So Solid Crew were the last UK pop act to cause a genuine moral panic. Their early noughties run of success feels like the end of an era – the last time that pop music offered a thrilling fuck you to the status quo. Since then the charts have been filled with micro-managed facsimiles of rebellion and docile renditions of underground culture. Wiley, Dizzee, Ruff Sqwad’s Tinchy Strider, all the grime acts that followed So Solid - acts that may never have existed if it wasn’t for So Solid – had to hack the living edges off their sound before they could secure radio play and subsequent mainstream approval. Wiley finally hit the top spot with the hen party pop of Heatwave (still, I’m not gonna lie, as pop tunes go, Heatwave’s a banger), Dizzee roped in Calvin Harris, and Tinchy has voiced literally any old trance-fusion bullshit that his label told him to. The same rules have applied to drum n bass producers, with DJ Fresh going from producing gnarled, filthy beasts, as much black metal as jungle, to writing chirpy ASDA aisle fodder for Rita Ora. Alongside them is a parade of caffeine free ‘deep house’ fronted by beige Brit school singers and X Factor alumni. On the real, Katy B is never gonna start a revolution.
So Solid though – So Solid got to the top of the charts with 21 Seconds – a track that was the best of British rave-pop; proper hard, cockily fresh, yet still run through with a melodic sense that united the dancefloor. The press, politicians and police fucking hated it. How dare these estate kids be so unapologetic? How dare they wear their garms, and tell their stories without sugar coating shit? How dare they have that swagger, that grin, and all the power that chart cash brings?
In 2002, the then minister for culture Kim Howells felt moved to brand them “hateful, boasting, macho idiot rappers.” The tabloid press had a gleeful field day reporting ever infraction the 30 strong Crew might make (the ‘boys-will-be-boys’ indulgence Oasis received for their various violent, drunken, drug fuelled fuck ups was conspicuously absent). The old bill cancelled their gigs everywhere. If you’re not convinced of the impact So Solid had, and the fear they commanded from the establishment, consider this – in 2013 – over a decade since the outfit’s last major hit – they were withdrawn from the Lovebox bill for ‘reasons out of the festivals control’ (ie the police said no). They’re still getting banned! And you know that no one bans things that aren’t powerful.
This is all a long intro to explain why, when I was offered the chance to talk to So Solid linchpin Lisa Maffia, I jumped at the chance *here’s the plug – she’s playing a gig for Boxfresh on Saturday, on a line up including Preditah, Matt Jam Lamont, Logan Sama, Big Narstie, Spyro, Groove Chronicles and Mike ‘Ruffcut’ Lloyd. Obviously, the line-up looks heavy; tickets and details n stuff are over here *
Lisa was struggling with a cold worse than mine, and through a phone chat punctuated with the sniffles and hacking coughs of Londoners in winter, we revisited the madness and genius of So Solid’s heyday. And before I start here’s a fun fact – Maffia is her real surname. Italian mum innit. Who knew?
How are you feeling?
Im feeling pretty awful actually.. (hacks/ coughes)
If it makes you feel better Im feeling pretty fluey as well..
Its got worse and worse over the last few days I just need to rest..
So what are you doing at home, are you catching up on TV
No! Im catching up on emails – I’ve got a headphone brand that’s rolling out next year, we’re doing the official earphones and speakers for a load of football clubs – we’re working with Liverpool, Millwall, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Man City - I’ve been super busy-
Are you always on the hustle?
I am always on the hustle (cackles) I can also say I’ve got a documentary coming up with i-D and Channel 4 next year – but I can’t talk more about that yet.
OK, we’ll have to wait and see… You’ve got this show coming up at the weekend, and it’s got me thinking about the So Solid story – it says online that Bound 4 Da Reload was the first track you appeared on, but I’m sure you must have done something before then - what was the very first recording you did?
The first thing I ever, ever did was Oh No (Sentimantal Things). The boys had recorded hundreds of tracks before that – the guys, Megaman, PDS, Mack, G Man, them four were music before So Solid. Mega was always singing other peoples songs, reciting lyrics from other peoples raps and stuff, and he was into music before we realised music was going to be our life.
