Few cities are quite so enshrined in DIY music culture as Manchester. In 1978, Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus founded the revolutionary independent label Factory Records, laying the foundation for Madchester’s drug-fuelled years of the Haçienda nightclub and its stars Joy Division, New Order and the Stone Roses.
43 years on, and that Factory spirit still lives on in Manchester, just under a slightly different guise. The city’s maverick sound is no longer indie disco, but the straight-up, salacious rap of 21-year-old MC Aitch. In the space of three years, the Mancunian rapper has moved at lightning speed from viral freestyles on YouTube to household name hits such as ‘Taste (Make It Shake)’ and the BRIT-nominated, certified Platinum single ‘Rain’ with AJ Tracey. He’s a likeable rude boy with a super-smooth flow, and his cavalier style owes much to his home-city’s organic music scene, shaking up the historically London-centric UK rap league.
Aitch’s photo-shoot for NME, in aid of his upcoming single ‘Learning Curve’, takes place in the former Factory Records HQ, which is now Factory 251, a well-known nightclub in the city’s student heartland. It’s a symbolic location for the rapper, and a meeting of worlds for Manchester’s old and new musical generation. “I’m a proud Mancunian, 100 per cent,” he tells NME. “It always feels good to be in my hometown. It might be a bit selfish of me to say, but I also really like it when everyone from London has to come up north for a change!”
Aitch admits that, when he was growing up, the old Manchester scene didn’t feature as much on his playlists as the sounds of R&B, grime and his idol 50 Cent: “But I feel like because I’m fully in the industry now, I’m learning a lot more about that history. And certain things go without saying – all those indie bands, and my parents were big Stone Roses and Oasis fans”.
Like most clubs in the UK, The Factory building is sitting sadly empty, gathering dust as the June 21st lockdown easing hangs in the balance. Accompanied by his new styling team and noisy French bulldog, Stan, Aitch is just the person to bring a bit of life back to the place. “I’m not trying to follow anyone else’s look – we’re just doing me, but more extravagant”, he says of his latest designer garms, staring confidently into the camera before breaking into a little dance. With Drake and NSG playing at full blast on the sound-system, multi-coloured lasers on the dancefloor and a fog-machine supplying iridescent club mist, it almost feels like a night out.
Seeing as one of his most successful songs to date is called ‘Strike Me A Pose’, it’s no surprise that Aitch loves a photoshoot. One of his six top 10 releases, the Toddla-T produced collaboration with Nottingham hip-hop duo Young T & Bugsey is a sunny slice of UK Afro-swing: all hip-swivelling rhythms and a characteristically jokey verse from Aitch: “I got some white chocolate, I promise you’ll like the taste of it”. His 2019 EP ‘AitcH20’ provided an equally danceable and cheeky summer soundtrack, serving up hits such as ‘Buss Down’ with the South London artist Zie Zie. The MC’s repertoire also extends to drill’s mainstream crossover, with a feature on the mega-remix of Russ Millions and Tion Wayne’s single ‘Keisha & Becky’ that same year.
In short: he’s a man who has wavey summer anthems down to a fine art. Surely lockdown made it harder to create Aitch’s usual club-ready music?
“It’s funny thinking about people’s perception of me, based on what I’ve already released,” he says. “I’m happy for people to think that I’m there to sort the clubs out – and don’t get it twisted, I’ve definitely missed making that sort of music and catching a vibe. But there’s so much more to me than that, and it has been good to have a break and concentrate on other things”
Until a few weeks ago, save a few TikTok dance routines, Aitch had been mysteriously quiet on social media. Most of his old Instagram content disappeared over lockdown – which, these days, is code for a major artistic reinvention. What’s going on? “It’s good to come away from the socials and focus on what’s important. When I’m in the studio, it’s just there as an option to click on when really I should be writing lyrics. In lockdown especially, it can get a bit much; I’ve got a bit of an addictive personality.”
Time saved off social media was instead spent raising £12,000 for the NHS in a charity FIFA football match with the Manchester United midfielder Jesse Lingard and actor-comedian Michael Dappah (aka Big Shaq). Aitch is realising that with newfound fame comes greater responsibility: “I’m becoming more aware that I need to be an example. I have younger sisters and I think about how they feel about certain things you see online. I definitely think my platform is big enough to speak out about things now.”
That said, unlike his esteemed collaborator AJ Tracey, you shouldn’t expect Aitch to be criticising the Government anytime soon. A recent post in support of Palestine on his Instagram stories has made him more cautious about entering into political debate: “With that, it was a case of me having friends with family over there and wanting to show my respect. Afterwards, though, I got positive and negative responses from people, and I wasn’t entirely sure if I had made the right call because I wasn’t fully up-to-date on the whole situation. So going forward, I’m only going to speak out on an issue when I 100 per cent know the ins and outs of everything beforehand.”
