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Nine Songs

From loving rap videos before he loved the rappers, knowing Oasis lyrics from birth, and blaring Giggs & Skepta in abandoned cars, Aitch talks the music that made him.

24 June 2022, 08:00 | Words by Andrew Wright

As he gears up for the release of his debut album Close To Home, Aitch imparts the figures that have informed his rapper identity, in everything from wordplay to showmanship and executing collaborations.

“I just woke up,” Aitch admits at the start of our chat. It’s 1pm. “I have been up and out already this morning,” he clarifies, “but then I went back to bed.”

Napping is a necessity for Harrison Armstrong at the moment, who by sensible estimation is probably the biggest rapper in the country right now. Not long before our interview, the 22-year-old dropped “1989”: a love letter to Manchester’s musical heritage, where he springs like a bouncy ball from a “Fools Gold” sample, bagging a Shaun Ryder cameo for the video too.

Previous single “Baby” saw him just miss out on his first UK number one - that time borrowing from Ashanti’s “Rock Wit U (Awww Baby)”. “All of the biggest songs are sampled,” he tells me later in our chat. A few days after we speak, he storms BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend main stage with the ‘00s R&B luminary in tow.

Throw in a recent run of US shows; documenting and disbanding his curiously high profile “situationship” with Amelia Dimoldenberg, and gearing up for current single “In Disguise” from his long-anticipated debut album Close To Home and it’s a wonder Aitch finds a pocket of the day to breathe, let alone think up the most formative songs of his life.

But, he has. “I sat there in my back garden with my friend Via and I just let my brain run away with my imagination and see what I came up with,” he explains. “I thought about different times in my life, and these songs all remind me of different stages and what was going on.”

The finished product, ostensibly, is slightly haphazard and loosely knitted together. Are there any themes threaded throughout? “Erm, I suppose they’re all rap songs,” he says. “Oh no, they’re not actually.”

Stylistically, the boisterous hip-hop hooks in many of Aitch’s picks offer some explanation for the cocky wit that’s defined much of his work to date. His Nine Songs selections recount the coterie of Aitch’s younger years that defined his musical moulding. In other words, three figures from his childhood who helped reveal the magnetism that music has presented to him ever since. His older cousin exposed him to noughties music TV channels, and while many kids would’ve switched over to Cartoon Network, a 9-year-old Aitch tuned in and cultivated a love for rappers like Chipmunk.

He would observe his dad (and his dad’s friends) “losing their minds'' to songs as a youngster, feeding off their musical palette all the same. These memories convey the richness of the musical history in cities like his native Manchester, and the way it cuts into the fabric of family life and the identities of its residents - “you’re just kind of born knowing every lyric to ‘Wonderwall,’” he says. In his galivants with the mandem on the streets of Moston, fuelled on their pedal bikes by a musical catalogue from the turn of the last decade, were the seeds of Aitch’s appreciation of music as a tool for collective joy and identification.

While some artists might be earnestly insular about their work, there’s democracy at the heart of Aitch’s approach. He’s most excited for his album to drop because “I need to know what everyone thinks. I don’t care if you think it’s good or bad, it tells me what I need to do next.” Of course, in part, that’s the essence of being a mass-marketed, pop-adjacent rapper. However, for Aitch personally, there’s a benevolent desire for his fans to genuinely just have a good time, traceable to his own memories of the musical rapture he enjoyed with his mates.

These motifs run through Close To Home. He tells me of one track which is “like a whole Manchester, sunny but cloudy vibe. Oasis-type shit. I’ve got one for the club, there’s always one for the club. And, I’ve got heartfelt songs, I’ve got songs that really mean something to me and that I’ve wanted to get off my chest.”

“Let the music do the talking,” he concludes. But first, he’ll talk about other people’s.

“Wonderwall” by Oasis

“‘Wonderwall’ was definitely the first one on this list that came into my head. It’s the soundtrack to the majority of people in Manchester’s life. It was a no-brainer. Any family party, christening, anything - it’s there in the background. It’s like going to New York and hearing the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys song, you’re just gonna hear it.

"My earliest memory of hearing it is my Dad and his friends being in the house and all of them singing it. I grew up listening to rap, and so I remember I was like ‘What is this?’ - and then you grow to love it. It’s a people song. I wouldn’t really play it if I was on my own. It’s definitely not just an on-the-go, on the playlist [type song]. It’s more for when you’re on the tour bus on the way to the show, just me and my DJ, my manager, my friend, whatever, it gets you hyped up.”

“I'll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy feat. Faith Evans & 112

“I remember seeing this on the music channels on TV when everyone used to watch music channels. My cousin used to babysit me and she always used to have the music channels on, so I’d know which channels were the music ones and what not.

