“I feel embarrassed playing the songs in front of my mum sometimes,” admits the British rapper Aitch. “But I blew up at 18, and I don’t think anyone could begrudge a young boy living his best life, rapping about sex, rapping about money, rapping about whatever I’m feeling.” A cheeky grin breaks out on his face. “Sorry, mum.”
Harrison Armstrong, known as Aitch (as in H), is 22, a shaven-headed Mancunian urchin who has already scored five Top 10 singles, notched up tens of millions of streams, and collaborated with many of the UK’s leading rappers, including Stormzy, AJ Tracey, Headie One and Giggs, as well as new pal Ed Sheeran. His debut album, Close to Home, is released today, an exuberant collection of catchy, witty tracks that offers a bravura display of rap skills in an unapologetic Manchester accent. The subject matter, however, only rarely digs much deeper than extolling the rude pleasures of sex and flashy trappings of wealth.
“There’s more to life than sex and money, definitely,” Aitch cheerfully admits. “But people need to understand that when you come from certain places, where you’re always broke, never had anything, when you get that little bit of change, you wanna look the part, and you need to let the world know that life’s changed.”
Not that Aitch looks particularly flash. “I’m not actually a jewellery guy,” he admits. “I buy a lot of watches, but I could sell them all today for double the price. So it depends how you look at it. Some people might think, oh yeah, look at him, telling everyone how much money he’s gotten out of this, but what I flex about is buying a house, buying a watch. If anything, that’s good advice for kids. What other rapper is telling you to invest?”
Since rising to fame, he has invested in properties for his family, which his father helps him identify and develop. The interview takes place over Zoom from what he describes as his “mum’s place”. “Everyone’s looked after, 100 per cent.”
Aitch was raised in the suburb of Moston, where his father was a pipe fitter and mechanical engineer, and his mother was chief carer for his decade-younger sister, who has Down’s syndrome. “To some people, Moston is probably the worst area in Manchester, but to me, it’s the best place in the world. I was kind of the lucky one out of my friendship group, ’cos I was the only one who had both parents. School was good. I wasn’t the naughtiest and I wasn’t the best kid either. I was good at English, Performing Arts and Sport, those were the only three GCSEs I got. I think I had the best childhood ever, and I wouldn’t change anything about it.”
He listened to a lot of rap music but had no inkling of a pop career. At 15, he was captain of a local boy’s football team and had vague notions that he might become a PE teacher. He and his friends used to “diss” each other by writing insulting rhymes on their group chat. “It was just joking around” – until he started creating beats and recording his verses. In 2015, a friend posted an amateurish video on YouTube of Aitch freestyling, which quickly picked up 10,000 views and became his introduction to the local rap scene.
“I was like the odd one out, but maybe that was a bonus,” he admits, being a fresh-faced young white boy in what is still (in the UK, at least) a predominantly black music genre. “It was like, who is this kid? Let’s see what this guy has to say. At the end of the day, good music speaks for itself. If you can rap, you can rap. So it wasn’t no extra pressure, ’cos I was on a par with, if not better than, everyone else.”
Aitch started working with Manchester producers, released his debut EP at 17, built up a dedicated internet following by 18, and by the time he was 19 had scored a massive Number 2 hit single with Taste (Make It Shake). He acknowledges the Elvis and Eminem question of whether being white in a predominantly black scene has supercharged his career.
“That is a debate that is never going to end. It might help in certain scenarios, but you have to blow up first to even have an actual career, and you can’t blow up rapping without the streets confirming that you’re good. So you’ve got to get past that barrier first. So let me put it another way. If it’s easier for white rappers, where are they? Show me another British white rapper that’s as big as me.” He smirks. “And… silence!”
In the video for his 2021 single Learning Curve, Aitch was shown rolling about in bed with plus-sized women and rapping about “thick thighs with the loveliest shape / Ain’t judging the weight cos I like ’em fluffy.” Later, he hit out at internet trolls who posted fat-shaming comments. “It was s--- to see men hating on girls that much, it’s hard to witness.” He describes himself in highly sex-positive terms. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing wanting to go get girls. Unless you don’t swing that way – then go get boys, whatever the weather, I don’t mind.”
