So Solid’s “21 Seconds” At 20: An Iconic Piece Of UK Music History

I had barely turned 13 years old when So Solid Crew dropped their video for “21 Seconds”. The opening 15 seconds were captivating; thunder and lightning sweeping a Gotham-like setting, with a shout from a kid (Lisa Maffia’s then-little girl)—“Ha-ha-ha! What ya laughing at?”adding to the track’s sinister feel. At the time, the UK hadn’t seen a visual as expensive-looking, or dark, as this Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini-directed number. Most of us were content with the budget music vids shot out on the block that frequented our gone-but-not-forgotten Channel U. This was the first time anything from the Black British music scene could give our US counterpart a run for their money in—this was Hype Williams-level stuff, and the people lapped it up. We dissected it in school—every break, every lunchtime—for months. It was all our ringtones for just as long. 

So Solid Crew, who were like South London superheroes to every Black kid at this point, had a major hit on their hands. Before “21 Seconds”—released on August 6, 2001—had entered the UK singles chart at No. 1 as a signed EMI single, it circulated the streets, blasting out of every tinted whip that passed by, its synthesized keys, skeletal drums and a barrage of garage MCs 8-barring their way through and helping to usher in a new sound and scene that would become known as grime. Lisa Maffia’s sung verse was a highlight, too. “The video, the campaign, the idea behind the format of the song—all these elements contributed to its longevity,” says Megaman, mastermind of the crew. “Something can be a hit for two or three years and then it fades out, but from the appreciation that we still get, I feel that people have noticed how epic ‘21 Seconds’ was, and what it delievered.”

To see this band of MCs, singers, and producers—who had been demonised by mainstream media and dismissed by certain corners of the garage scene—rise up the ranks, was inspirational in many ways. For aspiring musicians, they were the blueprint for many. But for the rest of us, they gave us hope that we, too, could achieve greatness, no matter where you came from and how you showed up in the world. Their authenticity was felt, inspiring generations in the process. To celebrate “21 Seconds” turning 20 today, we called up Megaman to look back at this groundbreaking piece of Black British music history, and to find out what’s next in store.

COMPLEX: “21 Seconds” is officially 20 years old! How does it feel to be part of such an iconic piece of UK music history?

Megaman: I’ve come to appreciate it even more over the years. It’s been beautiful watching everything unfold and seeing the longevity of the song itself, and just understanding the importance of the actual number and what was created in that time. It’s been beautiful.

This one might be tough for you to remember, but how did that track actually come together? Everyone had 21 seconds to say what they had to say—which must have been a struggle, but you all smashed it out the park. 

Basically, I was signed to a publishing deal with EMI at the time, using the demo studio to work on the track. I just told different artists to come down on the day and lay their vocals. So at different times, Harvey, Kaish, myself, Romeo, Asher, Skatt D, Face, Lisa [Maffia], we’d all find time to go in and put our vocals down. It was really like a demo track—if you listen to it closely, it’s got a demo vibe to it. It was only when we presented it to the label and they were like, “Wow! This sounds great!” And then we formatted it and made Kaish’s part the chorus. We tried to fit everyone in within three and a half minutes—everyone did 8 bars each, 21 seconds each. Then the label said: “Look, we’ve got to make a chorus and make the tune a bit longer, for the video etc.” So that’s why the tune’s five minutes long.

There were seemingly a lot more members of So Solid who didn’t feature on the track, so was there any back and forth on who made the cut, or was it more a first come, first serve situation?

At the time, when “21 Seconds” was made, it was only those selected members who were ever gonna be on the track. Other members actually came on board after that track came out. 

I had just hit my teens when the song came out, and I remember it pumping through South London’s streets—blasted out of every tinted whip—before seeing it reach mainstream level and going No. 1. It was a big moment for young Black kids to see when it did, but I want to say the streets helped to really elevate it. How did you guys see it take off?

Because we were already in a record deal, from when the video hit, then the campaigns and the billboards hit the streets… It wasn’t like “Oh No”—which we built through underground radio stations and things on that level—it was a commercial project. So “Oh No”, that’s got a bit more authenticity, but “21 Seconds” was structured as we were in a deal. The people definitely supported and made it into the monster that it was, and still is. 

So Solid didn’t always have the best relationship with the mainstream press, but did you feel vilified, in some sort of way, when the track went No. 1 and everyone was singing your praises again?

In my young days, I was sure. I was a very sure person. So when I looked at all the pieces to the puzzle, it looked like it was about to do some damage, you know? It didn’t matter if there was radio support or not. The campaign behind it and the video? Yeah. I’m sure it would’ve done something. Getting to No. 1 was a nice surprise. I think that for sure made an impact in other areas for us. 

What do you think it was about that track that made it such a hit? Everything before it, on a garage tip anyway, was nowhere near as hard-hitting as “21 Seconds” when it dropped. Even down to the visuals.

I think it was just the whole vibe of us as So Solid that people connected with. The name of the organisation, the crew, the different characters. We didn’t rap the same, we didn’t sound the same, we didn’t look the same. We were like superheroes in the rap scene [laughs]. The video, the campaign, the idea behind the format of the song—all those elements contributed to its longevity. Someone can be a hit for two or three years and they fade out. But the appreciation, I feel that people have noticed the idea behind “21 Seconds” and what it delivered. And radio still loves it…

—to this day!