"At first, I think I just liked the video - the way he came through on the motorbike and he was all in white. It was always something that I wanted to see when I went on the music channel. So I picked that song because you only start to understand it as you get older and you realise that he was rapping about Biggie Smalls, about him dying. Unless I change my mind throughout the years, I want it to be played at my funeral, I think. That one just gets me. I’ve grown up seeing it. In my head, it’s the soundtrack to certain periods of my life.”

BEST FIT: You’re no stranger to a sample also, is that iconic Police song at the heart of “Missing You” an element you appreciate as well?

“Yeah, I think so, subconsciously. All the best music is sampled songs, nine times out of ten. But I don’t really think about it too much to be fair. I don’t really go into the studio thinking, ‘Oh, we need to sample something’, it just kind of happens. With certain songs obviously I’ve been like, ‘We need to use this as a sample’, but it’s not every day I’m in the studio and I’m like, ‘Oh get that sample in there.’ And when I was watching it on the music channels I wouldn’t have had a clue what a sample was. I only knew when I started doing music myself.”

“Young, Wild & Free” by Snoop Dogg & Wiz Khalifa feat. Bruno Mars

“This was the first song that reminded me of a turning point in my life, in a good way. You know when you’re young and you feel like you’re an adult, but you’re not really, but you feel like you are? So I was 11, I was going into high school, and I was like ‘oh god, here we go.’

"I was always a Wiz Khalifa fan, and this one came out, and it just made me less stressed about everything. Not that I was stressed at 11 years old, but you’re worried about high school or big exams, GCSEs, whatever you’re doing, or certain things your friends are doing and you don’t wanna get in trouble. There’s a lot on your mind. I remember hearing that song and thinking, ‘Oh it doesn't matter, let’s do whatever.’ It put me at ease, and then it was a banger for years, not just in 2011.

"I always remember coming back to it if something went wrong, or if I was a bit on edge about something, thinking ‘Oh no, this ain’t gonna work’ or whatever. You play that song and everything just gets better. It doesn’t necessarily cross people’s minds at first when they think about [important] songs, but that one just gets me.”

“In Da Club” by 50 Cent

“This song is one of my main memories of being like ‘I’m a rap fan. This is the music I like.’ My decision was made right there. It was because he was doing the gangsta rap thing, but then he turned around and made this club song about girls,‘It’s your birthday…’ I was like ‘Yo, this is sick.’ There’s no other way of putting it. And from then I was a die-hard 50 Cent fan. That was the moment where I was like ‘I’m a fan of this guy, this is my type of shit.’

"I heard it first, again, on the music channel, while sitting at home. But, similar to the Wiz Khalifa thing, I was a 50 Cent fan. I’ve been a fan for a while, and I was gonna pick a different 50 Cent song because I feel like any general listener, if you were to say, ‘name a 50 Cent song’, they would say ‘In da Club’, but you can’t really not say ‘In da Club’ at the same time. That’s what made everyone really love 50 Cent.”

“Fire in the Booth” by Nines

“I was a little bit older then. What was that, like 2013? And I’d never heard anyone rap like that. I remember a couple of my friends were singing it, and I didn’t really like it at first, I was like ‘he’s rapping too slow for me.’ I was on grime, I used to love grime. So I was like, ‘I don’t really get it. I don’t really get what he’s saying.’ And then I remember one time I went on YouTube and looked it up, because everyone was bumping it, and I was like, ‘I need to understand this. I need to know why everyone likes this and I don’t.’ I played it and took it in, and I remember at the end of it I was like ‘oh my god, that was so cold.’

"I like it when you can tell that rapping is a man’s second hobby, if that makes sense? I like a rapper’s rapper, but you can tell that he didn’t go in there just trying to be a rapper. I don’t know how to explain it without saying certain things, but you know that what he was rapping about, is really what he’s rapping about. And, by the way, Nines is one of the sickest rappers in England, so this is almost irrelevant to Nines now, but I’m saying: I would rather listen to someone who could, let’s say, be considered an 8/10 rapper, but really live every single thing he says, than an 11/10 rapper who is just a rapper.

"I’m nothing but a rapper, so I’m not doing myself any favours by saying this. I do live every single lyric I’ve ever spat in my life, but I’m not spitting about certain things. But Nines just caught me with that one. He was like, ‘I’m just gonna come in here and do what I’m doing.’ He was half-shy actually in that ‘Fire in the Booth’, and he won me over.

"This track was the one for me growing up. I was like ‘if you’ve got a Fire in the Booth, you’re about to blow, or you’ve just blown.’ I always wanted to do a Fire in the Booth. For me, that’s definitely one of the best. There are a couple of contenders for that to be fair: Bugzy’s was sick, K Koke’s was sick, Wretch’s, but I do like Nines’ one and if I was going to play one right now, I would play Nines'.”

