Eight people rap or sing on “21 Seconds”. One more – producer G-Man – provides the music. But So Solid Crew as a concept contained multitudes, and became famous for it. A few other producers and MCs, for sure, but also backing singers, friends and family, local kids. They presented themselves as a clan, a Battersea estate moving en masse into the business of garage, into the charts. The size of So Solid, 20 or 30 strong, was a talking point, and an easy angle for mockery: it’s rare to find an old piece or profile that doesn’t boggle at it.
A group so large would be prone to split, you’d think. But the trouble with So Solid wasn’t division. The idea of the group, as formed by public leader Megaman and a couple of the other, older men in the Crew, proved entirely workable – if members fought over the spotlight, it didn’t show on record: there’s no animosity between the MCs on “21 Seconds”. If anything, the problem was loyalty. The wider any group gets, the more likely it is that one or two will be liabilities – whether in terms of talent, or looks, or behaviour. Successful acts played the industry game, cutting out problems. So Solid closed ranks, presented themselves as an all or nothing proposition even as the press smacked its lips over a growing reputation for trouble.
“21 Seconds” is an excellent record. But it’s more than that – it may be the last real shock of a Number One. It does two things, unusual in themselves, outstanding together. It’s the sound of a subculture in full cry – getting to Number One with one of its crucial tracks, not with some dribbled-out consolation record or opportunist rip-off. And it’s a Number One that, to use a rubbed-smooth phrase, ‘sounds like the future’. It seems to open doors, demonstrate new routes British pop could take. If British pop wanted to take them. But that was the question: did it?
MEGAMAN GOES FIRST
There was an obvious model for Megaman’s ambitions: New York’s Wu-Tang Clan. He would often reference the Wu in interviews, and the skeletal drone of “Dilemma”, one of So Solid Crew’s breakout dubplates, was scattered with shaolin kung-fu movie dialogue, samples of samples. Wu-Tang had turned their collective reputation into a brand – from solo albums across different labels through soundtrack work to a clothing line. Theirs was a blueprint for turning hip-hop into a new kind of black entrepreneurialism. And Megaman’s verse on “21 Seconds” is the most hip-hop, least localised of any of the MCs’ in its language: he’s the only one to talk about ‘niggas’ (they “don’t wanna see Mega get rich”), the only one to throw in a cold, offhand “bitch”.
There was a crucial difference between the Wu-Tang and So Solid, though. Wu Tang emerged into a city where a huge and profitable infrastructure for hip-hop had grown over fifteen-plus years. When their introducing-the-band posse cut, “Protect Ya Neck”, dropped on rap radio, the Wu became major contenders instantly, but could nurture that early success mainly through hip-hop media. They could go platinum without needing pop chart presence.
So Solid walked a trickier path. They were a pirate radio sensation already on Delight FM, and were selling in chart-ready numbers: their previous single “Sentimental Things (Oh No)” would have been a big hit had it been eligible. But there was no middle ground for So Solid to colonise between the volatile London garage scene and the shiny pop world – hardly any pre-existing media infrastructure to grow in. What there was – the clubland scene which had made 2-step garage a big deal – viewed the harder-edged So Solid with contempt, as Crew members Oxide and Neutrino had found out. So there was a vertiginous jump for the band between ultra-local and national fame. That the wall between the pirates and Top Of The Pops was suddenly so thin was a thrilling opportunity. But it was dangerous too.
At the very least, it affected the type of song So Solid could hit with. It had to be a group effort – Megaman obviously realised how much of a sales point the Crew’s sheer crew-i-ness was. With close to a dozen MCs and producers jostling for airtime (and solo careers being an essential part of the Wu Tang blueprint), the group effort also had to be an individual showcase. The “Protect Ya Neck” model, yet again.
But because Wu Tang’s song went to rap radio, it reached an audience used to weighing up MCs, happy to enjoy each verse as a showcase of style. The wider UK public hadn’t developed those skills. For a posse track to work as a breakthrough song in Britain, it would need a gimmick, a way of teaching people how to hear it. Each rapper’s time on the mic would be horribly limited: make that the point. 12 bars each, timed and rounded up: 21 seconds.
SO SOLID THEY’RE AMAZING
First changeover, to Asher D, whose film career makes him the most successful So Solid graduate (there’s a mini-CV in his verse: “actor, MC, never braking”). He’s more frenetic than Megaman but sounds more comfortable on the mic too. He’s the only MC who sticks to the same end rhyme through all his bars – most of the others switch out near the end to bring their verse to a hard conclusion, but Asher D just rattles through keeping the momentum up: fading/bathing/phasing/racing and so on right up to the final “taking – creating!”. Megaman ended on a note of dour paranoia – Asher’s breakneck, open conclusion is just what this single needs to ignite.
