It’s easy to get distracted from So Solid Crew’s music.
It’s easy to get distracted by the seemingly endless soap opera of controversies, tabloid press hysteria, and real world strife the group have been embroiled in over the years: by the beef with Dizzee, with UK garage’s elder statesmen, with the British media, with self-appointed moral guardians, and senior Labour politicians; by the cancelled tours; by Romeo going on Celebrity Big Brother and Celebrity Dinner Date, Harvey going on Celebrity Come Dine With Me and The Weakest Link, Lisa going on All New Monty, CelebAir and Celebrity Coach Trip, and all three of them being on Channel Five’s The Games; by Harvey’s tabloid tag as a “love rat,” and stint as a professional footballer; by Romeo reworking “21 Seconds” as an advert for car insurance; by Ashley Walters’ stellar acting career, in Top Boy and beyond; by Megaman’s entrepreneurial success with his clothing line Cheats and Thieves; by their numerous and varied solo careers and features; by the sad history of violence outside their shows, by the history of violence inside their shows; by Neutrino shooting himself in the leg; by the arrests for murder, gun possession and assault.
At the height of So Solid’s success, the British establishment never once let them enjoy it. Their image – and decline – was cemented by completely unrelated (albeit tragic) incidents such as the murders of two teenage girls in Birmingham on New Year’s Eve 2002. The politician and broadcaster Trevor Phillips blamed what he called So Solid’s “gold chain and no brain” mentality for an unexplained double murder, in a British city 120 miles away from the crew’s home, as if their music’s popularity had had some kind of ambient influence on the population at large – and the Labour government even sought to censor rap lyrics as a result.
You can hear references to So Solid Crew’s songs right across the thriving genre multiverse that is black British music in 2019.
Yet it’s not these negative media narratives that are most keenly felt, 18 years on from the release of their multi-platinum debut album, They Don’t Know. It’s their music. You can hear references to their songs right across the thriving genre multiverse that is black British music in 2019, from Krept & Konan, to Skepta, to J Hus’s producer Jae5.
Producing four Top 20 singles and selling 100,000 copies in its first week of release alone, So Solid’s masterpiece of a debut is a bizarrely overlooked part of their story in the popular imagination. Everyone remembers “21 Seconds,” and their Brit Awards performance, but the album was a lot more than incidental – people still bought albums in droves in 2001, and after “21 Seconds” hit the #1 spot, and the album title track “They Don’t Know” followed it to #3, the crew’s debut was heard far beyond the Winstanley Estate in southwest London. For understandable reasons, we tend to ignore chart positions and sales when measuring the importance of underground music, but arriving as they did just before pop culture splintered into countless digital shards, So Solid’s commercial dominance is key to understanding the revolutions in black British music which followed. Megaman has claimed They Don’t Know sold in excess of one million copies, which is almost certainly an exaggeration, but most agree its sales are definitely in the hundreds of thousands. At 76 minutes, with 15 tracks and five skits, it was the epic statement a group as sprawling and historic as So Solid deserved to make.
Wiley’s Pay As U Go Cartel may have been “the grime atom bomb” waiting to go off, as Maxwell D once described it to me, and Heartless Crew may have been everyone’s UKG rave faves, but when it comes to far-reaching influence, you can’t really argue with selling the best part of one million records. So Solid’s two rivals from the UK garage underground may have had “Champagne Dance” and “Heartless Theme,” respectively, but these were chart one-offs. So Solid’s triumph was to transform themselves from pirate radio spitters to creators of a huge wealth of three-to-five minute dark garage songs with mass appeal and, crucially, genuinely catchy hooks and choruses.
Listening closely now, it’s staggering how uncompromising it is, arriving a year after Sweet Female Attitude’s “Flowers” was everywhere, and in the same month that Daniel Bedingfield’s “Gotta Get Through This” hit #1. When we talk about “garage going dark,” this album is the exemplary gothic response to so many souped-up love songs.
Asher D and Dan Da Man’s grimy “Woah” is not dissimilar to instrumentals like Dizzee’s classic instrumental “Ho” and Alias’s “Gladiator” – it’s an incredibly short leap of the imagination from UK garage to grime at this point. “Woah” is breathless, intense and relentless on the vocal front, but it’s the remorselessly ominous, gnarly synth stab riff that feels like a template for a new sound – grime before it had a name. It’s the kind of track that, a few years later, made every stuffed-suit label and radio exec shake their head and say grime was too fast for radio, which makes So Solid’s mainstream success seem all the more surprising. “Mayyybeee we’re just too harrrrrrrd for ya,” spits Asher on the drop, his vocal stretched out like a robot that has jammed, before flowing furiously into the verse.
So Solid’s influence on the emergence of grime is often remarked on, but the same is true of dubstep. “In My Life,” with its frequently offbeat spitting and proto-dubstep wub-wub sub, comes off like Wookie’s “Battle” only darker, more difficult and unwilling to please, choral “oh-ooo” and “ayyy-ayy” ad-libs a half-hearted gesture to listenability. But it also comes the closest to social commentary, painting a picture of people who are “fucked up like plimsolls” and hustling with the police on their back, Megaman describing a world in which their base in Clapham Junction is the only safe place for them, the only place they’d roll “without no heat… so I ain’t going nowhere… So Solid ain’t going nowhere, my fucked-up crew ain’t going nowhere.” No wonder it sounds claustrophobic.
