You can’t spell Manchester without an Aitch

You can’t spell Manchester without an Aitch

On a pandemic-precipitated break from the road, Manchester emcee Aitch returns to the city that helped make him one of UK hip-hop’s hottest emcees.

How does one even write about a year like 2020?

It’s not as though COVID is the great equalizer – if anything, it’s the exact opposite – but there’s still something unique about just how far-reaching the impact has been. Those boozy New Years reflections, memories refracted through empty pints, will play out in quieter rooms, punctuated by hesitant hugs and distant video chats. There’s uncommon solidarity in these moments, a community spirit underpinned by the one thing we can all agree on: it’s been a shit one, right? 

It says a lot that Manchester emcee Aitch, reclining at home after back-to-back-to-back tours, is feeling the sting. “I'm just going with the flow,” he tells me from his Manchester home, “just living and breathing.” It’s modesty that teeters on the brink of deception: over the course of the last year, Aitch’s flow has turned to white water, picking up speed as he bounces off fans-turned-collaborators like Ed Sheeran, Stormzy and Bugzy Malone. The release of Aitch20, his breakout EP, took him from viral talent to vital artist, casting him as one of the UK’s most promising emcees and crowning him as Manny’s fast-rising star. It’s strange to find the hometown hero in New Moston – particularly given the release of his recent EP, Polaris – but this year is nothing if not strange. 

“In about 10 days I was supposed to go to Malta, but it's been cancelled,” he explains, a little crestfallen. “It's so annoying because that's the main part,” he says of touring, a night-constant in his yet-young career. “You see your music come out and all the audiences receive it, and you only half get how much they like it – you need to see in the flesh and see the reaction to see what song really goes off.” If shows help him see eye to eye with his fans, that’s just the start – as the stories unfurl, pulling from months of raucous gigs, wide-eyed fans and far-flung adventures, Aitch’s love of performance shines through. He speaks glowingly of Copenhagen, an unlikely standout from the triple-tour marathon he launched in September, while still lamenting the loss of his trip down under. “Three tours of spitting the same songs over and over again, and I nearly really went crazy… I made Polaris and I thought 'I can't wait to perform new music!'” That’s when COVID hit: “boom – no shows.” 

Aitch is the first to admit that it’s not all bad. “I'm not gonna lie, it's good to relax, man,” he says, earnest and eager as ever. “Even though I'm gutted that I didn't come to Australia, I'm also glad, because I wouldn't have had a break... I would have been exhausted by the end of the Australia tour. I probably wouldn't have even done anything for the rest of the year.” It’s the kind of consolation that may actually cool the heads of forlorn fans, with Aitch suggesting that “maybe Polaris wouldn't have been out” if he’d made it to the hemisphere. “If anything, it was a blessing in disguise. I think that it's good to just chill, relax, recharge my mind, recharge my bars, and go again.”

Polaris makes “recharged bars” hard to imagine – chasing Aitch20 by just eight months, it emerges from the most demanding phase of his career, with Aitch’s attention pulled every-which-way by the gauntlet of fame. It’s an ascension that’s clear on the record itself: Safe To Say, equal parts bombastic and braggadocious, and Zombie, a confident horn-laden joint, are international link-ups with the omnipresent Kenny Beats; lead single Rain, the project’s breakout hit, pairs Aitch and AJ Tracey with Memphis superproducer Tay Keith. It’s less a leap than a graceful transition, testament to a mix of outright skill and curatorial conviction.

Aitch’s bars – usually freewheeling takes on taking names, stacking racks and charming girls – are charismatic as ever, the dexterity he honed atop grime instrumentals proving an asset even when paired with smooth, radio-ready beats. It’s an education that’s seen him land a malleable pocket, but even as he courts interest from some of hip-hop’s biggest tastemakers, Aitch’s heart is firmly tied to the streets of Manchester. It’s a devotion enshrined in his rapport with producer WhYJay, a partnership that dates back to the days of modest YouTube spikes and underpins essentials such as Taste (Make It Shake), Mice, Wait and 30.

It started as little more than a chance encounter in an unfamiliar studio, but as Aitch spent more time in the booth, he struck up a friendship with the engineer. “I started going with the mandem, and then as I got more and more comfortable with WhYJay… I started going on my own. It was just me and him in a room, and he basically told me that he makes beats as well. I must've started doing stuff on his beats… I couldn't really tell you where the whole relationship started, like the ‘he rolls with me’ type of relationship.” 

If the pair gravitated together over time, Aitch sees one particular studio experience as kickstarting their close creative understanding. “I asked to go to the studio in London, and I always remember that I never used to feel comfortable at these big studios with the big desks and the big mics, and I never used to sound as good,” he recalls, casting his mind back to the days of high school rhyming. “I used to ask WhYJay why, and then obviously, he had the answers for me, so I was like ‘well, why don't you just come with me every time... and just sort it out for me if I don't like it?’” 

It’s counsel that’s made WhYJay himself a fixture, introducing the producer to new artists whilst deepening his understanding of Aitch. “When we go into these other sessions now and these other producers know WhYJay, they want him to be involved,” he says, laughing at the memory of producer EY – “big up my guy EY, a good person” – being disappointed when he turned up alone. “It's good to see that WhYJay's doing his thing as well, like even outside of me,” he offers, explaining that no success could ever divide Manny’s finest: “I know WhYJay's got me, and I'd like to think if it came to it, he'd put me before everyone... I'd put him before everyone, as well!”

