It doesn't matter how recent or how ancient: history is an alien, a foreign country, a bag of tricks. It's messy and open-ended. It's things that were significant meshed with things that were false and unimportant, all tied up with things we barely remember.
Take Britain in 2001, for example. This was the year of a second, sleaze-flecked New Labour landslide, foot and mouth disease, the sentencing of Barry George, the slow conceptual withering of the Millennium Dome, the race riots in Burnley and Brixton and of the year of 9/11 and its seismic reverberations. There was all the big, timeline-filling stuff—all of it that bit external and important and out of reach. But this was also the year of the Sven haircut kid, of the triumph of Brian Dowling and Brass Eye's Peadogeddon. There was all the arbitrary cultural ephemera that informs, clutters and shapes the spirit of the age; and it was an age of weariness and disgust, yet sun-kissed with comparative innocence.
And then there was August 6, 2001, which witnessed the release of "21 Seconds" (the designated time for each MC to get their lyrics out), the tune that brought So Solid Crew from their south London heartlands to an astonished mainstream. A proper, word-of-mouth smash hit, it swatted away Atomic Kitten to reach number 1 and inaugurated a labyrinthine story eventually involving a revolving cast of more than 20 characters, though it would take supreme self-confidence to guess at an exact number.
It's the story of Lisa Maffia, Asher D, MC Harvey, Oxide, G-Man, MC Romeo, Megaman, and Skat D. Of Brit Awards and court cases. Of film stardom and reality TV ennui. Of record label implosion and hyper-surreal solo careers. Of murder charges and shootings. Of incredible drive and self propelled success. And—more than any of the salacious individual details—it's the story of a collective whose influence extended, and extends, far beyond their own musical output. As Lisa Maffia's verse in "21 Seconds" has it, "So Solid Crew is here to stay / We're going right to the top of it." Although perhaps not quite in the way that she, or anyone else could have envisioned.
Though that all comes later. In a story like this, with all these threads, it's best to just begin at the beginning. And the beginning is late 90s London and specifically a gaggle of estates in Battersea, Brixton, and Peckham. Thrown together by relative proximity and connected by a UK garage scene that relied on the vibrancy and the underground ubiquity of pirate radio, So Solid originated with Megaman and G-Man (Lisa Maffia's then boyfriend) meeting at Supreme FM. Soon after, there were ten core members, most of whom knew each other from being involved in other musical projects. Not that it was necessarily a matter of design, as Ashley Walters explained in a recent interview: "I just stumbled on a crew called 'So Solid' one day. It sounded like they were rapping, but the music was very English."
In truth, it didn't seem like much surrounding the group was following a traditional model to stardom. This wasn't the polished, chart-packaged garage world of Craig David with his mainstream-friendly cooing and emphasis on week-long seductions. And though the music was undeniably English, it wasn't from an England that everyone in the country knew apart from in their media-managed nightmares of urban anxiety. This was music that reflected the difficulties, the violence and the strain of street life in a London that many either ignored or wilfully repressed any knowledge of. Music that, as MC Harvey set down in a 2013 interview, "came from struggle." To more oblivious sections of the mainstream, it seemed like this world of flashy jewellery, underground raves, bravado-filled lyrics and fractious, dislocated beats came from a different, more threatening nation. With increasing prominence came increasing scrutiny and hysteria. The group became clad in their role as a racial dogwhistle tabloid cypher for a "ghetto culture" that consisted of guns, drugs, flash trainers, and Cristal.
Yet despite the crudity of their treatment in the press it would be churlish to pretend that chaos and violence didn't shadow the group's origins and rise. Most notoriously, this struck in the afterglow of a party in Birmingham during the early hours of January 2, 2003, when teenagers Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis were shot dead in crossfire between rival gangs. In the immediate aftermath, the Labour culture minister Kim Howells was quick to fling blame at "idiots like the So Solid Crew glorifying gun culture and violence," while no lesser personage than then Home Secretary David Blunkett called their lyrics "appalling."
This followed a similar incident a year earlier in which a teenage fan was beaten to death outside a venue in Luton following one of their gigs. That was by no means all. Founder member G-Man was charged and jailed for possession of a handgun, while Skat D was fined after admitting to breaking the jaw of a 15-year-old fan who rebuffed his sexual advances. And then, the arguably most famous case was that of Asher D (now Ashley Walters, acclaimed actor), who was imprisoned for firearms possession in 2002. It was this reputation for violence that provided justification for police to ban them playing throughout the country, leaving one the biggest acts in the country unable to perform.
As much as it's a list that doesn't make for comfortable reading, the shrill political responses have a craven, opportunistic ring to them—even now. Not just shrill, but familiar, even in 2017. Just last year they were abruptly dropped from the Lovebox Festival, allegedly because another act didn't want to share the stage with them. Harvey took to Twitter to bemoan the fact that "we give artists careers, and they still treat us like c***s."
