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Feb 16

SO SOLID CREW – “21 Seconds”

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#905, 18th August 2001

sosolid WHAT YOU LAUGHIN AT?

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.”

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Comments

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  1. 1
    flahr on 10 Feb 2016 #

    Great exegesis of a fabulous song. I think there was a radio edit or a Now! edit or something that did cut a couple of the verses – Megaman’s verse sticks out a bit when I listen to this now as ‘this isn’t very familiar’.

    In keeping with my usual theme it’s the racket* I love about this, the ever-so 8-bit bassline and the delicious little tricks with rhythm and unusual noises – “TUH-TUH-TUH”, “hah! waaaaaaaaaaah?”, “WANNA WANNA AYE WANNA WANNA KNOW”, “two multiplied by ten pluuuus one”: it’s as gimmick-stuffed as you say and wonderful for it.

    *metaphorically speaking ofc, I realise it’s not very loud but it’s very full

  2. 2
    Tom on 10 Feb 2016 #

    Yes, the Now! edit is short – I can’t remember who it cuts (I checked just yesterday but I am very old) Obviously Romeo Done et al are in there.

  3. 3
    lmm on 10 Feb 2016 #

    I had no understanding or appreciation for this at the time. Just sounded like a load of shouting, no more serious than the Oxide&Neutrino hit. It stands up a lot better now somehow – and yet it seems to stand alone. (The analogy that comes to mind actually is Blackout Crew – who I seem to recall got much more sympathetic press, even if ultimately much less succession)

  4. 4
    James Masterton on 10 Feb 2016 #

    A superb analysis and a proper consideration of a track that most would see as a throwaway or be submitted to their own prejudices about rap and urban music. 21 Seconds was a rare example of something from a musical and social subculture which was wildly popular yet existed outside of the mainstream suddenly jumping boundaries and invading the other space. The ability of people to form their own communities via the internet means that this is all the more likely today for example with freestylers such as Stormzy who don’t need hit records to be music stars but are capable of doing so at any time should they be so motivated.

    The idea of a fluid urban collective was one others hoped to emulate, particularly given that So Solid numbered amongst themselves some rather less savoury individuals and whose marketability was limited. That was I suspect a factor in the rise of Big Brovaz a few months later. A collection of chicks n’ dicks performers who were down wiv da kidz but who were also carefully and corporately groomed. A kind of So Plastic Crew if you will.

  5. 5
    weej on 10 Feb 2016 #

    Much like LMM above I was unable to make head or tail of this at the time and it wasn’t until quite a few years later that I was able to detune from my prejudices and realise how complex and original it is. Every listen gives me a new favourite verse- right now afraid to say I like Skat D’s the most, there is something very aggressive and unpleasant about it, true, but that sort of makes it work all the better.

    For a brief history of how Garage connects to Grime and early Dubstep, I would advise anyone to listen to Switching Songs Pt 2 by Durrty Goodz, a six minute runthrough of what it was like living through these scenes, and one of my favourite pieces of music of all time.

  6. 6
    AMZ1981 on 10 Feb 2016 #

    In context 21 Seconds is something; it dethroned a pointless cover version and we’ve got two boy bands and two novelty songs before we hit the defining pop song of 2001. I wouldn’t say it’s the last real shock of a number one but we’ll park that one for now. I certainly don’t remember being that surprised to see a track like this at number one.

    I wrote that paragraph and then paused to listen to the song for the first time in ages and watch the video for the first time ever. I’ll happily admit that at almost four minutes in I had to check the timer to see how much more I had to sit through. I agree that, up to a point, it is an authentic record amidst a sea of manufactured dross. On the other hand I doubt that video was made on the cheap. If this getting to number one was an event then it doesn’t make five minutes of posturing and repetition beyond criticism.

    Just picking up on the paragraph about the Brits. Best Breakthrough Act and its predecessor, the Best Newcomer award were (I think) voted for by the public and tended to favour teen pop acts. With the exception of a controversial and almost certainly rigged vote in 2000 every winner between 1999 and 2004 inclusive was in this category. And to be fair to Dido and Travis it was a weird sign of the times that nobody realised how bland and irrelevant they were. While the Brits may have overlooked So Solid Crew 2002 was the year the Mercury Music Prize honoured the not entirely dissimilar Ms Dynamite.

