The Top Boy star on So Solid, the legacy of pirate radio, drill music, the UKG revival, and a new album coming soon...

"The response has been crazy, really positive. It feels quite intense at times too - I feel like i can’t go anywhere. It's not overwhelming...but different."

Asher D (Ashley Walters) has been in the public eye since So Solid Crew burst into mainstream consciousness in 2001 with their hit ‘21 Seconds’, and switched up the UKG scene with their new strand of so-called “dark garage”, giving the outside world a glimpse of something beneath the slinky, chart friendly tunes of artists like Craig David, Sweet Female Attitude and Daniel Bedingfield.

Coming up through pirate radio and MC battles, it makes sense then that when asked who created grime, Wiley himself has said in the past So Solid's 'Oh No (That's the Word)' was the catalyst.

Despite being a member of a game-changing crew, in part responsible for the UK’s biggest homegrown genre in decades, Ashley says it’s now younger people who are recognising him out in public, and they're less likely to be So Solid or Asher D fans. These days, they know him as an actor first, for his star turn in series three of Top Boy, released on Netflix this autumn. "Yeah I'm 'Top Boy', or 'that actor' or 'Dushane', pretty much,” he laughs.”And I don't expect them to know my name - I get it."

It might now be a more international audience that recognise him too, what with his co-created Sky One show, Bullet Proof, hitting the USA, and the latest series of Top Boy being bankrolled by Drake – winning the show fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Ashley says that in the early days the team had been trying to sell the show to America but focus groups indicated people couldn’t understand it - everything from the specific slang used to the wider backdrop of East London’s estates. "But cut to now and it’s different,” he says. “People have got more informed about our culture, in between that time and now - because we've been exporting music over there and they’re vibing with a lot of our artists. I think that kind of eased the way for us.”

The internet has also done some of this paving, he says, making language and culture of other places easier to access: “My business partner always says, “Don’t ask me anything you can’t Google”. You know what I mean? Find out – it’s all out there. There’s a little craze in the States of kids making Top Boy Youtube videos. There's a few I've seen...but no, they don’t really get it right. But it's nice to see them try!"

It feels like, from a socio-political point of view, it was especially important for a third season to be made. In a real world with rising levels of inequality, the knife crime epidemic and issues of censorship around communities of colour –-drill artists being targeted by the police for example, and last weekend’s controversial banning of Blue Story, a BBC-backed gang film banned by Vue cinemas - Top Boy tells the stories of those who often don’t get represented in mainstream UK culture. As Kano said at the series premiere in September: “It’s all for the people. East London to the world.”

Ashley highlighted the importance of the show himself in an interview earlier this year: “Everyone talks about knife crime like we don’t know where it comes from (…) Most of these kids feel disenfranchised. They’re angry, and as far as they’re concerned they are not part of society. The backdrop of racism is still there, too. I hope Boris watches Top Boy.”

"I feel like it’s perfect timing, I feel like everyone was more poised and prepared to watch something that graphic in detail when it comes to a specific type of life,” he reflects, on the particular moment when the new season aired. “When it initially came out [2011] as much love that it got there was a lot of backlash as well - about the subject and whatever. People have said stuff like that this time too, but I think in general they've been more open, to receiving it.

“In America it’s commonplace to have black culture on TV - it’s not the same here. We're behind in a lot of ways. They’re behind us in a lot of ways too - I find it a lot more segregated in the States - but in the arts it seems everyone’s more open. We are changing though, you can see it now. it’s happening. And it’s a really positive thing. Its not necessarily just about repping the scene, we're also making entertaining TV that can be sold around the world, as well as the music. We have to be strong in our message and what the show’s about, but it's also...a show! We want to make dope TV that people talk about for years.”

Despite this solid commitment to making quality drama - Ashley’s been acting since childhood, appearing in shows like Grange Hill - he’s never far from music either; he says he’s always in the studio, but until recently the music wasn’t making it out of there. “There are moments where I think, 'Forget it, I'm doing so well in my acting why do i need to do this, it’s so long,’ or, ‘Why won’t radio play my track’, or this and that,” he reflects. “Dealing with the politics and thinking about those sorts of things, wondering where I fit in."