The insistent, Knight Rider-sampling “Ride Wid Us” is the nearest thing to a So Solid template in sonics and message: jittery, anxious beats and an alluring female chorus, with a defiant in-group message – we’re cool, and we're not your mates. For such a mainstream album, the themes are relentlessly bleak – and it’s not even so much the gun-talk, it’s the paranoia. (“Ha ha ha, what you laughing at?”)
“E is for envious,” Harvey lets us know on “Fuck Wid Us,” as an explanation for why anyone would want in fact want to fuck with them; and clearly, a lot of people did. Jealousy and envy come up time and again, including on the fiery Ms. Dynamite guest track of the same name (“Have them bawling like they was town crier / to be like D and So Solid is their desire”). “Haters” – which peaked at #8 in the UK charts, their third Top 10 in six months – turns this message into an art form. The edgy “plink-plink” of the percussion and tube-train like bass rumbling underneath makes it the other classic single, alongside “21 Seconds” epochal, ringtone-led urgency.
Standing back and looking at the sheer weight of numbers involved in this album (“21 Seconds” has no fewer than 20 writer credits on Discogs – though to be fair, some of these are doubles), perhaps their greatest achievement is their collaborative work ethic, and Megaman’s team management, taking a crew of so much talent and carefully selecting the best MC-and-producer pairings. They didn’t turn every track into a nine-minute-long, pass-the-mic fest, as fun as that might have been.
Speaking to So Solid’s label boss at Relentless, Shabs Jobanputra, for Inner City Pressure, he recalled the methodical way that “21 Seconds” became a mega-hit: “They said how long do you want it, we said 3.5–4 minutes, they said fine. So they literally took a calculator and divided the time by the number of MCs – it was a set of verses, all verses, and it went out on white label as a set of verses, with no chorus. Slowly but surely as they PA-ed it, it was getting bigger, but we didn’t have a radio edit. There were nine of them on it! I did this radio edit one night, and put the chorus on – and I then phoned up Megaman and said ‘Look, I’ve done this edit, but you’re not going to like it, because I’ve taken you off it.’” Seeing the bigger picture for the crew, Megaman didn’t object – and the radio edit (and its chorus) made them superstars.
It’s striking how of its time They Don’t Know sounds – not necessarily dated in a cringeworthy way, but situated in a pop cultural moment that really was 18 years ago. They may have been sonically groundbreaking, but lyrically They Don’t Know is situated entirely in 2001. Things are described as “scandalous” without a hint of a raised eyebrow, pre-dating Mis-teeq’s classic of the same name. There’s mention of raking papers. Yagga yo. Screw and boo. Ice on my wrist. Gats in my hand. Layer upon layer of Avirex and Prada blazers.
Then there is that strange, never-repeated UK garage vocal flow-ah, where you finish-ah the word-ah with a rhythmic flourish-ah, and you’re a So Solid vam-pie-ah. It’s an echo of the last century carried into the brave new world of the 21st, the ghostly figure of the ’90s jungle and garage host-MC keeping the crowd in rhythmic harmony as their old world begins to fade. The same goes for the tendency to repeat “hit” lines twice or more, in the style of the live host-MC, a reminder of that rave-and-radio lineage in an underground economy altogether different from the bedroom-based auteur-rapper. “Oh No (Sentimental Things)” – their first single, on the album in remix form – takes this a stage further. When Romeo’s verses give way to Lisa Maffia’s chorus, it’s essentially a different track, like some omniscient unseen selector has flipped the crossfader back and forth, mid-song.
For about nine months, in that strange, remote-feeling historical moment, So Solid Crew were the biggest thing in UK pop culture.
15 tracks, 76 minutes, 30-odd members, and They Don’t Know manages to sound coherent and sonically diverse at the same time. “Rave Scene” begins with what sounds like steel pans in an abandoned swimming pool, coupling them with more epic sub-bass, while “Skyla” layers Lisa Maffia’s ragga-inspired chorus and Megaman’s skippiest of flows over violin sweeps as well as high-pitched synth stabs. Romeo spitting over Swiss’s instrumental on “Deeper” is almost a freeform dubstep poem, as his monologue speeds up and slows down: “rock garage, rock car-park flows: different beats, different tempos, different lingos – that’s the way it goes… setting different flows and different trends.”
Another thing that’s easy to forget about So Solid’s sound is that it’s not all dark, shadowy antechambers to UK garage’s cathedral of gilded baroque extravagance. In this regard, Swiss’s stunning production on “Fuck Wid Us” really stands out as a lost classic. Frantically skittish 2-step drums are joined by glorious stadium-esque electro bass stabs, and another singalong chorus. Somehow, they made the underground sound of Delight FM into pop music, without losing even a sliver of its edge.
For about nine months, in that strange, remote-feeling historical moment, So Solid were the biggest thing in UK pop culture. But they never got to reap the benefits. It’s hard not to see it as a historical travesty, when you look at Stormzy playing a triumphant headline set at Glastonbury, or Skepta headlining Wireless, or Boy Better Know selling out their own festival at the O2, that So Solid never had the chance to lead a 60,000-strong festival call-and-response chant of “tell me why you want to fuck with us?”