    A glance at the So Solid Crew’s wikipedia page reveals a couple of curious things. One is that Kaish who sings the chorus and thus the bit most people remember isn’t important enough for his own article. And Beenie Man is given as an associated act, along with Oxide and Neutrino.

  7. 7

    Sadly, the true&complete crew list is no longer up on wikipedia, but it is still available here: https://profanityswan.com/2012/01/05/wikipedias-so-solid-crew-list/

  8. 8

    I spent the most of the day relistening to They Don’t Know, the SSC LP that contains “21 Seconds”, on repeat loop. and surprising myself with two things: first, how familiar it is (I must have played it a *lot* in 2001-02); and how melancholy the backing music is throughout, which I don’t really remember remarking on back then (tho I can’t see how I missed it). Back I then I was struck by the licketysplit energy, of course, and the irrepressible inventiveness — now even the drum machines sound sad.

  9. 9
    Tom on 10 Feb 2016 #

    “we’ve got two boy bands and two novelty songs before we hit the defining pop song of 2001.”

    B-b-but ‘Get Ur Freak On’ only reached #4!??

  10. 10
    Tom on 10 Feb 2016 #

    My main memory of “21 Seconds” at the time was playing it at CLUB SUSSED aka proto-Poptimism in Oxford, where it got a predictably lukewarm reaction (it isn’t that easy to dance to unless you can actually dance, in fairness, and I was glad I was in the booth not on the floor).

    I think I also played Jay-Z’s magnificent, straight-10, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” the same night to an even more baffled response, which made me sad.

  11. 11
    enitharmon on 10 Feb 2016 #

    “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.”

    As a woman, it’s kinda hard to get past this sort of thing. Too much testosterone-toxicity for me I’m afraid.

  12. 12
    Andrew on 10 Feb 2016 #

    #8 the album version is odd in that the central riff is absent from the intro, and the order of the verses is also quite different:

    Megaman
    Asher D
    Mac
    (Kaish)
    Harvey
    Romeo
    Lisa
    Face
    Skat D
    (Kaish)

  13. 13
    Andrew on 10 Feb 2016 #

    Oh, and I know 10s are a rare and special occurence on Popular, but reading through I was certain this one would be nailed on!

  14. 14
    Tom on 10 Feb 2016 #

    #13 the chorus gets a bit annoying.

  15. 15
    JLucas on 10 Feb 2016 #

    This is… not for me. I sort of feel unfair marking it, because it does absolutely nothing for me whatsoever, but I’m about as far removed from the intended market as could probably be imagined. I remember being intrigued and vaguely amused that one of their other singles (Oh No) appeared to sample Alisha’s Attic of all people though. And It’s All Gravy by Romeo and Christina Milian was pretty funny, though I’m not sure it was supposed to be.

    Kudos for giving it such a close reading.

  16. 16
    Kinitawowi on 10 Feb 2016 #

    I’m reminded of nothing so much as the infamous Fat Wreck Chords punk compilation Short Music For Short People, commissioned by NOFX’s Fat Mike with the brief of challenging one hundred and one punk bands to come up with a thirty second song. Most end up making reference to their own shortness (“Why can’t people understand? / I’ve got a short attention span / Short attention spaaaaan” – the entirety of track 1, from the Fizzy Bangers). A lot clearly want to write bigger songs and struggle to remain within their remit. Several are very stupid (blink-182’s Family Reunion, most famously).

    But all are different and some are funny, and that’s not something I can easily say about this record. (Well, “two multiplied by ten plus one / Romeo done” takes at least some sense of humour.) The underlying beat, and Kaish’s horrid hook, combine to make something intended to be quickfire end up dragging. At least with Short Music, if you don’t like the current song then there’ll be something genuinely new along in thirty seconds.

    3.