The situation has echoes of what a young Giggs reported to a bemused Paul Morley in a 2008 interview. Morley found it difficult to comprehend a world in which gangs, violence, endemic poverty and constant alertness—bordering on paranoia—are the norm. It's not so much that he isn't empathetic; in fact he clearly wants to champion Giggs. Yet when Giggs explains that Trident want to stop him playing live shows because "they do that, innit," you can almost see the incredulity on Morley's face. Why would they want you to stop doing that, he seems to ask. It's the classic lock. Complain about the levels of violence and the "appalling" nature of the lyrical content without making any enquiry as to why the violence is there. As if the fabric of people's lives from some of the most deprived areas of the capital isn't going to be expressed in their art. As if their lyrics were going to express a fantasy life in the Cotswolds.
Lisa Mafia's explanation from 2005 is more succinct: "We were still living in the same grimy estates, seeing exactly the same people—some of who were awful." Despite the huge profile, the sprawling nature of the collective and the fact that materially "they weren't that rich," simply upping and "moving to Chelsea" was impossible. "What could our management do? Move 30 of us out of the estate?"
The comparison to Giggs doesn't end there. Just as the Peckham-born rapper could be said to be responsible for the flourishing of UK rap, as an artist, symbol, and catalyst, the same can be said for So Solid Crew and the rise of grime. Simply put, they did it first. This was the early 2000s interregnum between the high watermark of garage and the messily complex birth pangs of grime. When asked who "created" the latter, Wiley is said to have responded "whoever made 'Oh No (That's the Word).'" Yet that all lay in the future. This was, to an extent, middle class, chart-sustaining Britain's first peek into a hidden world. This was pre-Boy in Da Corner, while Treddin' on Thin Ice was still two years in the future.
If UKG was a vague familiarity and grime was yet to arrive at its formal christening, this was something quite other. This was a raw and forward-facing futurism that resisted the lazy neatness of classification. A blend of ragga, garage beats, frantically clipped lyrical delivery and occasional R&B tones (third single "They Don't Know" is arguably the most complete example of this blend) it attracted a confused, slightly uncomprehending press. Though not quite the "Wu-Tang Clan of 2-step," it's a sound that transforms the energy and breathlessness of its own influences, while also managing to hold the seeds of its future repercussions.
Again, it's not that the influence of So Solid was intended—but is it ever? What had started out as creative expression informed by street culture became music, simply because it was working. Not that anyone seemed to know how. As Walters put it: "We had no idea it was going to be as big as it was. Even though I'd been prepped slightly for what was to come, when it happened, it was still quite overwhelming."
It must have been. Following on from the breakout success of "21 Seconds" came their 2002 debut album They Don't Know, which sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week of release, eventually turning platinum in the UK and providing two extra top 10 hits for good measure. The same year also saw a Brit Award (for Best Video), a ceremony enlivened by some of the most entertaining celebrity handbags of the decade with Brian McFadden, then of Westlife, throwing water at the group as they collected the award.
Although it wasn't immediately apparent, this heady burst of success would prove to be the pinnacle of the group's commercial and critical success. Their second album, 2nd Verse, flattened out with sales of just 3,000 in its first week and a chart entry position of 70, before struggling to sell 25,000 copies in total. The reasons for this are complex. For some, the chaos grew too much. For others, like Lisa Maffia (whose debut solo single, 2003's "All Over" remains an unjustly neglected club-packaged R&B banger) solo careers of varying success beckoned. For others still, life returned to something like normal. Back on the same estates, plugging away at the same lives.
For a tale with so many twists, characters and competing subplots, it's hard to escape an underlying feeling of sadness, however slight. Sadness in the face of one of life's most predictable and crushing ironies. It's the irony that holds you unaccountable to the twin factors of where and when you begin. It's the knowledge that for a brief, intoxicating moment at the turn of the millennium it was the time for a loose, chaotic collective from the neglected corners of south London to inaugurate something that seemed both wholly new and somehow representative of an aspect of the city's culture that had existed in the shadows and bustling underground.
It was a something that found receptive ears from an unprepared mainstream, though a receptivity undercut with revulsion and disbelief at the realities it revealed. If it seems a quaint thought now, in a world where grime artists are sought to front voter registration drives and win multiple Mercury Prizes, it didn't in 2001. So Solid Crew didn't have the benefit of a predecessor, or of incremental changes in taste or fashion. For all of their personal tribulations, this is what remains the most fascinating aspect of their rise and fall. The unique facts of being caught on the wrong side of history, while laying the opportune foundations for the future.
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