Exclusive Extract from Where We Come From: So Solid Crew and the birth of UK Rap

At the peak of their popularity, So Solid Crew were as famous as footballers. During school tours, where a few members would turn up at schools up and down the country, they’d perform a song or two in assembly halls for screaming teenagers and children. Online footage shows Romeo walking on to stages in Liverpool and Manchester, Birmingham and Coventry, Nottingham and Leicester and Cardiff, greeting his young audience. The kids howl in response, then after the Live PA is finished, swarm him: delirious smiles and screams exposing gap teeth and braces, their hands falling over his shirt as they follow him from the assembly hall to the car, to the school gates as he was driven off the premises and onto the next stopping point.

When Lisa Maffia tried to drop her own daughter at school, she remained trapped for two hours, signing autographs and waving away requests for her to sing. Eventually, the family was forced to change schools, and at the new place, when the school day was over, she sent her sister or her mother in to collect her daughter instead.

In the slipstream of ‘21 Seconds’, So Solid released their debut album, They Don’t Know, in November 2001. It peaked at No 6, and in the following year, the crew of 30-plus were at the 2002 Brit Awards, packed into the exhibition centre at Earls Court and nominated for Best Breakthrough Act and Best Video for ‘21 Seconds’. They were nominated alongside Coldplay and Elton John, Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue in a contest decided by the popular vote.

The award for Best Video was presented by American actor Michael Madsen, who stood on stage alongside hosts Frank Skinner and Zoe Ball, waving a white card in his fingers as he read, ‘The winner is . . .’ before a pause, ‘21 Seconds, So Solid Crew.’ Shrieks rose in the arena as the camera panned towards the winners, catching a flutter of gun-fingers saluting the evening air. The crew filed from their seats on to the stage, flashing past broadcast cameras in a procession of thick fur coats and cocoa-butter cream blazers, mesh vests and New Era caps, denim skirts and blue bandanas saddled on glistening foreheads.

They scattered across the stage and applauded the screaming supporters in the audience. At moments, they extended their arms in a salute, as if reaching through the TV screen to their people watching back home. This win was bigger than them: it was an illustration of what MC culture, of what garage, of what kids from south could become, of how their music could enchant the ears of a country. ‘21 Seconds’ opened the door. So Solid’s boom years moved in the souls of a generation of kids coming of age in their high tide, new fruits of the south London soil inheriting greater visions of what life and music could mean. Sometimes, around Battersea and Clapham and wider south London, kids would see one of the crew members going about their business, national celebrities who were still local boys and girls, walking the ground on which these kids also stood.

A boy from South Norwood had a neighbour who was friends with Megaman. The kid was a So Solid fan, as were his older sisters, and so whenever the crew’s founder passed through on the ends, visiting, the boy would stop and look, stunned, thinking, Rah, that’s mega you know. He grew up to be a producer.

The young kids attending Clapham Manor primary school caught brief glimpses of Asher D, whose partner lived across the road. On the days he appeared, they would shout his name from the school gates, Asher usually responding with a greeting, even taking time out to come and speak with them. One of the kids who glimpsed him from across the street grew up to be an MC, another a DJ. But outside of the community, So Solid met opposition. In November 2001, at a birthday party for Romeo at the central London nightclub Astoria, there was a shooting. Two people were hit and injured.

So Solid released a statement that read: ‘So Solid Crew very much regret the violence that broke out at the birthday party show at the Astoria last night, but want to make it clear that they abhor violence and have made it clear on their record that they want the violence to stop. They were not in any way involved in last night’s disturbance and were on stage performing when the trouble broke out. They were ushered off by security and none of the So Solid Crew were hurt or in any way directly caught up in the trouble.’

In the shooting’s aftermath, the crew were woven into a narrative about the alleged peaking of gun crime across the inner cities of the UK, their music blamed and labelled as a fuel for the violence, scapegoats for complex social issues. They were slandered in newspapers. Their UK tour was pulled. The Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner blamed garage and rap music for encouraging young men to carry weapons as fashion statements. And, after a fatal incident in Birmingham unconnected to So Solid, where two girls were killed in the crossfire of a shoot-out during a 2003 new year’s party, the then culture minister Kim Howells described rappers as ‘boasting macho idiots’.

A report from the NME at the time read, ‘The MP claimed Britain’s Black music scene “created a culture where killing is almost a fashion accessory,” and he claimed, “the events in Birmingham are symptomatic of something very, very serious. For years I have been very worried about these hateful lyrics that these boasting macho idiot rappers come out with.”’He continued: ‘It is a big cultural problem. Lyrics don’t kill people but they don’t half enhance the fare we get from videos and films. Idiots like the So Solid Crew are glorifying gun culture and violence. It is very worrying and we ought to stand up and say it.’

These were among the incidents that served as an example of the venom MC culture and Black British music would have to withstand, sounds beat back against the surge of state censorship. The longevity of So Solid was damaged by the allegations in the media, Middle England warned off a group their kids had just embraced.There were internal issues, too. Neutrino was shot in the leg after leaving a club in central London. Skat D was convicted of breaking the jaw of a 16-year-old girl in a Cardiff hotel lobby. And in 2002, Ashley Walters pleaded guilty to possessing a revolver. He was sentenced to 18 months [in a young offenders’ institution].

By 2003, their momentum was on the wane, and second album 2nd Verse arrived in the charts at number 70. The boom was petering out, the crew beginning to go their own ways. A Channel 4 documentary captured their last stand. In one shot, towards the end, Mega is leaning on a black Mercedes, a bucket hat shading his eyes, a cream tracksuit around his frame, rings hanging from his fingers.

Staring into the camera with a steady resilience he says: ‘The UK needed, deserved something like this, some negativity talk coming from people from the ghetto, to understand that we are living in a dangerous city, you get me . . . I’m just ringing the alarms, ringing all the alarms . . . You put me in this system, you put me down there, you put my parents down there to live, soI had no choice but to grow up around these things.’And then, reflecting on how far So Solid had come he says, ‘We’ve achieved a lot already, man, broken certain rules, kicked off certain doors so that people can’t lock it again.’

Then he continues, saying that their next mission was to break through worldwide. But he was unaware that the real legacy of their movement lay in the estates and communities transformed across Clapham and Battersea and other areas across south London, a spark in the young kids they had encouraged to dream of music.

Among the children who spotted So Solid out and around in south London during the crew’s rise were the Johnson siblings, Chandler and Blaine from Clapham, a sister and brother who one day went out shopping in Vauxhall Market, wandered into a store and saw Romeo and Harvey standing in front of them. They left starstruck. They saw them again on the TV a little while later. When They Don’t Know was released, Chandler rushed to Woolworths on Clapham High Street to buy the album, and then, when back home, opened all the windows and let the music play loud, thinking, Yeah, south London’s made it.

Blaine knew every word to some of the songs, like many boys in Clapham did. He would grow up to be an MC, inheriting a south London tradition that started with Sound Systems and Cookie Crew and pioneers like So Solid. He was a product of all of this. South London is where his story begins.

Aniefok Ekpoudom’s first book, ‘Where We Come From: Rap, Home and Hope in Modern Britain’, £20 (Faber & Faber) is out now