But one morning this January Ashley woke up and decided to put these worries aside, to release tracks regularly and "stop worrying what people think" - leading to new music like the Nat Powers produced ‘Cash & Carry’ and October’s ‘Top Boy’ with P Money, D Double E and Big Tobz. It might seem surprising that this star of screen and So Solid suffers from self-doubt, but it’s something Ashley acknowledges. In fact he says it can be a driving force rather than a hindrance. "I think you need that, there's always got to be a checklist, to ask yourself is everything ok. The majority of the time it doesn’t push into fear. Every now and again though it does, and you have to take control of those emotions and harness them. Everything I've achieved, that’s how I've won."

He says that this was with him even in the So Solid days: "We were confident, but what we weren't sure of was where we were coming from - that was the scary part then. Being on stage, making music - that was nothing to us, we probably did things that people looked at and thought it was magical, but it only seemed magical because they didn’t know how to do it. We knew how to do it. It was dope times for us."

Ashley says the fear, or lack of confidence, they experienced came from backlash of success and maybe even a fear of success itself - a pressure to continue. "Everyone wants to be Peter Pan and enjoy the success of life without the hardships and responsibilities,” he reflects “We had that fear. We rebelled against authority, and that was about not understanding. But when we were performing we were at home."

They were at home because they’d grown up on the mic. Ashley describes the training ground of pirate radio - stations like Supreme FM in Brixton “one of the original house and garage stations" and Delight FM, So Solid’s own station in Battersea - as being "like school for rapping, your muscle's always being used. So performing live, going in studio...that was nothing”.

It seems apt then that when we meet, Ashley’s just put out his track with the master of that rapping muscle, the “MC’s MC", D Double E.  "Just having in the track for me was amazing,” he smiles, and talks about the new Ikea Christmas advert, which came on the TV at home before he left the house that morning. "It just shows how much [grime] has infiltrated music and culture. My three-year-old was watching it and when the dinosaur went "bi-di-bup-bup" he just looked straight at me! He must have heard ‘Top Boy’ playing in the house so he's already a fan - his ears were on it."

What with Stormzy headlining Glastonbury, Dave winning the Mercury Prize, Kano playing at the Royal Albert Hall, and the support of the scene for particular politicians being seen as an important part of the up-coming general election (especially when it comes to the youth vote), even TV adverts featuring famous MCs, could it be said that grime is having a moment? "Well there's a lot of debate around that - some of those artists you mentioned wouldn’t even describe their music as grime anymore. Like Kane [Kano – Ashley’s Top Boy co-star] has said - people use grime in different ways,” says Ashley. “I get what people are saying about the 'grime scene', these artists came from that and were babies of that scene, so it makes sense. But are they doing grime now? No. Are they grime artists? Maybe, but with many other strings to their bows."

I

t’s interesting to see where So Solid crew fit in with this, their influence on those “babies of the grime scene”, paving the way for what would become grime, and now artists like Kano making experimental riffs on the genre. "My connection, or our influence - if we had any influence - was through pirate radio,” says Ashley. “Wiley had a conversation with Swiss - who's Mega's brother [So Solid member, Megaman] - and they discussed grime. Swiss asked him when he'd first made grime, or where did grime start, and Wiley said when they heard 'Oh No', our first song. But I've always seen the difference as a lyrical thing - between what we were doing in South and they were doing in East. I remember being on radio and I’ve always been very precise and lyrical, I’d write long bars - 32 bars.”

In recognition of the importance of pirate radio - connecting and incubating UK genres like jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, garage and grime - Ashley has just written the pilot of a new show called Pirates; a TV series loosely tracing his own experiences starting in 1994, told through the eyes of a young boy. "A lot of my own experiences coming up with So Solid are in there,” he explains. “The transition from jungle to garage in the UK and how the scene changed. It was a brilliant time for culture in general."

