Ashley Walters: Still Solid
Prominent UK actor and one-time So Solid Crew rapper Ashley Walters (aka Asher D) returns to the music scene with his catchy new single “Your Love”. Which, released through SK Records (a new independent label founded by Blue singer Simon Webbe plus business partners Karan and Preeta Singh), finds its breezily skipping groove enhanced by the melodic, poignant vocals of seasoned British urban/pop songstress - and these days high-profile TV personality - Alesha Dixon.
Born June 1982 in Peckham, South London - where he was raised by his local-government-office mother - from the age of six Ashley attended the capital’s famed Sylvia Young Theatre School (fellow alumni include Amy Winehouse and Leona Lewis) before going on to star in several popular stage productions of the time, in addition to, at 14, playing schoolboy Andy Phillips in 10 episodes of the BBC’s long-running television drama series “Grange Hill”.
Nevertheless, it would be through his rhyming skills as 19-year-old MC “Asher D” that Walters would first come to bona fide national prominence, as part of controversial South London rap collective So Solid Crew on their enduringly-popular 2001 UK Number One single “21 Seconds”. However, following his arrest in July the same year for carrying a loaded Brocock air pistol, Ashley’s time in the spotlight as a chart-topping rhymesmith would ultimately prove short-lived with him as a result being jailed for 18 months in a young offender’s institute.
After which, determined to put his prison experience behind him for good, following his release Walters would immediately throw himself into his acting career. The first significant fruits of which would arrive with his leading-role as the streetwise Ricky in the 2005 gun-crime-themed movie “Bullet Boy” winning him Best Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards. Since which time other notable film appearances have included Hollywood blockbusters like 2005’s 50 Cent-starring “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’” and 2006’s “Stormbreaker” alongside Mickey Rourke and Ewan McGregor; while on this side of The Atlantic his starring role as lovestruck DJ Danny Lewis in the 2006 South London-based hip-hop-and-romance flick “Life And Lyrics” also garnered him considerable praise.
More recently meanwhile, as well as several roles on the London stage, Ashley has also earned considerable plaudits for his acting in numerous critically-acclaimed television dramas like 2007’s “Hustle”; 2009’s “Small Island”; and last year’s BAFTA-nominated “Top Boy” - a raw, four-part Channel 4 drama about lives lived on-the-edge on the streets of East London. Plus, with him having recently starred in the BBC’s “Inside Men” and the Dominic Savage-directed “True Life”, current-upcoming television activities include filming “Top Boy 2” as well as producing and starring in a film with English actor/director/screenwriter Noel Clarke.
Nevertheless, despite having attained near-household-name status as an actor, Ashley’s solo rap career - despite releasing numerous singles, albums and mixtapes over the years - has yet to reach the chart heights he achieved with So Solid. A fact he now intends to rectify once-and-for-all with the release of his aforementioned new single. As - speaking in now-trademark, gritty inner-London tones - the ever-affable father-of-four explains to “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis over early-afternoon drinks in the busy lobby of East London’s trendy Hoxton Hotel.
How Ashley first hooked up with SK Records - the new, independent label founded by Blue vocalist Simon Webbe alongside his business partners Karan and Preeti Singh
“It was pretty much kind of ACCIDENTAL. What actually happened was, with their first signing being a guy called Lucien, they actually rang me as an actor asking if I’d appear in his first music video as his FRIEND. So I agreed... But then we ended up actually having to reshoot this video like a good two or three TIMES! Which meant that I kept on meeting them, there were a lotta days spent filming together on set… And so it just got to the point where Karan - one of the partners - came up to me and was like ‘Man, I’ve been a fan of yours right from the So Solid days - are you doing any music these days?’… So I sent him a bunch of e-mails of things that I’d been working on by myself - and then a week later they called me and were like ‘Can you come to a meeting at the Mayfair Hotel?’… Then when I got there, they just basically pulled out a contract and were like ‘Do you wanna SIGN?’… And because at that point I was pretty much ready to get back into my music, I decided to take them ON! And so far it’s been a really good RELATIONSHIP! Because they know how experienced I am, and so they let me creatively do exactly what I wanna do and then just take care of actually pushing it and making sure the right ears HEAR it.”
