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Publication: Q, 2003

Lisa Maffia: In The Line Of Fire

Whenever there’s a gangland shooting, the tabloids point the finger at So Solid Crew siren Lisa Maffia. Is she really caught in the crossfire, or a scapegoat for the UK’s gun crime apocalypse?

Trouble comes looking for Lisa Maffia, the 23-year-old So Solid Crew singer whose surname conjures up the kind of associations she sometimes wishes it didn't.

At around 1.30am on Easter Monday morning 2003, several men broke through the fire escape of the Turnmills venue in central London, where Lisa Maffia had been booked to perform at R&B clubnight Twice as Nice. Gunfire crackled through the basslines and several hundred clubbers hit the deck. Minutes later, Turnmills was evacuated, and a firefight - thought to be a turf dispute - moved out to the street. Police swarmed among panicked clubbers and cars tore off. Several minutes later 26-year-old unemployed East Londoner Jason Fearon was found dead in the passenger seat of the crashed silver Audi TT on Clerkenwell road. Another man had been shot in the shoulder. It later emerged that police had been tipped off about a possible shooting, and responded by parking a marked car outside the venue.

One eyewitness described the bank holiday party spirit being literally shot to pieces. 'The gunman came in with two other guys and shot someone,' says 24-year-old student Adela Charles, 'and then started chucking bottles at people - he just went mad. There was blood everywhere. It really felt like there was a madman on the loose. One girl came up to me looking like she was going to cry, and said, "there's blood everywhere."'

'That particular Sunday had been was amazing - such a good night. Everybody was in such good mood, more than I've ever seen it. But the next day, everyone was still crying. My friends were like, "that's it - I've retired." No one wants to got out.'

A fortnight later, another high-profile urban music event - Trevor Nelson's The Lick Party at Equinox on Sunday May 4 - was cancelled following police intelligence that another gun incident - likely to be a reprisal - would happen.

In the vacuum of certainty surrounding the events, a number of murky theories proliferated around Lisa Maffia and So Solid Crew. It was suggested she knew the shooting would happen, and pulled out accordingly; that she was due to appear at the cancelled Lick Party; that in some way the presence, however tenuous, of the So Solid 'soldier' Lisa Maffia sung about on her Number Two single 'All Over', was enough to provoke another club-related shooting.

That Lisa Maffia didn't attend the Turnmmills event because she was ill with flu, or that she was never booked to play The Lick party in the first place, wasn't enough to stop the Mirror's 3am girls tacitly accessorising the singer to the murder. 'Will So Solid Crew ever escape the gun link?' the paper pontificated. 'We think not. The latest in a long line of firearms-related incidents involves female member Lisa Maffia...'

Naturally, Lisa Maffia was upset. 'It affected me,' she says, 'to think that I don't even have to be near and my name will be called. And it's a shame again - yet another family's grieving. It's a stupid mistake. The police had a tip-off and didn't do enough about it. They parked a car. Great…'

Lisa Maffia insists she didn't know in advance about the shooting. But she's heard all the rumours since.

'It's stupid,' she groans. 'I cancelled Turnmills way before. The Lick Party, I wasn't even on the bill. What am I, the police? How the fucking hell am I supposed to know? Six shootings happened over Easter. C'mon. There was a story is that I got punched in the face by a girl who said, 'I thought you was a soldier', and couldn't appear [because] I had a black eye. Stupid!'

In person, Lisa Maffia isn't so much twice as nice but a millionth as nasty as the public persona So Solid's grisly fame has given her - a mesmerically gamine street-kid superstar with fingers full of Bond Street rocks, a sweep of black hair and limited edition adidas tracksuit. Like her spar Ms Dynamite, she's a confident, aspirational archetype of young, get-ahead multicultural Britain who never got given opportunity, and so made her own instead.

Today we meet her in a South London park not so far from estates of Brixton where she was born in 1980. Maffia left school for a £45-a-week YTS scheme in retail, started and gave up being an architect, and then won a £5,000 Prince's Trust grant to become a singer. She gave birth to her daughter Chelsea, now six, and subsequently split from Chelsea's dad. When she was 13 she met the first incarnation of So Solid Crew. By the time their '21 Seconds' single went to Number one in 2001, she was engaged to So Solid's menacing visionary G-Man.