TV channels still love it… We actually released “21 Seconds” as an EP last year, while all this COVID stuff was happening, on vinyl. Now the day’s here and it’s the big anniversary.

Back to “Oh No (Sentimental Things”, to me, that track was the turning point that took sweet-sounding UKG and mutated it into what we now know as grime. The beat, the flows—it felt like the start of something that would go on to spark a whole movement, being grime. Some would say it was Pay As U Go’s “Champagne Dance”, but I’m sticking with you guys [laughs].  

When I produced that song, it was because I used to go raving as a young guy in the underage scene and we had certain dances, certain styles, certain songs that didn’t really match our style and our swag. I was at home one day and I just came up with the idea, I booked studio–£250—and just made that come together. I slapped the bassline in, slapped the keys in, put some reverbs on certain basslines, switched that up a bit, did a little something for the hook, and the chorus is my lyric. “Oh, sentimental things”—I used to say that all the time. I felt like a female vocal would be a good fit for the song, and that’s where Lisa comes in on the hook. That sound kinda suited our street yutes wanting to go to a garage dance for a different sort of feel. We needed those rough edges in there.

Do you feel like the grime scene felt embraced by So Solid as the next generation coming up? A lot of MCs, DJs and producers I’ve spoken to have namechecked you guys as early inspirations. 

I would say so. Grime was a rebellion from the East London lot, and the garage lot didn’t really like us ruffians, soundboy clash, bad-up-man talk in the raves and taking over. After a while, what we did was open up the doors and let people know they didn’t have to be this big producer to cut through. We were making music that made the yutes think, “I can actually make that sound, whereas I couldn’t make that other sound before.” Because garage sounded very musical. The musicians before us came through the school of real art. But times changed, and it felt like a lightbulb went off in people’s heads, like: “Oh, I can make that from this module here.” People got to work. Even Wiley said he was inspired by “Oh No”, so it kinda went full circle.

And that’s what I’m seeing with grime and UK drill. When I look at drill now, I see so much of grime in it. Culturally, without grime, drill wouldn’t have as strong of a foundation, and even musically—from production to flows—it’s drawing from grime in major ways. 

When you’re listening to a certain style of music, whether it’s dancehall, hip-hop, drum & bass, you can easily tell the tempos can be similar, the BPMs. But I wouldn’t say a genre is strictly to a specific BPM. The reason I feel garage has managed to stick around for so long is because it’s been adopting other sounds. It’s been adopting jazz, it’s been adopting R&B, it’s adopted ragga, revival—all these sounds. Same thing with jungle. Grime, for it to last, it needs to adopt different sounds. Also, the artists need to take care of the club brands that actually helped them to grow, not hit them with ridiculous commercial prices. With drill, the young artists need to show that they can be more versatile with their content. Show that you can mix up different flavours and styles from your culture, and still cut through with the sound that you love. A song talking about some girl called Adeola just went No. 1 [laughs], but the sound was still authentic. You ain’t gotta cut off your nose to spite your face. This is lifestyle music.

Do you feel like you and the rest of So Solid get enough praise for what you did in the early days for Black British music? You guys kicked the doors open on so many levels. 

I think we do get our dues. I’ve seen a lot of interviews, people have made a lot of songs with my name in it, shouting us out. So I feel we definitely do get our props. If it was more in the commercial side of things, in record deals and still on that sort of platform of the music industry, you’re gonna hear it a lot more and see it a lot more. There’s a few more surprises for the So Solid brand. The garage scene is a multi-million pound business, regardless. Look how brands grow, just from club nights. We’re trying to take care of each other in that scene there, and now it’s almost a commercial scene again with all the big festivals and raves going on. The brands that we’ve grown with are now global brands, taking over whole holiday resorts. Whether we’re in the commercial scene, whether we’re in deals or not, we’re always gonna be at those big festivals. Just like the house and drum & bass scenes look after their legends, we’ve got the same in our scene.

What do you think about the new-day garage scene, the Conductas of the world? 

It’s moving, man. Everyone has their lane. For everything to evolve and every sound to change, it just takes a while for the people before that to want to adapt to it or even take heed properly. What everyone’s doing, just keep knocking at it. It’s every individual artist’s personal style of what they want to present to that genre, to whatever genre they’re doing. It was the same thing for us. We had a sound and a style that wasn’t really at the forefront or being done before. We still called it garage. We didn’t call it anything else. When people love a certain genre and they’ve got their sound, whether it’s new or mixed or a different version, just continue and you’ll eventually break through. 

Do you get a lot of artists coming to you for mentorship? 

Yeah, I get quite a bit. I just have a funny way of not charging people for it [laughs]. People ask me to mentor them and I’m like, “For one, I don’t think I have the time to commit to that.” I feel weird charging people just for giving them something that I know. Look, if I create a platform, if I create a seminar, if I decide to do it in that sort of way then it’s justified, because I’ve taken time to do that. But if someone calls me, it’s just so effortless for me to just say one, two or three. Putting a price on that isn’t really my style.

When are we getting the So Solid biopic? No hype: that would be a box office smash.

[Laughs] I’m staying tight-lipped. But just know that there’s a lot of things in the pipeline. Really, I want the So Solid brand to help bring through artists. The whole “crew” thing, I wanted to steer away from that from the beginning of time. The impact was so good and all the problems that occurred were so harsh, and we kinda got branded wih certain things. It’s had it’s pros and its cons, but we have loved the journey.

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