Going Clear: A2

Photography: Giacomo Lacchini / Interview & Words: Joe Walker

It is difficult to overestimate the power of football. Obsessed across the world, it brings equal joy and misery to its billions of supporters. It is the main event of many people’s weeks. It’s played in backstreets, video games and 80,000-seater stadiums. It has prevented a civil war. It interrupted a World War. Football even has a war named after it – The Soccer War of 1969.

And, yet, it can still find new ways to surprise us. At GAFFER, that moment came when the opportunity to talk football seduced none other than A2 into a rare sit-down interview.

Getting time with the Croydon musician is notoriously difficult, with a general reluctance to do anything outside of making the best music that he possibly can, and while his fans will certainly agree he’s fulfilling that part of the plan – you’ll do well to find an A2 fan that doesn’t think he is a musical genius – there’s also a sense of frustration among some that his unwillingness to ‘play the game’ has meant he isn’t the global superstar they feel he could be. Not that he’s especially fussed.

What does get A2 animated is Manchester United. When he and the many other 90s kids chose them as his team, it was an easy path to take. Now, with the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson long over the horizon, it’s difficult for the artist to accept things as they are currently playing out for his beloved United.

Wearing a classic black away shirt with Eric Cantona’s name on the back, A2 offers his solutions to the current predicaments at Old Trafford, including a bold recruitment strategy inspired by his video game versions of the club. He speaks to GAFFER a bit about his music too, and just why he chooses to work the way he does, despite everyone else’s advice…

You’ve got on the legendary 90s black Cantona shirt. What does this mean to you?

This was monumental, because it was around the corner from my area when Cantona did the fly-kick [in it], so this was the first shirt other than the red one that I remember being big for me. I had 7 on the back too, so I was loving all of that.

It was easy in the playground as a United fan back then…

I used to love it, because there was nobody, not even an Arsenal fan, that could say anything to me! Manchester United were winning everything. Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, all of these names! You couldn’t name one Arsenal man to me [that was better] and I’d be like ‘Yeah’.

The days of the playground are long gone. Are you having to hide from your friends supporting other clubs these days?

A couple of seasons ago I was still riding out for United, because we didn’t feel too far away from being the guys. This season, I’m not on it. Both our rivals are moving crazy – I can’t even be mad at Liverpool winning the league – with great managers and investment, so it’s looking mad for United right now. I’ve got no choice but to humble myself! It’s been too far since we won something substantial.

Has the club’s recent change in fortune brought with it a change in expectation?

I don’t think the expectation should have ever changed, because once you’re up there you should remain there. A few people have left but you should have the same aspirations.

I understand it’s more than just football on the pitch, but the expectations should be the same. We’re the most successful club in England! The levels should’ve still been kept up, but you know how it goes with transfers, changes in manager and x y z.

What do you think needs to change at Old Trafford then?

I’m ready for new, rich owners that get the right manager and sort out the style of play. I think we should scrap the counter-attacking – that was Fergie’s way. Get [Mauricio] Pochettino in and let’s get us playing a footballing way so that our players can develop. Martial is suffering bro! I know this guy’s dope but there’s no service and he’s looking lethargic every time he touches the ball.

We need a big revamp. We still ain’t sorted the right hand side, which gets me every time. It’s so lop-sided! The last player to properly hold that spot down was Nani. How can they not see we need a right-sided player that can cut in on the left and cause some damage? Look at Leon Bailey. Get this guy!

Me playing Football Manager, I know who to sign… so how do these people with the money in real life not think to get these players? Instead, it takes like eight months to wrap up a deal for Bruno Fernandes that should’ve been done time ago.

Who have you signing for United on Football Manager?

I only copped the new one the other day, thinking I need to do something with Man United because they’re stressing me out in real life. This is the only place I can turn it around: virtually!

On PES though, I’m on my wonderkid shit. I’ve got Timo Werner, that right side is weak so I signed Malcolm. Bruno Fernandes, Jack Grealish, Lenglet from Barcelona. I had to sell Wan-Bissaka you know, I’ve got Denzel Dumfries back there instead. The bench is looking stronger now. I know what needs to be done!

It’s clear you’ve kept your passion for football, even if it hasn’t gone your way of late. How difficult is it to do the same for music, when you’re much more involved and connected in that world as an artist yourself?

I’m good at separating the outside world. I understand why everyone likes this or that stuff, but when I close the door I’m in my world, and when I get into my own world it’s all about everything that I enjoy musically. It’s not about anything else. I feel like the separation is essential, especially as an artist.