Most of the joy in Asher D’s verse is hearing him dance round this rhyme scheme, work its repetitions and changes of emphasis: “Addicted to this LIFE that we’re tasting / You blame ME for the life you been wasting? / You HATING!”. He’s sticking to Megaman’s theme, though, for all his verve – So Solid as a unit beset by envy and resentment, despised by those who never got out. It’s a topic they kept coming back to in interviews – the group were living in the same Battersea estates they always had, and people they were leaving behind in fame and money terms were still physically cheek by jowl. So there were tensions, there were grievances. There was violence.
M WITH THE A TO THE C THAT’S ME
Megaman and Asher D’s verses are full of variety, but garage MCing wasn’t always about that – the pirate radio MC had a role as a party instigator too, closer to the traditional Jamaican toaster, chatting over the beat, improvising, making sense or not from bar to bar, letting the charisma of voice and flow do the work. Some of the best verses on “21 Seconds” do this too, keeping the connection alive between the band making a hit and the pirate stations they came up from. Mac’s bars are a good example – he has a deep, amused growl of a voice, extending line-ends with a throaty sign-off (“who could I be-uh”, “that’s me-uh”). His charisma makes his bars flow easily by, belying the amped-up paranoia of his lyrics, yet again constantly besieged by the haters. “Watching and they’re plotting and they’re watching”, Mac repeats three times before a final groan – “Never gonna stop! Never gonna stop!”
It’s moments like this that “21 Seconds” feels least like hip-hop, more like its own, emerging thing. Vocal grain as an aesthetic pleasure has always been a huge part of rap, from Snoop through Lil Wayne to Young Thug, people you listen to for the sheer joy of the noise they make as much as their many skills. But at the time So Solid Crew were making the track the most admired voices in hip-hop were lyrical and technical – rappers like Jay-Z, about to release The Blueprint; or Andre 3000 of Outkast, fresh off Stankonia, people whose conversational flows could treat the beat with the same carefree dexterity as a magician treats their cards. “21 Seconds” is an ocean away from that: rawer, more urgent, full of dread and momentum. American hip-hop at the start of the century was a sound firmly at the top of popular culture and enjoying the view. Garage MCing was a moment that could end at any second.
LET ME IN THE STUDIO
Kaish’s chorus hook is the most important and the most thankless part of “21 Seconds”. It’s what magics it from a weird piece of garage formalism into a massive pop song by its sing-song hookiness. It’s also the explainer – telling you why you’re hearing this strange patchwork and what the rules are. But in any good game, the players are more interesting than the rules, and the chorus is also marking time until the next MC can step up.
The interesting thing about the chorus is how nakedly it frames the song as a contest. Where the verses are all about the inevitability of So Solid – their unstoppable rise, haters be damned – the chorus takes a more ingratiating, vulnerable line. “If you like me let me know, let me in the studio”. It reinforces the tension behind the song’s braggadocio – each of these MCs is acting like the mic is their birthright, each will be swept remorselessly away by the next.
21 SECONDS, T-T-T
While everyone catches their breath, a word about G-Man’s music. “21 Seconds” keeps things very simple: a staccato keyboard figure and a tattoo of rapid snares that bounces the track along, ushering its MCs on and off. There are embellishments – a liquid sub-bass that wells enticingly up under some of the verses; some extra keyboards; samples of cars rushing past the ear; another bassline, which Romeo asks be turned up when he takes the mic. It’s not quite as raw as the brutalist splicing of hook and beat on “Bound 4 Da Reload”, but it’s possibly even more basic.
This end of garage is a cheap, quick music, made possible by low-cost music software. The delicacy of production and sophisticated rhythmic mesh of 2-step is miles away. You could master the basics of making a track in a week or two, using a pirated copy of Fruity Loops or a similar software package. If you didn’t have a PC to do that, your Playstation would do. Music 2000 – one of the last releases on the PS1 – gained notoriety and respect for how rapidly it let new producers step up. The core of So Solid’s MCs were men in their early 20s, who’d spent time hustling but now had responsibilities – most had one or two kids – and wanted better, safer ways to make their money and names. But alongside that, the shift between 2-Step and what ended up as Grime saw a rapid drop in the age of people making the music, from the DJs and producers raised on house music to kids drawing on the hard snap of drum’n’bass, the battle stances of hip-hop and videogames.
YOU WON’T LIKE ME ANYWAY
The punishing pace of G-Man’s rhythm for “21 Seconds” limits the choices open to its MCs: they can’t easily slow things down, drawl their way around the beat. They have to go full tilt, each one pleading their case as urgently as they can before falling back into the crowd.
