Aitch can’t keep track of everywhere he’s been lately: Australia, Canada, Greece, Ibiza… But right now, he’s back at his favorite place. No matter how many houses he’s purchased after blasting to rap stardom with 2018’s “Straight Rhymez,” he relishes coming back home to Manchester, to the house he grew up in.
“When I used to stay at my friend’s house just around the corner back in the day, I always used to love coming back home that next day,” says the 22-year-old, who was born Harrison Armstrong. “But being so busy all over all around the world and then coming home, knowing that you’ve only got two days before you go back out somewhere else, I appreciate home 10 million times more.”
It’s little wonder he titled his debut album Close to Home. Everything about his burgeoning career to this point sprang from within a short radius of this childhood home in New Moston, Manchester. The first time he rapped for anyone, his friend recorded the freestyle and uploaded it to YouTube without Aitch knowing, igniting four years of chart-climbing and high-profile collaborations with the likes of Ashanti, Ed Sheeran, Stormzy, and more. Before Aitch could grasp what was happening, strangers were showing up at his parents’ house, wanting a piece of the then-19-year-old. He put his town on the map, and now, with his first album, he’s putting it on his back.
From his old bedroom, Aitch spoke with GQ about rapping vulnerably, comparisons to Jack Harlow, and the unreleased Lil Baby verse that fans have been clamoring for.
You were featured on Ed Sheeran’s “Take Me Back to London” remix, and now he’s returning the favor, singing on your new song, “My G.” Why was Ed the right voice to enhance such a personal track about your sister, Gracie?
I’ve sent him a video of my sister singing one of his songs. It was Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” but Ed wrote it. She’s 12 now, but at the time of the video, she was probably eight, nine. She loves Ed. And then Fraser T. Smith, who I made the song with, is Ed’s good friend. When we [were] trying to decide who to put on, it was kinda like, it’s only right. We asked Ed. He said yes straight away.
What do you get from your relationship with Gracie, who has Down’s Syndrome, that you can’t get anywhere else in your life?
It’s a genuine relationship, which you can find in other places, but it’s harder to find. It’s a family thing. Any member of my core family, you know? But with her, it’s just different. She’s just special. She’s a character. She’s an angel, but she’s naughty as well. She’s always swearing. Around here, she’s more famous than me. People come out to my mum’s house to go see her. They don’t give a fuck about me.
Does she care that you are a famous musician?
She doesn’t know no better. She’ll get home from school, and she’ll be like, “Peter wants your autograph, but I’m not giving it to him.” People always say, “Can I get your brother’s autograph?” And she probably just tells ’em all to fuck off, if I’m honest.
Wth songs like “My G,” “Belgrave Road,” or “Close to Home,” there’s some pain in your new music that we haven’t heard before. What emotions did you draw from that you weren’t able to access before making this album?
There were things growing up that maybe weren’t the best, but I’m not going to sit here and ever say that I missed out on a meal. My mum always held it down. I can’t really complain. The pain on the album, that’s things that I went through growing up that I maybe would’ve went through anyway without rapping, but at a different pace. I’ve been through more mentally draining shit since I’ve been rapping than before rapping.
Before getting into music, how did you view vulnerability?
When it came to music, I’d just rap about whatever. I’m just pretty good at rapping, so people just liked me for that. There wasn’t really much emotion in my shit back back then. It’s good to tap into your emotions. It’s been four years. I’ve not dropped an album. So for four years, I’ve just been this guy who’s been making lit songs for the club or for girls, with one or two tracks on random EPs that I might say stuff in, which probably wasn’t even from the heart. It was more like, I need to say something a bit vulnerable before I lose my fans. I felt like it was the right time for me to show vulnerability and get some shit off my chest while I was making the album, because if I never said it there, I would’ve never said it.
You used to be a kickboxer.
I used to be a pretty good kickboxer.
I wonder if during that part of your life, without even knowing it consciously, you were working through emotions physically before you could do it verbally.
Oh, yeah, maybe so. Before I knew that I could rap, I always hated the fact that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. That would annoy me. I never realized how young I am, even still to this day. I used to think, My life’s over already. I can’t do anything. The only thing I wanted to do was kickboxing, and then when I looked at the bigger picture, I was like, kickboxers don’t make any money. All I knew growing up, we don’t get told nothing where I’m from. My mum always used to say, “Go be a dentist” because they make a hundred grand a year.
You had a labor job at one point, right?
For a couple weeks. I like to say months, but when I say months, my mom always tells me I’m a liar and only lasted a couple weeks, so maybe she’s right. That was when I left college because I knew I was gonna blow up. I just didn’t know when. Well, I dropped out because I couldn’t do anything. I was shit at math. And then, my granddad put me in the headlock and said, “Right, you’re coming to work with me for a bit.” That was good, though, because that made me realize how much I didn’t want to work. I must have went to the studio the same couple of weeks and wrote the hardest bars I’ve ever written in my life, just because I never wanted to work again.
