In August 2001, the UK charts pop party was crashed by a breakneck garage track called 21 Seconds. The title of this Number One-with-a-swagger tune referred to how long each of the nine MCs and singers had to make their lyrical mark. Its creators: an act featuring a core line-up of 12… or 15… Their mission, straight from the south London streets: to do it all themselves, for themselves, on their terms.
“The only thing I thank the industry for,” said leader Megaman, “is not helping us.”
This was the So Solid Crew summer, when the most exciting sound in Britain was created by a bunch of self-starting all-rounders – average age 22 – intent on rewiring UK garage.
While ace photographer Mark Alesky distilled the essence of this wildly exciting, wildly inventive crew, both in the studio and on the pavements of So Solid’s Battersea home turf, writer Peter Lyle did an equally brilliant job of drilling into this upstart outfit’s impact on British music.
“The ruffneck spirit of raga, the harsh contrasts of sugary and clattering beats that hardcore has always revelled in, the deep, dark jungle-like basslines and the kind of locally focused lyrical emphasis that hip-hop had long stressed…” he wrote. “In total, the So Solid sound is spasmodic, trailblazing and designed to divide opinion fiercely.”
In that moment, there was nothing better and no one to touch them.
As singer Lisa Maffia declared: “We’ve brought out a new sound of garage. Everyone else was scared to try. ’Cause we’re young and there is so many of us, we’ve got all these ideas at once.”
Enjoy this deep-dive into those ideas in Lyle’s masterful profile.
Boom! On August 11, 2001, Hear’Say It’s Saturday began a four-week run on ITV. Boom! Boom! A little over 24 hours later, 21 Seconds was officially crowned the nation’s bestselling record by Radio 1. The timing couldn’t have been sweeter: on one side, history’s most processed, puppet-mastered outfit were reduced to hawking their cabaret act back on the small screen from which they, and the Popstars phenomenon, had sprung.
To the other, a self-made collective as sprawling and rude as the south London that had made them: So Solid Crew swaggered to the top of the charts with a record themed around which one of the nine MCs and singers had enough talent and hunger to make the most of his or her brief 21-second turn on the mic.
And with that, the world turned, the baton yanked from the stage school starlets by the street kids. It was about time, too. Whatever you felt about the record, the simple truth is that if a seismic shift in pop power like that doesn’t get you excited, you should lock yourself in the living room with your Ibiza chill-out CDs and give up on music altogether.
It was a Pop Moment, no question – even if the people responsible aren’t particularly interested. Within their world, 21 Seconds has already been out for the best part of a year, already won them the cheers at raves, rewind requests on pirate radio, all the attention in Ayia Napa; on the street circuit, it has long been installed as a priority special request.
“The number one thing,” says Scat D, So Solid MC, “it didn’t change anything at all. Everything’s still the same. Number ones are not the goal. Don’t get me wrong, we love number ones, but that’s not the sort of respect we’re looking for. We’re looking for bigger than that.”
With So Solid Crew, there was no carefully selected final line-up, no middle-aged Nasty Nigel holding the reins, no singing-and-dancing audition, no waiting to be discovered. Instead, there were a dozen key members, a total line-up of around 30 and an entry requirement that you came from the same pocket of Battersea as everyone else.
The big budget 21 Seconds video was as good an introduction to So Solid’s personnel as any. The front line: Megaman, group leader, big presence, taking charge like a cockney Chuck D; “Actor MC” Asher D, all half-moon grin and teenager swagger; Mac, built and bearded; and Skat D.
Then the pin-ups, MCs Romeo and Harvey. The singers: sole female Lisa Maffia and Kaish, the lean, blonde vocalist behind the high-speed chorus (no, his eyes aren’t really like that). Face (lean, long-limbed MC) rips into his verse; bearded co-director G‑Man skulks in the background.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you haven’t worked out who’s who yet; the group’s south London-calling-the-world new album They Don’t Know features seven producers (including Mr Morgan and Mr Synth, who was behind the last single and the swaggering new one, also called They Don’t Know).
There’s input from diffusion-line pop duo Oxide (producer) & Neutrino (MC), who first broke the So Solid name into the mainstream with their Casualty-samling, old guard-infuriating number one Bound 4 Da Reload, and 15 or so others, including a new Greek Cyprot contingent. Right now, their crew numbers 30.
