Feisty and foxy, Lisa Maffia first burst into our cultural consciousness in the 90s and early 00s as the girl in So Solid Crew. The UK garage group, whose debut album went Platinum and blew up Britain winning two MOBO Awards and a Brit Award, gave voice not just to a generation, but to a whole strata of society. Born in Brixton and Battersea, aired on pirate radio, distributed out of car boots and marketed by word of mouth, So Solid Crew is one of the greatest success stories of underground music. So Solid embodied youth, energy and experimentation and those behind it – mostly black kids from council estates – were finally represented in the charts.
Back then, Lisa Maffia was a slight girl, who moved like quicksilver and in her own words, shook her “body like dice”. Today Lisa is still sharp as a whip, wears thigh-high boots and accessorises her feminine wiles with unmistakable wisdom. For those of you who grew up on the So Solid sound and her solo album First Lady, you might be pleased to hear Lisa is on a one-woman mission to bring garage back.
Hot off the set of her latest music video, Lisa tells me they’d been filming the whole day, from 6am – 10pm. That’s one hell of a shift. “I’m doing three singles, all with videos, EP remixes, and a tour in winter,” her South London accent does not coat her enthusiasm, but I already feel exhausted. How does she fit it all in? How can she even dance for so long?! “Adrenaline!” she assures me, “That always keeps me going at video shoots. I look at how much work goes in, how much gets spent, all that graft put into presenting my music, everyone is doing it to help. That gives you the boost. I’ve got to do it for them.”
So why the comeback? And who are Lisa’s listeners now? “I test every gig,” she tells me, “I ask people to put up their hands, and see who was born in the 70s, 80s, 90s – the babies of today have become new fans. Kisstory and 1Extra still pump our music, I think that’s a big part of what’s keeping us alive. I noticed after doing Glastonbury and Garage Nation our royalty cheque really increased. Garage is on the rise!”
Of course a part of this interest is down to nostalgia. Lisa describes speaking to one 21-year-old fan whose much older sister used to play So Solid when they were at school. To others it’s the soundtrack to their teens. To some it will always be the ultimate club playlist. But new audiences have also picked it up since popular BBC 3 TV show People Just Do Nothing, focusing on a group of wannabe MCs, aired. Demand needs a supply, and Lisa’s new album aims to send the garage scene mainstream again. “I think it gives me some edge too,” she notes, “nobody is doing garage music and musicians aren’t lasting. I’ve been around for a while”.
When asked how the music industry has changed, and why she thinks so many acts are short-lived, she pauses for the first time in our quick-fire conversation. “Musicians are not lasting,” she repeats solemnly, “because they surrender to publicity. It’s social media. It’s killed everything. Ruined the authenticity. When we were underground, we had to graft so hard to get noticed, we were raw, real and we made what we loved. We couldn’t get any feedback till we were in front of the audience, then the fans sum up whether they liked it or not. Now, people post their work in progress, they share their tunes and their followers can comment before the work is finished. So artists are editing before they’ve even finished the track. The authenticity of the product is gone and everybody is doing the same thing.”
Of new artists she rates Stormzy, attributing his success to “staying true to himself, and making the music he wanted to”. The majority are just trying too hard to fit in. “They allow fame to take them,” she continues, “it becomes them, it’s very easily done. As soon as you do well, you’re put on a pedestal and of course you come to expect it. It destroys you in the end.”
Lisa, however, has remained completely intact. Her high-functioning creativity has been channelled into many endeavours over the years, from her own fashion brand, to her record label Maffia Recordz, to, perhaps most surprisingly, a nursing degree. “My mum got cancer in 2010 and my mum is everything, an absolute diamond. Now she’s seven years in remission, but at the time we had such wonderful nurses and I wanted to be part of that. To know I could help.” The gruelling nursing training speaks of a humble personality, planets away from diva behaviour. “My mum kept me grounded, we had good morals at home”, she explains, “and I couldn’t have raised my daughter, Chelsea, whom I had at seventeen, without her. I couldn’t have pursued a music career. Now my daughter is all grown-up and she’s so switched on.”
Safe to say, Lisa Maffia is still championing the women of the world, and we’re just happy to have our First Lady back.