The song “Money Habits” comes to mind. Has your perspective changed?
Definitely. Drake’s got a lyric on Jack Harlow’s [“Churchill Downs”] song where he says, “To be honest, y’all financial situation’s my biggest motivation / And how you should take that statement is based on what you makin’.” Meaning, if you’re not really making a lot of money, that’s motivating me because I’m not really trying to be like you, but if you make a shit ton of money, that also motivates me because I’m trying to be like you. When I heard that bar, that one touched me.
I knew how much money I was making at the time, and it wasn’t good. It just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I was literally, like, breaking my back every day, five days a week. I was 17, 18. So it’s like, Alright, so I’ve gotta do this every day for another 50 years to hold it down? Nah, no way. This isn’t me. I need something else.
And now you look at your grandpa, and you respect him 500 times more.
I swear to God, this is a true story. He’s almost 70 now, and literally just about three weeks ago, I made him retire. He didn’t want to retire. I made him. I said to him, “How much will you get paid now for the rest of the year?” He told me, and I gave him money. I said, “You’re not allowed to go back to work.” I’ve seen him again the other day, and he said he was pissed off because he’s bored.
There have been parallels drawn between you and Jack Harlow. On the surface, it’s a lazy comparison—two white guys that rap—but after listening to your album and Jack’s Come Home the Kids Miss You, it would seem that maybe your common ground is this desire to be most influential in your hometowns, above everything else?
I’ve never thought about that. That’s very accurate, to be fair. At this point, we’re both loved by our hometowns, but that was always the first thing. Yeah, I want to be king of Manchester. Anything after that is just a bonus.
Like you said, it is a bit of a lazy comparison. You’re gonna compare straight away just because of obvious facts. Not to throw shade, but a lot of the time us from the U.K., we go over there to the States, and most people don’t really give us the time of day. And I’m not mad at that. But he really did. We’ve got a song together, but I think that’s the last thing on both of our minds every time we see each other. We went ‘round on a bus in the middle of London for about four hours one day and probably didn’t even speak about music once. I’ve learned from him just to stay genuine. I realized how much I respected him, and I wanted that respect back—not just off him, off other people [too].
Did it hold more weight that all of these U.K. powerhouses saw something in you first?
You need that confirmation from certain people. If you don’t get that, you don’t really know where you stand. You can spread your wings after that ‘cause it’s like, alright, if these people who I grew up listening to, who I think are sick and I know that other people think are sick, they’re commenting on my stuff and they’re telling me I’m sick? No one can chat to me. Even now me being in this for however many years now and seeing other younger people come up, I genuinely just want to show these people love. I know how it felt.
Who was the first to give you that confirmation?
It wasn’t necessarily first, but I always remember Stormzy commenting on my picture. I remember that comment very clearly. It was just a snowflake emoji. Not ‘because I’m white but ‘cause it was cold, in case anyone gets it twisted.
One of the first artists that ever messaged me was at Lil Durk. Random. I’ve messaged him since then, and he never replies, but he just said, “Your shit’s hard.” I was like, What is going on? This is so weird.
Lil Durk DM-ed you, but you’ve spoken before about English artists struggling to get a hold of American artists unless it’s a label connection. Is it a point of pride for you that your network of co-signs, collaborators and peers has been authentically built?
Yeah, a thousand percent. I really, really, really, really don’t care who it is. I do not want to do a song with someone if it’s just a case of, I’ve paid you hundreds and thousands of pounds to spit the verse, and you’re not even gonna share it on your Instagram and we never speak ever again. I will never do that.
You decided to keep a Lil Baby verse off your 2019 track “Taste” because you didn’t want to look like a clout-chaser. Will that verse ever see the light of day?
It probably will not. “Taste,” it went crazy. I think it went to No. 2 [on the U.K. charts]. It didn’t go to No. 1 because I was on the remix to the No. 1 song at the time [Sheeran’s “Take Me Back to London” remix]. I would say I blew up a couple years before, then after I dropped “Taste,” I blew up again. I went to the next stage after that.
At least a couple months [later], Baby just sent a verse. And to this day, it was the coldest Lil Baby verse I’ve ever heard in my life. I’m actually getting angry now explaining it because I should have just put it out. My pride got the better of me. I remember seeing certain other songs out there from certain other people, and they’d been promoting the song for about six months, and I’m like, Right, but have you not got anything else? And I didn’t want to be one of them people.
Rightly or wrongly, successfully crossing over into the U.S. mainstream is some sort of rite of passage. Do you care about it, or see it that way?
I care about it because I want my audience to be as big as possible. I don’t care about it because it’s not like I’m just trying to break America. I’m trying to break everywhere. If it works in America, I’ll be so happy. If it works in Germany, I’ll be so happy. I also understand Americans’ perspective of not really giving a fuck about us because why would you? America is so big. People are millionaires off two songs. You don’t really need to give a fuck about me unless you genuinely like my music.
This interview has been edited and condensed.