With most members still in their teens when they decided it was time to get serious about So Solid, they weren’t about to wait to be spotted; they went out and did it – all of it – themselves, setting up their own record labels and running their own pirate radio station. It was to that initiative-seizing spirit that a nation of kids sick of being force-fed major label muppets in perma-grin pop troupes responded.
21 Seconds was a marriage of a two-step rhythm track with an instant, insistent electronic riff, plus a wind-tunnel bass whoosh; and a crew of rappers, singers and DJs, most of them with comic-book pseudonyms making them sound like street superheroes, suggesting if you were young and bold in Britain today, you could come from the back end of anywhere and still charge to the front of the queue: it’s all yours, if you really wanted it.
So Solid – average age now around 22 – write and produce their own tracks, have their own labels (Papermoney, So Solid Beats) promote their own raves, DJ on their own pirate station (Delight FM) and organise their own weekly meetings, where “directors” and co-founders G‑Man and Megaman chair discussions and make final decisions on distribution of remix work, timing of solo releases, dates for bookings and resolution of in-group grumbles.
People call their music garage, or accuse them of ruining garage; they don’t care what you call it. “We never said it was garage,” insists loud, enthusiastic 19-year-old MC Asher D. However you term it, down on the estate we’re today strolling through, it’s a sound you’re never very far from: pumping out of cars, or bedroom windows.
Their 21 seconds of fame came after half a lifetime’s hanging out, and three or so years’ serious pursuit of the So Solid cause, and one year – the last one, since their signing to Ministry Of Sound-backed dance label Relentless records – in which they’ve become a genuine industry phenomenon.
Many of the crew were friends from the time they were at primary school and were neighbours in a single complex of housing estates near Clapham Junction, but their initial musical interests were all over the place. In their teens, Romeo and Megaman – stars, along with singer Lisa Maffia, of last December’s debut top ten hit Oh No (Sentimental Things) – MC’d with Romeo’s uncle’s sound system at the Notting Hill Carnival.
“Me and Mega was in a sound, Killawatt, and we used to play Carnival every year,” says Romeo. “We were just rapping and chatting in front of about 2,000 people, and that’s where I done my groundwork.” Producer Swiss, meanwhile, “was really a drum and bass raver”, not especially interested in making music, until a friend introduced him to garage and another one sold him some decks.
There were other priorities for some members to deal with, too. Asher D, now 19, had been acting since early childhood. Lisa, the So Solid singer who’s been trying her hand at MCing lately, had a daughter to worry about (Chelsea, now four years old, recorded the spoken intro to 21 Seconds).
G‑Man (to whom Lisa got engaged during the summer) had only arrived from Jamaica in time for secondary school and “didn’t have no friends outside of So Solid”. Harvey, who is the same age as the pair of them, had to decide whether football or MCing held out the better prospects for him.
“I was a schoolboy at Chelsea from 11 to 15,” he says, “and then semi-pro at Barnet for four years. I played for Wales [his mum is Welsh] at under-15s.” It wasn’t until the street life (“hustling”, marijuana retail, “other stuff”) which the crew were living threatened his own long-term liberty that Megaman took steps to turn the dream of a music career into a concrete plan.
He spent four months in remand prison on a charge of attempted murder (he was later acquitted) and told himself he’d put his grand design into action as soon as he got out: if he didn’t, there might not be another opportunity. “Me and Face was on lockdown,” he says. “We said: ‘We’re gonna go through. We’re gonna do this, come out, make dough, make music.’”
So Solid Crew didn’t plan on doing it all by themselves. They just felt like they didn’t have a choice. “The only reason we started up our own promotions,” Megaman says, “was we was just on the radio MCing and we was going up to promoters going: ‘Yeah man, So Solid, boom, boom, we got some cold MCs, cold DJs…’ They weren’t interested, so we came out with no choice. We wanted to get off the street. It was time to invest in something proper, man.”
“Everyone was happy to [pay for it],” recalls G‑Man. “When we put the first records out the clubs wanted. We knew there’d be demand for it.” What they did was take the echoes of the scenes they’d grown up with and transplant them onto the basic bones of garage, a sound which as early as 1997 was taking over local black nightlife in the capital.
