Asher D: Building on solid ground

Asher D is notorious as the gun-toting So Solid Crew member who served time. But he is also 'the most gifted actor of his generation'
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Ashley Walters bounds into the room, clutching a sandwich, a banana and a bottle of water. He's full of charm, full of energy, and he waves away my apology for interrupting his lunch-hour. "Don't worry about it. It's too long anyway." Clearly, hanging around marking time is not something that Walters enjoys.

Ashley Walters bounds into the room, clutching a sandwich, a banana and a bottle of water. He's full of charm, full of energy, and he waves away my apology for interrupting his lunch-hour. "Don't worry about it. It's too long anyway." Clearly, hanging around marking time is not something that Walters enjoys.

Walters is better known as the So Solid Crew MC Asher D, who served seven months of an 18-month sentence for gun possession in 2002 - the early release was for good behaviour. He was stopped by the police after an altercation with a traffic warden over an unpaid fine in central London; when the police searched him, they found a gun loaded with live ammunition, wrapped in a sock, in his girlfriend's handbag. It was one of several gun-related incidents that had dogged the south-London collective since their debut single, "21 Seconds", shot straight to No 1 in 2001, and became a key factor in the debate raging over the relationship between rap music and Britain's burgeoning gun culture.

Today, though, in a small room at the National Theatre, that time seems far away. Walters is the picture of a positive attitude. He has an autobiography to promote and a solo album due out in May, and he is rehearsing a new production of Roy Williams's Sing Yer Heart out for the Lads in the Cottesloe space. He's so eager to talk about what happened to him, though, that he starts before I've even asked him a question. "I had no chance to explain the situation when I was sent to jail," he bursts out. "The whole thing came from a long line of hate that I'd been getting. I want to show people why I did what I did; why I felt I needed a gun for protection."

Hence Asher D: So Solid, Walters's new book, a glossy hardback stuffed full of photographs of Walters, simply written and undeniably affecting. He started it in prison as a diary ("It gave me something to do") before realising its potential as something more lucrative. "I called my manager and told him to start looking for a publisher. When I came out, the deal was in place." True to the So Solid ethos, Walters is nothing if not a businessman.

Like the other members of the So Solid collective, Walters was brought up by his mum on a south-London council estate. His father was in and out of prison, and Walters rarely saw him - he says 95 per cent of his friends grew up without a dad. Unlike those of many of his peers, Walters's mum, Pamela, whom he adores, worked hard to compensate, sending him, among other things, to the Sylvia Young Theatre School from the age of five. Walters says laughingly that she did it because she wanted her weekends back (she was 17 when she had him) but acknowledges that it was mainly meant to show him that there was more to life than hanging about on the street.

Walters now admits candidly that he wasn't really interested in acting. "I was learning tap and ballet! Stuff that I could never talk about to my mates." He absconded a bit, but must have been pretty dedicated, not to mention talented: he appeared in Oliver! in the West End, was regularly in EastEnders, Grange Hill and The Bill, and won rave reviews for his performance in Lennie James's TV drama Storm Damage. But it wasn't until he got involved with the pirate radio station Supreme FM, writing lyrics, MCing and eventually hooking up with the fledgling So Solid Crew, that things started to click. "Music was always my thing," he says. "I grew up listening to a lot of US rap. I used to MC down the local youth club, and I knew it was what I wanted to do. Being asked to join So Solid meant I could do work that I was proud of, and also be part of a group that would give me protection on the street."

Walters constantly refers to the streets of Brixton and Peckham as a site of conflict, and with good reason. When he was 13, he was kidnapped and held for a day by a local gang. Some years after that, but before he joined So Solid, he was stabbed in the neck outside an off-licence and only just survived. Later, when "21 Seconds" hit the charts and So Solid became nationwide news, the hostility within the local community escalated. "I started getting death threats. People would come up to me and say: 'You used to be in Grange Hill. You can't be a bad boy. You can't defend yourself on the street.' I was 18, man. All this stuff was happening. I'd just had my first kid. I'll be honest: I was real scared. I didn't show it, but I feared dying..." So he bought a gun, for £1,300 (the police later laughed at the price: he'd been truly ripped off), and soon afterward was busted.

The fracas that surrounded So Solid Crew - the Astoria and Turnmills shootings; the cancelled gigs - has been well documented, but, according to Walters, the problems went deeper than the media ever reported or understood, deep into the troubled psyche of the black community itself. "I don't want to offend anyone, but black people have a big problem at the moment. We don't want to be a unit. You look at Asians - they work together, make money, put their kids through school. We don't have that regime in our culture. People are out for themselves. You make something, then people want to take it from you rather than work for it themselves. Guys who gave me pressure, they looked up to me 'cos they wanted to be in my position, but they hated me for it as well. The other thing is that none of us has a dad. The only people kids can look to for protection is either the local drug dealer or the police, and who do you think they are gonna choose?"

So Solid always defended their violent music with the line that they were only describing the social fallout of those problems, but there's a thin line between reporting something and being perceived to endorse it, and So Solid didn't see it. Now they are learning from it. "We're a smaller crew now," Walters says. "We got rid of a lot of people who weren't pulling their weight or who were causing trouble. We changed direction on our second album." Second Verse is notably softer, the savage two-step of their debut, They Don't Know, leavened by R&B and hip hop and socially conscious lyrics. "It hasn't done as well as the first one, though," he adds, with a wry smile.

For all their subversive image, So Solid are conservative at the core, the epitome of financial self-reliance - and self-improvement. Walters embodies the latter quality, in particular. He says he could have become just like the other prison inmates, coming out knowing more about crime than when he went in, but he resisted the pressure to get involved. "They all said to me that I would be back," he recalls, "but I said, 'No way, man, 'cos I'm not actually meant to be here. As soon as I'm out, I'm gonna go and make it.'"

He returns to the subject of his father ("If he had been there for me, I might never have gone to prison") and says it was only his kids that kept him going. He is still with his childhood sweetheart, Natalie, the mother of his three children. "It's perfect for me. It keeps me grounded."

His new solo album, The Street Sibling, is fresh, direct and cautiously informed by his experience. (Walters won't say that he is anti-gun-possession; he can understand what leads people to carry them.) What he does want is, first, for kids to know that prison is hard and unglamorous, and, second, for more people like him to break through. "There's me, Lisa Maffia, Lemar, Jamelia, Ms Dynamite: we're all getting there," he says.

As for Walters, he is full of unstoppable ambition. He got the part in Sing Yer Heart Out... by changing his agent and demanding that the new one got him a decent theatre audition; he was initially up for a part in Roy Williams's play Fallout but had to drop out because of music commitments. "I'd lost confidence in my ability to act, over the years. But, according to my agent, I'm a casting director's dream." That is true: Walters has always been highly rated by the acting industry. Lennie James once called him one of the most promising actors of his generation. Now he has his sights on Hollywood. "I want to represent England," he says firmly. "I wanna be an ambassador for my country." Forget what you may have heard: with his determination, focus, belief and talent, Walters could prove to be one of the most valuable ambassadors we've got.

'Asher D: So Solid' is published on 5 April by John Blake (£12.99). 'The Street Sibling' is out on 10 May on Independiente. 'Sing Yer Heart out for the Lads' opens at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1 (020-7452 3000) on 30 April