They talk a good fight, So Solid Crew. Spend time in their company and they won't let you leave until they have convinced you that they have been to the UK garage scene what The Beatles were to pop. It is true, certainly, that they made quite an impact, and threw open the doors for the UK urban scene in general, but the truth is we do need reminding. There has always been so much else surrounding them – firearms charges, assault, countless stabbings, even manslaughter – that it's easy to overlook any musical contribution they've made.
That said, when we meet a couple of days after this year's Mobo Awards, both Megaman and MC Harvey – who, along with MC Romeo and Lisa Maffia, formed the core of the group back in the day and still do, more or less, today – jubilantly point out that they received nothing but love and respect there from their peers. “And our closing performance,” Harvey adds, “was epic.”
They were there to announce a “Best Of” compilation and also a farewell tour in November, though the very notion of “farewell” seems as vague to So Solid as it is to Status Quo. “Hey, if some promoter comes offering us £2m to reform in a few years' time, I'm sure we'll sit down and negotiate,” says Harvey, laughing like a drain.
It is a dozen years since So Solid Crew, an underground act from Battersea in south London, with as many as 32 members, broke unexpectedly into the mainstream with “21 Seconds”, a minimalist UK garage track that knocked Atomic Kitten off the No 1 spot. While alerting half the country to an often thrilling, and hitherto overlooked, genre, they also managed to terrify the other half with what some of the media saw as an endless glorification of drugs and gang culture. Every time they played live, the police were called in: there were knife fights, and on more than one occasion – through no fault of the band themselves – the fights proved fatal.
Megaman and Harvey, the two representatives of an approximately 10-strong crew today, sigh wearily. Here they are, wanting to talk music and business, but all anyone wants to perpetuate is that old controversy. Both are 34 years old now, and both are different characters. Megaman is brooding, almost menacing; Harvey is a human firework, constantly going off. “Thing is, yeah,” says Harvey, “we come from struggle. Everything we've done, we've had to struggle. But why did people get so fearful? We just lived by basic rules, like anybody else: we defended ourselves when we had to.”
Perhaps, yes, but they weren't always merely defending themselves. One member, for example, Skat D, was once arrested for allegedly breaking the jaw of a 16-year-old fan who spurned his sexual advances; another, Asher D (now Ashley Walters, one of the UK's most promising actors) was imprisoned for firearms possession. Megaman himself was arrested in 2005 on suspicion of manslaughter. “Okay, everything they talked up in the newspapers was true,” Megaman says, “but we also ended up being held responsible for things we had nothing to do with, like all those fights at our events.” Megaman was eventually cleared of all charges, but by then the band had splintered. They had released just two albums – 2001's They Don't Know (which sold 450,000 copies) and 2003's 2nd Verse (25,000 copies). By then, each of the main MCs had individual public profiles. But while Ashley Walters' acting career took off, the others' solo albums were not huge hits.
But this, insists Megaman, is to miss the point. For behind the scenes, each had never been busier. “So Solid was always about bringing new talent up – the next generation,” he explains. “We don't need to jump about on stage any more because we don't have anything more to prove. We're iconic already. We're not just rappers, we're businessmen.”
“You look at acts like Tinie and Dizzee [Tempah and Rascal, both now international superstars],” adds Harvey, “but they are just music. We are brands. I've got so many things in so many pies, I could work until I'm 50!” He talks about management deals (Megaman is currently managing nine up-and-coming acts), and of “crazy” endorsement deals with jewellery and watch companies. “We've got video-hosting websites; our own range of clothing is in Top Man now; and we're about to get into legal radio. Always growing, yeah? It's like, if I've got two houses, I want four…”
Back in July, the band were abruptly dropped from the Lovebox Festival, by all accounts because another act didn't want to share the stage with them. Harvey wasn't best pleased. “We give artists careers, and they still treat us like c***s,” he tweeted afterwards. Which is why their reception at the Mobos pleased them so much. They are retiring from centre-stage now, though, because they want to move more into management, into creating and running a growing empire. This is something, you feel, they would like more respect for.
“Thing is,” says Harvey, “we are British, just like you. So shouldn't you all be proud of us? You love American rappers, and half of them have gone to jail on murder and firearm charges! But still, they come here and they get maximum love. Meanwhile, all people here say is, 'Ban So Solid.' Why? Be proud of us instead, man! Because bottom line is this: we've done something no other crew in this country has done.” He is out of his chair at this point, all but levitating. His eyes are awfully wide. “You know what that means? It means that when we die, we'll be remembered. We're pioneers.”
'The Best Of…' by So Solid Crew is out now. The band's tour continues in Sheffield tonight (16 November), Norwich (18 November) and Birmingham (19 November)