Canada, So Solid, UK Garage & Me…

Words: Son Raw

Ask UK residents of a certain age about garage legends So Solid Crew, and childhood memories come flooding back. “21 Seconds went to #1 the weekend I turned 10 and it was as if none of the BBC presenters could twig quite what this was, or why it had happened,” reflected my fellow music writer Gabriel Szatan. “When So Solid Crew came out, it was so important, a new voice entirely,” recalls bass music DJ and producer Bok Bok, in an interview half a world and away and 20 years later.

One look at the group on Top Of The Pops and it’s easy to see why the mere mention of their name among scene veterans elicits torrents of praise: in a musical environment still dominated by Britpop’s stragglers, So Solid may as well have been aliens beamed down from a spaceship. The massive collective of South London emcees, DJs, producers and singers, with a pop hit whose melody was seemingly written on a Gameboy, didn’t fit the music industry’s pre-established boxes, even as they drew from dancehall, jungle, hip-hop and R&B to stretch garage to its breaking point. Simultaneously, they were an intensely local phenomenon, broadcasting a London street culture previously invisible to all who weren’t living in it. For a generation of kids raised on pirate radio tapes and stories of their older siblings’ raving, this was a generational changing of the guard. For clued-in music fans abroad however, they were both incomprehensible and irresistible, planting the seeds for UK emceeing throughout the world.

Part of it was down to timing. Just as “21 Seconds” became a No. 1 hit, and They Don’t Knowthe group’s debut album—hit the streets, filesharing was transforming music distribution worldwide, exposing the group to an entirely unexpected group of listeners. Despite So Solid’s album never receiving North American distribution, I vividly remember finding “21 Seconds” on Napster on the strength of recommendation on an early, now-forgotten rap forum. To my North American, backpacker ears, raised on Wu-Tang Clan and Dr. Dre, nothing about the song made sense: it was too fast, the beats seemed to stumble over each other and the emcees seemingly veered from crisp diction to something that I wrongly assumed at the time was patois. I’d be lying if I said it immediately converted me to the cause—I was frankly left wondering what cause it was even trying to convert me to, even as I wanted to hear more of it. I read that it was related to jungle, but when that genre went international, touring DJs rarely toured with emcees, so that left me with more questions than answers. I also connected it to dancehall, a constant presence at my local vinyl specialist, but none of the DJs had any idea what I was talking about.

So Solid’s music seemed to confound foreigners of all stripes, but it hit a particular chord in my native Canada. Toronto DJ and Bare Selection label head Freeza Chin recalls a similar experience in university, claiming that absolutely no one around him knew what he was listening to, after he’d downloaded the MP3s. Meanwhile, Ottawa-based DJ Kruptah spoke on stumbling upon the group after trying to download tape packs on Soulseek, and even that listeners in the UK refused to share the files with him, as if it was some private secret. To put it mildly, the group was a niche interest in a musical environment then-focusing on American titans like Jay-Z and DMX, but it’s hard not to see a pattern of listeners getting confused and then fascinated by the collective, before eventually going on to become DJs, producers and promoters in what would eventually become grime.

But there was another reason that, as a Canadian, So Solid felt particularly revelatory: I saw a parallel to how my own country was also searching for its musical voice when it came to Black music. At the turn of the millennium, it still felt like local emcees and singers were in their imitation phase, with new groups popping every few years to deliver a somewhat cut-rate version of what was hot in New York or LA. The term “Canadian Hip-Hop” always felt like a slight pejorative, as if rappers here were competing in a minor league. On the other hand, So Solid Crew didn’t even claim hip-hop. I had no idea that garage’s roots and origins were in NYC, all I knew is that this collective of kids spoke in their own slang, over their own tempos, and for their own audience, without caring about what anyone else thought. Plus, there was enough linguistic overlap with what Kardinal Offishall was calling Bakardi Slang for me to feel kinship to these kids rushing the mic with a futuristic hybrid of every music I loved.

Standing in stark contrasts to successful yet undeniably “alternative” UK acts like Tricky and Roots Manuva, So Solid was the first time countless listeners encountered UK emceeing that played by its own rules, with no regard to what outsiders thought about it, synthesizing all of their influences, from rap’s Korg Triton sheen to dancehall’s energy, and refracting it into something new. From half a world away, anyone who clicked on the right filesharing link saw a blueprint for how to make street-oriented music on our own terms. It’s even possible to see the roots of future superstar Drake’s affinity with the UK on They Don’t Know, at least if you also consider Craig David’s far smoother Born To Do It, as an equally important influence. Simultaneously alien and familiar, hyper-local yet willing to take on the world, So Solid Crew may have hit hardest in the UK, where they bumrushed the music industry, but their impact spread far wider, particularly among those looking for both a new sound and a way to create their own.

Posted on November 19, 2021