For one vocalist in particular the limitation is painful. Lisa Maffia – one of the most prominent members of So Solid, businesslike and clear-thinking – is the only woman on “21 Seconds”, and not especially an MC. After a few lines of rapping she half-sings her verse, and ends up just repeating the song’s premise again. She’s the only member who sounds like her ideas have run out before the time does. Which is unfair – she’s a hook singer more than a rapper, and “21 Seconds” makes that redundant, as Kaish’s chorus is all the hook it needs.
Maffia gets her reward, though – she’s one of the few So Solid members to salvage a brief solo career after the spotlight moves on. Which it did: the Crew had more hits, their LP sold rapidly, but they never had the institutional support of the British music industry, which had little interest in helping this urchin strain of garage grow.
It’s worth asking why that was. For all the specific problems with So Solid’s members, for all the admirable and the unlikely parts of Megaman’s grand plans, there were structural factors which would have told against even the smallest, most disciplined crew. One was geography. London was self-sufficient enough to allow a garage scene to thrive, but the music travelled poorly. The audience for this rougher hybrid was even smaller and more fractious. (British hip-hop acts, skilled and idiosyncratic, came from across the country, and a small and hardy network of promoters and fans backed them. But UK hip-hoppers were not natural allies of garage interlopers.)
The second was race. Young black men endured a bad reputation, not helped by a media keen to terrify its readers with stories of gangs, and by a Met Police officially admitted to be institutionally racist. Garage, the most black-identified of any UK pop style to date, could only be a target. By the mid-00s the Met was using the notorious Form 696, which made venues declare the race and music styles of all performers, to stymie and limit the Grime scene. But the sense that garage performers were cultural outsiders, dangerous elements, that the music and musicians caused any trouble in their audience, long predated that.
Compared to US gangsta rap, or for that matter to the brutal road storytelling of Grime MCs a little later, garage rap like So Solid was lyrically mild – sometimes bragging, sometimes defensive, but stronger on energy than on violent detail. In the soundbite-friendly world of early 00s politics, points could be scored off it anyway. MPs wagged their fingers at the language and imagery of garage, helping to delegitimize it in the wider culture.
So maybe if the music had been less local, and less black, the British record industry would have swung harder for it, embraced its rebellious potential more. But perhaps that wasn’t the problem at all. After all, the biz loved some potential stars of garage, from Craig David through Mis-Teeq and Ms.Dynamite. In its eyes, UK Garage had been the black Britpop, a shot of new vigour into an important sector of British music. That was where the biz had placed its bets. Garage’s mutation back into something street-level, do-it-yourself, and unhealthily sharp was thrilling for the listener. It was a thumping headache for a mainstream industry which simply wasn’t ready or looking for that potential.
And this was the third structural factor against So Solid Crew. At the BRIT Awards in February 2002, So Solid were up for best video for “21 Seconds”, and they won. But they lost British Breakthrough Act to R&B boyband Blue. And the other big winners were Dido and Travis. The BRIT Awards were always a joke, but in the early 00s they seemed accurate reflections of a moribund business, one struggling to even live up to its reputation as an export industry. It celebrated “creativity”, that neutral virtue of art and commerce. Thrill and threat were not on its agenda. So Solid Crew may have sounded like the future, but British pop wasn’t in the futures market.
(Not that So Solid couldn’t adapt. Music was what they made, but so was money, and the light entertainment world British pop increasingly fitted into had plenty of openings. As well as acting, members of So Solid Crew got into the reality TV game, turning up on Celebrity Big Brother. Where they did moderately well.)
FACE GETTING POPULAR
Face has the best voice on “21 Seconds”, which gives him one of the best verses. It’s an undead shudder of a voice, his each line lunging out like a clawed hand toward an emphasis, then fading into a zombie moan. “Some a them are SLIPPIN ah / Some a them a GRUDGE me ah”. The theme is the same as ever – So Solid Crew are going places, getting seen, but all the while the resentful, the vampiric, want to pull them back. For all that it’s built intentionally as a pop breakthrough, “21 Seconds” is a song always casting angry glances behind it, distrust gnawing at its guts.
At least it often sounds brilliant. Face embraces the implications of his voice in the lyrics – “Worship the devil – red is my best colour!” before he lets the theme drop. It’s the song’s conceit – a 12-bar showcase – at its best, a wonderful piece of theatre.
CHANGE LIKE THE WEATHER
The next MC is less interesting, less focused – his lyrics wander around without a theme, sounding like they might be freestyled, before he suddenly snaps to attention, comes alive. “Skat D don’t snitch” he snarls. “Don’t need to go to the Feds to get rich”. Skat D and the Feds had recent acquaintance. He had picked up an assault conviction, for punching a fifteen year old girl hard enough to break her jaw, because she hadn’t wanted sex with him.
