Aitch: down to the letter

It was a shaky video made by his friends in a park that brought Aitch to public attention. Now the teenage rapper is playing sell-out shows in his hometown Manchester

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Even by the barrel-scrapping standards of Hollywood parody flicks, Scary Movie is not commonly regarded as a high point in modern cinema history, yet for Manchester rapper Aitch – who was just a few months old when the film was released in 2000 – watching the movie years later as a fresh-faced young teenager would change the course of his life.

“I knew I was going to blow up but the speed it’s happened is mad. I’m going to be bigger.”

“There’s a scene where the Scream character starts spitting bars about slicing people up and me and my boy just found it so funny. We would rewind that scene all the time and remix bars. We just kept doing that for hours, writing our own rhymes. Scary Movie made me spit bars,” recalls the now
19 year old, still enviably fresh-faced MC.

“I had a talent hidden inside me and God happened to say: ‘You need to stumble across this talent and this is how it’s going to happen,’” he says, seated in a discreet corner of a New York-style Manchester bar. “I wasn’t growing up thinking I’m going to be a rapper. It just happened. I found out that I could rap, that I was actually pretty good at it, and decided then, let’s do this.”

From those humble, unlikely beginnings, Aitch – whose moniker derives from an abbreviation of his first name, Harrison, and whose surname is Armstrong – has gone on to become one of this year’s biggest breakthrough stars, with three top 10 singles to his name, including the ubiquitous Taste (Make It Shake), which was only kept off the top of the charts by Ed Sheeran, and Stormzy’s Take Me Back To London.

In September, Armstrong’s debut EP, Aitch20, entered the charts at number three. Sheeran also personally picked the rapper to feature in a remix of Take Me Back To London, the video for which saw Armstrong take Sheeran for breakfast in his local café in New Moston, the working-class suburb in north Manchester.

“It’s been a mad change and I’ve had to adapt to certain things, but it’s been good, man,” reflects the rapper about his rollercoaster 2019. “I knew I was going to blow up but the speed it’s happened is mad. I’m going to be bigger as well, but it’s definitely happened faster than I expected. I’m glad, though, because I’m ready for what’s next to come. I’ve already got past so many barriers that it’s taken other people five years to do and it only took me a year.”

Key to Armstrong’s charismatic appeal is his complete lack of self-doubt, distinctive innuendo-peppered Mancunian drawl and rapid-fire rhyming skills, which he discovered at a young age. At first, he would just write diss tracks on his phone and send them to friends as text messages on WhatsApp and Snapchat.

“No one ever heard a bar for about six months. It was all done in secret,” he explains. “In that period, I turned 16 and thought: ‘Right, I’m going to show you.’ I ended up getting drunk on the park, got all the mandem and said: ‘Yo, check this. This is what I can do.’”

A video of that first live performance, filmed in October 2015 on a shaky mobile phone that occasionally pans to two of Armstrong’s friends kneeling by his side, skinning up, can still be found on YouTube.

Armstrong says the video was only ever intended to be shared by his mates, but one of them uploaded it to the video platform without telling him. “I didn’t want anyone to see it. I was fuming.”

His anger was quelled when he saw that it had been viewed more than 2,000 times within a few weeks. Encouraged by the positive reception, more videos and songs quickly followed, each one more sophisticated, slicker and professional than the last.

The tipping point came with last year’s Straight Rhymez, a catchy freestyle rap set to a hard-hitting grime beat, which was promoted on influential YouTube channel GRM Daily, received praise from Stormzy and has since been viewed more than 16 million times on YouTube.

“After that it just went crazy. That was the little kickstart and I just attacked it from there. I didn’t rest and now I’m here and I’ve still not had a rest,” says Armstrong, who dropped out of college and briefly worked for his uncle as a labourer before picking up a manager and record deal. He thinks he connects with young audiences because there’s no separation between the image he presents in his songs and the real-life Harrison Armstrong.

“I’m just myself and everyone can see that. I’m not trying to be anything that I’m not. I’m just speaking my mind and a lot of the things that I say are relatable to a lot of people. Sometimes people don’t want to feel angry when they’re listening to music. I think I bring a good-time vibe that no one else brings. It’s a whole package. I’m not saying I’m the whole package, but I think it’s more than just the music why I connect so much.”

In person, Armstrong is, as he claims, much like his public persona: approachable, easy going, a little brash, hyper-confident and dressed head to toe in expensive designer sportswear. What’s less evident in his videos and live shows are his polite, humble manner and the small signs of nervousness he displays when conversation veers onto personal ground.

Questions about his upbringing and family, for instance, are mostly met with short, not particularly revealing answers, which can be summarised thus: he has younger twin sisters, working as a labourer was “fucking shit”, he’s about to pay off his parents’ mortgage and he gets his supreme inner confidence from his mum, who he affectionately describes as “crazy in a good way. I’m like the boy version of her. I’ve never been bothered about standing up in front of people. Never been embarrassed or anything.”

One subject he talks passionately about is the Manchester grime and hip-hop scene, which he enthusiastically describes as “popping” and compares to Atlanta’s thriving music culture, a current hotbed of American hip-hop thanks to artists like TI, Migos and 21 Savage.

“I don’t want to pretend I’m some hip-hop guru but for years LA and New York were popping and then Atlanta came and took over. That’s what I feel Manchester is now. London and Birmingham have been LA and New York for years and Manchester is Atlanta, now about to take over.”

That may be a slight exaggeration given the high number of British rappers who still come from London, but there’s no denying Manchester’s scene, like that in many other regional cities, is flourishing, with Aitch, Bugzy Malone, Iamddb, Just Banco, Mastermind and Meekz just a few of the homegrown acts challenging the capital’s hip-hop hegemony.

“Coming from Manchester means that you might not get seen at first but, when you do, you stand out as different,” says the breakout star. “The Manchester scene is sick. No one sounds like anyone else. I can go to London and pick out a couple who sound like each other, but not here.”

Next up for Armstrong is his biggest UK tour to date, which includes a sell-out hometown date at Manchester Academy. After that, he’s not quite sure, although there are loose plans to put out another EP before a busy run of festival appearances in 2020.

“You’ll see me everywhere next year,” he promises. “I’m just going to be grafting, working hard. Obviously, everyone keeps on asking about an album. You’ll get the album when you get the album, don’t worry.”

Despite his success and the financial riches it has brought, the rapper says he has no plans to move out of his parents’ home in New Moston. “I’m in no rush. I can’t cook or anything, so why would I? And I don’t have any shame in telling any girl that I still live with my mum.”

Asked if fame has changed him, Armstrong takes an uncharacteristically long pause. “I’d like to think I’ve not changed,” he eventually answers. “Maybe I have. But if I have, I don’t think I’ve changed in a bad way. I’ll let other people decide.”

As for being recognised and asked for selfies everywhere he goes, the rapper is sanguine about its pros and cons. “I don’t remember it not being like this anymore. Obviously, there are times when you want a bit of peace and quiet, but it is what it is. It comes with the game. If I woke up tomorrow and no one was coming up to me asking for a picture there would be a problem, so I appreciate everyone.”

Looking ahead, Armstrong says his ambition is to be “the biggest [rapper] to come out of the UK” and to play the 20,000-capacity Manchester Arena within the next few years. “Then I’ll be happy.”

Does he genuinely believe he can do that?

“One million percent. I’d put money on it,” he confidently states. “In my head, that’s the next goal – Manchester Arena and then £25 million after that.”

Given his rapid rise to the top, only a fool would bet against him.

Aitch plays Manchester Academy, 19 December, as part of a UK tour.  Aitch20 is out now

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