As bawdy as his rapping tends to be, he somehow manages to be licentious without being sexist. “When I first started, I was quite ignorant of certain things because I was just young and stupid, obviously. But I definitely do watch my mouth now, I think about what I say, 100 per cent. It’s important for me personally, ’cos I’ve got two younger sisters, I've got a lot of females in my family. And yeah, it’s hard to find the right balance. Because at the end of the day, I’m still rapping about sex, and my sisters are gonna grow up hearing these things. However, I can’t put like a whole chop on my career because of younger members of my family. One day they’ll grow up and hopefully understand.”
Gracie, his sister with Down’s syndrome, is the subject of an uncharacteristically lovely track on his new album, My G, with a chorus featuring Ed Sheeran that declares: “Ever since the first day you were here, you were always my G / And if the world is cruel, I will be the last one standin’ here to protect you.”
“I had this video of her singing an Ed Sheeran song on my phone, and I sent it to Ed and said, ‘My sister loves ya!’ and he was like, ‘Ah, that’s sick’, so when I wrote My G, I thought, ‘There’s only one person I can get on this song’.” The two have become friends and caused a local stir when they were spotted in a greasy-spoon café in Manchester. “Ed’s sound. He wanted a normal day in Moston, so I took him to Love Lunch. That day was mad. It’s like all of Moston turned up to watch.”
He speculates that growing up with Gracie has “probably matured me, made me more aware of things, made me a much softer, warm hearted, nicer person. But I also don’t know any different. She’s the reason for a lot of things I do, thinking about her and what happens when we’re all older… I know that one day my mum and dad will go, and then that will be all me, she’s my responsibility.”
Aitch is extremely proud of his Manchester heritage, which was the inspiration behind sampling Fools Gold by indie rock heroes The Stone Roses on his most recent single, 1989. “We needed some Manchester on the album, and you don’t get much more Manchester than that.” He also persuaded Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays to record some spoken word for the intro. “I said to him, ‘Yo, you're a legend. I want you on my album.’ He said, ‘If you can get me four cans of Guinness, I'll do it.’ So he came over, drank them all back-to-back, then I turned the mic on, and we spoke for about an hour, and I chopped out that little clip and put it at the start of 1989.”
He says he was raised on the indie rock and rave stories of his parents. “I get jealous when they go on about it. I always feel it was better then that it is now.” He stepped in this week to offer to have a street mural of Ian Curtis of Joy Division restored, after it was painted over as part of the advertising campaign for his album. “No way on earth would I want to disrespect a local hero,” he said. “Me and my team are getting this fixed pronto.”
But he told me he has given up on a long running campaign to persuade his greatest Manchester musical hero Liam Gallagher to collaborate on a song. The former Oasis star (and Manchester City supporter) told NME that “he seems like a nice lad, but I don’t want to be on anyone’s album.” Gallagher added “He’s a (Manchester) United fan, so it ain’t f---ing happening. No mate. But I do appreciate the fact that he thinks I’m cool.”
“I’m over it,” says Aitch. “He’s a Blue, and I’m a Red, I’m never gonna change, and he’s never going to change, it is what it is. He actually came to watch me. I did a festival a couple of weeks ago, and when I got off stage everyone was telling me Liam Gallagher was watching from the side. So as far as I’m concerned, he’s a secret fan, he just doesn’t want anyone else to know.”
He is such a straight talking, friendly and cheekily cheerful character, it is easy to understand the pop star appeal that has pushed Aitch so quickly to the top of the British rap pack. His album hints at greater depths by being bookended by darker, sombre raps exploring the price of fame, an underlying anxiety that it might cost him everything he really holds dear: friends, family, love and home.
“There’s definitely pros and cons,” he says. “My friends thought as soon as my video got a million views that I was a millionaire, and that creates situations that you have to deal with. There’s a lot of expectation. You lose a little bit of freedom, a little bit of privacy. Sometimes I just want to take my sister and the dogs and walk to the shops, but I can’t really do that without ending up on TikTok or Instagram. That gets annoying, ’cos I’m not one to be sitting around doing nothing. I want to go on dates but it’s hard, because the girl might not want to be on camera all the time.
“But this is what I signed up for, so I can’t complain. And even when I do complain, give me a couple of hours and I’ll snap out of it. You don’t know when your time's up, so you better live your best life while you’ve got the chance. And my time is now.”
Aitch: Close to Home is released by Capitol today