Lisa's love life, like much else, has fallen foul of her new notoriety and the engagement was called off last year, buckling under pressure from the pressure of the fame business.

'Fame isn't about what it lets you do, but what it stops you doing,' she says. 'I can't just go shopping - I can't just go partyin' on my own. I can't go down my daughter's school. I tried to watch Chelsea's Christmas play and it was ridiculous. They weren't watching the play no more…'

She recently moved house, but refuses to divulge her new whereabouts. Plus, she's swapped her Audi TT for a jeep with blacked-out windows after too many junction stops turned into impromptu mobbings.

'Do I feel like a pop star...' she ponders. 'I feel significant now. I don't feel like I'm just "Lisa" no more. But I don't feel like I'm famous over anyone. I'm still in the same areas, doing the same things. I've only just realised the crossover - and it is strange.'

In tempo, attitude and execution, Lisa Maffia's album 'First Lady' is everything So Solid Crew's germinal 'They Don't Know' LP wasn't: glossy, warm-hearted R&B with obvious chart potential. A document of what it is to be young, successful, alive and proving the 'haterz' wrong, the closest any of it comes to the sawn-off garage terrorism of 'They Don't Know' is the use of the word 'soldier' on 'All Over.' There are no guns on Lisa's album or in her life. But still, she's having a difficult time convincing the world.


Whichever way you look at it, Lisa Maffia's fame is neither the cause nor the effect of what happened at Turnmills. 'This had nothing to do with Twice As Nice or Lisa, and she shouldn't be blamed for it,' says Steve Gordon, Twice as Nice MD. 'This is about people sorting their problems out in our venue. I'm so pissed of about it. It's happened in barbers and in Nando's. This isn't a club problem, it's a social problem.'

Trouble stalks Lisa Maffia, but it lingers round So Solid Crew - the 30-strong organisation of MCs and producers who formed in Battersea's Winstanley Estate in 1998 - like the aroma of cordite. In five years, they've graduated from the anonymous illegality of pirate radio and petty drug-dealing ('though Never class-A', Megaman has said) through notoriety on the UK garage circuit, chart fame and then to public infamy. Following the shootings of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare in Birmingham on New Year's Eve 2002, Government minister Kim Howell declared in January, 'Idiots like So Solid crew are glorifying gun culture and violence.' Figures released at the time showed a 42 per cent rise in gun crime between 1997 and 2001

So Solid's unique attitude, skills and modus operandi grew out of the meanest of British streets, where guns, drugs, violence, exclusion and social deprivation the facts of everyday life. All this they reflected on their debut LP, which took the template of hyperspeed UK garage, and bolted on angry hip hop attitude with angry expositions of street life and their playa status. 'Megaman can bring two gats easy,' So Solid's eminence grise rhymed on "21 seconds". By the time their LP was released, numerous Crew members (Megaman, G-Man, Harvey, Romeo and Lisa, alongside offshoot duo Oxide and Neutrino) had been signed for big-money deals, the proceeds of which went on a fleet of Audi TTs. Local jealousy was the subject of 'Haterz', where MC Mac raps, 'Cuz if I hit you will ya really defend that?/Just remember that I'm walkin two gats.' In short, government ministers looking to establish a link between lyrical violence and street violence didn't have to search too hard.

Unfortunately, So Solid repeatedly transgressed the fact/fiction divide, their deeds often living up to their thuggish words. In 2002 Asher D was given 16 months for possession of a Brocock .22 air pistol he bought for £1,300. In 2001, affiliate rapper Neutrino was shot in the leg - apparently by himself. It also emerged that Megaman was acquitted years ago of an attempted murder charge. Skat D, meanwhile, was sentenced to community service for assault after breaking a girl's jaw. Shots were fired and a fan was stabbed to death outside Romeo's 21st birthday bash at the London Astoria in October 2001, circumstantially damning them to further trial-by-tabloid infamy

The Crew's biggest test will come on June 9 this year: producer G-Man and singer Kaish are currently remanded on bail to face trial for possession of firearms.

'Justice has been called for Asher D,' Lisa says of her bandmate. 'But people are gonna keep on about it. everybody in life makes mistakes, but he's got to carry on with life. There's nothing more to say. He gave his reasons. People should accept his explanation.'