“Love Sosa” by Chief Keef

“I was absolutely fascinated by him and what he was doing, and that put me in a whole other place. That song actually made me realise how big the world is, because I’d never seen anything like that before. I was like ‘Wow, this is actually going on, this is crazy.’ It made me want to go to Chicago, which is crazy that we’re talking about this, because I’ve just been to Chicago for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It was sick. I was only there for a day, I had a show there and then I had to go straight over to New York after that.

"I don’t even know what to say about "Love Sosa" - how do I explain that? That was really something I’ve never seen before, in the way he rapped and all his videos. It was fascinating more than anything, like ‘What’s going on? What’s he saying?’ I couldn’t understand him at first, so I was like, ‘Right, I’m gonna really listen to these lyrics.’

"Certain people just stand out to me. I really can’t explain it, and Chief Keef is one of those people. I’d never heard of anything like that. Remember, I grew up on 50 Cent, Wiz Khalifa, and these people are rapping, rapping, rapping, and the next minute, Chief Keef comes out of the blue and I was like, “Oh my days, that’s so cold.” That was a period of my life where everyone got on to the Chicago thing. Even the way they used to edit their pictures - we always used to try and edit our pictures like that on Instagram. It was a big influence.

"Obviously you know what goes on in the world, but you don’t really deep certain things. You grow up - especially where I’m from - and you see things like Paid in Full the movie, or 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin', and you’re like ‘there’s mad stuff going on in New York.’ Or, Straight Outta Compton, ‘there’s mad things going on in LA, see all them LA guys, gangbangers, whatever.’ You don’t hear much about Chicago. Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan, that’s all you think about. None of us knew about Chicago until Chief Keef came out. And then these men came out and they’ve all got dreads, they’ve all got big guns in the video and everyone was like “Wow, what is this?” And you get fascinated, and on the plus side, the music was actually sick."

“Nu Flow” by Big Brovaz

“I remember my Dad’s friend Ryan - big up Ryan - he used to come round with lots of different CDs and I didn’t know what Big Brovaz were, I don’t even know what Big Brovaz are to this day really, but he put that in the player and this song came on. I remember the mad beat, and him and my Dad were just spitting it word-for-word. And because they did the same every time, I happened to get into it because all of them used to listen to it.

"That’s all I remember about it, I remember that house where we used to live, being in the back room and listening to that, and them having a laugh and I was there looking at everyone and then after a bit, I got into it. I never used to listen to it in my spare time, but it was just always there.”

“Chip Diddy Chip” by Chipmunk

“He was the first UK rapper I got into. Same story, my cousin was babysitting me, and she was flicking through the music channel like crazy trying to find this. She wouldn’t stay on a song, and she was like, ‘I’ve got a new favourite song and I need to find it.’ And then Chip came on in his school uniform, and she was like, ‘Yes!’

"I was like, ‘Wow this is sick.’ I think I thought it was sick because she did, you know how you just copy people at first? And then I got into it, and I’ve listened to Chip ever since. But I didn’t really deep it with that one at first, to be honest. I was more like ‘Why is she so excited for this song? Does that mean I need to be excited about this song?’ I was like, ‘Oh right this must be the good shit.’ So I’ve been a Chip fan ever since, and obviously I’m a Chip fan today.”

“Look Out” by Skepta feat. Giggs

“This was a random one, I could’ve named 30 songs. This was like my phase of… not thinking I was bad, but thinking, not even just me, but we [me and my friends] were sick because we were out on the streets on the pedal bikes listening to this, literally doing nothing, but that was our theme tune.

"It’s Skepta and Giggs innit, they’re both the ones for UK rap music growing up. Skepta and Giggs, they’re the guys. And when them two linked up, it was actually quite early, but we listened to that song for years. I think that was the first time that Skepta and Giggs did a song together as well, so that was crazy. Before we’d even heard it, I was like ‘Woah, this is gonna happen.’ And then we heard it and it just made sense, it was sick. And the video was fascinating to me. Just bare man in London. And obviously being a fan as well and knowing certain things, like Skepta’s from North London, Giggs is from South London and all of them linking up. That was sick.

"And when I think of that song, I think of all my mandem singing it. I can hear all of their voices singing it in their little Giggs voice. We would be running around on pedal bikes trying to find something to do. Anywhere outdoors, we were always outdoors doing something. We used to get in abandoned cars. We would find cars that had been sat there for months, we used to watch them for ages and when no one would go in them, we’d try them - this happened a couple of times - and they’d be unlocked, so we used to sit in them and do stuff that I won’t say in this interview, and "Look Out" reminds me of those times.”

Close To Home is released 19 August via Capitol
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