Growing up black on a poor estate, many of So Solid had brushes with the law, from routine harassment to incarceration. Like a lot of rappers, they used their experiences as the very material that would help them get away from their situation. It wasn’t easy – the world of “21 Seconds”, full of vipers and haters, was real enough, especially as the boundaries of the group could seem so wide. There was no reason to doubt the Crew when they said, in interviews, that they had enemies who felt entitled to some of what So Solid were making, and might take steps to get it.
The clannish, protective attitude So Solid developed is easy to understand. The problem is that it extended to Skat D smashing up a schoolgirl’s face. Every profile of the group raised the issue. Megaman and other spokesmen ducked it. Any band would and should have dropped him. So Solid Crew simply drew together tighter. Their greatest novelty and strength – their sense of unity – had a terrible weakness. Skat D himself was last in the papers for attacking another woman, his partner. This time she’d wanted him to do his own washing.
DID YOU SEE ME ON THE VIDEO
Kaish again. The chorus again. One of the reasons he’s a good pick for it is that he’s absurdly videogenic – a sallow, lean, evil looking figure playing a red-eyed demon in “21 Seconds”’ remarkable promo clip. In the half-decade before YouTube, the Garage scene took to home-made video with alacrity – a lot of vital early Grime tracks and radio sets turned up on promotional DVDs. So Solid’s video is both an early entry in this tradition – the filmic conceit, the title and credit shots, are pure homemade swagger – and a big step beyond it. The band themselves were thrilled by the effects, and gobsmacked by how well the clip turned out.
In 2016, the effects aren’t anything to scream about – rapid editing means you don’t get too still a look at most of them, and that’s for the best. But all the jump-cuts and chopped-apart dancing give the video a heaving energy: the fact you can see the ragged splices makes it feel like it’s bursting its own digital seams. The point is to establish each member visually as well as verbally (it works: you can tell why Maffia and Romeo were instantly fingered as breakout stars). But also it’s a snapshot of the song’s theme – the Crew one fence away from a grasping mob, clawing at them in praise or envy or both, who could tell anymore. And its visual influences – wrestling intros, dance competitions, fighting games – were critical for giving the wider pop audience a way into understanding So Solid.
WHEN I’M ON A HIGH WHEN I’M ON A LOW
The single release for “21 Seconds” has all the verses from the longer LP cut, but chops out a moody stretch or two of G-Man’s music, and rearranges the MCs so Harvey and Romeo move from the middle to the end.
These are both strong decisions. G-Man’s production is wonderfully tense, but “21 Seconds” works better the more of a pile-up of voices it is and the less breathing space anyone gets. And Harvey and Romeo both deliver fantastic verses, keeping the pace up where it could have flagged.
Harvey takes his verse fast, a tumble of repetition, and the way he lets the stresses almost trip him up on “snake – gate – way – tunnel” before righting himself on “better move on the double” and then heading off again is the most sheerly pleasurable rapping moment on the record, the kind of dummy he’d have loved to pull off in his second career as a footballer.
TWO MULTIPLIED BY TEN PLUS ONE
And finally, Romeo, who does something beautifully obvious and winning with the song’s format. Like the man given one wish who wishes for more wishes, Romeo is insatiable. Given a rule, he pleads to break it. Romeo has a creamy voice with deperate undertones, lascivious and funny. It’s not for him, you understand, it’s for the ladies. “lookin’ slender and fine – ooooh my”, he moans. Unlike anyone else, he takes the beat at medium pace, while begging for more of it. “Don’t give me no deadline, give me some more time”.
Romeo structures and executes his verse wonderfully, from his unruffled command to “turn up the bassline”, through all his bargaining with the song’s logic, to his defeated but proud “Romeo done.” If the conceit of “21 Seconds” worked before, it shines now, as the song ends, and the last member of So Solid cajoles us to keep the spotlight on him. On the song, on the group. On this sliver of opportunity, this moment in a year that has been so dead, when the music of a dozen young black Londoners is at the top of the charts, on its own terms, good and bad.
I’ve talked about “21 Seconds” as the sound of a future, because it was. But the core of “21 Seconds” is also something the last five decades of pop might have recognised. Something that Alan Freed or Radio Caroline or Mickey Most or Pete Waterman would have understood instinctively. Something that the British pop business was not quite atrophied enough to ignore completely. A hustle, a gimmick, and the hunger to sell it. “Two multiplied by ten plus one. Romeo done.”