I was doing an NVQ in retail and I was 15 or 16, going daily to West End to work in a Barrett shoes in Oxford Street. On my way to there, I passed a lady who was handing out leaflets to a singing school in Westbourne Park, and I thought let’s just go to this, just do it as a hobby. And I went down to the singing school, and got Prince’s Trust to fund me for my lessons and my first performance was a concert for upcoming singers at this school – I never usually remember that because this was before I knew that music was going to be my career. In my mind I was just wanting to get money so I could become other things – I wanted to be a photographer or an architect, it was never anything to do with music. So when I came into So Solid, those first days everyone had another job – we just didn’t realise it was going to be our careers.
What did you sing to audition for the singing school?
My first performance was Many Rivers to Cross that was my very first performance. And then when I auditioned for the school I did a Monica song… ahhhh… it was one of the early days ones..
(Taking a stab in the dark) Before you Walk Out of My Life?
That’s the one! Walk Out of my Life - that got me into the school
So were you mostly listening to RnB then?
I was listening to everyyyyyything. Honestly. I’ve got a black and white family, so in my black household I was listening to reggae, in my white household I was listening to Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys and like, you know (starts singing Madness’s Our House). But then later I was listening to more RnB, hip hop, reggae, bashment, from Shabba Ranks, to Singing Sweet, to H Town, Jodeci, to (singing again) Let Me Be Your Fantasy. My whole existence with music has been so diverse, which has allowed me to create I think, cos when garage came out, everyone had the same tactic of just spitting lyrics with no melody, but So Solid bought songs rather than just MCing on tracks, and that’s what created the So Solid sound – the melody. Without the melody you’ve just got MCs on tracks. When we came, we came garage, but we came songs as well.
It’s interesting, because before So Solid, most of the mainstream garage tunes were kinda of melodic, and So Solid bought the MCing in and made it a lot more popular
Exactly – it’s because we bought the melody to MCing – we had lyrics, and we were bringing what it was like onstage in the rave to tracks with a little bit of melody, so it’d have things you’d hear at carnival, but with some MC darkness. It made it feel like a rave on the album. I think that helped us a lot.
It seems to me that the garage scene in England was the last time a lot of strong female performers have come through who haven’t come through the Brit school, or reality TV or whatever – like it was the last time people who have come up from the streets have been successful
Innit. I agree. In the UK there’s this thing where people are always trying too hard to be that person that doesn’t exist in the UK, trying to be American, Australian, whatever - Natasha Bedingfield, she started taking her shoes off, being a hippy – who doesn’t wear shoes in England? Put your shoes on! So a lot of British artists are trying to be something that they’re not, where a lot of the MC girls were being British, being rude gyal, wearing their tracksuit – they may have had their make up and hair done, but they’d still have their tracksuit on, they’d be British fashion, British lifestyle, British accent, where a lot of musicians now are trying to be something else, like American or a Kim Kardashian look alike - it’s always someone else
Do you think a lot of that comes from the record label?
Yeah, we were lucky – we had creative control, my manager Alex Samuels, and Mega and G Man we were all very determined that in every contract we had creative control, so we got to create ourselves, and because we had a strong movement in the music industry we got to do that. A lot of the time there are artists who are told what to do and how to do it.
And a lot of the decisions labels take our bad ones
They’re modelling artists on other people and it’s just not going to work. There’s some new artists coming up now that I’m watching and seeing it happen – they’re being modelled on other people and I just don’t see it working. I like Wretch 32 though, he’s just doing himself.
What do you think about the new Swiss single? It’s caused a stir
I love it. I love it – people might think, oh if I’m not into political or lyrical tracks, I’m not gonna listen, but Swiss because he’s come from So Solid, people will still listen. As long as he moves fast enough he’ll do well.
My feeling is a major label would never have put that record out
No. A major’s not gonna - But that proves you can put shit out yourself and it can sell, it can be heard. But his next track is vital – if he comes with a conscience message with good music, that will sell, and it’ll prove to the majors that we don’t need them.
I spoke to Lethal B recently, and he got into the top 10 with no support at all, just purely from social media – do you think the way things are now would have made things go differently for So Solid around 2003 – 2004 when things kinda fell apart?
