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Returning with the third instalment of his mixtape series, the rapper talks musical growth, finding his flow and staying true to the city.
When AYSTAR used to hear a smart rap, it left a bittersweet taste. “[I’d be] like, ‘That was sick, why didn’t I think of that?’” he says, thinking back to his initial inspiration to take up the mic over 10 years ago.
Fast-forward to now and it is others within the grime food chain who’re now looking up at Aystar with a similar level of inspiration and envy. After the self-scrutinous start, he’s formed a career that’s seen him go from viral YouTube star to speaking today as an authority at the top of the scene.
Alongside Manchester’s Bugzy Malone, the Toxteth-born rapper has stood as a provincial outlier since 2016 and helped shift the groundswell away from London to rightly put eyes on the north. But rather than a quest to gain recognition in the south, the journey has stemmed from the innate belief he could match and better what he was hearing in his youth. “I just fell in love with being able to just fuck around with words and get your points across while rhyming,” he says of the moment ambition and ability started to crystallise. “And I realised, I’m just better at that than a lot of other people.”
Ten years on, this sure sense of self hasn’t plateaued. On his latest mixtape, Scousematic 3, he retains a swaggering bravado that’s as unflinching as his equable flow. “Look bro, I’ve gotta be top three in England when it comes to just slappin’ on a rap beat,” he proclaims on Straight In, with the added boast: “I made so much dough last year I forgot to rap.”
The mixtape is a confident reassertion of stature after a short while out of the spotlight, but it isn’t all self-aggrandising. Aystar’s unwavering flow and daring architectural wordplay are baked into the heart of the record. “She sees me fly past on crosses, now she thinks I’m a Catholic,” he quips on In And Out, just one of many razor-sharp lines that carry the signature wit and self-awareness that put the rapper on the pedestal he now enjoys.
Starting off as a freestyler operating in hip-hop territory, his more recent mixtapes have carried greater drill and grime sensibilities with their bouncy production and staccato rhyme schemes. Scousematic 3 follows suit for the most part, but there are more expansive flourishes that lean into RnB on In And Out, with weighty features across the record from Giggs and Digga D marking his ascent to the top. Aystar puts this down to natural progression. “I’m growing as an artist,” he says, “so my music is going to reflect that as well.”
Aystar caught his first break with his Bar Session back in 2012. The video sees a fresh faced Aystar freestyling down the back entry of a terraced street. With bars laced with stories of drugs and violence, it’s his straight-faced humour and gritty portrait of life coming up in L8 and L15 that marked him out as a talent in the making. “Guy got left with a popped eye, no spinach, that’s what you’ll be getting if you think you’re the illest,” he delivers, hood up and eyes fixed on the camera – no hint of irony.
“I started putting freestyles out on MySpace and they used to get crazy thousands of listens,” he says of the formative years before the Bar Session. “I thought to myself, ‘If I’m getting that on MySpace, if I do videos on YouTube it’s got to get views’.” His instincts were right, with the Bar Session now well on its way to two million views.
He credits his early inspiration to local collective YOC for putting a Scouse stamp on a genre that wasn’t yet known for a vernacular at home in the North West. But where YOC’s lyrical flow matches that of mid-2000s grime in its speed, with interspersed Scouse inflections, Aystar’s own style would eventually bypass any established norms and fall into the slowed down, distinctive mould of his own voice.
“How can this Aystar yute have a lazier flow than mine. This yute’s coooold,” announced Giggs back in 2016. The similarities in style would soon be heard side by side on The Best taken from Giggs’ 2016 album Landlord, but it was a deeper retreat into his own personality that garnered Aystar national attention a few years earlier.
“I remember years ago I was a bit more energetic,” he says of his early style, before it switched to something much slower and akin to a death stare marked by flashes of unhinged twitchiness. It’s perhaps Scouse Matic Freestyle, released in 2015, which signals the fully-fledged arrival of its new form.
With its tantalising Mobb Deep-style beat, the track becomes more flash fiction than song as Aystar stitches together scenes lit by street lamps, gunfire and flashing blue lights coming into sight. With every R elongated and C crunching down harshly, Aystar was producing some of the Scousest music ever made. The accent becoming its own instrument in the mix, the local vernacular the grounding flourishes and authenticity that can’t be plucked out of thin air by producers. And with all this, Aystar’s delivery keeps a straight face, barely moves, or worries about simple rhyme schemes with words ping ponging between 16 bar arrangements. Nonchalant, lazy, unfazed, unarsed, call it whatever – it’s a style that faces its surroundings head on and doesn’t blink.
“I think that’s just a personality trait. Just the way that I am, you know what I mean?” he says, when asked how he arrived at the unflinching, slowed down flow he’s now synonymous with. “I’m kinda like that anyway. So that’s just how it comes out in my music. I never ever thought, ‘I’m gonna try and be like this, or like that’. When I rap, it’s like me speaking to you,” he says, the tone in his voice beginning to rhythmically shuffle forward like one of his own bars. “I don’t change my voice. I don’t add a certain energy. I just give you it the way I am.”
While Aystar now garners attention on a national level, the lyrical content of his music hasn’t shifted far from his life growing up around Toxteth and Wavertree. He says the stories he tells on record aren’t necessarily autobiographical, some stemming from real life events, yet they still carry an air of first-person documentation by way of geographical osmosis through remaining parts of the areas he raps about. “I feel like you’ve got to live, you’ve got to live and go through these experiences to even be able to come up with the music,” he says. “If I hadn’t experienced [certain things], I wouldn’t have been able to come with that specific tune. It’s definitely a mixture of what’s happening in life now. And what’s happened previously.”
He outlines how Liverpool and his life here will remain a core part of his music, irrespective of growing national radio plays and attention from heavyweight stars in the south. “That’s what brought me in the game. So, for me to change the recipe now, I wouldn’t really be the guy that I am.”
With London still an industry base for drill and grime, the temptation to follow its lead is difficult to resist for artists coming through. But for Aystar, the parallel reality for rap artists up north offered its own chance to stand out. “I’m trying to stay original. For a lot of people, when they try and tap into the London scene, they forget who they are,” he says. “I’ve been doing this from Liverpool for so long that when people do take notice, I want everyone to know that it’s straight from our city. You’re not mixing me up with these London cats.”
Wearing the city’s colours so vividly in his music comes with an apparent sense of pride. In many ways, it comes across as a duty, an obligation to put his powers to good use. “Being in the car and listening to the radio and then hearing someone who’s representing your city, but is actually good – it’s a good feeling,” he says. “Like, I’m doing Liverpool justice, if anything,” he laughs. “If I was making a show, I probably would have stopped a long time ago.”
The notions of home are strewn across the cover of Scousematic 3. With a Toxteth street sign partially in view, a shot-up phone box and Aystar pensively looking on, it seems to suggest a return to a scene of social violence as an observer, rather than instigator. Either way, it projects an image of authority, as if a figure seeing the scenes shift around them while they hold their ground. Perhaps a sense of contemplation in the figure looking in the opposite direction within the reflection of the broken glass.
It’s this sense of contemplation that marks this current phase in Aystar’s career; no longer the hot new talent, but something of a stalwart having made it 10 years in the game. While perspectives change, and the palette of producers he’s working with, he doesn’t see much else differently to the teenager who’d once felt frustration that a clever rhyme wasn’t his own. “I know who I am. You know what I mean? I know that I am looked at as that person in Liverpool and in the north,” he says, with air of consideration. “But at the same time, I still just try and keep how I’ve been for the past 10 years. I don’t let that change.”
Scousematic 3 is available now.