Size does matter

Shocked by two drive-by shootings, the musician Roni Size decided to take a creative stand against gun crime. Here, he tells Dom Phillips about a very personal collaboration

Monday 03 January 2005 01:00

It started with a chance meeting at the Mobos - the award ceremony that is British black music's equivalent of The Brits. At the event, two of British urban music's biggest stars, the soul singer Beverley Knight, and the Mercury Prize-winning drum'n'bass star Roni Size started discussing collaborating on a track together. Knight went home and started thinking about lyrics.

Then, in the early hours of New Year's Eve 2003, two teenagers, Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare, were hit by a hail of bullets outside a party in Birmingham - innocent victims of a drive-by shooting gone wrong. The murders horrified the nation, and triggered a deep emotional response in Beverley Knight. Suddenly, she knew what she wanted to write about on the track that she was planning to do with Size.

"Somehow, more than any other incident, that really got to me," says Knight, who comes from nearby Wolverhampton and has a niece called Letisha and a nephew who was blinded in one eye by an air gun at 17. "I thought: 'I want to reflect what is going on, on the streets right now.' With those girls in mind, I went to Roni's studio, wrote the song in his room, and recorded it there and then."

The result was "No More", a powerful anti-gun crime song that fuses Size's drum'n'bass rhythms with Knight's impassioned soul vocals. But last October, while it was being prepared for release, another tragedy confirmed the sad reality of its lyrics. Asha Jama, 25, and Donna Small, 22, accepted a lift from a Bristol nightclub with three men in a convertible Saab, and a BMW started following them. The Saab was sprayed with bullets, in an attack aimed at killing the men. Donna Small was left in a coma (she has now partially recovered); Asha Jama was left blind in one eye.

Roni Size knew both women well - they were, he says, practically family. If anything could bring home the relevance of this single, it was this. "It just gets closer and closer to home. Before, it wouldn't be someone that you knew directly who got shot. Nowadays, it is." The song, taken from Roni Size's album Return to V, has already spent weeks on the playlists at Radio 1 and 1Xtra, the BBC urban-music station.

"To me, the message is really about tolerance," says Size. "Just - no more. The craft of this record is the generalisation of it. If it was your family, if there was an empty place at the dinner table, how would it reflect?"

Size, 35, grew up as Ryan Williams in a West Indian family in the leafy Bristol suburb of St Andrew's - also home to Asha Jama. His father worked in a chocolate factory, his mother was a nurse. Although bright, he didn't get on at school, and spent much of his youth in the St Paul's and Easton areas, where guns, drugs and violence were serious problems. St Paul's was particularly plagued with gang violence, often perpetrated by Jamaican Yardies and fuelled by the drugs trade. The first local figure whom Size knew to be murdered was called Bangy. He was gunned down by an out-of-town gang at the St Paul's Carnival. Many more were to follow. The city experienced spiralling violence. By 2001, serious crime was up 72 per cent, and that year's carnival saw five separate gun attacks. "I can talk about a lot of people who are no longer here, they died before their time," says Size of his teenage years.

As for Size himself, parenthood and music had taken him off the streets of St Paul's. "I got off the road when I was about 17," he says. He had his first child around that time (with a new daughter born last month, he now has four). "I didn't get caught up in too much of the nitty-gritty, but I did have a bird's- eye view of what was going on."

Size began to attend a unique music project at Sefton Park youth club, the Basement Project. Run by Jill Sergeant, it offered basic recording equipment and instruction. It set Roni Size off on a music career that peaked when his group Reprazent won the Mercury Prize in 1997. "The Basement influenced me absolutely," he says.

He ended up working for the project, touring youth clubs with Sergeant, in a red van full of equipment. "That's how I knew all the kids around the way." He even started a degree in youth work, but left to concentrate on music. Five albums later, Size now runs his own label, Full Cycle, and released his last album Return To V, from which "No More" is taken, last autumn.

The bitter irony behind the attack on Asha Jama and Donna Small is that things in Bristol had been improving. "Bristol's a safer place now, and that's because people are saying 'no more'," says Size. Gun-related crime in St Paul's fell by 55 per cent in the past year - and the area won a commendation from the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset. Local initiatives such as the "Prayer Patrol" - in which Christians try to show criminals the error of their ways - have helped. "People power is working in Bristol," Size says.

He takes us on a tour of the area, careful to point out that gun crime is often a hidden phenomenon. "It's not visible. It's in corners." We drive past the Black and White Café on Grosvenor Road, long a flashpoint, now closed. Its owner, Stephen Wilks, appeared on Size's last album. Sadly, crime does persist. The night that Asha Jama and Donna Small were shot, so was a 32-year-old man outside a music event on Wilder Street, St Paul's. Fortunately, he recovered. Size shows us where it happened. Around the corner is an African-Caribbean café where we stop for chicken, rice and peas. Locals greet Size - he knows everyone. "Haven't I seen you on the telly?" teases one girl. "That track with Beverley Knight is wicked," says Clive Smith, a local film-maker and community figure. Size explains the lyrics. Smith approves. "If the youth hear Roni said that, well..." he says. "It's up to us artists to say something."

Unfortunately, most British urban artists don't seem to agree. Gun crime is often either glamorised or ignored in their music. Dwayne Vincent, leader of So Solid Crew, may have spoken out against guns at an anti-gun crime conference following the murders of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare, but he has since been charged with murder, along with another man, following a fatal shooting in south London, and is on remand until 19 January, when he is expected to enter a plea. "It's very easy to get caught in the crossfire," says Size, carefully.

Beverley Knight thinks that artists are scared of bad press. "The need for good publicity dominates. Sometimes, you speak out on issues that may not meet with consensus, but if it's what you believe and it's right, you have to."

For Roni Size, I suspect that actions speak louder than words. His past has, in a way, never left him. Now he enjoys giving new artists the kind of break the Basement Project gave him - free studio time at the Full Cycle complex. "That puts a smile on my face," he says.

'No More' is out on 10 January, on V

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