Asher D pleaded self defence, claiming he didn't even know how to use the gun. But it seemed too late. Casting themselves as the enemy of the gates of suburbia, it's no surprise that the media and parliament have taken them at their word. Only 18 per cent of shootings investigated by Operation Trident relate to clubs, but now almost no media coverage of shootings now passes without summary reference to So Solid Crew - hence Lisa Maffia's association with the Turnmills shooting.

What's more, it's acknowledged by anti-gun groups that most gun crime goes unreported. Bad news for So Solid that shootings with the merest link to celebrity makes front-page news. 'In Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, there's a major problem with gun crime,' says the Disarm Trust's Pastor Nims Obunge. 'Many gun crimes go unreported - that it's "black people killing each other" is a view shared by many journalists. There is good intention from So Solid to assist us and support the message that gun crime is not on.'

'There are no more guns around So Solid crew than there would be with any other group of guys who grew up in South London estate in South London,' says one source who has worked with So Solid. 'It's more likely to be some of the people who haven't had the fame and the money, but are still around them.'

Either way, the effect is that Kim Howells' declarations have effectively legitimised So Solid Crew as the scapegoats for Britain's firearms-related crime-wave. Trevor Philips, Chairman of the Commission Of Racial Equality, is to call on record company bosses to donate profits for 'gangsta rap' music to support black children in school. Whether or not the 'gangsta tax' will work there's an argument that So Solid's collectivism already channels money back into the impoverished neighbourhoods. In their defence, too, many of the Crew are devoted parents, collectively aspiring to a better life for themselves, friends and family back in the Winstanley 'ghetto'. And just how bad can they be when one MC's mum looks after her son's bank cards (Romeo)?

As the antiheroes of US Hip Hop like Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur learnt, the price of graduation from poverty to celebrity on the back of the real or imagined use of guns can be prison or the grave. Spells in jail, it seems, hardly dent So Solid's musical output, since they operate collectively and individually at the same time. The new So Solid album is in production, while solo careers continue and films deals being talked about for Asher D, Harvey, Romeo and Lisa. Work will carry on whether or not G-Man or Kaish are imprisoned.

But the ambiguity over the responsibility as role models remains. So Solid's unique structure means 29 people won't be held accountable for the crime of one or two individuals, even though media and politicians will persist in trying. Commenting on Asher D's imprisonment, Megaman said, 'It's not a problem. They're all individuals. If they are still involved in gun crime in their own space and time, that's down to them. All I can do is convince then to change their mind.'

Does Lisa Maffia think So Solid Crew should be setting an example?

'We tried to set an example before,' she says. 'But the negativity always comes back. There are positive messages coming from So Solid, EVEN though Asher D got sent to prison. But what about the message when Mega says, "put the gun down?" What about the message when, we're "saying look at me, I make money?"'

In Lisa's case, it's unlikely Turnmills will create any lasting damage. She's not worried that it will a affect her career, 'because,' she says, 'I'm gonna work harder to beat the stupid negative approach.'

For So Solid Crew, however, it comes exactly when they are trying very hard to keep on the straight and narrow - to move their 'brand' out of the shadows of street culture. The tenor of recent activities has been far less confrontational: Romeo's loverman-ish direction, Harvey's TV career as the new Normski and now Lisa's feelgood R&B. In their media appearances and associations with the anti-gun Disarm Trust, the discourse has been deeply conciliatory. 'I've been through my thing,' Asher D told the Disarm Trust Launch on April 2. 'Some of the guys have been through theirs. But we want people to know that's not what we are doing now.'

As it is, guns remain a terrible fact of life in the clubs and streets where So Solid operate. Each shooting is a tragedy. But it's a pity all the same that So Solid and Lisa Maffia's achievements as entrepreneurs and musicians are dwarfed by their collective rap sheet and by events that often have little to do with them.

Lisa Maffia stares across the park to the high rise blocks she's left behind, and knows full well that trouble is never far away. 'It's gonna take everyone,' she resolves, 'media, police, music industry and people on the street to sort the problems out. We need to come together somewhere, and that's what So Solid are trying to do.'

It's to be hoped that the cause doesn't need a martyr before it gets too late. As Tupac or Biggie Smalls' families no doubt agree, no amount of money is worth a dead artist.

© Kevin Braddock 2003

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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