The show is currently at the early stages of development, and Ashley says going back to the mid-90s has required “a lot more research than you'd think". He’s been trying to find people that remember the slang used in the ‘90s, watching documentaries, old videos, tape packs, listening to old music, talking to old pirate radio owners - the guys who actually built the rigs - all in a sincere need to make it as authentic as possible: “It has to really make people feel like they're back then."

Obviously plenty of that authenticity comes from within – Ashley was there at the centre of this world, he knows it through and through. "A lot of the stories are based on things that happened to me,” he says. “I was there when DTI [Department of Trade and Industry officers who targeted pirate stations, especially after the Broadcasting Act 1990 brought ind penalties for those caught broadcasting unlicensed] would kick the door in and take our equipment or people would get arrested. A lot of those stories I can clearly remember. But I also have the rest of So Solid and other people and contacts that. All the memories come rushing back."

Now Ashley has children older than he was when he first became intertwined with music. the oldest [of eight children’ is his is 19-year-old son, a sound engineer who’s into drill music - mixing tracks for artists and managing some up and comers. The past few years have been controversial for the scene, with videos being removed from Youtube and MCs being told what they can and can’t rap about on their tracks . What are his thoughts on this sort of censorship?

"People should be able to make the music they want to make - 100%,” says Ashley, resolutely. “We as parents have to censor that just how we do with books or films at the cinema, or TV - we don't let them stay up after the watershed. You've got to do what you can do, though its harder to do these days.” He says there's also a part of him that thinks it’s important for people to be exposed to material and stories that aren’t part of their everyday world, but are very much a part of the world for others: "Stuff that’s maybe not in your reality, not on your doorstep but next to you. Opening your eyes to what’s happening. Artists that make drill music, some of them talking about some bad things. When I hear them I feel they’re troubled - they’ve been through some stuff. That’s scars.”

Ashley makes the point that young people talking about traumatic events and violence are probably doing so because that’s all they’ve seen. “We have to allow people that freedom to talk about their worst things,” he says. “We should support an artist talking about the life that they’re living, and be concerned as to why their lives are like that. Although I don’t understand the methods, I understand the fear. The way they react to what’s going on around them.

“It’s going take some careful consideration, but if there’s any time it’s now - time to activate some really good role models in this industry to influence people. That’s the only way they'll listen, if they see people they look up to.” Ashley says the industry should focus on helping artists see what they’re doing - making music - is a craft that requires hard work, perseverance, time in the studio.

When asked if he’d be happy to be considered a role model, he says there was a time when he wouldn’t have been but is now more comfortable with the idea: "As long as people don’t want me to bring up their children – not literally, I mean the responsibility. I'm probably going to make more mistakes, everyone does. I’d hate to have that pressure. But if being a role model means I have a voice that I get to use wisely to try and help or do something different, then I will."

He might find himself in this position soon, with a new project planned for next year. Ashley’s been working with different sounds - ‘90s hip-hop, RnB, "as well garage, obviously" - and different people, so its set to be an interesting record. "I got some tracks from Goldie the other day,” he says. “He sent me like a hundred beats or something. They're all orchestral, done in a studio with live band. There's some trap in there, some drum ‘n’ bass, some slower stuff, some RnB. He's dope, one fo my big inspirations, when it comes to reform, focus, his energy is proper.”

For Ashley, honouring the musical past is just as important as embracing the future, and that will come through on whatever project he releases, and the current UKG revival will be a part of it. "I was thinking of playing with some garage tracks on there as well,” he says. “There were some old school garage tracks i was trying to revive. I'm a big fan of Predetah  - he's really dope. And AJ Tracey's kind of helped a bit too [the UKG revival] with ‘Ladbroke Grove’. People are still vibing with '21 Seconds', I've seen it shut down clubs still. And there are people who are new to it, and it sounds fresh."

Now that ‘21 Seconds’ was released 18 years ago, does that make Ashley feel old? "No. My age is my weapon. And I know I'm dripping, still. And I'm still winning, still building."

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Photography: Matt Pearson

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