“My platform is big enough for me to speak out about things now”
As someone who’s still figuring out how to navigate life in the public eye, ‘Learning Curve’ is a timely comeback. The MC’s usual confidence and wit is dialled up to the max on the song, which was made with his go-to fellow Mancunian producer, the Platinum-selling WhyJay. Over a bouncy piano riff and throwback DJ rewinds, ‘Big Shell’ is full off one-liners about living in luxury (“just copped new seats for the range”), and, of course, the ladies: “If I put on my suit and tie / When the mood’s just right / Have your madre like who’s this guy”.
“This one is just a fun song to show everyone that I’m back,” he tells NME. “I didn’t want to be away too long or let people miss me too much, so it’s a good little vibe to uplift and entertain people”.
Since he’s been away, Aitch has been constantly creating new music for his debut album. The release date is yet to be confirmed and information about the record is strictly hush hush for now, but he has over 30 tracks to choose from his “very chilled” lockdown sessions. Time away, he says, has re-ignited his care-free approach to song-writing. “You appreciate it more after a break, I didn’t want to overload people with releases. When you’re in the studio for three years straight, you run out of things to say. You’ve got to have fun with it – that’s what works”.
‘Learning Curve’ might be Aitch in classic cheeky chappy from Manny mode, but there are hints of a more serious rapper coming to the fore. His last EP, ‘Polaris’, embraced a gnarlier tone on tracks such as ‘Moston’ (“Haters and snakes / Yeah, there’s plenty of them”). Then, in April, the MC shared what looked like a poem on social media, detailing the loneliness that can often come with fame: “It’s hard following your brain when your soul don’t care… It still feels like no one’s there / Sitting on my throne with an open stare, cos to me it’s just a broken chair”.
Today, Aitch laughs off the poem, explaining that he only decided to open up online after his phone died in the studio and he thought writing the lyrics on paper looked cool. “At first people were hooked on me being that cheeky boy kind of thing, but then you think, how long can I be a cheeky boy for until it gets boring? Those lyrics just represent how I was feeling that day, you know? Obviously when you’ve got family around you, you’re never lonely, but sometimes you do wonder why other people are with you – maybe if certain benefits got taken away, you question whether they’d still be around”.
“People were hooked on me being that cheeky boy, but how long before that gets boring?”
Perhaps, then, we should prepare for more lyrical lightness and shade on his debut album? He won’t be drawn into specifics – or even a release date – but teases: “Every time I put out a project, you’re getting a new Aitch. It’s a level-up each time. There are going to be some sick features on the record, which I think people will be excited about. I’ve also definitely said some things that I’ve not said before, covered some areas I’ve not covered before…
“Maybe I’ve grown up a little bit. Maybe that’s what people will think. But then again…” He smiles mischievously. “…Maybe not! Maybe they’ll still think I’m a cheeky little boy – you never know. I’m a bit of both!”
Prior to becoming one of the UK’s biggest rappers, Aitch, born Harrison Armstrong, was just a regular lad growing up in New Moston, North Manchester: “I was one of the boys really, playing football, getting into a little bit of trouble but not too much. I want to say it was a normal childhood, out every day playing on my bikes, getting up to no good when the snow was out and snowballing people – the same old stuff.”
He was destined for a career in rap, though. After a stint studying sport in college (“I’m definitely no athlete!”), he stumbled onto music by writing take-down bars to his friend when he was 15.
“Mine just happened to be good!” he explains. “That’s why I think everything happens for a reason. I always loved rap music and was fascinated by rappers, but I never grew up thinking that was what I wanted to be. When I was picking options for college, I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ Because I didn’t really want to be an electrician or a plumber. But I always had this feeling that I would never settle for what everyone else was doing; it was fame or nothing for me”.
“Me and Ed Sheeran shot our video at a caff; the whole street was out for him!”
After that, self-made videos soon started racking up views on YouTube and Aitch gradually built a name for himself on pirate radio sets in Manchester and London. “That was the highlight of that era for me. I was always the youngest, so when I’d go on mic people would think, ‘Who’s this kid? But I would always get the biggest reaction at the end. That’s when I knew: ‘Yes – this is me and this is what I’m going to do.”
There are many parallels between Aitch’s tight-knit Manchester support group and the community ethos of Factory Records. In 2018, Aitch’s manager, Michael Adex, set up a leading music agency in his home city; with Northern Quarterz he aims to provide a platform for the North’s up-and-coming talent. WhyJay is a fellow NQ-signee; after meeting through a mutual friend, he and Aitch wrote ‘Taste (Make It Shake)’, which in summer 2019 became their highest charting song at Number Two. Aitch describes the track as “the one that made us able to make a living off music”; the writing duo have been inseparable ever since.
The rapper says he’s proud of the North’s new musical clout: “Manchester has always had a good little scene but it’s never had that proof that things are possible until people like me and Bugzy Malone made it. Now people look at Manchester and people from London want to come here and see what’s going on. So I suppose in a way we pulled that cover off Manchester and made it be seen.”
Aitch lights up when talking about how he got his big break with the viral freestyle ‘Straight Rhymez’ in 2018: “There was nothing to it – the beat is a loop; the video is basic. But I think that’s what people liked about me at first because it was new and fresh, and not as glamorous as something from down south.”