The ruffneck spirit of ragga, the harsh contrasts of sugary and clattering beats that hardcore has always revelled in, the deep, dark jungle-like basslines and the kind of locally focused lyrical emphasis that hip hop had long stressed – in total, the So Solid sound is spasmodic, trailblazing and designed to divide opinion fiercely. “We’ve brought out a new sound of garage,” says Lisa. “Everyone else was scared to try. ’Cause we’re young and there is so many of us, we’ve got all [these] ideas at once.”
“I ain’t saying everyone was negative,” says Mega, looking back, “but most people who could’ve looked on us as up-and-coming talent, to bring us forward. The only thing I thank the industry for is for not helping us. We had to go forward and do something like this, I feel like if we did actually get that opportunity through the Industry, they would have been in control of our future. It’s a good thing I went this way, man.”
Megaman himself is clearly the crucial presence at the controls of So Solid’s future: calm, imposing, keen-eyed and quick-witted, he comes over more like some grand old warrior-seer of 200 than the 22-year-old he is. Quite how So Solid Crew might have turned out had they got a cushy deal and a standard industry management team just doesn’t bear thinking about.
They wouldn’t have released their records to the underground months and months before they put them out properly, and Swiss wouldn’t have got off with just a phone call from his record label when he insisted on playing unreleased tracks from So Solld’s forthcoming album during his radio slot, on the grounds that, while the pop masses get down to last season’s big underground song, “you have to give [the underground fans] something new”.
And though there’s something manufactured-pop perfect about the group’s mix of loudmouth frontmen and quiet decision-makers, wideboy caricatures and the pretty girl, you can’t imagine a chart-smart label head being happy having to squeeze so many onto each CD cover.
“Like the cab man said to me yesterday,” Face says, “‘isn’t there too much of you in the group?’ But you know why there’s so much of us? We all come from the same place. The rest of the kids are cousins, cousins’ cousins, friends, friends’ friends.”
Asher D: “Sons, daughters…”
Face: “I told the cab man, we want everybody to eat. We don’t wanna leave no one behind. So if we can get 150 man or 600 man, we want it. Bring it.”
To So Solid crew, U must hear dis every day, but I am ur biggest fan, but I’m not gonna booty wash. Your all normal people 2. Da reason I am writing 2 ya is becose I used 2 live in London, and I now live in Blackpool. Sum of da people here think dat london is ez 2 live in, and from my experience I know dat they are very fuckin wrong. They r all talk and no action, please put out da message dat London is fuckin harder than them on one of your next wicked tunes. Keep up da good work – fan letter to So Solid Crew.
As much as So Solid Crew are about the us-and-them excitement of creating a harsh, vibrant, new aural identity (which, as hip-hop, house and jungle once did, sounds like objectionable electronic noise to everybody outside the loop) they have a nobler calling, too: to give voice to an experience of 21st century British urban existence you don’t hear much about.
With a recession looming, the New Labour myth of universal upward mobility, EasyJet egalitarianism and affordable fresh pasta for all is wearing increasingly thin. Council estates and the lives of the people who live in them are the forgotten stories of modern Britain.
“We’re letting people that work in business offices and places know that the streets are out there,” says Romeo,“ and letting the kids on the street know that things can be accomplished if you put your mind to it.”
Today in Battersea, across the road from the Winstanley estate and in the redbrick courtyard of Bush House “where we used to play benchball” – across the stomping grounds where the majority of the crew grew up and hung out during their teens – Megaman’s mother has joined a 40-strong crowd of So Solid members, affiliates, friends and family gathered for THE FACE’s photoshoot.
“The thing is,” she says, “they believe in it. That’s good, isn’t it? It gives the other kids round here the idea that they could do it too.”
The kids are all right and So Solid aren’t ashamed to say so, know they owe them a lot. Ask MC Neutrino: “It’s the younger generation that’s followin’ us. We’re kind of leaders to them, know what I’m sayin’? Role models. The older, old, old, people, they don’t understand none of it. When I was at the airport the other day, right, signing loads of autographs for kids, all the parents were like: ‘Who’s that? Is he famous?’ So we’re mainly known by the younger generation. They understand what we’re going through – certain things on the streets, in life, and we know what it’s like, and they can relate.”
Two kids who got the idea they could do it themselves were Skip, 11-years-old, and Frost, eight. The DJing brothers, who first tried out the turntables two years ago and operate together (a deck each) were inspired by the movement and taken under the wing of the crew. “They [had] always been around us,” explains Skip, “but things only got serious when we went on the radio and Megaman made up our names.”