I believe we were going onto to world domination! These tools are free to promote music! F-R-E-E I’m sure we could have been OK – if we had those resources it would have been massive. Our record label got cold feet – if one record did 90,000 and the next did 50,000 they’d be like ‘oh lets see how it goes’ and there’d be a massive gap til the next single –to be fair to them we were spending £200,000 a video so they had to recoup their money – these days you can get a video shot for 3-4 grand and it looks amazing. But the delay between each record was a problem – you have to be consistent as an artist to be successful – you have to keep putting tracks out, you have to be on top of your game, because the British people will move on to the next artist if you don’t
There must have been so much money floating about – what was the craziest thing you bought?
Probably my three Audi TT's – I had a convertible, a silver one and a black one. I don’t know why I had 3! And I bought myself a pendant that cost about 12 and a half grand. That’s a little bit crazy… But that’s in a safe place, and it’s an investment for my daughter, it’s there for when she needs it
Does the success feel a bit surreal to look back on?
The only thing about it is, it tarnished mu upbringing. I stopped me seeing the struggle anymore. From 21 years old I was rich! I had hundreds of thousands of pounds – even though I can say my twenties were amazing, and I wouldn’t change it, I think it damaged me in terms of responsibility. Luckily I had good people around me, I’ve got property, I put down money and made investments that have made me OK today – if I hadn’t done that I’d have been left with nothing now. Now I’m back to grinding – had I been smaerter then I would have invested every penny. But that kind of money – I mean we had a lot of money at 21! I didn’t want for nothing, I could go anywhere round the world, party anywhere round my world – I mean I enjoyed my money, but at the same time it does tarnish you – you’ve got to be careful with money.
And despite being these really successful young artists you were demonised in the press, and often blamed for things that had nothing to do with So Solid
I think it’s a shame that people put us down for being young with money, and not being cultured in the right way. I think we were left to our own devices a lot – a lot of us had good upbringings, great parents- a lot of us had both parents- but at the same time we were left to rule our world with money, and it didn’t work. Even now if you’ve got money and you tell someone to do something, they’re gonna do it, including record labels, and the people who sold us cars without insurance.. no one cared about us, we had to care for ourselves, but we were too young to realise what was going on – and that was that people were using and abusing our fame.
I have to think that race comes into how you were portrayed
Yeah, I mean – we weren’t allowed on stage with certain items, like alcoholic drinks, because that would be publicising alcohol to underage children. That same year Slim Shady came onstage with a chainsaw. A chainsaw! (laughing) What the fuck is going on! He can go onstage in front of 20,000 people with a chainsaw, but we can’t shoot a video where we’re drinking alcohol. OK. And it was like, OK, that’s how we compare shit. That’s how we’re being treated. And it did wake some of us up. The ones who were looking after everyone, like Mega Man and G Man, they were getting a little bit more sceptical about the system. Looking from the outside in, I can see that some of us were maturing to what was happening, and some of us were being sucked in to it, they were becoming that harder person, becoming that crazier person and forgetting themselves.
Megaman knew that we needed to change shit, because we knew that if we didn’t change shit nothing was gonna work for us. There were a lot of personalities, and a lot to control.
Were you surprised to see how much affection you got on the reunion shows last year?
It was so emotional! I just realised that we could have done so much more – there was so much more that people wanted from us. Every person on stage had this feeling! We could feel how much we needed to do what we were doing. And all the people there had come because they wanted to see So Solid – and that is always amazing – 5000 people have come out of the house to see us! There were 3,800 people there to see us and another 2000 outside trying to get in..! And it was emotional, because there was the feeling that this coulda been us all the way through. It’s that woulda coulda shoulda thing isn’t it– but, you know, I’ve enjoyed every moment of my career. I can still get onstage and do tracks I recorded 10 years ago and still mash up the dance!
So finally, are there any So Solid favourites you’ve got that people may not know so well
Oh my gosh – so many… I love Knightrider..(I'm guessing she means Ride Wid Us) and there’s this track that the guy Synth produced – I don’t even know what it’s called. He wrote 21 Seconds - he was into singing – most of the boys were into rapping, so when the odd producer like AC Burrell and Synth came along who were into singing, I latched onto them, and I’d be like, get it out of me! I need to be trained – I never came into this wanting to be a pop star, it was just a hobby, so I needed training! But yeah, AC Burrell has got loads and loads of tracks of me singing, but they’ve never come out. He’s the guy for tracks that are hidden.
Catch Lisa performing with the So Solid Twins at the ICAn studios on Saturday Nov 29th - check the facebook event here
Words : Ian Mcquaid Twitter