The reasons behind Ashley’s new single “Your Love” (his first release for SK Records) boasting a lighter, more melodic feel than his previous work
“Well, as you can tell from their first signing Lucien, Simon and Karan’s label is largely about quite pop, commercial-sounding stuff. So basically one of the first things they asked me was ‘Do you wanna start charting and do you wanna start doing some music that people are gonna end up HEARING?’… So straightaway I was like ‘DEFINITELY!’ - because that’s where I’m AT right now! I mean, "While I do love making music for its own sake, these days I do also want it to SELL. So from that point on it basically became about me doing music that was more mainstream and how I was gonna fit myself INTO that. Because, as I’m sure you can hear from just speaking to me, the biggest problem I’ve had is with my VOICE. You know, I have got quite a husky, gritty voice which people say - even when I’m talking nicely - does sound a bit ROUGH! Which is why I’ve had issues with RADIO and stuff about it. So because of that, what I’ve been trying to achieve lately is develop a sound that is more palatable for people’s EARS. And with the rise of artists like Ed Sheeran, what I realised - when I thought about it - was that there is actually a lot of the more melodic singing-and-rapping stuff going on today… So basically that’s the kind of feel I’ve been looking to ACHIEVE. Which is why “Your Love” sounds the way it DOES!”
How seasoned UK urban songstress - and now-high-profile TV personality - Alesha Dixon came to guest on the track
“Well, Alesha is an artist I’ve always wanted to work with. I mean, I’ve known her for her music from WAY back in the day - like with me being in So Solid and her being in (early-Noughties UK female urban trio) Mis-Teeq, we both kinda started our careers at the same TIME. Plus, in terms of public opinion today, when it comes to personality and being a very well-KNOWN female and a very well-LOVED female, Alesha Dixon is at the very top of the LIST! So, you know, I was in the studio working with this group of producers called The Fairground - and as soon as they played the “Your Love” track to me, I thought it was AMAZING. So I basically sat down and wrote the song in pretty much two hours, laid my vocal - and then reached out to ALESHA… And she just was happy to DO it! ‘Cause she’s a lovely GIRL!”
How Ashley now looks back on his time with chart-topping early-Noughties South London rap collective So Solid Crew, who in many ways can now be seen as having paved the way for today’s generation of crossover UK hip hop stars
“I recall them as brilliant times that gave me the experience I needed to get to where I am NOW. Because we had some amazing moments, plus we were PIONEERS of a lot of stuff. You know, we were very much the first to do a lot of things in the recording industry here in terms of coming from where we were coming from and doing the genre of music that we were DOING. And some of those records haven’t been broken to this DAY, even though you’d think they HAD… So yeah, I just think it was a perfect TIME for us. Because though yes, there was a bit of negativity that came near the end of it all and I definitely don’t think that was our best moment, what happened BEFORE all that I think has had a huge affect on what’s happening NOW - as far as giving a lot of other artists a VOICE. I mean, most artists that are in the mainstream today that are doing urban music will tell you that they listened to So Solid. Plus a lot of them will openly say ‘That’s what made me wanna do it’ or ‘That’s what made me know that I COULD go and make music and be successful’... Because before So Solid all we’d had in the UK mainstream in terms of black artist collectives was Jazzie B & Soul II SOUL. So when we shot to fame it did kinda ‘wow’ a lot of PEOPLE! ‘Cause we literally were like 12/13 guys from the streets - who people KNEW were from the streets - up there on TV and making no COMPROMISES. You know, we knew exactly what we wanted to DO, and the music was exactly how we wanted it to SOUND… So yeah, as I say, overall it was a brilliant TIME.”
The single “Your Love Featuring Alesha Dixon” is out November 11 through SK Records
Words PETE LEWIS