  17. 17
    thefatgit on 10 Feb 2016 #

    Overexposure at the time, meant “21 Seconds” became a bit of a slog. I felt the democracy of giving each MC a set amount of time to say “this is me” was quite a decent idea, but in practice it feels like a show and tell session in an overcrowded Primary School class.

    And yes, I was a fan of PS1’s “Music 2000”, which was as versatile a tool as you could get without downloading dodgy loop software that sucked up memory on my clunky old PC bought from TIME (remember them?). Again, it was a hungry for expandable memory, which could bought to store ongoing projects (this was purely for fun, rather than wanting to create the next big dancefloor smash). What I got from “Music 2000” was a sense of building tracks like Lego and tinker around with effects. You could assemble samples together and even create visuals for them. Much more satisfying to be creative than just shooting aliens and suchlike.

    Back to SSC, I feel a little more charitable to “21 Seconds” now. Despite the rather less than pleasant nature of Skat D, (in a collective this large, there’s going to be at least one bad apple) most of these people get their shot at fame and do something with it (Asher D & Harvey manage to stick around longer than Lisa Maffia & Romeo, IIRC). I’m glad something like “21 Seconds” gets to be discussed here. I’d be tempted to go as far as a 7.

  18. 18
    Phil on 10 Feb 2016 #

    When it comes to rap I am that Stewart Lee routine – “you see them on those adverts, don’t you, where there’s a girl starts singing, and then a man comes on and starts talking…” Can’t be doing with it at all. I bought a Herbaliser album once, because I really like his(?) productions, and every track had a rap vocal – I think I played it once.

    I think the problem is I can’t relax to rap & let it flow[sic] over me – I automatically try and hang on every word, and generally the words aren’t really worth hanging on. I can only listen to the cLOUDDEAD/Cannibal Ox type of thing, where for better or worse the lyrics are written as poetry, of sorts…
    Do you
    know
    how many times
    I’ve thought about
    writing about
    the paper that I’m writing on?

    That works for me, where all the random braggadocio and japery just turns me off.

    So this – I hated it at the time & don’t like it much more now, even with a crib. But I’ve got to admit it’s a hell of a track: it’s monumental in its ambition and precise in execution, it has a lot of quirky details and the attitude’s really quite punk. So it can’t be less than 8.

  19. 19
    Chelovek na lune on 10 Feb 2016 #

    Ermm, this does little for me – everyone doing their thing, but none of their things are particularly interesting or noteworthy, the chorus doesn’t really stamp an impression on the song (apart from being mildly annoying), the raps are generally not top grade, and it’s all a bit grey…

    Of the associated projects that I’ve heard, Lisa Maffia’s “All Over” is more or less the only one I might care to listen to once in a while – there the theatricality is turned up a bit more, and has a bit more of an edge about it -to a slightly ridiculous degree, even.

    “21 Seconds” though, dull and too long-winded – a prolonged jingle, with accompanying sounds that might come from a car’s control panel (which still might be the best thing about the track….the minimalism is not without an appeal). Would have been immeasurably more powerful at half the length. . I do appreciate Tom’s careful and close review but I simply don’t feel it… (3)

  20. 20
    CriticSez on 10 Feb 2016 #

    Not rating it yet, but thanks for posting this, even though it’s slightly belated.

    When you review My Sweet Lord for the 2002 reissue, why not have the article say something like this?

    “Refer to this link [the review of the song in the 1971 list]”. 7

    Oh, and why not have a MASSIVE CELEBRATION when Where Is The Love? is reviewed. (The #1 when Popular started, back in September 2003(!)

  21. 21
    lonepilgrim on 10 Feb 2016 #

    it’s always a pleasure when the UK public gets behind music as awkward and challenging as this – I can still remember seeing this on TOTP and being mesmerised by the energy and swagger. I wouldn’t want to listen it on repeat – or a whole album’s worth of similar material, but as a shortish burst I find it pretty compelling – 7

  22. 22
    flahr on 10 Feb 2016 #

    I’m not quite sure I can fathom how someone could find the chorus of this annoying and yet love “Get Ur Freak On”. I can only assume Rotterdam Termination Source’s “Poing” would get a [15] if Popular ever reached it.

