Up-and-coming rapper Aitch: I'm not afraid to speak my mind

Manchester rapper Aitch burst on to the scene with his track Straight Rhymez, now watched more than 16 million times on YouTube. Soon the former labourer was touring with Wiley and Cadet, and working in the studio with Ed Sheeran and Stormzy. He spoke to Alex Green

Aitch and ZieZie perform during Capital's Jingle Bell Ball at London's O2 Arena

ABOUT a year ago Aitch, real name Harrison Armstrong, dropped out of school to start working with his grandfather as a labourer in Manchester. Today, the 20-year-old is one of the UK's hottest new rappers – collaborating with household names and playing vast spaces like the O2 Arena in London.

His undiluted Mancunian accent, laid-back flow and penchant for poppy beats have earned him a legion of fans.

And a who's who of features (like on Strike A Pose by Nottingham duo Young T and Bugsey) have helped put his face – complete with cheeky grin – on the map.

So what was it that made Aitch quit his job and go full-time with the music?

"I was embarrassed," he explains with a wry laugh. "I started getting embarrassed because I was getting bigger and bigger but I was still walking about in a high-vis, all my work gear and my work boots. I was labouring.

"Then I released a video called Straight Rhymez and that blew up. That went crazy. That was like the kick-start to everything."

"I was some big new artist that had just gone viral on the internet and I was still walking about in my work clothes," he explains with a sharp chuckle.

"It was a bit mad. Then we started getting phone calls off all these different labels and all different people, from London and what not. I decided to leave work and we ended up signing a record deal."

Next, Aitch dropped a series of tracks in quick succession, culminating in Taste (Make It Shake), which went to number two in the UK singles charts. He had begun to pick up momentum.

Soon Aitch was featuring on the remix of Ed Sheeran's Take Me Back To London alongside Stormzy and Jaykae. And in a further twist, he discovered that Robbie Williams is a fan, although he says a collaboration with the chart-topper is not on the cards.

"It was mad," he recalls. "The Robbie Williams thing was funny. It made me laugh. That was sick. I didn't expect that one at all. I just woke up one morning and saw the video on Instagram."

Aitch (his stage name comes from his first initial) grew up in New Moston, north east of Manchester's centre. In 2016 he started to become a regular face on a selection of YouTube channels devoted to grime and UK hip hop.

The year after, he made an appearance on the long-running series video Risky Roadz (alumni include Wiley, Skepta, Giggs, Dizzee Rascal, Kano and JME).

Aitch recognises that his thick Mancunian accent is one of his most potent weapons.

"For a lot of people, it's my accent that stands out. Not for me – I don't think it's different but everyone else does.

"Because I am from Manchester a lot of what I do is Manchester-based. You can tell where I am from as soon as you hear my songs.

"The things I rap about as well – I'm not rapping about what a lot of other people are rapping about. I tend to have my own opinion on things, my own look on things. I'm not afraid to speak my mind."

Alongside Bugzy Malone and IAMDDB, Aitch is part of a Manchester rap scene that has been percolating for years, but has only recently gained a foothold in London, which still dominates the music landscape – though Aitch sees things changing in that regard.

"People are definitely more open to different cities now," he says after a pause. "For ages it was just London-centric. No-one was looking past London until we came through. Now people have started looking at different cities. Now there are people from all over the place."

Artists from outside the capital, he says, have to work harder to get noticed.

Aitch certainly put the graft in, making regular trips to London to ensure people on the rap circuit would not forget his face.

"We were, in a way, putting in the most work," he explains. "We were up and down. We were driving down to London, making my face familiar.

"We were meeting all these different people and just linking up and doing sessions with different producers.

"We were putting in mad work. It just ended up all going good."

In conversation Aitch is at once relaxed and intense, clearly at ease with his newfound fame and being recognised in the street.

It's no surprise then that his favourite part of being an artist is getting up on stage, sometimes in front of tens of thousands like at Capital's Jingle Bell Ball where he supported Stormzy and Harry Styles earlier this month.

"I don't get nervous," he says of his pre-concert game-plan. "I stay occupied and keep chatting to people. I stay in the conversation.

"Being on stage is sick. I love being on stage. That's my favourite part."

Some artists on the up would be reluctant to vocalise their wildest dreams. But Aitch is clear. He wants a number one record and a homecoming gig at the Manchester Arena.

"Then we will see where we go from there."

:: Aitch is touring Britain until December 19.

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