The same goes for videographer and friend Sami, the Mancunian talent who shot Aitch’s Straight Rhymez clip, the estate carpark visual that became the cornerstone of his fledgling fame. “Can I just say something about Sami,” asks Aitch as we touch on his name. He holds onto it for a second, as though he’s leaning in to share a secret: “Sami is actually a sick artist.”

That’s been true for a minute – Sami Visuals handled clips for Aitch singles Miss Me With It and Wait, as well as a host of foundational YouTube clips for the emcee – but lately, as Aitch explains, the man has traded rolling for rapping. “He's had a lot of pressure put on him as well, because all he wants to do is achieve what he wants, but there are people around him saying ‘I need someone to do my video, why are you rapping,’ or like ‘I want my video done!’” There’s no denying the power of a Sami video, but his turn on the mic has found a devoted audience, drawn to his infectious rhythms and auto-crooned melodies. “At the end of the day, you gotta let man do what he wants to do, innit? I'm never going to be mad at Sami. If I want a video, and he turns around and says ‘sorry, bro, I'm just focusing on my music right now,’ I'll say ‘yo, well done!’” 

“It's like if I wanted to go and be a tennis player tomorrow, and people were still calling my phone asking for a verse, I'd be saying ‘nah bro, I'm trying to work on my backhand, leave me alone!’” Sami’s Bait Lies video speaks to the kind of assist Aitch is offering: earnest and friendly, indulging dance moves and sharing laughs unencumbered by his fame. He goes unnamed, his enthusiasm drifting in and out of frame, slipping into the hypeman role without a second thought. “You can't get more Manchester than WhYJay and Sami,” he quips, “that's total hundred percent Manchester.”

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At this point, “total hundred percent Manchester” sounds like a mission statement of sorts, reflecting a loyalty to the city that shaped him. Aitch’s come-up was underwritten by local initiatives such as PieRadio, OneWayTV and Birmingham’s P110 Media, and even as he made the leap to platforms such as GRM, Aitch has been sure to keep his ear to the Mancunian pavement. He’s signed to Northern Quarterz Management, based out of Manny, and still frequents the same spots in New Moston. It’s an unassuming love that could be confused with advocacy, if only for his high profile. 

Aitch’s ascension does something to spotlight the flaring scene, but as he tells it, that very designation might be the thing that hems those talents in. “As negative as it sounds, it will never be as big as London just because it's not as big geographically,” he begins, measured. “I think the aim is for there to not be a separation. We don't want that to be a Manchester scene that's massive, I think we just want that barrier to go away… we just want to be rappers like everyone else.”

He pulls on the experience of Manchester artist Mastermind, a 25-year-old Somali emcee whose rapid rise led to a label bidding war last year. “No one from outside of Manny or London looks at Mastermind and thinks, ‘oh yeah, Mastermind from Manchester.’ He's just Mastermind. He kind of broke that barrier, because he makes it clear that he's from Manchester, he says he's from Rusholme and whatnot.” The softening of regional rivalries has happened abroad, and it certainly seems as good a time as any to challenge those boundaries – especially as Britain’s vibrant hip-hop scene seems set for an Invasion of their own. “Hopefully, there will be no barrier between the London scene and the Manchester scene, it's just the UK scene,” waxes Aitch, courting the kind of recognition that might just pierce that veil. “Manchester's poppin', though!” 

That’s as true at home as it is abroad, distance and dialect no barrier to bars. “Man's big in Australia, bro,” he says slightly stunned, “I'm kind of upset though, because Manchester is like... my 12th city!” Aitch pulls up his phone and scrolls through the numbers – “my top cities now, yeah: London, Dublin and Birmingham... yeah, fair enough. Sydney, number four. Number five, Bristol, and then number six, Brisbane. And then... number 10 is Melbourne.” I ask why, but his hold on Australians is a mystery, even to him. Those numbers bode well for his delayed tour, and Aitch knows as much. “You don't really know until you go and see, innit? That's why I can't wait to go to Australia and perform, because if them stats are accurate, it's gonna be crazy!” 

That’s a way off, though. In the meantime, Aitch is more than content milling about his local haunts, revelling in the year that was and scheming on those yet to come. It’s been a dizzying trip around the sun, bookended by a global pandemic that snatched festivals, island shows and distant tours from his grasp. If anything, he’s earned perspective, indulging the virtues of relaxation, considering the lessons of the road, and reconnecting with the city that saw him to the spotlight. COVID will eventually fade, but Aitch will return – rested, renewed and recharged. “The next time I get on stage, I won't only have Polaris… I'll have new music as well,” he promises, excited. 

In the meantime, he’ll be indulging those creature comforts the road doesn’t allow. “Sick of hotels, man, and apartments and shit shower gel and all them type of things,” he quips with a well-rested laugh. “I really want to get back into it,” he says of kickboxing, a passion that’s since fallen to the wayside. “I've not had time… obviously, I have because of Corona, so I've had all the time in the world… I don't have any excuses!” 

Excuses are in short supply, but Aitch stays busy making other plans: “I might have beans on toast after this interview,” he says with gusto, “fuck this!” 

It’s the little things.

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