  23. 23
    Shiny Dave on 10 Feb 2016 #

    I also had Music 2000 – though on PC rather than PlayStation, which was rather more intuitive to use and I think more powerful. It wasn’t the first such software – there was the eJay range that started in 1997 (and just about still going, IIRC!) and a few others in that genre, and there was even at least one ToTP-branded one which I had at one point – but Music 2000 was the genre-definer, and almost certainly the only one that could be even considered for professional purposes.

    The democraticising effect of the software that you mention is a fascinating angle from my perspective. As I’ve mentioned, I fell ill in 2000 and the self-loathing spiral into depression and anxiety I’m only now even daring to consider addressing through medication began there. But it wasn’t just that which had resonating consequences for me in 2000. That was also Year 9, which meant GCSE options to be chosen, and a significant part of me was tempted into Music as an option. I could tell I had a certain enjoyment for the subject, a pre-illness Year 9 songwriting project locked that in, and I was truly tempted. But, of course, its every lesson was absolutely stuff-full of teenage dirtbags bludgeoning their way through classes in the most disruptive manner – they all were, to be honest, but Music lessons had a unique capacity for sensory overload in that regard. Besides, having been bought up by a single parent who didn’t begin her re-ascent to the middle class (via becoming a teacher at that very same secondary school) until I was some way into my childhood and was understandably thrifty bringing us up, I’d never had much of a formal music education – my grandad (who took us under his roof after the divorce) played piano and there was a keyboard in the house, but that was about it. In any case, I had pretty awful motor skills – thanks in no small part to my autism – so learning an instrument to any decent standard was intimidating to the point of just not happening.

    I took Geography instead, and the final decision on what to pair with the slam-dunk choice of Business Studies – my autistic special interest at the time was the stock market, and I vividly recall planning my glandular fever sleep pattern around waking up for a late lunch and a chance to see the Wall Street opening bell at 2:30pm – ultimately wound up being between it and History. My Year 9 Music teacher provided the line “David has a good musical talent which he ought to pursue” in my school report that year, and eventually, in sixth form, I would start doing so in earnest. Would that flame have been kept alive at all without the music software that allowed me to use my IT skills and my instinct to put together banging tunes with no dexterity required? Almost certainly not, and yet my 2002-on impulses as a songwriter led me into a trap of disrespecting anything that wasn’t “real music by real musicians.” I can only presume that there was an element of jealousy in that – I was already spending more time speaking to music students than those in my own subjects when I went to sixth form (although at that point, of course, there was an overlap, what with us doing three or four apiece), and that would become all the more true at university, and the vast majority of it was driven by jealousy.

    Maybe still is – and certainly, the imposter syndrome I face now frequently manifests itself in the territory of “I can’t even finish my own songs!” By that, I mean that after the lyrics and vocal melodies are completed – and I can do those perfectly well and am often praised for them by professional performers, quite a few of whom trust me to write for their voices – I am flailing beyond belief when it comes to the accompaniment. In fact, it was at least 18 months ago that I conceived of my 30th birthday party in July 2016 being a gathering of my musician friends to perform some of the songs I’d written, and I knew right away that I would need to hire one or more arrangers to make that happen.

    That, to an extent, was marked out in my mind as basically a mental health-related expense, an opportunity for validation via collaboration. It is now marked out in my mind as a wedding-related expense, because I am marrying my fiancé Stephen on the same day, allowing the party to be a wedding reception but with its venue and associated services to be purchased without the wedding markup.

  24. 24
    Izzy on 10 Feb 2016 #

    The record’s great and it’s still great – I can’t add anything to your superb review, other than that for this brief moment they were at no.1 and they were it. It doesn’t happen often, but you know it when you see it. Easily a (10)

  25. 25
    katstevens on 11 Feb 2016 #

    POOR JAVINE

  26. 26
    JoeWiz on 11 Feb 2016 #

    Wow. A stirring piece Tom, just what this record deserves.
    I was quite scared of this song when it came out, having been bred on 60s and Britpop, this was the kind of thing which I half sneered at, but listening to this today I’m reminded that it’s actually a stirring, thrilling piece and something which we could do with now. There’s a real coldness and sparseness to it, an almost uniquely British sound; ‘8 bit’ is the perfect description. Some of the verses work better than others, but the chorus is as catchy as anything, and there’s an overriding sense of importance about everything.
    I loved the way it scared a huge part of the audience, exactly what it should be doing and something fewer and fewer number 1’s actually achieve.

