Towards the end of my interview with Ashley Walters, I asked him what he thinks his best performance is. He picked out his role as a drug addict in the little-seen drama Sugarhouse, but he was very clear to say that it was only his best performance so far, and that his career was far from over.
Walters is still pretty young—he’s only 33—but even if this were the end of his career, he’d still have a hell of a lot to talk about. Back when he went by the name of Asher D, he was part of So Solid Crew, arguably the first British MCs to get a No. 1 (“21 Seconds”), still the most vilified musical act by the mainstream press, and a vital evolutionary step in the pre-history of today’s vibrant grime scene. Then, as police intervention was causing So Solid’s success to implode, Walters was sentenced to 18 months at a young offender’s institute for possessing a loaded weapon. Upon his release, he starred in the critically acclaimed movie Bullet Boy, which did a similar thing for the UK film industry that So Solid did for music, opening the door for the likes of Kidulthood and Attack The Block. A few years later, he would go on to star in one of the best things to ever air on British TV: Top Boy, a show that has become a cult favourite and is on constant repeat on Drake’s Netflix.
That is quite a career.
I spoke with Walters ostensibly to promote his his appearance in E4’s new sci-fi comedy drama The Aliens, where—in a future Britain—extra-terrestrial refugees work menial jobs. Walters makes a one-off appearance in the first episode as an out of control alien gangster, a wild-eyed psycho almost parodying the old public perception of him. He says he did it to mix things up and do something a bit more light-hearted. “I’m not a comedy guy,” he tells me. “I don’t do comedy shows. It was just a chance to put that sort of character into a comedy world.”
But of course, I want to talk to him about So Solid and Drake. And he was remarkably candid. He was down for talking about anything. No ego. No attitude. For somebody who was in such a supposedly violent group, and whose best known roles have been ruthless criminals, he was such a nice guy. When our phone call kept cutting out, he kept calling me back and apologising. And he basically started giving us a guided tour of Top Boy locations on our Hackney photo-shoot. Dude was really cool.
"So Solid was more to me about the camaraderie, the unit between me and the other boys."
Let’s start at the beginning. Before So Solid, Walters was originally an actor as a kid. “I started in adverts. I did an advert for this red microphone for kids with buttons that would change your voice.” At the age of 11, he was doing radio plays and stage productions, including Oliver at the Palladium and Children of Eden at the Old Vic. But his real breakthrough came when he was cast in 12 episodes of the long-running CBBC high school drama Grange Hill.
Let’s be real here: Grange Hill was never cool. But back in the pre-internet ‘90s days, people watched it. And it gave Walters his first taste of fame. “I’d always been quite popular, locally or whatever, but just having people that you don’t know, knowing you, was a weird experience at first. But being a kid having that sort of success was really cool. I was getting paid for it! I could buy new phones, new trainers, stuff like that.”
But as he got into his teens, girls and hip-hop soon started to lure him away from acting. This was on the cusp of UK garage’s heyday. “I just stumbled on the crew called ‘So Solid’ on pirate radio one day. It just sounded like they were rapping, but the music was very English. I gave up acting while I just pursued my music career.” So Solid’s chief MC Megaman welcomed Walters in the fold. “He was the founder, he took me under his wing. I came to the studio to work on my own stuff, and he’d take a look at my stuff and whatever, and then one day he was like: ‘Do you want to join up?’ ‘Yeah, of course! I’ve been looking up to you forever. It kind of just went from there. We became family, and we still are now.”
The crew offered him support he didn’t really have. “So Solid was more to me about the camaraderie, the unit between me and the other boys. I grew up an only child; even though I had younger brothers, they were on my dad’s side and I didn’t have my dad around so, as a replacement to that, I think I warmed to being part of this crew. What started out as a street thing, a gang culture thing, sort of turned into music by accident because it was working. We had no idea it was going to be as big as it was. Even though I’d been prepped slightly for what was to come, when it happened it was still quite overwhelming.”
What happened next was UK music history, even if they don’t always get the props they deserve. UK garage had already hit the mainstream, but it was with the poppier, accessible 2-step tracks from the likes of Artful Dodger and Shanks & Bigfoot. So Solid Crew demonstrated a harder, more stripped back, MC-heavy brand of garage than had been bubbling on pirate radio. In April 2000, So Solid-affiliated duo Oxide & Neutrino hit No. 1 with the Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels-sampling “Bound 4 Da Reload”. A year later, the full crew’s second single, “21 Seconds”, would do the same and become an instant classic. A generation influenced by the aesthetic of US gangsta rap but with a distinct British sound, they brought UK MCing to a level of success it had never seen before.
