Celebrating 20 Years of So Solid Crew's 21 Seconds
Twenty years since its release, we look back at So Solid Crew's 21 Seconds and how it helped change the musical landscape of the UK, paving the way for grime
It may have once been remixed for an advert selling car insurance (of all things) but before the tabloid self-immolation, beyond-parody reality TV stints and charge sheets longer than War and Peace, 21 Seconds by So Solid Crew was the grimiest, most anarchic sonic assault to ever top the UK charts. The group became pop superstars overnight, they appeared on Top of the Pops, won a BRIT Award for Best Video and for many, particularly suburban white kids, acted as a gateway into British underground music.
Introduced by the laughing of Lisa Maffia’s young daughter before its now iconic robotic bassline kicks in, the composition of the track is disarmingly simple. The title and infectious hook refers to the amount of time each of the eight verses lasts as the song takes on a competitive aura with every individual artist striving to make the most of their limited time on the mic. For a song that sounds so rugged, so raw, so evocative of subway rap battles, it was a very scientific way to put a recording together.
The energy of the cut bursts out immediately, with the simplistic garage beat that is emblematic of the ringtone era, and what is noteworthy is just how British it sounds. Sonically, 21 Seconds is a descendant from the days of jungle and grime is one of its children – nothing about it is trying to be American. This was in the days when UK rappers would rap in American accents to try and get on, but 21 Seconds is blow after blow of thick London accents.
Each of the MCs use their allotted time to introduce themselves to the listener and, with that, the nation as they strived to be more than pirate radio stalwarts and make an impression on mainstream culture. Unlike many artists who broke through, there was no compromise made to their sound, no collaborations with pop singers to put together a bland but catchy hook – a trap everyone from Tinie Tempah to Wiley has fallen into at times in search of chart traction. So Solid remained the So Solid that upset the underground with their combative lyrics over their jittery beats.
It was a life-changing record for the members of the crew and their families – Lisa Maffia was literally working full-time in an off-license when they blew up – and they’d frequently go from popping bottles of champagne back to their council flats where they were local heroes. Maffia along with Asher D, Romeo, Harvey and Megaman were the first superstar rap MCs to come out of the UK, recognisable to the average suburban mum. That was before infighting, tabloid scandal and arrests for just about everything imploded the group.
The number one, the BRIT Award and the hundreds of thousands of records sold were nothing compared to the impact 21 Seconds had over the music industry in the early noughties. It’s impossible to imagine The Streets having hit records if So Solid hadn’t topped the charts first, or a teenage Dizzee Rascal winning the Mercury, or Wiley exploding onto the scene like a nuclear bomb if So Solid Crew hadn’t infiltrated the mainstream first.
The sparse, ominous sound that was a stark contrast to poppy garage tracks like Daniel Bedingfield’s Gotta Get Thru This and Sweet Female Attitude’s Flowers was what endured and they solved the equation of remaining authentic while conjuring up club-ready hooks. At number one it was sandwiched between Atomic Kitten’s cover of Eternal Flame and pop group Five’s Let’s Dance; So Solid brought a much needed edge to the mainstream charts.
21 Seconds was the walkable bridge from garage to grime, from the old millennium to the new. It had an irreversible impact on British music – it brought the sound of the estate into the mainstream. The industrial bassline, the blunt, simplistic rhymes; it had a working class aesthetic and was far more indebted to Jamaican dancehall than it was American hip-hop. It’s only a short path from 21 Seconds topping the charts, petrifying politicians in the process, to the ongoing battle between the authorities and drill.
So Solid’s success should have been a celebration, but this was also the time of ASBOs, banning hoodies and oppressive schemes thought up and then scrapped to use high-pitched sounds to force teenagers from gathering in city centres. Instead of a long, thriving career at the top of the music business, the gleeful smirk of the British press brought them back down to size. Their beginning was their peak. Unlike so many of the artists they created a space for, the rewards began and ended with their debut, and while a royalty cheque is a royalty cheque, they did not win the accolades of Dizzee or the international appeal of Skepta; it’s hard not to think they were robbed of a future in the game. 2001 was their year – that summer was the glorious summer of So Solid Crew, let it never be forgotten.
21 Seconds by So Solid Crew was released on 6 Aug 2001 via Relentless