At the time, he went from working as a labourer for his grandad to attending non-stop meetings with prospective labels in London. “It got to a certain point where I was so exhausted that I was genuinely falling asleep in one of them”, he chuckles. “Once, on the way to a meeting, my manager’s old Golf broke down in the middle of Kensington High Street. I just remember thinking, ‘This is what life is now!’ But maybe that’s what made the label give us more money, because they felt sorry for us. It was a surreal time and, since then, everything has been a blur.”
Times have definitely changed. These days, the old Golf is history and Aitch is rapping about struggling to insure a big Audi on the Kenny Beats-produced ‘Safe To Say’. Back in Manny, he’s now so well-known that he’s been forced to leave behind the original NQ House studio in which it all began with WhyJay. Contrary to his boastful MC persona, he’s in reality still humble about his achievements: “I don’t really like saying this, but I kinda got a bit too famous and then when people could hear my music coming out of the studio, they’d start knocking. So now I tend to only write at home in Manchester, and record most of my material down in London.”
Aitch’s crazy rise coincides with a golden age for regional rap in the UK. He’s close friends with the Birmingham rapper Jaykae (“I was on the phone to him this morning, actually!”) and a collaboration is in the works with NME 100 2021 top tip Pa Salieu (“my guy!”), who hails from Coventry. According to Armstrong, the rise of local dialects in the charts was inevitable: “It’s all a question of time. I can’t sit here and say that there haven’t been rappers from Manchester, Birmingham or Coventry before. Even the London scene wasn’t as big five to 10 years ago as it is now in the charts. It’s always evolving – and just like how there are people outside of London in the charts today. Hopefully there’ll be more UK people in the Billboard Hot 100 soon too.”
“Hopefully there’ll be more UK [rappers] in the Billboard Hot 100 soon”
He has the most-viewed GRM Daily Duppy freestyle of all time – more than 14million views and counting – and is widely-known as the UK’s favourite baby-faced MC, but does Aitch still feel like an outsider in the London rap scene?
“I think it’s even more important for me to have a strong relationship with people like Jaykae because, at the end of the day, the main scene is in London, and to everyone else we are outsiders geographically,” he says. “But personally, no – I don’t feel like an outsider in London. I’ve done a lot of collaborations with London MCs; first and foremost to build relationships but mainly I was just having fun with it, it was quite an organic process. You’re just perceived different, that’s all.” He shrugs. “Like when people still ask me to repeat my sentences down South because they don’t understand my accent!”
Talking to Aitch, you get the feeling that the old-school style of rap beef isn’t on his agenda; he’s more concerned about making friends and fostering a supportive community for his fellow MCs. Defining his vision for the future, he says that his goal is “just to make good music and help new people who are coming through – that’s it”.
When conversation turns to the Brighton rapper ArrDee, who is increasingly being labelled online as Aitch’s Mini-Me in looks and persona, he doesn’t rule out a possible future collaboration: “If he’s fine with people comparing us, then I’m fine with it, but he’s his own person. It’s definitely not a competition. I’d like to meet him one day; he seems funny.”
And when it comes to co-signs, they don’t really come much bigger than Ed Sheeran and Stormzy. 2019 was a defining moment for Aitch – and the north-south musical divide – when the pair asked him and his Brummy bestie Jaykae to feature on the remix of their Number One single ‘Take Me Back To London’. Showing just how times have changed, Aitch bounded onto the track with ‘0161’ area code shout-outs and invited his “good friend” Ed to shoot the video in his local New Moston: “Ed doesn’t use a phone, so we always talk by email – pretty mad, to be fair. We shot the video at a caff 30 minutes away from my mum’s house, so the whole street was out for him. It was packed!”
Come August, Aitch is also hoping that he’ll be playing to a packed-out Reading and Leeds Festival. Like most 21-year-olds right now, he’s dying to let off some steam and return to live music, having played the event’s Radio 1Xtra tent in 2019: “It’s the best gig I’ve ever played. We’re going to go mad, so mad!”.
What’s more, festival-goers might just get to hear a taste of the all-new Aitch 2.0. Before heading home to watch his beloved Man U play on TV, he declares to NME that his debut record is going to be “100,000 per cent a proper Manchester album”. Sitting in the bar area of The Factory nightclub, where Tony Wilson and co. once made alternative music history, our chat comes full-circle as Aitch reveals that he’s even been working on an indie-style track, inspired by the “original sounds” of his home-city.
He’s become mates with Ed Sheeran, an unbeatable MC and now, perhaps, Manchester’s latest rock star. How would Harrison Armstrong like to be defined as a musician?
“I suppose it’s just as simple as I’m a rapper,” he says. “Actually, no – that’s lame; I’m more than a rapper… I’m an artist… Actually, no, call me a pop star! I like that. Yeah – why not? For the super rap fans who think that’s bad, think again, because all I’ve ever done is rap for the last four years, and I’m still a pop star. Stuff is changing!”
Hair and makeup by Hannah Sorcha
Styling by Cora and Mikey at EYC
– Aitch’s ‘Learning Curve’ is out on June 24