15 years later, it’s important to remember just how controversial So Solid Crew were. When two teenage girls were shot and killed on New Year’s Day 2002, then-culture minister Kim Howells partially blamed “idiots like the So Solid Crew [who] are glorifying gun culture and violence.” Home Secretary David Blunkett also condemned them. There were shootings and stabbings at shows. Police shut them down all over the country. They were the biggest musical act in the UK, but they couldn’t perform anywhere.
"you have to learn to live with regrets. I had an amazing time, I had amazing experiences."
“We weren’t allowed to perform. We basically had our livelihoods taken away from us,” Walters says, looking back on it. “I think it just got to a point with us that it got obvious that things were escalating, that a lot of us weren’t sticking to the law, and I think it just became unbearable for us from the powers that be.”
He continues, with a melancholic tinge to his words. “It was a part of my life that I had to go through. A lot of artists today talk about a lot of stuff that they don’t really do. They’ll be acting like gangsters and talking about trap houses and stuff like that, but they’ve never actually seen one. But with So Solid, we had direct links to the street, that’s where our whole thing was born from. So the stuff that we were going through, and was around us at the time of our success, the things that we were talking about, they were genuine things—fears, thoughts, pain. Things that we were dealing with. So sometimes I get upset that people like to make a mockery, because some of that was quite intense.”
If he could go back in time, would Walters have done things differently? “Hell no! That’s what I’m saying: you have to learn to live with regrets. I had an amazing time, I had amazing experiences, I’ve still got a career now, I’m still working, and I’m thankful for that.“
So Solid are still active, but they’ve faded away while the likes of Skepta and Dizzee Rascal have picked up the ball, leading to the international success of grime we have today. If they had stayed active, could So Solid been part of that wave? He doesn’t think about it that way, and is happy to see the way things have panned out in the decade and a half since. “If we were still making music, and we’d toured or whatever, would we have what we have now? Would we have the Tinie Tempahs? Would we have the Dizzees? Would all of those people been able to have the career that they had? I don’t know. It might have changed a lot of different things. I’m happy with the way it’s gone, though. I’m happy with music now. I’m happy that we’re competing with the US—that was our dream. The fact that I’m not involved in it directly now, I’m not going to moan about it. I’m just happy for everyone else."
So where does he see So Solid’s place in the history of grime? “At the end of the day, we opened the door for a culture. We helped people believe it was even worth trying to do music, because they saw us have some sort of success. I will say this to you though: when asked how grime started, Wiley’s answer was ‘Whoever made “Oh No”.’ And that was Mega. I would never say we were the people that pioneered it, like Wiley and Dizzee—they deserve so much respect for where they’ve taken it. But it’s nice to know we’re part of the historical journey of it.”
As So Solid’s success stalled, Walters was facing problems of his own. In July 2001, after an altercation with a traffic warden, he was found to be carrying an air pistol modified to fire live ammunition. He was sentenced to 18 months, and spent a lot of the group’s glory days in a young offenders’ institute. When he was released, he was at his lowest ebb, but he was handed a lifeline by returning to acting in the lead role in the British movie Bullet Boy. The offer came out of the blue. “I walked out of prison, and a week later my manager called me into the office and I met [writer-director] Saul Dibbs. It was at a point where I didn’t even think I was going to work again, so I was pleased that he had me in mind. He more than had me in mind—he’d been writing it with me in mind from the beginning. He was like, ‘You have to do this movie right now!’ And he was right.”
While it’s not actually autobiographical, Bullet Boy might as well be based on Walters’ life at that stage, just without the happy ending. He played a young London man who had been released from prison, and was struggling to stay straight on the outside. Dealing with his own situation made it a difficult shoot. “I zombied through that film. I weren’t even awake through half of it,” he says. “My own life experience was guiding me through it, but the technical side of the acting I had no understanding of at that time. I was quite depressed. It was a hard movie to shoot—there was a lot of territorial beef going on at the time between East London and South.” [It was filmed in Hackney, and Walters is a South Londoner]. “So we had a lot of problems on set, I had a lot of security, just a lot of measures were taken. It just stopped being about the movie at some points; it just became about staying alive! [laughs]. But luckily we got it done, and I’m so glad that we did it.”
