trainers, cars. It’s all part of the lifestyle.”
You’re both still young. How old were you when did you first get into music?
Dave: “Probably 10 or 11. I didn’t understand what making music was but I was just doing it because it was something to do. You never really know that what you’re doing is going to take you far, so you just do it for the sake of doing it.
“I was just making simple rap lyrics. My older brother was making rap lyrics too so I was mimicking him. I was just putting words together. I was 11 or 12 maybe. As I got older I started switching the music I was making and progressed to different sounds as I went along.”
AJ: “I was like 6 years old. Literally I was spitting bars at 6.”
What were your bars like when you were 6?
AJ: “Probably incoherent! I wasn’t really saying anything. But my dad used to be a rapper so he would just get me into rhyme patterns when I was like 6. When I was about 10 I started writing proper lyrics. When I was 14 I started spitting properly and became a proper MC.”
AJ, you’ve just started working with American artists right? What can you tell me about that?
AJ: “[Laughs] Yeah I am, still! I can’t say too many names but a couple people from Atlanta, couple New York man, some people from LA.”
How did that come about?
AJ: “Through loads of ways, actually. Some of them I’ve met backstage at shows and festivals. Some of them I’ve met through other people and mutual connections. I never like to have forced collabs, so unless I’ve spoken to them and met them I’m not going to work with them because then it’s just forced, init? I’ll only do it if it’s a real collab and I actually know them.”
We have a theory at GRM that Drake’s new project, More Life, might be a UK collaboration. What’s your opinion on that?
AJ: “[Laughs… a lot] Nah. No. No. I don’t think so, still. You might be hearing some UK collabs on there, even a couple but it’s not… I already know some of the tracks and I know enough tracks to know it’s not a UK thing. That was a cool theory though! Sorry that I’ve just shut it down, because that is a cool theory.”
Not only are you performing together tonight, you’ve worked with each other before. What draws you to each other as artists?
AJ: “We’re just homies, init. That’s my bro. We didn’t meet through music, but music has brought us closer together. We see eye to eye on a lot of things, you know? So I think that really helps.”
Dave: “AJ has a really distinctive sound, flow and confidence over a beat. He’s very different in a time when every grime artist sounds the same. I first heard “Spirit Bomb” and it was a trappier grime influence.
“I feel like he’s managed to take grime, which is a sound that I personally think has become really watered down and soft, and he’s managed to make it something I can get behind again. A lot of grime MCs nowadays are just doing sets talking about music. That’s one thing I can’t stand, I can’t stand when musicians talk about music because no one really wants to hear about music. AJ has the ability to say something in a way that is better than what people usually say.”
Your lyrics are very conscious, it sets you apart from the rest of the younger artists. Do you see yourself as different?
AJ: “Personally I don’t think anyone’s like me, but that’s just my opinion. I think I’m a bit of a weirdo sometimes, but I’m nothing like anyone else. It seems to be working. Hopefully I am [different]. I think I’m just a genuine person and I’m approachable. I still live with my mum. I still take the tube. I’m not some massive guy. I think because of that it’s easier to connect.”
Dave: “I wouldn’t call AJ weird… actually yeah he’s pretty weird, still. I wouldn’t say that I’m separate or that my lyrics are super conscious. I just think a lot of the time people just make music and they don’t put that much thought into what they’re saying and when people do it’s overlooked anyway. It’s not like people aren’t making conscious music it’s just that for the most part people don’t shine a light on it.”
AJ, you feature on the upcoming New Gen album, what can you tell me about that?
AJ: “New Gen is a collective. I’m not in the collective but I’ve collaborated with them to get this tune out. They’re all my friends so it makes sense anyway. My tune on there is a different vibe, it’s more of a wifey ting. I thought I’d change it up a bit.”
Other than your one, what’s your favourite track on that album?
AJ: “67 “Jackets”.”
Dave, you’ve talked before about reaching goals by certain milestones. What are your current goals?
Dave: “To continue making music and to try and be present in all genres. Put out a solid album. UK albums always fail to grasp. That’s one thing the UK needs to get on to be level with everyone else, because everything is so sick individually, but where it falters is putting together a body of work which is consistent and can stand the test of time.
“There’s only [a couple] for me that would stand the test of time: Kano’s Home Sweet Home and Boy In Da Corner. The type of album that feel like classics, that you can go back to and listen to and feel like you’re in the same time that when it was made.
“I think Stormzy is going to be the next person to do that and God’s grace he goes to number one and will be the one that captures this time.”
What other artists are you rating right now?
AJ: “Dave. I didn’t wanna say that, I got forced to say that [laughs]. Nines, C Biz, Skepta.”
Dave: “J Hus, Nines, AJ, Bugzy Malone, Mist.”
What are your clothing vices?
Dave: “I like hoodies, jumpers, normal stuff. I like trainers also. I think clothing wise, the best thing you can do is keep it simple as possible – then everything will always work out. Wear a jumper that fits nicely and a nice pair of jeans, maybe one rip in the left, good pair of trainers and you’re sorted!
“When people make things complicated and start wearing dungarees and boots and have things with a lot of unnecessary chains on, it just takes things too far left. Always make sure your clothes fit tight as well, not too tight or too loose.”
AJ: “Honest to god I have around 80 pairs of trainers at home. My mum is fed up. Nike is my favourite brand. Do you know what it is? I came up on Nike, you get me? I used to save and grind hard just to get one pair of Nikes. I love Air Forces and TNs.”
Air Forces can polarise opinion but I’m glad I’m wearing them right now.
AJ: “I see that! Air Forces are the classic; they’re the staple.”
Dave, what are your favourite trainers?
Dave: “Air Max Ones. The khaki and orange version. Serious trainer.”
What’s your favourite underground brand that you wouldn’t necessarily find on the high street?
Dave: “I guess I wouldn’t call Trapstar underground. They’re super successful but I guess you wouldn’t find it on the high street, so that’d be the main one. You would find Stone Island in a high street store but I still feel like it has an underground vibe, it’s very select. I love Nike.”
AJ: “I don’t really have one! Trapstar is not underground anymore. They’re more established, but it would’ve been them. I only wear a couple brands, ones that show off my style.”
How would you describe your style?
AJ: “It changes so dramatically. I did a shoot the other day and I was wearing a long Dior coat – which I would not normally wear – but it does fit into my style, you know? It depends init. Off White I wear a lot, too.”
What can we expect from you in 2017?
Dave: “A lot of new music. I have no idea what I’m going to do for a body of work. I guess it would be good to capture that sort of growth period between [the ages of] 16, 17, 18 and 19 as I’m living it on a body of work and cement that as a time capsule but we’ll have to see.”
AJ: “Cant even describe it in words, you’ll have to wait and see. A lot. My year is already finished, I’m seeing the end already.”
AJ Tracey and Santan Dave were seen headlining the exclusive Foot Locker #ItStartsHere after party, celebrating the launch of their 2017 collection.