Listening to music normally, I’m at the stage now where as soon as it starts, I’m critiquing. I’m waiting to enjoy it, and if I’m not then I’m asking why I didn’t enjoy it. I have a system where I’m able to listen to music that I enjoy, instead of having to take in that which I don’t, and be in some mad space. Ultimately, listening to other artists is what inspires me but nowadays there’s so many outlets for music that everyone is making it. I’m scared of the influence that will have on me, if it might make me drop my standards.

I’m only trying to listen to high quality music. I have to get to the level where I listen to my own music and not hear a difference in the quality of production and transitions. I’ve been listening to older music so I can understand why it still affects people, and for so long. I need in on some of that longevity – I need songs that last for 40 years, and not just be here now and die out in a decade.

You’re a producer, rapper and singer, which must allow you to execute your musical visions exactly as you imagine them. How is it to then deal with outside voices on that music, especially a label or manager who might actually control much of its fate? 

It’s difficult, and that’s what keeps me in perfectionist mode. It’s a gift and a curse. I’m trying to get it to a level where I know that if you’re critiquing my music, there’s the bare minimum for you to say it’s not great. In the grand scheme of things I’m always in a space where I get the perfect stuff close enough to perfect.

Someone said to me the other day that I need to be a slag with my music. They want me out here, everywhere with my music doing a mad thing. If you know me, I’m never gonna do that. It just devalues you – the second you’re everywhere, your importance goes down. I get a certain reaction when people see me, it’s like they’ve seen a ghost because I’m not out here. To see me is a rare thing and I like that, because back in the day that is what it would be like…

I remember bucking one of the Gladiators. Rhino! I swear to you, I watched this guy on TV all the time, then I go Croydon and he’s there switching the Christmas lights on and I’m like whoa! Oh my gosh it’s you!… Where’s that gone now? When do you ever meet someone and react like that? You already know them, you’ve seen them on Instagram and interviews. There’s not that real excitement.

Do you think you have an unfair reputation in that sense?

People think I’m anti. Sometimes when I display things I may seem anti, but I just know myself man. I know what I need, what I don’t need, where I’m going and the level I can take it, so if I don’t need to involve myself in certain things, I’ll just stay away from them.

I feel like it’s my area growing up that made me be that way – cut through, do what you need to do, don’t make a lot noise. If you’re making noise you’re drawing attention to yourself, and I don’t want unwanted attention. I don’t want to be out in the media with people just allowed to talk about me and say whatever, because I think they don’t really know anything. If I put my lifestyle out there for you enough, general people are gonna feel that they can just say whatever.

I’m a personal man, I don’t need to be out here with you thinking you can see me and say anything to me. I want that question mark around me, where people are more likely to approach me on a cool level. Generally I’m bless, anyone can have a conversation with me, but I see it online all the time… fans can get very comfortable to the point where there’s no line between us, so it’s about maintaining a level of respect.

If you align yourself in a certain way, nobody can get it misconstrued, so I’ve always aligned myself in a way that you can tell kind of before I say anything, I’m not gonna do that. Everyone’s doing that, so if I’m in there doing that as well, what’s the difference?

I’ve always been against the grain, analysing things in a certain way. At school, there’d be a class clown doing the most, but I wanna just cut through and get my grades. I’m on that type of energy.

Someone said to me the other day that I’m the lone cowboy that’s at the top of the hill, looking over it to make sure it’s ok for everyone to come through and do whatever. It made sense because when I deep it, no one is doing the type of thing I’m doing right now in England. It’s impossible to not wanna be out here in the mainstream, talking to this DJ, that DJ. I know it has to be done, but I don’t wanna do it. From this position, it’d just be stupid for me to not embark on something where I can say to a younger person ‘this way is doable you know’. Ultimately I even wanna give someone the baton to carry it on once I’ve done my miles, so I can chill off and relax.

Which United player do you remember best representing that way of thinking?

Paul Scholes was my guy! He worked hard and got on with his work. Everyone around him respects him and rates him, but he’s just getting on with it. He’s a prime example of that mentality. 

Vol. 2

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Issue 02: Heart & Soul
Ada Hegerberg, Andre Gray, Maya Jama, Andreas Perreira, Christian Pulisic
GAFFER Issue 02: ‘Heart & Soul.’ Honouring the way football cultivates community spirit, empowers the next generation and gives fans, teams and players something bigger and more beautiful to believe in. Be prepared to meet the people who are driving the culture to new heights and those who are set to change the face of the game forever.
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