And just like how So Solid laid the groundwork for future UK urban artists, Bullet Boy was instrumental in developing the wave of British hood movies of the 2000s—something that Walters is proud of. “It was like another pioneering time for me, and for the UK film scene and that genre. After that, we had the Kidulthoods, the Adulthoods, whatever, and we kinda created a little market that is still thriving now.“
Bullet Boy was critically acclaimed, and Walters won a British Independent Film Award for his performance. But more importantly, it put him back on track after being inside. “Simply through depression after my jail sentence, I was in two minds about what I wanted to do. So when Bullet Boy came along, it did inspire me. It made me understand that there was still room for me to do a lot in the industry, that it wasn’t all over. It was the start. And when I won the award for it, I realised that people were actually interested in what I do.”
"Drake is involved In 'TOP BOY' . He’s coming on board to help and try and push the situation forward."
After that, Walters went back into acting full time. He starred in British films like Life & Lyrics and Sket, and appeared in bigger productions like Stormbreaker and the 50 Cent vehicle Get Rich or Die Trying (Walters says Fiddy was a fan the So Solid tracks he played for him, and they even recorded together. “He was going to be on my album that I put out shortly after but it just never worked out. It’s hard to get Americans to sign paperwork!”).
It was with 2011’s Top Boy that his greatest acting role would come though. He played drug dealer Dushane in Channel 4’s incredible crime drama about street gangs on a Hackney estate. He says he’d avoided material like that in the past to avoid typecasting, but this was too good to turn down. “I stayed well clear of roles like Top Boy for years before I did it, but I had to do it because the script was amazing. It was the most authentic thing that I’ve ever read when it comes to that sort of life.” The show was loved by those who saw it and heralded for portraying a raw and real take on London’s gang problem without resorting to cliché. But, being a late-night Channel 4 drama, it only lasted two series and ended on an unresolved cliff-hanger.
Yet Top Boy’s fandom continued to grow, with Netflix picking it up and introducing it to viewers across the world. And one of those new fans was Aubrey Graham, aka Drake, aka the biggest rapper in the world right now, and he proceeded to share his love for the show with all 20 million of his Instagram followers. What was that like? “His first post was out of the blue. People forget that even though these people are like the biggest rappers in the world, they watch TV as well! They’ve got a life. They’re human! He must have just picked it up on his downtime.” Drizzy’s co-sign brought attention back to Top Boy, and now rumours are circulating about its return. There’s also been talk of a US adaption of the show. Can he can confirm anything, and give us the exclusive? “What I can say is that, behind the scenes, there’s some serious work going on to make it happen, and between a lot of good people too. So it’s going to happen at some point, but I can’t really talk about it too much until the paper has been signed.”
“Drake is involved. He’s coming on board to help and try and push the situation forward. We’ll see what happens! I’ve gone through having empty promises, and I’ve always relied on myself. I take whatever anyone says with a pinch of salt, but hopefully it will work out.”
It’s kind of obvious that Drake would be into Top Boy so much, as he’s loving London right now, hooking up with Skepta, appearing on stage with Section Boyz and reppin’ BBK to the fullest. Why does Walters think he’s so enthralled with the UK? “I’d say, in my own personal opinion—I haven’t spoken to him [about it directly]—I feel like seeing what we’ve been creating over here, that we’ve been working on for years, it’s now flourishing. Not only has Drake created a good relationship with UK artists, but at the same time there’s money to be made over here in what he does. And when that situation starts to grow, you start to affiliate yourself with people that are on your level. Him meeting Skepta, Skepta being one of the biggest in grime at the moment, it’s a no-brainer for a hook-up. But I know they’re really good friends, and the relationship has developed into more of a business relationship now as well. It’s good for me, it’s good for the UK scene, it’s good for Boy Better Know, it’s good for everyone.”
"I’d love to be James Bond. I think there’s going be a black James Bond soon, and I hope I’m in the running."
That basically brings us up to date. Walters is still doing music as well. He’s just put a new track with fellow So Solid member Swiss, the Mortal Kombat-inspired “Finish Him”. Will we get a full So Solid reunion any time soon? “It’s on the cards; we’re in the studio at them moment. There’s like five different projects happening at the moment: there’s a So Solid project, me and Swiss’, and Mega’s got one as well, so we’re all just trying to fit it into a timeline that helps everyone. It’s happening, it’s happening—watch this space!”
I ask him what he still wants to do, acting-wise. “I’d love to be James Bond. I think there’s going be a black James Bond soon, and I hope I’m in the running.” That’s quite a big ask, but how amazing would it be to have one of the So Solid Crew as 007?
Listen to “Finish Him” on Swiss’ Soundcloud. Watch all The Aliens so far on All4.