Skip and Frost now have a Sunday evening slot on London station Delight FM. They try not to play out on school nights, and the latest slot they’ve played so far was at 1am. Last year, they played to an audience of garage dignitaries at Bagley’s nightclub in King’s Cross. “The people there were blown away by it, they couldn’t believe it. As they put it,” says the boys’ mother, “they smashed it!”
It’s not only the kids in the neighbourhood whose attentions So Solid have courted. Once they’d signed to Relentless a year ago – the label which sent Artful Dodger’s Re-Rewind into the charts a couple of years ago – the street logic remained, but the logistics went nationwide.
By the time 21 Seconds was gearing up for release, stickers and posters offering a logo to download were wallpapered across rave-banner hotspots in London, the Midlands, even outside Chessington World of Adventures (it was the school summer holidays). The outcome was that 26,000 kids texted the word “HEAVY” for the privilege of walking around with “So Solid” scrawled across their phone screens. Result.
If this all sounds a bit too perfect, that’s because it is. Not everyone thinks So Solid are good for the kids, or even for the rest of us. According to one source, during the run-up to the weekend 21 Seconds was released, there were concerned discussions at CD:UK over whether So Solid performing on the Saturday morning chart show would be seen to encourage violence. The same backdrop of “violence” has led some to paint So Solid as a nasty enterprise.
Alongside Megaman’s incarceration interlude, Asher D is scheduled to appear at the Old Bailey on firearm possession charges and making threats to kill. Gun charges also hang over Neutrino. Then there’s Harvey, who “got into an argument” and ended up on the receiving end of a blade in Ayia Napa last year.
Between them, Asher and Harvey have 29 stitches from being assaulted. So Solid don’t attempt to hide these incidents, or hype them up, or talk them down. They’ll simply point out that if you’ve grown up on the streets, or done the rounds on the garage rave circuit – areas of which have become increasingly hostile and tense over the last 18 months – you understand that these things happen.
Like any street music, too, So Solid’s songs get their edge from an air of menace, a sense of danger, an urge to feel the electric thrill of confrontation. Are they worried, though, that when they’ve won over the nation’s kids, the tabloids will indignantly set to work exposing their shocking street pasts?
“We told everything in our lyrics and our flows and that already, innit,” announces Skat D. “Let them dig,” says Megaman. “Whatever publicity it is, it’s good. We’re not coming from a good background anyway, so at the end of the day, blood, we’re gonna get that. Anyone brought up on the streets or in the ghetto would know that we’re not here to stay in the ghetto forever, man. We’re here to get out of the streets, man. Think I wanna be walking around here selling weed forever, walking around like a bad boy?”
So Solid already has the kids; they’ve got the underground and they’ve caught the attention of everyone else now, too, for better or for worse. Their next smash single – They Don’t Know, featuring 19-year-old, raggafied MCing prodigy Ms Dynamite (Swiss’ brother persuaded her to join in) – is waiting in the wings.
They’ve just completed an album that seeks to preserve a dramatic vision of life in the capital on tape forever, replete with steel drums, skits mythologising bus routes and songs celebrating local geography – not forgetting the unapologetically British couplets such as “I go deep/Deeper than the graves where they bury the foot and mouth sheep” (Romeo, on album track Deeper). All they have to do now is ensure that their multitude of mooted solo offshoots don’t spread their talents too thinly.
This is the future sound of south London, and of young, MC-maniac Britain. Of pioneering street pop that’s snatching the musical momentum back from the forty-somethings who think they know what the kids can cope with.
“You can’t put a hold on anything, anyway,” says Megaman, sitting on a waist-high red wall in the old estate, dispensing blue Rizlas to a procession of local youths coming up every minute or so and tapping him on the shoulder.
“If they don’t see it on TV, they’ll buy it out in the shops. If they don’t buy it in the shops they’re gonna hear it on radio. We’re on a progression.” He pauses, ashes his spliff on a brick and, out of nowhere and in relation to nothing except his group’s belief that, together, the sprawling gang of kids who walked these streets can do whatever they set their minds to, adds: “Nothing is tighter than So Solid Crew.”
Editors’ note: to preserve the authenticity of the original text, we have not capitalised “Black”