  27. 27
    Jonathan on 11 Feb 2016 #

    I don’t think this made any impact whatsoever in Australia — I only tracked it down after The Streets and Dizzee Rascal had become a thing and I begun digging deeper into UK rap. It was apparent that So Solid Crew were a leading light of that scene, which confused me a great deal when I ended up hearing this: it sounded cheap and sloppy — not untutored as incompetent. I put it aside and spent my time pursuing Wiley and Kano instead.

    Listening back now, it makes more sense than it did at the time, which I credit to my greater familiarity with garage now and exposure to more than a decade of grime since. But it still seems awfully thin and none of the MCs evince any charisma or lyrical dexterity. Tom’s write-up provides some welcome context, but “21 Seconds” still seems more notable as historical artefact than as song.

  28. 28
    ciaran on 11 Feb 2016 #

    A magnificent write up Tom. Hate it or love it Popular is a richer experience for the likes of 21 seconds.

    I know little of this and to my (admittedly narrow UK garage informed) mind they’d always been joined at the hip with another over-crowded bunch that we’ll encounter in the not too distant popular future.Thankfully that comparison has been blown out of the water.

    From my memory SSC seemed to whip up a tabloid frenzy more so for their menace-to-society image than their music. All style and zero substance(musically anyway). Individuals who could turn up uninvited to a neighbourhood party near you at all hours so watch your back mate. The likes of Viz must have had a field day with this lot. They got mileage out of Badly Drawn Boy after all!

    At the time I would have thought of this as yer typical 1 week chart topper, out on its arse soon after as was the norm from 1998 onwards and little reason to seek it out. It’s quite a shock to the system how important it seems now.

    It sounds a bit tinny in places but frantic with barely time to catch breath and overflowing with good ideas. Having heard it about once or twice before tonight I don’t think I’d stretch to a 9 just yet and I’d still but it’s got a lot more going for it than 2001’s other popular main offenders. Not quite up there with say 90s Prodigy but walks all over the contemprary Nu Metal abominations.The whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts in this case.

    Quite possibly the ‘Fade to Grey’ of its time – a trigger for a decade-long movement but is soon dwarfed by what follows.

    I must say watching the video wasn’t unlike that Street countdown showdown of the IT Crowd circa 2010!

    Now less of the dreary ballads thanks.Oh..

  29. 29
    Lazarus on 11 Feb 2016 #

    #15 and 18 – yes I think I’m that Stewart Lee routine as well (“those rap singers, on the Top of the Pops”) although I guess that the Crew probably weren’t aiming their product at 40-ish white blokes into cricket and real ale. But Tom has gone to so much trouble with this one – compared with his derisory 50 words or so on some of the Elvis and Beatles (!!!) numbers – that I felt the least I could do was listen to it, so off to Youtube I headed. Intriguingly it seems I’ve watched it before; I can only think it was one of the times I dozed off on the couch while the YT auto-play did its thing. Visually it’s quite arresting I suppose, though I soon gave up the effort of trying to catch every word. Not something I feel I need to hear again, if I’m honest. Dumb newbie question though: what does “I’ve got 21 seconds to go” refer to? Is is the time each performer was allocated?

    Blazin’ Squad was another populous troupe wasn’t it – were they around at the same time? Another target for clever-dick mockery from the standups IIRC.

  30. 30
    will on 11 Feb 2016 #

    I’d only heard about SSC and their ‘reputation’ – nothing of their music – before this came out, so my first reaction was one of surprise. It sounded so tinny and cheap! The chorus is so…prissy. I think at the time I was expecting something a bit more swaggering and beefy. So just 6 from me.

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